The first time I saw La Terra Trama was about thirty years ago and I was at least as deeply moved seeing it again yesterday. I found myself consulting Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s indispensible Visconti (London: BFI, 1967, 1973) to find out more but there were so many interesting facts to take into account – for example, a small amount of capital for the film was advanced by the Communist Party for what was originally meant to be a short; then it evolved into a three-part epic on the liberation struggles of fishermen, peasants and miners before finding its current form – and I found myself wanting to argue to such an extent with Nowell-Smith’s interpretation of some incidents, that my writing risked bypassing the film in favour of Nowell-Smith’s take on the film. I concluded that I had better put Nowell-Smith aside for now and just focus on writing down my impressions, what I felt and thought upon seeing the film again, and why and how it had moved me so.
I find La Terra Trama to be one of the treasures of Twentieth Century Art and the work of a poet with a generous heart, an incisive mind and the skills of a virtuoso (as a an aside, but perhaps worth noting, Francesco Rosi and Franco Zefferelli, as opposite as directors can be, both worked as assistant directors with Visconti). The film begins by showing us a way of life that has persisted for centuries: men going out to fish, women cleaning up the house as they await the men’s arrival, a return that is not always certain; young people desiring love and a better way of life whilst clearly knowledgeable and observant of the limits placed on these desires by the changing wealth and social position of their families and focussing on what they think is important: home, family, society. These houses and how people use them evoke a way of life – places, people, relationships to places and relationships amongst different peoples — as well as a structure of feeling – a felt way of understanding these changing relationships — which to my mind no Hollywood film has even come close to.
The Valestro family is composed of one set of grandparents, a mother and seven children who all live under the same roof. The father has already died at sea but everyone else, no matter what their age, contributes to the family’s subsistence and survival. I found the depiction of the houses, the clothes, the furnishings, the rituals, recognisable; and I daresay this would be the case for many a Southern European born even into the last half of the last century (and certainly by their parents). The film’s on-location shooting and non-professional actors add an awkwardness that is also a series of grace-notes to what we see. It feels a document even as we are at all times aware of the way the drama is being shaped for us, acted out, narrated. The film, which in some ways seems to fall within a particular tradition of documentary, perhaps Grierson’s ‘creative shaping of actuality’, is ostensibly loosely based on Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malaboglia (1881)/The House by the Medlar Tree.
I was moved also by the grandfather’s sayings — ‘Strength of youth, wisdom of age’, Every wind is a bad wind for a sinking ship’ — which reminded me of the sayings my grandmother uttered as she slapped her hands on her knees to end a conversation: rhymes appropriate to the occasion that encapsulated the wisdom passed down to the family through the ages from and to people who could neither read nor write.
The film offers a complex account of the duties and obligations involved in being a member of the family and the oppressions and pleasures, the aid, ease, (as well as limitations) of being part of the village and the community, which is why it’s loss will be so felt. It begins with women, getting up and getting the house ready for the men of the house who have been out fishing all night, the money being shared equally except for the youngest, who must be no older than seven, and gets half. All of the first part is devoted to showing us this way of life in all its complexities, with its clear-cut economic exploitation but also with many variegated pleasures in spite of being a subsistence economy. All of this will be lost when the eldest son, Antonio, decides to fight for a better and more just way of life.
After a spontaneous revolt against the injustice of the wholesalers at the port in which Antonio, the eldest son, gets jailed only to be arbitrarily released, the family together vote to try for a new way of life, to mortgage the home that has been in the family since time immemorial to try to bypass the wholesalers and get a better deal for their fish. Initially, they strike it lucky with a shoal of anchovies, though even here good fortune extolls a price, as some of the siblings – such as Mara, the eldest, are now too rich to marry those they’d set their heart on when poorer: The film, whilst giving a complex and variegated of love and desire, is completely unsentimental about money and marriage. But then, the need to pay bills, force them onto recklessly fishing in bad weather. They’re lucky to return with their lives but their boat is lost, and with it the ability to earn an independent living. And things get worse, as the wholesalers now refuse them day work
From this point, the film turns into tragedy. As the narrative tells us each branch of the family withers and falls: Antonio is so depressed, he sleeps and drinks, Cola, the second oldest brother leaves home for the sea and the film hints also at a life of crime, the grandfather’s in hospital, the eldest sister now has her marriage hopes dashed because she’s too poor instead of too rich, and the second eldest sister first shown to us looking in a mirror and arranging her hair has now fallen into accepting cheap gifts from men in a way that is whispered about and makes her un-marriageable. ‘Your pride has made you the worst family in Trezzo’ Antonio is told. But that is not the end of their suffering. Antonio, who had thought himself so poor he dreamt of food before, is now forced to sell the good and practical clothes he has left in order to get food, and finally has to suffer complete humiliation in front of his whole community and dressed in tatters before being given a job again and returned to much less than his wealth and position was at the beginning of the film.
Visconti shows us all of this in very beautiful and complex long shots and long takes with a whole view of life expressed in the background. The frame is always full except for select moments, those striking simple images of the women on the rocks waiting for their men, or the moment where Lucia cries and clutches at the bracelet she too quickly accepted. Visconti usually lets your eye wonder but these people are always individuals in a community. They are rarely alone; that is their strength and that is also what ails them. The Valestros could be the family that will emigrate to Milan in Rocco and His Brothers.
