La règle du jeu at the Cine Doré in Madrid

 

IMG_1473I 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 ceiling of the Cine Doré
The ceiling of the Cine Doré

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.

La_Regla_Del_Juego_1.preview

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.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Reflections on a Disappointing Summer at the Movies

edge of tomorrow

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.

pompeii  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.

maleficent

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.

22 Jump Street

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.

Two Faces of January

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.

 

José Arroyo

 

A version of this has been published in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/this-is-a-summer-of-truly-awful-blockbusters-29287

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, USA, 2014)

tranformers

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.

 

 

José Arroyo

My Sin (George Abbot, USA, 1931)

Poster - My Sin (1931)_01

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.

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

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.

 

Tallulah looking great in Travis Banton
Tallulah looking great in Travis Banton

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).

 

José Arroyo

Laughter (Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast, USA, 1930)

laughter-movie-poster-1930-1010689919

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.

Penthouse gardens in New York
Penthouse gardens in New York

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?’

 

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?

Le Sante sets the scene
Le Sante sets the scene

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.

C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife
C. Mortimer Gibson ( Frank Morgan) walks in Art Deco splendour but does not find his wife

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.

Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.
Two jazz babies smoking and being modern; the older-looking one on the left is the step-daughter.

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.

An unconventional calling card
An unconventional calling card

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.

playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.
playing piano with the butler, beer on the left, fried chicken on the right.

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.

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.’

A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea
A moment of escape under a bear rug but within the social bounds permitted by tea

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?

A Cartier watch, a Deco set and lovely clothes.
Frank Morgan offers Cartier jewels at the beginning but no 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.

The price of laughter
The price of laughter

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).”‘

José Arroyo

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, USA, 2014)

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars is not as retchingly bad as I expected it to be. Beautiful young people do die of cancer of course; and not before they LOVE and suffer tremblingly to an exquisite soundtrack full of the very saddest songs. However, Wilhelm Defoe appears as the emotionally closed-off, selfish artist who listens to Swedish rap and represents everything that’s horrible, which is to to go such lengths to avoid pain that one ends up not feeling at all. He hasn’t quite lost his Green Goblin attitude and is great fun to watch. Shailene Woodley is brave yet vulnerable, all through a constant trickle of tears. Luckily she also manages to be spiky enough to avoid being cloying; it’s a difficult part and she’s wonderful in it. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are perfect parents and thus annoying but much less so than they could have been. My eyes did well up a little and I did find it manipulative but that’s what goes to one of these movies for – to cry; which is not to say that the filmmakers couldn’t have earned those tears more honestly and more imaginatively. What I liked best was the witty visualizing and pacing of the text and e-mail messages – a delight. As for the rest … Seeing it as a treatise on the true meaning of life will result in inevitable disappointment. However, as emotion porn for the stony-hearted, it offers its share of interest and pleasures. Going to see this type of movie does require a ‘love-means-never-to-have-to-say-you’re-sorry’ attitude. I didn’t love it. But I’m not sorry I saw it either.

José Arroyo

The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor/Cyril Gardner, USA, 1930)

A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s based on a Kaufman and Ferber Broadway hit from 1927 and is based on the Barrymores; it makes one understand why Ina Claire was a Broadway superstar and then considered without equal in light comedy, something heretofore hard for me to grasp having seen her only in supporting parts, even when she’s been very good in them, like in Ninotchka; it’s one of the films directed by George Cukor in his first year as a film director, was a hit, and paved the way for the type of brilliant career he would go on to have, often mining a similar vein of sophisticated comedy, themes of the relation between theatre and life, women’s struggles with being and doing; it’s a pre-code film with quite daring moments (March undressing, March playful with sexual orientation, March patting a man in the bum); the film skews the traditional placement of gender in film where men do and women are there to be looked at; here women do and feel; March in the Barrymore role is put in all kinds of display, including sexually; the film is enveloped in an oblique but nonetheless evident haze of aspects of gay culture: camp, innuendo, the theatrical, the performative, the excessive (and this includes the male flesh on display)

March on the right in 1930; Barrymore on the left in 1929.
March on the right in 1930; Barrymore on the left in 1929.

The most famous scene in the film is March’s entrance (see clip below), which begins as a coup-de-théâtre, where everyone’s looking in his direction, we see someone swathed in fur and then March-as-Barrymore is revealed, and is revealed to be as theatrical as the famous profile he is impersonating. It’s the entrance usually afforded stars, and the role, a handsome bigger-than-life rake of a film star, attracted all kinds of theatre actors who looked down on cinema, weren’t afraid to be theatrical and weren’t yet top-ranking stars themselves (Laurence Olivier played the part in the West End). March’s success in it won him a Paramount contract.

The scene is also famous because of the crane shot that follows March after his entrance from the stairs and into the bathroom as he undresses. According to Arthur Jacobson, ‘We didn’t have such things as camera cranes in 1930, so we had to figure out how to do it’ (loc 1020). They did it with a forklift and moved the camera backward and forward by having about twenty men pushing it. It’s worth it. The scene dazzles technically — appealing to those interested in the development of film as an art form in the era of sound – and for rather more base motives, as March does a little strip-tease throughout the scene, including a little flash of bum, and then quite a tease of the opening and closing of the shower door, a tease at the audience with perhaps an attempt to mask the suggestiveness of the scene, whilst having the peekaboo take place during a conversation with his mother and his sister, which of course is also motivated via the representation of the particular, and particularly titillating, mores of theatre and bohemia. Very much worth a look.

José Arroyo

Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.

Lubitsch at his worst?

