The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Greece? France, 2015)

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A bit romantic, a bit surrealist, a bit dystopian, a tiny bit long. But very funny and imaginative and with some superb performances: Farrell does a great, kind of schlubby, almost anonymous everyman who nonetheless can’t get pushed beyond a certain point; even watching him walk is a joy to behold, combining both characterisation and theatre: he knows how to make the ordinary extraordinarily delightful. As to Weisz, she’s almost emotionally transparent, always also treading that line of ordinary/beautiful and thus gracing us all. They’re a joy individually and together. Farrell might not have remained in the A-list for long but he’s quickly developing into the star character actor of his generation. Ben Whishaw, Olivia Coleman, John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux also appear and also make an impression, reminding one that it takes a lot of stars, from a lot of different countries, to get any kind of low-budget movie made today, particularly one as original as The Lobster.

The plot revolves around newly single people who are taken from their homes, institutionalised and given 50 days to find a new partner; if they fail, they get turned into an animal of their choice. Inmates can extend their stay by hunting down singletons living off the grid and hiding away. Their stay can get extended by one day per singleton shot. The single people also huddle in gangs and these are not without rules and restrictions either: no flirting, no coupling of any kind is allowed and the punishments can be terrible. There’s no place for single people or individual desires in this world and everyone in the city proper, where every singleton desires to return, has to carry documentation proving they’re in a couple or risk expulsion. The film gets very large laughs from its very low-key tone, restrained to the point of seeming recessive but punctuated by  periodic bursts that embrace the absurd and that result in surreal and very funny explosions of the unexpected, sometimes including slapstick. There’s a moment where the Colin Farrell character kicks a child that elicited the same kind of disturbed laughter we get when the groundsman shoots the child in L’Age d’or. An extraordinary film.


José Arroyo

Brooklyn (John Crowley, Ireland, 2015)

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banner-brooklyn-Brooklyn_Film_844x476Brooklyn is funny and charming, with great delicacy of tone, a marvellously restrained performance from Saoirse Ronan and a great comic turn from Julie Walters. I found it quite touching though the last half-hour dragged a bit. I do think it worth seeing on a big screen as much of what matters is in the details and it doesn’t have enough plot or incident to properly propulse it though a small screen. From some angles, Ronan’s eyes seem aqua-green and seem to indicate she possesses all the secrets of existence but won’t tell them you just now.


José Arroyo

Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007)

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chris and don a love story

 Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.

Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin, Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish,  famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney  and so famous for their salons that George Cukor  set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.

However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him.  Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice  The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.

Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care  and affection. Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies with their incredible colors that alone evoke a lost world, the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.

Isherwood/Bachardy  meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by Society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.  The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on  signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.


Bette Davis  —  shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him,  and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to then,   being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants, and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.

Available to see on Sky Arts

José Arroyo

The Lady in the Van (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2015)

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the lady in the van

It seems a sin that Maggie Smith’s performance in Lady in the Van — surely one of the very greatest in living memory — be showcased in as drab-looking, poorly directed, and stagily-structured film. Alan Bennett — Mr. Modest, Mr. Timid and Mr. Professional Yorkshireman — also turns out to have an ego the size of the Twin Towers, appearing in four different guises throughout the film, two as himself doubled by excellent impersonations from Alex Jennings, one as one of the Alex Jennings Bennetts appearing in ‘Talking Heads’ at The National, and yet one more time, as the real Alan Bennett coming to greet the fictional Alan Bennett as he’s shooting a film about Alan Bennett, like the coy milking of applause by an ageing diva, half-hiding behind the fan of her previous celebrity, saying ‘no, please, little old me?’ with one hand and urging the audience to amp up the applause with the other. It’s shameless.

There are lots of laughs, almost all from Smith, and lots that is unspeakably bad, almost all due to Hytner, who doesn’t seem to know the basics of using a camera, or lights or sound or editing; and who uses the device of the two Alan Bennetts speaking to each other – an old trick that is hoary now even on stage – without any imagination as to sight or sound on film and is a device that holds up the narrative. Also, there’s so much reading of narration (all timid Bennett’s of course as read by modest Bennett) you sometimes wonder whether the filmmakers remembered they were making a movie. Maggie Smith, star that she is, survives, rises above all this naff incompetence, and in my humble view gives the finest comic performance on film since Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, in spite of the director who doesn’t know how to showcase her, and in spite of a writer who tries to push her out of the picture to make room for himself.

The film rewards viewing as an embodiment and prime exemplar of the many negative qualities historically ascribed to British cinema and as a lesson to future filmmakers in what to avoid.

José Arroyo



WNO’s Production of Sweeney Todd, Birmingham Hippodrome, 19th of November

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ST-Gallery-Image-08_0The Welsh National Opera’s Production of Sweeney Todd was a pretty typical opera rendition of a musical: the voices were superb; the singing more concerned with hitting the right notes than with conveying mood and feeling; the acting was weak and generally lacking in characterisation; and the whole show was slow and had a rather portentous tone: it lacked verve and pizzazz. The audience, however, lapped it up. What I was most interested in, aside from listening to one of the very greatest of Broadway musical scores played by an excellent orchestra, was the staging.

manon_lescaut_1_6584359            The WNO has been doing very daring things with video mapping, lighting and other aspects of mise-en-scène. Seeing Mariusz Trelinski’s gorgeously inventive joint productions of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude (see image below) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (see image above), with its neon frames, video imagings of Occupied Paris and film noir effects in the 2013-14 season was a revelation and remains thrilling to think about. It seemed to bring together the visual and narrative possibilities of cinema with immediacy of theatre and the emotional power of great voices and expert musicians singing and playing in the now. Each production was ver powerful, seeing them together made them made them even richer, and both have left a vivid imprint.

boulevard solitudeSweeney Todd is not as visually exciting though there is a wonderful moment at the beginning when I thought what we were seeing was a video image mapped onto a bed-sheet of Sweeney Todd with his wife and child before he was sent to prison for 15 years, the catalyst to the narrative, which turned out to be ingenious work of lighting from Chris Davey, and becomes a thrilling theatrical moment when the characters appear from behind the sheet — which stands in for their flat and, later still, for the barbershop — and start descending onto the stage.

jamie muscato
Jamie Muscato’s Anthony Hope sings his love to Johanna

Though one can quibble about the performative and interpretative dimensions of the singing, it was still a joy to hear those powerful, trained voices singing that brilliant score. The one performer I would like to single out, however, is Jamie Muscato’s Anthony Hope. Everytime he came onstage and opened his mouth, something beautiful happened that seemed to offer hope not only to the character of Johanna but to us. The one performer who not only had a great voice but who used it expressively to convey feeling, and did so in a way that was powerful, immediate and touching.

