Is Toni Erdmann a teensy bit over-rated? Cahiers du cinéma named it its best film of the year and it also came tops in Sight and Sound’s 2016 poll of 163 critics worldwide. I saw it as an overlong (162 minutes!) exploration of a father/ daughter relationship, with some laughs, a quite worked-through dramatisation of sexist dynamics in the work-place and a thought-through but muddled critique of neo-liberalism that made its points partly through an excellent use of setting — mainly Bucharest but also rural Romania — and partly by making the character of the daughter, Ines, a corporate consultant in international downsizing with a specialism in moving jobs off-shore and firing people. What holds it together is a fearless performance from Sandra Hüller as the daughter. What raises all kinds of questions is the conceptualisation of the character of the father (played by Peter Simonischek).
When watching it I thought how well it would fit my colleague James McDowell’s exploration of the ‘quirky’ in cinema. It’s not an American Indie obviously — a friend said a poster advertising ‘German Comedy’ is what put her off seeing it at all — but it does adopt a particular tone, where the humour happens in a place of seriousness, often seeming to come out of nowhere, off-key and initially slightly off-pace in a way that changes the film’s rhythms altogether, that well fits into that style.
Toni Erdmann is in many ways about a father crashing in on his daughter’s work place and work life in a different country as a way to develop a line of communication with her and alter the direction of an oh so busy life that keeps her glued to the phone. The appearance of Toni at inappropriate times and doing things like wearing fright wigs and false teeth are so abrupt and inappropriate they carry almost a jolt of violence that can erupt into humour. Personally, I felt that if my father did those things to me, I’d have him committed. Yet, the film asks us to laugh at a father’s de facto attempts to undermine his daughter at her workplace (though the filmmakers I’m sure would see it differently, more as an attempt to get her to change her priorities and make her know in her bones that he’s always there for her).
There are several moment that friends have talked of in the film’s favour: a) The sequence were Ines has a birthday party/workplace bonding exercise where she can’t get herself to dress as the sexy/efficient/ cool corporate robot she’s become, opens the door nude, and gets some of her colleagues to join her, with mixed results. You can see that it’s a moment that’s been conceptually worked through but somehow not very well executed – that it’s better thought than filmed; and I think that gets to something about this visually undistinguished yet nonetheless highly-praised film. The boldness for which it’s praised must obviously lie elsewhere (but where exactly?).
b)Friends have also found particular favour in a scene where father and daughter go to a birthday party at the home of an upper-middle class Romanian family and the daughter ends up singing a full and atrocious version of Whitney Huston’s ‘The Greatest Love’. It’s funny to me – though it is also a bit of business that is much better executed by Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins — and clearly a moment of solidarity (if initially coerced and subsequently resulting in anger) that builds and solidifies changes initiated in the ‘nude’ party scene — but not funny enough to be given so much time to in the film.
c) The last, which no one I know can really explain to my satisfaction is a scene in a hotel room where the Ines ends up eating petit fours smeared with cum. I’m sure it’s symbolic of something. In an interesting piece on the film for Pop Matters, Alex Ramon argues that the amount of praise Toni Erdmann has received is overcompensation for a dearth of films by women this year and notes of this particular scene that it is Ines’ idea of fulfilment. But I’m more convinced by his reading of the praise then of the scene. I simply don’t get it. Most of my straight male friends have left it at ‘Eww!’
At the end of the film, Ines and Toni have bonded; she’s accepted and adopted some of his views; she’s grown. But has she changed? To me she’s merely exchanged her job as a corporate consultant specialising in downsizing with one company in Bucharest to move to another famous company to continue the same job but at a higher level in Singapore. We all seem trapped by neo-beralism, particularly when watching a film that lasts 162 minutes.
Film scholar Roy Grundmann agrees that the film has been overpraised and believes the key to understanding such a critical reception is the loss of film historical knowledge:
‘It’s interesting that the label “indie film” seems to get summoned to help people make sense of Toni Erdmann’s provenance. What is forgotten today is that mainstream cinema–Hollywood cinema–used to make films in a very similar vein. They weren’t indie films; they were studio films billed and received as off-beat comedies. Its directors were Hal Ashby and Robert Benton. If one wanted to be kind to Toni Erdmann, one would have to call it an homage. But because few today are aware of, or have actually seen, films like Harold and Maude or Being There or Nobody’s Fool, Toni Erdmann is celebrated as the second coming (though whether it can do for French desserts what GHOST did for pottery remains to be seen). Hence, it is deeply ironic that Hollywood’s rushing in to remake the film would generate so much indignation, particularly from reviewers at daily newspapers (traditionally the custodians of mid-cult in the U.S.). If anything, such a remake would bring the film’s generic provenance and artistic philosophy full circle. I must confess I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films, which have received high praise. I take it she’s no novice. It thus strikes me as odd that her five or so endings she tacks on to her movie read like nothing so much as a graduate from film school feeling pressured to select from mainstream cinema’s menu of formulaic endings, not quite able to make up her mind, and eventually deciding to just go ahead and use all of them’.
According to Germanist Brian Ha, ‘There are a couple of interesting pieces on the film in German, which provide a fair bit of German-specific context regarding humour (especially satire in recent German cinema), gender politics, intergenerational issues, particularly as they relate to the so-called ’68 generation (embodied by the father’s character), the question of it being a ‘German’ film (e.g. Simonischek is a very well-known Austrian stage actor, at least in the German-speaking world; personally, there was something in his character that struck me as more Austrian than German), etc. And I’m not sure what to make of the hype surrounding a not-especially-funny German film set in Romania, while a quite good Romanian film set in Romania by a Romanian director — Cristi Piu’s Sieranevada — remains largely overlooked’.
So there! And yet, for me, the film does work intermittently, and I did laugh, and I did find some moments between Ines and Toni touching. A conversation in a hotel lobby where the international consultants are talking about what it’s like to work in Romania, how all the Romanians they know are highly educated, usually with MA’s from abroad, how they speak several languages; but how all of this is why they also can’t be relied upon to convey the views of ordinary Romanians — they’re now a separate class, an international one — continues to resonate and I’m still thinking about it. I didn’t find the great film everyone is shouting about. But it is very much worth seeing…. if you have strong bladder.
(the views expressed here are all mine but they were elucidated through a conversation with – in no particular order – Adrian Garvey, Brian Ha, Vincent Quinn, Rosalind Galt, Andrew Moor, Louis Bayman. Mikel J. Koven, Scott Henderson, Dag Sødtholt, India Grande, Dîna Iordanova, Patrick Pilkington, Richard Pickard, Mark Fuller and Tiago de Luca)
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: