John Garfield in The Breaking Point, Ted McCord´s pin light hitting a bullseye on Garfield´s tear, for Curtiz
John Garfield in The Breaking Point, Ted McCord´s pin light hitting a bullseye on Garfield´s tear, for Curtiz
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a tale of two lighthouse keepers stranded during a storm, is a visual treat in black and white that stuns and engrosses us. A two-hander between Willem Dafoe’s irascible boss and Robert Pattinson’s secretive youngster, it invokes myth, gods, folk tales, the clash of male egos, compulsive psychosexuality, if not much, much more besides.
If its plot is simple, its story is complex, and we think our way through its characters’ personalities, wants, needs, and psychologies. José asks if the film is gothic, and we discuss the boss’s treatment of his assistant: is it just controlling, or abusive? Extraordinary imagery of mermaids, monsters, and gods suffuses the film with inescapable surreality and the turbulent minds of men overburdened with ego and sexual need. Eggers has an assured, confident sense of tone, layering the film with mood and atmosphere, making its remote island a pressure cooker.
The Lighthouse is a spectacular film, an audiovisual treat that you should not miss at the cinema. Its imagery is poetic, its characters complex – in its entirety, it is confusing but approachable, symbolic but not coded, allowing room for interpretation and emotional response. It’s brilliant.
It’s one of José’s films of the year; it leaves Mike cold. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite depicts social inequality in South Korea through a lower-class family that cons its way into working for an upper-class family. We pick our way through the film’s structure; its motif of staircases that delineate status and power relations; the way poverty carries with it an inescapable smell, intolerable to the upper class; the two families’ experiences of nature and the desire for sunshine.
It builds on some aspects of horror, but cannot at all be considered one, either in genre or affect – though the fact that its trailers sold it as such might have something to do with Mike’s frosty response. It’s an allegorical thriller, every character standing in place of a class or group of people, and its construction is intelligent, thoughtful and tight. For José, it works on a visceral level, the mood and tone emphasising and combining with the structure and metaphor; for Mike, it’s a flat experience, a clever essay with definite interpretations and little feeling.
But it’s clearly touched a nerve, connecting with worldwide audiences. It speaks not just to conditions in South Korea but a global system of oppression and inequality under capitalism. We may not agree on what it makes us feel, but it’s potent food for thought and offers much to discuss. Don’t miss it.
Also in this episode, we take a look at the upcoming Oscars, which eager cinephiles will be able to watch yesterday.
Trying to build a portrait of patriarchal power and subjugation that shapes the lives of five women, Birds of Prey takes a solid enough foundation and executes it abysmally, lacking visual style, coherent storytelling, and really any imagination. It’s the worst time José’s endured at the cinema in a year; Mike heroically offers a couple of examples of moments he enjoyed – the flying sandwich – but there’s no rescuing these damsels in distress.
Independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team up with Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems, an energetic, evolving crime thriller set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. By the time we meet Sandler’s Jewish jeweller, Howard, he’s already embedded within a web of competing interests, desires and debts, as well as a gambling addiction – and the tension only mounts as problems grow worse.
The Safdie brothers and Sandler are all Jewish New York natives, the writer-directors in particular growing up, in part, around the Diamond District, where their father worked. There’s a specificity to the location and culture that the film captures beautifully, a richness to Howard’s characterisation, and the world he inhabits, that feels authentically observed. Howard’s need to take risks never allows the tension to settle – he can’t help but invite further trouble upon himself, so neither does the film let us calm down for a second.
Uncut Gems is a complex, character-oriented, engrossing work of edge-of-your-seat genre entertainment, and a terrific follow-up to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time, which we discuss a little bit (but not too much because José hasn’t finished it yet). Both Good Time and Uncut Gems are available on Netflix, and well worth your time. The Safdie brothers might not just be good – they might be greats.
The film that wants to make us feel bad for people who worked at Fox News, Bombshell casts former stars Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as heroines fighting the revolting, crude, institutional sexism of their former place of work. It refuses to do so with any complexity, any suggestion that they were anything but victims – that they had all the opportunity to say no to the hideous deal they were offered, and that they were, too, key players in a propaganda machine, pumping poison into the world. It’s a view of the world that, at best, has been simplified for popular consumption, relegating criticism of Fox News’ politics, operations, and output to a laughably basic subplot involving a lesbian Democrat employee who explains the machinery of Fox’s messaging.
