She celebrated Barbara Streisand’s Nose

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Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1935)

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hands across the table

Carole Lombard is Regie Allen, a hard-boiled Hannah working as a manicurist in a posh hotel so she could nab herself a rich husband. She meets her match in Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred McMurray), a loafer from a still distinguished but now poor family whose only concession to earning a living is to marry money. In true screwball fashion, they meet cute in a hotel lobby where she bumps into him playing hopscotch on the hallway tiles and spoils his game. He asks for a manicure in order to get to know her better and she’s so nervous she destroys each of his fingers, a small price for what turns out to be a great date. They go out and fall for each other but neither wants to deviate from their goal of marrying money, until of course they do, but not until the end. Ralph Bellamy plays, well … the Ralph Bellamy role of the earnest, well-intentioned, but no fun guy who hangs around waiting not to get the girl. What distinguishes the character of Allen Macklyn from any of the countless others Bellamy was cast in is that Macklyn is a former pilot who had an accident and is now a paraplegic. His wheelchair is his character.

Hands Across the Table is sometimes flagged up as an undiscovered or under-rated screwball and I must say I don’t agree. All the ‘madcap zanyness’ feels a bit forced and a bit mean to the other characters, like when Lombard and McMurray pretend to be married so she can stand up a previous date, William Demarest, and he can do him out of his box of chocolate mints. Ah-ha. Hilarious.

The film doesn’t work as a screwball because it’s constantly veering into melodrama and all the longing and desire and angst and abnegation takes all of the shine out of what is meant to be sparkly ‘zaniness’ and makes for a confusing inconsistency of tone. However, those moments of melodrama are some of the bits I liked best.

The clip below wonderfully illustrates the film’s weaknesses and strengths. Reggie and Ted have just come back from this wonderful expensive date. The camera dissolves from the nightclub into the back of the cab, from a kind of theatre of dreams, to a context for other kinds of possibilities. Lombard plays Reggie as slightly phony and still trying to impress when she says ‘I’ve really had a lovely time’; then the scene shifts onto McMurray. What’s called for is an actor with the skill to convey the debonair nonchalance of the stylised artificial situation – a rich guy with no money out to have a good time but who just might have gotten involved asking a girl who’s not to be his wife out for another date after his wedding — and also the ability to simultaneously convey a sense of loss and regret, all whilst playing drunk. McMurray is simply not skilled enough.

However, look at Lombard. The film does. He speaks but she communicates, and she doesn’t need lines to do it with. She’s got three close-ups after she’s just heard he’s getting married and he says, ‘they all want honeymoons,’ where she looks slightly down and manages to convey the sadness of all those girls who never get to go on honeymoons because rich guys like this Theodor the Third here think they can get them the day after their own wedding; then after the ‘slaves of fashion’ line, where she does a slight grimace indicating something like ‘I should be so lucky as to be a slave to fashion’; and then, after he tries to say ‘the whole business is a vicious scam’ but falters on ‘vicious’ and she moves her eyes smartly to the side as if to indicate ‘are you kidding me?’ and then sighs. Hard-boiled Hannah is back but the sadness cuts through the cynicism and she beautifully conveys the limited options, the drudge and unfairness of a million girls working too hard and not making enough. Lombard is true, beautiful and really great: so much meaning in such few gestures. The film is very much worth seeing if only for her.

But the direction and the editing help the film too, note how we now get another dissolve, this time onto the bleak and prosaic night-time street. This dissolve mirrors the one that introduced us to the scene of revelation in the cab, but if before we went from the dream date into intimate revelation, this one takes us back to the harsh reality of the street. It’s very well done.

But the film does offer more than Lombard or the skill and polish of the mise-en-scène to appreciate. There’s McMurray too. He’s easy to ignore as, aside from his work for Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity and The Apartment, there’s not much people remember him for. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he was one of the most famous and likeable stars in American cinema and at the very forefront of celebrity culture in the US, first as a top film star from about 1935 and throughout the forties and fifties, then as a very successful star of Disney films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961); then, even later, in one of the top-rated TV shows in the US in My Three Sons (1960-1972), first for ABC (1960-1965) and then for CBS (1965-1972). Aside from that, he’d recorded records, been on Broadway, starred on radio and even been the original model for Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. He can’t simply be dismissed.

