Month: August 2014
I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently and never more so than when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; the hushed heightened way the characters spoke seemed like a 40s movie — a kind of pulp poetry; the glossy black and white of the image which has the effect of turning adolescent comic-book yearnings into film noir dreams; the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors (e.g. the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at); how the sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seems made for a comic book tough guy; the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale. Though it received terrible reviews, the film worked for me. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex. Dames, killing, sin: that’s the stuff of movies and dreams; the S in the Scotiabank is pictured as a dollar sign enveloping the globe. It’s not that money is prosaic. Money is also the stuff that movie dreams are made of. But there was something that bothered me about the juxtaposition of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Scotiabank Cineplex.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to an exhibit called ‘Vies de Plateau’ at Pointe à Callière, a cultural history of the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in. As part of the exhibit, we were shown a map of the neighbourhood in grid form highlighting its landmarks. The map showed the big factories and train stations and churches. But half of the landmark buildings were cinemas. The Plateau in Montreal was were the first purpose-built cinema in the world was built, seating 1200 and already with air-conditioning in 1906, the Ouimetoscope, on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm. Other landmark movie palaces from 1914-1921 included The Globe, The Regent, The Papineau and the Rialto, which was modeled on the Opera de Paris. Except for the Rialto, which is now a concert venue, all of these cinemas have disappeared.
Returning to Montreal I often experience a sense of spectrality. Some of the buildings have changed, the skyline is not quite what it was but largely the geography of the place remains the same. One’s sense of walking through space is no different then when one was a child or a teenager. Looking at Jeanne Mance Park, one remembers spending one’s childhood there in the same swings, in the same wading pool, straddling the lions on the statue, picknicking. It was called Fletcher’s Field then but it still looks pretty much as it did. The same applies to St. Urbain, Pine Avenue, St . Laurent, Rachel, all those streets one grew up in.
The difference is that at one point one either knew or recognized everybody on those streets; that’s what happened when one walks through them every day of one’s life to get to either Jean-Jacques Ollier, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, McGill University or whatever school one happened to be going to when living on the Plateau. Now one walks through those streets and the streets themselves are the same, the geography of travelling through those spaces is unchanged, one turns at the same corners, but now one knows none of the faces that walk through them, and yet the ghosts of those loved ones from long ago appear in one’s memory, the street acting as its own form of urban madeleine, bidding hello to all those people you once knew and reminding you how much they once meant and how one treasures those memories still.
Because I’m of a generation that grew up with and at the movies, old cinemas have a particular resonance: A double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal; seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco; watching Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, then a repertory cinema, and drinking hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon; queuing up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, working as an usher at Place du Canada and rushing in to the cinema every day I worked there so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface; going to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursing a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wishing one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation; treating my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s, a lifelong memory for both, but being annoyed with them because as soon as I finished taking one to the bathroom the other wanted to go and I ended up missing half the film; wearing huge platforms to make me seem taller and blowing smoke into the teller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and getting in to watch porn at the Beaver; coming out of the Parisien during the World Film Festival and unsure of what to make of Blue Velvet but knowing it was great; going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously, protesting in front of the old Pussycat theatre, maybe it was even called the cinema L’amour already with the L shaped like a woman’s open legs and the apostrophe shaped like a penis poised and pointing. Later on, already a confirmed cinephile, seeing Sirk for the first time at the Cinémathèque; or taking thermoses and sandwiches to the Buñuel retrospective at the Conservatoire so as not to miss any of the films one might never get a chance to see again. These are memories not only of one’s life but of what one hoped and longed for, who one dreamed of being, at each of those points in one life, a condensed madeleine of a moment before the narrative alters, moves onto different tangents, zigzags its way onto who and what one is now.
What remains of these cinemas are the material remnants of a spectral past that is still very vivid in me. They’re the memories of my life. And it’s interesting to me that they revolve around films and cinema because cinema is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid of that which was once but no longer is until it is revived by light once more. What you get is a kind of spectral presence, an appearance made of light and shadow that gives sound and movement to that which no longer is. And of course these shadows were brought to life in dream palaces with names like Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris or even Papineau. Exotic places, Elysian places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, palatial, chic or even just the greatest of historical figures. Ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires in the grandest and most grandiose of places any working class person had ever been to; and you could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.
On my way to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, I noticed that the old York had disappeared, the old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker, the old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a protected building but now a venue for live music; only the old Imperial is still going, the central cinema for the World Film Festival but even the queues outside seemed to be just Golden Agers. It seemed fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies.