What I found a weakness thirty years ago, the voice-over narration, I now find a strength for it’s not a Voice-of-God, this-is-the-way-you-must-think narration. It’s explicatory, parenthetical, indicative, and it renders poetic that which it dramatises. I find it beautiful. I also love the way Visconti lets the viewer’s eye wonder along the frame; there’s a focus on a particular character and action, but all other kinds of things are going on in the background — the setting is always social, people are usually interacting, working; these people are always individuals in a community. The only times we are shown individuals filling a frame are poetic moments of interiority but usually the result of and a comment on the communal, social, contextual. I love that Visconti makes these people beautiful, dignified. Their feet might be bare and their clothes ragged but their hearts are full and their faces and bodies as beautiful as those of any.
There are a few things that strike a discordant note. The way the rich baroness is shown toothless and eating, the melodramatic and overdone attacks on the wholesalers by linking them to Mussolini and fascism… But to me these are rendered very minor in the face of the film’s accomplishments. That La Terra Trema shows these beautiful and dignified people revolting is so moving, their conditions of existence so bare, the depths they could yet fall to, so great. The impossibility of fighting against these conditions individually is made so clear. Yet, there is hope in the struggle, in the same community that oppresses one, and someone might yet be fixing the boat you sunk in your struggle and ask you to come and visit it one day.
I wish someone had made such a film about my people. Others can quibble, though there is very little indeed to quibble with, but only Visconti made such a film, and only in Italy. Thus it has to stand for all the other Southern European, or Mediterranean conditions and ways of life, not so dissimilar from that depicted, as a record, a warning, and as we hear reports of slavery amongst fishermen in the South Seas, as a reminder of such exploitation that the very earth trembles in indignation. It’s a truly great film.
Hollywood Home Movies From The Academy Film Archive (USA, 1931-1970)
Il Cinema Ritrovato showcased a program of home movies donated to The Academy Film Archive and, in this instance, narrated live by Michael Pogorzelski, who told us where these movies came from (Fred McMurray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s estate, etc.) and who was in them (the audience sometimes seemed to know more than Pogorzelski). The collection of short home movies was exciting to see because these people figure in our pasts, sometimes in an intimate way, so this was a way of making part of their private life intersect with part of ours.
It was wonderful to see Randolph Scott gently stroke Cary Grant’s shoulder in a the way familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a couple, as a gesture, tender but proprietary, that only established couples do to let the other know they’re there, besides them, and that they are thinking of them, with love. And perhaps to let others know to buzz off – that person’s taken, mine. That gesture did more to convince me of something between those two, than all the gossip I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen thus far.
I loved seeing: Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pretending to be Tyrolean peasants in their huge mansion-size ‘little cottage’ whilst changing into dozens of outfits; Cary Grant, more handsome than I’ve ever seen with practically no upper lip and a lower lip three times the size of anyone I know, on the set of Gunga Din; some rare colour footage of Carole Lombard, always the liveliest and most beautiful person in any film she graces, including these home movies; Fred McMurray’s home movies, in three-strip technicolor, and showing him as the athletic and handsome leading man he was but that can be so difficult to detect in some of his films, particularly the later ones, or for that generation of people who grew up with him as a Disney star or as the father in My Three Sons. Also who knew he was a blond?
I adored also the footage of one of Hearst’s 1930s parties, all of the stars on their best behaviour, like at the boss’ house, and pretending to enjoy the prank of a shaft of air being wooshed up lady’s dresses from below. Marilyn was to be shown enjoying a heightened and eroticised version of this two decades later in The Seven Year Itch. But practically every ‘30s star you care to mention is shown here in that very human contradiction of being extremely annoyed and trying to have the good manners not to show it, particularly to someone who’s got power over one’s job. It felt a privilege to have been able to see these films.
Southpaw is like a Depression melodrama in which a good man loses, wife, family, home, child –partly through his own shortcomings mostly through events he can’t control — and has to go back to the ring and fight his way back to where he started in order to win back his own life and his daughter’s affections. It reminded me a little of The Champ (King Vidor, USA, 1931) but Southpaw is less tearjerking, the child is a daughter rather than a son, and the boxer survives at the end. Even when he wins, as here, he loses; the win in fact leaves him a few steps below where he started. He wins fight and daughter but still has no wife, no house, fewer friends, no trust, a more aged and less abled body. Like all boxing films, Southpaw is a parable for capitalism. It reminded me a little bit more of the original version of The Champ rather than the Franco Zefferelli 1979 remake with Jon Voight in the Wallace Beery role and Ricky Schroeder in the Jackie Cooper role because the remake eschewed the social and focused more overtly on the domestic and familial.
The boxing film might be the only genre that puts class, capitalism and masculinity at the forefront. That’s what the genre is about; and historically films like the great Body and Soul (Robert Rosssen, USA, 1947) have not only been critical on those subjects but have also been poetic in their criticism, with great dialogue one could reel off years after seeing the film (‘Everybody dies!’, ‘You need money to buy a gun’, ‘Life is just addition and substraction – the rest is conversation’…) Southpaw has many of the elements of the genre — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, a good woman, an ornery old trainer, a dirty promoter, the very body as a site of struggle not only for home and family but for basic justice – but it starts at the point where the hero is already a champ and is about to lose everything.
The plot is not as coherent as one would like with some characters (Hoppy) just dropping off the radar too abruptly so that, whilst the with rationale for their introduction is clear, the payoff their place in the narrative deserves doesn’t quite come off in the end. The relationship with the daughter is to my mind also misconceived; the film would have been better had they been entirely kept apart by the institutions rather than also by the daughter’s choice. I also think the film might have been slightly improved by a redistribution of the film’s set of knowledges so that there were moments where the audience knew more than its characters. It might have made it more moving than it already is; and a good cry at the state of an America pictured like this is really what’s called for but what the film doesn’t quite deliver. It’s also traditionally how the melodramatic genre elicits a kind of suspense and a kind of emotion: we know what’s coming before the protagonist does but can’t guide or act — we can only anguish at what’s coming and suffer along with the characters when it does.
