All posts by NotesonFilm1

Piel Canela/ Cinnamon Skin (Juan José Ortega, Mexico, 1953)

There were so many rats in the hovel Marucha (Sara Montiel) grew up in that they chewed off half her face. Being ugly means she’s the victim of men’s callousness. This has made her embittered and turned her into a gangster’s moll. She’s got a lovely figure though and can still shake a living from singing in cabaret by wearing a Veronica Lake peekaboo hairstyle that hides her disfigurement.

This works most of the time. But occasionally blokes in the audience clock the chewed-up face, make nasty catcalls, taunt her, laugh at he until she collapses from thension.   This happens one night when a plastic surgeon’s in the club. Dr. Carlos Alonso (Manolo Fábregas) takes her on as a client hoping that a lovely face will help her develop a lovely soul. But once she sees how the Doctor’s transformed her into …well…Sara Montiel, its nertz to that. She becomes ‘Piel Canela/Cinnamon Skin’, a successful cabaret singer and very expensive prostitute who’s out to get her revenge on men.

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 12.57.11.png

 

The Doctor becomes besotted with her but she couldn’t live in his world she tells him, and he wouldn’t know how to live in hers. All the surgery’s signified is that she’s moved from a world of cheap vices to a world of expensive ones. But soon they fall for each other. And just as quickly, her past catches up with her. Julio (Ramon Gáy), the head of the gang Marucha used to run around with and a bit of an old flame, forces the Doctor to operate on him and change aliases. The Doctor has no choice but is disgusted with Marucha for tricking him into a situation he finds dishonourable and illegal. Months later, he turns himself over to the police. To redeem herself for having sunk the Doctor’s career, Marucha goes in search of her gangnster ex. He’s got a new face but she recognises the origami he’s in the habit of making with bits of paper, tricks him into admitting his previous crimes and the Doctor’s innocence to the police. She gets shot in the crossfire. They take her to the operating table but the Doctor is not successful. Prayer, and the nurse who’s quietly had the hots for him all along will be his only consolation.

This is material that’s been done miles better by Gustaf Molander (1938)and George Cukor (1941) in the two versions of A Woman’s Face. And Bergman and Crawford are certainly better in the part than Montiel is here. Everything about this film is strictly B. That said, Montiel is really the main reasons to see this film. It’s one of the 14 she did in four years in Mexico. It was a huge success in Mexico, partly due to Montiel, partly due to the famous and eponymous Bolero. Though it’s not Montiel who gets to sing the famous song, she does get to sing three songs in the film, and her relative success in doing so would pave the way for  extraordinary run of hit musical melodramas in Spain from ’57 onwards as well as her extraordinary recording career.

As a side note, this is also one of three films she made in this period shot in Cuba and with Havana as a location. For those of you, like I, who love Havana and might have reveries about what it was like in the early 50s, the film is a special thrill (see below). Even the Cine Yara appears in back projection.

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 80 – The Meg

 

 

Big shark, big Cockney, big fun. We dive into The Meg, a film we can all agree should have been called Chomp. It’s definitely trashy, though precisely how trashy is an area of disagreement. For José, it’s a bad movie. For Mike, it’s a good bad movie.

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 Noche avanza/ Night Falls (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1952)

la noche avanza poster

A great Mexican noir from director Roberto Gavaldón. Pedro Armendáriz, earlier in his career the pretty and poetic peasant of Emilio Fernández’ Flor Silvestre (1943) and  María Candelaria (1944)the enraptured revolutionary of Enamorada (1946), so often the embodiment of the best of Mexican masculinity, here represents the worst. His Marcos Arizmendi, jai alai champ and national celebrity, is arrogant, selfish, conceited, eager to raise his fists and happy to give a good kicking to any old stray dog that gets in his way: ‘A man who doesn’t triumph doesn’t deserve to live,’ he says.

He’s got three women on the go: Lucrecia (Eva Martino) is his main squeeze, and as the song she sings in the nightclub tells us (see below), she’s so crazy for him, she accepts his cheating on her with other women because, as he tells her, having a fifth of a first rate man is worth than getting the whole of a fifth rate one. He’s also reconnecting with a former flame, Sara (Anita Blanch). He squeezed her out all her personal fortune years go in Manila. But now her husband’s dead, and as soon as she tells him she’s inherited, his interest in reviving their old affair increases exponentially. He’s also been screwing around with Rebeca (Rebeca Villareal), a timid, underage, girl from a respectable family who he’s gotten pregnant.

 

It’s how Marcos attempts to run away from his responsibilities towards Rebeca that seals his doom. Marcos is already familiar with betting. Gavaldón depicts that world, not unlike the American boxing films of the period, as one intimately connected with the underworld. But so far, Marcos’ movements through the night have been in nightclubs, hotels, bars, places for drinking, smokin, sex; he’s been around criminality but not connected to it. His trying to trick his pregnant and underage girlfriend out of marriage changes everything. A gangster uses the threat of making this public to blackmail him into throwing the game. Rebeca’s brother double-crosses both by telling him he doesn’t need to, thus setting the gangsters on his trail, plunging him further into a world of fedoras, guns, moonlight reflections on dark canals were bodies get thrown.

Gavaldón and cinematographer Jack Draper film all of this beautifully. We often see people through bars, nets, even the nightclub seems encased in a spider’s web (see below). The film’s locations are archetypally noir, nightclubs, betting in arenas, hotels (see below, second row); and so is the imagery (see third and fourth row).

La noche avanza is all hatred, jealousy, cheating, double crossings, uncontrolled passions. It’s all darkness and pessimism leavened only by black humour. What’s interesting about this film is that Arméndariz is the homme fatale and that he hasn’t committed any actual crime. His failings are all moral ones. Women are crazy about him. But it’s his own love for himself that will seal his doom; and Armendáriz’s depiction of a toxic masculinity unleashed with glee is a delight. When the dog he kicked at the beginning gets his revenge at the end, the comeuppance is rendered even more enjoyable by the cynic’s snook through which it’s represented.

The script is credited to Luis Spota. But José Revueltas, for many years a communist revolutionary and political activist, worked on the adaptation, which might account for the film’s unusual critique of the middle and upper classes in the film and of those who, like Marcos, attempt to move through their ranks.

The film also offers an opportunity to see Mexico City as it was at night in the 1950, an urban view, a rare one, of Mexico’s capital, and the sight of many landmarks will bring pleasure to those who know the city.

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 10.06.31.png
The entrance to Mexico’s Central Airport as it was in 1950.

José Arroyo

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1947)

diosa cartel

From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada, the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language  and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.

La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.

‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’

‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.

Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.

From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.

 

Desire

What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.

‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’

‘Yes’

‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’

Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however,  has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him,  he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 09.28.05.png

But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’

In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.

 

Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.

Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the  next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.

Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.

The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.

 

Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.

Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.

The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything:  that it’s all about the sex.

 

David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.

Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for  getting  married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her  contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.