Is this the worst scene of a film signed Lubitsch? Lubitsch shot only 8 days of footage before he died. Otto Preminger then took over and finished what Lubitsch had left fully prepped: blame is hard to apportion. The songs are by the great Hollander and Robin but not their best moment. The choreography is like an improvised barn-dance in a palace and stompingly inelegant. Even the costumes must be amongst the most shapeless, garish and excessive the 40s have to offer; Fox, however, was also the home of Carmen Miranda so  there might yet be worse (or better!).

 The colour is that  brightly saturated and garishly hued Technicolor that became the signature look of Fox musicals, one that audiences remembered fondly years after it disappeared.  Betty Grable is still bright and bubly but as far from mittel-Europe, Operetta and Lubitsch as you can possibly get. At the beginning of the film, when she and Cesar Romero avow their love and part, you imagine Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall saying those lines, savour what might have been; and look on harshly at what one’s left. The Lady in Ermine is part of Grable’s downward slide as a box-office star.

Lubtisch was a director of  taste who taylored  his films with great care to a achieve a distinctive style through texture, the particular arrangement of elements of mise-en-scene to create a conceptual bubble, an invisible force-field around this fictional world so that these particular types of characters could exist and act, some have called it Lubitschland. Had he survived the shoot and seen what we now do,  the result might have killed him. One can’t watch The Lady in Ermine ‘straight’ but does it lend itself to camp? Is it so bad it’s good or is it merely bad and unbearable? Worth a look and worth a think.
  Jose Arroyo

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, USA, 2014)

lego-movie-posters-lead-photo

 

In The Lego Movie, ‘the story of a nobody who saved everybody’, the villain is President Business aka The Lord of Business; everyone has to do exactly the same thing whilst asserting their uniqueness; and all sing ‘Everything is Awesome’ whilst applying themselves to each daily routine like blissed-out Moonies.

It’s a kid film but so knowing parents will find plenty to delight them:Judy Garland is heard singing ‘How you going to keep them down in the farm after they’ve seen Paree’; Batman, Wonder Woman and Han Solo are some of the guest-stars; All of the Lego worlds, some of which kids might already own and play with, appear as alternate dimensions that the protagonists zap through. Glue is the deadly enemy. The whole film is super smart, razor sharp and very funny until the icky Will Ferrell appears and the film turns compromising, sentimental and appeasing, almost ruining everything.

 

It’s great to see a film for kids that’s brilliant as well as bright; you’ve got to be quick on your feet with it; until 3/4′s of the way through I thought it the most critical, intelligent and inventive film of the year but then it got sentimental, message-y and the whole Farrell episode was like watching an Andy Hardy movie from 1938 where the Judge and his son sermonize each other into an understanding that nobody believed then and nobody believes now.

The message in this one is that the invisible person is the chosen one, everyone is special, and if business works with rather than against the average person, we’d find utopia. You can see why I preferred the first 3/4 when it was all anti-business and anti-dumbness. Urgh!

I had successfully avoided The Lego Movie until friends went on and on …. and on about its many virtues. I’m glad I saw it and  mostly agree. On the evidence of their work here, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pretty dazzling directors of comedy; and it’s refreshing to see an American comedy where what’s funny is not just the situation, or the lines but the style of showing itself: the play with images, narrative, point of view. It’s great to see how wit of approach makes a marvel of the banal, even basic dialogue is transformed into dazzling wit via a shift of accent and intonation: ‘He is about to be erased by the poh-leesh of nah-eel’

 The Lego Movie nonetheless performs a primary ideological function which is to first articulate a dissatisfaction with what is – in this case a corporate dictatorship parents of kids might be all too familiar with — and then construct an imaginary resolution at the end to help audiences not only reconcile with the devil they know but learn to love him. As soon as Will Farrell appeared the whole message changes from ‘business is evil’ to ‘ordinary people could work together with business and  wage-slaves might develop into entrepreneurs — or at least really happy workers —  in order to create more business! Everyone wins and everyone is happy! We are business, business is the world, isn’t it lovely, let’s sing our love of Legoland, our land’. It’s as if someone dropped an e into the filmmakers’ kool-aid 3/4 of the way through and they started exclaiming ‘I love you’ and offering drunken hugs to that which they had previously most hated.

 

Fundamentally the film is just one long advertisement for Lego of course but it is also more than that…but then again, it is very much limited by what it sets out as its primary raison d’être. Anything whose primary goal is to sell you something can’t be art partly because it doesn’t want to deal with truth, even as a partial personal expression of it. It’s out for the sell..and the sell is always some kind of con. What’s interesting about The Lego Movie is that it so  fervently makes one wish this weren’t inevitably and always the case.

 

José Arroyo

Gossips at a ball in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

In this clip, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) has inveigled her way into a balls he’s been actively forbidden. What drives her? First, her selfish desire to gets re-integrated into society; or is her desire to see a daughter  she abandoned many years before  more important? Here Irene Rich communicates a motherly yearning but also a little shrug when she sees how aghast the daughter, Lady Windermere (May MacAvoy), is at her presence, as if her main purpose is  neither to communicate not to please but to achieve and attain. One remains unsure.

What Lubitsch communicates clearly, however is how restrictive this society is. Those huge dwarfing door, those large forbidding spaces, all to be walked through slowly so others may judge at leisure. Her look at Lord Windermere, his walk towards her and the formal greeting: the niceties must be observed. But the shock of the wife at the sight of such a couple is palpable; as is the titillation with which those dowagers, previously sat on benches like mummies ready for the embalmer suddenly come alive, though their interest must be measured, sideways, on edge, underneath the radar. The images Lubitsch composes, that old master drawing that occupies the frame, and these titillated gossips entering the frame from below, allowing their gazes to glance, judge, hide-away below the frame, protected by the ancientness of their protocols, their wealth, their closed-off homes, and their priceless art, all property, all markers of manners, all hiding a civilisation not far and not above cut-throat. The clucking will begin later, in private. This is what Lubitsch’s extraordinarily imaginative and beautiful staging, framing and composition suggests so vividly.

