Month: December 2015

A Thought on Vincente Minnelli

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Re-watching An American in Paris on TV now makes me wonder if Vincente Minnelli was the most popular of 1950s directors; the Steven Spielberg of his day? I note from wiki that Father of the Bride was the no. 5 box office hit of 1950, An American in Paris was no. 5 in ‘51, The Bad and the Beautiful was no. 2 in ‘52, The Long Long Trailer, 13th in 1954, Gigi no 5 and Some Came Running at 9 both in 58, then Designing Women, Tea and Sympathy, The Cobweb, The Bandwagon, Father’s Little Dividend and many more were also considerable hits that decade. Even if wiki is not entirely reliable, it’s a thought.

 

José Arroy

On Episode 5 of ‘Sense8: Art is Like Religion’

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A woman looks at a man’s penis and faints. That would be a glib way of describing what is undoubtedly my moment of the year in long-form television. But it’s so much more than that. It seems to contravene and subvert all that we’ve been told could be shown in popular audio-visual media. It is a man who is the subject of the three looks Laura Mulvey describes in her famous ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The parts of his body are not fetishized – the penis does not function as a phallus but as a penis and as a reminder of sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the woman looking — the male’s sexuality is not displaced but put at the forefront, the male can be the subject as well as the bearer of the look; though, as he does here, he might faint as it happens.

That moment in the fifth episode of Sense8, ‘Art is Like Religion’, seems to me to be both revolutionary and typical in a way that indicates a paradigm shift: after all the space-time continuum did not unravel, no coronaries were reported, it caused no more of a stir online than the usual lustful longings expressed in social media in relation to whatever semi-clothed pin-ups happen to be the flavour of the month . Male nudity on TV has become so commonplace that a headline of an article in Vulture by Maria Elena Fernandez tries to answer the question: ‘Why Full-Frontal Male Nudity was all over TV in 2015’.

As you can see in the clip above, the woman, Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae), is beautiful and fully clothed (and in India); the man, Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt), is naked, powerful, handsome (and in Berlin). They are, along with others, psychically connected. More than that, there’s clearly a sexual frisson between them. What interests me here though is that the whole scene is inflected with melodrama. She is about to get married to man who’s rich but whom she doesn’t love. Her parents have been very happy in their marriage, which was arranged, and see this as a love match. Traditionally, when a minister asks the congregation whether there is any lawful impediment to the wedding taking place; the accent has been on the law (i.e that one of them is previously married or contracted, that they are not who they say etc.), a lack of love has not in itself been seen as an impediment; sentiment has been secondary.

But here, as in all moments of high melodrama, what’s at stake is desire and the social structures that prohibit its fulfilment. As she takes the final of seven circles with her husband-to-be that will finalise the Hindu wedding, the sight of Wolfgang’s penis, disturbing as it is for her, is troubling not only because even in its fragile state it hints at a rollicking good time in bed but because it’s a reminder of her lack. But her lack here is presented not as a penis or as a phallus but as a life without love. And I think it’s that combination of melodrama – the wedding is stopped, she falls, the whole of her community rises up at the ceremony in shock and bewilderment at what’s happening—and a sly camp timing – the rhythm with which her eyes gaze down and the timing of the sudden cut to her fainting – that undercut whatever might have shocked: it’s moving, and funny; and making it so means that it’s not about cock, or mere fucking, or even the phallus as symbol of patriarchal power – it renders it about love and it’s lack; of a connection so strong that he also faints at the thought.

 

But let’s look at that again with a bit more context as to what precedes it. You can see that the scene as I’ve selected it above begins with Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae) entering the wedding ceremony with that nice husband-to-be of hers that she doesn’t love. The scene keeps intercutting between her face and the body of Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt) and seems to cut first onto his body and then making sure that he doesn’t remain just a body by recurrently following that with shots of his face. She’s pictured surrounded by structures, strictures, traditions, all that community represents; all the powers society has to forbid, repress, deny, and damp-down individual desire. He’s alone, naked, swimming, possibly thinking of her.

Wedding vows express a yearning for how things should be. I often find them very moving. Certainly the Hindu ‘Seven Steps’ that Kala here exchanges with her husband-to-be are very much so: ‘ I take the first of seven steps that we may cherish each other..’ but then the camera cuts to Wolfgang instead of her husband. She continues ‘and promise that we will grow old together in mental and spiritual strength’ and again the camera cuts to Wofgang. She’s clearly vowing to the wrong person. Yet what the words express are important not just to Kala but to what the show is trying to express.

