Month: February 2016
A few weeks after returning from Lisbon I’m still in thrall to the memory of my visit to the ‘Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema’. It took us a while to find. We originally thought that it might be the building on the majestic Avenida de Libertadores that is also part of the Museum and that was then holding Saturday screenings of children’s films as part of a festival of children’s cinema taking place throughout the city.
The Cinemateca itself is housed in a grand building just off the grand boulevard, on Rua Barata Salgueiro. When we went in the afternoon to buy the tickets – I was eager to see Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night on celluloid — the ticket-seller apologised for the price, €5 instead of the normal €3. It was more expensive because it was considered a special event: the great Bernard Eisenschitz, surely one of the world’s foremost authorities on the work of the great American director, was giving nightly introductions to a series of less celebrated Ray films: On Dangeous Ground (1952), Bitter Victory (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and We Can’t Go Home Again (1971-1980).
We would be missing Víctor Erice, the celebrated director of El espíritu de la colmena/ The Spirit of the Beehive – in my view one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema – who would be arriving the following week to introduce and discuss Ray’s Party Girl (1957). The reason for Erice’s visit was not accidental. As José Manuel Costa, Director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema noted in his introduction of Eisenchitz, Erice had been the programmer of the Cinemateca’s previous retrospective of Ray’s films in the 80s, around the time he wrote his full-length study of Nicholas Ray’s work with Jos Oliver, Nicholas Ray y su tiempo/ Nicholas Ray and his times (Madrid, 1986).
It was a thrill to listen to Eisenchitz on They Live by Night later that evening. He wore his learning lightly, spoke with humour, without notes and whilst looking directly at audience in the sold-out screening. He was very illuminating on the credit sequence, the film’s ending and the meaning and affect of the film, particularly as they relate to the presentation of Farley Granger. I felt lucky to be there.
But to say all of the above is merely to say that the Cinemateca is doing an excellent job at what it was set up to do. It has a superb programme, with distinguished guests sharing their knowledge of cinema with a local audience. It has an archive, a library, a publication arm that’s clearly as cutting edge as any (a two volume collection on Queer cinema caught my eye), a superb if slightly expensive bookshop, permanent and temporary exhibits on some aspect of cinema.
The Cinemateca Portuguesa has all you’d expect of a great film institute and something I’d never much thought of, took it for granted really, until it was lost: The Cinemateca offers a public space in which cinephiles can meet, study, exchange ideas, work on projects. It has a cheap but pretty café where people were hypnotised by their laptops alone, working on projects with others, just waiting for the film to start; all without the pressure that the table might be needed by someone who could spend more. It made me conscious of the encroachment on public spaces by private interests that we suffer from in England and elsewhere. That public spaces are no longer public, that in film institutes they at best have to pay for themselves; at worst generate profit to help fund the institute; and in having to do so, they lose an important reason they were originally set up for: as places were ideas could be nurtured, exchanged, circulated.
That the building itself was also beautiful, with a grand Art Deco-ish double stairway leading from the cinema up to the café bookshop and through various exhibits, was a bonus. The programme, the events, the space to think and discuss, the possibility of pursuing art and knowledge — and all in such a beautiful setting – it felt ennobling.
I had a fantastic cinephiliac moment at the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museo do Cinema in Lisbon. As I was walking into the cafeteria with a friend, I noticed that as part of the permanent exhibition and hidden behind an old projector there was a poster for Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954), but rather different than the one originally designed to advertise the movie upon first release in America.
There, as we can see above, what was advertised was Joan Crawford, billed above the title and in lettering that seems even larger than that of the title itself. The tagline at the top trumpets ‘Joan’s greatest triumph’. The image of Joan Crawford occupies almost all of the left hand side of the poster. She’s wearing trousers but the light emphasises her bust. Joan is imaged as a ‘pistol-packin’ mama’, but a glamorously made-up one, and with romance evident beneath and between her legs, against a backdrop of a canyon cliff rising towards her crotch.
Joan Crawford was not only instrumental in selling the film but the driving force behind it being made at all. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan delineates how ‘Crawford was considered the picture’s de facto producer’ (p.244), how she not only owned the rights to the novel but had bought them before publication and may ‘indeed have commissioned it’(p.246) with Roy Chanslor first writing the novel as a lengthy treatment in the film.
