Hidden Figures is the kind of film Hollywood has been praying for since #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter and Bechdel Tests. It’s also the kind of movie that Hollywood’s been making since forever but usually with men. It’s rosy and feel-feel good. Things might be difficult but if you have courage, wit and the work ethic of a Calvinist believer, you will end up in the best of all possible worlds, your world….but better. It could have been made in the forties if you cobbled together some of the plots of Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn movies.
The only difference between Hidden Figures and that type of movie is that these women are black: three brilliant women held back by patriarchy overcome insurmountable odds and manage to help send a man to the moon. They end up becoming bosses, getting married to gorgeous men and having beautiful families, all the while being saintly to the nasty white people, male and female (James Parsons and Kirsten Dunst), who get in their way, just like Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, USA, 1963) and most of his other movies. It’s not the fault of the poor sinners: they’ve yet to be enlightened. Kevin Costner is the big white daddy who resolves most problems.
The protagonists being black is a major difference to past films of this type. The title is no accident. It’s all about re-claiming that which is lost or risks being lost to an #ohsowhite and #ohsomale history. I feel churlish not liking it more. The audience I saw it with responded to everything and applauded at the end in a way I’ve not quite seen since I saw Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, USA, 1995) with a mostly black, mostly female audience when it first came out. Maybe I’m too old. The audience’s response is proof such a film needs to be made now. Yet, I feel I’ve seen it all before. And after seeing Fences (Denzel Washington, USA, 2017) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 1917) Hidden Figures feels particularly safe, sitcom-y, predictable and phony. I was dying for Taraji P. Henson to explode and slap somebody, even if only verbally, like she did all of the first great season of Empire (Lee Daniels/Daniel Strong, USA 2015 -).
The actors are the best thing about Hidden Figures. I love Octavia Spencer’s face, wonky and slightly crushed-in; suspicious and full of mischief; and capable of expressing all there is. I also loved Kirsten Dunst’s stuffy and repressed supervisor: she’s closed in and angry at life, feels asphyxiated by it. It was also good to see Mahershala Ali, even as the perfect man. Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé are clearly stars and one loves looking at them as such whilst wishing they wouldn’t quite project the smug self-satisfaction their roles demand of them. I wished instead they’d get angry and smash things and that the film would make people fell the same way. Instead, Hidden Figures feels like an ideological project designed to keep everything in its place whilst moving people up a few notches. The audience applauded. And it’s turning into a landmark box office success. But….
A highly-saturated neon-noir. John Wick: Chapter 2 is all Keanu Reeves, action-set pieces in exotic locations and attitude. Keanu has the face of an oriental sage, a body that’s imposingly lean and athletic, and the stance of a surfer dude who’s acquired sophistication along the way but still doesn’t get wit: He tries, and the camera helps him along. But who cares? He’s got a marvellous stillness, a face so full of architectural planes it refract enough shadow to sculpt darkness out of light: you can project anything you want onto it, onto him, and it projects something back, maybe something different for each of us but maybe also something sad and broody that’s unique to you.
The film is an updated notion of dumb fun. The plot merely an excuse for staging exciting action in glamorous places. The fights are indeed exciting: they’re well-choreographed against museums, art installations, subways (Montrealers might recognise the Place des Arts metro), Iconic monuments – this time mainly in Rome and New York.
In between fights, treasured character actors are given a chance to conjure some laughs and shine: some succeed (Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishbourne), some don’t (John Leguizamo, Franco Nero, Peter Stormare). In a sense, the film reminds me of Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994): everything in the movie is designed as pace-in-time, to showcase action; it’s all move along, move fast, and bang bang against a series of distinctive images. But Keanu has a very particular and distinctively pleasurable way of holding a gun: elbow in, eye on the trigger. And Chad Stahelski knows how to stage action so that one sees the complete movement, is aware of the geography of characters and bodies, and in backgrounds that add visual pleasure and thematic density (the mirrored ‘Souls’ installation near the end). It’s a great-looking film (shot by Dan Laustsen) , a brightly hued noir that adds a sharp if artificial light to a series of explosive actions amidst an encroaching darkness. All of that plus Dog. Great fun. Even better than the original.
PS Since writing the above I’ve come across a really interesting analysis of Keanu Reeves by Angelica Jade Bastién for ‘Bright Wall/Dark Room’ that you can find here.