That Sense8 is trying to express a more complex, more inclusive, and more nuanced view of love is made clear as Kala walks the sixth of her seven steps with her husband-to-be. As her husband to be vows :’ I take the six of seven steps with you my wife-to-be, a promise of everlasting companionship…’ the camera cuts to a happy and loving gay couple sharing that companionship with a woman; on the line of ‘we shall share love, share the same tastes’ the camera cuts to a young man and a young woman, happy to be with each other; on the line ‘share the same food’ we get to see a middle-aged woman in Africa cooking for for her grown-up son and each sharing the joy in the other and in the food; on the line of ‘sign a vow, sign a statement’ the camera cuts to Korea and we see a woman giving up her liberty and the dog she loves out of duty to her father; on the line of ‘let us make a vow and share our strength’, the camera cuts to a transgender woman and her lesbian girlfriend entering their apartment which has just been ransacked; on the line, ‘we shall be of one mind’ we cut to Wofgang again; and again the camera first shows us his body then his face. The physical a part of the personal, the body AND the mind. This is the prelude to Kala fainting at the sight of Wolfgang’s cock.

The penis, the desire for it, what it might signify to someone in terms of carnal pleasure or indeed as part of love, is put in the context of a much deeper and wider understanding of what love is; one that encompasses food and pets; mothers and fathers; heterosexual, homosexual, trans; duty and feeling; the stomach and the heart as well as sexual organs; and indeed a much wider one, because all of these characters we are shown are connected, in ways that that the Series will continue to reveal.

Sense 8 is an extraordinary series, doing things I had not yet seen before — things that still feel transgressive in cinema — and with feeling and humour. It’s melodrama, it’s a little bit camp, it’s very sexy. But there’s a depth of ideas being dramatised here that is worth watching and thinking about. It’s an extraordinary sequence in an extraordinary series.

 

José Arroyo

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2015)

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I found Bridge of Spies masterfully well-made, with an interesting look — lots of high contrast greys filmed with fish-eyed lenses — a very good central performance from Tom Hanks and a great one from Mark Rylance. It was also good to see all the wonderful German actors one recognises from Sense8 (Maximilian Mauff) and Homeland (Sebastian Koch) in supporting roles.

The film is based on a true story set at the height of the Cold War in which James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American lawyer, puts himself forward to defend the rights of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and in doing so is then able to facilitate an exchange not only for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a captured American U2 spy plane pilot, but also for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student arrested in East Berlin.

It looks like an expensive film, with dozens of extras and intricate sets, an achievement considering its reported $40 million budget. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin, with its detailed view of the extent of its destruction and at that very  moment the divisive wall is going up, is particularly magnificent. However, the film also feels curiously old-fashioned and slightly smug.

The film is a guilty and anxious attempt to show America how to behave morally and well today by dramatising an incident of decency and humanity from its past achieved against the tide of public and institutional opinion. I thought of it in relation to Lincoln and I’m sure future scholars will group them as films of his maturity exploring similar concerns… and oh so responsibly. If you can ignore the preachy-ness of it’s tone, it’s enjoyable.

I had to force myself to see Bridge of Spies. How could one miss a film written by the Cohens and directed by Spielberg? And I’m glad I did. But it was a struggle. And in the light of that struggle and on the evidence not only of this film but of so many dull, worthy and well-made ones over the last decade or more (War Horse anyone?), one can’t help but ask ‘When did Spielberg cease to matter’

 

José Arroyo

 

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Jean Genet, The Studio of Giacometti, London: Grey Tiger Books, 2013.

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Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately,  a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:

 

‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.

 

The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.

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Giacometti with Genet

José Arroyo

The Dark Angel (Sidney Franklin, USA, 1935)

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An obvious attempt to cash in on the enormous success of Smilin Thru (Sidney Franlin, USA, 1932) with Fredric March reprising a variant of the same role, the self-sacrificing ex-soldier, here called Alan Trent, who blinded in the service of his country, pretends to reject his true love, Kitty Vane (Merle Oberon), so that she need not sacrifice her life in his care, but to no avail. Thus proving that love is true, eternal, invariable, just like yours isn’t but would ideally like it to be. It’s hokey beyond belief but still works.

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A triangle of semi-siblings

Herbert Marshall plays Gerald Shannon, the son of the family March is adopted into as a child, and is a bit stiff in the role of potential last-resort husband and not-quite-romantic rival: his idea of expressing anger is to clench his hands and stiffens his arms, like an amateur who feels but hasn’t yet learned how to convey so all that is communicated is the tension of the exercise. It doesn’t help that Gerald is idealized both as a brother and as the acme of impossible moral standards. I do, however, love the timbre of his voice.

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Being looked at and photographed in this way in The Dark Angel is what helped make Merle Oberon a star in the US

Oberon is beautiful and can’t act but that didn’t seem to have mattered much as this film was a hit and is what made her a star in the US. Greg Toland’s cinematography is very beautiful and inventive: the scene where Alan and Kitty drive off after they fail to get married, and the superimposition of them in the back of the car with soldiers under fire as one scene transitions to another, is visually stunning, expressive and affecting. Narratively, it tugs at the heartstrings because it was important to them to be married before he set off to war; they then decide to have their ‘wedding night’ in spite of not being married, and war intercedes there too, though not before Alan is seen to be entertaining a woman. His protecting Kitty’s reputation whilst on the surface seeming to be betraying her is part of the way the film differentiates between what the audience know, what the characters understand, and how such misunderstandings are part of the injustices that make the protagonists suffer.  Misunderstandings, unconsummated desires, mutual self-sacrifice for a nobler purpose, the punitiveness of socially proscribed modes of behaviour; all the forms and thematics of melodrama are on display, cynically deployed and very effective.

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Lighting draws attention to March’s lips

Fredric March is superb. It is totally his film, though he is always better when angry or troubled: his eyebrows furrow and he seems to conjure a cloud over his head, quite striking to see. Toland has to flash a small light at his lower lip to make him seem sexy and his ‘light’ scenes are not as effective. However, the quiet scene of self-abnegation at the end is superb and wouldn’t work without that which March brings to it: an ability to communicate different things to Kitty and to the audience and make those differences simultaneously understandable; it’s one of the ways the film creates pathos.

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The Dark Angel does work. The question really is why? This is hokey, trite, a re-tread – and it was so even in 1935. The Dark Angel is all stiff upper lips and repressed emotion while Smiling Through is all angsty sobbing. The hokum is more effective in the earlier film and Norma Shearer is more interesting to look at and offers a lot more than Merle Oberon, despite the latter being more conventionally beautiful. Intriguingly the later film is very positive about disability; alarmingly, the scenes of young Merle warming her back and her front at the fireplace felt a bit kiddie porn though clearly meant to be cute.

 

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Do we now read too much into scenes like this?

It’s extraordinary to think that this very similar story, with the same director and leading man was made only three years after the original smash hit and proved almost as effective and almost as successful. Not quite a sequel, not quite a remake, not quite a reboot but somewhere there in the mix. Nothing is ever really new. However, the film was able to offer audiences the pleasures remembered from Smilin Through and cash registers throughout the nation rang with joy at the audience’s tears.

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José Arroyo

 

 

 

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/ UK, 2012)

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Two fans set out in search for the mysterious Rodriguez, American pop icon of a generation in South Africa but practically unknown in the US. Who is he and what happened to him? Searching for Sugar Man is a movie to moisten the eye of every cynic; if you’re a musician, involved with a musician, or merely bonking one occasionally, you’ll find this film particularly compelling. In a quiet way, it also articulates issues of class and race in America that more mainstream fare flees from. A superb documentary.

 

José Arroyo

Marlene Dietrich: Twilight of an Angel (Dominique Leeb, France, 20013)

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Marlene Dietrich: It’s her legs that made her fortune; her face that became an indelible and iconic image of cinema, of glamour and even of modernity; but it is in her voice we find the full range of her personality. The Twilight of an Angel offers fascinating insights into  how Dietrich lived in her last years, how bullying and needy and vulnerable and romantic she was. How she dared to be herself, still.

