A favourite moment from Double Indemnity

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There are innumerable reasons to value Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944): it’s not only one of the great works of cinema but possibly the ur-text of what started off as a cycle of films and eventually became a genre: film noir. It’s got dialogue that still snaps, a structure so tight nothing’s extraneous, lighting so expressive it’s led critics like Richard Schickel to see the film as, ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows’. I love the actors, the badinage between Edward G. Robinson and Fred Macmurray, the tough-guy voiceover, the way the film evokes a combination of cool cynicism and overheated desire. Its influence continues to be felt. As we can see in the cabezudos scene in Almodóvar’s La mala educación/Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004), Double Indemnity’s images are instantly recognisable, regularly re-deployed, still very evident in the culture and still wielding power (see clip below).

My own favourite moment (see clip at the very top)  is a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck in the scene where Phyllis (Stanwyck) is driving her husband to the station whilst Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is hiding in the back seat waiting to off him. Her husband’s been haranguing her, ‘why do you turn here!’ She honks the horn. ‘What are you doing that for!’ Then, as if to answer him, the camera cuts to Walter crouched in the back and rising for the kill. The film then cuts back to a close-up of Stanwyck. ‘Why are you honking the horn!’ as we hear a thud. The camera remains on her face as her husband gets killed and it’s this moment that remains indelible to me.

What do we see on Stanwyck’s face? She bounces with apprehension at the blow that kills her husband, mouth a little open. Then, as lights ricochet past her face, what does Stanwyck convey about Phyllis’ thinking and feeling in that last close-up before the scene dissolves? Disquiet, a hardness, efficiency, a vengeful ‘he only got what he deserved’ look, the slightest glimmer of a smile; could it be glee? And could it be sexual? One feels it’s so without knowing quite why. It’s in that evocation of the precise and the evanescent, the material and that which reverberates just out of reach – it has so many associations it can’t quite be pinned down – that Stanwyck’s great artistry makes itself manifest. It’s a glorious moment, one of many, and part of the reason why, to quote Woody Allen, Double Indemnity is ‘Billy Wilder’s greatest film, practically anybody’s greatest film’.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

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Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock.

Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan,  J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.

He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..

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It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.

I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.

the naked spur

I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).

There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.

So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.

Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.

Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.

What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.

Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.

ryan bobby soxerI finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.

Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.

 

José Arroyo

Orry-Kelly, ‘Women I’ve Undressed’

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Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944;  lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.

Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’

 

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Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).

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Nicole Kidman in Australia

Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.

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Louche life in Sidney

The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.

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Texas Guinan offers Mae West support during her obscenity trial

I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.

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Archie Leach, before he was Cary Grant and whilst he was living with Orry

It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.

 

José Arroyo

 

Garland’s Acting in Meet Me in St. Louis

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Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944) again yesterday brought to mind a half-remembered anecdote from some long-forgotten biography where, in the mid forties, L.B. Mayer fired a writer in a fit of pique for giving the wrong answer to the question: ‘who are the greatest actors on the MGM lot’? ‘Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland’ seemed to Mayer a wiseass answer when Greer Garson was the reigning queen of the lot. But who wouldn’t side with the writer now? By then, Garson was doing ‘great lady parts’ in a way so ripe for satire that Garland did just that in the ‘The Great Lady Has an Interview/aka Madame Crematon’ sequence of Ziegfield Follies (various directors but Minnelli is credited with this Garland sequence, USA, 1945). Garbo was long gone; Katharine Hepburn was on the lot but the only good material she got was the material she brought to the she studio earlier (The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Woman of the Year in 1942) and later (Adam’s Rib in 1949, Pat and Mike in 1951); the mid-forties is one of the low-points in Hepburn’s career: Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bouquet and Jack Conway, 1944), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946),  The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947), Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), etc.

 

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‘If she only knew what we had in store for *her*!’

What tends to be regarded as great acting is often extremes of emotion in extreme situations (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot [Jim Sheridan, UK, 1989); Charleze Therzon as Aileen Wuornos in Monster [Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003]) and more subtle, more complex, more humane, mundane but no less affecting realms of emotion – the kind Garland so beautifully depicts — are often ignored. But look at what she’s able to accomplish in a few shots of the Christmas Ball sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis extracted above.

Esther Smith (Garland) and her sister Rose (Lucille Bremmer) have planned an evil tease on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) because their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) had planned to attend the ball with her but she instead came with the boy Rose had set her eyes on, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully). As revenge, they’ve filled her dance-card with the least desirable men at the ball. But it turns out that Lucille really wants to be with Lon and Warren Sheffield wants to be with Rose. The plans have been changed, Esther is left holding the bag, her grandfather discovers what they’ve been up to, and Esther chooses to take over Lucille’s dance-card and suffer the punishment they’d planned for her so as not to impede the other couplings and so that the social niceties may be maintained. Their last Christmas in St. Louis, planned as a triumph has derailed into self-sacrificial torture.

 

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Trying to deflect the situation

Ignore if you can Minnelli’s gorgeous and complex mise-en-scene, the compositions, the way the couples are paired off or enter the frame (though I have in the past written here, and on this film in particular, as to why you shouldn’t); ignore if you can how purposefully and beautifully staged it all is. But let’s not bypass every element. When evaluating acting, the long take is a consideration. Not all actors can do them and it has become a test of a film actor’s skill. George Cukor famously observed that whilst Joan Crawford could act any emotion, she was incapable of showing transitions from one to another; she could only do one at a time; but then her whole face would scrunch up like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when transitioning. Thus there always had to be a cut between one emotion and another. She couldn’t do it in long take. But see what Garland does here.