I hated seeing Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at a cinema called Scotiabank, with the S pictured as a dollar sign encircling the globe. And I’m a bit unreasonable about it. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money. But films were never only about money. In fact films made money when the dreams and aspirations their stories conveyed connected socially with those of large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience, make those spectres connect with the real in a social form. To have reduced all our dreams to dreams of money instead of money being a byproduct of the articulation of a great variety of different hopes, aspirations and nightmares — of a job in a certain way well done — is somehow to have diminished everything that films meant. At least to me. Maybe cinema was always about the commodification of dreams and maybe I only feel bad about it now because the commodification seems of the bargain basement variety. I’m not sure. But‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank seems to me a juxtaposition in terms wavering between a comedown and a kind of barbarism.
The president of the Drake Motor Company — rich, smart, ruthless, successful – is female. But is she a woman? She acts like a man: ‘I treat men the same way they’ve always treated women.’ ‘Love takes too much time. A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle.’ But she does love men: ‘Lots of them’. She picks out her sexiest employees, asks them over for dinner, and rings the butler to bring over the vodka to ‘fortify their courage’. When they get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia. It’s all love ‘em and leave him with Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) so she can put her energies where they really count – business. We’re told she gets rid of suitors ‘Just as Napoleon would have dismissed a ballet girl. She’s never met a man worthy of her. She never will’. But of course, she does; unfortunately for us, it’s George Brent.
The film begins in that gloriously dynamic way typical of early 30s Warner Brothers: We see the entrance to the Drake Motor Company, and then it’s irises out, horizontal wipes, diagonal wipes and quick cuts to show us what they’re manufacturing and how. It’s barely a minute into the film and it’s already exciting. Two clerks gossiping tell us ‘The President’s blowing the roof off?’ ‘Who’s getting it this time?’ before we’re shown that this scary and powerful captain of industry is not a man; nor is she just any woman – she’s Ruth Chatterton, already of a certain age, clipped diction, soignée, a big star who was then also considered a great enough actress to warrant the billing of ‘Miss’ Ruth Chatterton — no more respectful accolade was then possible.
Throughout the first half of the film, Chatterton is filmed either in her office, busily answering phones with a huge window as backdrop showing the factory buildings, or in her ultra-modern and glamorous home, wearing glorious gowns in the living room or lounging around the pool with her prey. Michael Curtiz, the director, makes every shot interesting and the film is a pleasure to look at. Sadly, she then meets George Brent at a shooting gallery. He’s a better shot, rebuffs her and of course she falls in love. When it turns out he works for her, she gets up to her old tricks but they predictably don’t work on him; too bad for us.
At the beginning of the film, she tells her board they’ve got statistic poisoning. She’s fed up with statistics and she wants action and change. By the end of the film, she does what Katharine Hepburn will do almost ten years later in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, USA, 1942) to get Spencer Tracy — she diminishes herself to satisfy his idea of womanliness. At the end of the film, she endangers a business deal in New York to chase after him at a country fair. She gets him, promising to turn over the business to him to him and have nine children. The film ends with both of them on the way to make the business deal in New York. This viewer at least was left hoping that once they got there, got the deal, and she got her way with him, she’d return to her factory and leave him with a bus ticket to Montreal under the pillow.
This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.
The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.
Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.
Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.
At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.
According to Michelle Morgan in Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, the film was well-reviewed with the Motion Picture Herald addressing a serious issue: ‘Possessed of a certain dramatic effectiveness and succeeding in becoming reasonably entertaining, this picture nevertheless presents the exhibitor with something in the nature of a problem in selling. The reasons is that the theme is concerned primarily with the attempted and finally successful return to respectability of a girl of extremely easy virtue.
Even devoted cinephiles might have trouble placing Richard Barthelmess today. Casual film fans might remember him as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939); fans of silent cinema might remember the delicacy and longing he brought to his role of Chen Huang, the Chinese man who falls in love and tries to protect Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) in D.W. Griffith’s sublime Broken Blossoms (1919). He was a great star of the 20s, nominated for the very first Academy Awards in 1927 for two roles, The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and The Noose (1928), and he ran his own production company, Inspiration Film Company with Charless Duell and director Henry King. In Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Mick Lasalle argues that ‘As talkies found their voice, Richard Barthelmess emerged as one of the most exciting figures of the era.[i]’
Barthelmess had a clause in his contract allowing him to choose his own stories and LaSalle argues that Barthelmess ‘used his stardom to examine untraveled avenues of the American soul. From his first sound film, Weary River (1929), until the enforcement of the Code in July 1934, he created a body of work unique in its exploration of racism, corruption, the dark side of business and the effects of the war…No single American film star has ever created a talkie legacy anything like Barthelmess’s in its relentlessness of conscience or seriousness of purpose’[ii]. The Last Flight is part of that legacy.