Mike suggests that it sits alongside the work of Adam McKay, who, like Bombshell director Jay Roach, made his name in comedy, offering the term “satire-adjacent” in an attempt to understand this breed of film – McKay’s Vice and The Big Short have a similar tone and basis in reality. Where we decried the lack of satire these days when discussing Jojo Rabbit, perhaps we’ve found where it’s been relocated. And there are things about it he likes, this kind of sociopolitical talkie being up his street, though our highest praise is reserved for the performances, John Lithgow’s explosive, sinister Roger Ailes, and Charlize Theron’s unbelievable transformation into Megyn Kelly, in particular.
Sullivan´s Travels elaborates a whole theory of film aesthetics right from its opening scene. The film begins by showing us the ending of another film. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is so inspired by what he´s just seen that he lectures the studio heads, ´See the symbolism of it? Capital and labour destroy each other! It teaches us a lesson, a moral lesson. It has social significance!’
To Sullivan, the movies should be political and socially engaged: ´This picture´s an answer to communism! It shows we´re awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches! Sullivan wants his picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems the confront the ordinary man, even if he concedes ‘with a little sex in it’.
His theories are almost a precursor to those of Bazin and Italioan neo-realism. He wants the picture to ‘be a document, to hold a mirror up to life…a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’ The opposite of this is musicals. But how dare the studio head talk about musicals at a time when ´the world is committing suicide, with corpses piling up on the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner’….I meant to summarise but the dialogue is just too good.
The studio heads counter that maybe they´d like to forget all of that, the conclusion Sullivan himself will come to by the end of the film. Sullivan wants to do something dignified, something to be proud of, something that would ‘fulfil the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is’. Sullivan has so far been making ‘So Long Sarong’, ‘Hey, Hey in the Heyloft’, ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939’. Now he wants to make ‘O Brother Where Art Though’ about tramps, lockouts, people eating garbage in alleys, living in piano boxes and ashcans. Until now Sullivan has been making films about ‘nice clean young people who fall in love, with laughter, music and legs’. The opposite of his current conception of film art with its critique of current conditions, holding the mirror up to society, fulfilling the potentialities of the medium itself. But for Sullivan conditions have changed. ‘There isn´t any food, there isn´t any work, these are troublous times’. Yet, art has to be about what the artist knows.
Sullivan doesn´t know about trouble. That´s why his previous pictures were ‘so light, so cheerful, so inspiring’. But Sullivan will go on the road to learn about poverty and pain, and what the film tells us he will learn is that what people need most is a good laugh. But the whole thing has been a bit of a kid: whilst delineating a whole philosophy of what film art should be, the example that´s been held up to us, the last scene of the film that starts this film, is an action sequence of a moving train, not Keystone cops, not a musical, not ‘laughter, music and sex,’ . But it also certainly has not been a Capraesque critique with symbolism and social significance, no mirror up to the world that fulfils the potentialities of the medium. Sullivan´s learned a lesson but Sturges had his answer from the very beginning. He´s all for ´kiss kiss, bang ban, pow pow’, a pratfall or two and as much laughter as he can cram in the picture. For Sturges it´s not just that entertainment trumps art but that it is art, something that is at least certainly true of his own work.
The Criterion edition of Swing Tiime is so good I feel the need to publicly voice my appreciation. It´s a new 2K restoration that looks smashing, deep blacks and with a satiny, not too sharp look to the image. It´s gorgeous. But what really made me want to shout from the rooftop were the extras, not just Ginger and Fred talking about their experience of making it, or George Stevens Jr. talking about his father, but the way the disk brings scholarship in to enhance our appreciation of this glorious film.
I´m an admirer of Gary Giddins books on Bing Crosby, and it was a joy to hear him speak about the music. What did Jerome Kern provide, which elements were added in by the rehearsal pianist and orchestrator, how do themes from earlier in the film get repeated in different orchestrations later on and why? It´s wonderful to hear from someone who really knows their stuff and can help you understand (and admittedly he´s better on the music than on film history. Katharine Hepburn did not become a star with Alice Adams, her billing on Little Women, a box office sensation of two years earlier should be enough to convince anyone (see below)
Likewise do you know about Dorothy Fields? Deborah Grace Viner explains why you should. The only woman to figure amongst Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other great writers of the American songbook. She won an Oscar for the score of Swing Time, the first woman to do so, and she´d already had hit tunes in the twenties and continued to do so until the sixties. She wrote the lyrics for Sweet Charity, which Bob Fosse directed, a big hit for Gwen Verdon on state (and a big flop for Shirley McLaine on film)
Brian Siebert made me see things I´d not noticed before, how Astaire picks up on steps, bits of choreography, that get repeated throughout the film, purposefully, like elements of the score, so that Astaire and Hermes Pan not only provide choreography for a particular number but how that choreography is woven through thematically through the whole of the film. He´s brilliant at illustrating and making things clear.