Edinburgh Fringe Production 2015

In spite of all my reservations, and though in some ways it was not the equal of a school production from Eltham I saw earlier in the year in Edinburgh, I would have relished a chance to see it again


José Arroyo



Jessica Jones (created by Melissa Rosenberg, Netflix, 2015-)

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jessica jones

The best of the comic-book-connected series that I saw last week was Jessica Jones on Netflix. It initially reminded me of Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warchowski novels: a solitary female detective scouring the nights of the city to solve crime, often of a corporate nature, sometimes drinking herself to oblivion, interested in men and sexually active but in a series of failed relations and with a neighbour in the building that appears regularly to comment on the action, provide a change of tone, and not help. Warchowski used to get beaten up a lot in the novels too if I remember correctly.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.03.06Jessica Jones is smart. and sexual; she’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. She can take it, she says. Jessica’s drinking way more than what’s good for her, trying to forget something terrible that’s happened which is clearly indicated as some kind of rape though what we’re shown is a mental violation —  to the point of physical possession and erasure of will — and  with jarring but indistinct sexual overtones. So here we have a woman, just like men in the best noir’s, trying to survive in a dangerous world, drinking to forget someone who’s bruised her beyond repair, doing her best to earn a living, and screwing with whatever looks tasty and doesn’t cause too much trouble: It saves on the drink. The opening line in the series, spoken in voice-over, is a great one: ‘New York may be a city that never sleeps but it sure does sleep around. Not that I’m complaining. Cheaters are good for business. A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people.’

The voice-over, the tone, and the graphics all place us firmly in a noir world, one which interestingly seems like of an inverse negative of the up-to-now more successful DC series like Supergirl and The Flash;  Arrow also, for though the latter is visually coded in noir, it’s a noir that looks to light and sunshine.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.03.09Jessica seems less mentally strong than Warchowski. In fact she’s been the victim of a man’s mindfuck — he took over her mind and made her do ‘things’– and then the episode reveals, discretely, some superpowers which we don’t yet know the extent of. It has a great noir look too, at least as imaginative at that of Daredevil and is more interstingly polysexual and multiracial than the series on ‘The Man Without Fear’. The object of desire here is who will be revealed to be Luke Cage, a hunky black bartender, made to seem lusciously desirable, who we are shown to have slept with a black woman before Jessica. The series is treading carefully on the politics of representation.

This seems a more complex series than Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow or even Daredevil; it’s less camp than Gotham, and a lot more enticing than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The plot revolves around rescuing a young athlete from the same series of events that seem to have only recently crushed her and has a wonderful twist at the end.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.03.38Krysten Ritter has an intriguing look of crumpled intelligence. Her face seems poised in a state of smirky disappointment and can look very beautiful and also quite down-at-heel. Carrie Anne Moss appears as a two-timing lesbian corporate lawyer who sometimes throws crumbs of work Jessica’s way. The first episode moved really well,  with the editing evoking a sense of a dangerous past impinging on the present, something that could be a memory but could also be a presence and in either way dangerous. It’s very sexy too, with the sex being a context for an exchange of tough-talking dares that reveal as much as they hide. I look  forward to the following episodes.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.03.53 (1)

José Arroyo


My TV This Week, 21st November

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ballet 422

I installed Now TV, Google Chromecast and also subscribed to Netflix last week so much of my cultural consumption this week has been spent trying to explore their offerings. I very much enjoyed seeing Ballet 422 in which Justin Peck, a member of New York City Ballet’s ‘corps de ballet’ is chosen to choreograph a new work. The series follows Peck from the moment he starts his choreography to the moment the work is premiered at Lincoln Centre.

I find ballet glamorous and moving in its idealisation of art in posh settings. Here are all these young people, totally committed, totally absorbed, totally disciplined; sacrificing their youth, their beauty, their health and most likely their future earning power for art in full knowledge that even the very best in the world can mostly only expect to eke out a living in that milieu for a few years, that that form is ephemeral and disappears at the very moment of enactment, and that only the rich or the fanatically committed have access to that art they serve. At the end of Ballet 422 there’s a moment when Peck is in front of the house with the audience — proud Mom by his side — as he thrills to see his work onstage; then as soon as the houselights dim, he dashes backstage, changes into costume, and joins all the other background dancers onstage for the next ballet, ego submerged, the collective over the individual, always part of a company, now back to anonymity within it. I found it moving.

hollywood singing and dancing

I also loved seeing Hollywood: Singing and Dancing on Sky Arts, a thirteen-episode history of film musicals narrated by Shirley Jones. It’s one of those series that not only has clips from the main figures — Garland, Astaire, Chevalier etc– but also includes delicious rare clips from B musicals featuring the likes of The Andrew Sisters and the Big Bands and Peggy Lee; the filmmakers prove very knowledgeable. All styles of the genre are well represented and the long form means the series is luxuriously peppered with glorious numbers. It’s also great to see Mickey Rooney’s appreciation of Eleanor Powell, hear why Leslie Caron didn’t like Busby Berkeley musicals (all the strict formations reminded her of the Nazis) and hear Shirley MacLaine’s views on Maurice Chevalier, whom she worked with on Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and Louis Jourdan: ‘’Chevalier was a supreme narcissist. He knew who he was; jeez he never forgot it. He was Mr. France and knew it but after all he *was* Chevalier. I liked him very much’.



Supergirl is the reason I subscribed to Now TV: I was so eager to see it! And I so wanted to like it. It’s perhaps the most overtly feminist series on television ever. It’s got a female superhero with a sister who in spite of not having super-powers also does daring things. They look after each other. Jimmy Olson is now black. It’s got Calista Flockhart doing a Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and in fine form…and yet. I didn’t quite get into Arrow either though I haven’t fully given that a chance yet. Likewise the few episodes of The Flash I have seen doesn’t tempt me to see more. Perhaps I’m now too old for this kind of thing. And ye, as i’ve written here previously,  I happily sat through the whole first series of Daredevil….

The best of the comic-book connected series that I saw last week was  Jessica Jones on Netflix on which more later…


José Arroyo


Daredevil: A Note and a Question

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I’ve been loving the first season of Daredevil currently on Netflix. The whole myth of origin, so cumbersome and dull in a feature film of finite length, has more space to breathe and to develop here in ways that entice and excite: we see young Matt Murdock’s relationship with his boxer father; the reasons and pressures Murdock Sr. had for throwing fights, how Matt became blind and had his senses enhanced, how both are gluttons for punishment and able to take extremes of it; later in the season, in episode seven, we get to see how Stick (Scott Glenn), the equally blind sensei, came to train him in martial arts; why he did so is left enticingly murky and is clearly a narrative touchstone for the character to return, one highly anticipated by me.