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She accepts her punishment

We first see her enthusiastic entrance into the group, kind of gleeful at the plans afoot, ‘I’ve been very anxious to meet you’. Then there’s a cut to the three girls where she explains that they’ve taken the liberty of filling out her dance card. Note the look Esther gives her sister and note the laugh Garland achieves in that look as if indicating ‘Ha, she doesn’t know what’s in store!’ Then note the change in Garland’s expression, all within the same take, as Lucille responds with extraordinary kindness, offering to give them a party when they arrive in New York. Garland’s face is transparent, first we see a hint of guilt, her mouth opens, she’s bewildered. Her sister nudges her, ‘The plans have been changed’. Then the couples pair off, leave the shot, Garland still slack-jawed with bewilderment and then her grandfather enters the shot. She’s been caught, she hides the dance-card, attempts to laugh away the situation and flee. Then look at her expression as her grandfather reads out the names. ‘Clinton Badger’? She nods, it’s brutal and she’s been caught. She doesn’t respond to the next one, it’s unbearable. Then see what she does with her face when Sidney Gorsey’s mentioned. We see shame, embarrassment, the sense she now deserves everything that’s coming to her.

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Great physical gags in the dance sequences

 

Garland is extraordinarily transparent through a range of emotions, often conflicting or contradictory, and often played for laughs, she seems to pluck them out of thin air and achieve effects few actors are capable of. It’s quite remarkeable in quite a low key way. Then in the next shot, when Lucille goes to get her dance card and Garland says she’s made a mistake, note her reading of the line ‘This is mine’. She’s achieving laughs facially, vocally, and in the series of dances that follow she proves herself a superb physical comedienne; all whilst simultaneously evoking a range of feeling, sometimes complex and contradictory, that is emotionally recognisable as truthful.

It’s great acting.

 

José Arroyo

 

Douglas Fairbanks: The First King of Hollywood

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Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016) is such a marvellous book; superbly researched, including exclusive access to Mary Pickford’s letters, full of new information and elegantly written. The reasons to be interested in Fairbanks are innumerable: an icon of his age, founder of United Artist, a man who helped shape our understanding of entire genres (swashbuckler), still potent archetypes (Zorro, Robin Hood, ‘The Gaucho’, D’Artagnan) and mythos (The Thief of Baghdad). His influence is everywhere still: his Zorro is what inspired Bob Kane’s Batman, particularly the Bruce Wayne/ Batman dual identity. In fact he was one of the main shapers of what we’ve come to understand as Hollywood.

I wish I had more time to write more extensively on the book and the actor. But since I don’t, I’d like to point you to Thomas Gladysz excellent ‘Best Film Books of 2015′, which is how I came across the book, assert its many virtues and offer you an idea.The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks extensively documents how from the moment Fairbanks moved to the Triangle Picture company in 1916, where he started his first independent production even before he officially formed his own production company, Fairbanks had enormous control over what projects he starred in and how they were shaped. This is true from beginning with In Again, Out Again (d: by John Emerson, scripted by Emerson and Anita Loos, USA, 1917) right to his founding of United Artist along with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin in 1919.

Once he started at UA, he was not only financing his films but helping to shape their every aspect, from the narrative of The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, USA, 1920), camera placement and stunts in The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, USA, 1921) the cutting and distribution of all of his works throughout the 1920s, and even the look of the two-strip Technicolor used in The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, USA, 1926). He was clearly as much the author of his films as anyone; and as the one with final say, much more so than any director. The book doesn’t quite make the argument of star as auteur in silent cinema but it is there implicitly, at least as regards Fairbanks. The book also implicitly makes the case that this would be true of Mary Pickford and by implication anyone else who had a similar kind of control and final say over their pictures. Perhaps silent cinema is awash with female authorship that we have yet to discover or render explicit. It’s a thought.

 

José Arroyo

The ‘I Love Dogs’ sequence from Jupiter Ascending

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‘You can be had,’ Mae West said to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong, which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty year, as he backed away – but not too far’ writes Pauline Kael in her great essay on the actor, ‘The Man From Dream City’.

Watching the moment in  Jupiter Ascending ((Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA, 2015; see clip above), where Mila Kunis is coming on to Channing Tatum only for him to back away — she’s royalty now; he’s half dog, oh but she loves dogs! —  made me think of Kael’s argument on Grant. Tatum is the male love object of the film and one of the leading sex symbols of the day. Since the Step Up musicals, it’s a rare film where his body hasn’t been prominently on display. It’s Jupiter’s/Kunis’ desire that Jupiter Ascending expresses . The narrative aligns the desire of the protagonist and that of the audience in that it presents Tatum as the object of desire — elegantly skating through space, often with his shirt off —  to both; furthermore it presents Kunis/Jupiter as a point of identification in the narrative and aligns the audience’s gaze with hers. Female expression of desire as depicted in Kunis’ lovely and witty performance and that alignment of the gaze of female star with that of the audience is still so rare in cinema , and rarer still in this particular type of cinema, as to invite commentary, and perhaps incite discomofort.