Gary Giddens is also very good at talking about the problematic Bojangles number and Mia Mask is terrific at explaining the history of blackface, why Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was such a significant figure historically, and why issues of race should become central to any discussion of the film. It´s a package that really made me see and appreciate the film better, and I´ve still not exhausted the extras.
One of the things it made me see better was the choreography, and I here want to end with two images from the ´Never Gonna Dance’ number that seem to express the essence of the number (see below)
The two images are images of loss and dejection, defeat, regret. They´re what the number is about. Lucky has blown it. He knows it. He´s trying to win her back. They dance together so beautifully. There´s a lyric in ´Never Gonna Dance´where he sings And to heaven, I give a vow
To adore you. I’m starting now
To be much more positive
But in each instance that positivity returns to dejection, as in Fred´s posture on the image on the left as Penny (Ginger Rogers) walks away; or defeat, sadness, regret, as in the final image of the number on the right. The images are like choreography frozen in time, though that´s a contradiction in terms as choreography is all about movement in time, flow, even a stop in motion has meaning because of the stopping and the duration of that lack of movement.
Really, to get the full effect one has to see the film, the Criterion edition, so that one sees that beautiful restoration and one can watch the extras and understand how the repetition in choreography, the re-orchestration and repetition of musical motifs, recur, evoke, rhyme but also bring meaning and resonance to that number and are an organic part of why we think it so great.
Like with the greatest of films, every time I see the 1954 version of A Star is Born, I notice something new. This time, the great shot above, which seems a noir rendering using as background the shade of green so often deployed by Edward Hopper in his paintings (see below), and even in his rural or landscape works:
What makes the shot so poignant is that the shadowy embrace against the Edward Hopper green is their entrance to their honeymoon hotel. The first night of their marriage is already imbued with suggestions of sadness, loneliness, alienation, of imprisonment in/and shadows. This had already been foreshadowed earlier by the notice of their marriage dissolving into an image of prisoners behind bars (later turned into a joke with the knowledge that the room the judge is marrying them also contains a jail). See below:
Prison bars feature heavily in the film, particularly and most obviously in the scene where Norman Maine (James Mason) ends up in jail:
But the whole film partakes of aspects of a noir aesthetic, from the Bleue Bleu nightclub to shadowy lighting to LA nights where neon illuminates the darkness (see below)
The film also contains as many references to then ´Modern´painting as Minnelli´s An American in Paris (1951). Rousseau, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, all are referenced backstage in the Shriner Auditorium sequence, and later on we even get a Mondrian image from the ‘Born in a Trunk’ number (see below):
The film is made up of such purposeful patternings both in referencing a history of art but also in deploying particular aspects of noir lighting as part of its mise-en-scène. What the first image shown above tells us is that this marriage is doomed from the very beginning. It will have passion, it will have beauty, but it will also be full of the darkness where addiction and self-hatred create a prison from a home, one that even love can´t breach. It´s all there in that first image that marks the start of their honeymoon.
An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.
So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.
By your students you´ll be taught. Leigh Singer graduated with a First Class degree from the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick where I taught him many moons ago. He is now a freelance film journalist and celebrated video essayist who has contributed to Sight and Sound, Little White Lies, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, Empire, Total Film, BBCi, Dazed & Confused, Indiewire, IGN.com, RogerEbert.com and many other publications and outlets. Leigh is also a filmmaker and screenwriter and a programme advisor for the London Film Festival. He also teaches a module on video essays at the National Film and Television School and regularly crops in the year-end lists of best video essays (2019, 2018).