What Southpaw does achieve is a great neon-noir look that evokes the attractions and dangers of poor people moving through cheaply coloured lights in a very dark world. But it stops short of being a stinging attack on the state of things, and to its detriment. 50 Cent is Jordan Mains, the slick promoter skimming his money whilst parroting loyalty and family values when things are going well only to kick him out of his office at the first sign of trouble. The film would have been better and pleased more had he got more of a comeuppance. I wanted him to squirm at the end of the film like the dirty promoter he is (and like every dirty promoter/gangster has squirmed at the end of almost every boxing film since forever). I don’t understand why the film denies us that moment.
But it does offer other, and great, pleasures. Jake Gyllenhall is unrecognisable and gives a complex performance — both brutish and delicate as Billy Hope: he’s really great. He’s got an amazing body in the sense that you could see all the work that went into it, but it’s not a naturally elegant or beautiful body, and it’s constantly on display and very affecting to see; all that work that went into it… and yet the torso is still boxy, the waist jutty; work buys results but it doesn’t buy perfection; and it works for the role because in boxing the body’s a tool and not just something to be looked at, though the film is incredibly expressive, movingly so, in the display of its destruction. Rachel McAdams, is sexy, vibrant, intelligent and loving as Hope’s wife; and her performance is what makes the moment of Billy’s loss so moving.
It sometimes feels that Antoine Fuqua is the only director currently working in American cinema who’s making serious films about ordinary people in a popular cinematic vernacular, generally the action film: Training Day (2001), Brooklyn’s Finest (2009) are what first come to mind but The Equalizer (2014), The Shooter (2007) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) also have things to offer to those minded to pay attention. Southpaw is in that vein: a bit patchy, not quite perfect but a serious look at working people on the margins of a multiracial America by someone who knows what it is and knows how to depict it for us. I think critics might have liked it better had the hero been named Billy Nohope. As it is, and with all its imperfections, I very much liked Southpaw.
Watching films is an activity and an experience. Before technology developed to the extent that the general public could go into a shop and come out with some VHS titled say ‘Foul Play’, one would pay money, go into the movie and come out only with a memory of certain aspects of the film tied to the way that one felt. Thus the laughs at the moment the bed keeps going up and down in Dudley Moore’s pornographic flat, or how Goldie Hawn mistakenly harms the wrong dwarf, or the Japanese tourists jumping up and down in a taxi yelling ‘Kojak!’, are still vivid memories with me. Is the film any good? I don’t know; and I’m afraid to watch it again (might the Kojak bit seem racist to me now? Was Chevy Chase really as handsome and charming as I remember him to be? Was the karate fight between Burgess Meredith and Rachel Roberts really that funny? Is the film really as covertly gay as I remember it to be?) – the memories are too good to sacrifice. How and where we watch films play a role in how we appreciate them.
I saw La Famille Belier at the Salt.Cinema in Geneva, right next to the yacht club, in the kind of balmy coolness only the onset of evening in the middle of a heat-wave (a canicule is the lovely name for it there) can produce. The breeze wafting in from the lake, the illuminated boats cruising through the darkness, the sailboats bobbing up and down in the yacht club, a perfectly made mojito in my hand, an old and dear friend sitting next to me, a giant screen in front. It would have taken a truly horrible film to ruin such a moment and La Famille Belier is great fun, touching at moments, with a great performance by Louane Emera, a semi-finalist in France’s version of The Voice, as Paula, the teenage daughter of deaf parents who feel betrayed when she decides to enter a singing competition. It’s very broad, very deftly acted, and at moments, such as when Paula sings Michel Sardou’s ‘Je vole’, very touching indeed. It was lovely to see a teenage musical, particularly a French one, as they don’t come around too often. The film was very enjoyable if not great, but watching it with a good friend in such exquisite surroundings made for a sublime experience.
I found the trailer for Magic Mike XXL so embarrassing, I put off seeing the film until friends convinced me to. I found it much better than expected and really enjoyable. The audience was almost all women and when Channing Tatum first appears after the credits, they all went ‘Phwoar!’. And that set the tone for the film’s reception, at least with the audience I saw it with, which was almost 98% female.
It’s a very interesting film, very inclusive of difference if slightly confused and confusing as to its racial and sexual politics and, unlike the first one, one very much directed at a female gaze, with Matt Bomer thrown in as a bone to the gay audience. The story is a bit of a mess and it ends abruptly. But I didn’t mind that much. I loved the musical numbers and the way it all feels like Mickey and Judy putting on a show but veering off now towards the burlesque end of showbiz. It’s basically a musical with half naked men in which the wall-flowers get to dance with the prom king whilst gay men are invited to cheer on through scenes in gay bars and Channing Tatum’s character admitting a drag name, even if it is something like Clitoris Labia or some such, and the bodies of course. But it’s all sexless, pretend, ironic and knowing, but earnest too; just like the old musicals but without as much dancing, which is a pity, as the only moment the film seems to really take off and fly into a zone approaching greatness is that moment where Channing Tatum gets taken over by the music and dances with his tools in the shed – it’s really thrilling to see.