Uncluttered compositions, even in crowd scenes
Uncluttered, relatively sparse compositions

I loved seeing Scott Glenn in the series. But isn’t Vincent D’Onofrio also a great Kingpin? And he’s the main antagonist, with his own backstory given almost as much importance as Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) so we get to see a lot of him, though not as much as I’d like. Watching Daredevil and the first episode of Supergirl made me realise that marvellous actors such as Glenn, D’Onofrio, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Rosario Dawson and Calista Flockhart seem to have found a home with room for expression in this type of TV and what a treat, a recurring one, it to see old familiar faces in such great form.

simple lines like in a comic book panel
simple lines like in a comic book panel

However, what to me was a truly unexpected delight, is how much pleasure the look of the series gave me. It definitely feels like TV: the image doesn’t have as much depth or texture as you’d expect in a movie, the frame is relatively bare, it’s not as textured an image. However, I’m finding the neon-noir look of the movie so beautifully designed and filmed that what might initially seem a fault is actually a plus; colours are used brilliantly, in bold big lines, or occupying entire sectors of the frame in large blocks, and usually associated with a character or a theme. The spare lines of the image are used in the same way comic-book frames are, and the outlines themselves are beautifully expressive in their sparseness. The lack of texture draws the eye onto the TV frame clearly onto what’s important and attempts for maximum expressiveness within that limitation.

Blocks of colour, not the neon greenish-hued aquamarine in the background.
Blocks of colour, not the neon greenish-hued aquamarine in the background.

Loren Weeks and Scott Murphy are credited for the Production Design and Toni Barton for the Art Direction of the first series and they deserve to take a bow. It’s truly superb. I was also ready to throw bouquets to Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography until I got to episode 12, ‘The Ones We Left Behind’ and noticed how badly filmed Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his wife were in the hospital sequence. Like they hadn’t been properly lit. Like Matthew J. Lloyd doesn’t know how to film black people. The whole series is a noir; the faces are meant to be encased in shadows; but there is a way of lighting black people to achieve the same effect that doesn’t make their faces almost entirely dissolve into the darkness. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it?

Black actors seem to disappear.
Black actors seem to disappear.

José Arroyo

A splosh of red-on-white in a blue and black background
A splosh of red-on-white in a blue and black background

José and Nicky in Bucharest

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In the light of recent events in Paris and Beirut, I thought I’d make a video of some footage I took of the demonstrations in Bucharest last weekend. It’s not equivalent to them and I don’t want to reduce our visit to Bucharest into a kind of Social Disintegration Tourism. Bucharest will be remembered by Nicky Smith and myself for the kindness and generosity of its citizens, for the ballet, the food, the antiques; for seeing how beautiful the nearby Carpathians are; and, most lastingly, for being introduced to the work of the great Geta Brātescu by new friends. But 51 people lost there lives there; and there were also nightly demonstrations against what seemed senseless loss, in this case sparked by corruption; and somehow the seeming instability — not at all evident when walking through the city in daytime — the expression of dissatisfaction, of protest against a larger injustice is both linked to and distinct from recent events. In Bucharest, there was no fear; one could walk down the streets safely and find a place to read or a place to dance. But it does demonstrate that the sense of dissatisfaction and upheaval is one shared across Europe and the Middle-East.

José Arroyo

One of the times I interviewed Almodóvar

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I’ve been trying, whenever I remember,  to signal articles that I wrote elsewhere but  are easily available online. This was one of the interviews I did with Almodóvar in his middle period for The Guardian:

Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2000)

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sight and sound cover

I just came across this piece on Dancer in the Dark I wrote a long time ago for Sight and Sound. It’s now online at:

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1944)

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phantom lady poster

The lights went out in American cinema just before the iron curtain went down in Europe. ‘ In Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, we’re told, ‘”Film noir” is literally “black film,” not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.’[1] According to James Naremore, ‘thrillers of the 1940s and 50s…were perversely erotic, confined largely to interiors, photographed in a deep-focus style that seemed to reveal the secret life of things, and often derived from the literature of alcohol – a substance especially conducive to desire, enervation, euphoria, confusion and nightmare…Indeed the narratives themselves are often situated on the margins of dream as if to intensify the surrealist atmosphere of violent confusion or disequilibrium that (French critics) Borde and Chaumeton regard as the very basis of noir’[2].


Fig A
Fig A

Noirs have never ceased being in vogue but interest has been even stronger than usual recently with the BFI publishing its Top Ten list of American noirs and an interesting infographic on what makes a noir also from the BFI trending on social media. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of overlooked noirs has also been making the rounds. Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady fits most of the characteristics they all describe but doesn’t make Rosenbaum’s list. It seems a key noir but one that doesn’t feature as much in the discussions of the mode as one might expect. Though released the same year as Double Indemnity and a popular success in its day – it’s the film that really jumpstarted Siodmak’s career — Phantom Lady is a noir treasured primarily by connoisseurs of the genre.

Iconic noir imagery
Iconic noir imagery

Phantom Lady begins with an extraordinary close-up of the back of a woman’s head (Fig A). She’s wearing an ostentatious fur-lined hat whose plumes extend practically to the edges of the 4-3 frame (see fig. 1). Who is this woman? Why so ostentatious a hat? Why is she filmed from behind? Why is the focus shallow so that the emphasis is on the back of her head and on her hat? Who is this faceless woman with fur and plumes? All will be important but the film doesn’t tell us right away. Instead, the camera pulls back, the set comes into focus – a bar –we see a barman, the woman turns her head, shows us her face and we see her borrow a nickel. The camera begins to pursue her, but we don’t know where her destination is because rather than trail her there, the camera instead follows an incoming man to the bar.

Regis Toomey is always in character
Regis Toomey is always in character

In three minutes a world, a mood, and a dilemma are clearly established. A lonely man meets a lonely woman bar. He’s got tickets for a hit show but has been stood up. Will she join him? The woman, hysterical for reasons not yet known to us, agrees but only on condition that they don’t exchange names and addresses. From the first shot, the film hooks us narratively and has us purring with pleasure at the skilled and inventive visual storytelling. Just as importantly, from the first scene, the élan and complexity of the staging, announces that one is witnessing the work of a great director.

Rainy streets
Rainy streets

I felt like David Parkinson, when he writes on ‘How I Fell for Robert Siodmak’, there are some directors, ‘who knock you for six the first time you encounter one of their films, with the result that you not only remember that particular epiphany for years to come but immediately want to see more of their work.’ Phantom Lady proved a similar encounter with Robert Siodmak for me as well: the staging at the scenes at the bar, the angles, the shooting in depth, the travelling shots across the bar, it’s not dazzling, it doesn’t strike you dumb, but one just purrs with pleasure at seeing a filmmaker who knows his way around camera and mise-en-scène as ingeniously as Siodmak does here.