The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).

 

Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.

As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale.  He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality.  Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes,  The Kneeling Goddess  ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’

Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.

I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)

José Arroyo

 

Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1960)

macario-spanish-movie-poster

The first Mexican film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and a truly great movie. Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) is a good, honest, hardworking peasant who lives for his family. He works all day but has so many children that they literally take the food from his plate. Director Roberto Gavaldón is great at showing what hunger feels like, the life of people who live on less than subsistence wages, the melodrama that conveys the truth and pain of the small things in life: .

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.51.19.png

Macario fears God, is haunted by the dead, and dreams of food. One day he vows that unless he can have something entirely to himself he won’t eat at all . His wife (Pina Pellicer), fearing that he’ll die, steals a turkey, cooks it for him and asks him to eat it out in the fields where the children won’t get to it first and he won’t be interrupted so that he can finally enjoy one thing all to himself. When he sits down to eat his turkey, he’s taunted by the devil, who offers him all kinds of things if he’d share his food with him. But Macario is a good man and refuses. Then God appears and also asks for some of his food. But Macario, figuring that God can have anything he wants, refuses him also. Finally death appears. Macario figuring he’s got no option and that at least he’ll live for as long as it takes death to eat his half of the turkey, agrees to share it.

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.50.24.png

As a reward, death offers him a vial of water that can bring some people back from the dead. Macario is to be alone with those he wants to cure, death will then appear. If he’s at the foot of the bed, Macario can offer them his water and cure them. If Death’s at the head, nothing can be done for them and they’re goners. Macario’s urged to be careful with this magic water as he will receive no more and when it’s gone Death will be merciless.

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.43.05.pngMacario is delighted to have escaped death, and with newfound powers. But has he? The rest of the film is a morality tale, a fable about life and death, a commentary on the meanings of Mexico’s day of the dead, the cruelties of Church and government, the petty avarices of little people made big with money.

It’s a beautiful film, rich in symbolism, poetic but directly accessible. It’s got striking, expressionist imagery that is easily understandable in ways that go right to one’s head and heart.  It’s a direct influence on the equally great Coco, one of the many reasons to see it.

José Arroyo

‘Te lo juro yo’ in Las cosas del querer

las cosas del querer 2

Writing on Las cosas del querer in the year 2000 (see reference at end) ….I noted how the film re-imagines and re-images Spain through the ‘figure of the homosexual and through homosexual culture, i.e. what in the film’s narrative is exiled from Spain, the film itself re-constructs and re-inserts into the representation of nation. When Mario (Manuel Bandera) is discharged from jail at the beginning of the film, the warden contemptuously hands him what he sees as his faggotty castanets and tells him, ‘in this Spain of peace there is no place for reds or queers’. But in the Spain of Las cosas, queers are in fact everywhere: cafes, toilets, and aristocratic drawing rooms; on-stage, backstage and, most  importantly in the audience. When María Barranco sings that she is delighted  to be ‘single for life’, the campy boys in the audience respond in the feminine, ‘nosotras tambien (we are a well)’.

A pivotal moment in Las cosas, one which demonstrates how the film draws on gay culture and the folklore film is the scene below, where Mario (Manuel Bandera) sings, ‘Te lo juro yo (I swear to you)’ to Juan (Ángel de Andrés López)Structurally this is the climax of the film where Mario declares his love for Juan, rejects the Marquis and insults the Marquis’ mother, thus setting in play the mechanisms for the dénoument. We are first shown Mario in long shot. The song begins. Mario, looking intently at Juan in medium close-up, abruptly turns away to face the empty theatre as he begins to sing, ‘Yo no me di cuenta de que te tenía hasta el mismo dia en que te perdi (I didn’t realise I had you until the very first day I lost you)’. Mario sings of his suffering and begs for love. When the lyrics gets to the point that the break-up was all his fault because he slept around, we are shown the Marquis spying on the performance, a clear reference to Mario’s own sexual appetite. However the key moment is when, in close-up, Mario, eyes brimming with tears, turns abruptly back to face Juan and sings the lyrics, declares his love, directly to him ‘mira que te llevo dentro de mi corazón…mira que pa mí en el mundo no hay na mas que tú….por tí contaria la arena del mar, por tí seria capaz de matar (Look, I carry you within my heart..Look, for there is only you…for you I would count the sand in the sea, for you I would be capable of killing)’. Juan squirms with embarrassment but Mario will sing the rest of the song directly to him.

 

Gay male audiences were avid and knowledgeable consumers of the folklore genre and the films, songs and stars of the genre were, and continue to be, an important part of Spanish camp culture. Jo Labanyi in Screen has written that the ‘early Francoist folklórica has in recent years enjoyed a revival with Spanish gay audiences because of its camp exposure and the evident constructedness of its representation of gender roles. Las cosas not only puts the gay audience back in to the picture diegetically but also addresses gay in the audience through a mode of narration that acknowledges and utilises a camp appreciation of the genre at various levels.

 

 

The climax of Las cosas del querer is the declaration of love of one man for another through a song that has rich connotations. Lola Flores famously performed ‘Te lo juro yo’ to Fernando Fernan Gomez in Morena Clara (Luis Lucia, 1954, see clip above). She was the happy-go-lucky gypsy, he the stiff lawyer. Lola is leaving hims because his mother has convinced her that she would damage his career. So she sings him this song as a way of saying goodbye and with an intensity of feeling and a sense of self-abnegation that echoes and begs comparison with Bandera’s more restrained and less skilful performance. But what is also carried through is the memory of Lola Flores and what she signifies both in the folklore film and in gay culture. Leonardo Rojic has rated her as one of the greatest camp icons. Roger D. Tinnell calls her the ‘Queen’ of Spanish music. She was also a mythic star of folklore cinema in the Spain of the 40s and 50s. Román Guber compared these folklore stars to monsters: ‘in times of (economic) depression the cinema converts itself not so much to a factory of dreams as into a factory of nightmares. The Americans invented King King, we invented the folklóricas‘.

screen-shot-2018-01-21-at-13-44-46.png

It’s a cruel remark, Lola, so famous and beloved she was called Lola of Spain was seen to represent what was best about Spanishness: talent, wit, pluck, energy and of course alegría (gaeity). She embodied this in such an exaggerated way that it became camp. Seeing Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, Netflix, 2017) it was interesting to see Blahnik and John Galliano bonding together through a campy appreciation of Lola Flores (see image above) which demonstrates both their love for her and her continued sub-cultural significance.

 

What I didn’t know when I wrote the article on Las cosas in the year 2000 is that the song was also performed by Sara Montiel in Varietés (see above). So the use of the song in Las cosas del querer has associations not only with one diva but with two; two stars associated with outsiderness and transgression; two figures central to camp appreciation in Spain from the late forties right through at least the 80s and beyond, two transgressive figures, through which male homosexual audiences in Spain learned particular ways of being gay and a particular gay culture which they could contribute to, participate in, change; and in doing so find an imaginary space through which to construct an identity, a culture and a society in a country in which they were forbidden to; where their very being resulted in censure and punishment.

