All posts by NotesonFilm1

Butching up Fred


fred 2

There’s a lovely moment in Swing Time (George Stevens, USA, 1936) when Fred and Ginger finally kiss. She’s been after him for most of the movie by then. Bewildered by what she sees as a lack of response: ‘A fine romance, with no *kisses*’:

A fine romance, my friend this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes
A fine romance, you won’t nestle
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance

When they finally do, a door closes so that we don’t see the kiss itself. We just know they have because Fred’s face is smeared, with lipstick, which I’m often tempted to colour in, badly, as above.

What compels me is not that I think that elegant symbol of love, romance and Hollywood cinema is gay or even ‘feminine’. Indeed the image above is a cut-out of the image below. I’ve removed and then restored Ginger from where she rightly belongs, figuring that dream of love and romance *with* Fred.


Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 16.04.14.png

The films, however,  in trying so hard to reassure the audience that Fred Astaire is *not* effeminate create so many spaces where other men can be: Fairies delightedly prance through the Astaire and Rogers series inciting dreams of being just as Fred and Ginger themselves incite dreams of love and romance. Fred is usually surrounded by Eric Blore, or Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn or Erik Rhodes — all the lovely pansies of Thirties Hollywood — and sometimes a combination of three or more in the same film — to shore up his masculinity. Sometimes as with Erik Rhodes, those characters are doubly othered by being shown as ‘effeminate’ AND foreign.

Thus, so often, butching up Fred results in gaying up the film and leads to moments like the lovely one below with Victor Moore (and let’s draw the veil over the blackface).



I wonder what those moments meant to a gay male audience, to a black audience, and to a black and gay audience in the 1930s?


Jose Arroyo

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs




Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.

‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.



The Spirit of Fred Astaire

The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936). 



More Movies:

Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.



Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy

The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)



This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:



But Hollywood’s influence dominates:



Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks

The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.

As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.

The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.



The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:






José Arroyo


José Arroyo in Conversation with Josh Schulze on ‘Alternate Takes’

Joshua Schulze is the new editor of Alternate Takes. James MacDowell one of the original founders of the digital site devoted to film and television criticism tells me that,

‘The aim of Alternate Takes is to provide analysis of cinema that is informed by academic debates, but also walks a line between the journalistic review and the critical essay. It publishes long-form essays that embody this ethos, but the most obvious way the site has achieved this compromise position between reviewing and scholarly criticism is by writing about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of experience it offers; the idea is that this is a review to read before you see a film. Then, after you’ve watched it, you can read our Alternate Take – a longer, more in-depth critical piece, which usually digs more deeply into a particular critical issue that the movie raises. While over the years this dual-review format has become less rigidly enforced, the overall approach it fostered has remained the same, and the site has continued to publish film criticism that is in-depth, critical, mindful of social and artistic contexts, but also accessible and enjoyable.’


The impetus for this conversation with Josh Schulze was merely to find out if there was a new direction he, along with co-editors Matt Denny, Patrick Pilkington and Leanne Weston, wanted for the now celebrated digital platform and what that might be.

In the podcast Josh and I discuss Pauline Kael, cinephilia, the pressures of writing quickly and its effects on film reviewing, the nuances of film criticism and how Alternate Takes is devoted at looking at films and television in depth. We also discuss our admiration for the video essays of Adrian Martin, Catherine Grant and Kogonada, and how contributing to Alternate Takes is a great way for early career people and students to explore their ideas and take new approaches to film.

You can find the website here:

James MacDowell’s thought provoking piece on the raison d’être and purpose of the platform can be found here:,3,240

José Arroyo



MUBI and Cinephilia


cinemaThere are broadly two large cinephiliac discourses on cinema currently, each with a multitude of sub-divisions: a global, festival-based one, with internationally shared points of reference, largely inaccessible in the UK outside London. And the other, a more populist but also more insular one, also with many sub-divisions, which surrounds Hollywood, commercial British cinema, and the odd Indie or foreign film that gets nationwide distribution in the UK. In this very interesting podcast the discussion focusses on how MUBI might help bridge that divide.


José Arroyo


Eavesdropping at the Movies: 102 – A Star Is Born



Hyped up, already very successful, and widely well-received, A Star Is Born earns strong reactions from us. To Mike it’s at points truly reprehensible, to José simply a confused failure. Mike has never seen any of the previous versions – he tried and couldn’t make it – while José finds writer/director/star Bradley Cooper’s new remake unworthy to share their company. The novelty of seeing Lady Gaga unmasked soon wears off, her performance opaque and lacking in presence. We agree that Cooper is very good and truly a star, though with the opprobrium he receives from one half of us, he must have done something to Mike in a previous life.

We discuss and debate what we make of the film’s characters – Mike finds them deeply unlikeable, toxically compatible, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but for the fact that the film wants to render it romantic. (Cooper has a real problem with consent and personal space.) José finds their love difficult to believe in, particularly Gaga’s for Cooper. Quite why she’s so hot for him is barely even told, let alone shown.

Cooper’s take on the music industry is out of date and simplistic, which is more than disappointing considering he was working with one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade. We each have our reasons for finding the suicide scene nonsensical. And Mike describes his problem with the film’s ending.

A lot to talk about, most of it negative. See you again in between twenty and forty years for the next version.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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


Eavesdropping at the Movies: 101 – The Little Stranger

You find us in contemplative mood, picking apart a film described by José as “genuinely puzzling” and Mike as “The House with a Doc in Its Walls”. The Little Stranger builds light gothic horror around class and ambition in 1940s Warwickshire, a stately home providing the setting of the action and focus of Domhnall Gleeson’s town doctor.

With some difficulty, we attempt to grasp the film’s themes and intentions, never quite feeling we get the full measure of it. It doesn’t help that it basks, to some extent, in ambiguity, and also that half the lines are mumbled so as to be rendered truly unintelligible. There are things we like, particularly its sure sense of era and class, and its rich production design, but we can’t overall say we recommend it.

What we can recommend, though, is a visit to Evesham’s Regal Cinema, where we saw the film. A multipurpose venue that hosts live shows as well as regular cinema screenings, it oozes charm and style. A leisurely Sunday drive amongst sunny A roads took us there, and what a lovely day was had by all. Even if the film was a bit disappointing.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 100th Anniversary Extra – Eavesdropping on Ourselves

With 99 podcasts under our belt at time of recording, we take the opportunity to look back and reflect. At Eavesdropping at the Movies we try to speak honestly about what we see and don’t attach too much of a formula to our discussions. Our philosophy – yes, philosophy! – is to try to see films as unmolested by hype and expectation as we can, and to consider questions of aesthetics and individual experience as well as the likes of plot and performance.

So what do feel we’ve done well, what have we done badly or too little of? And are there films that, with hindsight – given that the podcast records our first impressions, by and large – we’d reevaluate now?

A slightly self-indulgent but hopefully frank look at a podcast we’re ultimately very proud of but has room to improve. Happy 100th anniversary!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies — 100 – Venom

Venom utterly charms the pants off us, its bizarre knockabout body horror surprising us with a great sense of humour and unexpected variations on the idea not so much Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as of masculinity at war with itself, inside and out.. From the trailer, Mike was worried about the broadness of Tom Hardy’s accent – actually, it’s tonally perfect as broadness is exactly what the film is going for in every respect, in the very best way.

Hardy is superb, giving his all to a role that demands physical dexterity and comic ability; the CGI bowls José over; the sense of Hardy’s body being shared by another physical entity, rather than being merged with it, is tactile and interesting. Mike’s also been watching the Sam Raimi Spider-Mantrilogy recently, in which Venom appears, and holds court on a trend in the villains he sees Venomas adhering to. And the dog is so funny.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

The Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1936)


British Imperial jingoism from Hollywood directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian. If you can ignore the Orientalism, Imperialism, and the rather offensive notion that Britons ruling the world is the natural order of things, it’s a rousing, visually exciting film, with fantastic action sequences.

Constantine Verevis writes that, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade is best known for its final sequence, the charge often cited as one of the most spectacular action sequences of the Hollywood studio period’ (p. 270). The compositions are dynamic and demonstrate how well Curtiz can handle crowds in action; the cutting moves from the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem offering exposition, to the charge, to Flynn’s friends falling one by one, to Flynn rousing everyone to keep charging ahead. Flynn even picks up a British flag at one point and waves it proudly, and he finds the evil and traitorous Surat Kahn (C. Henry Gordon, in blackface) and manages to kill him at the end, getting personal revenge as well as facilitating British forces being redirected to fight and win The Battle of Sebastopol.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is notable for Olivia de Havilland turning down the Errol Flynn character, but perhaps only because, as the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem which the film is based on and actively cites in the extraordinary battle scene that brings us to the end of the film,  he is fated to die at the end.