Moreover, the film does everything in its power to make McMurray glamorous, sexy and desirable. He’s much more on display than Lombard is (see image capture below):

McMurray's lips, lit for Lombard's appreciation...and the audience's.
McMurray’s lips, lit for Lombard’s appreciation…and the audience’s.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodies was a wise-cracking regular joe. But that's not how Liesen saw him or at least not only how he showed McMurray to us here.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodied was a wise-cracking ‘regular Joe’. But that’s not, or better put, not only how Liesen saw him or at least  how he displayed  McMurray to us here.
He's on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of  this period.
He’s on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of this period.
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with

Finally, another reason I find the film rather fascinating is due to something that used to be called ‘gay sensibility’. It was thought that if an artist was gay, an understanding of the world shaped by the artist’s social and historical circumstances as a homosexual person would somehow seep into the work and be magically conveyed to those who had access to those codes and conventions. Liesen was a film director in the 1930s with a primary sexual interest in men and thus the interest in surfaces, images, the conflict between idealised romance and harsh social realities; prescribed ways of being versus individual desires, all of that conflict of melodrama, but prettily and lightly put together would be ascribed to this ‘gay sensibility,’ even when the subject material of the work had nothing to do with homosexuality.

hands across the table 2

One of the wonderful things about studying and thinking about film today is that we can look closely, as often as we want, stop and start the image, re-combine it. In Hands Across the Table, is the way that we’re shown McMurray to be delectable an articulation of Liesen’s desire or could it be something as banal as Paramount policy for one of their leading men? I don’t know. But what we can now see is that in this film he was lit, framed, made-up, clothed, unclothed and displayed to be glamorous, beautiful, fit, a romantic ideal with a raw sex appeal. Hands Across the Table is not just a fascinating film by a top director and yet another example of Lombard’s greatness as an actress, it might also be a key to understanding McMurray’s stardom at the height of the Studio Era.

José Arroyo

Easy Living (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1937)

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easy living

A screwball not quite up to the heights of the very greatest but with moments as fine as in any. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, the ‘Bull of Wall Street, a stockbroker so shocked by his wife’s spendthrift habits that he throws her latest sable out of their penthouse and onto the street, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and changes her life. Ray Milland is J.B. Jr., the well-meaning but directionless son who goes to work at an automat to show his father he can make it on his own.

Soon everyone thinks Mary Smith is the mistress of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and she’s showered with luxury hotels, couture and even money. However, it is JB Jr. who’s been staying in her hotel suite after having been fired for stealing a free meal for her and sparking a food fight at the automat. Yes, this is the kind of film where sables fall out of the sky and people wear gorgeous sparkly outfits, live in grand hotel suites, and can stand in their bathtubs amidst sculptures of Goddesses but can’t afford to eat at the automat.   Amidst all the farcical misunderstandings, the stock market goes up; it goes down; butlers have views on stocks; everyone’s on the make but everyone’s equally cynical except for Mary, who remains pure throughout, even when she’s furiously rampaging through stockbrokers’ offices with two huge and fluffy sheepdogs. Confusion ensues. Romance wins. Classes are reconciled; all with a gentle wit, much gentler than is usual for Sturges, who wrote the screenplay. Ralp Rainger and Leo Robin wrote the eponymous song, now a jazz standard thanks to immortal cover versions by Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, especially for the film. A mellow big-band version is the only soundtrack. It’s all pretty heaven jean-arthur   Easy Living is worth seeing for many reasons: Mitch Liesen sure knows how to film a glamorous image; and Jean Arthur, dressed by Travis Banton and photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, looks particularly lovely throughout — even her shoes sparkle and glow. The theme of appearances and advertising is one that Sturges would mine later, more thoroughly, and to slightly different effect in Christmas in July. Franklin Pangborn offers us Van Buren, an expert stylist of feminine couture, and really one of the loveliest of the famed Pangborn pansies. One can even begin to detect the formation of what would later become the Sturges stock company (Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig as the butler).

The bathtubs are gorgeous
The bathtubs are gorgeous

Sturges blamed Liesen for ‘ruining’ his screenplay, which he thought a masterpiece, with bad pacing; and there is something to that: the food fight at the automat is beautifully filmed but the slapstick lacks snap. There are other niggles as well: the character of Mr. Louis Louis, the great Italian chef turned lousy America hotelier, is so caricatured it borders on the offensive; the last line about Jean Arthur finding her true calling in life cooking Ray Milland breakfast….well, it almost ruins the film. However, this has moments that are at least the equal of anything Stuges ever filmed himself (though more glamorous, less cutting and abrasive; the satire is sharper in Sturges’ own films): the interplay between Edward Arnold and his secretary, the firing of Jean Arthur, the beginning of the automat scene, the sable landing on Jean Arthur —  a moment that Rashna Wadia Richards says evokes the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare and that James Harvey believes is the moment everyone remembers from the film — the song; and above all Jean Arthur herself.

Even the shoes sparkle
Even the shoes sparkle

Has Jean Arthur ever looked lovelier? It’s hard to think of another film in which she’s so carefully photographed and to such glamorous effect. Also, in relation to the classic period, we often talk about faces. ‘We had faces then’ says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But we rarely talk about voices. Yet think of how distinctive the voices were also: Bette Davis’ quick clipped pronunciation, Rosalind Russell’s foghorn, Katharine Hepburn’s grating Bryn Mar voice. Personally I prefer the low throaty ones that sound like an intimate whisper. I adore Margaret Sullivan’s, for example. But none affords me as much pleasure as Jean Arthur’s, surely one of the most expressive and distinctive voices of the period: low, soft, with a throaty crack and a squeaky end-note, a hushed sound full of a kind of feeling that first reverberates and then evaporates into a kind of sigh, particularly when it’s uttered in excitement. It, she and the film are a delight.