It’s interesting now to see the same number in Las cosas as a re-presentation of queerness in Spain brought together in a declaration of homosexual love that speaks through a collective memory of a camp appreciation of both Lola Flores and Sara Montiel, processes that Almodóvar dramatises so well in relation to Montiel in La mala educación/ Bad Education.

Three versions of the same song across three films from different decades, sung by two gay divas and one homosexual speaks a particular gay culture, its development, change and uses.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

References:

José Arroyo, ‘Queering the Folklore: Genre and Re-presentation of Homosexual and National Identities in Las cosas del querer‘, Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell (eds), London: Intellect Books, 2000, pp. 70-80. All other references can be found in this article.

Note on Gavildón Geek moment

Watching La Otra recently I noticed that Roberto Gavildón re-uses his sets. Compare Dolores Del Rio on the staircase in La Otra (1946) in the image on the left below to Arturo de Córdoba looking on at María Felix in La Diosa arollidada (1947) on the image on the right below. A minor geek moment that I’d nonetheless like to record.

Another comparison I’d like to note here, and something I’d like to write more on when I have more time, is the endings of both films, which I’ve extracted below. Two women lose what they wanted, both are incarcerated by past actions, Dolores Del Rio literally and María Félix metaphorically. Both endings take place in a jail and Gavaldón makes full use of expressionist shadows, of angles that emphasise a lack of future,  the result of a shadowy and criminal past; note too the music, the rythms of the shots, the highly stylised dialogue and the consistent use of symbols and metaphors. A more considered response will follow if time permits. But in the meantime, have a look for yourself. The first, in slight blurrovision, is from La otra; the second is a much higher quality clip of the great ending of La Diosa arrodillada, filmed the year after.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 79 – The First Purge

first purge poster

Low-budget, unexceptionally made, and absolutely vital. The First Purge takes the story of the Purge series back to the beginning, with a poor community composed of people of colour being savagely experimented upon for political purposes. Mike slightly had to drag José to see it, as it was showing only in single late-night screenings, but both were glad he did, as it’s perhaps the most direct and powerful critique of white hegemony that popular cinema has offered in recent memory.

We examine the imagery of the deliberate terrorisation of black communities in the USA. It draws on real-life attacks on black churches, Ku Klux Klan members wielding guns in pick-up trucks, and the resurgence of Nazis – one image of a blackface mask being removed to reveal an Aryan stereotype is particularly poetic. Mike finds that the film protects the white audience from their own complicity in the inequality portrayed, but it’s only a nuance, and as José says, we should be so lucky to have such flaws in most films! And José explains why films of this sort come along so rarely. (It’s not about risk. It’s about power.)

There’s simply so much food for thought and we urge you to see it.

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.

Mesalina/ Messaline/ The Affairs of Mesalina (Carmine Gallone, Italy/France/Spain, 1951)

 

messaline

So far I’ve seen María Félix as an actress only stage so she can charge more for her favours, as Lady Lucifer, as goddess on her knees, and as someone who only God can judge and may God forgive her. It’s almost inevitable that she should play Mesalina, who neither asks for nor seeks the forgiveness of any God.

She’s got Emperor Claudius (Memo Benassi) wrapped around her little finger and is already bankrupting Rome with her demands for jewels as the film begins. Claudius is too old and too busy, however. And she’s lonely. So she takes on a series of young, handsome lovers and, when she tires of them, she has them killed. She also has them killed if they gossip too loudly about their trysts with her. In fact, she has no compunction about killing anyone who gets in her way or is the least bit inconvenient.

She’s scared of death, but only when it comes to her own. In what must have been a very daring sequence for its time, Mesalina in blonde wig slinks off at night to a seedy brothel to satisfy her lust with as many men as she likes and, after she’s done, quickly stabs to death the poor prostitute who happened to recognise her. The combination of sex and death is luridly highlighted.

One wonders how they got this through the censors. But then, director Carmine Gallone was expert at doing just that. He’s started off making films in 1914. He was one of the leading directors during Mussolini’s dictatorship (Scipione l’Africano, 1937) and was famous for his epics (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1926). He was often compared to De Mille, and one can understand why: this has exciting scenes with hordes of men riding two horses standing, fights to death, Christians being thrown to the lions, Nubian slaves whipping dancing girls. It’s all redeemed in a sub-plot with two young lovers (Erno Crisa as Timo; Delia Scala as Cinzia) by highlighting the power of love and the power of faith (she chases after her lover into the arena and prevents him from being eaten by lions by praying to Christ, see below).

All of the religiosity is an alibi for the violence; and the violence and spectacle is all a setting for Mesalina’s wickedness. She’s got power, jewels, and as much sex as she wants. Her weakness is that she wants to be loved. Her choice is Caio Silvio; and as played by the very handsome George Marchal, one can understand why. But it’s a mistake. She had his best friend Valerio (Jean Chevrier) sentenced to death. While he’s heading a plot to depose her; she’s plotting to marry him and kill her husband so that they can rule together.

It’s all very sensationalistic and very entertaining, a tabloid rendering of the wickedness of Rome. Whilst watching it, I thought how can a film look both expensive and cheap. There are enormous sets, thousands of extras, but then all the little details seem wrong, like they haven’t taken proper care. There’s a ballet scene where the two dancers dancing with Cinzia keep going in and out of the frame, like director and dancers just got it wrong and couldn’t be bothered to correct it.

In the scene above Caius is forced to submit to Mesalina’s request to see him. She’s just had the friend he loved sentenced to death, though she made herself seem generous, in allowing him to choose the form, an opportunity to show us a beautiful women opening Valeria’s veins whilst he lounges in a chaisse longue. Caius accuses Mesalina of doing it only because she covets Valerio’s house and gardens. She admits it. She can’t help it if she loves pleasure. She’s doomed not to be loved and it’s her only compensation. But what if he loved her, he asks. Then the Emperor’s days would be numbered, she replies. She looks at the window comments on the beauty of the night, the smoke on the horizon, and the lovely smell of Spring. He tells her it’s from Valerio’s funeral pyre. He’s so enraged, he tries to strangle her. Her last reply is that she will get her torturers to make him scream with love. It’s that kind of film.

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 08.57.14

As you can see from the clip. It’s not very imaginatively shot. Also, whilst María Felix is beautifully lit in close-up (see above), there’s a lot less care in medium and long-shot (as you can see from the clip). She looks a bit hard in certain sequences. And certainly the character as written does not arouse empathy, understanding, or identification, like the Mexican films do, even when showing Félix at her most wicked. Mesalina is there to excite and to be judged, by the film and by men.