The podcast above is an edited version of the talk on video essays Leigh gave recently at Warwick followed by a discussion with students where they ask questions related to the their own work. I have kept them in because I think the questions and the discussion might be helpful to others. Rather than create dissolves between the cuts, or create a more elegant ellipsis, I have decided to leave a very short but evident silence to indicate the gaps which occurred when Leigh was showing examples from his own work. The video essays discussed are available to see below, in chronological order.
Readers/ Listeners/ Viewers might also be interested in some of Leigh´s mojre recent work so I have included two examples below, one from Little White Lies:
and also another he created for Sight and Sound,
José’s seen it once and returns to its depths for a second time, alongside Mike, who knows nothing about it. Chinese writer-director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, unrelated to Eugene O’Neill’s play, tells a story that flashes between memories of a love lost long ago and present day reality, culminating in an hour-long single take that moves through an entire mining village.
It’s a film that oozes feelings of loss and nostalgia, the protagonist’s return to his hometown seeing him wander through dereliction and abandonment, where his life was once vital and exciting. The noirish flashbacks are sumptuously composed and lit, romantic and evocative; one sinks into those gorgeous images.
The long take that comprises the film’s second half is less successful, an exercise in form that leaves longueurs and attracts too much attention to itself. But its relationship to the first half is intriguing, its symbolism readily apparent if difficult to interpret, and its technical accomplishment unquestioned. (We didn’t see this version of it, but it’s entirely in 3D, which we can only imagine heightens its fluid, magical tone.)
Despite José’s criticisms, it’s one of his films of the year, though for Mike its qualities don’t offer enough to counterbalance a second half with which he really struggled. But it’s certainly worth your time, and if it’s showing near you, you should catch it.
Guy Ritchie returns to the guns ‘n’ geezers mine with The Gentlemen, a caper with a beautifully dressed and enjoyably playful cast. We discuss his stylish direction, ability to work with actors, the audiences that adore his work, how the film functions as fantasy, and its issues with being casually offensive.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Is this where Andrew Lloyd Webber got the idea? At least Footlight Parade has the wit to be funny with it. The clip below is a montage of scenes demonstrating the conceptualisation, orchestration and choreography of the cat number.
…and then the cat number itself. Camp but not as cringy as the recent Tom Hooper film.
In Sullivan’s Travels the character played by Veronica lake isn’t given a name. She’s merely ‘the girl’. In the wider world at the time she was billed as the peeakaboo girl after the hairstyle she turned into such a sociological phenomenon every Rosie the Rivetter had to be warned of its dangers by the US government (image below):
And she sure new how to rock a brooch throughout the forties. The two below are from The Glass Key:
But only the most impactful stars, like she was during WWII, have what they symbolise described as romantically as Alan Ladd does below:
When Shelley Winters took on small roles because they were great parts, she had herself billed as Miss Shelley Winters, like Miss Ruth Chatterton or all the other stars of yesteryear with pretensions to being great artists. The appellation never felt pretentious on her, partly because she was a great artist, partly because she was the kind of gal who told her audience about her annual trysts with Burt Lancaster.
In the great scene below Miss Shelley Winters as ‘Dixie Evans’ reveals how the studios in the classic era exploited bit players like her, women who were already damaged in some way, hired them for their figures, kept them hanging around with bit roles, exchanged sexual favours for the expectation of larger roles that never came, and used them to entertain visiting dignitaries. Cheaper than hiring hookers. Odets knew how to write, albeit a bit floridly, and he was part of that world and knew what he was talking about. And Shelley had been one of those girls for a long time before her eventual success, and had roomed with Marilyn Monroe: she also knew and she could certainly act it out and communicate it.
A film noir travelogue, part of the runway production of the 50s but in minor key, black and white but cinemascope, American stars on the way down (Victor Mature), European stars on the way up (Anita Ekberg) with local stars in key roles: Trevor Howard is the villanous dope smuggler, insouciant, heartless, a prefiguring of Bond but accenting the seamy, the sordid, the dark. Sid James makes an appearance, and an impression, as the barman of a junkie hot-spot.