José Arroyo

MGM’s Idea of Stardom in 1933: The Opening Montage of Bombshell (Victor Fleming, USA, 1933)

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Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.

José Arroyo

Go!: Film Spectatorship in 1935 According to The Good Fairy

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A lovely illustration of how Hollywood conceptualised, represented and satirised film spectatorship in 1935. Margaret Sullavan, just out of the orphanage, already enveloped in a cloud  of romantic longings formed by fairy tales, is an usherette at Budapest’s Dream Palace, her first job. Reginald Owen is a viewer who will turn out to be her ‘good fairy’. Both are enraptured by the mannered, melodramatic and repetitive drivel they see onscreen. We understand why they are so involved. We also understand why others are not, and why they leave at a moment in the narrative before they arrive, i.e. why they might want to leave before seeing the whole thing. Fredric Molnar, who wrote the original play, and Preston Sturges, who adapted it, make for a lovely sweet and sour combination, all directed by William Wyler with great delicacy and respect for both his subjects and his audience.

José Arroyo

Anfibio/ Amphibian (Héctor Silva Núñez, Venezuela/Cuba, 2014)

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Anfibio

In Anfibio, the approach is neo-realist; the actors, non-professional; the social problems, real; and the backdrop, a tropical paradise whose beauty is not quite hampered by poverty and lack of opportunity. It’s a beautiful film, rendered with a poet’s touch.

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In the film, two brothers, two motherless boys, José (Franklin González) and Jesús (Jesús Manuel García), clearly very close to each other, suffer the demands of a patriarchal father in a rural village that subsists on fishing. But is the father harsh or is he simply making a mistake in how he’s going about trying to do right by his two boys in difficult circumstances? It’s a question the film leaves open.

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What we find out is that José, the eldest, has recently returned home – prison’s unspecified but something shady is hinted at –and doesn’t want to earn a living fishing with his father; that he’s also not doing anything else; that even his considerably younger brother Jesús can’t find him the work he needs to continue living at home and that the place doesn’t offer him many other options on the right side of the law. His father tells him that if he doesn’t bring home money, he’ll have to unburden the house of another mouth to feed and make his own way in the world. We’ve already seen José been turned down for work and it’s been suggested that he’s perhaps not a good bet as an employee; that employers don’t want to risk a job on someone who’s perhaps been trouble or been in trouble before. The boy ends up stealing some money, presumably to give his father but ends up leaving home anyway, which is probably not as his father intended.

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Amphibian is a short film but intense and packing the kind of power often provided by the poetic. The story is about a family living on the outskirts of Maracaibo, off the coast of Venezuela, on a shore where the houses practically seem to be built above the sea, on stilts. But the film’s imagery condenses meanings that reverberate and echo on as hints and suggestions through the film. Fishing seems to be the main way of life; but it’s subsistence fishing; and the young boy wants more; but in leaving to get more; he leaves a way of life and a brother at the mercy of the father and the sea. A considerably younger brother, Jesús, who he’s close to and who’s angry enough at him to reject his ill-gotten bounty, offered as a gesture of love and rejected in anger and in hurt. A small and helpless turtle and a fancy mobile phone are the oppositional symbols around which the film is structured. Anfibio shows us a world, its inhabitants, their relationships, the various connections between these people, the landscape they inhabit and live off and their way of life; all on the cusp of change. An evocative, richly suggestive work that is gorgeous to look at, lovely to experience and rewarding to think about.

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José Arroyo

Robert Benchley Steals a Movie in Five Minutes

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           China Seas is big-budget, all-star orientalist tosh with exciting action sequences, well-directed by Tay Garnett. I don’t know that it’s much worth seeing today unless you love Jean Harlow (which I do) or want to see how movie star like Gable can sleepwalk through a performance and still be appealing or are curious as to just how bad Rosalind Russell was at playing English aristocrats early in her career. What I most loved about the movie was the way Robert Benchley was deployed as a kind of punctuation mark in the narrative. He’s got no role really. He’s just brought in to punch up the tired narrative, lift the tenor and add a laugh, all of which he succeeds magnificently in doing. It’s a lesson to performers in how to steal a movie in five minutes and to screenwriters in how a movie is not all story and meaning and how in the words of the immortal Lubitsch, one shouldn’t ‘sneeze at a laugh’; though one is at all times willing to drink to it.

The clip below is the entirety of his role, a collection of all his scenes in the film in chronological order; bits, lines and gags; all totalling just over five minutes; and, aside from a few cracks between Jean Harlow and Hattie McDaniel, the only scenes from the movie one is tempted to see again.