In fact the film revolves around a triangle where Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) is engaged to Elsa Campbell (de Havilland) who has, since the engagement with one brother,  fallen in love with the other, Perry Vickers (Patrick Knowles). This romantic triangle is alternated with scenes of the rigidity and nobility of the British army, which here go hand in hand and are in many ways personified by Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) who asks her to remember her promise to Geoffrey and complicates rather than resolves the affairs of her daughter and those of the army. In the end, Geoffrey’s sacrifice is the permission Elsa and Perry need to marry.

David Niven has a lovely bit in an early role that helped push him on his way to stardom (see below). Curtiz stages it beautifully with rhyming scenes of the moon and the sun coming up, of Errol Flynn looking outside windows for the enemy, of dramatic lighting that helps arrange space within the composition and helps set a mood. The conversation between Flynn and Niven is a good example of the easy male camaraderie that is so characteristic of Flynn’s films; touching, emotional but jokey with it, yet the humour enhancing rather than undermining the feeling behind it all. According to Alex K. Rode , ‘David Niven appropriated a Curtiz utterance from the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade — ‘Bring on the empty horses’ — as the title of his best selling memoirs (pp.xv-xvi).

The film finally made me understand why Curtiz can’t be counted amongst the greatest. It’s not hard to make an audience cry. Show a child; show the child in danger; cut to a mother perhaps looking on; and then show something awful happening to the child: The audience is inevitably drawn to tears. Here, Curtiz not only does that in the Battle of Chukoti scenes (he would so again in Dodge City) but he does it over and over again within the film. He’s completely shameless when it comes to rousing emotion: mothers are killed in front of their children, children are massacred left and right. Even the bible and the flag is brought into play. As you can see in the flashback where all the horror of Chukoti is used as a rationale for Flynn to change the order of his superiors so that he may avenge it (whilst also permitting British forces to be better deployed). Curtiz is not above hitting you over the head to bring on some tears. It’s successful but crude.


Alex K. Rode writes that the ‘picture was designed as a follow-on vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and to emulate the success of Captain Blood and Paramount’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)’ p. 187. According Verevis, ‘Despite some controversy over its treatment of animals, The Charge of the Light Brigade became the studio’s most successful film of 1936, earning in excess of $1.5 million, confirming Flynn and de Havilland as stars, and further consolidating Curtiz’s position at Warner Bros’ (p.271).

Some of the compositions in the film are minimalist, modernist, striking to the eye, and particularly evocative in motion. I show some stills, which do not quite do them justice, below:

José Arroyo


Alex K. Rode, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, University of Kentucky Press, 2017.

Constantine Verevis, ‘Devil May Care: Curtiz and Flynn in Hollywood’ in R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance eds. The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz, University of Texas Press, 2018, pp.265-277.


A note on Venom (Ruben Fleischer, USA, 2018)


Woke up thinking about Venom. It’s not been well-reviewed, and with reason. But we found it very entertaining. I particularly liked the look of it, the special effects, the use of San Francisco, the chase scenes. And Tom Hardy’s performance is so original and inventive. He starts as someone madly in love, content, socially engaged; then he does something unethical and is cast out. The rest of the film is him, suffering, shivering, longing, wanting, and then with a body that’s infected and out of his control, a body he’s at war with it and one that gets flayed, shocked, beaten, pierced. If this film had been made twenty years ago I would have taken it, lazily perhaps, as an AIDS metaphor; as is, it’s a most original representation of a masculinity at war with itself. Podcast will follow from Eavesdropping at the Movies.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 99 – Climax

A group of dancers parties the night away, but someone has spiked the sangria with LSD. There are extraordinarily long takes, sex, drugs, violence, and horror. Yes, it’s a Gaspar Noé film.

Climax is a singular cinematic escape into a vision of Hell. Boy, there’s a lot going on. We grapple with the film’s themes of sex, violence, drugs, youth, dance, sexuality, nationality, culture, and whatever else we can remember of its insane 96 minutes. We discuss what we did and didn’t like about the dancing – the pros and cons of the way it’s shot – and what value there is in extraordinary cinematic violence in a world in which footage of horrific real-life violence is commonplace. We discuss the detail of Climax‘s cinematography and editing and the effects they have on our experiences, particularly shooting upside-down and inserting almost subconsciously brief flashes of black frames in otherwise normal cuts. We’re reminded of Do the Right ThingThe Exterminating Angel, and Salò, and indeed Climax wears its influences on its sleeve. José reads it allegorically, finding reference to Europe, cultural power, and race, though so far adding it all up remains beyond us.

