Month: January 2017
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: