‘The Man That Got Away’ number in the 1954 version of A Star is Born directed by George Cukor is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest in the history of the musical genre. There’s so much to admire: dramatically, the choice of a song of loss and longing as the moment that sparks admiration and love in the narrative is inspired — it’s at first unusual and original and later becomes prescient and structuring. The song itself, a Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin tune, written for Garland, given a great brassy orchestration by Skip Martin, and so great it’s become a standard covered by practically everyone including a sparse version by Jeff Buckley accompanied only on guitar. Garland’s performance of the song, both the singing and the acting of it, are, as I will demonstrate later to any who doubt, legendary and beyond compare. As is the choice to film it as a noir in colour with most of the colour drained out and used sparingly but powerfully. Here director George Cukor acknowledges the contributions of production designer Gene Allen and legendary photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to the way the film looks. Sam Leavitt was Director of Photography.
What I want to deal with here is the direction, particularly in its use of the cinemascope frame: the fluid arrangement and re-arrangement of compositions, the forward move of the action, the creation of the illusion of three dimensional space and the way which the filmmakers manage to create a sense of horizon in a narrow rectangular frame. CinemaScope was relatively new then and, along with technicolour, prominently publicised in all the posters for the initial release. This number to me is a sublime example of brilliant use of it made even more gobsmacking by the singing of the number all being filmed in one shot.
If you’re interested have a look at the number, refresh your memory. delight in the brilliance of the singing, the acting, the direction, the look, the way the scene unfolds and the way the camera moves…
Shot 1 (14 seconds): Then let’s look at the first shot of the sequence. Note how the frame is divided into thirds, that the title of the club is the ‘bleu bleu’ — significantly narratively as a place one goes to drown one’s sorrows but ends driving the blues away and also as an indicator of the overall look and tone of the scene — advertised on different sides of James Mason’s back (see the first frame.) Then Mason advances towards the door, whilst the camera at first stays still, thus creating a new composition within the shot, now we have neon blue on one side, and a poster, pinkish with red overtones, advertising the band on the other. In the third reframing within the same shot, the camera has caught up with Norman Maine (James Mason) and as he opens the door to the club, the door occupies one third, the poster the other and Maine and the open door roughly occupy the centre. The open door gives a sense of horizon, the illusion of three-dimensional space so familiar from Renaissance painting, think of the Mona Lisa, and so hard to achieve in that narrowly rectangular cinemascope frame. The door opening coincides with the brass element of the orchestration trumpeting the refrain: something new is announced, a new space of possibility just beyond the horizon.
Shot 2 (3 seconds, see frame enlargement below): the second shot is only three seconds. It’s an establishing shot of Norman Maine looking. But note how the shot is almost drained of colour except for the neon red throwing its pool of light from outside to the inside of the club. Note also how the lighting is focussed on Norman Maine’s face, and how the furniture is arranged along with the post in the right hand side. This creates a triangular shape within the frame, a sense of horizon, this time from the reverse perspective that we saw in the previous shot and inside. What the shot establishes is Norman Maine’s point-of-view, which is what will anchor the whole sequence. His gaze on her is what’s important, it’s how she, through him, will demonstrate to us that she is in fact the great singer and star he will know her to be once the song ends and that we, the audience, already know. According to Patrick MacGilligan,
‘The marriage of Technicolor and the wide-screen CinemaScope (a process still in its infancy) was partly responsible for the delay and cost. Color-test scenes had been filmed and re-filmed until everyone was satisfied’ (p.226). One can see in this shot how all those tests with the format and the colour paid off. It’s sparse, elegant, dramatic, like the work of a great painter, or here a great director elegantly mobilising all the talents of his cast and crew to purposeful and meaningful expression that delights the eyes and ears.
Shot 3 (7 seconds, see frame enlargement below)
The third shot is Norman’s point-of-view. He looks in the previous shot and this is what he and we see. Note how Esther Blodgett, soon to be transformed into Vicky Lester, superstar, and played by Judy Garland is a pinprick in a pool of light at the centre of the frame with her band. Her importance is signalled by her centrality but not quite yet made overt. Note how the frame is also divided into thirds. How the chairs on the right are closer to the lens, how the two musicians are framed by that pink/coral light we first saw on the poster on the right side of the frame in the first shot, accented by the pool of light that follows Norman Maine’s entrance into the club in the second shot. Note how this arrangement helps create a sense of three-dimensionality, gives a horizon to the space that would otherwise seem flat. Note how there’ a sense of drama in placing those chairs so as to impede but not quite block our view of Esther and the band. She, and her talent, will only fully be revealed to us later. It’s not only gorgeous and artful but dramatic and meaningful.
Shot 4: (23 second, see frame enlargements below)
The fourth shot is as the French call it, a plan sequence, a longer take, which can have different sequences within it created by camera movement and which involves the orchestration of various elements. This shot begins where shot 3 left off (see frame enlargement below on the left), with Norman Maine at the entrance of the club, triangularly placed on the horizon, with that hint of neon red just above him. He moves towards the camera, which is towards the sound of the band, towards Esther, and through pools of light and darkness. As he sits on by the pile of chairs, a waiter enters the frame from the left (see frame enlargement below, centre). At this point the camera leaves Norman and accompanies the waiter through the club, past chairs and pillars (John Ford claimed that nothing created a sense of three dimensionality as moving the camera past trees. This has a similar effect) to deposit his tray by the band (see frame enlargement on the right). The touch neon red behind Norman Maine has become the quasi coral pink that engulfs Esther Blodgett and her band, and her face is bathed in pure white light. The dramatic advantage of filming it in this way is that Norman and Esther are united in space and time, that his attention is focussed on her, he is watching she is doing performing. Symbolically his darkness, his troubled moving through dark and light ends with a hope of pure light in a coral setting. How better to represent was Esther/Vicky will represent to Norman?
Shot 5 (4 seconds)
The fifth shot is a closer look, Norman Maine’s look, on where the camera had deposited us previously. ‘Take it honey’ says the pianist. Esther rises as you can see below, occupying the left third of the frame. As the pianist reiterates ‘Take it from the top’, Esther will come to occupy the right of the third of the frame, so in one shot there’s an elegant move across the wide Cinemascope frame, from left to right, once more leaving the frame neatly organised in thirds, whilst the pianist, chiars and glasses behind the bar, all work together to create an illusion of depth.
Shot 6 (1 second):
Shot six barely lasts a second. It’s a medium closeup of Norman Maine straining to see through the darkness of the empty club. The editing here reminding us that it is Norman who is looking, like us, but unlike us, and as was established in shot four, Norman and Esther are united in time in space. We’re reminded of us as the voice-over to this shot is Esther repeating what the pianist had said but as a question ‘from the top?’. The sound is Esther, the image is Norman. He is the big star, she is the unknown band singer yet it is he who is looking, she who is being looked at.
Shot 7: (3.26 seconds. The frame enlargements below are representative examples of each time the camera moves and re-calibrates the composition, except for figures Gand H which are the same composition but where Esther commands the image, the arrangement of things and figures in the frame created in the ‘good riddance, goodbye moment’ with a wave of her hand on the goodbye moment which makes all the musicians bring down their instruments)
As the DVD extras of A Star is Born inform us, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is arguably the most important single musical sequence in A Star is Born. It was photographed in 3 different costumes on 3 different occasions, in over 40 different partial or complete takes’. According to Patrick McGilligan ‘The director drove people to distraction with his unusual lighting and color demands. Some of the voluptuous effects were arrived at after much argument and costly experimentation’ and it was partly this (along with Garland’s illnesses) that helped turn A Star is Born into the second most expensive picture in Hollywood history up to that point. Its official cost of $5, 019, 777 made it second only to Selznick’s 1946 film, Duel in the Sun, recorded at 5,225,000′ (p. 226).
Every re-framing of ‘The Man That Got Away Moment’ can be analysed in at least as much detail as the shots discussed previously, which themselves can be discussed in greater detail than I’ve offered. I characteristically have run out of time just at the moment of greater interest so I just want to indicate certain things I marvel at. Note how Esther/Garland beckons the musician to her at the beginning. Throughout this sequence she will be in constant communication withe the various musicians (see figures A,E,L and Q as only representative examples), she will also be conveying the meaning of the song, losing herself in it, running to the camera (fig J), and fearlessly turning her back to it (fig K), whilst also conveying Esther, an insecure star-in-waiting, one of the boys in the band, who does this as if it’s nothing, yet giggling and winking at them at the end for the joy of a job well done (see figure Q). Garland must perform all of this whilst being conscious of always hitting her mark, always being in the light, always co-ordinating each of her movements with the band, which has been clearly choreographed compositionally. It’s a tour de force.
And it’s a tour de force of direction. Cukor performs a high-wire act of direction because Garland is always at the centre, the camera will tilt upward or move slightly to ensure she’s always in the frame; yet on the other hand every stop in the camera’s movement has been designed to create an abstract geometric shape amongst the musicians, usually framing Garland, usually at the top (figs D, E) or bottom (figure M, O) of a triangular shape.
Every area of the cinemascope frame is deployed expressively. Each shape made seems beautiful, each is meaningful. In the world of the film, we are introduced, through Norman Maine’s to his love, who will not save him from all the darkness he’s encased in. Note how they’re both wearing variants of the same outfit, black suit with a white collar. They’re meant for each other. But she, encased in light and amidst coral pink will not save him from himself. We’re also introduced to a great talent which the film tells us is Esther Blodgett but who will become Vicky Lester but who we know to be Judy Garland. The Judy Garland who can do the extraordinary things we’ve just witnessed thanks to George Cukor’s extraordinary use of colour and composition in one of the greatest of long takes.
Some people have argued that the number is misplaced in the narrative that Esther doesn’t yet have the life experience to sing a torch song like this. That the number would have been better once it more clearly voiced Esther’s feelings in the narrative. But I disagree. Esther’s been on the road with a band going nowhere and knows musicians. She’s had the experience. On the other hand, it’s brave to make this the number on which they meet, brave and unusual, and of course totally foreshadows, what will happen subsequently. Moreover, note Esther going in and out of the song, ‘performing’ it, and the interactions with the rest of the musicians. The number has multiple functions, one of which is to show Norman Maine how great a performer she is, that she’s a star who can stop the show as easily as the giggle and the wink that ends the number and gives the impression that this is the kind of thing she can do at the drop of the hat, for fun, and anytime she wants.It’s a brilliant choice and as carefully thought through as any other aspect of this magnificent film.
wink and giggle.
One of the earliest ‘coming out scenes’ in a narrative fiction film and the finest, most poetic and evocative, in New Wave/ Cinema direct cinema.
Johanne: Claude are you homosexual
Johanne: ARE YOU HOMOSEXUAL
#crash of cymbals. Then, in voice over:
Claude: I don’t say yes nor do I say no.
Thus escapes the secret I kept sequestered for a time dating longer than my first memories. Johanne did that. From her women’s hands she has absolved me of the heaviest of my burdens. She made me admit the inadmissible and I felt no shame and I felt no hurt. And now everything has changed because that imperious aspiration never fulfilled, full of torment as it was, now takes the form of a hope.
The line — ‘that imperious aspiration never fulfilled, full of torment as it was, now takes the form of a hope’ — is repeated only moments later when Claude clearly has sex with a man who asks him, ‘What we did today, was it any good? ‘That’s of no importance’. ‘What’s important?’ ‘Finally!’.
A lovely moment from Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (Canada, 1963). Johanne and Claude are in love and now a couple. He introduces her to his friends, which include François Truffaut. Johanne asks François to show her how to blow cigarette smoke out, like in the choo-choo train scene in his Jules et Jim (France, 1962), which must still have been in release when this was filmed. The dialogue in English goes something like this:
Claude: ‘It’s odd but since I’ve fallen in love with you going out pleases me more even though there’s nothing to see.’
Johanne: ‘But there’s more to show’
Johanne: ‘I find your friends wonderful’.
Claude: ‘No need to tell me I can see’.
Johanne: ‘They find me beautiful. They have such great taste that they all deserve a little hug’.
Claude: ‘There’s no need for that. Thank you very much’.
Johanne:Don’t be silly I adore you.
Johanne: ‘François? Show me the trick with the train smoke, you know? Like in your film?’
Truffaut: Oh it’s easy’.
Truffaut: ‘Very good’
Claude: ‘look at me, look at me, look at me!’
Johanne: ‘I don’t see you, I don’t see you, I don’t see you.’
Who hasn’t felt like this at a party? And why does the voice over still seem so inventive so many years after À tout prendre was released (in 1963)?
A favourite moment from À tout prendre: Claude: ‘a teardrop?’; Johanne: ‘a whole vale of tears’.
There’s a lot of lore written about Doris Day, her presence and her performance in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan writes that, ‘According to songwriter Jay Livingston, who wrote the theme song for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day wouldn’t have appeared in the remake if not for the pressure from MCA, which represented Hitchcock and the actress. “His agent, MCA, said he couldn’t have [James] Stewart unless he took Doris Day,’ recalled Livingston. ” He told us he didn’t want Doris Day but he had to take her. He was very happy with her later’ (p. 517).
Indeed he was, and with reason: Doris gives a great performance in the film. She’s particularly wonderful in the scenes where she’s most hysterical, suppressing and on the verge of failing to contain emotion, the ones that demand most of her as an actress: when Stewart sedates her in Marrakesh, the Albert Hall scene, the scene where she sings Que sera sera again at the embassy knowing her son is upstairs. It’s a Doris Day audiences had barely had a glimpse of to then, though Hitchcock himself saw something of this in Day’s performance in Storm Warning, a KKK drama where she’d co-starred opposite Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan.
What caught my eye in the scene above is the tension between narrative and spectacle, between Doris Day as a singer/performer and as an actress, between what I take to be Hitchcock’s awareness of pleasing the audience, of film as a commercial enterprise, and his attempts at depth, of film as art. When I first saw this scene I thought Day was not good, that she was too much, that she was exceeding the bounds of her character in order to entertain the audience.