Hands that create and kill
Hands that create and kill

In another excellent piece on noir for the BFI, Parkinson writes: ‘Siodmak didn’t patent the noir formula, but he showed how to blend German expressionism and French existentialism with American angst and, in the process, he directed more canonical landmarks than anyone else in the new genre’s heyday. Dismayed by the world around him, Siodmak examined societal injustice, domestic turmoil, gender conflict, sexual repression, psychological trauma and the rise of the career criminal. Preferring to shoot on controllable studio sets rather than on location, he used deep-focus photography, precise camera moves, meticulously designed mises-en-scène and sculpted lighting effects to create milieux beset by paranoia, greed, lust, obsession and violence. Multiple flashbacks, rapid cuts, mirrored images and unsettling scores reinforced the sense of urban alienation, moral decay and nightmarish paranoia.’ Not all of these are evident in Phantom Lady but most are; and that’s part of the enduring fascination of the film for me: how a film that is not quite good enough can still be a canonical noir, arguably the ur-text of the genre (though I’m quite happy to use cycle or style or mode if that better fits your understanding of the body of films. I in fact prefer cycle to refer to these films from the early 40’s to late 50s).

Madness, murder and modern art
Madness, murder and modern art

Phantom Lady raises interesting dilemmas; it’s the work of someone who has a mastery of the medium but who doesn’t quite have control of the material he’s given to work with; it’s also one of the most memorable and significant of the cycle of 40s film noirs, sharing the same sense of dislocation and alienation, the trope of the investigation or search for the woman – and this film manages to find several ‘phantom ladies’ –; the distinctive high key-lighting that encases a world in shadows that are not merely landscape or background but moral and in this case almost metaphysical. Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell, through their skill at composition and lighting, make of these shadows and shapes some of the most beautiful and haunting images of 1940s cinema. Yet, the pulpiness of the material – adapted by Bernard C. Shoenfeld from a Cornell Woolrich novel he wrote under the name of William Irish — and some of the worst acting of any landmark film prevent this from being as good a film as its impact would suggest.

Lamposts, dark streets and transparent raincoats evoke Lang's Scarlett Street.
Lamposts, dark streets and transparent raincoats evoke Lang’s Scarlett Street.

Yet the film is full of interesting tangents; extra-diegetically, the screenplay is credited Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s past and future collaborator. Does this have any bearing on the film’s focusing on a woman who’s impersonating women, performing different types of femininity, and in search of a ‘Phantom Lady’ to help save the man she loves? The film also has proffers a wink to Carmen Miranda, the other and extra-diegetic Chica Boom Girl, then at the height of her fame and being impersonated by everyone, perhaps most famously Mickey Rooney. . Franchot Tone, the biggest marquee star in the film, only appears half-way through and as a villain. The film links the then fashionable Freudian psychology to madness, and links the villain to Modern Art explicitly by associating him with Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Serial killing and Modern Art go together in this film.

Visually the film clearly owes a debt to German Expressionism and the use of lighting, canted angles and overt symbolism is fascinating particularly in the extraordinary sequence where Elisha Cook Jr. jams with the jazz band. The scene with the secretary following the barman to get him to confess that he does know the ‘Phantom Lady’ are also examples of superb noir mise-en-scène: staged in depth, the film begins by showing Carol (Ella Raines)alone, staring; then people gather, then she’s the only there, then she disappears. Later, when we’re shown her following him, amidst these little pools of light illuminating little but the rain, we only see her (superb) legs. There’s then this wonderful moment at the train station when they’re waiting for the train and each of them is acting with their eyes, and there’s this instant when it’s indicated he might push her but for this black lady entering the station. It’s a lovely moment of tension, indecision; the hint that something much darker than what we’ve seen so far is a possibility. The whole scene culminates in the bartender being run over by a car whilst trying to get away from her. She’s wearing a plastic see-through rain-coat not unlike Joan Bennett’s in Scarlett Street; whilst all that’s left of the duplicitous barman is his hat, in a puddle of water on the road, glistening from the light of the street lamps in the cold dark night.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 10.41.50

The film is marred by the performances of the leads. Allan Curtis is handsome but very wooden. Ella Raines is very beautiful if stiff as the good-girl secretary and then hams it up way too broadly when she impersonates the good-time girl. As already indicated Franchot Tone appears late in the movie, as the hero’s best friend, and everything that prevented him from being a star — he can pass for handsome but isn’t quite, there’s a slight superior sourness to his puss and a kind of distancing to his person, part of the reason that though highly regarded as an actor, he never quite made it as a star – is used very effectively here. Indeed, Siodmak does better with the supporting players – Regis Toomey is a delight as the detective who’s always hewing gum, always in character, always focused on what’s happening on the scene. His eyes are always doing something, particularly noticeable in relation to the lovely lump that is Alan Curtis. And of course the superb Elisha Cook Jr. as the nervy, needy, and seedy sideman.

Is a plumed hat the solution to Modern Art?
Is a plumed hat the solution to Modern Art?

Structurally, the film has a fascinating premise: everyone remembers him (the bartender, the cabdriver) but no one remembers her; she’s the Phantom Lady. Visually, the film is beautiful with arguably as many images that are both typical and iconic as in any noir. The writing is pulpy; the acting often amateurish and stiff. But, oh the direction: the direction is a thing of beauty. After I saw The Spiral Staircase last year, I wrote, The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them’. This is at least as true of Phantom Lady but with even more beautiful images and ingeniously directed scenes that act almost as contemporary set-pieces. A B-movie, but one in which phantom ladies, masquerades, performativity, modern art, madness and desire intersect in dark and rainy urban streets; A B-movie directed by a master of the medium.

José Arroyo

phantom lady book

[1] Alan Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio, ‘Introduction: The Classic Period’ Film Noir: The Encyclopedia London: Overlook Duckworth, 2010, p. 15.

[2] James Naremore, ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, no. 2. (Winter, 1995-960, pp. 12-28, pp. 18-19.

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent

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Can I Go Now cover

Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent

By Brian Kellow

New York: Viking, 2015

A biography of the greatest agent of one of the greatest periods of American cinema is a book to read; especially if that agent is a woman; and even more so, if she zings one-liners like Sue Mengers.

Brian Kellow’s book is admirably researched and a great read. We learn that Mengers was Jewish, born in Hanover, and that her family only emigrated to the US in 1935. Kellow depicts Menger’s struggles with her mother as the driving force in her life: ‘My mother, the Gorgon’ says Mengers in the very first sentence of Chapter One. But surely hazard, chance, the luck to have ended up in New York whilst many of her relatives in Germany ended up in ovens must also have informed her very particular way of being in the world and helped shape her actions?