In The Last Flight four wounded and damaged WWI pilots – Cary (Richard Barthelmess), Shep (David Manners) Bill (John Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent) — unwilling to return home and all that it represents in terms of who they were, who they hoped to be and who they are now, attempt to drink away the trauma of WWI in the great capitals of Europe and fail. The wounds are physical, and though not without challenges, can be overcome; Cary, for example, needs both his burnt hands to hold his drink; awkward in company but it certainly no deterrent to getting high. The damage, however, is psychological, over-hanging and unshakeable. They’re each in their different way broken in body and are collectively part of a generation that as so beautifully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald was in all kinds of ways ‘lost’.
The film begins with an exciting areal sequence in which we’re shown Cary and Shep’s plane get hit. We then see how Cary brings the burning plane down 6000 feet at the expense of burning his hands and how both pilots are so wounded they’re in critical condition. They get through it and live but as the film goes on to dramatise, not really. As in many early 30’s films, the plot moves very quickly, and in a couple of minutes it’s already Armistice Day, Cary and Shep are discharged and Cary asks Shep, ‘The old guerre is finie. What are you going to do now?’
‘There they go’, says the Doctor as he discharges them, ‘Out to face life and their whole preparation was in training for death,’ thus neatly articulating the film’s overarching theme.
The Last Flight explores existential meaninglessness as a moveable feast in which being blotto is insufficient to render one oblivious to oblivion. Death is only an elegantly-lived step away. A bullfight becomes a metaphor for the condition these men suffer from and the viewpoint they share. What’s the point of living when death is galloping at you?; and if you choose life, how to deal with death – do you dance or flirt or fight with it before it eventually wins. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is an obvious influence.
On their way out the military base, Cary and Shep hook up with Bill and Francis, who are in a similar situation to theirs and head on to Paris. On one of their drinking sprees there the four boys meet Nikki – ‘Her name is Nikki. She holds men’s teeth. She sits at the bar and drinks champagne,’ is how Cary describes her. Nikki’s rich, frail, brittle and – for reasons the film does not quite make clear – as damaged and as in need of saving as they are. It’s hard to tell whether Nikki is spouting Surrealist non-sequiteurs or whether she’s just a sweet drunk who’s seeing things from a skewed perspective and just doesn’t make sense: ‘I can walk faster in red shoes’.
The men, always tipsy, tumble at her feet on their way to her bed, which they never quite reach. Her innocence, the men’s competiveness and a distinct gallantry, learnt from despair, shared by the protagonists and beautifully evoked by the film, protects her. She becomes the object of their romantic longings, their mascot, winning her and protecting her from others, particularly Frank (Walter Byron) a nasty journalist they keep bumping into before eventually bumping off, lends a purpose to their wonderings. As Mick Lasalle notes in his wonderful book on men in pre-code Hollywood, ‘These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking some dim memory when such things were to live and die for.’[iii]
One by one the film knocks each of these men out of the picture. Bill jumps into a corrida to show the bullfighters how it’s done but gets gored: ‘that bull sure was hostile’. At a fair later on, nasty Frank pulls a gun on Nikki, is stopped by Cary but the gun accidentally goes off. Cary confronts him and just as Frank is about to shoot him, Francis fires several bullets at him and stops him cold. ‘That’s the last we’ll see of Francis. We’ll never see him again,’ says Cary as Francis disappears into the night. Nikki, awestruck, says, ‘did you look into his eyes (when he was shooting Frank). That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him really happy.’ Shep is the collateral damage of Frank’s fight with Cary. He experiences his expiration as the first descent of the burning plane, except that this time Cary’s not there to land it safely and save him. ‘You may not believe it’, says Shep but…’, this second crash, his second death, the first being the death of his spirit in the war is ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’. In the end Helen Chandler and Richard Barthelmess are left alone to save each other.
The film is beautifully directed by Dieterle. As we can see in the scene at the fair (above), we get the false official gaiety of the fair, with the undertow of seediness and danger and sadness. Dieterle makes intelligent choices, starting with a medium close-up of Francis with a beer in his hand looking purposefully as gunshots are heard on the soundtrack and the camera pulls back to reveal all of the characters at the shooting gallery, each with a drink, each with a gun. We will subsequently learn why the close-up has been on Francis. Every moment of the scene ties in to the overall theme. The men are all good at shooting, at killing. Nikki’s tipsy and can’t see straight. They protect her by doing what they were trained to do but in a world which no longer has a place for that training. Dieterle evokes this beautifully and every composition, every camera move, every cut counts. What’s evoked is the excitement that’s no longer possible; the destructiveness of the skills they have; the feeling that death and the void is the only place in which these men will find respite; Francis’ cool and deadly accuracy in shooting and the wonderful image of his disappearing into the night.