The film is very knowing and rather sophisticated in its range of references: Carmen Miranda, the boys camping it up in a vogue-ing contest referencing both Madonna AND Paris is Burning, Joe Manganiello commenting on vampires in The Twilight Saga rather than True Blood, etc. It looks as neon bright as the original with striking and original visual imagery (Steven Soderbergh is the cinematographer); The cast are all adequate but it’s only Bomer who gives any sense of a characterisation: a has-been actor with fading looks and with his only claim to fame working at Disneyworld and a few local commercials, now caught up in new-age philosophies (or crackpot theories) as a way of keeping at bay something that’s dying inside. You can imagine him starring in gay porn the year after the film is set. As to the rest…Andie MacDowell’s loosened up a bit as she’s gotten older but she’s still the worst thing in the film though mercifully she’s not on for long. Joe Manganiello finally gets the part he was denied in the first film though doesn’t bring the spark, theatricality, or star quality Matthew McConaughey brought to the original. Channing Tatum always looks like someone’s slapped him hard and he doesn’t know what to say. Only Jada Pinkett-Smith, in today’s equivalent of the old Madam-with-a-heart-of-gold role, stands out. She is dazzling (though even she has been better in Gotham).
I find it difficult to come to a conclusion as to what the film’s about other than ‘you’re ok, I’m ok, we’re all beautiful inside and we all deserve to be treated like queens no matter how we look or what’s happened to us’, all of which is pretty Oprah….but then that Channing Tatum starts to dance to an inventive choice of music (true throughout the film) and the film zooms onto another dimension. I wish it had ventured there more often but it’s a rare film that addresses a female and gay audience in as warm and delightful a manner as this one and I was happy enough to find it as entertaining as I did.
A crude home movie; made by someone who doesn’t really know how to make them — me; but which nonetheless evokes how wonderful it was to see classic films at the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato.
The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way (1944); both by Leo McCarey and both the most successful box-office his of their respective years. It is according to Richard Corliss ‘officially loved’; Pauline Kael thought it a recruiting poster for the Catholic Church matched only by The Exorcist (William Friedkin); writing in 1973, Joseph McBride wrote that ‘If you don’t cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis, I never want to meet you and that’s that’. Much as I admire his work, perhaps it’s lucky we’ve never met.
How is The Bells of St. Mary’s in any way acceptable? It’s false through and through and offensively so: hip priests and cute nuns, pretending to be all self-sacrificing and cheerful, solving all the world’s problems, manipulating everyone with prayer, conning an old man out of his building. There’s a big Leo McCarey retrospective here at the Cinema Ritrovatto. Yes, he is the director of beloved films such as Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937); and, yes, they are greatly to be cherished. But he is also the director of My Son John (1952). Why isn’t the falsity in his work also part of the discussion of McCarey? How can critics let such lies go through? Yes, there’s Ingrid Bergman, gloriously radiant, enraptured in a halo of faith that is beautiful to see; Bing sings skilfully in that marvellous baritone of his; McCarey is great at staging the comedy in a low key, famously improvised manner; the actors are excellent; but excellent in the service of what? It’s an insult to one’s intelligence; a testament to the power of lies, the American equivalent of a Stalinist film about the redeeming values of cement and the glory of sacrificing individual life and happiness to the five year plan. A film that turns from pleasant to hateful as soon as the thought it fights so hard to displace is applied to it. Yet, also one of the most popular films of all time and thus perhaps all the more reason to think about it seriously.
The Giornatta di Cinema Ritrovatto makes crystal clear the irreducible value of form and medium; that it makes a difference to see something on a large screen or a huge screen or a small screen; that sound, both in terms of the score itself and the way that it is conveyed is crucial; that a nitrate print is something to see; that celluloid projection offers different qualities than digital. To not care about texture, hue, intensity, size – what all of these different forms of display bring to the art of cinema is analogous to the claim that you can recolour Van Gogh, print an altered reproduction and claim that it is no different to the original and can replace it in a museum without prejudice. One can see why studios intent on making profit might make those claims but how can museums? How is it permissible for museums and cinémathèques and teachers of film aesthetics and really anyone interested in film as an art to not care about what type of print is projected, how it is projected and on the size of the screen?
The programming at Il Cinema Ritrovato made the importance of this gloriously clear: So, for example, Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, USA, 1944), according to the catalogue, ‘Three-strip technicolor features 35mm print derived from black and white three strip negatives (all features printed on a nitrate base)’, but digitally projected from a 4k print, looked out of this world, in fact Mark Fuller, a friend who did not like the film, nevertheless admired the gorgeousness of the print, and how because of the print, the colours themselves seemed to sing and dance more vibrantly than anything else in the film (quite something to say when the people in the film look and move as beautifully as Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly do). In a lovely piece on the festival for Photogenie, Tom Paulis writes of how the print of The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, USA, 1998) ‘was as unique as they come, a Technicolor dye-transfer copy made as a gift to the director that only very rarely leaves the vaults. The result was a small miracle. The dye-transfer completely transformed the film, especially in the deep saturation of the blacks, making an already high-contrasty film (that Queensland light!) look like Caravaggio’.
Likewise, in an excellent overview of the festival in The Guardian, Pamela Hutchinson begins her piece as follows:
‘“Technicolor is like God – it cannot be copied!” Nicola Mazzanti of the Royal Belgian Film Archive is introducing a screening of Douglas Sirk’s perfect melodrama All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955) and, in an unexpectedly exuberant speech, he promises the crowd in Bologna’s Cinema Arlecchino “a mystical experience”. This is a screening, not from a digital cinema package (DCP) or a re-release, but an original 35mm distribution print – vintage, authentic Technicolor. Mazzanti assures us that there will be scratches (“God, I love scratches!”) and that “if we are really lucky, the film will break, the house lights will come up, and you will be discovered entwined with your girlfriend, or your boyfriend”.