In the first few chapters, Kellow depicts Mengers as a character out of  Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything: a combination of Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen from Mad Men in the process of becoming like a character in a Jacqueline Sussann novel. She begins intelligent, hard-working, and with incredible drive and proceeds to shed her inhibitions in order to get what she wants, all the while scheming to get more power, and more permanent sources of it, than  transient desirability could be cashed for. That’s how Mengers worked her way from acting school (she was pretty enough to think of becoming a star), to working as a general receptionist at MCA, then run by Lew Wasserman, to working as Jay Kanter’s secretary. Kanter was the agent for Brando, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe amongst others; and Mengers took and made the calls. If the boys of her stature, the Geffens and the Ovitzes, made it up through the mailroom, Mengers – and she had no peer amongst women – made it through the secretarial pool.

In 1957 Mengers left MCA, landed at the Baum and Newborn Agency — smaller but offering more room to rise — and by ‘59, Sue was secretary to Charles Baker, head of the theatre department at the William Morris Agency, one of the biggest, oldest and most respected in the business and still run by the legendary Abe Lastfogel, who had joined in 1912. Whilst there, Mengers met Alice Lee “Boaty” Boatwright, a young casting director who was to become a great aid, resource and life-long friend. One of the interesting things about the book is that it demonstrates that whilst Mengers could play with the boys, and on their own terms, she earned and enjoyed the trust and confidence of the girls.

In 1963 Mengers went to work for Korman Associates, another small firm whose list was mainly B, and whose most famous client was probably Joan Bennett. By then, Bennett’s star had plummeted to such depths that a leading role in the ABC-TV hit daytime soap, Dark Shadows, was considered a career boost (Interestingly, it was produced by Lela Swift, who also directed 588 episodes). Mengers was relentless in pursuing new talent, always already stars — she didn’t have the patience to develop unknowns — and made such a name for herself that people, famous people, were already talking about her.

Menbgers was friends with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, then at the peak of their stardom; Nicky Haslam, already the jet setting society designer, and Gore Vidal and his partner Howard Austen — whom Mengers would become deeply devoted to — and many others. According to Haslam, Vidal and Mengers made ‘topping jokes, topping remarks. They wouldn’t exactly put people down; they would just to react to what people said with much funnier lines.’

Mengers had a talent for friendship. She had the wit and the chutzpah to be what was then called a ‘fag hag’ —  she was at ease with gay men and their culture and shared in the outsider’s ironic stance; she could be a man’s woman – she certainly loved the boys; and, most importantly, she was a girly girl who helped many of what would become the most powerful women in Hollywood in the Blockbuster Era (Sherry Lansing and Elaine Goldsmith) get a leg-up in the business. Many of her friendships would be lifelong ones and she inspired rare devotion in her friends if not always in her clients.

Part of Mengers’ attraction was her smarts, her flouting of social conventions and her wit. She’d been Constance Bennett’s agent in the 60s when the 30s Diva was finding it hard to get a job and, after much hard work, landed her a choice part as Lana Turner’s mother in Madame X, only to have Bennett hound her for star billing or at least her name in a box. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage shortly after making the film and Mengers couldn’t resist quipping, ‘Well, at least she’s got her box now’. After the Manson gang murdered Sharon Tate in her home, she soothed an anxious Barbra Streisand by telling her, ‘Don’t worry honey. Stars aren’t being murdered. Only featured players’. And famously, ‘if you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me.’

Mengers relished having so many of the top stars and directors of a defining epoch in American cinema on her roster, amongst them: Gene Hackman, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols and even Brian de Palma. But she saw Barbra Streisand, then the biggest star not only in the movies but in the whole of the world of entertainment, as the lynchpin to her roster. She considered her a ‘soul’ sister, managed her career throughout the 70s and would be devastated when Streisand left her in ’81.

Nonetheless, throughout the 70s, Mengers personified the figure of ‘The Hollywood Agent’ in American Culture, the only woman ever to do so. CBS 60 Minutes, then a top-ten network show and one of the most respected news programs on American television, did a profile of her in her trademark pink shades, speaking in her baby girl voice: ‘I was a little pisher, a little nothing, making $135 a week as a secretary for the William Morris agency in New York,’ she tells Mike Wallace,’…and I thought, Gee, what they do isn’t that hard, you know. And I like the way they live, and I like those expense accounts, and I like the cars…And I suddenly thought: that beats typing.

Sue Mengers has been a legend for a long time. In 1973’s The Last of Sheila, Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, a client, based the character of the bulldozing agent played by Dyan Cannon on Mengers. And everyone in the know, and even some who weren’t quite, knew who was being referred to. As recently as 2013, Bette Midler played her in the hit Broadway play, I’ll Eat You Last. Mengers is a myth and a legend.

What Kellow does in Can I Go Now? that’s so great is that he a brings the person to life ; we get to know the funniness, the love of pot, the talent for bringing people together at dinner parties, the good times and the good business. Kellow also does an excellent job of charting the development of the agency business in the US – the book is a great, more personal companion to Frank Rose’s excellent The Agency: William Morris and the Secret History of Showbusiness and to Connie Bruck’s equally good When Hollywood had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. The book is also a marvellously entertaining recounting of some of the biggest deals in the business, featuring some of the most important stars and movies of that great decade of American Cinema, the 70s. It’s a book to read.

José Arroyo

Judy Garland on Judy Garland

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judy garland on Judy Garland

Judy Garland on Judy Garland, edited by Randy L. Schmidt. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014

It could be argued that of all Studio-Era stars, Judy Garland is the one that continues to be most present in the culture; most seen and heard, most discussed, indeed so much of a reference point that we might take her presence for granted. Every Easter we see her in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire; every Christmas it’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in Meet Me in St. Louis; not a year goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz, recently even in Cinemas and in 3-D. Her death in 1969 was said to have sparked the Stonewall Riots, the subject of one of this year’s great flop movies. She’s a gay icon. But the obsession with her life and career is, as Susan Boyt so movingly demonstrated in the excellent My Judy Garland Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), not limited to gay males d’un certain age. End of the Rainbow, a musical show about her life, is still touring after its debut in 2005, and Tracie Bennett won the Tony for her performance in the play in 2012. This year, Lorna Luft, the other Garland daughter, has been touring the UK in The Judy Garland Songbook and Variety just announced that The Judy Garland Show, which ran for a short time in 1963 and 1964, would, with The Merv Griffin show, anchor the new Talk-Variety block on Get TV.

All the above is a context as to why I was so eager to read Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters. In the back cover of the book, Sam Irvin, author of Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, tells us, ‘The Holy Grail for fans of Judy Garland! Randy Schmidt is the Indiana Jones of Garland archaeology. Never before has Judy been given such laser-focused spotlight to speak for herself – and like her greatest musical perofrmances, she takes center stage and wows us with every phrase.’ After reading the book, my first thought was, ‘who does Sam Irvin think he’s kidding’?

The book is composed of interviews garnered from radio, the fan magazines, newspapers and later television. They’re organised by decade. The first two deades are clearly studio stage-managed. Thus in the 30s we get a lot about how Judy’s stuck ‘In-Between’, the title of one of her great hits of the period, where she’s not yet a child but can’t quite go on dates. The forties are very much a way of stage-managing the public reception of her love life; mentions of Artie Shaw and then her elopement with David Rose, her subsequent marriage and divorce with Vincente Minnelli and the birth of Liza. The fifties are only partially covered and we only get slected interviews mainly from the fan magazines until 1955, thus covering the period where she was fired from MGM to the moment just after the release of A Star is Born. The Sixties is expectedly necrophiliac but covers a greater diversity of material, including excellent interviews with Art Buchwald and a transcript from a superb interview with Gypsy Rose Lee on TV.

On the one hand, it’s great to see these collected in one volume. On the other, most of them are quite readily available and the ones culled from TV or radio would be so much better to listen to or watch that one feels disappointed. One doesn’t really begin to hear her ‘voice’ until the sixties, though there are some hints in the 50s material as well.

There’s no question that this is rich source material; and that Randy L. Schmidt has done a good job of collating it together. But reading through the material one wishes someone had offered an analysis or more of a context for each of those periods covered as it raises a lot of questions and answers none: Are Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland the key popularisers of the concept of the teenager in the twentieth century?;How did what Garland mean evolve throughout the 40s?  Is anything Garland did in the 50s different to what Sinatra did and is the differing ways they were imaged and publicised not a continued marker of an oppressive sexism? How could someone who worked at that pace across so many media and into middle age in the Sixties avoid drugs and alcohol when much younger people in that decade where much quicker to succumb? How could someone who never stopped working and always earned top dollar never have any money (i.e. were Freddie Fields and David Begelman, her managers in the sixties, thieves?} These are the questions the book raises, though it is perhaps unfair to expect a book of this kind – a collection of interviews – to answer them; though I wish someone would.

Thus a good collection of interviews, with quite a lot of repetition amongst them, less context and analysis then one would have hoped even within the scope of such a book, and ultimately a disappointment.

For Garland completists only.

José Arroyo

Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers

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Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers

London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2015.

It’s always a mistake for any biography to announce itself as ‘definitive’ in the title: it invites contradiction; and on the evidence of reading Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, it will not be the last word on the great star: the interior life, what drove him at different stages in his life, even why so many of his film performances continue to thrill when the films themselves don’t, are questions the book does not answer satisfactorily.

But to say that it is not definitive is not to say that it is not good. In fact it’s the best one we’ve got so far and Robert Sellers has conducted dozens of new interviews, dug up and clarified essential facts that we did not know or which were not clear before – for example, he firmly establishes that whilst his father was Irish and his mother Scottish, O’Toole himself was born in Leeds – and we even get charming nuggets such as the following: ‘O’Toole left RADA, aged twenty-three, with a little blue book that every student was given upon graduation, The RADA Keepsake and Counsellor. It gave indispensable advice for the rocky road that lay ahead, gems like: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the job as long as the shoes you were wearing at the audition were clean.’

Sellers is very good at contextualising O’Toole’s first steps as an actor. We learn that O’Toole ended up in the same class at RADA as Albert Finney and Alan Bates; actors who would really come into their own and symbolise a new type of British cinema in the sixties. Interestingly, of these, and even if one were to include his great friend Richard Harris, O’Toole is the one who would remain least associated with the dominant currents of British Cinema in this period. He’s got no equivalent to Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Harris’ This Sporting Life and Bates is almost exclusively associated with British Cinema (Georgy Girl, Women in Love, The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, etc.). O’Toole was different. His first big splash was in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, where Noel Coward quipped he was so pretty he should have been called Florence of Arabia. It was a ‘runway production’; British story, director etc. but also international money and international stars (Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff); a typical Sam Spiegel production. And it’s interesting that many of O’Toole’s greatest success or most famous films of the 60s would have strong associations with Britain but all be in one way or another ‘international’: Becket, Lion in Winter, Lord Jim, Goodbye Mr. Chips, even, in different ways, What’s New Pussycat.

Sellers is marvellous at illuminating his work in theatre. He interviews lots of his contemporaries, co-stars, people who worked with him in various capacities and their accounts are vivid and illuminating. We do get real insight into his time at the Bristol Old Vic, his star-making turn at the Royal Court and the West End in The Long and the Short and the Tall in 59, his legendary performance as Shylock at Stratford for Peter Hall, the famously disastrous Macbeth in 1980 and of course late triumphs such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. These aspects of the book are excellent .

The personal life, his relationship with his father and with his son, with his two wives and two daughters, all of these are sketched out clearly if a bit unsatisfactorily, though the fault here might be more with this reader’s wanting to know more than with the way the book tells it. Certainly Sellers seems to have had unprecedented access to the family and to personal papers, all of which are put to good use in the book.

The picture is of a star who continues to dazzle, a man with somewhat bipolar tendencies who drank to unconsciousness during one part of his life and until his body could take it no more; a selfish but good man; a literary man who delighted in performing and in the admiration and applause of others. This is all vividly sketched. So why the grumbling? I suppose I would have wanted more on the film career; that’s what we see now; that’s what matters disproportionally now; that was a large part of his life then. As the book makes clear, he loved being a film star. Lastly, I don’t think we get enough of a sense of who Peter O’Toole was as a person; his actions are clearly narrated and well-documented by the book; his fears, dreams, desires still remain opaque. I suppose we can consult O’Toole’s own excellent autobiographies: Loitering With Intent: The Child and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice. But they’re only partially revealing, and only on that period before he became famous. Nonetheless, these are perhaps the grumblings of a fan: Sellers’ book tells us so much more than we already knew that it’s begrudging to criticise him for not telling us as much as we want to know. Thus the book might not be definitive. But it is essential to anyone who wants to know more about Peter O’Toole.

José Arroyo

Grace Jones: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

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Grace Jones: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

by Grace Jones, as told to Paul Morley, London: Simon and Schuster, 2015.

It’s out, seems written rather than dictated — a credit to the writing of Paul Morley –full of wonderful imagery and in a unique voice; very intelligent too, with some of the most acute observations on the development of the discotheque and on disco music that I’ve ever read.

Why Grace Jones remains fascinating is clear:  throughout the 70s and eighties she was at the centre of a dynamic intersection of art, fashion, music and celebrity culture, with even a short but memorable raid into the movies; as a model in Paris, she roomed with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange; she was photographed by Helmut Newton, painted by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring designed for her videos, Issey Miyake and Kenzo designed her clothes, Phillip Treacy designed her hats, Jean-Paul Goude directed her videos. She was a star of Studio 54 when it was the centre of Club culture, the same for the Garage later, and Le Palace in Paris after that; she and Dolph Lundgren were the celebrity couple of their day and as visually striking as any duo in the 20th Century. She co-starred with Schwarzenegger and Eddy Murphy in their heyday and is one of the most memorable of Bond villains; and this is all be before we get to the music, which is, justly, what she is most celebrated for — she  produced music that has stood the test of time even as it vividly represents it;

The joy of reading this book is that as an intelligent woman, a cultured woman with lots of experience, she’s got a lot of perceptive things to say on all the cultural moments and movements she participated in, and she says it honestly and with warmth and a great deal of humour.  ‘I wanted what I did to be entertainment, but the entertainment that is really art that likes to party’. It was and is; and the book vividly demonstrates how and why Grace Jones is an artist.