 

José Arroyo

A note on a wipe/fade in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

Perhaps the most beautiful combination of horizontal wipe and fade; and an example of Lubitsch inventiveness with film form and the depth of expressiveness he was able to extract from it. Just before this sequence, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), a fallen woman, has arrived at the races, shocking everyone with her presence, her too chic moderne dress, and luxuriant feather hairdress. She turns  back to look intently at Lady Windermere. We know she’s her mother because she’s been blackmailing Lord Windermere with the threat of making that knowledge public. It would ruin the daughter who thinks her mother’s dead; and it would not be without cost to Lord Windermere’s own reputation. That threat of blackmail is  how she has the money for the races and for the clothes.

She looks at her daughter with a mother’s longing but the gentleman behind her thinks that look is for him. As Mrs. Erlynne leaves, he follows her, a woman of easy virtue who likes being chased and enjoys being caught. We see first Mrs. Erlynne walking through the frame. Then her suitor does the same. Then we cut to Mrs. Erlynne walking but now near the left of the frame as the suitor enters from the right. They’re now both in the picture, as he walks faster and catches up with her the wiping fade moves to the right until the wipe/fade snaps to a close and completely to black as a metaphor that itself becomes an act of consummation. Simple, beautiful, full of feeling, danger, and fun.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan, USA, 2014)

Devil's Knot

 

A movie about the sexual killing of pre-pubescent children that has Dane DeHaan as the ice-cream man but that doesn’t end the way you’d expect it to. Another film that paints a dark picture of a rural America wading in poverty, ignorance, corruption; of a society that lacking justice in this world seeks it in another, sometimes through Jesus and sometimes through witchcraft.

This America that we see is depicted for us by a Canadian, a director famous for keeping things cool, distant, objective, complicated; one who likes to take it slow and doesn’t feel the need to take the audience with him; even when a town is willing to sacrifice three innocent teenagers as revenge for the murder of three innocent children. We see events in different mediums but the aim is to complicate rather than clarify. The focus is on self-expression rather than communication; maybe the director doesn’t trust the audience, maybe he simply hasn’t given any thought to it. Too bad for us.

Any film that needs a whole set of title cards at the end to wrap up the film can’t be said to work and I find the story-telling weak. However, Egoyan knows how to set a mood, one that starts under a river in a forest and ends up troublingly lodged in one’s psyche. The shots are often in shallow focus so that only one thing is clear at a time; and the camera sometimes wonders to the side of the action and sometimes outside of it completely, indicating that there are other answers to be sought.

Reese Whitherspoon gives another tart performance as a rural working class Mom, a multi-faceted one where hardness and anguish and need and love get even more muddled up with a need for justice. The moment where she dares her husband to hit her or when her arms seem to take up a life of their own and reach out for the nearest child as an evocation of the loss of her own, are moments worth treasuring: they show us a great actress giving her all and back to her peak.

Devil’s Knot also has other attractions: Stephen Moyer from True Blood is the lawyer working for the State; Bruce Greenwood clearly indicates that his Judge David Burnett has another agenda, Colin Firth is a very trim private investigator trying and failing to solve the case. It’s a film based on a true story, of great interest and many attractions. The pleasures, however, are few.

 

José Arroyo

Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 13.24.00

One doesn’t really learn much about Lubitsch or indeed about the deployment of ideas of Spanishness from Gypsy Blood[1]. According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Gyspsy Blood is the result of Lubitsch being ‘forced to comply with specific requests. Asked to direct a promotional film for the new UFA star Pola Negri, he chose Carmen …While the film undoubtedly profited from the popularity of the Bizet opera, its melodramatic story remained … uncharacteristic for Lubitsch’ (p.42).

 

In relation to  ‘Carmen’, Prosper Merimée, Bizet and the drawings of Gustav Doré had together already provided a basic but flexible narrative, an iconography and indeed a music to have passions to, which this DVD makes full, if choppy use of. The elements of the Carmen story may have been relatively new to a mass audience in 1918 or 1921 — although C.B. De Mille had already made a film of the material with Geraldine Farrar in 1915 — but, to us now, Lubitsch’s achievement is to visually render already familiar scenes in ways that still hold interest.

IMG_0743

According to Scott Eyman, the film borrows Mérimée’s flashback structure in which a campfire storyteller tells ‘the tale of a man bewitched.’ We then see Don José Navarro’s conservatism — and as played by Harry Liedtke, his dullness — his provincial background and the purity of his sweetheart, here name Dolores (Grete Diercks) but known by other names in other versions, all evoking a dewy-eyed drippyness: Micaëla in the opera, Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, the Broadway version of the opera,etc.

Carmen, or really Carmencita as she’s called here, gets a spectacular introduction in the famous tobacco factory scene. We see her attempt to spring José from jail, thus ensuring his degradation and downfall, with a sensual boldness that was to remain unmatched for many a year, the scene where she’s got her hands tied behind her back but snatches the flower off Don José’s lapel with her teeth still seems risqué. The scenes of gypsy thieves in the caves are used mainly to exoticise the landscape and as a striking way of filming Pola Negri from inside the cave. The bullfights, seemingly an integration of documentary film footage, are filmed with a sexy and deadly brutality so that the matching of sex and death is a prelude to meeting with Escamillo (Magnus Stifter) and her own final death. Lubitsch is very sparing with his close-ups, saving them mainly to show Carmen’s desire for Escamillo and her death at the hands of Don José at the end.

The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the 'story of a man bewitched'.
The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the ‘story of a man bewitched’.