In the bottom quarter of the poster we see a lot of other things the film promises: Sterling Hayden with a gun, a posse with Mercedes McCambridge, small but dead-centre in the lower section of the poster’s composition. We also see fire and explosions. Below the title are the other famous people in the film in order of importance and in relatively small print, amongst them Hayden and McCambridge but also Scott Brady. That the film is in ‘Trucolor’ is also advertised; as is the fact that the film is a Republic Picture, in yellow and on the bottom right. This might have been unwise as Republic was known as the cheapo studio even though this was one of its priciest products, ostensibly budgeted at $2 million. That Nicholas Ray directed is shown in half the size of the co-stars billed under the title and a mere fraction of the size of Joan Crawford’s own billing. This is significant because it is so unlike the poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa.
If the original poster promised a ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ western with Joan controlling the kissing and the banging, the later poster offered something else: a ‘Nicholas Ray Film’. As you can see in the poster above, Nicholas Ray is billed first, in lettering that seems the same size as the title but in a font that makes it seem less; the title of the film seems twice as large as the name of the director. Thus the poster conveys a particular message, which could be relayed as: the director, the film, the image; the dialogue or one of the most exchanges of dialogue in a superb scene from one of the most famous films by one of the greatest directors. The scene is of course, the famous ‘Lie to me’ scene; a gorgeous composition with Joan Crawford as Vienna, carefully framed and looking onto Hayden, occupies much of the centre of the poster. The image gives more importance to the stars than the billing in the poster does, in which Crawford is billed below the title and on the right, thus after Haydn: she might be rolling over in her grave now at the very thought.
Underneath is the dialogue (which I’ve taken from the film itself), some of the most famous in the history of cinema:
Johnny: ‘Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: ‘All these years I’ve waited’
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t returned
Vienna: I would had died if you hadn’t come back’.
Jonny: Tell me you still love me like I love you
Vienna: I still love you as you love me
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
One could say that comparing the two posters indicate a shift in the appreciation of the importance of the director versus that of the stars. However, as we know from the tortuous billing of The Towering Inferno in the 1970s right down to the discussions of how much money James Toback can raise on the names of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned (only 4-5 milion) stars remain central to the whole commercial cinematic apparatus. It would perhaps be more true to say that the posters for Johnny Guitar are addressing two different types of audience, one commercial, contemporaneous with the film and seeking to highlight what might attract it; the other, a later cinephile audience seeking art and film history. Does this shift over time and in terms of audience address not carry within it a soupçon of sexism? It’s almost like Joan Crawford and all she once meant has to be buried so that ‘Nicholas Ray’ can acquire its own set of meanings; auteurism, so founded on particular sets of specialised knowledges, as a kind of unwitting and socially unaware sexist erasure.
What incurred that moment of Cinephilia at the Cinemateca Portuguesa was not just the reference to the film, although that is potent in itself: I admire what David Thomson called its ‘bold incursion into camp’ and even remembered Truffaut’s assessment: ‘a string of preciosity, truer than truth…The bold, violent color (by TruColor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.’ However, at the Cinemateca there were also posters for so many other films that had meant as much to me just next to it (see the lovely one for the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat below).
What thrilled me at the Cinemateca was the memory of how Almodóvar had deployed the exact dialogue displayed in the poster in one of the most famous scenes in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her lover has just left her. She’s got something important to tell him and he won’t let himself be found. They’re both actors who dub films. She’s at the studio dubbing Joan Crawford’s part in Johnny Guitar, her absent lover has already over-dubbed Sterling Hayden’s voice with his own.
As you can see above, Almodóvar starts with the mechanics of the film projector, cuts to an over-head shot that places the light thrown by the projector in the very middle of the frame, amidst the darkness of dimming lights, and creates a dream-like tone of feeling, of sadness and longing, that Pepa ads her voice to, that she voices but that also speaks her (and by turn Almodóvar and many of us).
In a stimulating round table on Cinephilia and the work of Jacques Rancière, Erika Balsom cites Serge Daney’s notion that ‘Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema’. That’s what we see in Almodóvars integration of the ‘Lie to me’ scene into the very narrative of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As her absent lover whispers in her earphones what Johnny (Hayden) is telling Vienna (Crawford), ‘Lie to me. Tell me something nice’, the camera resting on Carmen Maura’s face, lined, lived-in, so much more human than the architectonic iconicity Crawford’s conveys. But we do not see Crawford. Indeed, as you can see in the clip, we do not see Johnny Guitar in this moment of the film. It’s only the dialogue, the dialogue from the Johnny Guitar poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, overdubbed so that it’s what Pepa and her lover, who cannot say this to each other in ‘life’, may do so through film. Johnny Guitar speaks Pepa’s relation to the world through cinema, and indeed, I would argue, as we can see through so many of his films, Almodóvar’s.