José Arroyo

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

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l'avventura

The day after I first saw L’Avventura, I woke up thinking of art, complexity, ambiguity, the iconicity of a face and the complexity of a touch. As the film starts, two women – Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) are setting off on a café society cruise around the coast of Sicily with a group of the louche and the bored, including Anna’s boyfriend, a flash society architect called Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Anna’s father, an elegant slightly weary former ambassador (Renzo Riccci), urges her not to go; Sandro is unworthy and is never going to marry her, he tells her. She, however, insists. He seems accepting of the fact that they might be sleeping together but is sad about it, as if he both mourns and is resigned to the degradation of the daughter he loves.

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Anna is in love. But it’s a long distance relationship. She’s not getting enough attention from Sandro when they are together and the lack of attention makes her doubt his love. Once on the yacht, she first jumps in the ocean — which leads him to jump in after her — and then lies about being in danger from sharks, which gets everyone’s attention. However, when she actually does disappear on the island it takes her friends a while to discover it.

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The people on the cruise are jaded aristocrats for whom the superficial is a shield from oblivion. They’re attentive to spaces in which to quote Oscar Wilde quips, busy only with trying to fend off boredom, and clutching at sensation as a means of keeping being in constant tension with nothingness. Even the possible death of one of them doesn’t really exercise them. They’re afraid of wasting time but what have they to do? After tired and half-hearted attempts to search for Anna, they all go back to more exciting places to be bored. Only Sandro and Claudia persist in their search. In so doing, they’re thrown together and begin to fall for each other. There’s a wonderful moment in the train where Claudia, who has already begged him to leave her alone, emotional articulates the moral morass of their engaging in a relationship when Ana’s only been missing for a few days and whilst her whereabouts remain unknown, no matter that they each share the other’s feelings for each other. He, however, couldn’t resist following her onto the train to continue with the chase. Why should he sacrifice himself? He thinks it an idiocy. Why? And for whom? He doesn’t meant to sound cynical but isn’t it better that they face things as they are, i.e. Ana’s no longer there, he no longer cares for his previous love. He’s only interested in his new one. He wants his pleasure, it’s all he can ever think of, now. Why doesn’t she?

As she flees Sandro, the camera cuts to a the waves crashing onto the shore, the camera indicating the inevitability of Claudia’s involvement with Sandro by panning through the relentless waves and settling onto Anna’s face (see clip below). On the soundtrack we then here a young man courting a young woman in a compartment as Sandro re-enters the shot and gets close to Claudia. Clearly this young working class couple is being aligned and juxtaposed to Claudia and Sandro. The young man knows somebody that works with the young girl and has heard she’s sensible. He has a Chinese transistor radio. Does she like music? She does? And what does she think is more important music or love? She thinks music; he opts for love first.

Claudia’s involvement with Sandro is now inevitable. Our new couple is surrounded by extra-diegetic music, soft but dissonant and adding to the alienation evident even in their moment of connection. She soon begins to act as needy as her friend. Anna’s absence is a structuring one. Claudia and Sandro might momentarily forget that their love is founded on a disappearance, an absence, possibly a death. When the absence becomes felt — which it does, first intermittently, then more insistently — this new adventure, so full of promise, is already over. Or is it? The one human moment of connection comes in the very last shot. She’s caught him cheating, he cries, he can’t help himself; dissolute, unfocussed, undisciplined, he’s no more able to be faithful than he was to choose art over a house in Milan AND one in Rome. But does she accept this?

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L’Avventura has to have some of the most beautiful compositions in the history of cinema. The seas are raging but the compositions are elegant, classic, balanced; the images they contain are also extraordinary; modernity in the foreground with Balenciaga dresses and sixties kitten heels, Roman ruins and imposing palaces and churches, or simply the natural sublime as background. The images in motion evoke process, tension, a spark of contradiction, which the beauty of the compositions then contains, fixes, naturalises. When Monica Vitti runs in search of her lover, the echoing click of her heels alone evokes a displacement, an alienation, a longing for which the virgin in the background is no help and one that dissipates into solitude even as her heels clack their presence onto parquet.

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There are niggles: the scene with men chasing after Gloria Perkins (Gloria de Poliolo), the celebrity with the torn dress working publicly in journalism but privately whoring herself to whomever can pay. The threat of the old, the poor, the male and the South as presented by the men gather around Monica Vitti in the extraordinary scene in Palermo. Is the North being patronising to the South? Are the filmmakers crudely commodifying the working class, peasants, Southerners? Is Antonioni being critical or making a crude self-serving nod to neo-realist traditions. I don’t know. What I am sure of is that L’Avventura is very great film by a truly great filmmaker.

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Days after I saw it I kept thinking about the beauty of its images and of how mesmeric and impactful Vitti’s final strokes of Ferzetti’s head are. I can’t imagine what its effects would be like on a small screen, though the Criterion transfer is a gorgeous one indeed. See it on as big a screen as you can; it’s worth it even if only for the added pleasure of seeing Monica Vitti’s unforgettable face in as large as size as possible.