It fired Mike up enough to have a go at a guy who’d had his phone on during the cinema, but it enveloped José so completely that he didn’t even notice the distraction. And Mike made a film like this once! As he puts it, “Not as good as this, probably, but a lot shorter.” You can see that here if you like:

In short, Climax is certainly worth your time. There’s so much going on and we’ll be seeing it again when the mac screens it in November.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

‘La vie en rose’: Some Thoughts on a Recurring Repertoire Amongst ‘Gay Divas’.

‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.

The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she  made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have  performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?


‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!

Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’

All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas.  Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?

Is there a  shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.

Enquiring minds want to know.


You can look at some of the versions below:


Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):

Audrey Hepburn:

Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:

Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.

Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:

Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:

Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:


Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:

Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.

Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.

K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:

It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:

.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that  calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.

Other versions include:

Martha Wainwright:


(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson,  Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 98 – A Simple Favor

“From the darker side of director Paul Feig”, as the ubiquitous advertising has it, and the film doesn’t disappoint. A Simple Favor pairs Anna Kendrick with Blake Lively as the least compatible friends you can imagine, friends with dark secrets and desires. We find Feig a complete master of tone, able to control the film’s descent into some very, very murky places without ever losing its ability to remain light and likeable. It’s a quite an achievement.

We discuss the way the film makes the female characters prominent and diminishes the role of men, eschewing the typical noir hero role for Kendrick’s Nancy Drew escapades, and the pleasure in seeing her character develop and assume control. The use of flashback is interesting and at some points quite brilliant, with important plot points being conveyed through subtle eyeline matches and just a few short shots recontextualising things we already know, or think we know. Mike finds the plot grows a little overcomplicated towards the end, and indeed predicted one or two developments – normally he prides himself on his gullibility – but these are nitpicks, at best, in a hugely entertaining film.

And it’s a film noir played for laughs! José can’t stress that enough.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

Sara and Julio Look Back

Watching Spanish musicals of the ’50s and sixties, I’ve noticed how often the protagonists look directly at the camera, and thus at the audience. It’s generally a no-no in Classical Hollywood Cinema, though there’s more of a history of it than is common acknowledged, particularly in musicals and comedy: one need only think of how wittily Lubitsch (and Cukor) deploy it in the opening scenes of One Hour With You (1932) (see clip below)and of course it’s woven into the Crosby/Hope/Lamour ‘Road’ films for comic effect, often as an in-joke the audience is also privy to.

The distancing effect, the alienation effect, the estrangement effect; all of these translations and derivatives of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and rooted in the Russion Formalist notion of making strange, of de-familarizing,  in cinema as on stage, is supposed to distance the spectator emotionally by making the familiar strange, making them aware of the constructedness of the drama and in doing so allowing for a more intellectual understanding that would empower the individual to analyze and perhaps even change the world. A characteristic device in theatre and in film is the look back directly to the audience, in theatre the breaking of ‘the fourth wall’, a direct address that is supposed to disrupt ‘stage illusion’ and generate a distancing effect.

Spanish musicals offer further proof, if proof were needed, that no one meaning or effect can be attributed to any formal device; that indeed it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. Seeing a lot of Sara Montiel films I’ve noticed how this look back at the audience is something that she does regularly in her films (Pecado de amor, La dama de Beirut, Noches de Casablanca ), it’s almost a trope in her vehicles. What interested me about the use of that device of looking directly at the camera in La Reina del Chantecler (Rafael Gil, Spain, 1962) is that it seems to me that it does the opposite of what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do, i.e. it sutures in rather than alienates or distances.

As you can see in the clip below, the pre-title opening sequence of the film is a musical number where Sara Montiel performs, ‘Colón 34’, the refrain goes as follows:

Colón, Colón 34
tiene usted su habitación
y una chica muy decente
sin ninguna pretención
en la calle de Colón, Colón, Colón
siempre a su disposición.

Colón, Colón 34/ You have your own room/ and a very good unpretentious girl/ always at your disposal/ in the street of Colón, Colón, Colón (trans. my own).

As you can see in the clip below, the sequence begins in medium long shot, covering her face and figure, the camera then cranes back into a proper long shot so you can see that quite extensive and impressive set. It then moves in to medium close-up as Montiel starts another verse. As the refrain recommences, the camera gets closer to medium close-up. Then it cuts to a plan américain again, but now intercuts with the audience, demonstrating how Sara is heating up the men in the audience with her risqué song.

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 10.39.07.png

At 2.12, the camera cuts to a close-up of Sara, once more singing the refrain, but this time looking directly at the camera until the last line: ‘always at your disposal’. i.e Sara is at the audience’s disposal in the cinema just as her character is in the theatre. There’s meant to be some link between the men in the theatre listening to her character, and the audience in the cinema. It’s a way for the narrative to present the spectacle of Sara, make some structural homologies whilst allowing for particular variations (Sara had a large female following), but also present the film audience as the ideal audience.

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 10.40.07.png

After Sara’s name appears in the credits, and then the name of the film, accompanied by illustrations that are meant to signify period (the twenties, though they look like Toulouse-Lautrec imitations from the French Belle Epoque), the narrative proper begins; and there will be no more looking at the audience then. But this sequence seems to be saying, ‘you can enjoy the spectacle of Sara Montiel even better than the audience in this theatre is enjoying the spectacle of the character she plays. Now sit back and lose yourself in this dream of song, and sparkling Eastman colour, a pre-war Spain of song and romance’. That’s not what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do.



I was surprised to see an even more overt example of this in La vida sigue igual (Eugenio Martin, Spain, 1969), a film inspired by Julio Iglesias’ real life, a wannabe Real Madrid goal-keeper has an accident, is prevented from following his dream, and whilst he’s recovering chances upon a world of music, enters a singing contest, wins it, and becomes a pop star. The title of the song is also the title of the film and was a hit before the film began shooting. It’s the song that won Julio the Benidorm song contest in 1968 and launched him as a pop star.

As you can see above. The opening sequence of La vida sigue igual is more familiar to us, with a form very familiar to us from MTV videos: Julio singing directly to the camera, a title card telling us this film will be based on Julio’s real life, then intercut with couples and all the forms of love Julio is singing about, a series of shots some of which literalise the lyrics others which allegorise the theme, with cuts on the beat, that return us to Julio singing directly to us so we can then metaphorically enter his life through the subsequent narrative.

Again, rather than make strange, this sequence is more like one of the ‘attractions’ Tom Gunning writes of in relation to early cinema. He writes that it’s  “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” This certainly displays its visibility, it’s Julio Iglesias, pop star, winner of the Benidorm song contest, singing his song for you, in a movie. It solicits the attention of the spectator but it doesn’t so much rupture a self-enclosed fictional world. But create a setting and context for it. Just like Sara does.


José Arroyo



Eavesdropping at the Movies – 97 – The House with a Clock in Its Walls


We’re disappointed with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a children’s horror fantasy that insults its audience’s intelligence by assuming that this is the kind of simplistic shit kids love. We find some aspects of its design to enjoy but for the most part find it close to charm-free and not up to the standards of its stars – though Mike is keen to point out it’s probably director Eli Roth’s best film, which isn’t saying much. José goes on a rant about how often the adorableness of children in Hollywood cinema is signified by blue-eyes and the Nazi Aryan-worship implicit in such a consistent use of of that particular trope, as if dark-eyed children can’t per se be adorable.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

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

Buenos días, condesita (Luis César Amadori, 1967)

buenos dias condesita

Rocia Dùrcal (1944-206) stopped making films in 1977 with Me siento extraña. Outside Spain she’s probably best remembered as the best-selling female recording artist of her time in all of the Spanish-speaking world, with sales of over 40 million albums. She continues to be venerated in Mexico for her partnership with Juan Gabriel and as an incomparable singer of rancheras. The duet below with Joaquin Sabina on Y nos dieron las diez is a lovely illustration of a ranchera arrangement of Sabina’s pop-rock song, and the difference between Sabina’s singing and Dúrcal’s play with emphasis, tone and notes is as good example as any of ranchera style. It melds beautifully.

In Spain, and over a decade after her death, she’s still beloved as a top sixties female film star, second only to Marisol. Like Lana Turner, how she was discovered is part of her legend. Luis Sanz recounts how he had bought his parents an television set. They were watching a talent show, Primer aplauso whilst he was shaving and he heard this marvellous voice and immediately went out to see who was singing. It turned out to be a pretty adolescent girl with a huge voice. He recounts that when he saw her smile he knew he could make her a star.

Sanz groomed her for stardom; she underwent lessons in various aspects of the performing arts, and Sanz built a starring vehicle for her particular talents, Canción de juventud (Luis Lucia, 1962). It was a hit. She consolidated her stardom with her second film, Rocío de La Mancha (Luis Lucia, 1963) and its success led to her becoming a teen idol on record and a top box office attraction on film in Spain and throughout Latin America. Her last film of the sixties, Las Leandras (Eugenio Martín) was also her biggest box office hit.

Dúrcal, along with Marisol, was one of the few of what in Spain are called ‘Niños prodigios/ Child Prodigy Stars,’ in a cinema unusually driven by them — it was as if through much of fifities and sixties national dilemmas could only be explored through the eyes of children, innocent of the past, hopeful for the future, possibly able to withstand the present. Most of these child stars  (Joselito, Pablito Calvo, Pili y Mili) did not survive and their stardom was left back with their childhood.

However, Dúrcal did survive, and part of the reason she did is because she managed to continue to mean and to symbolise. Throughout the sixties, and as she grew from a teenager to a young woman on film, a lot of the ideological struggles the country was undergoing: tradition vs modernity, the foreign vs the indigenous, the old vs the young, the city vs the rural, changing gender roles in a booming economy; all this and more are articulated in her films and via her changing persona.

Two pop-ock numbers in Buenos dias, condesita, both by Los Brincos, sometimes referred to as ‘The Spanish Beatles’, a group whose music has come to signify and evoke this period, illustrate these changes very well (Dúrcal would go on to marry one of its members Antonio Morales aka ‘Junior’ in 1970). See Rocio Dùrcal singing ‘Creo en ti’ in Madrid’s ‘El rastro’ flea-market. She’s previously sung an old-fashioned song, ‘Flores, Flores’ and some young men ask her if she doesn’t have anything more modern.

As the boys ask her if she has something more modern, she answers that it’s all the same and that she has something in all rhythms for all ages and to all tastes. She puts a record on her old-fashioned victrola. She begins to sing ‘Creo en ti/ I believe in you’ in the ye-ye pop-rock dancing style of the era, dancing with the sharp arm and leg movements so characteristic then. She begins singing with two young boys in the frame. She’s now and they’re the future. But later in the song, around the 1.18 minute mark, the then fashionably current drums and guitar of the soundtrack are paired visually against tradition: a lute, a statue of a matador and the old armour of a knight, ie. the new, foreign and modern is foregrounded unproblematically with tradition and españoladas as background. The new as part of the old, an imaginary resolution to then very real contradictions.

In fact the plot of Buenos dias, condesita brings this out even more. Durcal plays María, a young girl who’s helping her grandfather make ends meet by selling music at the flea-market. The grandfather himself is a caretaker at the City Palace of an Earl and his Countess for whom modernisation has brought some hard-times. They’re selling off the contents of their grand Madrid house bit by bit before selling the place off altogether. Meanwhile Ramiro (Vicente Parra) has been cut off by his rich uncle (Antonio Garisa) due to his dissolute lifestyle. Ramiro hires María to pretend she’s his fiancée and fake an engagement so as to have his allowance restored. The party announcing this, and proving to his rich uncle that he’s mended his ways, take place in the Earl’s palace. At that moment the Earl and his Countess drop in unexpectedly but play along with the young couple and fool the uncle. Needless to say, the fake couple turns into a real one by the end of the film.


In the meantime, María is also hired by a television show where she sings a paean to advertising, another song by Los Brincos, ‘Cartel de publicidad’. Here is advertising as the coming of consumer culture, so new and strange in a country that had only recently undergone a decade of hunger. The music, the outfits, the theme, the voicing of desire for a man — all so foreign and yet symbolising all that was new, modern, desirable in Spain. That this takes place in a television show, that it is sung by ‘la novia de España/ Spain’s sweetheart’ which Dúrcal was referred to in this generation as often as Carmen Sevilla was in an earlier one, and that the character she plays is really a street hawker needing to take care of her grandfather only underlines this (see clip above).

There’s an interesting interview with Dùrcal on youtube — filmed a decade after the release of Buenos dias, condesita — where the cameras go to the village of Dúrcal in Cordoba to ask its citizenry how they feel about naming a street after her. And you see people going to work with their loaded mules, the streets unpaved, middle-aged ladies coming out of their houses still dressed in the black one remembers from those days — and one realises that the modernity of the film had yet to hit the village of Durcal in any significant way more than a decade after the film’s release.

Dúrcal has said she was proud of all her sixties musicals, and indeed she should be. They were the bedrock of her impressive subsequent career and they gave her opportunities. In Buenos dias, condesita, aside from the pop songs, she’s given coplas, flamenco music, chotis, and even one of Violeta’s arias from La Traviata so she can dazzle the spectator with her skill and versatility. Also, although the vehicles are built entirely around her skills and her persona, the producers don’t skimp on production values (at least for the Spanish cinema of this period) and supporting cast. In Buenos dias, condesita, Carlos Casaravilla, Antonio Garisa, and other beloved comic actors of the era, as recognised and beloved as the star, bring their own particular charm to the film.  Of these the greatest is probably Gracita Morales, who you can see above. She was able to get a laugh out of a simple line reading, one that never resembled the way any real person would speak in ordinary life. She played each character like a turn in a vaudeville sketch. It’s a completely different style than that vaunted by any notion of naturalness yet very typical of the era and still very successful in garnering its effects.

Indeed another reason to treasure these films is because they’re a history of actors and acting styles, often borrowed from the theatre, often adept at particular indigenous forms of comic theatre such as sainete that the films, sometimes lazy as well as low-budget, often lift directly from comic turns on stage and place in the narrative (see example above) thus these films are a repository of acting styles and routines of yore, a whole patrimony of theatrical traditions, one worth investigating.

What was meant to be a short blurb of a teen musical film has ended up way longer than expected, a credit to the film.

José Arroyo


Café de Chinitas (Gonzalo Delgrás, Spain, 1960)


In Café de Chinitas Antonio Molina plays Antonio Vargas, a rich and famous star who returns to his hometown of Malaga and is taken to the Café de Chinitas, the flamenco bar where he began his career, now in ruins.  The narrative then intertwines what the café was and meant – a hangout for gangsters, very demanding of their entertainers but also a place where the upper classes and even Oriental Potentates went to experience and be moved by the art of flamenco – with Antonio’s own  story told in flashback.


The young Antonio, an orphan, is working two jobs to feed himself and his younger siblings: he’s the curtain puller at the Café and also works pulling in the fisherman’s catch at the beach. He’s barely managing. A kind neighbour, Consuelo (Delia Luna), is helping him look after the kids. But some well-meaning ladies in the neighbourhood are pleading with the local nuns to take them into an asylum where at least they’ll be properly washed and fed (it’s a marker of the Spanish culture of the time that splitting up families in this way was considered a privilege instead of a punishment).

Screen Shot 2018-09-23 at 11.45.02.png

Antonio has a beautiful voice but he gets so nervous that he can only sing for his friends or whilst at work (see clip below). Whenever he tries to sing in public, he gets so nervous, audiences boo him off the stage.  But faced with losing his siblings, he gathers up the courage and, of course, triumphs.


The money and fame go to his head, and soon he’s courting a famous dancer, Rocío (Eulália del Pino), who’s seeing him primarily as vengeance to the man she really loves, the man who dumped her for another, Paco el Rondeño (Rafael Farina). Rafael is jealous of Antonio’s success and in a fight over Rocío cuts Antonio’s throat. But Antonio recovers to sing once more, and in the ruins of the mythic café, we’re shown that he’s actually married the kind and good neighbour, made of all his siblings successful professionals, and is now the head of the type of family most prized by the Franco regime, la numerosa, a big family of six children (see image above).

When seeing this type of film I’ve often asked myself, why see much less write on this type of film — often so bad — in English? They’re low-budget, poorly made. Spanish critics, when they deign to write on it, do so as if handling dirty diapers. As cinema, they’re null. Or let me be more specific, they have nothing to offer to anyone thinking of cinema as an art form. They’re not sub-titled and few in the English-speaking world have even heard of them. However, to me at least. a sampling are essential to an understanding of the popular culture in Spain and also of the history of popular cinema in Spain during the Franquist period.