Hitchcock does odd and interesting things in this scene. The scene is prefaced by an image of a Crescent moon over over the minarets of Marrakesh, evoking strangeness, exoticism, a dash of danger. The film then dissolves into an image of Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) looking in the mirror and dressing for dinner whilst Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), the man Jo (Doris Day) is so suspicious of, smokes by the balcony. We hear Jo beginning to sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ on the soundtrack. The camera then kind of creeps into the room, evoking a sense of portent. Then just as the camera crosses the threshold, it pans onto a mid-shot of Jo, also dressing for dinner and as the image of Doris Day appears, the son joins her in her singing. It’s a domestic scene but with an undertow of, not quite danger, more like potential disturbance. Everything is not quite right, and it’s not just because Louis Bernard is there.
On the word mother, as the boy sings, ‘I asked my mother, what will I be?’ Jo glances at Ben, who looks back, knowingly and lovingly before saying, ‘he’ll make a fine doctor’. Jo was a star of song and stage. Does she regret giving it up? Has it been an issue? Again, the choices in the mise-en-scène present but also raise questions doing so. And yet the focus remains on the boy and his future, particularly pertinent to the tension that is yet to reach its peak in the film but of which the mise-en-scène already makes us feel.
The next shot picks up on Jo, where the cut-reverse-cut with her husband started. She admires herself in the mirror, likes what she sees. As she enters the boy’s room to put him to bed, she swings her hips as if she’s on stage, and when she sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’ she sings ‘out’ as if to an audience, rather than to her son. Doris was never quite a belter. She’s one of the Twentieth Century’s great vocalists, a nuanced singer, with exquisite phrasing, and a tone that could seem hushed, caressing. She’s a singer who learned her trade on radio. But she’s singing ‘out’, as if to us in the audience rather than to her her child in the story, and she does this throughout the rest of the scene. She gives big broad smiles, make big broad gestures, sings the song as if she were in front of a band. It’s true that there are two men in the other room and that perhaps she’s singing to them as well as to her son. Certainly, Hitchcock always makes a point of returning to the child and the story. But the gestures are as broad as the singing. Doris is ostensibly putting her child to bed but she’s acting, and she’s being filmed, as if she’s performing at the Albert Hall. It’s a scene that feels disjunctive, where the spectacle of Doris Day singing seem to exceed the narrative of Jo putting her son to bed.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is how this will all make sense the next time Jo sings ‘Que Sera Sera’, when in fact she is ostensibly singing to an audience but really singing to her son, almost the obverse of the scene here.
Moments of ‘excess’ in Hitchock rarely are; here what may be initially observed as a moment of spectacle becomes the conveyor of a particular kind of feeling and meaning as well as the basis of later narrative cohesion, what’s planted at the beginning is brought marvellously to harvest at the end, including the guest in the room and the significance of the knock on the door that ends this little scene. It’s very beautifully done. And Doris is a joy to behold.
Torn Curtain is widely thought to rank amongst the worst of Hitchcock, a failed emulation of the Bond films so popular in the era, and remembered by Hitchcock afficionados mainly for the rupture in the relationship between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrman: Herrman wrote a score for the film but Hitchcock didn’t like it and commissioned a new, pop-ier one from John Addison. It was the last time they worked together.
David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film writes, ‘No matter how many times the profit ratio of Psycho is repeated, it does not alter the fact that Hitchcock made several flops, several films in which the entire narrative structure — over which he spent such time and care — is grotesquely miscalculated. Stage Fright, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, and Torn Curtain seem to me thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humour and uncooperative players (p.401).’ It’s all relative I suppose but I don’t agree; or rather, Hitchcock’s worst offers more pleasures than almost anybody else’s best. I found a lot to like in Torn Curtain.
The story is an espionage thriller about a Professor (Paul Newman) and his assistant/fiancée (Julie Andrews), three months from tying the knot, who are at a scientific conference in Scandinavia when, much to the fiancée’s astonishment, the Professor decides to defect to East Berlin. Is he a traitor or is he a spy? We soon find out. The film boasts memorable and typically Hitchcockian set-pieces: the killing in the country-side farm, Paul Newman being followed in a museum, the couple escaping the university, the way they outmanoeuvre the Stasi and manage to escape from the ballet when every entrance is blocked by police, etc. Really, even minor Hitchcock is full of pleasures. Of Hollywood filmmakers, only Lubitsch is Hitchcock’s equal in engaging with the audience, making us complicit in what’s going, trusting us to be co-creators of aspects of the story being told and teasing, tricking, playing with us in order to please and delight.
The performances of the stars of Torn Curtain have been widely criticised, Thomson calling them ‘drab’ (p.402). Others regurgitating stories of how Hitchcock had wanted Eva Maria Saint and Cary Grant; how Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, the top box-office stars of this period, were imposed on Hitchcock by the studio; how Newman was — to Hitchock’s annoyance — too method; how he found Julie Andrews not beautiful or sexy enough.
Be that as it may, there’s no question that he took great care with the presentation of these stars. We’re introduced to them in bed, with their coats over the blankets, making love and trying to keep warm. Then, we see their name tags of the characters they play in alternating close-ups, first Dr. Sarah Sherman and then Professor Michael Armstrong. We first see the backs of their heads, then extreme close-ups of the couple kissing. We know they’ve just had sex: ‘let’s call this lunch,’ says Armstrong. It’s a sexy spin on Julie Andrews’ star persona. Here is Mary Poppins and the novice from The Sound of Music in bed with Paul Newman; and they’re not even married! That must have been a thrilling star entrance to fans of both stars. Moreover, Hitchcock and his team light them beautifully. Look at the shine of the pin spot in Andrew’s eyes in fig. A. How Newman’s eyes, then widely publicised as the most beautiful blues in the world, are presented in an enormous close-up, so big as to encompass only one eye, made to shine against the light (fig. B). Note too, the prominent display of Newman’s body throughout the film (fig. C).
‘Performance’ is not everything in commercial filmmaking, particularly when it’s a question of stars. Newman and Andrews are not bad; the director makes an interesting play on audience expectations, giving them a theatrical star entrance, lighting them gorgeously, dressing them both attractively and meaningfully, and playing on and developing their star personas, particularly that of Andrews. I loved seeing them in this, and stars by their very nature should not need to play a ‘role of a lifetime’ to bring their audience pleasure; often their presence is enough for their fans. When presented as carefully and to so much advantage as here, it is much more than enough. Newman and Andrews were a draw then and are still reasons to see this film.
It is true that the stars, delightful as they are to see, do not give memorable performances. But I do think it would be fair to say that some of the performances in Torn Curtain have become legendary. Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek, Armstrong’s East German body-guard, with his East-European accent and his American slang, funny and menacing, always watchable, is an outsize cartoon. It’s a particular type of performance, very theatrical, very knowing, aimed at the audience, and clearly a type Hitchcock delights in.