Now Mazzarati might be over-fetishising the experience but anyone lucky enough to see a vintage print at the festival will admit that the colours looked and felt different than other restored versions and even other formats. I was lucky enough to see the Spanish Filmoteca’s vintage copy of Fantasia (Walt Disney, USA, 1940), one which we might have been the last people to see, as loss of quality is incurred each time a print is shown; and if colour, hue, luminosity are one of the ways films convey meaning and help evoke particularly experiences, the choice of which version and in which form should be purposeful, and great care should be taken in the projection.
And it’s not just about image. One of the highlights of the festival was the screening of Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1914-17) at The Teatro Comunale di Bologna, in its original nitrate print, but with the Pietro Mascagni score beautifully restored so that it was was once more perfectly timed to every gesture, every eye-movement, so that everything the music originally expressed was once more revealed by Timothy Brock conducting a full orchestra at the Teatro Comunale. The beauty of the hand-tinted colours, the visual values revealed by the nitrate print, the drama on-screen once more synchronised to the music, this time conveyed with the fullness only a full orchestra is capable of and in the glorious surroundings of the Teatro Comunale: one can only say, wow! A sublime experience.
One thinks the battle for film as an art form has been won discursively but one goes to museums and one sees that the repositories of the best of our culture are not practicing what they preach. Films are often shown on a terrible youtube-like loop. Every piddly Warhol piss painting is treated like an elgin marble; every great treasure of cinema treated like used-up can of coke. It’s time museums and indeed every official repository of culture imitate the practices of the Cinema Ritrovatto in relation to film.
There were all kind of magical experience watching films in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna during the Giornate del Cinema Ritrovato but the one of seeing Rocco e i suoi fratelli/ Rocco and His Brothers in this particular context – the Piazza Maggiore, with thousands of spectators, a huge screen, a special stand purpose-built for the projector so it can be sufficiently high to have enough ‘throw’ to fill that particularly huge screen – to be able to in this context ‘experience’ this particular story, the story of Italy, the story of leaving home, leaving mi paise, which stands not just for one’s village but for one’s land, one’s country as both an imaginary but also in a phenomenological sense, in which the film itself posited a kind of saudade, that kind of felt love for a people and place one longs for still but which is far away and maybe never was but that is imagined so vividly, and which one’s love for that imaginary is still felt so strongly that it is rendered alive, and the sadness for its loss so vividly juxtaposed with the fullness of the feeling for what once was; a country you feel, experience, touch, sense, and which you carry the memory of like a long lost memory, missing and longing, yearning and loss, all mixed up with a desire for an entwined affect. This story of mid-century Italy is now also the story of so many in a 21st century world; and the problems of the film resonate not only with their specificity but with their universality. It was truly great; and not only the work in itself but also the experience of watching it in this particular context. Doubly great.
Franklin Pangborn’s pansies are on the great joys of 30s cinema. Here is a little compilation of some of his best bits from Mitchell Liesen’s Easy Living, written by Preston Sturges.
Mr. Holmes is of such paralysing dullness one is rendered too inert to walk out of the cinema. Thus, one ends up appreciating the excellence of Ian McKellen’s very subtle and complex performance; remarking once more on what a fine and underused actress Laura Linney is; noting how Frances de la Tour is now so broad in everything she does that she serves as a destabilising force field to any work she’s in rather than as an actress; and lastly one mourns how Frances Barber seems doomed to always be wasted. Bill Condon directs as if for an important and prestigious BBC show where everything is rendered obvious, underlined by voice-over, all at a slow and portentous pace.
Mr. Holmes is a ‘serious’ film and great thought and care has been taken as to its form and structure. It has a great premise: Holmes is old and getting senile. He retired 35 years previously because of a case and can’t remember it. Watson wrote it as a great success but was it? What made him retire and how will he find out now when he’s often not altogether there?As he tries to find out, we flashback to the past and his relationships with Mycroft and Watson who we see as vaguely as he remembers. There’s also something that happened in Japan that affected him and that he might have dealt with badly. The dramatisation of his cases in the cinema offers another perspective and potential clue. There’s also a relationship with his housekeeper’s son, a young boy who she wants to put to work right away rather than get the education living with Holmes can provide. Overhanging all is an important difference between bees and wasps used both as a clue and as a symbol.
It’s all intelligent, literate, tasteful; yet, aside from the contributions of McKellen and Milo Parker as the young boy, also lacking in spark, drama, motion, life. Visually, it’s disappointing with the quality of the image lacking depth and texture; and with those sharp outlines, clear colours, and thin texturality one associates with digital. A film that seems to diminish even the very Cliffs of Dover.