The DVD I saw it from has both Italian and Spanish versions. And though I expected the film to be dubbed in Italian, it was disconcerting to see María Felix dubbed in Spanish. One misses her distinctive soft cadences, the lack of which might also add to the impression of hardness in the characterisation. Still, the film was a big success in Italy, increased her international stardom, and paved the way for her filmmaking in France. She remains the main, if not the only, reason to see Messaline/ Mesalina/ The Affairs of Mesalina. 

José Arroyo

The Panama Paradise sequence from ‘La Diosa arrodillada’

Dear Mexico, you have such great cinema. Why keep it a secret? Please sub-title your great films of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and let the whole world know it. The clip above is part of the great Panama Paradise sequence in La Diosa arrodillada. The songs are by Augustín Lara, Félix’s husband then and one of the great songwriters of the Spanish-speaking world: ‘ser soltera es lo que yo prefiero; para mi, para ti, para usted es mejor olvidarse del amor‘. Like my friend Ginette said of Brigitte Bardot, María Felix ‘chante comme une casserole’, ma qua importa. She’s great. Arturo de Cordova is the man with the empty bottle who she’s causing to suffer.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 78 – Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-man

The sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man maintains that film’s lightness of tone, happily comic sensibility, and fabulously enjoyable visual effects. So often today we take exceptional effects work for granted but the conceptualisation and realisation of the images in Ant-Man and the Wasp make you notice, make you remark upon them. We had a great time.

We find room for nitpicks, of course, with José expressing irritation with Ant-Man’s malfunctioning suit and Mike finding the quantum realm too vague to provide real jeopardy, but our quibbles are minor. It’s a lovely film, it got big laughs from the audience, and even gasps at one notable point. You should see it!

The podcast can be listened to in the soundcloud player above, youtube (below) or on iTunes.

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

Mi último tango/ My Last Tango (Luis César Amadori, Spain, 1960)

mi ultimo tano

In the post-war period there were a hand-full of European stars who enjoyed international stardom without recourse to Hollywood: Bardot, Mastroianni, Dirk Bogarde, María Félix, a few others. Sara Montiel was one of those stars. Her films were popular all over Latin America, most of Europe and even in the Middle East. They were so successful, and there was such a demand for them, that the release of Mi último tango had to be delayed so that her previous film, Carmen la de Ronda/ A Girl Aginst Napoleon (Tulio Demichelli, 1959), could enjoy its full run.

Aside from her work in Spain, Montiel had starred in popular films in Mexico, such as Necesito dinero (1952) and Piel Canela (1953).  She’d also been in popular Hollywood films such as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper (1954). But after the extraordinary international success of El ultimo cuplé she is reported to have said, ‘why should I return to Hollywood to play Indians’. Her accent and perhaps also her skin colour limited the roles she was offered. Thus even though she was married to Anthony Mann, one of the best and most successful Hollywood directors of the period, she never made a film in Hollywood again.

Instead, she chose to make films like Mi último tango, light musical comedies, with a loose structure in which to hang some musical numbers, with Sara modelling an endless array of glamorous ‘looks’ (see below,) and co-starring a European or Latin American star, really only there to fall in love with her, watch her triumph marry her at the end, and help with the distribution in at least his country of origin. Here it’s Maurice Ronet (see above), fresh from his triumph in Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold/ Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and René Clément’s Plein Soleil/ Purple Noon

 

I’ve chosen to put examples of each of Montiel’s many ‘looks’ in the film, and by this I mean not only dresses (by Humberto Cornejo and Rafael Ballester) but also hair-dos (Carmen Sánchez), make-up (Carmen Marin), jewels, accoutrements such as boas and hats, etc, because they not only help tell the story — very evident when, as above, one shows them in chronological order — but also because appreciating and discussing these looks was one of the great pleasures of watching these films for filmgoers of the era.

The plot is a ludicrous one, Montiel is Marta Andreu, the daughter of an impresario that unsuccessfully tours opera across the provinces, where no one wants to see it. They go broke and Marta gets a job as a maid to a temperamental star, Luisa Marivel (Laura Granados). One day the star is so nervous –her impresario doesn’t want to buy her a house — that she loses her voice on stage, and Marta has to sing her song offstage whilst the star mimes, just like Debbie Reynolds in Singin in the Rain. Miravel decides to take Marta and her aunt (Isabel Garcés) to Buenos Aires, where she’s got an engagement. But the impresario buys her the house and she decides to stay but informs her maid that no one must know she’s not on the ship as that will affect the outcome of the lawsuits to come. Thus Marta impersonates Marivel, enjoys enormous success, and renews her acquaintance with Dario Ledesma (Ronet), who falls for her but can’t marry her because he feels obliged to a young woman who’s in a wheel chair. Just as he’s resolved that problem and is about to propose to Marta, she goes blind in a fire after her last triumphant performance in Buenos Aires. She refuses his proposal, fearing its due to pity, and not wanting to limit his future happiness. But he will get her cured and all will be well. It’s all nonsense really, merely an excuse to hang the songs, in this case some of the most famous tangos in the history of popular song; even Gardel makes an appearance, with Milo Quesada miming to Gardel’s records.

I here want to highlight only three things from the movie. One is simply the ‘maniquí’ number which you can see below.

I post this for its reference to Singin in the Rain and for its subsequent deployment in Almodóvar’s La mala educación (1999), which you can see below:

I also want to highlight Montiel’s singing of Gardel’s great ‘Yira, yira’ because the number is done in drag with Montiel’s wearing a man’s suit. At the end she takes her hat off to reveal her flowing hair, thus ‘normalising’ her gender, she’s now a woman again. This might not seem like very much but it was considered very transgressive at the time, when, as Montiel writes in her autobiography, Vivir es un placer, ‘the censors prevented me from even showing leg above the knee’ (p.357) and wearing men’s suits in public was considered scandalous. Its worth noting that all the great stars of these years who became gay icons dragged up in men’s clothes in some of their most famous films (Dietrich in Morocco, Garbo in Queen Christina, Davis in The Great Lie, Garland in various numbers including one of her most famous, Get Happy, etc.

Lastly, I want to point to possible borrowings and influences. I’ve already mentioned Singin’ in the Rain (and you can see it in the ‘maniqui’ number above) but there’s also the scene at the train station, very reminiscent of Crawford’s great moment of longing in Possessed (see images below)

And lastly, a bit of a joke but who knows? Sara Montiel wore it earlier and wore it better:

Mi último is very light fare, occasionally campy and ludicrous but also very glamorous and with a great score that offers Sara Montiel the opportunity to sing classic tangos in her own very imitable way and showcases all that audiences then and now love and admire about her to advantage.

Isabel Garcés, a beloved comic actress of the Spanish cinema of this period, with a very distinctive high-pitched yet raspy voice, is delightful as Montiel’s aunt.