I’ve made a gif of his famous death scene so as to exaggerate his hand gestures (see above). This is an actor who knows how to make the most of a scene even in the absence of his face or even most of his body, who steals the scene from his co-stars by showing us his expiration only with a wave of his fingers, but they wave and wave, each movement expressing something slightly different but within an overall arc, like those hams who can turn being shot into a five minute dance with death. I find it delightful, so much better than merely ‘realistic’ and Hitchcock must have also, or he would have shot it differently, shortened it or cut it altogether.
Much as I love Kieling’s performance, one never gets a sense that he’s playing a real person. This is not true of Lila Kedrova’s marvellous turn as the Countess Kuchinska, the Polish Countess, not ‘communistical’, sneering at the quality of the tobacco and the coffee and desperate for American sponsorship of her visa application. As you can see below, each of her ‘faces’ is beautifully expressive, and she does run the gamut of expression.
I tried to do some image capture to illustrate and the enormous range of vivid expressions she brought even within one shot quickly became evident. No single still would do, so I created a compilation from her scenes in the cafe with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. Kedrova’s performance is theatrical, almost Delsartean in her gestures, and she looks like a wounded French bulldog, but one gets a sense of a person who’s elegant, pained, powerful but helpless, bewildered. There’s a person that’s constructed out of those arresting expression and those wounded eyes. How did the countess arrive from Poland to East Berlin? What did she have to live through? It’s clear that she was once beautiful and that maybe she could no longer use that to the advantage she once did. What did her class, her gender, her beauty and her foreignness play in her survival? What sort of desperation drives an already old person to go to such lengths to get out?
I love the last shot in the clip above. The countess has finally gotten the American couple the information they needed. But just as they succeed the police arrives. She trips the policeman to allow the couple to escape, knowing that doing so seals her own doom. Hitchcock shows us a close-up of the rifle falling down the stairs, and then the camera cranes right up the stairs into a close-up of Lila Kedrova’s face as the Countess says, ‘My sponsor, my sponsor for United States of America’. It’s simultaneously camp and touching. Kedrova is giving a charismatic, theatrical performance (her elegant posture on the stairs, her voicing of the dialogue) that moves us through the recognisable humanity she expresses. For her all is lost. And Hitchcock wants us to see this enough to arrange a complex shot that is in itself arresting, spectacular. The American couple has a chance; for the Polish Countess in East Berlin, there’s no more hope. And Hitchcock and Kedrova, together, know how to convey the drama and truth of that moment, a moment where spectacle and feeling are rendered one. It’s lovely.
Dress, Décor, Angle and Framing as Part of Mise-en-scéne:
I understand that Hitchcock was disappointed with Torn Curtain but was pleased with what he’d been able to accomplish as an exercise on light and composition. These are some aspects of the film that aroused my interest and delighted my sight.
The reason why I started off writing this piece, but which I’ve left to the end, is that even in the worst of Hitchcock one finds moments of real poetry. In the scene below there are many things to admire. I decided to start the clip in the previous scene, so that you can see the close-up on Julie Andrews’ face as she says ‘East Berlin, but that’s behind the Iron Curtain’. That will rhyme with the very last shot of the scene, which is a masterpiece of expression. In between note how the cut is on Michael’s face seen slightly from behind now on the plane. From her to him, each facing in the opposite direction, and now in a new context, note how the camera tracks slowly back to allow us to take the new context in, and in full, before the camera pans right to a close-up of the befuddled Sarah. Note how the cutting speeds up when he sees her, the repetition of the tracking shot, but much faster as Michael heads to Sarah, then the change in direction but at the same speed as he approaches her. They’re superb choices.
But the pièce-de-resistance is the last shot on Sarah. That last close-up, after Michael has told her to stop following him and go home, which rhymes with the close-up of her finding out he’s going to East Berlin, but now filmed from a slightly higher angle to indicate Michael’s point-of-view on Sarah, and then the beautiful way the image begins to dissolve, goes out of focus, undulates, distorts. Note Hitchcock’s confidence in the length of its duration. And then the quick cut onto the opening doors of the plane with its view of East Berlin’s airport. It’s like all Sarah’s hopes, dreams, are extinguished and expire in that moment where everything goes out of focus and distorts only to be confronted by the harshness of a new reality with all her past knowledge put into doubt. It’s beautiful. A great moment of cinema. And one of many reasons to see the film.
I saw this on a gorgeous blu-ray transfer from Universal Studios: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is typical Guy Ritchie, all the Cockney crim faux-mateyness — even in Camelot! — with that amped up camera movement that doesn’t quite let the audience see, and the narrative cheats — the seeing and the re-seeing –through characters’ re-telling the story. The narrative this time encased in a by-the-book Oedipal structure. And yet I found it great fun.
I like all the macho schtik and the fast pace and the cheekyness. Plus it’s a good looking cast, which always helps. Charlie Hunnam’s never been more appealing on a big screen and it’s got Eric Bana, Jude Law and a host of excellent Brit actors relishing their parts. The film looked darker than I would have liked. But some of the fantasy/magical images were very striking (if edging on sexist — the octopus/snake witches!).
I also loved the film’s picturing of Londinium, which looks a grand riverside ruin with one of those busy bridges with shops and brothels and so on; full of Roman architecture, including remains of a Coliseum, Roman palaces etc.. The film must have been greatly influenced by the Scott Lynch’s ‘Gentlemen Thieves’ books like The Republic of Thieves or perhaps Game of Thrones because it’s all about King Arthur growing to be a man by leading a hard-knock life as a petty thief raised by a gaggle of prostitutes in a brothel instead of growing up true blue on a farm as traditional renderings have it.
It’s not good but it is fun if you don’t ask too much of it. And it was all worth it to witness the Queer as Folk re-union between Hunnam and Aiden Gillen: hey honeytits! I found it perfect rainy day Saturday afternoon viewing.
I Love Dick, the TV series is doing such great things on television – great female filmmakers – Jill Soloway, Andrea Arnold, Kimberly Pierce, — exploring ideas that concern women: the show is about women, female desire, the female gaze, women on film. I’m finding it like a great art film of the sixties. You might not have a great time watching each episode but you’re dying to talk about everything in it with your friends. However, since none of my friends are watching it, I was driven to read the Chris Kraus novel on which it’s based. Reading it, one becomes conscious of a certain cinephilia.
Susan Sontag described cinephelia in her classic New York Times article, ‘The Decay of Cinema,’ as the love of a specific kind of cinema – modernist, complex art cinema – attached to a ritual of viewing, on a big screen in the dark. ‘The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space’, she wrote, ‘are radically disrespectful of film’. I prefer the more expansive and inclusive description offered by Girish Shambu of a ‘new cinephilia’ in his great eponymous book on the subject: ‘it includes the ‘art cinema’ that was primarily (Sontag’s) taste, and it includes the traditional theatrical viewing experience of the era she mourned but also has many other kinds of viewing situations. Further, it is an internationalist cinephilia, not just in terms of the films but, equally important, in terms of the cinephiles themselves.(Loc 20 of 832, Kindle)’ Furthermore, and importantly, it also involves ‘an active interest in the discourses surrounding films’.
In the novel of I Love Dick Chris Kraus uses sentences like ‘Back at Dick’s, the night unfolds like the boozy Christmas Eve in Eric Rhomer’s film My Night at Maud’s’ (p.4). She includes speculations like : “Who’s independent?” Isabelle Huppert’s pimp demanded, spanking her in the backseat of a car in Sauve Qui Peut (stet). ‘The maid? The bureaucrat? The banker? No!” Yeah. Chris Kraus assumes that everyone has seen those films; that her readers are cine-literate and cinephiliac. Guy Bolton’s excellent murder mystery, The Pictures, draws on knowledge of Hollywood in 1939, The Wizard of Oz, Louis B. Mayer. Other novels’ borrowings are more structural and include filmic aspects of point-of-view and narration.
Film cultures are an essential reference point to 21st century culture in general and cinephilia is one of the ways of engaging with it. The TV series of I Love Dick takes it even further than the book because it’s not only referencing the films but deploying Shambu’s more expansive notions and taking on the discourses around the films. Thus we see how the second episode is inspired by Chantal Ackerman’s Je, Tu Il, Elle and uses clips from the film to structure the show. In the first episode we get a whole dramatization of aspects of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative’ cinema and other feminist writings on ‘the female gaze’ and a dramatic exposition of discourses around Women in Film citing once again Ackerman but also Sally Potter and Jane Campion and doing a montage of their films.
Cinephilia seems to have become central to long form television. I was reminded of this when watching the Season Opener of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, ‘The Thief’. Dev (Aziz Ansari) has now moved to Italy, speaks basic Italian, learned how to make pasta and made a group of friends in Modena. The show begins with the camera panning from a pile of Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cookbooks on one bedside table to a pile of DVD’s — including Bicycle Thieves, La Notte, La Dolce Vita, 81/2, Amarcord, L’Avventura – on the other. Italy is conveyed through food and a series of films from a very particular period, those largely taught in film studies courses.
Dev’s dilemma is taken directly from Bicycle Thieves, it borrows not only the look (b&w), the central premise (but in this case a mobile phone rather than a bicycle) and even classic shots (see below). Of course, this is a comedy: the tone is different. Here the theft doesn’t result in tragedy but merely in Dev losing a date. But part of the pleasure is in recognising the classic Italian art cinema dimension of the episode. And the pleasures of ‘The Thief’ are enhanced not only by recognising the references but by being familiar with the discourses around them. Its comedy relies very considerably on a very particular set of knowledges which it assumes as shared but is only common to an audience with a particular education or a self-acquired cinephilia.
 Girish Shambu, The New Cinephilia, Montreal: Caboose Books, 2014.
A fantastic dramatisation of some of the debates around women and film which many of you will recognise. Kathryn Hahn as Chris is a filmmaker whose latest film has just been rejected from the Venice film festival because she hadn’t secured rights to the music. Dick (Kevin Bacon) asks what it’s about and Chris explains that her film is about a woman — all women — and society’s crushing expectations. ‘Sounds horrible’ says Dick and then goes on to comment how it sounds like she’s crushed by something. Dick then behaves like a dick , talks through her to her husband (Griffin Dunne) and proceeds to mansplain why women filmmakers don’t make good movies. It’s a fantastic scene — Sally Potter, Jane Campion and Chantal Ackerman — get trotted out in defence. I also love the husband’s tokenistic inclusion of Susan Sontag as a coda to the conversation. Chris, torn between outrage at the ideas expressed and desire for the Dick doing the mansplaining, is something to see. I love ‘I Love Dick’. It’s terrific.
Almost 40 years after the release of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), we’re still interested in the world the first film presented, in the thrills offered, in the monster that caused them and in a set of speculations the original film addressed (what is it to be human, are homo sapiens the only ones who can be so, what is the origin of life, what if impregnation were tantamount to contamination?).
Alien:Covenant is the sequel to Prometheus (Ridley Scott 2012), both prequels to the four other Alien films that began with Ridley Scott’s original in 1979. Prometheus expanded some of the themes of the first four films by focusing on the questions raised by the Titan of Greek mythology who defies the Gods and gifts humans with fire, for which he is then subjected to eternal punishment. The film dealt with the consequences of Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) seeking an affirmation of her faith and android David (Michael Fessbender) defying his creators. These remain the central themes of Alien: Covenant but are developed in ways that will echo throughout the series. The Captain of this mission, Oram (Billy Crudup) is also a man of faith. David now has a ‘brother,’ Walter, also played by Fassbender, a more developed version of his model, with kinks like a tendency to human emotion and feeling removed, the Alien has morphed into several shapes and we get to see how it takes the form of the one in the first film..
I found Alien: Covenant a spectacularly handsome film, all that amber and steel and it looks deep and textured in Imax. Narratively, I didn’t really care whether anyone died, which made all the alien piercings less exciting than they could have been. The twist at the end was expected but rather thrilling.
It’s not as scary as some of the earlier films – one would have needed to care more for the characters’ fate in order to achieve that — though it was scary enough for me. I think the film remains rich structurally (the change in tone and use of space from the beginning in the ship to the world of the previous film, all those imposing masks, David’s office, spectacular set design – through to the confined spaces amidst new horror towards the end of the film. Shifts in tone are conveyed as shifts in space in a very striking and dramatic way. Indeed Jake Benson has remarked that ‘Visually and tonally it starts so much like Prometheus but segues nicely into the tone of Alien. It really is a nice transition between the universes’.
Alien Covenant is a serious film; and it’s a visually beautiful film. The characterisation, or lack thereof, is a problem, as was the casting: the film is an entirely charisma-free zone except for Fassbender, making the most of his dual role in spite of the constrictions placed by both roles being non-humans. The action is conceptually rendered as exciting but fails to be so because the person in danger tends to be one you don’t much care about. I enjoyed it and I think most people will if they go in with reduced expectations. It’s quite possible that the success of Alien:Covenant lies more in what it adds to the franchise than what it achieves on its own.
PS friends and critics have been overly dismissive of the film. What are we comparing it to? It’s true it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the franchise at its diverse best (each of the first three was as if from a different genre). However, I have seen all other twelve films playing currently at Cineworld except for the Hindi ones. Alien: Covenant is by far the most intelligent and most ambitious, the thematically richer and best-looking film of the bunch, and that alone deserves some consideration I think.
Kevin Bacon appeared last week on the Graham Norton Show to promote his new series for Amazon Prime, I Love Dick, and talked of how it was explicitly about the female gaze. I was a bit surprised — this is not usual talk-show fodder — but intrigued. And indeed — as you can see in the clip above — this does seem to be the case. I can’t remember seeing a star ‘entrance’ on-screen as driven by a woman’s look since Redford’s introduction through Streisand’s gaze in The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973). It’s fascinating. That the Dick in question is based on Dick Hebdige, the celebrated cultural theorist and author of Subcultures: The Meaning of Style London: Routledge, 1979) and — my own favourite of his works — Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (London: Routledge, 1988), is an added attraction.