Are you interested in ballet but don’t know your first position from your fifth, your cambré from your relevé? Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet First Dates is designed to introduce new audiences to ballet or to deepen the understanding of the casual fan. Ballet Master Dominic Antonucci — informal and charismatic — takes us through the basic positions, movements, jumps and how these are all assembled together into ballet moves in a narrative ballet. With the help of Karla Doorbar and and Lachlan Monaghan — both First Artists with the Birmingham Royal – and an excellent rehearsal pianist whose name I’ve sadly forgotten, Antonucci gets the dancers to show us barre exercises, then move on to demonstrate balance, jumps, dance steps, and finally an excerpt of Coppélia with full-blown costumes and even the odd prop.
It was educational. Antonocci passed around satin point shoes so one can feel them, see their insoles, and even put one’s hand in the shoe and feel the support ballerinas get on their toes (not much). Costumes were also brought out at the end so one could look close up and three-dimensionally. One did learn. More importantly, it was thrilling to see the dancers complete their moves so well and so close-up. The audience was filled with children, who clearly adored the whole show and queued up to take a selfie with the dancers at the end. It was a lovely hour, all for a fiver. I can’t encourage the Birmingham Royal Ballet to do more of these. It’s on once more tomorrow at the Hippodrome at 6.30.
A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. In a way Jackie can be understood as a continuation and development of some of the themes first explored in No, Larrain’s 2012 film about the development of an ad campaign to defeat Chilean Dictator Agusto Pinochet in a national referendum. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — Tony Manero and Post Mortem come to mind — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.
Fences is stagey and heavy-haded: Denzel is not much of a director. But he’s a great actor and this is a great role in one of *the* great American plays of the second half of the twentieth century. He and Viola Davis are something to see, together and individually and they overcome every other fault. Watching it reminded me of seeing Sidney Poitier as a child or reading James Baldwin as a teenager: it’s beautiful, so charming as to diffuse but not hide the underlying anger, and with a dash of low-down sexyness, here all the more praiseworthy given the protagonists’ ages. One feels elevated by the experience. I didn’t care that it’s not ‘cinematic’. What it does offer is great.
The English have excelled at biography for so long that it’s even been spoken of as an English genre or at least an English-language one. And this to such an extent that the Spanish, to their shame, often don’t even bother writing biographies of their most famous personages and simply translate the most famous ones (Paul Preston on King Juan Carlos and Franco, Ian Gibson on García Lorca and Machado etc) from English into Spanish. However, the two best recent biographies I have read are French (in English translation) Tiphain Simoyault’s exhaustingly fascinating brick on Barthes and Pascal Mérigeau’s fantastic book on Renoir, deserving of the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix de l’Essai and all the other prizes its’s won.
Bad reader that I am. I began the Renoir with the move to America. I’m now almost at the end of filming of Elena et les hommes and plan to return to the beginning at the end.The research is gobsmacking, incredibly detailed in all areas, yet beautifully synthesised. It adds to your knowledge of his work, changes your views of him as a person, and only makes you admire both more.Nothing I’ve read from England or America this year comes near to touching the achievements of either book and I highly recommend them.
Brief Encounter is woven through and through with loss, sadness, the stifling of desire, the structuration of forces of repression — the state, the police, the institution of marriage: all that is so beautifully expressed in the scene where we see Laura (Celia Johnson) going to have a smoke under the the War Memorial, the park bench still wet from the rain, after her failed attempt at the assignation with Alec (Trevor Howard) that had exercised her so — interpellated as personal lacks and individual moral failings.
It was only on my last viewing that it became clear how the film is actually structured around the moment of loss, a moment which bookends the film, and which we first see narrated objectively and then come back to subjectively at the film’s end (and Catherine Grant’s marvellous video essay, Dissolves of Passion, take on an even richer resonance when seen through the lens of loss, of Dolly Messiter robbing the couple of their last minutes but also the loss of a love that is desired but cannot be).
The film begins to tell us a story, one that doesn’t start of as but then becomes Laura’s story told in flashback, and the end returns us to to the beginning but now fleshed out as Laura subjectively experiences– and by this I mean something different than told through her point of view — those last moments with Alec, the loss, the despair, the world infringing on and robbing her of that which is so important to her but which she cannot speak of, except to us, the audience.
As we can see in the clip above, the film begins with a train, engine steaming streams of smoke, heading towards us and slicing through the frame. We then begin with a medium close-up of Mr. Godby (Stanley Holloway). The camera cuts to passing trains once again, before again picking up Mr. Godby, crossing the track on foot. Why begin here and with Mr. Godby? Clearly the passing trains, the platform where people linger only momentarily before heading elsewhere, the steam; all help create an emotional as well as physical setting for the drama that will be played out. But look also at the formal elegance, at the beauty of the compositions. This dangerous speed, the transient and furtive meetings, the steaming desire the film will dramatise, all will be contained by the same order, hierarchy, symmetry, the elegant manner that also characterise framing and composition (and in a different way, Mr. Godby’s uniform).