José Arroyo

La leona de Castilla/ The Lioness of Castille (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1951)

 

DSC06063.jpgMy recent film viewing has alternated between ‘Golden Age’ Mexican Cinema of the 40s and 50s and Spanish films of the same period. The contrast has proved illuminating; both often figure a historical setting, both often feature strong women in adverse circumstances, both often feature high production values. But whereas the Mexican films open up many ways of being and understanding, the Spanish ones are rigid and hierarchical. The Church is all; then men, who have to know how to be ‘real’ men; then women, who can only take action if the men are out of the way or too young to act on their own; promises must be kept, honour must be maintained, parents have to be obeyed, the social order has to be followed, everything is clear and every infringement noted and commonly understood. The narrowness of the world view is asphyxiating, particularly in a film, which is, after all, about revolt.

DSC06066.jpgIn La leona de Castilla, Amparo Rivelles, arguably the biggest female star of the 40s and 50s in Spain until overtaken by Aurora Bautista,  plays María Pacheco, the widow of Juan de Padilla, Lord of Toledo. He’s in revolt against Charles 1st of Spain and, as Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire. The Revolt of the Comuneros was Castille’s attempt to maintain traditional rights and liberties against its incorporation into Charles’ Europe-wideEmpire. Some historians see it as one of the first revolutions because of its basis on ideas of democracy and freedom. Others merely see it as a rebellion against high taxes and foreign rule. The film doesn’t focus much on either aspect. What we see is a wife seeing her husband beheaded for what she sees as his heroic actions and vowing to continue them at all cost. In the process, she bonds with the Duke of Medina Sidonia (Virgilio Texeira) who shares her concept of honour and nobility. Manuel Luna plays Ramiro, the double-crossing assistant who’s secretly in love with her but who will betray them both. She loses her husband at the beginning and her son at the end. Alone, she rides into exile, where she will die and where the Duke of Medina Sidonia will build her a mausoleum, the ruins of which are shown under the film’s opening voice-over.

Spain made a whole series of expensive historical films between 1943-1954, many of them successful. While Spain was isolated internationally, its cinema featured the glories of its history and its empire: It’s not unlike Brexit British Cinema now. Whilst most of the country suffered from food shortages and many experienced hunger, the screen was all noble lords and ladies doing noble things for the good of the Fatherland; whilst women in the audience had been denied rights previously held (divorce, abortion) and were de-facto legally placed under the rule of their fathers or husbands (lucky widows!), women on screen were strong, brave, daring. It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore.

DSC06071.jpg
From the distributor’s handbook to the film designed for its premiere in 1951

Juan de Orduña directed five of the most successful of these historical films from 1948 to 1951, including La Leona de Castilla. The four others are Locura de amor (1948) Pequeñeces/ Trifles (1950), Augustina de Aragon (1950) and Alba de America (1951). These are landmark films, popular successes that also enjoyed the regime’s support, grandly produced (at least in a national context); and their combination of melodrama and history, stars and spectacle, also helped open up other markets to Spanish Cinema, particularly in Latin America, .  They are essential to an understanding of Franquist culture and Spanish cinematic culture of the era.

DSC06075.jpg
From the film’s premiere on the 28th of May, at Madrid’s Rialto Cinema.

But are they good? Juan de Orduña is a very good director; he knows how to move the camera for dramatic effect; how to let images carry much of the story-telling, and how to move the story along whilst keeping the eyes and ears engaged and entertained. He knows how to film action also and how to interweave this type of narrative with spectacle, action and jokes. The films are beautifully designed, this one by Sigfredo Burman, a German who emigrated to Spain in 1939 and wound up designing many of CIFESA’s leading films. But it’s significant that even the book part of the handsomely-produced ‘video-book’ from which I saw the film, and from which many of these illustrations are taken, highlights the cost of the film, the splendour of the the costumes and designs, and the film’s popular success (it ran for 63 days at the Rialto Cinema in Madrid alone, a huge success in those days). The only negative it brings up is Amparo Rivelles’ theatrical performance, which I agree with, though she’s still very watchable. It’s significant that its achievements as cinema are not discussed.

DSC06065.jpg
Sigfredo Burman’s designs for the film

For cinephiles who have no particular interest in Spanish culture in general or the history of Spanish cinema in particular, this is a film that will entertain and bring up interesting questions about Franquist ideology. But it’s neither a leading example of film art nor will it contribute to your understanding of what that might be.

José Arroyo

La Escondida (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1956)

la-escondida-mexican-movie-poster-md

Watching films from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, I’m constantly amazed by the  beauty of the people and the landscape, the siding with the poor against the rich, the stark dramatisation of the levels of injustice with all that natural beauty as a background. La Escondida, also known as The Hidden One in English, is no exception.

Here the story revolves around a rural couple, Gabriela (María Félix) and Felipe (Pedro Armendáriz), madly in love, but oppressed by poverty and the injustices of a society in which the local landowner has complete power over them. She makes a living selling water to passing trains and makes full use of her extraordinary beauty in doing so. The local women resent her for this to the point of stoning her. He’s a revolutionary, waiting for the right moment to take up arms. She’s burning with love for him and wants to get married right away because she’s superstitious something will happen to separate them and fears once they’re separated they’ll lose each other. He and his father finally agree to the marriage –she’ll move in with the family and they’ll somehow manage feeding one extra person —  when he’s sent on a mission. She steals some money from the company shop to go with him. She’s not seen but the shop manager wants sex with her in exchange for his silence as she’s the only one who could have done it. She refuses and is on her way to jail when he sees them and takes the blame. She pleads to reduce his sentence and he ‘only’ gets sent into the army instead. When he returns, as a Lieutenant, he finds first that she’s gone, and later, that she’s become the Governor’s posh mistress who has to be kept hidden  to keep up appearances, thus the film’s title.

The film’s sense of history and its politics are clearly articulated in the opening titles: ‘Opression and tyranny stung the Mexican people. Vassalage was most evident in those large estates, haciendas and villages that still did not figure in the map of reason and human rights. The stoic and submissive peons bit their tongue in silence over the ignominy, accumulating beatings and opprobrium from the privilege caste. Suddenly, the longing for liberty thundered through all parts of the Republic. the clamour for social justice rose as one shout over the hills and valleys until reaching even the most distant sierras where rose legions of the brave, the ignored peasantry whose blood fertilised the plains of the north and watered the exuberant lands of the south. There surged the Caudillos, rough men, obscure and humble, giants of liberty, in whose blood was forged the structure of a new Homeland, of a strong and fertile Mexico, vigorous and progressive. This is a dramatic episode of that turbulent and confused time. The story of a love swept up and battered by the whirlwind of the Revolution.’

There is much to admire: the formal beauty, the framing of landscape, of trains going through it, of the armies and shoot-outs. Figueroa, who worked with Ford in The Fugitive (1947), is here, with Gavaldon, Ford’s equal in making landscape shots expressive of feeling. And the film is a high-budget one with great production values so Gavaldón has the means necessary to achieve the effects he desires to express.  I also love the film’s narrative economy, one often characteristic of a genre which is mainly discussed in terms of excess. See in the extracts below how the train goes in one direction to take Felipe to serve his sentence, and the same train tracks simply move in the opposite direction to almost instantaneously return him to his village.