 

Many of us have seen the schemas of these scenes over and over again, fleshed out in a variety of modes, genres, productions, versions: the endlessly popular productions of the opera, or perhaps Gades’ flamenco rendering of the Carmen myth on stage, or Saura’s film version of the Gades ballet, or Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s Carmen Jones (USA, 1954), or Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen (Charles Vidor, USA, 1948) or Paz Vega In Juan Calvo’s Carmen (Spain, 2003)….We know the story so well and Lubitsch’s version, admittedly an early one, provides only one surprise, on which more later.

flamenco and guitars
flamenco and guitars

 

What do we learn about Lubitsch as a filmmaker from Carmen/Gypsy Blood? We learn that he can handle crowds, that he can handle spectacle, that he’s got an eye for period setting and the telling detail. We also learn that he’s not fully ‘Lubitsch’; had I not known who the director was before watching it, I would have thought it a skilled job of direction but it would have been a question of guesswork as to whether the credit was due to Lubitsch. In fact a film like Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), which he prepared and produced but did not direct, or One Hour With You (1932), which he prepared and produced but Cukor says he did not direct, were to me saliently Lubitsch upon first viewing in a way that this is not.

Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,
Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,

Lubitsch’s Carmen was re-titled Gypsy Blood: A Love Tale of Old Spain for its American release by First National. What it reveals about ‘Old Spain’ is that there were a lot of blue-eyed Germans trying to pass themselves off as gypsies, and that they weren’t averse to using blackface to do so, thus reinforcing the notion of Spaniards as the Africans of Europe, with gypsies in particular as descendants of Egyptians. Actually, this blackface might have been what Max Factor’s ‘Light Egyptian’ make-up developed for Lena Horne might have looked like applied to Aryans.

Pola, bored, surly, insolent.
Pola, bored, surly, insolent.

The revelation of this movie is Pola Negri in the title role. She’s someone who’s aware of her sexual attractiveness and uses it as a weapon. She’s the opposite of Henny Porten, insolent, sexy, aware, playful, sneering, coarse. Wid’s Daily, hated it for all the right reasons, calling Negri’s Carmencita, ‘about the crudest, most boorish, unfeminine hoyden that has ever been presented’. Harriet Underhill in the New York Tribune, called it, ‘a gorgeous performance’ with ‘Negri, a powerful actress, who is fascinating, beautiful in a way that has character for its foundation, and intelligent.’

The sap doesn't stand a chance.
The sap doesn’t stand a chance.

Jeannine Basinger sums it thus, ‘‘The role of Carmen gave Pola Negri everything she was best at – primarily the chance to be fiery, tempestuous, and passionate and to break through the boundaries of a woman’s ordinary life. She plays with enormous energy – a radiant and compelling figure on-screen. Variety stated it simply : ‘This Negri is amazing’.[2]

It’s one of the roles, along with Passion (Madame DuBarry) and One Arabian Night (Sumurum), that made Pola Negri a star in America when they were released there in quick succession in 1920-21. According to Mariusz Kotowski, her biographer, it was also Negri’s favourite role: ‘I understood her. I loved her. I was her. It was like playing an organ with innumerable stops. Every motion could be touched upon’. [3] It’s the combination of earthiness and insolence, intelligence and passion, the grace of movement, and a face that can seem ordinary at one moment and very beautiful the next that still captivates today.

 

Escamillo at the bullfights.
Escamillo at the bullfights.

Gypsy Blood was an enormous success unprecedented in the German film industry up to that point. The critic of the Licht-Bild-Bühne wrote, ‘The effectiveness of the German film industry and its indisputable capability to compete successfully on the world market has been unequivocally proven’[4].

In November 1918, censorship was abolished in Germany. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘On 20 December 1918, the date of the world premiere (of Carmen), the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Belin and agreed on elections for a German National Assembly. The mood on the streets was verging on civil war’[5]. In 1919, women would obtain the right to vote. The film is on the cusp of a changing world, in a changing film industry, where different roles for women are not only acceptable but demanded. Gypsy Blood, and Negri’s playing of Carmen, capture, evoke and are representative of this process of change.

Still, more and better was still to come from the pairing of Lubitsch and Negri.

A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.
A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.

 

José Arroyo

 

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[1] Though the footnotes in the inter-titles are very funny trying to do their best to teach and inform: ‘Alcala, a hamlet near Seville famous for its excellent bread’.

[2] All of these quotes are from Jeannine Basinger, Silent Stars Alfred A. Knopf, Kindle Edition, New York, 2000. The Wid’s Daily, and Tribune quotes from location 527 in the Kindle Edition, the Basinger and Variety from location 3411.

 

[3] Mariusz Kotowski, Pola Negri – Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale, University Press of Kentucky, 2014, Kindle version. Lexington Kentucky, location 511.

 

[4] Robert Carringer and Barry Sabath, Ernst Lubitsch: A Guide to References and Resources London: George Prior Publishers, 1978, p. 3

 

[5] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p. 54.

 

Grace of Monaco (Olivier Dahan, France/USA/Belgium/Italy/Switzerland, 2014)

grace of monaco

 

Grace of Monaco is the kind of movie where the star wears a billowing ballgown, races frantically through endless palace corridors and jumps into a huge bed …. to weep. Life is so very difficile; even when Maria Callas (Paz Vega) — wearing a fabulous Jeanne Toussaint panther ring —  is your bestie, warbles beautifully,and goes horseback riding with you as a show of support. Luckily there’s a ball at the end so that jewels, gowns and seating arrangements can play their role in simultaneously resolving affairs of state and of the heart.

Nicole Kidman gets an endless amount of close-ups, some so extreme that her earrings are out of focus. The whole film is designed so we can see her be beautiful and suffer nobly while she learns to say goodbye to Hollywood and all the fun of the movie star life and hello to politics, duty, and sacrifice in her new role as Princess of Monaco. Callas’ drive for artistic expression above all else is contrasted with Grace’s willingness to sacrifice art for family and country. Lubtisch was already sending up this type of material a hundred years ago. One looks on the screen in a daze that might might have been caused by the diamonds display but is more accurately attributed to  the drivel that is the story and its treatment.