Writing on Grant and Redford, Kael argued that both were ‘sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic image is concentrated on (the male).’ Redford, for example, ‘has never been as radiantly glamorous as in The Way We Were, when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes.’ Yet a similar moment in Jupiter Ascending, that extracted in the clip above, whilst offering a moment of glee to me personally, doesn’t seem to work in quite the way similar moments worked with Redford or Grant. Clearly Tatum isn’t as debonair; he lacks the lightness; he’s too earnest. However, could it be more than that?

As star personas metamorphise over time, can there be some moments that come too late to work in a work, i.e. is it conceivable that the ‘I love dogs’ moment might have worked better had the film been released after Dear John (Lasse Hälstrom, USA, 2010) and The Vow (Michael Sucsy, USA, 2012)  or perhaps as late as Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012) but pre 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, USA, 2012) and Foxcatcher (Mark Schultz, USA, 2014)? After all, there was a point where one simply went to a movie with Tatum to look at that body in motion. When did it start to matter that he was ‘wet’; that there seemed a cloud of depression perpetually overhanging that pudgy face; that he comes across as not-too-bright (though considering the choices he’s made recently, he can’t be  as dumb as he looks); that he seemed to take everything too seriously; that he could be a serious bore; that whereas better romantic comedians like Grant are different with the heroines than they are with anyone else in the film, Tatum can only do ‘sad-serious-and-slow’, or at least until the use of his body brings a different kind of kick and energy to his performance? Was it perhaps that moment when critics began to talk of him seriously as an actor?

Or does that striking moment ‘not working’ simply characterise a film of brilliant ideas that seems also laughably silly pretty much throughout? And yet, I’ve now seen it twice…can it be that we’re not used to seeing sci-fi where the female star is the desiring subject, the active agent, the focus of the film’s drama? Or that we’re not seeing used to seeing sci-fi in such traditional melodramatic terms? Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a cleaning lady, a migrant born in the middle of nowhere who ends up becoming a queen with the whole of the earth as her personal playground. There’s a wedding interrupted at the last moment and love that has to skate through galaxies , class and ethnic barriers and many disasters before being consummated. There’s also Eddie Redmayne’s excessive, intriguing and camp performance which seems to belong to a different genre. There seem to be all kind of intriguing and brilliant clashes and displacements in the film. Maybe what Jupiter Ascending is providing so brilliantly is so far removed from audience expectation that the only response to that clash is uncomfortable laughter?

 

Just some thoughts,

 

José Arroyo

A Thought on Ben Whishaw

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Frobisher in Cloud Atlas

 

I’d put off seeing In The Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, USA, 2015) because the trailer looked dull, because I’ve never seen a fully satisfying film about man versus whales, because another attempt to demonstrate American ideals of human courage under fire, or under water or even against aliens from another dimension, all seem the same and all make one just want to curl up and die.

I’d loved Rush (Ron Howard, USA, 2013), the previous Howard/Hemsworth collaboration, but I suspected, rightly, that the undoubted excitement it incited might be a one-off: Howard is too nice — and perhaps has been too lucky — to draw out complexities and contradictions and dramatise them compellingly, e.g., In the Heart of the Sea tells us that the greed, barbarity and cost to people and the environment that drove the American whaling industry in the 19th Century is not that different than that which would later drive a different type of oil industry: oh, okey dokey.

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Q

What got me to the theatre on a cold winter’s day was seeing that Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw were also in the cast; and, really, it was the tantalising thought of Whishaw as Herman Melville that was the clincher. In the end, he was disappointing. The part is a thankless one; a mere narrative device through which to get Gleeson to narrate the story that would then form the basis of Moby Dick. Whishaw isn’t on for very long; he doesn’t have much to do; it’s a part that could have been played by many others and just as well. But what Whishaw offers that others might not is the potential for surprise. It could have been different, exciting, unexpected, delightful; it has been so many times in the past

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Lilting

 

 

Since 2011 and his marvellous introductory scene (see clip above) in The Hour (Abbi Morgan, UK, 2011) , where he looks straight at the camera and prophetically announces, ‘You haven’t seen my best yet’,  I’ve adored him as Frobisher – composer/prostitute/petty thief and unabashedly in love — in Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer/Andy Wachoski/ Lana Wachowski, USA et al, 2012) arguably the most romantic gay hero in all of contemporary cinema; as the too-geeky-to-be-a-hipster Q in the Bond films; as the loving gay man in Lilting (Hong Khaou, UK, 2014), who tries to maintain a relationship with the Chinese mother of his deceased partner despite cross-cultural barriers preventing the son from coming out to the mother; as the voice of Paddington (Hugh Bonneville/ Sally Hawkins, UK, 2014) — no one else could have brought the purity, the optimistic and loveable innocence he brought to his voicing of the iconic teddy bear; as the abusive husband in Suffragette Abi Morgan, UK, 2015); as the singleton who does manage to find a wife whilst not quite escaping the horror in The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK et al, 2015); as the understanding homosexual supporting Eddie Redmayne through his transformation from Einar to Lili in The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, UK, 2015); and of course there’s his work in London Spy (written by Tom Rob Smith, UK, 2015) as Danny, a sub-prole variant of his role in Cloud Atlas, this one with Jim Broadbent hopelessly in love with him rather than laughing in his face at his advances, as in Cloud Atlas.