 

In the same clip, now above, I love the moment where she’s holding his hand, crying. He asks her, ‘what if I don’t return?’ and she says, ‘I’ll kill myself if you want to. I can throw myself right here on the tracks so you no longer have to worry about me’.’Wait for me,’ he responds, as the speed of the train overtakes her, and she falls to the floor sobbing. The beauty of the composition, the landscape, the rhythm of the movement of the train is a setting for feeling; like the background rhythm in a song  that is  a setting for the high notes and gives them meaning.

In a beautifully written piece on Gavaldón for Senses of Cinema, David Melville-Wingrove writes: ‘ it is natural that most of Gavaldón’s films have absurdly melodramatic plots, extravagant and larger-than-life star performances, feverish and hyperbolic mise-en-scène and thunderous and over-the-top musical scores. We should remember that film melodrama – much like bel canto opera or classical ballet – is a stylised, not a realistic, art form. Watching La escondida/The Hidden One (1956), some will complain that María Félix at 40 looks far too old and too glamorous to play an 18-year-old peasant. That is as absurd as carping that Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake does not look like an actual swan’.

 

 

The film contains a pictorial hommage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I loved the framing of the love story amidst revolution but Gavaldón’s style of filmmaking is the opposite of the Russian director’s. Here the focus is not on structures or the intellectual montages designed to express movements in history but on the effects of these revolutionary events on the things poor people value in life: love, family, food. As you can see above one of the film’s title’s was La Passionaria, after the famed Spanish revolutionary of the Spanish Civil War. But Gabriela is nothing like her. In fact, part of the film’s success is in how it makes us understand why Gabriela wants something better for herself. The women in town are jealous, the men are after her, both brutalise her in different ways; she’s waited a long time to marry and has tried everything to be with him. We understand why she wants the good things in life and what she’s done to get them. But we also understand her love for Felipe.

It’s what melodrama does, it makes us side with the powerless and downtrodden by almost musically constructing a world of feeling in which the injustices of the world are made plain and people’s transgressions made understandable. And not just through music, although Cuco Sánchez’s songs are great — but through the deployment of mise-en-scéne. In this sense the film works though it’s far from Gavaldón’s best — I haven’t seen many but I already like Camelia more.

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 11.18.15.pngThere are a few reservations things worth noting. Arméndariz an Félix are one of the great partnerships in screen history (as are Arméndariz and Dolores del Río) but they aged at different speeds. Here he’s filled out, looks old and a bit haggard. She looks thinner than her younger self and her face looks different, just as beautiful and not the least bit older. She’s filmed with such care there are moments that are moments in which she exemplifies everything Hollywood divas are accused of. See the picture above, she’s just been brutalised, her dress half torn off, her body wounded….but look at her. Lastly, I bought the video on the ‘Naimara’ edition, the only one available, and it made me regret not simply seeing the film on You Tube. The Eastmancolour has faded in this print, and some scenes are so dark, they’re almost in the  blurrovision often characteristic of films on youtube. I wish there were a better print of this available.

La Escondida is not a great film. But it is a good one by one of the great directors of melodrama with some of the greatest stars in film history in fine form; its worth seeing for that, even in blurrovision.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Pequeñeces (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1950)

download-1

Pequeñeces/ Trifles is one of the super-productions of Cifesa, arguably the most important studio in Spain during the Franco era, and certainly the one that best toed the party line and reflected its ideology. It’s got a sparkly star cast — Aurora Bautista, Jorge Mistral, an early but important appearance by Sara Montiel — and high production values. The director is Juan de Orduña, one of the era’s better and more successful ones.

It’s a period piece set in the era when Amadeo de Saboya temporarily took over the throne in 1870-1873 from Queen Isabella II, after she was forced to abdicate and before her son Alfonso XII took over the throne. The narrative revolves around the rich and powerful Curra (Aurora Bautista), the Countess of Albornoz and how her intrigues at court and in her love life lead her to neglect her child. She’s wilful, selfish, accustomed to getting her own way; proud and certain that her social position means that she can get around all the laws of men. Which she manages to do for quite a while, carrying on an affair with the handsome and trecherous Marquess de Sabadell (Jorge Mistral) right under her husband’s nose.

Everyone in society knows except the husband — played to great comic effect by Juan Vázquez — who only seems to be interested in his food. They also know that Sabadell is cheating on Curra with Monique, a French courtesan played by Sara Montiel. Sabadell has been selling state papers that don’t belong to him and pays for it with his life, rhyming with the death of Curra’s previous lover and secretary at the beginning of the film. It’s a death too much.

As a result of Sabadell’s murder, their affair becomes public knowledge and Curra is socially shunned. Worse, her son hearing the names she’s being called tries to defend her, even though he chose to leave home and go to a religious school because he caught his mother in flagrante with her lover, and in doing so drowns both himself and Sabadell’s son. But no matter, the boy speaks to the mother from heaven and lets her know his death is an opportunity for her to redeem herself and become the good person he’s always known she is. That religiosity — I’m not sure if it’s a false one since the film is an adaptation of a book written by a Jesuit — is the alibi for all the racy elements in the film. It’s a bit C.B. De Mille-ish. You can show all the sexyness and excitement so long as you moralise about how wrong it all is. Wish it were more exciting here. It would make it easier to bear all the sermonising priests and angelic children.

José Luis Tellez in his excellent piece on the film in Antología Crítica del Cine Español has called Pequeñeces an ‘unquestionable masterpiece and an exemplary melodrama’. I don’t see it. I hate this movie. I hate the hypocritical religiosity; the sentimentality over children, the choppyness of a narrative which has to rely on voice-over, letters, sermons, and even a voice from beyond the grave; and most of all I hate Aurora Bautista’s performance. She’s the Greer Garson of Spanish cinema in this period, lady-like, heroic, important, without an ounce of humour about herself, not the least sexy, and yet theatrically ‘expert’, which means she hits all the right notes whilst never being believable. Everything she does grates.

It was one of the most expensive films of the period, a super-production costing four million pesetas, forty prints were struck so that it could premiere simultaneously across Spain, and it was a hit at the box office, running continuously in one Madrid theatre for 107 days. The message is that what one might see as mere trifles might have a great effect on society and on one’s children. Yawn.

