All posts by NotesonFilm1

Till We Meet Again (Yuzo Kawashima, Japan, 1955)

 

I´m quickly becoming enthralled by Yuzo Kawshima´s portraits of social mores in post-war Japan. In Till We Meet Again, the problem is  the confrontation of divorce with patriarchy: ‘men only want to treat women as pets’ says Yachijo (Yumeji Tsukioka) to her father Kaji (So Yamamura). Kaji has been ignoring his wife Shigeno (Fukuko Sayo) since they got married. She´s taken refuge in her cat. Kaji himself has rescued a girl, Kyoko (Michiyo Aratama) from the red light district and set her up in a boutique: she´s in love with him but it´s not reciprocatedl His daughter Yachigo is unhappily married to Kappei (Tatsuya Mihashi) and she´s soon falling in love with a bumbling scientist she met on the train, Sone (Rentaro Mikuni).  Meanwhile Kappei himself will meet and fall in love with Kyoko. It´s a sexual roundelay shot  as a chamber-piece with modernity as a backdrop.

So far, so typical of 1950s melodramas. As you can see in the sub-titles of the images below, the phrases are stock ones we´ve seen and heard and been witness to dramatisations of all of our lives:

 

But it´s the treatment of these, the way they speak of modernity, westernisation, individual fulfilment against social conscription, the very idea that happiness matters, that is so beautifully realised here. The shots are all small scale, intimate, the camera holding characters against a background like in a trance as couples form, re-form, as individuals struggle between personal desires and social constraints, all done low-key, restrained, not contained, articulated but in a gentle fashion. All these characters want is to have someone to talk to and pierce through the isolation coupledom has enchained them in, to share, to be themselves, to be valued. The patriarch, who has always done what he wants, finds these concerns bewildering and unfathomable. But the younger generation will act on their desires, in a gentle way. I love the attention to detail in Kawashima´s films, the slow revelations, how they´re  feminist but tactful in their critiques. This is a lovely film and very moving.

Modernity vs Tradition:

José Arroyo

In Conversation with Finn Jackson Ballard

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I´m a teacher. Few things make me happier than to see students doing well after graduation. And it positively gladdened my heart to see the life that Finn Jackson Ballard has made for himself in Berlin: a PhD in Film Studies, a historian of Berlin queer cultures of the last century with a focus on the Weimar period, a tour guide non-pareil, now himself a teacher and Lecturer. I first met Finn when he was Eimear: brilliant, soft-spoken, brave; mindful of the ways she spoke and conscious of the various effects speech might have on others.  I remember meeting Eimear for coffee when she first told me she was transitioning and feeling somewhat like my mother when I first came out to her: I foresaw trouble, danger, possibly a gory death in some ditch. Unlike my mother, I did not say this, and tried to find a way to be supportive but careful. Had she thought everything through? She had.

There´s a wonderful moment in Almodóvar´s All About My Mother where Agrado, a trans person played by Antonia San Juan, gets on stage and tells the audience how much her various body parts had cost. Most of what makes her ‘her’ is artificial. But she ends by saying that one is most authentic, most true to oneself, the closer one gets to the person they imagined themselves to be. It´s telling that a gentle man, a man who is gentle, is Finn´s choice.

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The podcast below took place in Finn´s apartment in Berlin, late-night, with his dogs sprawled around us, occasionally biting on some squeaky toy. I´ve wanted to keep the atmosphere, the flow, the ways conversation reveals as it meanders so I´ve not cut anything.

Like many people my age, I feel a bit at sea on trans issues. I want to be helpful but know I also need to change entrenched ways of thinking: to be better informed. We all need to be really, and few people are as knowledgeable and articulate on the issue as Finn.

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In the podcast (below, at the bottom) we talk about adolescence and being disassociated from one´s body; hormones, chest surgery, the processes involved in getting closer to the idea of who one wants to be; screenings, psychological evaluations; how it´s a bit like going through puberty again, looking in the mirror constantly to spot gradual changes; how life became easier once people saw him as a man rather than as a trans person; how privileged he feels at having an experience and insight into how it is to live as a woman; how more comfortable he feels with the effeminate rather than feminine. We talk of Northern Ireland and Berlin; we reflect on gender, how theory enable ways of being; how history helps to develop those ideas; the importance of ‘ancestors’; and much more.