José Arroyo

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, USA, 2015)

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Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, USA, 2015)

listen to me marlon

One sometimes can’t help but hoot at the notion that method actors created a new, more ‘realistic’ style of acting. One sees them now in old movies – James Dean, whom I love, is the most famous name that comes to mind — flailing about and being ever so ‘intense’ and, when one recovers one’s composure, one reads it, at best, as a style, different but no better, and sometimes a lot more mannered and worse than what preceded and followed it.

There are exceptions to all of this of courses. And Marlon Brando is one such. He’s simply a great actor, a monumental one. There are reasons why he was instantly celebrated, instantly influential, why he changed the course of American acting, first on stage and later on film. It is also worth remembering that in his heyday as a box office film star, his competition consisted of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford; more traditional film stars who often surpassed him in the box office rankings.

Brando was not only instantly influential but also instantly mythologised. In ‘The Glamour of Delinquency,’ writing not only from another century but from what seems another world, Pauline Kael says, ‘The United States has now achieved what critics of socialism have always posited as the end result of a socialist state: a prosperous, empty, uninspiring uniformity. (If we do not have exactly what Marx meant by a classless society, we do have something so close to it that the term is certainly no longer an alluring goal). What promises does maturity hold for a teenager: a guaranteed annual wage, taxes, social security, hospitalization insurance, and death….It may be because this culture offers nothing that stirs youthful enthusiasm that it has spewed up a negative reaction: for the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn’t even have a program, and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando.’[1]

That’s quite a burden to put on anyone, much less young and anguished artist.

I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Marlon Brando. I’d read all the biographies, including his own rambly autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me; I’d seen the key films, and I felt my interest in Brando had been satiated, exhausted frankly. But Listen to Me Marlon is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. What the film has to offer that’s new is vast amounts of audiotape that Brando recorded for himself, sometimes to meditate, sometimes because he couldn’t get to sleep, sometimes because he wanted a record, evidence. But the film also edits these mountains of tape into a structure and a narrative and finds excellent images to accompany Marlon’s voice, speaking in his twilight years, in the night, and into the void, as a means of making sense of what’s happened, what he searched for and what he lost, what turned him from a beacon and into an overweight depressive who couldn’t even take care of that which he loved most, his children.

The film begins by Brando telling us that his face has been scanned by a computer, in motion, and whilst conveying different expressions and that, out of these, the computer could then generate much more, i.e. the actor is now unnecessary, even the actor’s job has been taken over by a machine. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why this can never be so, as we hear Brando recite some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, interspersed throughout the film, usually spoken to himself from memory — this is a language he loved that expressed something he felt to be true — to make sense of his life, very movingly. The first is from Macbeth:

‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing’

Brando’s career is a metaphor for America in what’s been called ‘The American Century’: so much talent, so much beauty, so much genius, so many gifts bestowed by the gods, so easily corrupted, thrown away, deprecated, debased; an amazing talent to turn the many bounties bestowed by the Gods into nasty, self-aggrandizing ugliness. Yet, the film makes us understand this. The abusive father, the shame and pity incurred by his mother’s being the town drunk, the insecurity engendered by the feeling that he wasn’t very bright, that all he had to offer was his beauty, his escape to New York and the freedom and release he found there. One senses that this rejection of Omaha, middle America, all the Rockwell Saturday Evening Post certainties, also gave him freedom. Impossible to dictate behaviour, norms, societal niceties to a child if one parent’s a wife beater and the other passes out on Main Street.

The freedom is what enabled him to search and to express that which he found, that which he found lacking, and that which he was searching for but couldn’t find. The film demonstrates what a great, versatile and original actor Brando was through a whole series of clips of his most celebrated performances: The Men, The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and many of his most infamous flops, including Chaplin’s The Millionairess and Mutiny on the Bounty. The one that struck me most is the moment in The Godfather where he’s told of his son Sonny’s death, acknowledges it, clearly tries to restrain the emotion that he’s feeling, but then he exhales from one side of his nose and half his face seems to collapse, indicating the depths of his grief thought an uncontrollable moment of breath. It’s such an original and beautiful acting choice: so right. One can’t imagine anyone else doing it and one can’t imagine Don Corleone feeling anything less.

Near the beginning of the film, when Brando’s describing his first days in New York, how kind Stella Adler had been to him and how much she taught him, the revelling in his triumph in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film evokes the same kind of nocturnal, alcohol fuelled, sexual freedom Gore Vidal so well describes in Palimpsest as being characteristic of New York in the late 40s. It was the ‘American Century’ but Americans had come back changed from the war and didn’t believe the old verities. Everything was possible.

Much of the film is devoted to showing the descent into tragedy; but the film very cleverly interweaves the triumphs with disaster; the great performances with the failed relationships; what his island in Tahiti meant to him with the fact that even an island couldn’t protect his children from misfortune; the box-office success wit the relationship with his father; his fight for civil rights and the rights of indigenous people with his own inability to keep his own home together. It’s a messy life the film presents, a complex one, riveting and moving

When he begins reciting Sonnet 29 into his tape:

‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising’

We don’t miss the last few lines of the sonnet:

‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’

The film makes us understand and feel his loneliness, his sense of failure; we regret that he gave up on acting around the time of Apocalypse Now. Decline was perhaps inevitable but Brando’s fall and the way he fell…it’s not only that he turned into a joke — the great beauty and sex symbol now so fat he could barely move, though even as a joke he never lost his popularly acknowledged title as ‘the greatest film actor of his generation, but that decline turned to tragedy: a son jailed for murder, a daughter committing suicide, nothing but fast food for comfort and only audiotape to talk through and make sense of his life.

It’s a great film; and though I’ve focussed here on the audiotape, there is also fantastic footage, not only from the films but from press conferences – Brando flirting with a journalist in the early sixties is something to behold – old tv shows showing him interviewed at home with his father, his marching with Dr. King and his speaking on behalf of Native Americans on Cavett. It’s a complex weave of a life with a central insight – that Brando overvalued sex and couldn’t understand or accept love, presumably until he had his own children. And there’s an interesting tension that the film provokes between how he saw himself, a small-town boy, abused and mistrustful, fundamentally decent, not too bright and what the world saw; a beautiful, explosive actor, seemingly capable of understanding and expressing all that people are capable of feeling.