 

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London Spy

 

Ben Whishaw may be the first out young star who, whilst playing a great variety of roles, nonetheless is building quite a repertoire of homosexual characters. It’s instructive to compare what he offers to, say, someone like Stanley Tucci, who in the last few years has also played a whole variety of roles, gay and straight, but seemingly specialising, at least since The Devil Wears Prada, in ones clearly coded as homosexual (The Hunger Games films, Burlesque, Gambit), and playing them all in one smug note as the sort of fey cultural deviant that raises a superior eyebrow at what everyone else is saying whilst criticising their dress sense for their own good. That’s the limit of how Tucci can imagine ‘gay’.

 

What Whishaw brings at this point, as his star personae unfolds and changes, is the imbuing of humanity to a category; his ‘gays’ could be a widower trying to connect over his loss with his ‘mother-in-law’, or sub-proles trying to fight the system over that which is just, or marginalised people trying to find a connection, or romantic heroes who cannot see life beyond art and love. ‘Gay’ is not what defines these characters when Wishaw plays them, as is so often the case when Tucci does (and ‘gay’ always means ‘camp’ and ‘supercilious’ for Tucci). Another interesting point about Whishaw is that other than when I saw him in Mojo onstage, he never seems to depict characters with any sexual threat (and his Baby in Mojo was a psychotic so…); they might be sexy but passively so, their minds are on love and sex always seems to be connected to some higher plane of feeling, even when the narratives hint that this was not always so in the past.

Anyway, a thought.

 

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, UK/Germany/USA, 2015)

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The Danish Girl

 

I finally got to see The Danish Girl  and was unexpectedly moved. My opinion of Tom Hooper hasn’t improved. There is a reason why his company’s called ‘Pretty Pictures’: he can make them pretty but he can’t mobilise that prettyness into meaningfulness. He’s obviously superb with actors and I think Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are believable and affecting; the former in a very risky part; also it feels like a kind of bourgeois filmmaking: all this delicate and thoughtful suffering in exquisite settings whilst thinking of art and higher things…and yet, on an emotional level, it still gets to you. It’s interesting.

There are complex themes around identity that revolve around sex, gender, but also artistic production. The need to express oneself is in this film as important as that of becoming one’s idea of who one wants to be in the face of harshly punitivie social prohibitions. The Danish Girl doesn’t necessarily present these ideas in a complex manner. For example, sometimes the film presents the question of sex as an essence struggling to overcome the boundaries of the wrong body that imprisons it; sometimes it shows gender in the very process of its construction as its costumed, painted and slipped on. Sometimes it confuses the various categories it seems to be dramatising. But what it might get muddled analytically it more than makes up for emotionally. The film gets us to understand and feel for ‘The Danish Girl’ and when he asks his wife ‘I don’t know what I’ve ever done to have earned such love’, I welled up. It’s a question often asked but this time we know the answer.

 

In The Danish Girl, there seems to be an overt contradiction between representing social transgression as a pathway to truth whilst deploying the most conservative aesthetics means to do so, which act as obfuscation, a kind of show-and-hide and perhaps an appeasement of potential audience reactions via gentle and extraneous pleasures. I at first thought Eddie Redmayne was too young to already seem so mannered. But then began reading the initial overdone gesture as a foreshadowing of the transformations to come and ended by thinking it a really marvellous performance. Vikander is just as good in a less showy part. Mathias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw appear intermittently to offer unstinting support and very considerable glamour.

 

José Arroyo

Mr. Six (Guan Hu, China, 2015)

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One of the pleasures of being in London for a few days is you come across films you’ve never heard of, have never seen publicised, take a punt, and come out entertained, moved, enriched; and this by a film you may not fully understand.

Mr. Six was such a film. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a popular film, a male melodrama, one not too different in basic thematics from Home from the Hill or Rebel Without a Cause. It’s about being a man, about how to be one, what it means to be one, the necessity of the striving to embody such ideals, and the inevitable failures such attempts entail. At the heart of it is a relationship between a father and a son; and that father and someone else’s son; a triangular relationship that cuts through class. And the context for it is a changing culture, one that worships money and consumer items, that has lost touch with a recent past, one where age-old conventions no longer apply and thus also about the generation gap that results from it: one where women are important but peripheral. At heart Mr. Six is a critique of the new political/moneyed/ business class in China; it’s a film that asks audiences to feel for, cry over, and accept cultural change.

The basic story is about an aging gang leader, Mr. Six (Fen Xiaogang), old now and done his time in jail but still respected in his community for achieving justice for his neighbours, a man who finds that negotiation can be can be just as effective as brute strength in resolving most problems. He hasn’t heard from his son Bobby (Li Yifeng) for a while, searches for him, and discovers that he’s got himself embroiled in gang dispute that involves a girl, a Ferrari, and a jealous boyfriend called Kris (Kris Wu), who happens to be both a spoiled rich brat and also the scion of a family of gangsters. As he tries to rescue his son, he gets into muddier and muddier waters at a higher and higher level.