Derek Jacobi is the fey and worldly aristocrat who teaches Grace protocol. Frank Langella is, I kid you not, Father Tuck, guardian of Grace’s soul. Tim Roth is Prince Rainier, the  unappreciative husband; and first glowers at Grace but then ends up giving her warm glow due to her great diplomatic skills and even greater love for the nuclear family. Grace learns how to act serenity whilst dealing with palace intrigue and other people’s selfishness. At the end Grace is so good at her new role that she gets a standing ovation for her efforts; even old grouch De Gaulle is moved to stand. It’s pure trash, very demodée but lovely to look at.

The film does have an interesting exploration on the nature of acting and performance, in life and in art. Some scenes of Nicole Kidman rehearsing her lines and her expressions would rival De Niro’s ‘Are You Looking At Me’ scene in Taxi Driver if only the film were better. As it is, I can’t in good faith recommend it to anyone  except lovers of fine jewellery.  However, I must say that if you put aside all considerations of film art and are happy to look at glossy layouts in fashion magazines, a boxed set with Madonna’s W.E., the Naomi Watts Diana and this Grace of Monaco would make for one glamorous binge.

 

José Arroyo

The Adventures of Prince Achmed/ Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926)

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Paul Shallcross, who today played the lovely score he composed for the film, gave an excellent introduction as to why the film has historically been revered as a landmark: the youth of the director, the painstaking mode of animation involving cardboard silhouettes and thin sheets of lead which took three years to complete, how each frame was lit from below and photographed from above using layered backgrounds one painstaking frame after another, how famous avant-garde figures such as Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch and Carl Koch worked on the film etc. But personally, I always thought there was a reason why silhouette films never took off. It always felt too much like a successful attempt in gaining maximum expressivity from a limited vocabulary; and why bother? The images are delicate and pretty. The story, from the Arabian nights and featuring Aladdin, his lamp, witches, sorcerers, dragons, warriors and princesses — and a setting ranging from the Middle East to China — is exciting and involving. But why not tell the same story using a greater visual vocabulary that allowed more movement and a greater range of expression? Today I got my answer.

I had ever seen the film on a big screen before, and it made a difference. I had never seen it with a mixed race audience, and it made a difference. I had never seen it in a room full of kids accompanied by their parents, and that was the biggest difference of all: they were involved, they understood, they appreciated it. They couldn’t understand the sub-titles but they kept asking their parents what was happening and why (one insistent kid, who obviously couldn’t speak English, had a whole exciting line of questioning for his parents in Spanish from beginning to end). On one level the children understood much less than I; on another they made me see what I hadn’t been able to see before; that a limited vocabulary might not be a bad way of communicating with an audience who doesn’t have a greater one at its disposal.

That’s not the whole story of course; the film has ever been beautiful to look at; the delicate filigree curlicues of the cutouts, the shape of the figures, the rendering of ‘The Orient’, the romantic fantasy of the world created for the film. All have many pleasures (and some dilemmas) to offer any audience.

The event was another success for Flatpack, an achievement best resumed as way of involving local artists with some of the greatest artworks in film history and engaging a wide range of local communities with that work in a landmark location worth discovering or re-discovering, in this case the new Library. May such efforts long continue.

 

Seen at the Birmingham Central Library, 8th June 2014

Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014
Birmingham Central Library 8th of June 2014

The Opening of Possessed (Clarence Brown, USA, 1931)

 

I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with  them as a  couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.

 

José Arroyo

Die Augen Der Mummie Ma/ The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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Watching The Eyes of the Mummy in the version distributed by Alpha Entertainment is itself a work of archeology. Each frame is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of the original positive. We can see the contours, the outline, what the image might have been like. But we don’t know for sure. Clothes, décor, texture—all so important to Lubitsch’s work and the pleasures audiences get from it – are here barely discernible. The quality of the image requires an operation of decipherment at various levels, from the general — what were the images and sounds like originally and what might they have meant to audiences at the time? — to the particular: what does that inter-title so faded as to be unintelligible actually say?

A degraded image
A degraded image

 

According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceiptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, ‘The Eyes of the Mummy announces Lubitsch’s decision in its promotional campaign: “He (Lubitsch) succeeds in persuading his boss and discoverer, Paul Davidson of Union Film, that he must now realise his artistic dreams in the creation of great film drama . Davidson decides to risk a lot of money…”The rest, as the credits try to suggest, is history. (p.38)’

The film is Orientalist tosh that features all the elements, historical and fictional, archeological digs in Egypt had made fashionable: pyramids, sand dunes, high priests, exotic dances, otherworldly trances, sexual enslavement. These would become even more popular with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. Thus the film is riding a wave of Orientalism in Western Culture, a wide-ranging one encompassing the Russian Costumes popularised by Dhiagelev and the Ballets Russes, but also Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs and the Japanese Screens so adored by Coco Chanel. Its Egyptian variant would manifest itself throughout popular culture in the twenties and beyond via Sheiks, sand dunes, glittery sequins, hair that was bobbed and fringed, mummies and more.

Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu
Emil Jannings in blackface as Radu

The world of The Eyes of the Mummy is not too far removed from that of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, ever with us in endless adaptations, as well as the relatively recent Stephen Sommers franchise of Mummy films (1999-2008), which in itself encompasses a broad and unapologetic Orientalism. All find an origin in the fashion for Egyptology and all are in evidence here. We could say that Lubitsch was on the avant-garde of a fashion that is still with us, a hegemonic discourse that still places and displaces, fetishizes, fixes, and inevitably puts into play dynamics of empire and subjugation.