One of the reasons the second season of Sense8 continues to be so enjoyable is that it’s not only intriguing, enticing and wonderful to look at but it’s also giving us so much to think about. In the clip I extracted below, film star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) has been outed when pictures of him having sex with his boyfriend are photographed with a telephoto lens and leaked over the internet (raising all kinds of questions about the rights to privacy in the current digital, inter-webbed era). Soon his agent drops him and instead of getting leading roles in big-budget action movies, he now gets offered small roles (9 pages) of drug dealers, drug addicts, or other unhappy people on the edges of criminality who basically fulfil a plot point and kill themselves whilst giving the real star of the movie a chance to shine. It’s not unlike the situation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood cinema that Vito Russo so eloquently described and analysed in The Celluloid Closet almost half a century ago.
We have to assume that these filmmakers — so well versed in the art, economics and politics of Hollywood filmmaking — know what they’re talking about. And yet, we are on the one hand invested in wanting stars to be out, and indeed to out them – think of the pressures on Jodie Foster from the 80s until she came out recently and on people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and so many others right up to the present; On the other hand, we also like to point to those who are out and whose careers don’t as of yet seem to be affected by it. Think of Cynthia Nixon on Broadway, or the success with which Neil Patrick Harris played heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, or how we applaud when Colton Haynes and Charlie Carver, both from Teen Woolf ,come out. We also like to indicate how the film careers of people like Ian McKellen’s didn’t suffer at all: as he likes to point out, he didn’t really have much of one before he did.
But it might be good to compare like with like. There might be differences in the parameters a TV star is allowed to operate within, ones that might be greatly expanded in the theatre, and ones much more severely limited for film stars. The fact is we still don’t have a film star, one who is currently commanding the best film roles, having film built around him/her, one who puts people on seats and is the focus of marketing, who is currently out.
We do know that Rupert Everett blames the decline of his starring career in films on choosing to be out. In 2009, Everett told The Observer: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.” This caused the expected backlash with people arguing that he had a perfectly good career. However, no one knows his career better than Everett does himself, and whilst he continues to be a celebrity in various fields and arguably has become a West End star, he’s not had a career as a film star since he came out, with even his comeback in cinema, supporting Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, taking place on a different, lower, plateau.
We also know that when an actor’s outed there is a period in which it’s not acceptable and then one in which it doesn’t matter. In my experience for a good decade after Rock Hudson’s death I couldn’t show one of his sex comedies without hearing snickers from the class, and a generation later, it didn’t matter at all, but maybe that was because the audience had forgotten that dimension of his later star persona. They seemed to have forgotten that Rock Hudson was gay and had died of AIDS. Most of them didn’t have a clue as to who he was period.
Adrian Garvey pointed out to me the instance of Luke Evans, who has been out since since a 2002 interview with The Advocate, is clearly a name and in one of the biggest hits of the year, Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017). On the surface, being out hasn’t harmed his career at all. On the other hand, Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, 2014) is the last title role I remember him in. The article in Time, hyperlinked above, notes how when he moved to Hollywood, his management team tried to drag him back in the closet in order to push his career, an impossibility in the age of the internet. I see that he’s also been in High Rise (starring Tom Hiddleston) and The Girl on the Train (Justin Theroux played the male lead) and good in both parts, albeit secondary. He’s very charismatic, talented and clearly a name with a following. Yet compare his career to those of Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Isn’t it telling that Evans’ only title role in the movies recently has been as Dracula? If you’re gay you get blood-sucker, if you’re heterosexual like Redmayne and Cumberbatch you can play anyone, including a whole range of gay men. I don’t see films built around Evans the way the are around Redmayne, Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Michael Fessbender and other British stars in or out of Hollywood. It’s almost an impossibility to speak with certainty on this as it’s a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda and might-have-beens, but I find the comparisons informative.
I don’t mean to only imply that these actors suffer form a degree of homophobia. Of course they do, and Sense8 renders it very evident. But Sense 8, in a scene immediately following the clip I posted above, also demonstrates how it’s more complex than that. When Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman) go with Bug (Michael X. Sommers) to see Our Father Who Art in Heaven at the Castro Cinema in Episode 5, the film takes pleasure in showing us how a trashy crude action film like that nonetheless involves great pleasures and complex processes of identification and desire. I suspect that the element of desire is not the greatest of problems: we’ve seen how adolescent girls continue to scream at their teen idols no matter what their sexual orientation (from Ricky Martin to George Michael) and I’m sure Bug had no desire for Lito to begin with. But the kind of identification — the way he says ‘No More Lies’ alongside the character Lito is playing onscreen; an idealised wishing one could do and say and move and look like who’s on the screen — I suspect that’s an area where sexual orientation does matter, particularly to men, and especially to young men already burdened with all kinds of anxieties about sex and sexuality.
What the little scene in Sense8 reminded me of is to extrapolate a further question, one which the speculation on Evans above also begs, which is that before we can answer whether a film star can remain a film star after they come out, we need to ask what is a film star today, something which we know to be different from what it was in the classic period, and even right up to the early nineties (think of how Sense8 uses the figure of Jean-Claude Van Damme) but which I’m not sure we’d necessarily have a shared understanding of, or response to, today.
So two things then, A) I think film stardom now is different than it was when Richard Dyer wrote his groundbreaking Stars and thus the methods he offers with which to analyse the phenomenon might no longer apply — or maybe only apply partially — to stars today and B) that questions of desire and identification, always considerations when talking about stars might affect stardom in ways that are not due solely to ‘homophobia’, which might be more ‘I don’t want to be, am not, like him/her’, rather than merely ‘Ugh’
Thanks to Adrien Garvey, David Sugarman, Celia Nicholls and Andy Medhurst for their input on this.
Feud is super trashy but great fun. The feud in question is the one that started when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis first got together to star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962). The film is worshipful of stardom in general and these two in particular. Joan Crawford admires Davis’ talent; Davis admires Crawford’s beauty and her professionalism. They’re both, in different ways, each other’s equal. And so they’re jealous of each other. On the one hand, the series aspires to be an examination of what Hollywood does to great female stars past a certain age, on the other it seems the work of worshipful fans hanging on to every gossipy tidbit (many of them from Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and offering a retort to the matricidal work of the two stars’ daughters: Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest and B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper) with the aim of rescuing their reputations. And it succeeds. After Feud, wire hangers will not be the first thing we think about when we think of Joan Crawford.
I think the series miscast. Susan Sarandon, seventy, but meant to be playing mid-fifties, looks no more than 40. I love her and she’s very attractive in this but actually not very good; she mimes Bette without having the volatility or danger that Davis had. Sarandon is so warm, still sexy, and rather maternal in spite of all the mother-daughter conflict shown in the film. What makes her a star is so different than what made Bette a star that she’s bad casting (though extremely watchable).
Jessica Lange gives a terrific performance, but not as Crawford. She’s too soft. Crawford was never that. She lacks that tough, almost mannish quality that Crawford brought to her most memorable parts. It’s good to see her vulnerability accented. But everyone’s vulnerable. What made Crawford special is the zeal and focus with which she fought for her place in the movie firmament in order to transform Lucille Lesueur into Joan Crawford. Crawford had been a dance hall girl, a ten-cents a dance dancer; she’d done porn, gotten to Hollywood as, I think, Eddie Mannix’s girl. She was not this soft, almost yielding creature presented here. At least not by any account I’ve read. Lange does show great depth of feeling in the role she plays. She’s creating someone much more complex than Sarandon. But it’s not Crawford. Nonetheless, Lange and Sarandon are stars playing stars and thus extremely watchable (alongside Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci – I don’t get the casting of Catherine Zita-Jones as Olivia de Havilland).