The film has a great opening shot which plays over the credits of a car going through Manhattan´s downtown and into Times Square. It´s my favourite sequence in the film, and is so good the Arrow Academy blu-ray shows it to you again, without the titles super-imposed. It´s just a travelling, shot from within a moving car, but it shows the huge theatres of the time, the Astor, the Capitol and so on, with the huge electronic marquees showing the big attractions of the era (Judy Holliday in The Solid Gold Cadillac, mixed in with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner in The Mountain, and Elvis Presley and Debra Paget, plus films like Teenage Rebel and so on) in twinkling lights at night. A cinephile dream of a shot for those who love the night life as much as the night
The film itself is a pulpy noir with great atmospheric low-key lighting as you can see below. Victor Mature is Charles Sturgis, a New York Cop. His sister has been killed and in order to find the killer, he goes to London and joins forces with Interpol. Clues lead him to follow Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg) who eventually leads him to Frank McNally (Trevor Howard)
Glamorous locations (New York, London, Lisbon, Rome, Naples, Athens):
Via chasing the dope-fiend we get to experience some of the great capitals of Europe, shot on location, and pre-figuring some of the work producer Albert Broccoli would go on to do with the Bond series.
Director John Gilling has a good eye for compositions (see below) and there is much of interest visually in the film. However, whilst it´s always interesting to look at, it also feels not fully realised, as if the compositions don´t convey enough about characterisation or drama and fulfil only the role of eye/catching atmospherics.
Again, pre-figuring Bond but on a smaller scale are some of the action set-pieces in the film, as you can see below, chases over the rooftops of Athens, fights in the docks of New York, interestingly visualised by having to run over barrels or being lifted up by cranes.
A fascinating noir, interesting for all the reasons mentioned above and more, but not quite one of the best: Victor Mature looks like he´s been shagging all night, bored and half-asleep, rousing energy only when it´s time to hit someone. Anita Ekberg looks extraordinary but is only used for her looks. Trevor Howard looks much older than his years, a thought quickly erased by the vivid performance he ends up giving. Gillings shot everything slightly wonky, which I¨m sure is meant to have an expressive effect but ends up also being irritating. And the treatment never rises above the pulpiness of its material, both a weakness and a strength.
Timothée Chalamet sings, very badly but sweetly, in a gloriously romantic moment from a Rainy Day in New York. Selena Gomez comes across as a min Ava Gardner in the making.
Its intentions are good, but we have trouble with Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s comedy about a young boy in Nazi Germany, a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth, who discovers a Jewish girl being given safe harbour by his mother. Our reservations stem from the state of the world and culture in which the film has been made, in which fascism is resurgent and increasingly worth taking seriously.
We discuss comedy’s ability to puncture that at which it takes aim, Mike arguing that we like to overstate its power, José lamenting cinema’s unwillingness to take today’s fascist figureheads on directly – by comparison, satirising Hitler and the Nazis is a safe choice. Mike criticises the film’s superficiality, finding that its depiction of the Nazi regime is skin deep, merely built on signifiers with which we’re familiar – there’s no attempt here to explore Jojo’s psychology, or how and why he’s been taught what he has. José argues that the film makes its Nazis too likeable, too goofy; the film wants to offer us a message that people are ultimately good, and in so doing gives its villains the opportunity of redemption, which they tend to take. It’s partially contextualised by the 1944 setting, the dying German war machine making sense of the cynicism in Sam Rockwell’s Nazi officer; setting the film during the Nazi regime’s strongest years would have been more interesting, and braver.
Despite all of this, Jojo Rabbit gets lots of laughs, and Waititi manages the tone well, the film making moves into some unexpectedly dark areas at times. But its successes never distract from the overall ideological problems we feel it has.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
An enchanting moment in an enchanting film. Timothée Chalamet´s Gatsby Welles (note the names) has been dumped by his girlfriend Ashley Enright ( a delicious Elle Fanning). He walks around New York: ‘I need a drink. I need a cigarette. I need a Berlin ballad’. He goes to the Carlyle to get the drink and listen to a lounge piano tinkling out part of the ‘Great American Songbook’: ´They Say Falling in Love is Wonderful´segueways into ‘Gigi’. Gatsby thinks of Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer. He picks up a hooker to impersonate Ashley at his mother´s do. Luckily he comes to his senses eventually and ends up with Chan Tyrrel, played by Selena Gomez exuding sex, charisma, know-how and can-do. She´ll have him kissing like a pro by the time Fall´s finished. People will probably object to what I like most in this one: impossibly beautiful people in impossibly glamorous settings moaning about loving the wrong person, or being attracted to the wrong people because they are so glamorous and rich, all the while playing or listening to beautiful beautiful music whilst drinking martinis and feeling sad. It´s´s all utterly delicious and I´m sad I´ve not been able to see it in a better copy