I was struck also by how in the shot in the station café, the focus is entirely on Mr. Godby and Mrs. Bagot (Joyce Carey), flirting away, in their own way negotiating and making possible the fulfilment of the desires denied the more middle class Lauras and Alecs. You might note that the camera pans from Mr. Godby and Mrs Bagot to Laura and Alec, that significantly they remain at a distance. We don’t yet know who they are and we don’t yet hear a word they say. Mr. Godby’s voice is still carrying, now off-screeen, now speaking of police, whilst the camera lingers at a distance is on this new couple we will later get to know so well. So from the very first images, we get speed, steam, the sense of transit and indeterminacy but also of order and containment, all whilst being brought to notice regarding forces of repression. And the film tells us this whilst making a homology between two couples characterised as belonging to two different classes, one the servants; the other those being served, even if only in a cafe.
I will write about the two ways we’re shown Dolly Messiter’s intrusion into the last moments the couple have together –the one objective at the beginning, the other subjectively near the end — in my next post.
The opening scene of To Be or Not to Be has to be one of the best in all of classic cinema. The very first line, ‘Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, Razanski and Poznanski’ already set a tone for the film. The names are almost inherently funny in themselves. Perhaps a bit of a cheap joke but note the spacing, the intonation, and the variation between the first three and the last two. From the first five words we know we’re in a comedy, a high one, satirical and elegant but not afraid to go low-down and below the belt.
These are jokes being designed by masters. And they keep coming: Hitler is a vegetarian but ‘he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries.’ The film’s setting and all of the film’s themes are set-up in this elegant, polished, harmonious opening, beautifully calibrated so that each each bit shines on its own whilst also providing a sparkling setting and springboard for all the film will have to offer later.
We’re introduced to the theme of performance, the love of theatre, how drama can save lives. Indeed from the very beginning what we see is not what we think it is. What we thought was ‘life’ in the movie was really theatre whilst later the theatre will be a setting in which performing will save lives. Thus the title of the film is not just that of the famous soliloquy in Hamlet, or a joke making it the cue for an assignation. It is the essence of the film itself: what is the relationship between being and performing? Is performing not being? What are the connections between appearances and being. How and when do we perform and is that which we perform ourselves? And how is that performance tied to appearances. To what extent can that which merely appears to be real pass for reality?
The scene has many lovely elements that will recur and be riffed on by the rest of the film: the recurrent repetition of ‘Heil Hitler’ three times as a standard which then, by accentuating pauses, accents or irregular repetition, can transform something banal into something funny; the joke about Hitler being named after a piece of cheese will also recur in various guises; the ‘Heil myself joke’ rhymes nicely with the command to ‘Jump!’ near the end; the mechanics of how one is brought from the theatrical piece which we think is the film to the film proper through the director slamming his fist and yelling ‘that’s not in the script!’ is marvellously self-reflexive, as Lubitsch’s opening scenes so often are; and of course the great ‘I wound’t sneeze at a laugh’ line in a film in which the getting of laughs is simultaneously that most essential and that most desired so that all its perfect flourishes seem absolutely necessary.
The opening scene is so delightful one firstly enjoys it as if comedy is always this easy and fine. But the more one thinks about it, the more one is awed by the mere mechanics of the piece, how beautifully it’s designed not only as an opening scene but as the seeds from which everything else in the film unfurls, not to speak of the beauty of its realisation and the genius of its performances.
There is really too much to say about it and here I want to focus your attention in the clip below, on only on the four shots in the sequence, where we are introduced to Lombard and Benny as Maria and Joseph Toura: She the great star, he the great actor. Note how in just over a minute we’re told that this is a serious drama about atrocity, that it will have terrific laughs, that real film artists will clown around. We’re also given the whole dynamic of the couple’s relationship –the love, the art, the jealousy, the competitiveness, the grounds for infidelity — whilst also making a great joke out of a dress that will prove so important to a later encounter with Nazis if not concentration camps.