Pola's eyes, a Mummy's mask
Pola’s eyes, a Mummy’s mask

 

The plot is simple to the point of simplistic but also sexy and sensational: Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a young painter, goes on a sojourn to Egypt and sees a beautiful girl gathering water by a well. The next day at the Palace Hotel, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) plans to go on an outing to see the forbidden burial chamber but is advised that anyone who has visited has come upon terrible misfortune. Albert overhears and asks one of the victims what happened. ‘The eyes are a live’ screams the victim in delirium.

Gathering water by a well
Gathering water by a well

 

When Albert does eventually venture there, Radu (Emil Jannings) the keeper of the tomb takes him to the see the ‘Eyes of the Mummy’ and he, thinking that there’s something familiar and fishy, goes into the antechamber to see what’s behind. Radu tries to stop him, they fight, and Albert accidentally shoots Ragu. When he finally gets to the antechamber, he finds Ma (Pola Negri) who turns out be the reason the eyes of the Mummy were alive: they’re hers.

A painterly representation of the previous image
A painterly representation of the previous image

Ma tells Albert of her sad fate: years ago she’d been gathering water by a well when Radu kidnapped her, made her the eyes of the Mummy and a slave to his ‘every’ wish. Albert promises to free her and does. He takes her home to Europe, paints her portrait and introduces her to all his friends. Bernardhi, a famous showbiz impresario, is impressed by her dancing at a party, puts her on the stage and she becomes a big star. Unfortunately for her, Radu lives. He was rescued by Prince Hohenfels and is now also in Europe. When he finds her, his mere glance is enough to once more put her under his spell. When she resists, he kills her, kisses her and kills himself. It’s almost as much trashy fun to recount as it is to watch.

Lubitsch's dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene
Lubitsch’s dynamic compositions and mise-en-scene

 

The film is worth seeing, even in this degraded print, for further proof of how great Lubitsch is with crowds, for the expressive movement of people within space rendered interesting, new and fresh through inventive compositions. The market scenes, embroidered with little vignettes such as the boys stealing, the magicians doing their act and merchants hawking their wares, demonstrate a vivid and textured rendering of atmosphere. We begin to see how Lubitsch creates memorable compositions that are also places for movement and action such as the initial introduction of the sand dunes; and also how these are edited so that time, setting and action all find a rhythm, one which maximizes the spectacular elements of what we’ve been shown; see for example the shot of Prince Hohenfels returning from his outing, the horses on top of the sand dunes and how we continue seeing the movement of the caravan of people until the very last horse goes out of the frame, evoking a sense of exotic, contemplative and magnificent spectacle.

Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear
Note the curtain reflected in the Mirror where Radu will appear

The scenes at the Art Gallery, the Alhambra Theatre, and the Hotel all function as set-pieces where Lubitsch sets out to dazzle with crowds of people, costumes, dances or even acrobats. This is a film that adores that which can add a shine or or a shiver and this includes playing with film form; see for example, the super-imposition of images to convey the link between Radu and Ma’s minds but also to render Radu’s presence immaterial, otherworldly and spectral. This of course would become a standard way of showing ghosts in cinema in the classic period but, though not new, it was rare enough and must have seemed thrilling then.

dancing hieroglyphics
dancing hieroglyphics

 

One can also appreciate, albeit in a more muted way, Lubitsch’s use of the mirror at the Prince’s salon. It’s a wonderful composition that not only allows us to view off-screen space but also works narratively to create distinctions between what the characters know and what the audience can see, thus creating suspense. In this instance of course what we see before Ma is the appearance of Radu in the mirror and a threat not only to the lifestyle we see her so enjoying but to her very life.

Radu the ghost
Radu the ghost

Last but not least one of the great pleasure of the film is to see Pola Negri in her prime and on display. She’s as alive as anything in the movie and gets to exhibit a range of characteristics: the virginal water girl by the well, the slave of Radu, the eyes of the mummy, the dis-orientated foreigner in the West, the exotic dancer, the stage star, and finally, the ‘last girl’. She’s vivid and vivrant as all of them.

Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian
Pola gets admired dancing like an Egyptian

Her dances are something to see. She wears a very skimpy, harem type outfit with the midriff on display and a a see-through shrug. She does a dance that begins with mix of Turkish belly dancing and ballet that eventually becomes a pastiche of Egyptiana. The men are entranced by the sashay of her hips, the women annoyed. Pola’s a dancer and moves her body sinuously; whoever choreographed those dances was clearly influenced by hieroglyphics. The effect is that of making Pola’s body the focal point of all that was dreamy, scary and sexy about the Orient. As if all of the markets, pyramids, sand dunes, sex and tombs were somehow condensed in the figure of Pola dancing. Two different types of spectacle rendered simultaneously interchangeable and other, enticing and threatening.

 

A film to see even in this degraded copy with that jarring and intrusive score by Rachel Gutches, whom I note has bagged the copyright for the whole thing. According to Hake, there are opening titles to the German version that are illuminating about  Lubitsch’s self-critical attitude at this point. According to her, they tell us, ‘This film had a big budget, that is, two pal trees and was shot on location in Egypt, that is, in the Rudersdorf limestone mountains (near Berlin)’ (p.44). Had I known that, I might not have been as self-conscious about laughing at some sections.

 

José Arroyo

Released in the USA on the 25th of June 1922.

 

 

 

 

Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1920)

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A disappointment. Until now, all Lubitsch films I’ve seen have been ones  I can imagine non-specialist audiences delighting in today. Anna Boleyn is of obvious historical interest — the most expensive film made in Germany to that point, thousands of Berliners worked on it, the President of the Weimar Republic visited the set sparking off riots amongst the extras, etc. I can’t imagine admirers of Lubitsch or of Weimar Cinema or of Silent Cinema NOT wanting to see Anna Boleyn. The story is a legendary historical tragedy so famous everyone’s familiar with the bare outline of it: Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) rejects his wife and his religion for Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) but eventually sends her to the scaffold when she can’t produce what he wants, a male heir.