Later in the Rancière round-table, Balsom cites Raymond Bellour’s notion that the film body is a body that flees from us and we’re always left trying to recapture it through different kinds of practices. Not just a love of cinema but a set of practices that happen after and that try to recapture this lost experience. Perhaps that is what Almodóvar is doing in Women on the Verge. For me, the sight of the poster ignited a concatenation of old memories and new questions: What did the poster advertise? Who was it made for? Did Almodóvar see it? Were those bits of dialogue generally famous with a cinephile audience? Were they also part of a shared queer culture of the moment? My cinephile moment was not just an attempt to recapture the feeling of seeing this moment in Johnny Guitar, or in Women on the Verge, or in the relation between the two, though it was all of that; it was also a spark to action: to realise there’s more to discover and to know; a moment of trying to recapture something lost that simultaneously leads to the accretion — perhaps creation — of something new.
I thought Nicolás Gerardi’s manifesto on ‘Caribe Pop’ so great I was moved to translate it. I’ve done my best and hope i’ve captured some of the flavour of the original. Those of you who speak Spanish can go right to the original which Mediátio has placed immediately after my translation. It’s a great piece, sure to have an impact and can be found here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2016/02/22/caribe-pop-starter-pack/
Ralph Fiennes is the worst dancer in the history of the movies and demonstrates an admirable lack of vanity in showing it off at every opportunity in A Bigger Splash: he’s very endearing. The film itself is an old-fashioned ‘art-house’ movie that I nonetheless liked very much.
Tilda Swinton plays Mariane Lane, a Bowie-esque rock singer who’s lost her voice. She’s recuperating in an Italian Eden with her partner of six years, Paul de Smedt (Mathias Schoenaerts), a former alcoholic, now on the mend. They’re enshrouded in a cocoon of love and sex, sun and contentment, when snakes sidle into Eden in the form of Harry Hawkes (Raph Fiennes), Mariane’s producer and former lover, and the grown-up daughter Hawkes has only recently been made aware of, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson).
As is to be expected from the director of I Am Love, A Bigger Splash is about love and it offers a nicely complicated view of it. Hawkes is out to woo Mariane away from Paul. Mariane is contented with Paul but still has feelings for Harry. Harry could happily fuck any of them. Penelope is a temptation not only to Paul but to her own father. Paul and Harry have a deep friendship but might yet fight to kill.
The film evokes quite a lot of film classics, some of the settings and existential dilemmas are borrowed from Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). The basic plot is a take on Jacque Deray’s La Piscine (1969), though neither Swinton, Johnson nor Schoenaerts quite convey the horny sizzle that Romy Schneider, Jane Birkin and Alain Delon were able to evoke there for Deray. I am also reminded of the 1973 documentary Jacques Hazan made of Hockney and named after his famous painting, the original A Bigger Splash, and which I mainly remember from seeing the poster as a tween and finding it so alluring and forbidden. This the film doesn’t quite achieve either, despite all the nudity.
This A Bigger Splash is about love, but also about existential despair amongst the rich as they eat freshly-made ricotta and frolic naked by day on the Mediterranean and by night by their own handy piscine to take full advantage of the moonlight. Whilst the rich try to find the right hillside restaurant known only to locals, masses of refugees wash onto the shores, many dead; those alive get to be imprisoned; those not imprisoned get to meander through the hills in search of food and shelter as they inadvertently terrify the rich. Money and celebrity win out but the rich and famous themselves are shown to be not without feelings nor immune to tragedy.
All the actors are great for different reasons: Fiennes energises the film with his good nature, his self-knowledge and his lack of vanity each time he steps into the scene. Swinton is particularly beautiful here: in some shots she looks like a very young Kate Hepburn, in other like Bowie, in others like ageing Eurotrah; she barely speaks throughout and mimes a great performance. Schonaerts has a marvellous confession scene at the end where we see Paul break down and confess to Mariane and where tears seem to pour out of his skin. Johnson is a marvellously knowing Lolita.
A Bigger Splash is ambiguous, symbolic, it’s very interesting in how it narrates time, and it offers an interesting critique of contemporary European culture. It’s a film that well fits Pauline Kael’s sneering description of some sixties art movies as a ‘Come-dressed-as-the sick-soul-of-Europe-parties’. I liked it very much.
A great video essay by Andrew McGee, Utopia: Visuals and Violence, that asks: are the visuals superfluous and is the violence gratuitous? After watching the short video essay, one is convinced that this is the form in which this particular argument could best be made, that prose alone would not render it as intelligible, as instantly graspable, as convincing.
A high resolution version can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/155866858
The acting equivalent of an aria, performed by one of the very greatest actors, Spencer Tracy. at the peak of his powers in one sublime long take beautifully staged by George Cukor for The Actress. Look closely and gurgle with delight at the skill involved in conveying so much so simply.