Note how in the first shot, Lombard heads towards the camera through a swastika, surrounded by Nazis as the director, says ‘this is a serious play, a realistic drama’ , then the interruption about the dress before ‘it is a document of Nazi Ger..’ Note the wonderful double take and that line, which must have been so shocking once: ‘is that what you’re going to wear in the concentration camp?’ Then a cut to a medium shot in which the dress Toura dreams of for her scene — ‘Imagine me being flogged in the darkness, the audience screams, suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers me in this beautiful dress’ highlights every curve of Lombard’s body. There’s a sense in which so accentuating a dress and so feverish reading of lines complement each other. But that they contradict anything to do with concentration camps is part of why it’s so daringly funny.
The staging is undramatically inventive as well. See how Dobash gets between star and director with the line about getting a terrific laugh, only to be replaced then by the husband when the director says ‘that an artist like you can be so inartistic’. It’s beatifully staged, including the moment where she begins to walk and the camera moves with her leaving him out of the shot. Then when the camera inserts his reply, he joins her in a travelling shot through we get to see all the dynamics of the relationship played out: him accusing, her fracturing, him chasing, both talking through each variation and all in one brief movement. iIt’s brilliant and brilliantly economical on practically every level.
I seem to remember this idea of the perfect woman being attributed to Bogart himself, or maybe Bacall in her memoirs just mentions how much his conceptions jived with those expressed in this movie, in any case I didn’t realise the story originates in this excerpt from John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. One can imagine this being a widely shared ideal whilst still thinking, ‘yikes!’
I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.
My kingdom for a smoke.
Lizabeth Scott, the beautiful blonde with the gravelly voice that graced so many forties noirs, gives her take on film noir.
From a series of great interviews conducted by Carole Langer in Janet Leigh’s home in 1996. They can be seen in their entirety on you tube here.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)
At the end of the screening of La La Land that I saw, the audience’s need to applaud was palpable but only a few people managed to overcome their shyness.It’s not perfect but it is romantic and sad with many sequences that make one feel happy at the rhythm and the movement and the colour, like musicals should. The things one loves in musicals are often ineffable (the way Ryan Gosling ends his dance steps for example). Personally, if I’d had any guts myself, I would have started applauding after the duet at the beginning when Ryan and Emma first dance together so charmingly in front of that gorgeous LA skyline. It’s a lovely film.
The expected backlash is ridiculous, and building. I find it obnoxious because a) the film was a risk to make, on a tight budget, and it’s success in no way assured beforehand b) it seems anti-populist and anti-popular, echoing that old elitist self-delusion that anything that masses of people enjoy can’t possibly be any good c) there’s more than a hint of, I wouldn’t say misogyny but anti-feminine, anti-art, anti-pretty sentiment in that backlash, all which come across as macho whether it’s expressed by men or women. People have taken its 14 Academy Award Nominations as something of an affront: Is it 14 nominations good asked someone? Well firstly, what does that mean? And ultimately, who cares?
Then there are people who say they loved it but that it’s superficial, which has always been a charge against musicals. Others have snarkily argued that it’s the kind of pastiche our times deserve. As if pastiche is incapable of inciting feeling (that Jameson said so doesn’t mean he’s right) ; as if no depth is possible that isn’t conveyed by plot or words. Yet, when Richard Dyer wrote about entertainment and utopia in musicals, he also talked about the characteristics which expressed it (energy, community, intensity, abundance, transparency etc) being inherently in tension with their opposite (exhaustion, isolation, etc). Jonathan Rosenbaum beautiful expresses this dialectic in the film, which is also its main pull, by highlighting the sadness in it: ‘A fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat.’ This is very true of La La Land and is a necessary component to the utopian dimension expressed by the musical numbers: it’s what makes it both lovely and sad, what elicits, in some of us at least, a wistful sigh.
Everything goes in cycles and history repeats itself. As David Bordwell writes, ‘I remember when the classic musicals that we venerate were considered fluff, and I recall how Demy’s films, especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, were held at arm’s length by many of my 60s pals. “He tries too hard,” a friend remarked. They’re now saying that about La La Land.’
If there’s a better musical than La La Land since All that Jazz what is it? Chicago? Mamma Mia? Burlesque? Rock of Ages? Into the Woods? Sweeney Todd? La La Land might not be perfect but it’s an achievement, a rare one. I’m trying to get at why the supercilious dismissal of it bothers me and I think that it lies in the refusal to see pleasure, beauty and complexity in that which is feminine, light, pretty. It seems to me that that’s what allows people to talk so heatedly and in such dismissive terms about a film they have yet to see.
Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)
A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.
Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonnergan, USA, 2016)
The moment when Michelle Williams appears with the baby carriage in Manchester by the Sea….it’s like the whole audience collectively opens up the tearducts, and they stay open to varying degrees –from trickle to full flow — until the end. I’ve not seen anything like this since Terms of Endearment, and Manchester by the Sea earns its tears more honestly.
Rebecca Meade in a wonderful piece on Lonnergan for the New Yorker gives us an insight on the infinite accumulation of detail that makes this such a great movie:
‘Affleck, another of Lonergan’s longtime friends and collaborators, says that he and Lonergan spent hours discussing how Lee Chandler’s character is revealed not just in his words but also by his unthinking actions. In one harrowing scene, Chandler is shown clutching a bag of groceries. “That was written into the script—that he is holding this bag. It was one of the few scenes where, when I read it, I thought, What is going on here?” Affleck told me. “I thought, Well, if I have to get upset, I can get myself to feeling upset. But why does he want me holding a bag? Then, when we came to do the scene, it made perfect sense. The character—he doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself. From that moment, he tightens up. So once I just held on to the bag I thought, This is how the rest of the moment ought to play out. He is just trying to hold on, and that ends up carrying over to so much more. He never lets himself have any sort of catharsis or release in any way.” It was, Affleck said, “an example where I learned to have faith in the writing, and in Kenny. It seemed like a little detail, but it made so many other things work.”
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)
At the end of La La Land the audience’s need to applaud was palpable but only a few people managed to overcome their shyness.It’s not perfect but it is romantic and sad with many sequences that make one feel happy at the rhythm and the movement and the colour, like musicals should. The things one loves in musicals are often ineffable (the way Ryan Gosling ends his dance steps for example). Personally, if I’d had any guts myself, I would have started applauding after the duet at the beginning when Ryan and Emma first dance together. It’s a lovely film. The expected backlash is ridiculous, and building. I find it obnoxious because a: the film was a risk to make, on a tight budget, and it’s success in no way assured b) it seems anti-populist and popular, echoing that old elitist self-delusion that anything that masses of people enjoy can’t possibly be any good c) there’s more than a hint of, I wouldn’t say misoginy but anti-feminine, anti-art, anti-pretty sentiment in that backlash, all which come across as macho whether it’s expressed by men or women.Jonathan Rosenbaum beautiful expresses the pull of the film by highlighting the sadness in it: ‘A fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat.’ This is very true of La La Land and is a necessary component to the utopian dimension expressed by the musical numbers. If there’s a better musical than La La Land since All that Jazz what is it? Chicago? Mamma Mia? Burlesque? Rock of Ages? La La Land might not be perfect but it’s perfect for me.
A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, USA/Spain, 2016)
Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Geraldine Chaplin, all in one film. the latter with one black dot painted right in the centre of heavily mascaraed lower lids. The film, A Monster Calls, is directed with great skill and sensitivity by J.A. Bayona –for a film dramatising a child dealing with his mother’s death of cancer, it’s incomparably restrained — and is almost as good as The Orphanage, the great Spanish horror film that made his international reputation.I like the way this is done almost as a gothic horror film/ fairy tale. My complaints would be in relation to the looks (it still has that metallic tinge I hate, though other aspects look beautiful or seem really imaginative); and also the accents: Sigourney’s English sounds a bit ridiculous. The rest I liked very much and the child is wonderful.We’re spoiled at the moment and A Monster Calls is yet another of the great crop of recent films. Will the 2016 vintage challenge 1939?
Sing Street (John Carney, Ireland/UK/ USA, 2016)
The other great musical of the season is Sing Street; on Netflix at the moment and totally charming.
Grey Gardens at the LGBT Centre in Central Birmingham:
For a while last week we were afraid no one would turn up for the Grey Gardens (Ellen Hovde,/Albert Maysles/ David Maysles/Muffie Meyer, USA, 1975) event at the LGBT centre. But eventually 12-15 braved the weather and slowly trudged in. I did not know the film had become so canonical in the annals of American camp until I started talking to friends about showing and then all instances came out (comedic sketches, RuPaul drag race take-offs etc). Interestingly, the audience for this screening were mostly women, the mother-daughter aspect of the film clearly trumping the camp dimension gay boys find so entertaining, emotional engagement clearly winning over ironic distancing.
Thoughts arising from reading Felice Picano’s many, many –too many – memoirs:
I think it’s just a question of time before this is written about at least as much as Bloomsbury: the artistic circles in which Pauline Kael, James Broughton (father of Kael’s daughter and lover of Harry Hay, founder of Mattachine Society, Radical Faerie and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence), Robert Duncan (involved with Kael and Robert DeNiro Sr.), Virginia Admiral (artist, mother to DeNiro Jr and partner of critic Manny Farber), Robert Horn (involved with Kael again but also Gian Carlo Menotti etc), and many many more key figures in American Arts of the 20th century all intersected sexually and artistically. A great PhD project for someone. You’re welcome.