 

As is traditional in the genre, the film is highly symbolic. There’s an imprisoned ostrich that makes a last bid for freedom through the crowded streets of Beijing. There’s a caged bird that can parrot only one phrase. There’s beautiful imagery of icy rivers that can be skated over or fought on but which can support or break. Snow, real snow, falls over the characters as they run to and away from hospitals and treatments that they don’t understand. Food and drink offer a setting over which men remember, brag about and regret their past. The film works ritualistically also, as classic Hollywood did, with events – the seeking of direction, the lighting of a cigarette – repeated in different contexts in a way that affects plot, meaning, tome. Mr. Six offers an imaginary reconciliation of real contradictions in which the troubles between neighbours is no different than the trouble in the country, the bond amongst friends are the same as those which tie a community together; the struggles between the generations, ones that can be overcome.

 

There are certain things that linger in the mind: the extraordinary calmness of Fen Xiagang’s central performance as Mr. Six — the actor, who I understand is primarily known as one of China’s most financially successful directors, seems to convey a zen calmness to other characters whilst letting the audience see how quickly he can spring into action; There is gorgeous cinematography by Luo Pan that shows fog and snow and things that are not quite clear in a clearly considered way; one of the themes seems to be that the world is full of people struggling with existential problems that cannot be treated like a reality show, that we as audiences and as people need to cultivate empathy and respect; that Guan Hu is director who’s not afraid to let his camera linger, a director to look out for.

 

The film has no surprises other than the style of its telling. It’s amazing how the re-enactment of clichéd structures can wield such force, can be so moving, when directed as confidently and sensitively as this director does. It’s a superb example of great popular filmmaking. The audience, almost entirely Chinese, laughed at things I didn’t understand but, like myself, stayed until the credits ended, as if not wanting to let go of the world they’d been immersed in, one with such similar problems, but one that offered much more honourable and satisfying resolutions. It’s a film to look out for.

 

José Arroyo

 

The Frobisher Sequences in Cloud Atlas

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Before I saw Sense8, I thought the sequence at the end of Cloud Atlas to be amongst the most romantic representations of gay romance I’d ever seen. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), composer/prostitute/petty-thief,  is enjoying his last day of life amidst the rooftops of Cambridge when he sees Rufus Sixmith (James D’Arcy) —  the love of his life — and finds meaning in the beauty of the sunset, the rake of a hat, the sight of his love. It so moved me then and moves me still. In order to try to make sense of why this is so, I re-edited all the Frobisher sequences in the movie together in chronological order, an interesting and illuminating process.

The Frobisher sequences strung together in chronological order are  almost like a mini-movie. Certain elements are drawn out more clearly by extracting them in this fashion: the melodrama, the clichéd tropes of art and its creation, the formal questions raised by making the scene that ends the Frobisher episode the scene that precedes the title sequence of the film, the connection in gay culture between art/sex/love/death, the idea of true love that crosses time and even re-incarnation; it’s what culture, particularly in its Barbara Cartland variant, tells us love should be; it’s what we want it to be but know it’s not; it’s what female audiences wanted it to be when they saw Bette Davis films in the Forties; it might be a false want but one which gay men have historically been denied. It’s a want I wanted to be presented with, one which gay men of my generation have to now been deprived one and one which Cloud Atlas so beautifully provides.

Very few of you will want to spend the 22 minutes necessary to see the rough re-cut presented above so I have provided merely the rooftop sequence and its aftermath below for those of you with less time or inclination though there is one edit I made to remove material not related to Frobisher and Sixpence . The reason for doing the re-cut was sparked by my understanding that what I felt when watching the roof-top sequence was the result of accumulating plot, characterisation, incident, mise-en-scène, a series of ideas; when I was trying to show friends the sequence I realised that the sequence itself, on its own, pretty as it is, did not quite incur the desired effect…but it hints at it and is better than nothing.

I think Cloud Atlas a flawed or even hackneyed masterpiece. It’s too melodramatic,some of the performances are really dreadful (Tom Hanks’ stands out), it feels unwieldly; and yet, few films are as ambitious and few films offer as much. It’s not only that one could do a re-cut of each of the characters such as the one above, but that the cross-cutting between one character to another, past and present, and so on, in itself create connections and meanings (which I have lost in doing the re-cut). This is just one little example, a brief one, and in my view completely great.

 

José Arroyo

A Thought on Vincente Minnelli

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Re-watching An American in Paris on TV now makes me wonder if Vincente Minnelli was the most popular of 1950s directors; the Steven Spielberg of his day? I note from wiki that Father of the Bride was the no. 5 box office hit of 1950, An American in Paris was no. 5 in ‘51, The Bad and the Beautiful was no. 2 in ‘52, The Long Long Trailer, 13th in 1954, Gigi no 5 and Some Came Running at 9 both in 58, then Designing Women, Tea and Sympathy, The Cobweb, The Bandwagon, Father’s Little Dividend and many more were also considerable hits that decade. Even if wiki is not entirely reliable, it’s a thought.

 

José Arroy

On Episode 5 of ‘Sense8: Art is Like Religion’

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A woman looks at a man’s penis and faints. That would be a glib way of describing what is undoubtedly my moment of the year in long-form television. But it’s so much more than that. It seems to contravene and subvert all that we’ve been told could be shown in popular audio-visual media. It is a man who is the subject of the three looks Laura Mulvey describes in her famous ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The parts of his body are not fetishized – the penis does not function as a phallus but as a penis and as a reminder of sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the woman looking — the male’s sexuality is not displaced but put at the forefront, the male can be the subject as well as the bearer of the look; though, as he does here, he might faint as it happens.