One of the joys of watching Pre-Code films is the array of gay pansies on offer: Tyler Brooke, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and many others. I’ve been watching a lot of Preston Sturges films recently and have been struck by how often characters coded as effeminate or homosexual figure in his work. In the first clip, which was adapted from one of Sturges’ Broadways plays, Child of Manhattan (1933), we see Tyler Brooke insisting that he is Dulcey Inc. and not *Madame* Dulcey! The character is funny and endearing but like so many homosexual characters then as now is linked to surfaces, appearances, fashion, the ‘feminine sphere’. In the second clip, Easy Living (1937), this time from a from a screenplay by Sturges, we see Franklin Pangborn, an actor to appear in so many subsequent Sturges films, also selling women’s couture, this time to the Bull of Broadway. Lastly we see Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first film as director, making fun of William Demarest for not ordering a manly enough drink. It’s interesting to note how there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the representation of the Brooke and Pangborn pansies even though one is pre-Code and one post. It is also interesting to note how in all of these films the poof is used to shore up the masculinity of the hero. Moreover, in the films adapted from or merely written by Sturges, the gay character is endearing (in the case of of Easy Living, perhaps aided by the personal understanding of director Mitchell Liesen). In the McGinty clip, Donlevy’s camping it up feels nasty and one is left uneasy: it feels mean, brutish and exactly like the type of bullying that is still so fresh a memory for many of us. This observation leaves me with some questions: what was Sturges preoccupation with homosexual men and can his work be considered homophobic? I don’t yet know.
Have you ever experienced a great night of theatre? One where you’re conscious of the materiality of bodies, the particularities of space; one that makes you aware of vision and different ways of seeing and how perception shapes thought and results in different modes of analysing and different answers to the questions posed; one that highlights the sometimes monadic and alienated nature of existence whilst highlighting attempts at connection even if only through fighting; one where discipline and freedom to create are seen as two sides of a single coin, the very currency of artistic expression; one which for a moment made a Brummland resident connected to events in Tunisia (Collectic Corp Citoye’s MOUVMA), Spanish surrealist wit (since the word ‘miracle’ is applied to wonders one doesn’t understand, isn’t almost everything around us a miracle and a wonder?), an Irish way of seeing (from the witty and minimalist Squarehead Productions), and concerns over the limits to freedom and the struggles to move forward in Czechoslovakia (Vertedance’s ‘Correction’); one in which what happened onstage was made possible only by shared ideas of community and volunteerism that happened around it? Last night’s BE Festival programme at the Birmingham Rep was such a night. Vertedance’s performance of ‘Correction’ in particular was so great it lingers in the mind still and makes one want to see it again. Oh, and at the intermission they served a banquet for all on the stage of the Rep, looking out onto the seats were one normally sits, like something out of Buñuel’s ‘The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ but without the interreptuions . An incredible evening of art, theatre and community that offered much to think about.
Walking through Birmingham City Centre yesterday, I saw the image pictured above and I thought, ‘Why is Jon Snow advertising Jimmy Choo?’ I at first didn’t realise the ad was for perfume and was picturing Jon Snow with his shaggy hair and his furs — an essential accessory for Castle Black but also such a gorgeous backdrop to his brooding face — now wearing Jimmy Choo heels through the ramparts of The Wall, perhaps hoping the heels would lift him up from the cloud of melancholy that always seems to surround him.
It then struck me that I had referred to the image as Jon Snow rather than Kit Harington. That never happens when I see Leonardo DiCaprio flog TAG Heuer watches: there it’s always Leo. And what ‘Leo’ means has changed and expanded over time. ‘Leo’ is polysemic: he is Romeo, Gatsby, Howard Hughes; he is also the characters he played in Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997), Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, USA, 2013); he’s a great actor and the biggest box office star of his generation; he’s also someone who shags models, works to enhance social awareness of endangered species and climate change and dances like one’s dad.
Now, I have seen Kit Harington in Pompeii (Paul W. S. Anderson, USA, 2014) and in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2015) so why does he remain Jon Snow? Does it have to do with the degree of stardom? I don’t think so. Harington is as hot an actor as any at the moment; that’s why he’s had big-budget films built around him; and indeed that’s why he’s being paid to flog perfume by Jimmy Choo. Does it have to do with differences between stardom in one medium or another? Again, in the past I would have said yes. But I don’t think that’s any longer true. James Garner, Matthew McConnaughey, Woody Harrelson, Charlie Sheen and many others since at least the fifties have had enormous success on television without being solely identified with one character. Perhaps it’s process. After all, Clint Eastwood was ‘Rowdy Yates’ throughout America for years before he became ‘Clint Eastwood’.
So, let’s say it’s not about intensity or extent of stardom, or even the medium in which that stardom was first created and took hold; let’s say that it’s merely about polysemy and intensity, about the power and range of different meanings signified by a star sign, such as Kit Harington’s face. But in that case, is Kit Harington ‘The Jimmy Choo Man’ or is it Jon Snow. If the latter, wouldn’t it be appropriate for Harington to hand over some of what he got paid over to whomever owns the image rights to Jon Snow? Isn’t the image for sale on the basis of its meanings here not that of Kit Harington but of Jon Snow? or at best, that of Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow? I suppose the two are one in the public imagination. Kit Harington’s face and body is what now embodies Jon Snow; it’s how Jon Snow is signified. In the novels, we each had our own view of him. Now Kit Harington gives flesh to Jon Snow; and we like that embodiment so much that it can be commodified and put for sale; it has an economic value; but until Kit Harington becomes ‘Kit Harington’ does he have the right to commodify Jon Snow and attach those meanings to a scent? Does Kit Harington have the right to get rich from what Jon Snow might mean to an audience? Just a thought.
How does Game of Thrones manage to juggle so many characters and such convoluted plots in a way that makes sense but without losing complexity and whilst furthering the narrative? One of the ways is by keeping the structure simple, breaking it up into distinct but linked sections, ensuring that each picks up logically from where the last one left off, and building into at least each of the larger units a question for the viewer that incites a desire for an answer that will have to wait for later, usually the next episode.
