A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by … Continue reading Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)→
Very good book on a great actress, still under-rated star, and key figure in the ‘pre-code’ era. The book is as good on her life as on her career. Her relationships with her mother, sister and child figure prominently and are woven throughout the narrative along with her numerous marriages and affairs. The plays, films and performances are well discussed and one also gets the nitty gritty dollars and cents information I at least am keen on.
The book is interesting on all her key films (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Story of Temple Drake, Becky Sharpe, These Three;). It also gives a very good account of how difficult she was to work with, on the making of The Sisters, Old Acquaintance and the onset shenanigans with Bette Davis that ensued on those films. If Ryan Murphy wants to do a prequel to Feud this would provide very good material. Her reputation for being difficult affected her ability to get work in Hollywood but luckily she always had a stage career to return to in moments were she wasn’t getting what she wanted from Hollywood.
The book is fascinating on her extensive love life: Fritz Lang, Anatole Litvak, Robert Montgomery, and many others. The famous incident with Litvak and Paulette Goddard gets a full airing and Ellenberger also discusses and dismisses the rumours of Hopkins’ lesbian tendencies, locating the sources of the rumours and indicating how and why those rumours might have been propagated.
As an added bonus, one also gets a rich and full account of Hopkins’ career in the theatre. I recommend.
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts. César (Yves Montand) loves … Continue reading César et Rosalie (Claude Sautet, France 1972)→
Watching films from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, I’m constantly amazed by the beauty of the people and the landscape, the siding with the poor against the rich, the stark dramatisation of the levels of injustice with all that natural beauty as a background. La Escondida, also known as The Hidden One in English, is no exception.
Here the story revolves around a rural couple, Gabriela (María Félix) and Felipe (Pedro Armendáriz), madly in love, but oppressed by poverty and the injustices of a society in which the local landowner has complete power over them. She makes a living selling water to passing trains and makes full use of her extraordinary beauty in doing so. The local women resent her for this to the point of stoning her. He’s a revolutionary, waiting for the right moment to take up arms. She’s burning with love for him and wants to get married right away because she’s superstitious something will happen to separate them and fears once they’re separated they’ll lose each other. He and his father finally agree to the marriage –she’ll move in with the family and they’ll somehow manage feeding one extra person — when he’s sent on a mission. She steals some money from the company shop to go with him. She’s not seen but the shop manager wants sex with her in exchange for his silence as she’s the only one who could have done it. She refuses and is on her way to jail when he sees them and takes the blame. She pleads to reduce his sentence and he ‘only’ gets sent into the army instead. When he returns, as a Lieutenant, he finds first that she’s gone, and later, that she’s become the Governor’s posh mistress who has to be kept hidden to keep up appearances, thus the film’s title.
The film’s sense of history and its politics are clearly articulated in the opening titles: ‘Opression and tyranny stung the Mexican people. Vassalage was most evident in those large estates, haciendas and villages that still did not figure in the map of reason and human rights. The stoic and submissive peons bit their tongue in silence over the ignominy, accumulating beatings and opprobrium from the privilege caste. Suddenly, the longing for liberty thundered through all parts of the Republic. the clamour for social justice rose as one shout over the hills and valleys until reaching even the most distant sierras where rose legions of the brave, the ignored peasantry whose blood fertilised the plains of the north and watered the exuberant lands of the south. There surged the Caudillos, rough men, obscure and humble, giants of liberty, in whose blood was forged the structure of a new Homeland, of a strong and fertile Mexico, vigorous and progressive. This is a dramatic episode of that turbulent and confused time. The story of a love swept up and battered by the whirlwind of the Revolution.’
There is much to admire: the formal beauty, the framing of landscape, of trains going through it, of the armies and shoot-outs. Figueroa, who worked with Ford in The Fugitive (1947), is here, with Gavaldon, Ford’s equal in making landscape shots expressive of feeling. And the film is a high-budget one with great production values so Gavaldón has the means necessary to achieve the effects he desires to express. I also love the film’s narrative economy, one often characteristic of a genre which is mainly discussed in terms of excess. See in the extracts below how the train goes in one direction to take Felipe to serve his sentence, and the same train tracks simply move in the opposite direction to almost instantaneously return him to his village.