Henny Porten and Emil Jannings
Henny Porten and Emil Jannings

Anna Boleyn is an attempt by Lubitsch and his producers to repeat the success of Madame DuBarry (re-titled Passion in the US). Lotte Eisner historically situates both films as part of the Kostümfilme cycle, a ‘flood of historical films that swamped German cinema from 1919 to 1923-24’, which she damns as characterized by a ‘rather superficial treatment of certain purely exterior elements’ and sees as ‘an expression of the escapism of a poverty-stricken, disappointed nation which, moreover, had always been fond of the glitter of parades’[i].

No expense was spared
No expense was spared to show the glitter of parades

No expense was spared in the making of Anna Boleyn. According to the Lichtbild-Bühne in 1920, ‘‘The buildings alone gave employment to 14 site foremen, 200 carpenters, 400 plasterers, sculptors, etc. The historically accurate copy of Westminster Abbey required 380 sculptures, while 500 horses and 4000 riders and spectators were required for the tournament scene. Miss Henny Porten had to have sixteen costumes, and Mr. Jannings ten.’ [1] It’s always a bad sign when producers publicise numbers; as if large numbers of extras and high cost were indexically linked to quality with the publicity magically transubstantiating accounting into aesthetics. No one’s that much of a sucker.

The film certainly looks wonderful and must have seemed an astonishing spectacle in its time: the river barges, the jousting tournament, the weddings and coronations: all look sumptuous. These scenes seem as much of the time they were made in as of the time they portray and picking apart this mix of Weimar Berlin and Tudor England can in itself be a kick for the audience.

The Queen, child and nurse
The Queen in foreground,  nurse in background, child in the middle, almost out of sight

Anna Boleyn boasts a very beautiful Henny Porten – noble, self-sacrificing, loving — and Emil Jannings as Henry VIII. This film helps us understand why Porten was the biggest star of her era in Germany: aside from her beauty, she embodied particular ideals of womanhood: this Anne Boleyn is submissive, loves poetry, rural pleasures, her country and her baby. Her final scene where she goes trembling to her death for the good of her child, her country and the future remains moving and is a powerful ideation of the value of self-sacrifice, probably just the moment before all we’ve since come to know as ‘Weimar Berlin’ would sneer those notions down and jazz them out of view for another generation. We understand too why Jannings was considered the era’s greatest actor; he’s brutish here and with a violent edge but also evoking a sexual danger  I’ve not seen in him previously.

A crowd, framed and given character.
A crowd, framed and given character.

Lubitsch does give character to a crowd. It seems to have a life of its own here, a personality, and one that shows different moods in different scenes; and of course this is an example of how Lubitsch told the of the social through the private, the historical through the personal. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, the production was a great success. It cost around 8 million marks but ‘ticket sales in the US alone, however brought in 200,000 US dollars, almost double those costs.’[2]

Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn, Weimar Germany Tudor England
Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn; Weimar Germany frames Tudor England

 

This lovely tinted version looks sumptuous and is a real pleasure to watch. But this is the first of Lubitsch’s films that I haven’t wanted to show an excerpt to friends and say, ‘Look at this; isn’t Lubitsch great!’ If he is in this film; it’s in ways that I can’t yet fathom or know how to appreciate.

 

Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.
Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.

José Arroyo

 

dying to do the right thing
dying to do the right thing

 

 

[1] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p.92.

 

 

[2] ibid. p. 92

 

[i] Lotte Eisner, ‘Lubitsch and the Costume Drama’, The Haunted Screen, p. 72.

Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

11 billianaThe $11 Billion Year

In June 2013, at a University of Southern California event with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg predicted an implosion of the film industry: the failure at the box office of ‘tentpoles’, mega-budget movies that are designed with potential sequels in mind and anchor a studio’s release schedule, ‘are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.’

 

According to Anne Thompson in her interesting and illuminating new book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System, the prediction came true. White House Down, After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Turbo and R.I.P.D. tanked at the box-office and the whole cinematic apparatus — the paradigm of production, distribution, exhibition — and the technological, economic and political structures that underpin it, did indeed change.

 

‘In 2012 US domestic movie box-office delivered a record-breaking $11 billion, up 8.4 % on the previous years’ Thompson writes. ‘If record foreign box office added to total it would have been a $35 billion year’. But as Thompson goes on to show, ‘despite appearances, the movie business isn’t thriving. The seeds of the industry’s destruction were present in 2012’.

Film in 2012

Inspired by William Goldman’s, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, an examination of the state of Broadway and its theatre through following the 1967-68 Season, Thompson follows, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012: The discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January (Searching for the Sugar Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Your Sister’s Sister); the backgrounds to two potential franchises released in the Spring and why one worked (The Hunger Games) and one didn’t (John Carter); and how in 2012 the word “film” officially became an anachronism because by then the changeover to digital was pretty much complete.

 

Thompson also demonstrates how in May, the Cannes International Film Festival launched Cannes veteran Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cannes newbie Paul Thomas Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. ‘The studios use Cannes as a massive marketing opportunity to launch their pictures in the all-important global market, which has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 per cent of the film industry’s annual grosses.’

 

Comi-Con in July underlined the importance of the comic-book movie and how the competition between those superheroes based on Marvel and those on DC carries over from the comic-book fan-base onto the film adaptations. According to Thompson: ‘Warner Bros, which acquired DC Comic in 1969 and therefore movie and television rights to the jewels in the DC crown, Superman and Batman, discovered in the early eighties that many fans of the comics were attending Comic-Con – and would come to see their movies. Soon the promotion of movies inspired by comic books expanded to genre films, and eventually just about anything aimed at the studio’s sweet spot, the young male demo’.