The fourth episode, Sons of the Harpy, was 50m21s long. I had assumed all episodes were the exact same length but I now see that they’re not; the previous episode, High Sparrow was 59m50s, the next one, Kill the Boy, will be 56m37s. In this one, the narrative proper begins 1m53s into the episode, after the celebrated opening credits, and ends at 48m59s, before the closing ones. Episode Three ended with the kidnapping of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) leaving us unsure as to whom did it and why. The fourth episode begins by providing an answer: it’s Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and his aim will become clearer later on. This sequence lasts just over a minute and at 2.57, whilst one brother is being moved on a barge in one direction, the other, Jamie Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau) is on a boat headed to Dorne to bring his daughter/niece back home to King’s Landing without causing war between Westeros and Dorne. This segment is also very brief and 5m47s into the episode, we’re with Cersei Lannister, the mother of Jamie Lannister’s daughter/niece Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), where we will linger for about ten minutes until 15m48 seconds into the narrative.
What one can extract from this is that one of the things that links the first three episodes is that they all revolve around the Lannister siblings. There are also further connections: Tyrion has been kidnapped after Jamie freed him; thus Tyrion is free only to be kidnapped; in Jamie’s segment, the second one, Jamie promises to split Tyrion’s head in two should he run into him; visually they are linked by boats and water (see figs a & b above). In turn, Jamie and Cersei are linked by their daughter, Myrcella, whom Cersei has commanded Jamie to bring home and is the reason for Jamie’s voyage; visually we’re shown them in the same glowing honey-brown palette (see fig.1 and fig. 2 below).
This all raises interesting questions Raymond Bellour once posed in relation to cinema: how to categorise for analysis? What is a segment? What is a sequence? What is a scene? I won’t presume to try and answer those questions here but will merely indicate that, if one takes unity of character, place and action as foundational criteria, then one would take what I’ve just described above as three different scenes. But if one takes it to a different level of generalisation, one can argue that the episode has just spent the first 15 minutes on the Lannisters and then goes on to spend another 15 minutes on the house of Stark (from 15m48 on Jon Snow and Castle Black and from 25min to 30m16 on Sansa Stark at Winterfell) which has it’s own kind of balance. The standard unit seems to be of about ten minutes and this episode has four such units: Cersei’s at King’s Landing, Jon Snow at Castle Black, later Jamie Lannister’s story line at Dorne and finally the episode with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) with the rest of the smaller units used as a narrative thread, as rhyming and echoing devices, as comparison or counterpoint to what leads or follows from it, and sometimes simply as a reminder that these other stories are still in process, still at play and will be returned to with an accretion of events and meaning and rendered more complex and richer.
What I found fascinating about each of the ten minute slots is that they offer a staggering amount of plot, most typically conveyed via dialogue and in medium close-up and with striking side-lighting as a characteristic stylistic device (see fig. 3 above) . Thus, in the first segment with Cersei, she ships her daughter-in-law’s father off to Braavos, solidifies her power by making her council as small as possible, resuscitates the Faith Militant — a military religious order previously extinct for two hundred years — and arms them, makes High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) High Septon, they get so powerful they arrest the brother of the queen and block entrance to the king himself. The new Faith Militant go on a bloody rampage, raiding brothels and killing deviants and infidels like a new Inquisition.
This is only scratching the surface of the plot of this ten minute section; it goes on even further and in more convoluted ways, like a ‘30s Warners film; and like a ‘30s Warners film everything is elegant, spare, understandable, necessary; you get told exactly what you need to know and it all makes sense. And this can be seen as a particular accomplishment since some of the characters have been given names that are equivalent to those in Russian novels — so difficult to remember and write. I also find it hard to keep track of the story, not a problem when viewing, a particular accomplishment of the televisual story-telling — but becomes one when trying to remember, analyse and write here. Mind you, I read the novels when they came out and had forgotten pretty much everything by the time I got to see the show. So keeping all the narrative elements in play, focused, and clear and easy to follow whilst viewing is but one of the particular triumphs of this series.
I also found it interesting that within each of the roughly ten minute sections, the focus of the narrative often moves away from the central protagonist. Thus the section on Jon Snow and Castle Black moves from Jon Snow, his concerns, and Melisandre’s attempt to seduce him into supporting Stannis Baratheon’s crusade against the Boltons, and puts the focus on Stannis’ daughter, her disfigurement, her mother’s guilt at only having borne her husband a daughter — and such a disfigured one! — the daughter’s concern that her father doesn’t love her as a result, and the father’s complete reassurance of his love; something that will have such repercussions later on in the series. This moving the narrative focus from the principal character in the section onto others so that supporting characters – their desires, motivations and actions – are put into focus is also to be found in the section on Jamie Lannister that begins at 30m16 and ends at 39 min; and also on the section on Daenerys which begins at 42.28 and ends at 48m59s.
The episode is also structured around rhyming sequences, thus the spectacular violence of the Faith Militant in the first 15 minutes of the show is echoed in the spectacular violence of the Sons of the Harpy. There are also other rhymings: Like I discussed in relation to the first episode, the image is kept relatively simple with the eye drawn at most to a few elements see figure four above) or a clear arrangement of a handful of elements to be rendered not only delightful but legible on a smaller screen, even when in complex and spectacular shots (see fig. 5)); the use of change of focus that I described as so elegant and meaningful in Episode Three is also used here (this episode is also directed by Mark Mylod) but I found it a bit coarser, too obviously underlining what didn’t need to be (see clip below). Lastly the type of sweeping spectacular reveal that I discussed in Episode Two is also evident throughout this episode, but most interestingly in the last shot, which like the last segment in the previous episode poses questions that will be answered in the next one. ‘Cliffhanger’ endings seem to be typical of the series.