In the same clip, now above, I love the moment where she’s holding his hand, crying. He asks her, ‘what if I don’t return?’ and she says, ‘I’ll kill myself if you want to. I can throw myself right here on the tracks so you no longer have to worry about me’.’Wait for me,’ he responds, as the speed of the train overtakes her, and she falls to the floor sobbing. The beauty of the composition, the landscape, the rhythm of the movement of the train is a setting for feeling; like the background rhythm in a song that is a setting for the high notes and gives them meaning.
In a beautifully written piece on Gavaldón for Senses of Cinema, David Melville-Wingrove writes: ‘ it is natural that most of Gavaldón’s films have absurdly melodramatic plots, extravagant and larger-than-life star performances, feverish and hyperbolic mise-en-scène and thunderous and over-the-top musical scores. We should remember that film melodrama – much like bel canto opera or classical ballet – is a stylised, not a realistic, art form. Watching La escondida/The Hidden One (1956), some will complain that María Félix at 40 looks far too old and too glamorous to play an 18-year-old peasant. That is as absurd as carping that Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake does not look like an actual swan’.
The film contains a pictorial hommage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I loved the framing of the love story amidst revolution but Gavaldón’s style of filmmaking is the opposite of the Russian director’s. Here the focus is not on structures or the intellectual montages designed to express movements in history but on the effects of these revolutionary events on the things poor people value in life: love, family, food. As you can see above one of the film’s title’s was La Passionaria, after the famed Spanish revolutionary of the Spanish Civil War. But Gabriela is nothing like her. In fact, part of the film’s success is in how it makes us understand why Gabriela wants something better for herself. The women in town are jealous, the men are after her, both brutalise her in different ways; she’s waited a long time to marry and has tried everything to be with him. We understand why she wants the good things in life and what she’s done to get them. But we also understand her love for Felipe.
It’s what melodrama does, it makes us side with the powerless and downtrodden by almost musically constructing a world of feeling in which the injustices of the world are made plain and people’s transgressions made understandable. And not just through music, although Cuco Sánchez’s songs are great — but through the deployment of mise-en-scéne. In this sense the film works though it’s far from Gavaldón’s best — I haven’t seen many but I already like Camelia more.
There are a few reservations things worth noting. Arméndariz an Félix are one of the great partnerships in screen history (as are Arméndariz and Dolores del Río) but they aged at different speeds. Here he’s filled out, looks old and a bit haggard. She looks thinner than her younger self and her face looks different, just as beautiful and not the least bit older. She’s filmed with such care there are moments that are moments in which she exemplifies everything Hollywood divas are accused of. See the picture above, she’s just been brutalised, her dress half torn off, her body wounded….but look at her. Lastly, I bought the video on the ‘Naimara’ edition, the only one available, and it made me regret not simply seeing the film on You Tube. The Eastmancolour has faded in this print, and some scenes are so dark, they’re almost in the blurrovision often characteristic of films on youtube. I wish there were a better print of this available.
La Escondida is not a great film. But it is a good one by one of the great directors of melodrama with some of the greatest stars in film history in fine form; its worth seeing for that, even in blurrovision.
Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.
In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine, Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.
Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.
The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.
This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.
It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema, assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers, his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’
Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful. The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura) and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?
Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.
The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955. But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.
Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder
Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.
Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.
As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.
The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.
The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.
The ”Slap in the Face’ exhibition at Vivid Projects is excellent. Twiggy is a performance artist who has been making ‘happenings’ for the last 30 years primarily in Birmingham but also in almost every major city in Britain, and quite a few abroad (from Barcelona to Moscow). He’s also a conceptual artist and a designer of costumes and looks ‘none-pareil’, each look different, each one uniquely his. The exhibition shows how the looks change over the years, how they interact, interrogate, critique, and play with the dominant culture of the day.
It’s work that takes place underground, in or in front of gay or alternative clubs, on the margins where the permissible and forbidden are constructed; and its taken place on those margins even as those margins shift from year to year as those boundaries of the acceptable and the shocking and surprising get re-drawn through social change. Here’s an artist steeped in drag but who does something quite different; the looks he conjures are neither male nor female: they’re sometimes ironic, always playful, excessive, immensely expressive and always his.
Gender always gets displayed, performed but always fluidly, no end of the binary is ever arrived at. I’ve been to see so many performance artists in galleries who don’t express anywhere near what Twiggy had done every weekend for thirty years and on his own dime. Moreover, unlike most performance artists, Twiggy knows not only how to question, ironise and play — formally and conceptually–, he also knows how to delight.