There are so many good movies to see at the moment — great ones — that this has been overlooked. Maybe rightfully so as Ben is a big blank on screen and he doesn’t quite control the material as a director. But it’s a progressive film that tries to speak to our times through a noir vernacular and Affleck is as good at directing other actors as he’s bad at directing himself: Brenda Gleeson is great as his Dad, Elle Fanning plays an Aimee Semple McPherson-type tent-revival evangelist addicted to heroin and she’s really fine and Sienna Miller has never been better than here as a traitorous gangster’s moll. It’s a film that doesn’t quite work but that has stayed with me all of this week.
Each viewing of Meet Me in St. Louis teaches me something new about how this great film achieves the effects that it does, and how it expresses mood, character and feeling so beautifully and so poetically. I’ve previously written on an example of a cut and also on the marvel that is Garland’s acting in the film. Seeing it again on Monday with students, I realised how symmetrical the film is, with ‘The Boy Next Door’ number starting within the first ten minutes of the film, and the ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ ending within the last ten minutes of the film. I had not fully realised how the latter is a response to the former and how it rhymes with it in so many different and subtle ways.
What I remembered of ‘The Boy Next Door’ number is what we can see in the image above: Garland framed in the window in her blue and white striped dress, with the neat cuffs and the prim lace bow at the neck. She’s framed at the window, a portal between indoors and outdoors, the security of the home vs the promise of romantic possibilities just next door. The window is a gateway, but verdant, luxurious, with roses seeming already faded into a pretty Edwardian adornment on the edge of the frame. The frame within the frame of the window offers us lace, their partings secured with heavy tassels. Her song is a song of longing for that which is outside, within her reach but as yet inaccessible. But that longing is anchored, rendered safe, by the richness of the interior that we glimpse, the solid wood of the bannister, the doors, the richly polished brown furniture, the solid home life that prevents that yearning from possibly veering too out of control, too far from custom, community, security.
What I hadn’t noticed is that that song of yearning for the boy outside and next door is not only shown to us through the gateway portal and framed by the window. The staging of the song starts from the inside, goes to the window, returns inside for the little dance in front of the mirror and then goes back to the edge of outdoors. What I wanted to signal in the gif above is the way that Judy/Esther moves from the shadows and into the light. The light is what’s sought but the movement from inside to outside is shadowed, it’s troubled. I wanted to show a gif rather than a still because that movement across shadows and into a safe gateway from inside to outside is what the film emphasizes.
This second gif above is from a moment later on in the song and I again wanted to emphasize this move from inside to outside, across the shadows and into the safe gateway of the window giving full if melancholy voice to yearning for he and that who is outside. That play on shadow, that movement through shadow and into the light is no accident.
What became clear on my last viewing is how the ‘Have Yourself a Marry Little Christmas’ scene near the end rhymes with, responds to ‘The Boy Next Door’ number at the beginning; and how in turn the earlier number adds a layer of feeling and meaning to the later one. By the time the film gets to the ‘Have Yourself a Marry Little Christmas’ number, John Truitt, the boy next door, has now proposed to Esther. But that proposal like so many other things is now tainted by the knowledge that the family is leaving St. Louis, that it might all dissipate and vanish before it really comes to be.
Now Esther walks through a darkened house, through Tootie’s room but the window offers no light. As she looks out the window, the melody of the ‘The Boy Next Door’ comes on the soundtrack but the response is now the shutting of the blind by John and the coming of darkness for Esther. The windows are no longer gateways but bars. The house that is on the verge of no longer being there is now not an anchor or a comfort but a prison, a shutting down of what could be, what might have been. Instead of moving to the light through shadows, it’s moving through shadows into a prison of complete darkness. There’s a nice homology in the feeling of the songs as well for if the yearning for ‘The Boy Next Door’ had an under-layer of melancholy, here the desire for a merry if little Christmas is plunged in sadness. The Merry Little Christmas scene, so shadowy as to be Gothic, particularly in its representation of the snow people outside, is the final nadir, the extinguishment of the promise of the earlier scene. Until, of course, the father witnesses this and turns back on the lights, literally and metaphorically.
Tiny things, almost ephemeral, that constitute poetry in film, help make meaning, and beautifully convey a richness of feeling.