Thus, to summarise, in spite of the complex plot, the array of characters, the obscure names and convoluted array of kinship and alliances, the episode is made easily understandable by being kept simple with the main sections kept at approximately ten minutes each, generally with four sections per episode, but threaded through with smaller ones that echo, or rhyme with previous ones but that also help set the context for the subsequent one; there is a logical order to the episodes both thematically (clans) and also stylistically (use of colour or rhyming contexts); there is also a clear but melodramatic conveyance of plot with cliffhangers from episode to episode, usually through dialogue and in close-up. The episodes are tied together through familial relationships, or through editing on lighting or objects (see, for example, how the candle in front of Stannis Barathean motivates the cut at 25m to the episode with Sansa). The complex plot is also made manageable through a consistent use of stylistic devices within each episode and from episode to episode in spite of the different directors that work on each. I’m sure there will be more thoughts, shorter, and clearer, once I’ve thought this all through a bit more. But the main message is obviously that there are a lot of complex structural factors that go into making the storytelling in Game of Thrones so clear, elegant and satisfying.
In ‘High Sparrow; the third episode of Game of Thrones S5, the series continues to impress by the conscious expressiveness of its mise-en-scène, the way that it creates a sense of place of where the action happens that is tied to a mood the work wants to convey that in turn expresses meaning, partly through the use décor, costuming and lighting on its own, partly through a more overt symbolisation of those elements.
Place is of course central –Winterfell, Castle Black but also and more specifically the Gladiatorial Coliseum of Meereem, the House of Black and White in Braavos, etc. Each place is tied to one narrative thread; it is symbolic of a home, a kingdom, and is itself sometimes a pawn in a struggle for dominance. I will come back to this in a later post and demonstrate how each of these places and thus each of these narratives is visualised for us to evoke, express and also to narrate. But for now I just want to indicate a few things that caught my eye in the third episode.
The episode is called ‘High Sparrow’ because this is where we’re introduced to the character played by Jonathan Pryce but it seems to me that it’s as much about marriage, the promise of its surface, the lack of agency those it is offered to have in its acceptance or rejection, the threat the state of matrimony poses to the newlyweds and those they are newly allied to. And all of these elements it seems to me are symbolised in the still below:
Cersei’s son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is marrying Margaery Tyrrell (Natalie Dormer), a much desired union politically. But what’s symbolised by the shot is the horrible ramifications such a union will have on the status of Cersei (Lena Headey) and thus on the power that she will wield; will she now be known as Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? or perhaps, hopefully soon, Queen Grandmother? is Margaery’s taunt to Cersei. Each of those is a step closer to political irrelevance; and the need for Cersei’s plotting to involve the High Sparrow in order to control any such new re-distribution of power and to maintain her hold is perfectly symbolised by the shot. What’s important is not the marriage per se, but the affect of that marriage on Cersei, and the steps she will put in motion to ensure she will be the focus and centre of power in spite of Margaery now having much closer and much more intimate contact with the King than any mother could. Cersei will try her best to do her worst and cause that union to fade.
The use of a shift in focus is also made very expressive in the scene in which Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) gives Jon Snow (Kit Harington) his opinion of what he should do with Ollie (Brennock O’Connor) sitting behind and looking on. It’s an intimate scene, just the two men and the boy, with the shots alternating between those of Jon Snow filmed largely from below in medium close-up and those of Davos and Ollie, with Davos in the foreground and Ollie behind. Note how when when Davos first asks Ollie to recite the oath — ‘how does the Night Watch’s Oath go again? I bet you’ve got it memorised since you got here’ –the scene places Davos in the foreground but fixes the focus on the young boy, an indication that what the oath signifies will become more and more meaningful as the series progresses. Then when Davos tells the boy not that bit, the bit at the end, and the boy begins to recite, ‘I am the Sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls, the shield that guards the realms of men’, that shot is filmed in depth so that Davos and the boy are both in focus though the composition favours Davos who is foregrounded. Then when Davos himself repeats, ‘the shield that guards the realms of men’ Ollie is shown completely out of focus. Attention is now on Davos as his listening underlines the meaning of those words for the audience; and the significance of those words, and the repercussions they portend, is then shifted by a cut onto Jon Snow, shown the more powerful by being shot from below, so that he can turn those words to action. Here something as simple as a shift of focus is rendered very meaningful and expressive, something characteristic of the series.
The last scene that grabbed my attention (see clip below) is the one where Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aiden Gillen) standing on the edge of a precipice with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), grabs her face with his hands and tells her: ‘There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family: avenge them!’They’re wearing black capes, the hill behind them is wintry green, The wind is blowing a banner on the right bottom of the frame indicating that they’re on official mission, the personal is political here, she looks at her old home — and though everything in her fears and revolts agains the notion, now her future one — and as Littlefinger is foregrounded smiling and about to head on his way, we see Sansa with his back to him and to us contemplating the black ruins of her past and her future, on that precipice and below tumultuous low-hanging clouds. Littlefinger smiles as they ride off, his mission accomplished, and the the camera pans left through the black, burnt, war-torn ruins of her past and future. But as we’re shown the horses riding towards the ruins of Winterfell, the camera moves past them only to settle on two other people on a horse, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) thus linking the fate of one to the other, linking one story to the other through a now shared landscape, and by mingling them perhaps offering the viewer a bit of hope that Sansa knows nothing of yet. It’s brilliant filmic storytelling.
Because art expresses it so much better than one can oneself.