 

Thompson offers interesting insights into how the Fall film festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) helped launch Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln; how female representation in popular movies hit its lowest in five years (only 28% of speaking parts in the highest grossing US movies were women) and how gender politics affected the reception of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; and lastly, she gives a sharp and entertaining account of ten things that changed the Oscar race that year (One of them is that on the opening day of Zero Dark Thirty, three US Senators accuse the filmmakers of inaccuracy).

The Whole System Has Changed

What becomes clear in the book is that the whole system has changed, at least as it pertains to the ‘Global’ film industry with a primary base in the United States (Bollywood, Nollywood, Chinese Cinema etc. are all bypassed in this account). The overall structure of the industry is still oligopolistic with six majors who are signatories to the Motion Picture Association of America: News Corp-owned Fox, Sony, Warner Bros (which owns HBO), Viacom owned Paramount (which also owns CBS and Nickelodeon), Comcast owned NBC Universal (which owns USA and the Sci-Fi Channel) and Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN). Lionsgate, who is not a signatory to the MPAA, is now also considered a major. These companies control the film industry. But what that industry is has now changed.

 

Movies are now made on digital. On one hand, this permits all kinds of additional special effects, which can potentially make them very expensive; on the other hand, more personal dramas that don’t require much post-production can now be made on a micro-budget. As a result, in 2012 Sundance logged more than 4000 feature submissions.

 

Screen conversions from 35mm to digital expanded globally from 16, 000 in 2009 to 36,000 in 2010 and by 2012 the changeover was complete. Studios benefitted economically but even filmmakers are wary of digital. They ‘try to sock away a 35mm print of their films for safe-keeping as digital formats demand constant, expensive upgrading to the latest system’.

 

Thompson vividly demonstrates how the whole distribution system has changed. It used to be that movies played in theatres, then the film was made available after three or four months at a premium cost by Video on Demand (VOD), then sell and rent on DVD’s, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world. Now there’s a rush to get everything to Video on Demand (VOD) as quickly as possible and some films were available on VOD before they screened in theatres or bypassed theatres altogether. According to Thompson, ‘‘close to a quarter of the 2012 Sundance releases were made available concurrent with or before their theatrical openings on VOD outlets – cable iTunes, Hulu or filmmakers’ own website’ Recently, Josh Whedon’s In Your Eyes is an example of a film that bypassed traditional distribution structures and went right to VOD on the very same day it was premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the type of distribution theatre owners most fear because it renders them obsolete.

A Four Quadrant Movie

In 1982 Spielberg’s E.T. was the biggest box office success of its year. It was based on an original story and it stayed on screen for over a year in America. It was the ‘four quadrant movie’’, films that are equally appealing to young, old, male or female that studios constantly chase after. But of the top 26 films of 2012,’ nineteen were based on some other property, eight were sequels, four were comic-book franchises, two were remakes, two were prequels, and seven were originals’. Moreover, the biggest market is now China. it grew 36% in 2012, outstripping Japan as American’s biggest foreign market. American studios are so eager to curry favour there that they went so far as to re-edit Django Unchained an Iron Man 3 in order to get it through the censors and into that now lucrative market.

 

 

According to Thompson, in their University of California talk ‘Spielberg and Lucas were basically calling attention to the end of the movie business in which they grew up’. Spielberg, as powerful a director as there is in Hollywood, had struggled to get Lincoln made. It was a serious drama with no sequel potential. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and getting the money to make it had been so difficult he considered turning to HBO.

 

Steven Soderbergh did indeed go to HBO to make the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. As a studio movie it would have cost $70 million to make and the studios didn’t want to risk it, even with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached to star. It was made instead at HBO for $23 million, won the Emmy, and was released theatrically outside the US. Oliver Smith, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, and Spielberg himself now all routinely work in television. That’s where serious drama and comedy that isn’t aimed at adolescents are being made.

Aesthetic Consequences

What Thompson doesn’t explore are the aesthetic consequences of this. What might it mean to cut off romance, interiority, complex character psychology and so on from big screen presentation. Many might ask whether it would matter if the bigger and smaller screens carve up different genres or different themes amongst themselves, with spectacle relegated to the big screen, and more personal dramas to the smaller screen. But I think it matters a huge amount. In a now famous ‘Memo to Hollywood’ Manohla Dargis in The New York Times tells filmmakers the following:

‘ You know that moody shot that you and your director of photography anguished over for hours and hours? It may look beautiful, but there are critics who will never know, which certainly encourages them to pay more attention to the plot than the visuals. Viewers who bypass the theatrical experience and prefer watching movies on their televisions and tablets may not mind. Some directors, especially those whose talking heads and two shots look better on small screens, also won’t care; others just want their work seen however, wherever. But I bet there are directors who would freak if they knew how some critics were watching their movies’.

 

So should anyone interested in the art of movies since, perhaps even more fundamentally, sometimes even basic plot is not optimally decipherable on a tablet or phone. What one sees and how one is shown it is essential to how we experience and evaluate entertainment and art. Of course it does not always follow that bigger is better. But there should be some correlation between how a movie is designed to be seen and how it is in fact seen; at least as concerns evaluation of all kinds, but particularly that by professional critics.

Thompson’s Got Great Sources

If Thompson doesn’t answer this type of question she does touch on many others I have not addressed here. Thompson is a journalist who is there at all the events and festivals she’s writing about. She’s got great sources, and she seems to be writing in the heat of thought as it sparks to life and in the midst of events as they unfold. We get to follow, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012 from Sundance to the Academy Awards (ultimately awarded in February 2013). Thompson thus affords herself and us an eye-witness and critical look at the state of the industry and the state of the art. And as her vividly entertaining and informative book makes clear in so many different ways, the prognosis is not good.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

Anne Thompson is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Thompson on Hollywood

Newmarket Press for IT Books, UK: Harper Collins, 2014

Available from Kindle Amazon and other outlets.

A shorter version of this review was published in The Conversation.