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 14.07.37.png

For me, if you’re not an afficionado of Franquist Spanish cinema there are only three reasons to see the film:

  1. It does have interesting imagery (see an example above, when the priests at the school are searching for the boys).
  2. There’s an early appearance from a young zaftig young girl in the process of becoming Sara Montiel (see her entrance in the film in the first clip below)
  3. There’s also the only representation of a gay man I know of in this period of Franquist cinema, clearly coded as such. I apologise for not knowing the actor’s name (and perhaps one you can help with this) but he’s Jacobo’s uncle Francisco, and you can see Jorge Mistral and he in the second clip posted below

 

José Arroyo

 

 

A quick note on Mommie Dearest

download

Saw Mommie Dearest last night for the first time since it came out. It was at the ‘Shock and Gore’ festival, and great programming on their part. I think Dunaway’s great, though her career never recovered, even though the film was a hit. Everyone, including myself, laughed pretty much throughout, but not without discomfort. Was she stitched up by the director? His incompetence is extraordinary in a studio film. A lot of the laughs happen because the shots are held too long, and the editing is terrible and clichéd throughout. Even the make-up, ostensibly designed to make her like an older Joan Crawford, seems on a big screen like quickly applied Kabuki, or a a clown who ran out of time. The way Steve Forrest says his goodbye to Dunaway has to have been directed; and the line reading are ludicrous.

Contemporary audiences will now compare Faye Dunaway’s performance here to Jessica Lange’s in Feud. I love Lange. And she gave a great performance of some movie star in Ryan Murphy’s series.  But it wasn’t Crawford. And it had nothing like the commitment and intensity Dunaway gives here. It’s too bad the film is so terrible. I think the whole project is an actor’s worst nightmare: Betrayal by director.

Plus, it’s a film about abuse, and most of the laughs happen at the moments when children are most under threat. So whilst seemingly aiming to decry child abuse it does so via abusing its subject and is lead actress, thus giving off a whiff of misoginy. It’s telling that the film ends not on the death of its subject but on the reading of her will. A weird, funny, and troubling experience.

Adam Carver did a great introduction to the event in which I learned that there is a book called The Mommy Dearest Diaries, written by Rutanya Alda, the actress who plays Carol Anne, and ostensibly an exposé of all the on-set shenanigans, and which I will of course order, in spite of feeling that one is just feeding into the exploitativeness of it all.

mommy dearest diary

Mommie Dearest has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of unintentional camp, which is probably right. It’s why we’re still watching it almost forty years after it was first released. But it’s the kind of camp that’s fuelled by mean-ness; a making fun of, a laughing at. One laughs, sometimes heartily,  but also with discomfort and a lingering sadness. At least I do. The film is the height of camp; but also the worst aspect of camp; the meanness and bitterness that comes out of social exclusion; a kind of schadenfreude at the tragedy of life which finds its outlet in laughter.

 

José Arroyo

A note on La fièvre monte à El Pao (Luis Buñuel, France/Mexico, 1959)

la fievre

 

La fièvre monte à El Pao, also released in the US under the title of The Ambitious Ones  and Republic of Sin, was a financial and critical failure no matter what they called it. I like it very much. Upon first viewing I though La fièvre monte à El Pao Buñuel’s most Marxist film. It’s part of the cycle that deal with insurrection and armed struggle against totalitarian regimes in small Latin American countries like Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956) and La mort en ce jardinDeath in the Garden (1956). Raymond Durgnat has called these, along with La fièvre monte à El Pao, Buñuel’s ‘Revolutionary Tryptich’. The Marxism on display here is the existentialist variant articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre after WWII, after Paris was occupied and questions of collaboration, resistance, personal responsibility, individual and collective action against totalitarian regimes became live issues and much discussed, first in secret, and then after the Liberation, in public.

Paris in the Fifites

In the great new book, Paris in the Fifties, Stanley Karnow demonstrates how late in 1945 and alarmed that Sartre was attracting young leftists to his fold, the Communists blasted him, calling existentialism, ‘a rancid, nauseating, decadent anti-Marxist pseudo-philosophy. He replied by excoriating them for their complicity in Stalin’s evil manouvres, and they decried his flirtation with neutralism as naive’ (p.253). In 1949 Sartre’s Les main sales was attacked as an anti-Soviet screed. Three years later Sartre recanted in Les temps modernes: ‘to oppose communism is to oppose the proletariat.’ Albert Camus then reproached Sartre for condoning Stalin’s violation of human rights’ (p.253). Merleau Ponty also attacked Sartre for his support of Russia,(p. 253) ‘If Sartre is so enamoured of the Soviet Union, he should live there rather than manifest his allegiance from the comfort of Saint-Germain-de-Prés’ (p.255). André Malraux scorned all of them because he saw himself as the quintessential homme engagé who’d fought with the Loyalists in Spain, and had been in the middle of action, both armed and diplomatic, in the struggles in Indochina, Berlin and Moscow. Time planned a cover story on him in 1955 and De Gaulle would go on to make him Minister of Culture. The issues that Buñuel deals with in La fièvre monte a El Pao were live ones for all French intellectuals in the immediate post-war period.

IMG_2957.jpg

John Baxter in his great Buñuel (London: Fourth Estate, 1995) calls the film, shot by Gabriel Figueroa, one of Buñuel’s most ‘technically accomplished’ but says the gloss undercuts the film’s moral points and that Buñuel acquiesced to the settings and to ‘Maria Felix’s glamour’. According to Buñuel, ‘there were certain political and social elements I liked in the story but they got lost in the melodrama’ (Baxter, 251). So María Felix and melodrama get the blame for what are seen as the film’s failings, whereas they are actually, at least to me, some of the very considerable pleasures the film now has to offer.

IMG_2960.jpg

In Maria Félix: 47 pasos por el cine, Paco Ignacio Taibo writes of how ,’seen today, the film appears to us as a hole in Buñuel’s oeuvre; even those minimum and curious (or entertaining) touches one sees in his first Mexican films are missing/  visto ahora, el film nos parece como un hueco dentro de la obra total de Buñuel; faltan hasta esos minimos y curiosos (o divertidos) toques que Luis colocaba en sus primeras películas Mexicanas (p. 248).

In the film, Maria Felix plays Inés Rojas, the upper class and worlldy wife of the Governor of the island. She’s already cheating on him as the film begins. Gérard Philippe is Ramón Vázquez, the Governor’s assistant. Ramón is a poor scholarship boy, seeking to do the right thing, but having to do so on the sly, careful to maintain his position. He’s collaborating to a degree but trying to do some good within the system. He tries to see that the law is interpreted in the light of justice, and that is helpful, even in a totalitarian state where the law is against the people and can be changed at a despot’s whim. Eventually of course, Inés and Ramón get together; love is pitted against power, and Buñuel dramatises how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 

I’ve been writing much more tan I intended here. My first intention was to get people to look at the clip above from the beginning of the film. It’s so beautifully done, with Gérard Phillipe appearing to be reflected on a mirror amidst the adulterous pair but the mirror actually turning out to be a window. Dramatically, the film shows us Ramón’s vulnerability as even coming onto something like this by accident could put such a lowly civil servant as he in danger.