Listening back, I´m even more appreciative of his kindness, his knowledge, his openness, his sense of adventure, the lilting accent, the way his answers to my questions are both free-flowing and thought through, precise. We can all learn a lot from Finn. I certainly did.

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 215 – Queen & Slim

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

An assured debut feature from director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim is a romantic, fugitive road movie with a state-of-the-nation feel. After an awkward first date, a traffic stop escalates out of hand, resulting in one dead police officer, shot in self defence, and two black civilians on the run. Their escape sees them take a tour through Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida, their public profile growing, their actions inspiring both admiration and dismay amongst those they encounter.

It’s a confidently made film, evocative of a bygone era though set in the modern day, slow and tonally adept, with two wonderful performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. We discuss whether it’s a noir and Turner-Smith’s unwitting femme fatale, the characters’ changes of costume, the way in which a variety of music expresses different elements of black culture with the effect of unifying them, the details and suggestions that build a holistic, believable world, what effect the reveal of the characters’ names has, and what significance faith might play.

Queen & Slim is a beautiful film that effortlessly expresses the struggles and oppressions of black Americans within a set of smoothly combined genres. It’s a true original, and a great experience.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A Brief Note on High Life (Claire Denis, 2018)

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A film I´ve only seen once and yet to fully figure out.  But I am already entranced by it and convinced of its greatness. It´s not ‘entertaining’ in a traditional sense. It´s dour, and harsh, sexy and tender, with moments of harrowing violence and many instances of sexual violation, some by women towards men. It´s a complex movie. And beautiful: amber lights reflected on space-ship helmets designed to show as much of Robert Pattinson´s face as possible, the luminous greens of a garden inside a spaceship that seems an Eden, keeps everyone alive but hides dead bodies.

Denis makes a space movie like no other I´ve seen. The spaceship here is not a phallic cock triumphantly piercing through the atmosphere and into space but a box, rusty, like a jail, which is kind of what it is. The ship houses convicts who were given the choice of life sentence on earth or a mission into space, one which would take several generations to succeed, so reproduction is necessary. The spaceship has a fuck box were inmates go to relief their sexual frustrations but which also gathers sperm that women are then forcibly inseminated with.

 

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is the only one who chooses to remain celibate but Dibs, the doctor played by Juliette Binoche, has sex with him whilst he´s sleeping and forcibly implants the sperm he´s left in her on a younger woman. Finally, after many failed attempts, a baby is born in the ship, and Dibs tells Monte it´s his.

Conceptually the film is fascinating. The ship is a jail. News from earth keeps arriving in soundbites, faded images of Native Americans dying in early Westerns, news that is no longer relevant. Life on board is always on  24 hour notice. If the daily log isn´t filed nightly, the ship shuts down and with it the food and energy necessary for survival. Moreover, the ship is heading towards a black hole and previous attempts to change direction have failed. Will Monte and his daughter succeed when they try again at the end? We don´t know.

It´s a film to think about a whole lot more but what remains vivid at present is Pattinson´s performance, so reticent, recessive even, but conveying a hurt, a shying away from society, yet power too — he´s muscly and built– and capable of great tenderness with the child. He reminded me of that famous ´L’enfant’ poster but one imbued with a more complex character and motivation, less syrupy.  The look of the film is astonishing also, with haunting poetic imagery, imaginatively composed, and expressively coloured. It´s not an easy watch. But it´s a great film, mysterious and complex, one to see again and think about some more.

 

José Arroyo

Anna (Luc Besson, 2019)

Anna

 

Anna is the perfect ´too-tired-to-think´film. It´s about a victim of domestic abuse (Sasha Luss) recruited by Alex (Luke Evans) and trained to be a spy. She´s put in the service of the ornery Olga (Helen Mirren) who runs the elite section and is trained to kill. But is she working for the KGB or for the CIA? Anna has affairs with KGB Alex and CIA Leonard (Cillian Murphy) whilst simultaneously pretending to be in love with a glamorous super-model, Nika (Anna Krippa) as a front to keep the rest of the men away. All want to tie her down in some way, none will let her be free. The story the film begins to tell is constantly reframed by flashbacks showing what really happened. But really who cares? It´s beautiful people having sex in glamorous settings with lots of shoot-outs in between. One can knit, glance occasionally at the tv for the kiss-kiss bang-bang and be certain one hasn´t missed anything. Even Helen Mirren´s performance, a fun showstopper, doesnt´t add up to more than a collection of clichés collated for effects (though, rather like Anna herself, they rarely miss their mark.