That moment in the fifth episode of Sense8, ‘Art is Like Religion’, seems to me to be both revolutionary and typical in a way that indicates a paradigm shift: after all the space-time continuum did not unravel, no coronaries were reported, it caused no more of a stir online than the usual lustful longings expressed in social media in relation to whatever semi-clothed pin-ups happen to be the flavour of the month . Male nudity on TV has become so commonplace that a headline of an article in Vulture by Maria Elena Fernandez tries to answer the question: ‘Why Full-Frontal Male Nudity was all over TV in 2015’.

As you can see in the clip above, the woman, Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae), is beautiful and fully clothed (and in India); the man, Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt), is naked, powerful, handsome (and in Berlin). They are, along with others, psychically connected. More than that, there’s clearly a sexual frisson between them. What interests me here though is that the whole scene is inflected with melodrama. She is about to get married to man who’s rich but whom she doesn’t love. Her parents have been very happy in their marriage, which was arranged, and see this as a love match. Traditionally, when a minister asks the congregation whether there is any lawful impediment to the wedding taking place; the accent has been on the law (i.e that one of them is previously married or contracted, that they are not who they say etc.), a lack of love has not in itself been seen as an impediment; sentiment has been secondary.

But here, as in all moments of high melodrama, what’s at stake is desire and the social structures that prohibit its fulfilment. As she takes the final of seven circles with her husband-to-be that will finalise the Hindu wedding, the sight of Wolfgang’s penis, disturbing as it is for her, is troubling not only because even in its fragile state it hints at a rollicking good time in bed but because it’s a reminder of her lack. But her lack here is presented not as a penis or as a phallus but as a life without love. And I think it’s that combination of melodrama – the wedding is stopped, she falls, the whole of her community rises up at the ceremony in shock and bewilderment at what’s happening—and a sly camp timing – the rhythm with which her eyes gaze down and the timing of the sudden cut to her fainting – that undercut whatever might have shocked: it’s moving, and funny; and making it so means that it’s not about cock, or mere fucking, or even the phallus as symbol of patriarchal power – it renders it about love and it’s lack; of a connection so strong that he also faints at the thought.

 

But let’s look at that again with a bit more context as to what precedes it. You can see that the scene as I’ve selected it above begins with Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae) entering the wedding ceremony with that nice husband-to-be of hers that she doesn’t love. The scene keeps intercutting between her face and the body of Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt) and seems to cut first onto his body and then making sure that he doesn’t remain just a body by recurrently following that with shots of his face. She’s pictured surrounded by structures, strictures, traditions, all that community represents; all the powers society has to forbid, repress, deny, and damp-down individual desire. He’s alone, naked, swimming, possibly thinking of her.

Wedding vows express a yearning for how things should be. I often find them very moving. Certainly the Hindu ‘Seven Steps’ that Kala here exchanges with her husband-to-be are very much so: ‘ I take the first of seven steps that we may cherish each other..’ but then the camera cuts to Wolfgang instead of her husband. She continues ‘and promise that we will grow old together in mental and spiritual strength’ and again the camera cuts to Wofgang. She’s clearly vowing to the wrong person. Yet what the words express are important not just to Kala but to what the show is trying to express.

That Sense8 is trying to express a more complex, more inclusive, and more nuanced view of love is made clear as Kala walks the sixth of her seven steps with her husband-to-be. As her husband to be vows :’ I take the six of seven steps with you my wife-to-be, a promise of everlasting companionship…’ the camera cuts to a happy and loving gay couple sharing that companionship with a woman; on the line of ‘we shall share love, share the same tastes’ the camera cuts to a young man and a young woman, happy to be with each other; on the line ‘share the same food’ we get to see a middle-aged woman in Africa cooking for for her grown-up son and each sharing the joy in the other and in the food; on the line of ‘sign a vow, sign a statement’ the camera cuts to Korea and we see a woman giving up her liberty and the dog she loves out of duty to her father; on the line of ‘let us make a vow and share our strength’, the camera cuts to a transgender woman and her lesbian girlfriend entering their apartment which has just been ransacked; on the line, ‘we shall be of one mind’ we cut to Wofgang again; and again the camera first shows us his body then his face. The physical a part of the personal, the body AND the mind. This is the prelude to Kala fainting at the sight of Wolfgang’s cock.

The penis, the desire for it, what it might signify to someone in terms of carnal pleasure or indeed as part of love, is put in the context of a much deeper and wider understanding of what love is; one that encompasses food and pets; mothers and fathers; heterosexual, homosexual, trans; duty and feeling; the stomach and the heart as well as sexual organs; and indeed a much wider one, because all of these characters we are shown are connected, in ways that that the Series will continue to reveal.

Sense 8 is an extraordinary series, doing things I had not yet seen before — things that still feel transgressive in cinema — and with feeling and humour. It’s melodrama, it’s a little bit camp, it’s very sexy. But there’s a depth of ideas being dramatised here that is worth watching and thinking about. It’s an extraordinary sequence in an extraordinary series.

 

José Arroyo

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2015)

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I found Bridge of Spies masterfully well-made, with an interesting look — lots of high contrast greys filmed with fish-eyed lenses — a very good central performance from Tom Hanks and a great one from Mark Rylance. It was also good to see all the wonderful German actors one recognises from Sense8 (Maximilian Mauff) and Homeland (Sebastian Koch) in supporting roles.