He’s a living history of Birmingham gay culture as well. Almost everyone who’s gone out in the gay or alternative clubs of the city for the last thirty year has encountered, bantered, posed with Twiggy. And the exhibit also gives this element of Twiggy’s career its due: there he is with girls on a night out, goths, ageing mothers, young boys newly venturing on the gay scene, old geezers, other drag performers who can’t quite compete because they know only Twiggy rules the roost in Birmingham. There too is the Lord Mayor and every gay parade since there’s been one.
Twiggy has brought joy to thousands, maximum inventiveness and expressiveness within his own art, he’s been part of a community and helped build it and was engaged in changing it even as he embodied and expressed those changes weekly in performance. And until now he’s done this all alone with no institutional help of any kind from anyone in the art world. I’m really grateful that Trevor Pitt had the foresight to curate this great show with Twiggy and Dave Remes and also to Yameen Baig-Clifford for giving it a home at Vivid Projects and to Adam Carver of Shout Festival of Queer Arts and Culture for helping to commission it.
Maybe if he’d been doing this in London, he would be better known, and probably have been given his due as a major interstitial artist long ago with the V&A bidding madly on rights to his costumes and archive. Certainly the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery should. They’re beautiful objects on display even if like most clothing or theatrical costuming it’s not fully alive until it’s inhabited in performance. There are also documents that point to a long, vivid and textured history of an artist intricately engaged with a language and a form constantly expressing and interacting with changing communities for the last thirty years.
The neglect of his work by the art-world to now is evidence of how hermetic it is, how reified its structures and how commodified its product. An oligarchic neoliberal system pulling strings in a transnational context to exclude all but a few and fix their price has no space for someone like Twiggy, who in fact does all that art should do (amongst other things: express, conceptualise, critique, give form to, delight). Here’s is someone local, someone great, committed to plowing his very particular furrow for a long time and constantly creating on his own dime with not formal institutional recognition until now. He’s been doing all things we prize in artists but on the street and in the clubs. I’m glad he’s finally gotten his due in a gallery, though not yet to the extent he deserves. I hope that this great show is only a long overdue beginning of the acknowledgment and appreciation Twiggy’s art deserves in an art-world context.
When I saw The Bling Ring on its initial release I wrote myself a note: ‘Permit me a speculation: If Sofia Coppola were a male director or if a greater proportion of film critics were female, there would have been shouting from the rooftops at the appearance of The Bling Ring’. Seeing it again … Continue reading The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)→
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other … Continue reading Orry-Kelly, ‘Women I’ve Undressed’→
A programmer but one that packs a lot of power: Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a small town working girl, is accused of doing things she didn’t do with Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) by Conny Billop (Edward Woods), a co-worker who failed to force her to do the same things with him. Town gossip gets so … Continue reading Hot Saturday (William Seiter, USA, 1932)→
Was Max Reinhardt an influence on Lubitsh? Lotte Eisner thought so. In the The Haunted Screen she tells us that Lubitsch was ‘less sensitive to his influence than other German filmmakers’ (p.79) but also notes the Reinhardt influence in ‘the famous square market place around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds in … Continue reading Max Reinhardt and Lubitsch→
On the 12th of February 2013, Variety ran a headline: ‘Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy reveals vfx biz crisis’. Life After Pi documents how how this came to be; how one of the most successful and stable vfx company, one that been running successfully for twenty-five years, intelligently managed and mobile enough to take advantage of every … Continue reading Life After Pi (Directed and Edited by Scott Leberecht, 2013)→
In Elysium, rich people have extracted everything they can from earth and made it so dirty, dangerous, ugly and poor in the process that they refuse to live in it. They’ve created a satellite colony, Elysium, where only they can live. It’s like Earth is East LA and Elysium is a super-rich gated community like … Continue reading Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013)→
Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954) I saw Dial M for Murder in 3-D last night and what struck me most is what a bad actress Grace Kelly really was and how little that matters when you look and dress like that in a Hitchcock film. She’s just stunning in that red Edward … Continue reading A Note on Dial M for Murder→
An uneven film but very interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least the way it was — and is currently being — distributed, the context in which I saw it and the film itself: it’s a greatly flawed but bold and daring work.. I happened on the film by accident whilst looking up what … Continue reading I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, USA, 2012)→
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me … Continue reading In Praise of Flatpack→
Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending. From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the … Continue reading The Iceman (Ariel Vromen, USA, 2012)→