A little something I wrote for Viewfinder about what I learned from teaching in Cuba, which I hope does justice and celebrates what a great school EICTV is, particularly on its anniversary year:
Beginning with The Women in 1939, George Cukor directed three out of Crawford’s next four films, Susan and God (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941) being the other two. Only the first was a box office success. Thus, Cukor could be blamed for pushing her along the career slide that would end her MGM contract in 1943. But certainly she always credited him with helping her find herself as an actress. He expanded her range into comedy in The Women . And the basis of her later persona — the embattled and tough survivor of so may noir trials — often erroneously credited to Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), can in fact be found in the first scenes of A Woman’s Face. So Cukor’s direction of Crawford can be seen as Phoenix-like, the birth of one indelible persona born out of the ashes of another. He was the premier ‘Women’s Director’ of the studio at a time when MGM boasted Hepburn, Shearer, Garbo, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Judy Garland etc so Crawford was certainly lucky to get him.
I’m amused at the poster’s billing the film as ‘the gay comedy of high society that ran eight months on Broadway’. Clearly, 8 months was then considered a long and successful run in a way that it now isn’t. The film is such a bore that it almost took me eight months to watch it, having stopped and started and stopped over and over again. The cutline also offers a clue as to Crawford’s failure in the part. It’s a ‘High Society’ drawing-room comedy that calls for sophisticated and stylised playing. Something Cukor was greatly adept at (e.g. The Philadelphia Story) and something Crawford is so ill-suited to she’d never try again. Part of the problem is that as Cukor, always astute if tactful, says, ‘Whatever she did, Joan did wholeheartedly’1
Susan (Crawford), flighty and self-involved, escapes her failing marriage to a drunk (Fredric March) and ignores her maternal duties by going to Europe where she’s influenced by a new religious movement. Arriving home morally re-armed, she sets about fixing everyone else’s life to the point of destruction. The part calls for the brittle, airy, light but stylised playing that Gertrude Lawrence brought to it on Broadway. Imagine Hepburn’s playing of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, when Tracy’s trying to perform the image of herself journalists expect to find, and you get some idea of what Cukor is aiming for. This is too much of an ask of Crawford, who is simply leaden and false throughout.
Cukor does his best. He certainly knows how to showcase her. See the magnificent and classic star entrance he affords her above. All the characters talk about her, discuss her character, comment on her actions. Then we see her arrival: Joan Crawford magnificently gowned and in a speedboat. But then note how it’s meant to be Joan Crawford as Susan, and how her speaking of the ‘darlings, darlings, darlings ‘ line just about sinks the whole enterprise. It goes from bad to worse. She’s meant to be funny in each of her faux–solicitous-but-really-bitchy exchanges with each of the other guests yet doesn’t get a laugh on any of them. Yet, note too that nasty push out of the way Joan Crawford/Susan gives the character played by Rita Hayworth. Was it directed that way? Was it something Crawford did that Cukor kept in? In either case, it’s delicious and part of the reason the film is worth watching.
Everything about the film is top-drawer. It’s a big-budget film getting the full MGM treatment. And almost everything about the film is good: Fredric March witty and convincing in the drunk scenes — a specialty of his — but also endearing as he begins to understand his daughter and acknowledge his responsibility in her well being. Patrick McGilligan, Cukor’s biographer, writes that, ‘The film can be recommended only for the contrasting intensity of Fredric March, her costar. March, with his pork-chop face, plays her alcoholic husband, trying to win the heroine back for the sake of their daughter….Cukor’s films are full of sympathetic alcoholics–curious, for a teetotaler. However, March’s haggard believability is at odds with the dreary comedy, as if he had stumbled through the door of the wrong soundstage.’ 2
But good as March is, Susan and God has other things to recommend it: There’s Ruth Hussey, delicious as Crawford’s competition. Rita Hayworth is also very memorable in an early role and Cukor deserves credit for instantly assessing her strengths. See in the clip below how he captures her gliding through the dance floor in a scene that resolutely does not in itself call for it. How she moves instantly announces her as a star (and thus perhaps the Crawford push mentioned above). And Cukor was a great believer in the power of the actor’s movement in films. In relation to Crawford he says, Crawford’s ‘real talent is the way she moves. All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice something very special is happening. The way she carriers herself, the way her arms move…the position of the head…she attracts attention simply by moving and she arrests you. She wouldn’t have to open her mouth — just walk — and she would be superb. But look, she did that in the silent films, didn’t she’3. To which one can say that the film is evidence of what he both says and hides. Yes, she did do that in the Silents and yes she does that here. But more is needed here. This is a film about talk, and how one talks, and the differences between what one says and what one means.
The film’s source material is not very good and the filmic adaptation really needed to be a soufflé. Adrian’s costumes vary from striking to silly to ill-fitting but cannot in themselves be blamed (see above). A soufflé could encompass those elements. But what is deadly to this particular genre is earnestness and effort. And here Crawford is entirely to blame. She simply cannot rise to the occasion.However if we are taught to admire artists that take risks, surely our admiration shouldn’t be restricted merely to those that make a success of them. Here Crawford is game, she tried, had a spectacular failure, rose above it. Once more rather akin to her persona in the post-war years. The film is not a success in itself but did help give shape to a persona in a very successful post-war career.
- cited in Donald Spoto, Possessed, London: Hutchinson, 2011, p.147
- 2 Patrick McGilligan, Cukor: A Double Life New York: St. martin’s Press, 1991, p. 160
- Robert Emmet Long, ed.George Cukor Interviews, p. 46.Richard Overstreet Interview, 1964.
Walking around the extraordinary exhibition of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I was surprised, amused and charmed by several caricatures Picasso drew for Jaume Sabartés, primarily those featuring movie stars such as Esther Williams and Lana Turner (see below). Picasso had met Sabartés in 1899 and they remained close friends until his death. In 1935 Sabartés moved to Paris, became Picasso’s full-time secretary and was later the driving force in founding the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which opened in 1963, a considerable feat of political tact given Picasso’s Communist credentials and the Falangist Franco regime then ruling Spain.
In Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016), Elizabeth Cowling tells us ‘Picasso presented Sabartés with dozens of portrait-caricatures. While poking fun at his appearance, they also referred ironically to aspects of his personality and tasks he had performed on Picasso’s behalf, and were thus in-jokes that only they or their intimates could fully appreciate’ (p.193).
Sabartés by Picasso in 1901, 1902, 1900 and 1939.
Williams and Turner were two of the biggest stars of the early 50s, both at MGM, both in different ways signs created, consumed and exchanged on the basis of their meanings. Turner was probably most explicitly associated with sex, and in its most transgressive and scandalous aspects. Williams was a picture of wholesomeness yet arguably no one’s body was on more public display throughout the heyday of her swimming movies, the late forties and early 50s. Both were clearly presented as objects of desire. Here Esther Williams is seen in a still from Charles Walters’ Dangerous When Wet (1953). The Lana Turner picture on the left seems simply to be an archetypal cheesecake publicity photo of the era, not associated with any particular film. As Cowling notes, both caricatures were drawn on pin-ups of movie stars distributed in issues of Ciné-Révélation, which claimed to be ‘Le plus grand hébdomadaire du cinéma’ (The greatest weekly devoted to the cinema).
The caricatures are sweet and endearing: a podgy, be-spectacled elderly Sabatér needing a staircase to reach the amazon swimmer, or innocently nuzzling Lana Turner. The desire, sexual but innocent, out of reach, inescapable, unhidden. Was it the cinema that gave rise to these desires or was it simply that it was pictures of beautiful half-dressed women? Cowling offers a hint. Picasso lived near Cannnes and ‘The association of Cannes with the movie industry provides the immediate context for the series: in the 1950s Picasso had superstar status himself and being seen with him was considered excellent publicity by rising stars such as Brigitte Bardot. But hoarding pin-ups from movie magazines of the 1950s was no different from collecting photos and postcards of entertainers and celebrities, as Picasso had begun doing before the First World War’ (p.195).
That they are pictures of entertainers and celebrities makes the desire more permissible, entertainers are on public display, and more innocent — they’re safely out of reach. These lovely works are to me an example of the extent to which cinema had invaded the Western popular imagination in general and that of the art world in particular. They are also an example of Picasso’s greatness.Take the Esther Williams image. He’s succumbing to it as an image of desire but also pointing out its lacks in relationto his own erotic imagination. It’s like an embodyment of Marcuse’s critique of the way the culture industry tames sexuality and renders it one dimensional but re-endowed with a dialectical. He both admires its products and renders them unruly, puts the hair back into Esther’s armpits and her crotch. It’s fab.
It’s interesting to note that the shapes, structures and impulses of these works — minor ones in Picasso’s catalogue, mere doodles to a friend — are the same as would constitute major works of great mid-twentieth century pop artists such as Ray Johnson and Edouardo Polozzi (see below). Something to pursue in a later note.