The film is based on a true story set at the height of the Cold War in which James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American lawyer, puts himself forward to defend the rights of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and in doing so is then able to facilitate an exchange not only for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a captured American U2 spy plane pilot, but also for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student arrested in East Berlin.

It looks like an expensive film, with dozens of extras and intricate sets, an achievement considering its reported $40 million budget. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin, with its detailed view of the extent of its destruction and at that very  moment the divisive wall is going up, is particularly magnificent. However, the film also feels curiously old-fashioned and slightly smug.

The film is a guilty and anxious attempt to show America how to behave morally and well today by dramatising an incident of decency and humanity from its past achieved against the tide of public and institutional opinion. I thought of it in relation to Lincoln and I’m sure future scholars will group them as films of his maturity exploring similar concerns… and oh so responsibly. If you can ignore the preachy-ness of it’s tone, it’s enjoyable.

I had to force myself to see Bridge of Spies. How could one miss a film written by the Cohens and directed by Spielberg? And I’m glad I did. But it was a struggle. And in the light of that struggle and on the evidence not only of this film but of so many dull, worthy and well-made ones over the last decade or more (War Horse anyone?), one can’t help but ask ‘When did Spielberg cease to matter’

 

José Arroyo

 

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Jean Genet, The Studio of Giacometti, London: Grey Tiger Books, 2013.

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Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately,  a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:

 

‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.

 

The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.

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Giacometti with Genet

José Arroyo

The Dark Angel (Sidney Franklin, USA, 1935)

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An obvious attempt to cash in on the enormous success of Smilin Thru (Sidney Franlin, USA, 1932) with Fredric March reprising a variant of the same role, the self-sacrificing ex-soldier, here called Alan Trent, who blinded in the service of his country, pretends to reject his true love, Kitty Vane (Merle Oberon), so that she need not sacrifice her life in his care, but to no avail. Thus proving that love is true, eternal, invariable, just like yours isn’t but would ideally like it to be. It’s hokey beyond belief but still works.

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A triangle of semi-siblings

Herbert Marshall plays Gerald Shannon, the son of the family March is adopted into as a child, and is a bit stiff in the role of potential last-resort husband and not-quite-romantic rival: his idea of expressing anger is to clench his hands and stiffens his arms, like an amateur who feels but hasn’t yet learned how to convey so all that is communicated is the tension of the exercise. It doesn’t help that Gerald is idealized both as a brother and as the acme of impossible moral standards. I do, however, love the timbre of his voice.

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Being looked at and photographed in this way in The Dark Angel is what helped make Merle Oberon a star in the US

Oberon is beautiful and can’t act but that didn’t seem to have mattered much as this film was a hit and is what made her a star in the US. Greg Toland’s cinematography is very beautiful and inventive: the scene where Alan and Kitty drive off after they fail to get married, and the superimposition of them in the back of the car with soldiers under fire as one scene transitions to another, is visually stunning, expressive and affecting. Narratively, it tugs at the heartstrings because it was important to them to be married before he set off to war; they then decide to have their ‘wedding night’ in spite of not being married, and war intercedes there too, though not before Alan is seen to be entertaining a woman. His protecting Kitty’s reputation whilst on the surface seeming to be betraying her is part of the way the film differentiates between what the audience know, what the characters understand, and how such misunderstandings are part of the injustices that make the protagonists suffer.  Misunderstandings, unconsummated desires, mutual self-sacrifice for a nobler purpose, the punitiveness of socially proscribed modes of behaviour; all the forms and thematics of melodrama are on display, cynically deployed and very effective.

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Lighting draws attention to March’s lips

Fredric March is superb. It is totally his film, though he is always better when angry or troubled: his eyebrows furrow and he seems to conjure a cloud over his head, quite striking to see. Toland has to flash a small light at his lower lip to make him seem sexy and his ‘light’ scenes are not as effective. However, the quiet scene of self-abnegation at the end is superb and wouldn’t work without that which March brings to it: an ability to communicate different things to Kitty and to the audience and make those differences simultaneously understandable; it’s one of the ways the film creates pathos.

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The Dark Angel does work. The question really is why? This is hokey, trite, a re-tread – and it was so even in 1935. The Dark Angel is all stiff upper lips and repressed emotion while Smiling Through is all angsty sobbing. The hokum is more effective in the earlier film and Norma Shearer is more interesting to look at and offers a lot more than Merle Oberon, despite the latter being more conventionally beautiful. Intriguingly the later film is very positive about disability; alarmingly, the scenes of young Merle warming her back and her front at the fireplace felt a bit kiddie porn though clearly meant to be cute.

 

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Do we now read too much into scenes like this?

It’s extraordinary to think that this very similar story, with the same director and leading man was made only three years after the original smash hit and proved almost as effective and almost as successful. Not quite a sequel, not quite a remake, not quite a reboot but somewhere there in the mix. Nothing is ever really new. However, the film was able to offer audiences the pleasures remembered from Smilin Through and cash registers throughout the nation rang with joy at the audience’s tears.