The series never becomes good but it does become compulsively watchable as it unfolds. It’s fun in all kinds of ways. I loved pointing out the anachronisms: was Joan Crawford ever really called an ‘Icon’ to her face? Did her agent really speak to her about ‘branding opportunities’? As one can see in the cut and mix videos that fans have done, it’s also great fun to compare the depictions in the series with the actual events as filmed. This clip of Susan Sarandon/Bette Davis singing the theme song from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a favourite.
The fun, however, is laced with something nastier: there’s a slight air of misogyny infusing all the admiration and worship and slightly camp approach in Feud. Why this project anyway? On the one hand, it’s to remove the tarnish spewed by two vengeful daughters and revarnish two film immortals for posterity. On the other: Take two gay icons, add a touch of fading glamour, show them in their decline, posit them as antagonists and create a bitchfest in which fur may fly. There’s a nasty edge that constantly threatens what is otherwise a bubble of fandom and good will. Camp and misogyny need not overlap but there’s a magnetic field around which the two terms seems to attract each other in the presence of gay men; and there’s something about that overlap in the show, not very overt, more like an overhanging air, or a slight infusion. One feels it all through Feud.
A super sappy film. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 lacks the illusion of three-dimensionality, which is to say it lacks what Marvel is most famous for in its comics: depth, visual and thematic. The world of the film seems a badly drawn cartoon one, with human faces occasionally popping out of the one-dimensional backgrounds to bring a little life to the otherwise inert. This is a movie that is so scared of anything approaching human truth that it’s willing to jump to another dimension to avoid it: the sequel’s idea of wit is jokes about turd size. The CGI, however expensive, makes the film look cheap and fake. However, the audience I saw it with liked it, with one group guffawing loudly at every cheap joke. I found there were too many characters, too many cameos, in a way that detracted from the playful dynamic of the protagonists that was such a pleasure in the first film, which I loved. Nothing here approaches the grace and wit, the exuberance, of Chris Pratt’s first scene in the original movie, the scene that turned him from the loveable Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation into a fully-fledged film star. Having action scenes taking place in the background as characters bicker might be considered inventive if the action scenes the film did show were more exciting and memorable. As with the first film, I did very much like the 70s soundtrack: it’s the am radio of my childhood. Yet whilst I enjoyed hearing Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’, and whilst the film’s deployment of the song might be seen as ironic, it still didn’t cut through all the schmaltz Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is propagating. The gross sentimentality is the opposite of what made the first film so memorable and is unbearable in all its manifestations, be it love in a couple, between friends or between fathers and sons. It’s a curse on American cinema. It all seems one screeching lie no matter how buttery or sweetly rendered. To me, the best thing about the film was a chance to see Elizabeth Debicki again, so sexy in The Night Manager, this time as the villainess and still enticing in spite of being covered in the ugliest gold make-up imaginable. All that glistens is most definitely not gold.
I went to see Lady Macbeth for Cosmo Jarvis – I became a fan through his Gay Pirate song — who is very handsome in it but not good, rather like the film. Great material though – based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, rendered even more interesting by adding a racial dimension to the casting. I know it’s been highly praised as an examination of patriarchy. The lady in question is bought in marriage, along with a piece of land, and treated like a piece of property. Then slowly, she revolts, she takes on a half-cast lover, a groom working on the estate – begins to murder for him, and in the end is capable of anything. She starts off as a piece of property who’s humanity is in every way denied or diminished; is brought to life by passion only to be once more de-humanised by the murder necessary to keep the passion going. Her desire frees her only to re-enslave her in a different form. There are a lot of black actors in the cast, and it’s clear that the casting is meant to make one think of people as property, of slavery, to somehow add this to discussions of class and gender. But the film doesn’t do what films are supposed to do which is create a pattern around this, try to make sense of them somehow in order to convey feeling and meaning. Perhaps a better way of saying this is one knows what the film is trying to get at, but the film is not quite getting to it in a way that is decipherable, intellectually or emotionally — at least to me. There’s a lot of silence, and a lot of murders take place out of sight or out of camera range. It’s a dispassionate film. I wanted to feel something at the beatings or the murders and the sex rather than just knowing about them, having them blandly half-shown. I was trying to figure out why the camera was wherever it was at any given point and the only reason I could come up with was that they were short of money – thus all the tableau-y medium long shots and lack of variety in camera set-ups. I also thought the moment – and this is just one of many examples — where the master asks the black servant to get on her knees and crawl ‘like the animal she is’ — I thought that might have been a magnificent moment on stage but the film just opened up all kinds of possibilities as to what a more imaginative director could have done with that moment onscreen that merely demonstrated the gap between what the film is and what it could have been. I don’t think this director, William Oldroyd, whose first film this is, knows much about directing movies. On the other hand Ari Wegner has done a beautiful job of cinematography, it’s all lush haze, densely forested exteriors in half-light outside, clearly coloured, almost varnished emptiness inside. It looks beautiful. And there is, I don’t know if it’s a performance exactly, but the magnificent surly presence of Florence Pugh, which brings an anger and resistance to the character and renders the film dramatic, adding the only excitement this lifeless film seems capable of.
I found the experience of watching Lady Macbeth dull. Yet images, those very tableaus I didn’t at first like — the lady dressing, and dressing and dressing again; being constricted by form, habit, propriety only to be removed of her clothes to await her master’s pleasure — and the contained anger in Lady Macbeth’s surly face: all of this has lingered in my mind almost a week after seeing the film.
Jonathan Demme died yesterday. His 80s films – Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Stop Making Sense (1984), Married to the Mob (1988) and right up to Silence of the Lambs in ‘91 – marked my youth. Something Wild (1986) in particular resonated with me: its combination of hipness and gaucheness, the central love story between Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, the urban-suburban tensions, the danger amidst so much bubblyness.
I took a look at it again yesterday, part-nostalgia, part-commemoration, and by the end of the opening credits I was once again reminded of all that made me love his work. The playfulness with which the shiny O in Orion announces the drums and the music starts. The hybridity of the music, Talking Heads adapting a Latin beat, Celia Cruz’s voice, the first you hear on the soundtrack. adding joy and warmth to the song, enveloping the beat.
Demme was urban, cool, hip, funky – all the words we used then. But part of what made him so is that New York, the New York filmed so lovingly in these opening credits, wasn’t where his world ended. New York was such a great place because it’s where people from all over the world went to. But people from all over the world being there to Demme was an invitation to explore those worlds rather than a reason to close himself off within his own urbanity.