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José Arroyo

Jean Harlow sings (kinda) in Reckless (Victor Fleming, USA, 1935)

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In the 1930s, even stars who couldn’t sing gave musical numbers a go. Here it’s Jean Harlow singing the lovely Jerome Kern title tune to a splendiferous Art Deco background. You might note from the beginning that Harlow can’t sing. But she is charming and ebullient and when she sings ‘ I want to live, love, learn a lot. I’ll light my candle and I’ll burn a lot/ I’m on my my own if I bruise, I can take it on the chin if I lose,’ you believe her. You might also note the precise moment when the dubber’s voice takes over – it’s when the camera pans down to the cruise-ship set — all deadly technical perfection, a subtraction from the pleasures previously on display. The camera then pans up to a seedier Mexican/Spanish set, where Harlow is marvellously re-introduced by Fleming via a gun-shot –  so appropriate a musical accompaniment to his particular star. But then,  that damned dubbed voice dampens everything again. And though she’s also meant to be dancing, it’s clearly a stand-in in the long shots and she is recognisable only when filmed above the waist. In the tradition of musicals, where what we see is meant to take place on-stage but the world’s largest stadium wouldn’t hold all that we see —  this is meant to be a stage rehearsal with Franchot Tone and William Powell looking on at Harlow. Needless to say, post-code, recklessness has a price: the number ends with her corpse artfully displayed as a chorus sings ‘I waste no weeping, I just keep hoping for one who’s hoping for me.’ It’s a great song in a not-so-great number. But worth it just for those few minutes where Harlow — all smarts and sex-appeal and energy — promises to be Reckless.

Letter from Cuba

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Delighted that Mediatico has published excerpts from a diary I kept whilst teaching in Cuba. It can be accessed here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2015/04/20/letter-from-san-antonio-de-los-banos-eictv/

Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

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heaven can wait

Heaven Can Wait has faults: Don Ameche’s relative lack of charisma, the hideous make-up on Gene Tierney in the scenes where she’s meant to be middle-aged, the garishness of the colour. But they’re relatively minor ones in this great, generous, kind-hearted, loving and forgiving film. Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is naughty but nice and good. Upon his death, he heads to hell, where he believes he belongs. But as he goes over the events of his life with His Excellency (Laird Cregar), it’s suggested that in spite of all his naughtiness, a place upstairs might in fact be more suitable. The same roundelay of women whom he thinks has brought him to hell end up being what might bring him to heaven, or at least it’s waiting room: he was charming and generous to them all and left them with memories so sweet as to be akin to love. It’s a film without villains. What causes pain are desires one can’t control even when it means hurting others, though one tries to shield them from the pain one knows one’s causing. Parents love their children, grandparents are adoring and sometimes even like as well as love their grandchildren. Husbands and wives love each other though there are limits to be set, limits one tries to uphold but sometimes transgresses, which is where forgiveness comes in. People have called this Lubitsch’s ‘testament’ film, not as in the sense of a will but as a testament to his view of life, what he believed was important; and one can’t help but see it that way. It’s certainly a film full of humour, tenderness and wisdom. When I grow up I too, like Lubitsch, want see life in its fullness, including its frailties, its cruelties, and its horrors, but through a loving lens and with a chuckle.

The scene with Eugene Palette and Marjorie Main back in Mabel’s Manse in Kansas, spatting over the funnies, and speaking to each other only through their highly diplomatic butler, is a comic masterpiece. The scene included below, is more typical of the charm, cinematic inventiveness and comic ingeniousness of the film as a whole.

José Arroyo

The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1934)

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The original Punch illustration for the film.
The original Punch illustration for the film.

The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is  a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.

The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.

Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.
Figure 1: The magnifying glass over Warshovia.

N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.

Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.
Figure 2: Classic imagery from celebrated waltz sequence.

José Arroyo

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014)

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leviathan

It’s so extraordinary to see a contemporary film where one is absolutely convinced at first viewing that it’s a masterpiece, comparable to the very greatest, and a critique of contemporary Russia I urge Americans to see because the US is not producing its like, however much they go on about Democracy. Here, a man who’s built his own house with his own hands on land his family’s lived in for generations is being kicked out of it by a local government politician who acts like a medieval baron. As the film unfolds, one gets a sense of the 99 per cent, not only in Russia but world-wide. Ordinary people, flawed but decent, with modest dreams of a house and children and some dignity, shunted around in a sea of bureaucracy that evokes Tsars and Stalin and Kafka and that not only has not been defeated but has successfully been exported to the west. We see a culture that drinks too much, waives guns too freely, whose external roughness does not negate the depths of feeling these characters have; the bonds they share with each other are complex, the rationale for their betrayals understandable if frightful. It’s a world where the individual is always sacrificed to political interests, generations of lives destroyed on a whim, because someone got ‘uppity’ and fought back. Poetic, with beautiful chosen images, the deadening bureaucracy sometimes evoked by the reading of dull and complex courtroom decisions quickly in a monotone voice, beautifully structured so it builds and unfolds to its inevitable conclusion. It’s a great film; one can’t shake it off; critical, poetic, real, true. Watching Leviathan, understanding and sorrow and beauty all seem to converge in one’s mind and make one want to weep.