The film has obvious connections with Besson´s earlier La femme Nikita (1990) .There could be a chapter on Angel A (2005) and The Fifth Element (1997), tying in a sci-fi strand, another on historical figures like The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) and The Lady (2011) , and yet another on the bande desinée adaptations like The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec (2010) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Besson is arguably the key-figure of the  French ‘cinema de look’ films from the 80s. And the pleasures of those films – not to be underestimated — remain the pleasures of these.

Anna is showing on Amazon Prime, Lucy (2014)and The Family (2013), with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro are on Netflix. They´re different kinds of trashy, and each fun in its own way if one doesn´t demand or require too much of movies.

 

José Arroyo

Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1956)

 

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An achingly romantic and effortlessly cool gangster film. A voice-over narration at the beginning leads us into a world of night just before the dawn, that moment where the night is over, the nightclubs close, the prostitutes go get a bite to eat on their way home, and cleaning ladies, already late, race to work. Some people have jobs, some people don’t have a bed to sleep in and must improvise, perhaps with a willing American sailor. On one side is the heaven represented by the Sacre Coeur church, on the other, the hell which is for some also a little bit of heaven, represented by the neon lights and easy sex of Pigalle, where Bob lives, with a wonderful view of the Sacre Coeur from his living room window, a metaphor for the film as a whole.

We see nightclubs, with drinking, dancing and gambling. We hear jazz. Sex is sold to get by, but in an easy way, without the film getting all judgmental about it; which is not to say that the film offers no judgment. The lower depths has its own ethics. About the worst thing you can be is a squealer or a pimp. But the film complicates even this: you can squeal without knowing it. Being a pimp doesn’t mean a girl won’t have sex with you for fun or even marry you later, after you quit the profession, and sure to ruin your life just as you ruined so many before.

Diagonals:

Bob le flambeur seems to take place in a liminal world of complex relations that call on the past, on many lives already lived and unknowable except to those who lived them: on bonds of obligations — and affections — where betrayal in some is as certain as loyalty in others. It’s a film of romantic attitudes, of stances not very cool boys would like to aspire to, of sex and death and jazz. The links between this film, Le Samourai and Un Flic are direct: the underworld, the jazz, the nightclubs, the solitude, the elective affinities, the love that kills and the more solid affections that last…at least before the final shootout.

The film has a wonderful sense of place, of mood, of compulsion, and feelings that are understated but strongly felt. If the story is about the acceptance of existential ache, the way it’s told is formally dazzling and playful: the irises in and out, cutting through vertical or horizontal wipes, a jump cut, beautiful purposeful camera movement, and lighting that shimmers. It’s like the past and present of film technique effortlessly deployed in the service of the story. One notices how many of the camera set ups are on precise diagonals. It’s telling that the most extreme and beautiful close-ups in the film are at the very moment of unwitting betrayal that sparks the denouement (see above). It’s a film I never tire of, currently on MUBI.

With Roger Duchesne as Bob, Isabelle Corey as the young woman on her cups, Guy Decomble, the impatient schoolteacher in 400 Blows, plays a police inspector friends with and possibly indebted to Bob. The music is by Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer and the great cinematography is by one of the greats, Henri Decae.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 214 – American Factory

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

The latest winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory is a complex and brilliant examination of a clash of cultures and management styles and the diminishment of a class of workers having to grovel for jobs they cannot do without.

In 2014, the recently closed GM factory in Moraine, Ohio, was acquired and reopened by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company; many of the former GM employees, often out of regular work since the closure in 2008, would occupy new jobs there. While the film depicts clashes between the Moraine locals and the Chinese employees flown in to supervise them, it also ensures that it doesn’t accept any indulgence in xenophobia, instead showing employees of both nationalities spending leisure time together and getting along. The film is less interested in moderating the clash between the Chinese and American supervisors – a trip to a Chinese plant, intended to show the Americans how things should be done, with robotic employees, militaristic roll calls and company songs, long hours, hardly any days off, non-existent safety standards and a focus on quantity of production over quality, is met with raised eyebrows by all but one conspicuously enthusiastic visitor. That those unconvinced bosses are eventually replaced by more Chinese overseers is no surprise – nor is it a surprise that a bubbling movement to unionise the Moraine workers is suppressed by an appeasing extra couple of dollars of pay – that still keeps salaries at half of what they’d been at GM – and an expensive propaganda campaign that successfully scares most of the employees into voting against unionisation.

There’s a vast amount going on in this concise and potent film, and Reichert and Bognar work magic to marshal a sprawling web of people, plots and themes, and to allow the workers to narrate their own story smoothly and with little outside help (just a few lines of superimposed text here and there). It’s available on Netflix, and you should not miss out on it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

A Note on The Host (Bong Joon-Ho,South Korea, 2006)

Two thoughts on watching The Host, currently on MUBI: the first is that the film is unimaginable before digital both in terms of its aesthetic and in terms of its country of origin, or more precisely put, no small national cinema could have afforded such sheen, such beautifully realised f/x on a monster movie previous to digital. Of course the Godzilla phenomenon is proof that these films were made, and often more successfully made, outside Hollywood. However, part of the charm of watching those old films is the creakyness, the way that imagination often had to compensate for lack of means. I´m sure compromises were made on what could be shown in The Host . One could see them: the way the monster is often seen only partially, how much of the eating of people and so on happens offscreen, or behind things, or inside trailers shot from outside, etc. Economies were clearly made. But economies are made in every film. And this one seems to me fully realised.

In The Host one is dazzled by skill. The look of the opening sequences in the lab, the way the light hits on chrome as we´re told that chemicals are being dumped into the river by Americans with the Korean scientist having no option but to comply. Then the scenes on the river as a person goes to commit suicide, the people chasing him, his look downwards as he detects a shape. It´s not just that we get all the information and feel the tension. Look at how expressive the shot of the two fishermen below is, the city in the background, in a fog, the vast expanse of river, the two vulerable and unware fishermen discovering something. The compositions are so clever and expressive, the colour grading just right. It looks beautiful.

But the look is only one aspect. Listen to the sound design, note how the sound disappears or is altered in relation to moments of tension. Note also the structure of of the film, how it begins in a lab with Americans, how it´s resolved on TV but with our remaining protagonists too concerned with their meal to care about the larger issues.

The story is told with great intelligence, Bong Joon-Ho focuses all of the narrative on a working-class family who live off a convenience shop by the beach. And as in Parasite, we are shown how their are families even worse off than they. Am I wrong in thinking that so much of American horror focusses on the middle class, sometimes even on scientists who instigate or try to resolve the problem? It´s nice to see working-class people at the centre, embodying and speaking a nation and a dilemma. Themes of class, gender, the environment, an inept South Korean government and oppressive US imperialism are woven in throughout the film.

Aside from being smart, the film is also witty, and on various levels, not just dialogue or situation but visually also. See the still below where the monster rampages through the park and leaps onto the river and we get the contrast between the twee ducks and dolphins and the rampaging mutant squid that´s about to devour everything.

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The intelligence, the know-how, the though in relation to sounds and images, makes one realise how little we settle for in cinema. If we were more sophisticated viewers we´d appreciate that 90% of the time we´re watching the visual equivalent of Harold Robbins or virtue tracks by a provincial preacher who knows very little of the world and even less of how to express it. This film is on  completely different level altogether, and with all of the coronavirus coverage on the news, more timely than ever. .

 

Lovely also to see Bae Doona of Sense8 fame as a champion archer in an early role.

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José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

 

A quick observation on Mother (2009, Bong Joon-Ho, South Korea)

I loved Parasite and have posted much on the film, from the significance of the rock, the income gap, the noodles, its relation to the issue of postcolonialism, etc. We´ve even done a podcast. It´s a very rich film. But it also feels like it lacks mystery. That everything in the film is not only interpretable but explainable. That everything has been encoded to clearly extract. That´s great. But it also feels a lack. Nothing in the film has the giddy, quirky, entrancing and mysterious joy of Kim Hye-Ja as the mother dancing to that fabulous and foreign (Spanish? Cuban? I´ve heard it´s flamenco but it doesn´t quite sound like the flamenco I know) music which ends and starts Mother. Just a thought (and some images):

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 213 – The Lighthouse

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a tale of two lighthouse keepers stranded during a storm, is a visual treat in black and white that stuns and engrosses us. A two-hander between Willem Dafoe’s irascible boss and Robert Pattinson’s secretive youngster, it invokes myth, gods, folk tales, the clash of male egos, compulsive psychosexuality, if not much, much more besides.

If its plot is simple, its story is complex, and we think our way through its characters’ personalities, wants, needs, and psychologies. José asks if the film is gothic, and we discuss the boss’s treatment of his assistant: is it just controlling, or abusive? Extraordinary imagery of mermaids, monsters, and gods suffuses the film with inescapable surreality and the turbulent minds of men overburdened with ego and sexual need. Eggers has an assured, confident sense of tone, layering the film with mood and atmosphere, making its remote island a pressure cooker.

The Lighthouse is a spectacular film, an audiovisual treat that you should not miss at the cinema. Its imagery is poetic, its characters complex – in its entirety, it is confusing but approachable, symbolic but not coded, allowing room for interpretation and emotional response. It’s brilliant.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 212 – Parasite

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

It’s one of José’s films of the year; it leaves Mike cold. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite depicts social inequality in South Korea through a lower-class family that cons its way into working for an upper-class family. We pick our way through the film’s structure; its motif of staircases that delineate status and power relations; the way poverty carries with it an inescapable smell, intolerable to the upper class; the two families’ experiences of nature and the desire for sunshine.

It builds on some aspects of horror, but cannot at all be considered one, either in genre or affect – though the fact that its trailers sold it as such might have something to do with Mike’s frosty response. It’s an allegorical thriller, every character standing in place of a class or group of people, and its construction is intelligent, thoughtful and tight. For José, it works on a visceral level, the mood and tone emphasising and combining with the structure and metaphor; for Mike, it’s a flat experience, a clever essay with definite interpretations and little feeling.

But it’s clearly touched a nerve, connecting with worldwide audiences. It speaks not just to conditions in South Korea but a global system of oppression and inequality under capitalism. We may not agree on what it makes us feel, but it’s potent food for thought and offers much to discuss. Don’t miss it.

Also in this episode, we take a look at the upcoming Oscars, which eager cinephiles will be able to watch yesterday.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 211 – Birds of Prey

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Trying to build a portrait of patriarchal power and subjugation that shapes the lives of five women, Birds of Prey takes a solid enough foundation and executes it abysmally, lacking visual style, coherent storytelling, and really any imagination. It’s the worst time José’s endured at the cinema in a year; Mike heroically offers a couple of examples of moments he enjoyed – the flying sandwich – but there’s no rescuing these damsels in distress.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 210 – Uncut Gems

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team up with Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems, an energetic, evolving crime thriller set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. By the time we meet Sandler’s Jewish jeweller, Howard, he’s already embedded within a web of competing interests, desires and debts, as well as a gambling addiction – and the tension only mounts as problems grow worse.

The Safdie brothers and Sandler are all Jewish New York natives, the writer-directors in particular growing up, in part, around the Diamond District, where their father worked. There’s a specificity to the location and culture that the film captures beautifully, a richness to Howard’s characterisation, and the world he inhabits, that feels authentically observed. Howard’s need to take risks never allows the tension to settle – he can’t help but invite further trouble upon himself, so neither does the film let us calm down for a second.

Uncut Gems is a complex, character-oriented, engrossing work of edge-of-your-seat genre entertainment, and a terrific follow-up to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time, which we discuss a little bit (but not too much because José hasn’t finished it yet). Both Good Time and Uncut Gems are available on Netflix, and well worth your time. The Safdie brothers might not just be good – they might be greats.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 209 – Bombshell

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

The film that wants to make us feel bad for people who worked at Fox News, Bombshell casts former stars Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as heroines fighting the revolting, crude, institutional sexism of their former place of work. It refuses to do so with any complexity, any suggestion that they were anything but victims – that they had all the opportunity to say no to the hideous deal they were offered, and that they were, too, key players in a propaganda machine, pumping poison into the world. It’s a view of the world that, at best, has been simplified for popular consumption, relegating criticism of Fox News’ politics, operations, and output to a laughably basic subplot involving a lesbian Democrat employee who explains the machinery of Fox’s messaging.

Mike suggests that it sits alongside the work of Adam McKay, who, like Bombshell director Jay Roach, made his name in comedy, offering the term “satire-adjacent” in an attempt to understand this breed of film – McKay’s Vice and The Big Short have a similar tone and basis in reality. Where we decried the lack of satire these days when discussing Jojo Rabbit, perhaps we’ve found where it’s been relocated. And there are things about it he likes, this kind of sociopolitical talkie being up his street, though our highest praise is reserved for the performances, John Lithgow’s explosive, sinister Roger Ailes, and Charlize Theron’s unbelievable transformation into Megyn Kelly, in particular.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Art and Entertainment in Sullivan’s Travels

 

Sullivan´s Travels elaborates a whole theory of film aesthetics right from its opening scene. The film begins by showing us the ending of another film. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is so inspired by what he´s just seen that he lectures the studio heads, ´See the symbolism of it? Capital and labour destroy each other! It teaches us a lesson, a moral lesson. It has social significance!’

To Sullivan, the movies should be political and socially engaged: ´This picture´s an answer to communism! It shows we´re awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches! Sullivan wants his picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems the confront the ordinary man, even if he concedes ‘with a little sex in it’.

His theories are almost a precursor to those of Bazin and Italioan neo-realism. He wants the picture to ‘be a document, to hold a mirror up to life…a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’ The opposite of this is musicals. But how dare the studio head talk about musicals at a time when ´the world is committing suicide, with corpses piling up on the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner’….I meant to summarise but the dialogue is just too good.

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The studio heads counter that maybe they´d like to forget all of that, the conclusion Sullivan himself will come to by the end of the film. Sullivan wants to do something dignified, something to be proud of, something that would ‘fulfil the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is’. Sullivan has so far been making ‘So Long Sarong’, ‘Hey, Hey in the Heyloft’, ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939’. Now he wants to make ‘O Brother Where Art Though’ about tramps, lockouts, people eating garbage in alleys, living in piano boxes and ashcans. Until now Sullivan has been making films about ‘nice clean young people who fall in love, with laughter, music and legs’. The opposite of his current conception of film art with its critique of current conditions, holding the mirror up to society, fulfilling the potentialities of the medium itself. But for Sullivan conditions have changed. ‘There isn´t any food, there isn´t any work, these are troublous times’. Yet, art has to be about what the artist knows.

Sullivan doesn´t know about trouble. That´s why his previous pictures were ‘so light, so cheerful, so inspiring’. But Sullivan will go on the road to learn about poverty and pain, and what the film tells us he will learn is that what people need most is a good laugh. But the whole thing has been a bit of a kid: whilst delineating a whole philosophy of what film art should be, the example that´s been held up to us, the last scene of the film that starts this film, is an action sequence of a moving train, not Keystone cops, not a musical, not ‘laughter, music and sex,’ . But it also certainly has not been a Capraesque critique with symbolism and social significance,  no mirror up to the world that fulfils the potentialities of the medium. Sullivan´s learned a lesson but Sturges had his answer from the very beginning. He´s all for ´kiss kiss, bang ban, pow pow’, a pratfall or two and as much laughter as he can cram in the picture. For Sturges it´s not just that entertainment trumps art but that it is art, something that is at least certainly true of his own work.

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José Arroyo

 

Praise for the Criterion ´Swing Time’

The Criterion edition of Swing Tiime is so good I feel the need to publicly voice my appreciation. It´s a new 2K restoration that looks smashing, deep blacks and with a satiny, not too sharp look to the image. It´s gorgeous. But what really made me want to shout from the rooftop were the extras, not just Ginger and Fred talking about their experience of making it, or George Stevens Jr. talking about his father, but the way the disk brings scholarship in to enhance our appreciation of this glorious film.

I´m an admirer of Gary Giddins books on Bing Crosby, and it was a joy to hear him speak about the music. What did Jerome Kern provide, which elements were added in by the rehearsal pianist and orchestrator, how do themes from earlier in the film get repeated in different orchestrations later on and why?  It´s wonderful to hear from someone who really knows their stuff and can help you understand (and admittedly he´s better on the music than on film history. Katharine Hepburn did not become a star with Alice Adams, her billing on Little Women, a box office sensation of two years earlier should be enough to convince anyone (see below) little women

Likewise do you know about Dorothy Fields? Deborah Grace Viner explains why you should. The only woman to figure amongst Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other great writers of the American songbook. She won an Oscar for the score of Swing Time, the first woman to do so, and she´d already had hit tunes in the twenties and continued to do so until the sixties. She wrote the lyrics for Sweet Charity, which Bob Fosse directed, a big hit for Gwen Verdon on state (and a big flop for Shirley McLaine on film)

Brian Siebert made me see things I´d not noticed before, how Astaire picks up on steps, bits of choreography, that get repeated throughout the film, purposefully, like elements of the score, so that Astaire and Hermes Pan not only provide choreography for a particular number but how that choreography is woven through thematically through the whole of the film. He´s brilliant at illustrating and making things clear.

 

Gary Giddens is also very good at talking about the problematic Bojangles number and Mia Mask is terrific at explaining the history of blackface, why Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was such a significant figure historically, and why issues of race should become central to any discussion of the film. It´s a package that really made me see and appreciate the film better, and I´ve still not exhausted the extras.

One of the things it made me see better was the choreography, and I here want to end with two images from the ´Never Gonna Dance’ number that seem to express the essence of the number (see below)

 

 

The two images are images of loss and dejection, defeat, regret. They´re what the number is about. Lucky has blown it. He knows it. He´s trying to win her back. They dance together so beautifully.  There´s a lyric in ´Never Gonna Dance´where he sings And to heaven, I give a vow
To adore you. I’m starting now
To be much more positive

But in each instance that positivity returns to dejection, as in Fred´s posture on the image on the left as Penny (Ginger Rogers) walks away; or defeat, sadness, regret, as in the final image of the number on the right. The images are like choreography frozen in time, though that´s a contradiction in terms as choreography is all about movement in time, flow, even a stop in motion has meaning because of the stopping and the duration of that lack of movement.

Really, to get the full effect one has to see the film, the Criterion edition, so that one sees that beautiful restoration and one can watch the extras and understand how the repetition in choreography, the re-orchestration and repetition of musical motifs, recur, evoke, rhyme but also bring meaning and resonance to that number and are an organic part of why we think it so great.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

A note on an image from the 1954 A Star is Born

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Like with the greatest of films, every time I see the 1954 version of A Star is Born, I notice something new. This time, the great shot above, which seems a noir rendering using as background the shade of green so often deployed by Edward Hopper in his paintings (see below), and even in his rural or landscape works:

 

What makes the shot so poignant is that the shadowy embrace against the Edward Hopper green is their entrance to their honeymoon hotel. The first night of their marriage is already imbued with suggestions of sadness, loneliness, alienation, of imprisonment in/and shadows. This had already been foreshadowed earlier by the notice of their marriage dissolving into an image of prisoners behind bars (later turned into a joke with the knowledge that the room the judge is marrying them also contains a jail). See below:

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Prison bars feature heavily in the film, particularly and most obviously in the scene where Norman Maine (James Mason) ends up in jail:

 

But the whole film partakes of aspects of a noir aesthetic, from the Bleue Bleu nightclub to shadowy lighting to LA nights where neon illuminates the darkness (see below)

 

 

The film also contains as many references to then ´Modern´painting as Minnelli´s An American in Paris (1951). Rousseau, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, all are referenced backstage in the Shriner Auditorium sequence, and later on we even get a Mondrian image from the ‘Born in a Trunk’ number (see below):

The film is made up of such purposeful patternings both in referencing a history of art but also in deploying particular aspects of noir lighting as part of its mise-en-scène. What the first image shown above tells us is that this marriage is doomed from the very beginning. It will have passion, it will have beauty, but it will also be full of the darkness where addiction and self-hatred create a prison from a home, one that even love can´t breach. It´s all there in that first image that marks the start of their honeymoon.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 208 – 1917

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.

So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.