Like the fusion of rock and salsa David Byrne sings — some fools would say appropriated — Demme adapted, included. Here in the credits we see John Sayles and John Waters, as different as filmmakers and as people as you can possibly get. Sister Carol and the Feelies get billed in the front rather than the end credits were most people would place them. The score is by John Cale and Laurie Anderson. The cinematography is by Demme’s long-time collaborator, the great Tak Fujimoto. Demme brought all these talents together, collaborated with them.
I love how the title, in graffiti colours and with lettering that seems cut with rough scissors, tries to bounce with the beat rather clumsily. There’s a home-made feel to this beginning; it’s a labour of love, it’s not that it’s not pretty but it lacks slickness. Feeling, even slightly distanced and absurd, like the words of the song ‘like a pizza in the rain…no one will take me home…loco de amor,’ will break through. I also love how it announces some themes, the focus on trees, people on tugboats, alternating with the New York skyline, some skyscrapers shown as grim as the projects: the protagonists will soon move from here and go into the jungle that is the suburban heartland. I love also how there’s a play on expectations that is also a subverting of them. Here the ending shot of the sequence begins with a huge ‘ghetto-blaster’ playing the song, a clichéd image from the period, but here on the shoulders of a preppily handsome young man rather than a thug gangster as you’d expect. ‘Love’ is used a lot in this paragraph; there’s a lot of love in Demme’s work and maybe because of that, there’s also a lot to love.
I stumbled across Ray Donovan recently and quickly got hooked for many reasons. A key one was a reminder that one of the joys of such long form television is seeing great actors or stars from the past in real parts, parts that remind us of what they can do, why they became celebrated in the first place: I’d not seen Steven Bauer since Scarface. But here he is – a striking presence — as Avi, a former Israeli Mossad and part of Ray’s team. And then there’s also Jon Voight, in his mid-70s, getting one of the best roles of his life as the Donovan patriarch who ruins everything, for everybody, always. But with enough humour and zest to keep everyone from giving up on him entirely. Elliott Gould brings an aura of The Last Goodbye to the work. James Woods, showing the same charismatic life-force — a kind of gangsterism as sexual appetite — that he conveyed in so many films, but perhaps most famously in Once Upon a Time in America opposite De Niro.
Roseanna Arquette is one of the many tough but bruised blondes that grace this film. When Ann-Margret came on I didn’t quite recognise her. I thought who *is* this great actress, can it be? Yes, it is!; Grace Zabriskie’s also fab as an Armenian Godmother. It’s a showstopping performance, a number. She’s constantly drawing attention to what she’s doing, But she looks so fab and is so charismatic doing it that she makes you forget she’s playing really a clichéd and underwritten part. Then there’s also the many femme fatales who appear, of which perhaps the most striking is Katie Holmes, seemingly so recently from Dawson’s Creek.
Hank Azaria also appears in a recurring role, with that humorous sense of danger he displayed even as Robin William’s houseboy and maid of all things in Birdcage, as an FBI hot-shot who quickly slides down the ladder of success. It’s good to see Sherilyn Fenn, even if briefly, as Azaria’s wife. Whoever is the casting director for the show should get a prize. It’s like the show draws on the best of the 70s and 80s without ever stooping to evoking nostalgia for those decades.
What stops the casting from seeming a little like a Murder, She Wrote stuntcast nostalgiafest for a new generation is the themes, the tone, the care with which it’s all done. Ray Donovan — as the fixer who loves his wife, is close to his family — is not necessarily a new archetype. But as embodied by Liev Schreiber, tall, lean, silent, with the pointy nose and the chipmunk cheeks, completely recessive in speech but ready for violence. He’s first of all a marvellous image. But he’s also a great actor and the scenes between he and Paula Malcomson as his wife are so variegated and full of feeling that it hits at something real amidst all the stylishness.
Ray Donovan is a noir, and the wonderful thing about chiaroscuro is that it shows everything in half-light; things are complicated, there are nuances, there are exceptions, the light is a tendency that doesn’t cover or explain everything. Darkness can obscure the light just as light can make darkness recede. Also, that time between dusk and dawn offers a cover in which everyone from all walks of life, races and classes, can meet in the shadows, partake of the unacceptable, the shameful, the sordid, that also makes up part of life. But night is not necessary when that half-light can be created in rooms, by blinds, shades, shutters, confessionals.
At the heart of the series is sexual abuse, primarily, but not only by the Catholic church. Eddie Marson as Terry has had his hand deformed by it, Dash Mihok’s Bunchy Donovan has had his self-esteem destroyed. And Ray? Well the series goes on to tell us.
If I’m giving the impression of too much testosterone, let me qualify. The show was created by Ann Biderman, who was also show-runner for the first two seasons. It has one of the most intriguing lesbian characters I’ve yet seen: Katherine Moennig’s Lena, cool and sexy, prone to violence — particularly against women — loyal, ready for anything and capable of carrying it through. It’s a terrific character.
Last but not least amongst the enticements is that it has a terrific list of directors, including Michael Apted, but most enticing for me is the name of John Dahl, the director of all those memorable noirs (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) from the late 80s and early 90s. It’s an amazing combination of talents in really good material. I highly recommend.
I thought I Am Not Your Negro was about James Baldwin but I wasn’t quite right. The film is more about race relations in America, using Baldwin’s analysis, mainly as articulated in Remember This House — an unfinished manuscript on the theme — that serves as the basis of the screenplay. The manuscript offered an analysis of race structured around the significance of the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm Luther King and Malcolm X — what they represented – but also what was signified by their assassinations. It’s a structure the film borrows.
Baldwin’s analysis of race remains amongst the most cogent and potent – to me the most moral and unassailable. Here Samuel L. Jackson gives understated voice to Baldwin’s first-person narrative. I Am Not Your Negro is a historical account, and an argument, but also feels personal, like a confidential conversation on past horrors that becomes a realisation that those horrors of the past are still with us now. The music is as expected blues, jazz and soul, but largely on a lower key, a mournful one that lends the film an intimate tone with which to express sorrow and pain.
The film uses lots of visuals — photographs, newsreels, old TV footage — but cinema plays a central role in how the film articulates its case. There are clips of Joan Crawford in Dance Fool Dance, Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, the films of Sidney Poitier and Doris Day in The Pyjama Game and Pillow Talk.
The image of Doris Day in Pillow Talk, all bright and beautiful longing in Techicolor, the colours that for François Truffaut signified America but are nowhere found in nature — the utopian ideal she represented, the price paid for it, and the erasure of the knowledge that there was a price – is powerfully conveyed through a clip from Pillow Talk juxtaposed with images of lynchings. What Ray Charles represented — art, truth, vitality, sexuality and feeling in all its varieties and with all its complexities — is what Baldwin posited against what Doris Day signified, at least to him.
The film argues that history is also now and makes a convincing case. I had never seen the Rodney King beating in such brutal and relentless detail, the power and the cruelty in a society the film evokes as still a police state fifty years after the legal abolishment of segregation. The credits give the impression that the film has money from various countries – with Arte in France given a prominent credit. I thought no American company was credited, giving the impression that such a critique cannot be rendered or made possible in the US now in spite of all we’ve seen that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I see from imdb that I was wrong to think that.