José Arroyo

Seen at the Glauber Rocha in EICTV

San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba

A Thought on Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, USA, 1952)

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Fit as a fiddle
Fit as a fiddle

I recently saw Singin’ in the Rain with friends for the umpteenth time and had a great discussion on how, great as it is, there are things not quite up to the heights of the very greatest musicals much less to the very greatest of films, claims for the film repeated in practically every Sight and Sound list of top films since the 60s. . Someone said comparing Singing in the Rain to Meet Me in St. Louis was like comparing Kurosawa to Ozu ,suggesting that it was like comparing apples and oranges and yet people do keep insisting on how Ozu is a superior type of…well, director. I do wonder, if the film wasn’t so obviously a loving mythologizing of cinema whether film fans would hold it in such high esteem. The film’s movie love is a driver for their own; one which they eagerly take to. Singing’ in the Rain has its obvious delights; the opening sequence right up to the ‘dignity, always dignity’ montage is wonderful. Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont is a treasure above rubies and endlessly quotable ( I am the most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt; I ca-iiint stahhnd it’); Donald O’Connor in general but his ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number in particular is a joy; the play on sound and image; the jokes about the mike; the dazzling ending camera movement in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ with Kelly riding the crane and the camera then moving in to his close-up; and of course, the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number, now become an iconic metaphor for Hollywood Cinema itself; all are wonderful. The film is undoubtedly great. But is it as great as all that? When I scare my friends by insisting on showing them the very greatest of musical numbers, I never include any from this film. Moreover, isn’t Kelly just a teensy weensy bit hammy; aren’t the songs a bit derivative and unexceptional?; should the theft of Cole Porter’s ‘Be A Clown’ for ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ be forgiven?; isn’t Debbie Reynolds a bit too bland to be the new ‘most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt’? isn’t it a problem that the only bits one remembers of that endless ‘Broadway Ballet’ aside from its ending are the few minutes Cyd Charisse is in it? Doesn’t the film’s relentless kidding of  Lina Lamont finally turn into outright and unpleasant meanness in the final revelation? I think so.

José Arroyo

Graffiti in Gran Canaria

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IMG_7280Lately I’ve found my gaze wandering to post-its on lamp-posts, graffiti, illegally put-up posters for events, transient notices of private services on public display. A whole phantasmagoria of desires, feelings, promises, services, actions and events find expression in this form of communication.

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I was reminded of all of this recently whilst on vacation in Gran Canaria. The scenery was as spectacular as only an accident of nature can make possible — the rolling beaches, the spectacular sunsets on the horizon; the bougainvillea, hibiscus and bird of paradise flowers peeking through bushes, the sand-dunes. What was on or around nature, however, was as ugly as only greedy and thoughtless human intervention can make it: indistinct blocks of flats and malls, all higgledy piggledy and vying for space as close to the beach as possible; every trace of man’s work a blot on the landscape.

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Gran Canaria is where the working classes of Northern Europe go on holiday. Most buildings seem in need a new coat of paint and the cons were only mod circa 1975. There’s a desperate gaiety about the place, like it’s New Year’s Eve year-round; all that expense must result in a good time and sex must be found to go with the sun and the sea or the holiday will be a bust; there’s a grim determination to not fail at having fun; and this provision of fun and sex and cheerfulness is what the place and people who work there are meant to provide.

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At the ‘Restaurante El Gran Obrero/ The Great Worker’s Restaurant’, however, the talk is not of the provision of pleasure for the tourist trade but of the problems the locals are having in just getting by; and one overhears the same ramblings here as one does throughout the Spanish mainland : ‘Rajoy, robo por que soy/ I am Rajoy, therefore I rob,’ says one. ‘But it doesn’t matter who’s in power. They’re all crooks.’ ‘You wouldn’t say that if your husband lost his job and they took away your pension’. ‘Don’t worry about me, I ‘d steal a sack of lentils and I’d get by better than I do now’.

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The dissatisfactions of the locals and the illicit desires of the tourists find a common if surreptitious and illicit home in the graffiti, posters and post-its that adorn the walls and lampposts of the place. There’s a forlorn air to most of them, as when the poster advertising the promised pleasure is for an event now past. They’ve at one time been hopeful: how many people turned up to that march against Capitalism now past? Will anyone actually get on that website and organize a boycott against Repsol’s despoliation? Many continue to be scary: the praise for Franco and Fascism that is silenced in the mainstream but finds too recurrent an expression darkening whitewashed walls throughout Spain; the more local appeal to the Ultras of Frankfurt to work towards the ancient promise of victory.