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José Arroyo

 

 

 

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/ UK, 2012)

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Two fans set out in search for the mysterious Rodriguez, American pop icon of a generation in South Africa but practically unknown in the US. Who is he and what happened to him? Searching for Sugar Man is a movie to moisten the eye of every cynic; if you’re a musician, involved with a musician, or merely bonking one occasionally, you’ll find this film particularly compelling. In a quiet way, it also articulates issues of class and race in America that more mainstream fare flees from. A superb documentary.

 

José Arroyo

Marlene Dietrich: Twilight of an Angel (Dominique Leeb, France, 20013)

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Marlene Dietrich: It’s her legs that made her fortune; her face that became an indelible and iconic image of cinema, of glamour and even of modernity; but it is in her voice we find the full range of her personality. The Twilight of an Angel offers fascinating insights into  how Dietrich lived in her last years, how bullying and needy and vulnerable and romantic she was. How she dared to be herself, still.

The film — more a one hour documentary made for television — contains interviews with the sharp-voiced and certain Maria Riva, Marlene’s much-loved daughter, as well as rare and revealing sound footage of Dietrich speaking to her butler or assistant — seemingly a lovely gay man — who evidently took care of her in her last days. Twilight of an Angel ends emotionally with her funeral in Berlin. The last song, ‘I’m Leaving a Suitcase in Berlin/ Einen Koffer in Berlin,’ is just beautiful.

 

José Arroyo

A Thought on Gilda (Charles Vidor, USA, 1946)

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Seeing it once more for the umpteenth time, I thought Rita Hayworth more glamorous and beautiful than ever. She’s this glossy, luscious, rhythmic, sexually aware and knowing presence, with hair that has a life of its own and is as sexually enticing as any other part of her. Gilda is a totally glamorous film and in its own way very democratic in all its impulses. I love the uncle Pio character played by Steven Geray in that his ‘peasant’ insults illustrate that democratizing aspect of Rita’s character – she always treats him as an equal in spite of being a gal on the make — versus Glenn Ford’s – the more vulgar whore– only to redeem him later. Johnny Farrell learns how to be loved by Gilda as he learns to respect Uncle Pio.

I remember a friend many years ago raising an eyebrow when I told him how much I loved Gilda. It’s been in my life now in one way or another for thirty years. And I still love it. But I now more fully understand why he thought it not a good film: The characters don’t resemble any real people, the plot is ludicrous, the ending unbelievable and pat, a lot of extraneous characters that don’t feel necessary and that not enough is made of. Nothing in it is for one moment believable. It’s all hokum. By one set of criteria, it’s a bad film.

However, if a film inevitably ends up being a collection of moments in one’s memory, this is full of treasured ones: the highly symbolized and highly sexual initial meeting between Johnny and Ballen (George Macready); Gilda’s strip-tease; the introduction of Rita (‘decent, me?’); the moment where Ballin threatens her as she’s lying in bed (the shift in focus and light); the moment after she drinks to damn the woman who ruined Johnny’s life; the moment where Glenn brings her back from the pool and Mundson becomes graphically two-dimensional; the party sequence with the s/m gear. There are brilliant dialogue bits as well (more women in the world than anything else, except insects?) It’s a good illustration of the difference between a landmark film and a great film, between a sociological phenomenon and a work of art, between a cultural memory and the repository of cultural values.

…And yet, films that might not have a direct referent to the world that we live in but that nonetheless tap as deeply and directly into a collective dream world of fantasy and longing as Gilda – a world we might very much wish to live and participate in — are so rare as to constitute their own, very particular, art form. Maybe, as the tagline goes, ‘there never was a woman like Gilda’ but the film sure succeeds in making us wish there were.

 

José Arroyo

Down to the Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2004)

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down to the bone

A working class working mom with a drug habit struggles to keep her life afloat. One begins to see themes emerge in Granik’s work: a mourning for what America’s become: all those dollar stores, people in work but in dead-end jobs and living below the poverty line; drugs or alcohol as the only but dangerous release from a life of grind; female protagonists; female solidarity within a heterosexual, small-town or rural setting. Here a big deal is made of getting into the city, etc. Granik demonstrates tremendous empathy for the people she depicts and is wonderful with actors. She’s a poet too: what is the snake here? Is it a symbol for the need to get high like the smoke of a crack pipe, or something more akin Cocteau’s opium dreams? Vera Fermiga is a standout in the central role of Irene Morrison: I’ve never seen her better. Down to the Bone succeeds in invoking a feeling that you are seeing real places with real people, and that they somehow manage to plow on nobly in very ignoble circumstances.

 

José Arroyo

Ballroom Dancer (Christian Holten Bonke and Andreas Koefoed, Denmark, 2011)

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Viacheslav ‘Slavik’ Kryklyvyy and Joanna Leunis once won the World Championships in ballroom dancing in the ‘Latin American’ category. But that was ten years ago. Their partnership’s since broken up; he subsequently retired; she’s continued garnering ballroom glory. As the film begins, Slavik announces a comeback with his new on and off-stage partner, Anna Melnikova. Slavik is sof-spoken and very charismatic, very focused, very controlling and a bit volatile. He’s in competition with his former dance partner and feels he’s got no option but to win. But his new partner is a beautiful woman with lots of other options. The film is a good portrait of Slavik, of the world of ballroom dancing and is also insightful into the power dynamics of any relationship. An entertaining film with some lovely dance sequences.

 

José Arroyo