Listen to Me Marlon is a film to see. In a superb recent interview with the director and some of his children in The Guardian, one of them, Miko Brando says, ‘This film is about as close as you get to knowing him without ever meeting him’. One senses that even as it makes one want to know more.

José Arroyo

[1] Pauline Kael, ‘The Glamour of Delinquency’, I Lost It At The Movies, New York, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 1965, p. 45

Weekly Update September 17

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Straight Out of Compton (USA, F. Gary Gray, 2015)

It’s not quite good but I liked it very much and it’s very affecting. The film depicts the rationale for the foundation of Niggaz With Attitude ‘N.W.A.’ – social oppression and police brutality of apartheid-like proportions – their subsequent career as recording stars, the various ways they broke up into solo careers, how they were cheated by their management, and the death of one of its founding members due to AIDS. The music is exciting, even if I can’t understand half of it, and the film brims with  energy; it’s a great protest musical, though one in which women don’t figure except as sex things with guns. There are some excellent charismatic performances, particularly from Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and O’Shea Jackson Jr, as Ice Cube. Paul Giametti as Jerry Heller is outstanding in a complex portrayal of a manager who believes, witnesses, supports but can’t stop his hand from dipping into the till. The Rodney King beating and subsequent riots figure centrally and will resonate strongly with contemporary viewers. Plus ça change….My over-riding feeling upon seeing this was one of sadness. Musicals were once all about joy, utopia, community, energy. This one is a weeping  cry of fury and rage at what America’s become for black people; and it’s very affecting.


Legend (Brian Helgeland, UK, 2015)

The film’s not bad; it’s great to see those early 60s costumes and sets; it’s interesting to revisit the Krays; the storytelling sometimes ignites with black humour….But it’s just not good enough: it doesn’t tell us anything new about the Krays, doesn’t offer any new insights into the period or even fraternal bonds or what might make one a criminal or indeed even the pleasures derived from that criminality. Also, I can’t imagine a bigger fan of Tom Hardy’s than I; and he does get two showy roles here; and he definitely makes Ronnie and Reg distinct; but I also think the conceptualisation of the character of Reg is misguided; stiff, unemotional, without humour, seemingly inhuman and kind of wearing a Shrek-lite mask. It’s a risk a great actor takes but one in which he here fails; particularly in comparison with Jesse Eisenberg’s turn in The Double, where each of the characters seem to be human, to breathe. Emily Browning as Frances Shea, streetsmart but doe-like and fragile, is the character that comes off best. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about the depiction of a homosexual milieu in early sixties London but that will have to wait for another time.


American Ultra (Nima Nourizadhe, USA, 2015):

Everything Jesse Eisenberg does in American Ultra is interesting; and he and Kristen Stewart are so endearing together — the ideal small-town stoner couple — that one hopes they’ll be teamed up again in a better film than this very interesting failure: the film is ok; it’s not offensive; and people were laughing in all the right places: it just didn’t soar (though it has its moments).


Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015):

Irrational Man is a total bore, old hat and lazy,  Joachin Phoenix is a blank onscreen for the first time even as he demonstrates he’s the least vain actor currently working in American by flaunting his endearingly big belly: the gut tells us more and better than his face. Woody Allen seems to have read no philosopher that wasn’t fashionable in the 1960s and his professors seem to live in houses that might be every adjunct’s dream but the reality of no one I know working in academia. Emma Stone is brilliant and the only reason to see the film. I’ve defended even Allen’s most uneven films in the past; and I do think he’s still one of the most interesting and formally daring filmmakers currently working. But you wouldn’t know it from watching this.  Irrational Man feels like an illustrated short story he dictated to an underling; and it definitely feels phoned in. Also, I don’t know if it’s the film or the print I saw, but visually nothing was as pretty or as bright as the material demanded.


The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Wes Ball, USA, 2015)

Who is Wes Ball and how did he get to direct a movie? The characters in the Maze Runner: Scorch Trials run and run but you don’t know where, and you have no clue what might save them, and eventually you don’t care. Lily Taylor, Patricia Clarkson and especially Aiden Gillen do bring a bit of zip and are all that prevents one from sleeping through the forthcoming apocalypse.


Transporter Refuelled (Camille Delamarre, France, 2015)

Transporter Refuelled is great fun: no dumber than the rest of the films in the series; just as stylish; great action sequences that make sense; and Ed Skrein is so handsome and moves so well he almost makes one forget Jason Statham. Plus it’s directed, very well, by a woman: Camille Delamarre. It’s a reboot that’s definitely ignited and I hope more will follow.

José Arroyo

Tough Love/ Härte (Rosa Von Praunheim, Germany, 2015)

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tough love

The film tells the story of Andreas Marquadt, a handsome karate champ, violent gangster and ex-con. Marquadt’s father tried to kill him as a toddler, his mother sexually abused him from pre-pubescence to the time he left home. Von Praunheim too easily ‘explains’ Marquadt’s career as a brutal, manipulative pimp in the light of this past. Certainly Marquadt himself, now married to the one girl he exploited who still stuck by him in jail, finds an excuse for his subsequent brutality to others in his childhood experiences. These, however, are the worst aspects of the film.

The reason to see Tough Love is the dexterity with which Von Praunheim tells this story, easily moving from a post-rehab present shot as documentary in colour to a black-and-white re-enactment, compellingly dramatised by Von Praunheim. The sex scenes are clinical, distanced, objective. Sex here is always about something else, usually power, domination, the with-holding of love. Von Praunheim’s great achievement is firstly to get such superb performances from Hanno Koffler as the young Marquadt; Louise Hayer, who looks like Romy Schneider and is very charismatic as Marion Erdmann, the 16 year-old who falls for and is victimised by Marquadt but who ends up staying by him; and Katy Karrenbauer as the loving, abusive and manipulative mom. Von Praunheim and his cast, working with sketchy, fake, indicative, sets, make the people and the past live and breathe; they reveal; with humour, understanding and compassion; where the documentary footage of Marquandt explains, excuses, hides, reveals only in refracted form and only what he wants to present himself as. The real Erdmann, masochistic, romantic, charismatic; a living embodiment of German Romanticism made flesh now, is very enthralling.

Von Praunheim makes films that always seem a slight mish-mash, they’re never perfect, and yet they’re often more compassionate, empathetic, understanding and memorable; more accepting of people’s many failings, and more willing to explore them deeper and in more original forms than many other, more celebrated filmmakers. I was delighted to see Tough Love, recommend it, and am grateful to the Festival des films du monde in Montreal to have created a context in which I could re-encounter the work of such a fascinating filmmakers after so many years. There should be more Von Praunheim shown in Britain. In fact a career retrospective is long overdue.

Fictional and documentary Marquadts
Fictional and documentary Marquadts

Seen at the Festival des films du monde, September 2015

José Arroyo