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Often they evoke cheapness – producers that don’t have the means to draw an audience’s attention in other ways – or tawdryness – the drawing of attention to something that has to be done surreptitiously or in hiding. Or mere fun: ‘stop texting me’!

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These roiling murmurings, by their very nature liminal and interstitial, reward attention in every guise. They speak of silenced conversations, disbelief, dissatisfactions, dissidence, all roiling up to the surface, expressing another point of view, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, even if only to hit a wall or a lamppost near you, all asking for change, most succeeding in changing only the surface you’re looking at. There’s a power in this mode of expression, one that is particularly interesting in that it’s drawn entirely from impotence

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The saddest bit of graffiti I came across was a scrawled note on a white wall, at shoulder height, large enough to call attention to itself, but written with a hurry that nonetheless suggest an element of clandestinity. The literal translation reads as follows ‘Today, Thursday 8th of May 2014, I shall commit suicide at 4h25. My life is worth nothing and the only thing I have is suffering. I ask of God that he forgive me’.

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Is the note real? What makes a person want to write it, even if it’s not. Did the person go through with the act? If they didn’t, why didn’t they come back to erase it? If the person did go through with it, did anybody they knew come across the note? What despair does this note speak of? Is the despair lessened by the person still being alive? These are depressing times, austere times, even in spite of, or particularly in the light of so much sunshine and colour. The Graffitti tells a story rather different than the brochure, no less interesting, and best read alongside it.

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José Arroyo

It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, USA, 1946)

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frank capra's it's a wonderful life

James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.

The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.

It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.

The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.

It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?

It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).

Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?

José Arroyo

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, UK, 2014)

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imitation game

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a secretive, repressed, and recessive character transparent and emotionally accessible on various levels simultaneously. He also makes a socially inept and unlikeable character charming without watering down his worst qualities. It’s a truly great performance: a tour de force. I don’t think the film itself is good, but it works, and is very moving, particularly at the end, where one feels the whole audience collectively well up.

Some aspects of the film are unsatisfying. I understand how the three-act structure, which enables the film to focus on Bletchley Park and the various obstacles to breaking the enigma code, whilst simultaneously going back to his past to explain his character (how he is OCD, how he was capable of great love, how that love was lost and how he learned to be secretive) and to the future (to explain the causes and context of his arrest, his sentence and his suicide) is an attractive proposition to a screenwriter: it does make the story flow; it enables the narrative to travel through time whilst retaining the film’s focus — the Bletchley Park section — as a seeming constant present. However, it also makes the film seem too pat. People are messier than machines, there is no one ‘key’ to people’s character.

The best illustration of the film’s worst flaw is perhaps the character of Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley. Knightley is a bit strained in the final sequence and not photographed to advantage there but she is lively, charming and natural in most of the film, and she is not the problem; indeed, few could have done as well with the role. The problem is that the role as written and filmed is not a person but a function. She’s there to demonstrate sexism in British society through custom and convention (her parents initially won’t allow her to work at Bletchley because it wouldn’t be ‘decorous’ and then they call her home because she’s twenty-five and single) and structure (she’s not initially allowed to sit for the recruiting test because she’s a woman).

Clarke is made to be almost as intelligent as Turing but better socialized; the function of the character is also to act in relation to and in contrast with Turing. Thus, although the film is at pains to depict the sexism Clarke suffers from, by the end she finds love and gets a husband whilst continuing with her career, her definition of having it all, whilst he who has helped save 14 million lives is arrested, castrated and driven to suicide for being homosexual. Clarke is an argument on oppression and a figure through which to convey its various hierarchies in the middle of the last century. She’s not a person. That she vaguely comes across as one is due to what Knightley as star and actor brings to the role: an elegant, glamorous, vivacity shot through with intelligence that somehow seems not too far removed from what might be deemed real but much more glamorous..

The film does offer many pleasures: an excellent Charles Dance as commanding obstruction to Turing’s project; Mark Strong brings a twinge of the nocturnal — heartlessness with a potential for cruelty — and considerable strength to his role — he makes the character of Stewart Menzies seems an embodiment of state-sanctioned deception; connoisseurs might also appreciate the sight of Steve Waddington, previously Jarman’s Edward II, the king who sacrificed his throne for the man he loved, here cast as the gruff Manchester copper who seals Turing’s doom. Aside from the performances, there’s nothing exceptional about the film but it’s adequately directed; it looks good and moves well. However, the greatest achievement of The Imitation Game is that it succeeds in making audiences cry for Turing, and by implication for all those treated equally unjustly half a century ago.

It’s not too long ago that I felt contemporary cinema had giving up on making audiences cry, thus abdicating one of the greatest functions of cinema and denying audiences one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, this is precisely what some of the most memorable and important films of the year have succeeded in doing: 12 Years a Slave and Interstellar are but two and divergent types of ‘weepies’. Moreover, seeing The Imitation Game made me realise that British Cinema has been markedly successful in eliciting tears: Philomena, Pride and now The Imitation Game, three of the biggest hits of the year, have all aimed for tears (as well as laughter) and audiences have responded as if those tears were on tap and ready to flow subject to a tactful prompt.