The film — more a one hour documentary made for television — contains interviews with the sharp-voiced and certain Maria Riva, Marlene’s much-loved daughter, as well as rare and revealing sound footage of Dietrich speaking to her butler or assistant — seemingly a lovely gay man — who evidently took care of her in her last days. Twilight of an Angel ends emotionally with her funeral in Berlin. The last song, ‘I’m Leaving a Suitcase in Berlin/ Einen Koffer in Berlin,’ is just beautiful.

 

José Arroyo

A Thought on Gilda (Charles Vidor, USA, 1946)

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Seeing it once more for the umpteenth time, I thought Rita Hayworth more glamorous and beautiful than ever. She’s this glossy, luscious, rhythmic, sexually aware and knowing presence, with hair that has a life of its own and is as sexually enticing as any other part of her. Gilda is a totally glamorous film and in its own way very democratic in all its impulses. I love the uncle Pio character played by Steven Geray in that his ‘peasant’ insults illustrate that democratizing aspect of Rita’s character – she always treats him as an equal in spite of being a gal on the make — versus Glenn Ford’s – the more vulgar whore– only to redeem him later. Johnny Farrell learns how to be loved by Gilda as he learns to respect Uncle Pio.

I remember a friend many years ago raising an eyebrow when I told him how much I loved Gilda. It’s been in my life now in one way or another for thirty years. And I still love it. But I now more fully understand why he thought it not a good film: The characters don’t resemble any real people, the plot is ludicrous, the ending unbelievable and pat, a lot of extraneous characters that don’t feel necessary and that not enough is made of. Nothing in it is for one moment believable. It’s all hokum. By one set of criteria, it’s a bad film.

However, if a film inevitably ends up being a collection of moments in one’s memory, this is full of treasured ones: the highly symbolized and highly sexual initial meeting between Johnny and Ballen (George Macready); Gilda’s strip-tease; the introduction of Rita (‘decent, me?’); the moment where Ballin threatens her as she’s lying in bed (the shift in focus and light); the moment after she drinks to damn the woman who ruined Johnny’s life; the moment where Glenn brings her back from the pool and Mundson becomes graphically two-dimensional; the party sequence with the s/m gear. There are brilliant dialogue bits as well (more women in the world than anything else, except insects?) It’s a good illustration of the difference between a landmark film and a great film, between a sociological phenomenon and a work of art, between a cultural memory and the repository of cultural values.

…And yet, films that might not have a direct referent to the world that we live in but that nonetheless tap as deeply and directly into a collective dream world of fantasy and longing as Gilda – a world we might very much wish to live and participate in — are so rare as to constitute their own, very particular, art form. Maybe, as the tagline goes, ‘there never was a woman like Gilda’ but the film sure succeeds in making us wish there were.

 

José Arroyo

Down to the Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2004)

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A working class working mom with a drug habit struggles to keep her life afloat. One begins to see themes emerge in Granik’s work: a mourning for what America’s become: all those dollar stores, people in work but in dead-end jobs and living below the poverty line; drugs or alcohol as the only but dangerous release from a life of grind; female protagonists; female solidarity within a heterosexual, small-town or rural setting. Here a big deal is made of getting into the city, etc. Granik demonstrates tremendous empathy for the people she depicts and is wonderful with actors. She’s a poet too: what is the snake here? Is it a symbol for the need to get high like the smoke of a crack pipe, or something more akin Cocteau’s opium dreams? Vera Fermiga is a standout in the central role of Irene Morrison: I’ve never seen her better. Down to the Bone succeeds in invoking a feeling that you are seeing real places with real people, and that they somehow manage to plow on nobly in very ignoble circumstances.

 

José Arroyo

Ballroom Dancer (Christian Holten Bonke and Andreas Koefoed, Denmark, 2011)

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Viacheslav ‘Slavik’ Kryklyvyy and Joanna Leunis once won the World Championships in ballroom dancing in the ‘Latin American’ category. But that was ten years ago. Their partnership’s since broken up; he subsequently retired; she’s continued garnering ballroom glory. As the film begins, Slavik announces a comeback with his new on and off-stage partner, Anna Melnikova. Slavik is sof-spoken and very charismatic, very focused, very controlling and a bit volatile. He’s in competition with his former dance partner and feels he’s got no option but to win. But his new partner is a beautiful woman with lots of other options. The film is a good portrait of Slavik, of the world of ballroom dancing and is also insightful into the power dynamics of any relationship. An entertaining film with some lovely dance sequences.

 

José Arroyo