I still don’t quite ‘get’ the Barthelmess of the sound era. As he aged and his face spread he lost the delicate features that in his youth had enabled him to depict poetry and fragility. Here he’s silent, squat, ready to throw a punch but suffering subsequently over the morality of doing so. He’s very good. But his presence doesn’t reverberate in the mind as it does when watching his earlier silent films. Still, he is the person to thank for this exciting mix of gallantry, flippant melancholy, a kind of despairing hopefulness. It’s a film that feels slow and odd for the first part and then all the elements coalesce and becomes moving and rather great.
LaSalle notes that, ‘It’s a strange film – indeed, it’s unique – and it excites every critic who sees it’[iv] (p.98). It’s true of my experience watching it; furthermore, it makes one positively long to see more Barthelmess films of this period.
[i] Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 30.
[ii] LaSalle, ibid., pp. 30-31
[iii] Mick LaSalle, p. 100
[iv] LaSalle, ibid, p. 98
What is the point of this Hercules movie? I suppose it offers scope for action, spectacle and lots of special effects. But special effects are no longer sufficient to make spectacle spectacular: in the first five minutes of this film, as we’re giving the back-story, we’re shown mythological beings, places and Gods that in a 1960s movie would each have constituted a thrilling climax but here seem rather a yawn: snakes coming out of Hera’s eyes, multi-headed water monsters; it’s like most of the twelve labours of Hercules are depicted in the introduction of the film and, whilst one finds them difficult to improve upon, one also remains unengaged.
This version of Hercules is based on the First Limited Edition Radical comics re-working of the story, The Thracian Wars. What we’re introduced to here is a human-scale Hercules who with a band of marauders pretends to have the power ascribed to him in order to help other soldiers find the strength they think they lack inside themselves, which is eventually what happens to Hercules in the rest of the film. The plot revolves around two narrative lines: as background we’re told that Hercules’ family is killed by a pack of wolves whilst he’s asleep and there’s some suspicion that he did it himself; in the forefront of the story a Princess convinces Hercules’ to help her father protect his kingdom; he outfits and trains the Thracian army and then has to deal with the consequences. Neither of these plot-lines is what it seems and the resolution to both dovetails nicely at the end.
The film seems bloodless to me. Part of the problem is Dwayne Johnson, who usually exudes warmth and humour; here he just seems a big hulking blank. His being surrounded by British actors who wring laughs and garner effects from the meager materials they’re given to work with (Ian McShane does wonders but Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt also deserve credit) does not help his case; neither I suppose does his being given little to express (strength and stoicism interspersed with pain and loss) whilst being given much to do: he’s basically required to carry the whole film on the basis of his body and what he can do with it. It’s a two-note performance and he never makes us care what happens to Hercules though it is also true that we’ve rarely cared much what happens to Hercules in the past as we always know he’ll win. This film tries to inject the possibility of a different outcome but does not succeed; one just ends up staring at Johnson and his big hulking biceps with the huge popping veins and instead of being wrapped up in a story and feeling that there’s something at stake in it, something meaningful to oneself, one’s eyes begin to wander and one starts to notice that his veins have slight pops and then one asks whether what one’s seeing is scar tissue from track marks and so on. The story doesn’t grip.
The actors sometimes do. I was quite taken with McShane as noted above but also with Joseph Fiennes who it now seems inconceivable was until so recently thought of as a leading man: here his form is meltingly crooked; his face first that of a mindless saint, then later something reptilian and deadly; throughout he reminds one of a leering El Greco figure. John Hurt is good too but we’ve seen him do this before and it lacks excitement. Rufus Sewell is fine and looks exceedingly handsome. The women are not given much to do except look pretty which they do. But in the middle of these bursts of pleasure there’s Dwayne Johnson, not particularly handsome, not particularly sexy and not at all exciting.
The special effects are excellent; the fictional world is well-visualised; the 3-D so good one can almost touch the spears jutting out at the audience; it’s even hard to fault (much) the action scenes. However, how does this character of Hercules relate to us? What is he fighting for that can act as a metaphor and imaginary resolution to our own struggles? Why should we care that he win? The film offers no answers to these fundamental questions; and without answers the film feels a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.