The films were popular. Audiences saw themselves reflected in these poor people whose struggle was merely to feed and clothe their family and whose joy was in singing a type of song, the copla, a type of flamenco popular song, ‘flamenco light’ so to speak, which is a soundtrack to the lives of several generations in Spain. And the films continue to be popular. They’re the focus of the Cine de barrio television programme, the popular staple of afternoon television on Spanish TV, a nostalgia-fest for a certain generation, often including interviews with the stars before a screening of the films, which began its run in 1995 and persists to this day.

The films may have been crude and rickety. Certainly Café de Chinitas is. But these films were also an opportunity for audiences to see the great singing stars of the era they’d come to love on radio. And the singing of Antonio Molina and Rafael Farina, two of the great stars of the ‘copla Española, is the only reason to see this particular film. They’re not particularly handsome and their acting is stiff and unexpressive: they both seem slightly embarrassed to be there.  However, as you can see in the clip above, there are moments where Molina begins to trill and bend the notes with that prodigious high falsetto of his when I began to understand why my Mom loved him so. In a program called ‘El Legado de….Antonio Molina’ on Youtube, we’re shown how Molina was the teen idol of the day, with a high falsetto that made women swoon, a placid persona and the lack of sexual threat that often permits or increases a female teen audience to voice their desires, often inarticulate but nonetheless energetically expressed. Some of you may know him best as the father of Angela, that great star of classics by Buñuel (Ese oscuro objeto de deseo), Almodóvar (Live Flesh) Bellochio (The Eyes, The Mouth) and numerous classic Spanish films of the 1980s (Demonios en el jardín, La mitad del cielo, Esquilache etc.)

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 17.18.05.png

Angel Quintana has written of Antonio Molina: ‘His melodious voice was ideal for a type of decaffeinated flamenco singing whilst his light style offered him an approach to different modalities of flamenco — tonadilla, la copla fandangos, fandanguillos — that was unmatched/ Su voz melodiosa fue idónea para un modelo de cante flamenco un tanto descafeinado, al tiempo que su estilo ligero le permitia abordar inigualablemente modalidades como la tonadilla, la copla, los fandangos y los fandanguillos.

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 17.15.38.png

Antonio Molina is past his teen idol phase in this. But the singing is sometimes vey beautiful and moving. The film even has a sing-off between the two stars, like they do in rap contests but admittedly less exciting. I enjoyed seeing Malaga before mass tourism and developers pitched their fork into it. And moments: a few of the trills in the second clip; or the singing over the fishermen bringing in their catch, a way of life insufficient to sustain the life of those picking up the scraps of the job (the pulling); the sight of those barefoot children having to do that work not to starve….well the film might be crap but it moves me nonetheless.


José Arroyo



Guy Bolton’s The Syndicate (London: Oneworld Publications, 2018)


In ‘The Syndicate’ Detective Jonathan Crane returns to crime-solving in Hollywood, but this time from the outside, without a basis in either MGM  or the LAPD. After the death of his MGM movie star wife in ‘The Pictures’ and the subsequent trauma that followed, Detective Jonathan Craine retired to a farm where he’s living quietly with his son Michael, all grown up now and wanting to go into the army but too young still to do it without his father’s permission. However, just when Jonathan thinks he’s escaped his former life,  they reel him back in. Meyer Lansky has sent thugs to kidnap his son and Craine has no choice but to work for the mob. He’s got five days to find out who killed Bugsy Siegel.

I read the novel in one go last night. It’s beautifully structured and delicately balanced between fact and fiction. It’s so well researched that the the LA ‘zoot suit riots’, the foundation of Las Vegas, the mob’s involvement in the Unions, the House of Un-American Activities, the changing studio system, the newly enhanced role of the FBI and much more not only make an appearance but are intricately woven into the plot. Soldiers returning uneasily to civilian life and the relations between fathers and sons are recurring and well-developed themes.

The fictional world is one of sunshine noir, of the glamorous and rich of Bel Air, but also the newspaper world of the period, one that encompasses the poor black neighbourhoods and is also conscious of the politics of race and gender.  This dark but glamorous fictional world is lent sparkle by  appearances from L.B. Mayer, George Raft, Judy Garland,  Humphrey Bogart and other glittering stars of the Hollywood firmament of the immediate post-war period.

The great and convincing conceit of this book is that it offers an imaginative, sideways but satisfying resolution to what remains the unsolved murder of Bugsy Siegel.  Riveting as well as touching. ‘The Syndicate’ is a page turner with depth. For those of you who are already fans of Bolton and Craine from ‘The Pictures’, this is even better.

José Arroyo