At heart these recent British films make us cry because they’re melodramas that dramatise the gap between individual desires and proscribed ways of being, that looks at the past and measures the gap between what was and what is just. They structure their stories around differentials in knowledge not just between characters in the story, such as the difference between what the headmaster knows about Turing and his friend Christopher and what we know, but also differences in knowledge between what the characters think and accept of certain issues such as homosexuality and what we, the audience, think and accept now. These films are important not only because they make us cry or because they make us cry about these characters but because they also make us cry at injustice.

Although Philomena, Pride and The Imitation Game, put homosexual identity at desire at the core of the narrative, they’re not gay films per se, they’re not predominantly addressed to a gay audience. They draw on a wide and accessible frame of reference that most anyone can understand. They’re part of the stories a culture tells itself about what it was, what it is, what it should be. And in telling these stories in these ways, in making ‘us’ cry about the injustices ‘we’ did to ‘them’, they re-insert gay men and women into the national narrative, they mark a move from ‘them’ to ‘us’. Homosexuality is thus re-imagined, inserted and made central to a cultural and national identity, shifted from a type of otherness and through tears re-inscribed into a national ‘we’. It is not anything I could once have imagined in my lifetime and quite something to experience.

José Arroyo

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, USA, 2014)

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magic

Magic in the Moonlight is very pretty, has a serious theme, gorgeous music and a very good cast headed by Colin Firth as Stanley, who under the professional name of Wei Ling Soo performs illusions that other people take as ‘magic’. Under his own name however, Stanley is a professional debunker of all that is not reason and science, and he can get quite stroppy about it. When George (Simon McBurney), a friend and fellow illusionist, asks him to use his knowledge to attempt to discredit a spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to have visions and talk to the dead but might just be swindling rich people, he doesn’t hesitate. Needless to say, he ends up falling in love with her.

The film is structured around an argument that has as a central matrix juxtapositions between reality versus illusion, magic versus science, reason versus feeling, the evidence of things not seen versus the simple sleight of hand. These are intertwined themes that unfold wittily if predictably during the course of the narrative. Magic also has an Agatha Christie-ish nostalgic feel to it that is quite pleasant, some laughs and more heart than Allen usually offers. But too many elements are not ‘quite’ right –think of what Preston Sturges might have made of the ukulele-playing boyfriend say — and it’s all a bit slapdash, a bit dull but not without its pleasures.

Firth is rather marvellous. He gets a great entrance as Wei Ling Soo (though the sensitive might find this a bit too close to blackface for comfort) and is then able to run the gamut of emotion in a very juicy role. He’s perhaps too restrained, not stylized enough for the period, tempo and mood that the film sets. And one can certainly argue that he doesn’t get as many laughs as he should. But his frustration, his discovery and the mixed emotions of his avowal at the end are a little triumph of acting skill and a pleasure to watch.

There are also lovely actresses doing fine work here: Eileen Atkins, Marci Gay Harding, and I particularly loved Jacki Weaver, as the rich dowager who finds happiness talking to her departed husband on the other side, her widening eyes, high creaky voice and an expression that starts as hesitant and ends as almost smug as she finds the confirmation of his love and fidelity that she seeks, a sheer joy to behold . I also loved how, in spite of Allen’s penchant for anhedonia, it seems the only happy characters are the ones with blind faith, as if in Allen’s terms, the intelligent are cursed to be unhappy. Firth, however intelligent his belief in reason, finally gives in to the idea that there might be things that are unseen and irrational that nonetheless are intensely felt and real. As an added bonus, Ute Lemper appears singing in a cabaret scene, although sadly all too briefly, like the film doesn’t quite know what she has to offer or how best to make use of it. Actors need to fend for themselves in Allen’s films and most do so deliciously here.

This is by no means top-notch Allen. But even journeyman Allen is interesting to me. He’s one of the few director of his generation who continuously plays with form, with different ways of telling stories without making a big fuss about it: Greek Choruses, different narrators, a story told by two different people in the same film; and most of his films have at least four or five good jokes. This is no exciting experiment but it does offer a few gentle laughs, actors who are allowed to thrill us with the type of magic only they can offer, beautiful scenery and gorgeous thirties music. It doesn’t knock your socks off but it does while away 90 minutes or so very pleasantly indeed.

José Arroyo

Ten Writers that Marked My Life

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A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:

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1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.

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  1. Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.

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  1. James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.

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  1. Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.

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  1. Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou  have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.

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  1. Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.

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  1. Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.

i lost it at the movies

  1. Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers  on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.

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  1. Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.

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  1. David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish  Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.

There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection, The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others;  I even read Jean Plaidy.

In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels.  Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me  though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.

There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,

 

José Arroyo