I had originally just wanted to put the clip above so as to admire the way Félix talks, moves, walks, and particularly her choice of facial gestures in relation to camera movement. She’s not only a woman used to being looked at and admired, very aware of the power of her beauty. but she also uses that beauty like a silent film actress, acting more often towards the camera than towards the other actor in the scene. She’s there to be looked at and the choice of dress, jewels and hair-style are there so that the audience can look and admire what they are seeing. But she’s also there to convey that character, and she does so with economy, sureness, grace, and technical know-how. She’s both in and out of character. Always María Félix but also and simultaneously a character out of Shakespeare, Lady McBeth maybe. She’s extraordinary to look at. And so is the film; though I’ll have to elaborate more fully how that is so in another post.

 

José Arroyo

Some not un-camp María Félix moment from Renoir’s French Can-Can

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 17.33.33.pngFrench Can-Can is one of the glories of cinema. I love so much about it: Gabin’s dancing at the beginning and the way he sways to the music and offers a little twirl of his leg at the end; the vibrancy of the colour; the way so many scenes seem like either a Toulouse-Lautrec poster or a French post-impressionist paintings come to life; the ‘La complainte de la butte’ song; Edith Piaf’s cameo; the way  Montmartre seems constantly under construction like a metaphor for modernism encased in the Can-Can of the Belle Epoque; the way the baker boy cries after making love with Ninni; its wise and understanding heart; its generous attitude to sex; and oh so much more. But I’m now in the midst of a María Félix obsession so I just want to focus here on the way Renoir makes such excellent use of her beauty, her height, and her imperiousness. I was initially distraught at her first appearance. Surely, Renoir is too open and intelligent to diminish La Doña to some mere hot tamale belly dancer? He is. He dresses her beautifully, gives her a larger than life character to play, and gives her enough passion, jealousy, and moments of temperament to bring humour and play into the film’s themes and tone. IN the film she starts at La Belle Abesse, ends up as an Empress, and constantly makes a fool of herself over a man without once losing her dignity. She’s quite something to see. Here are some of her best, and not un-camp moments, in the film.

 

 

 

Que Dios me perdone/ May God Forgive Me (Tito Davison, Mexico, 1948)

que dios me perdone

I’m beginning to realise three things in watching these glamorous María Félix Mexican films from the 1940s: a) they’re almost an essential alternation with the great films about Mexico, Mexican culture and national identity that she filmed with Emilio Fernández: Enamorada (1946), Rio Escondido (1948), Maclovia (1948), Salón México (1949); b) that they’re a pastiche of the the famous Hollywood movies, may of them ‘women’s’ films,  of the period which precedes them, mainly the period of WWII and its immediate aftermath. Here we see traces of Casablanca (1942), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Notorious (1946), and the epigrammatic dialogue and high-cultural aspirations of Joan Crawford vehicles such as Humoresque (1946). c) that God is a wonderful alibi for the most dastardly deeds, for as we’re told at the ending of Que Dios me perdone/ May God Forgive Me, only God can judge; and he’s so understanding, particularly to mothers prepared to do anything for their children.

In Que Dios me perdone/ May God Forgive Me, the setting is a Mexico City undergoing a wave of cosmopolitanism as rich refugees from a Europe at war wash up on the shores of ‘one of the last paradises on earth’. The voice-over narration informs us the story we’re about to see is a mixture of realism and fiction so as to give greater depth to the complexities of the human heart and the passions it gives rise to.

The film begins in a nightclub where Don Esteban Velasco, a rich industrialist in the habit of gifting his conquests with expensive diamond bracelets, meets Lena (after Marlene?) Kovach. She quickly puts him in his place. She’s not one of ‘those’ easy foreign refugees who’ll sell herself for papers, passports or visas. But later, at a nightclub where she sings, it turns out that she might be. She quickly agrees to marry him so long as he doesn’t insist she love him. They begin a happy life with his daughter, admiring Chopin on the radio in their art-filled flat. But things are not as they seem. Lena is a spy who’s had many previous identities. She’d been coerced into becoming one to save a daughter who’s in a concentration camp in Europe. Her husband’s secretary, Ernesto Serrano (Tito Junco), is stealing from him. ‘He can only speak in ironic phrases’, says Doctor Mario Cólina Vazquez (Julián Soler) of Ernesto, ‘Sometimes we don’t know how to express our feelings. That’s why we make fun of them’.

Her husband’s in love with her and she respects him but she gets embroiled in a plot to sell off the diamond bracelet he’s giving her so that she might get her daughter out of the concentration camp. The husband’s discovered a lot of money missing. The finger points to Ernesto, who plans to kill him whilst sailing in a lake just like in Leave Her to Heaven. 

There’s a wonderful scene (above) where Ernesto has discovered that she’s tried to sell off her husband’s wedding gift, the expensive bracelet, and the receipt of its purchase, and returns them to her. She knows this has a price and asks how much. He tells her the price of his silence is not money. And then there’s the wonderful moment where she slaps him on both cheeks before telling him to ‘take his fee’. They embrace and the film fades out. It’s fantastic.

Ernesto coerces Lena to agree to drug her husband’s wine so that he may throw him overboard and kill him. She tries to save him at the last minute but can’t. It turns out that Doctor Mario has filmed the murder, which in some ways exonerates her. It turns out her daughter died in the concentration camp after all and all her transgressions were for naught. She goes, beautifully dressed in mink, to jump off a bridge but a bell from the nearby church rings and she remembers that only God can judge her, and may God forgive her. In the meantime, she’s got money now and, though she couldn’t help her own child, she can help some of the many other children in need.

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 12.05.48.png
Saved by the bell, in mink.

In this kind of film, the plot is a pretext. What matters is that the star look beautiful, that she wear beautiful clothes and jewels and that these all be highlighted by the camera, which this film certainly does. It helps if there’s a song, and the eponymous ‘Que Dios Me Perdone’ is a great one, utilised both in Lena’s nightclub scene at the beginning, and then after the boat begins to sink after the murder of her husband.

Félix is a wonder of nature and of cinema and the main reason to see May God Forgive Me. Cheap trash. But also glamorous and great fun.

 

José Arroyo

La mujer de todos (Julio Bracho, Mexico, 1946)

A poorly directed vehicle for María Félix worth seeing for the magnificent start entrance excerpted below. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, a little bit of context: In Madrid in 1910, during the time of Carnaval, a Mexican Colonel, Juan Antonio Cañedo (Alberto Galán), offers a dinner to his lover María Romano (Félix). On their way to their table and surrounded by friends, Carlos (Ernesto Alonso), a young man in love with her yells to her in public:

Carlos: ‘My father knows everything and I’m lost. I don’t know what to do’

María: ‘Return home and seek forgiveness’

‘I don’t know how’

‘Learn’

‘And our love? María, I can hardly believe you’re at this dinner.’

‘Learn also to forget’

‘Is that all you have to tell me?’

‘What else could I tell you?’

‘A word to help me live’

‘Forget me/Olvidame’ (it’s one word in Spanish).

It’s a magnificent entrance for a magnificent star, beautifully dressed and photographed. The young man shoots her in the back but misses. She tries to save his honour by pretending it was all a prank and the gun was not loaded. Her other admirers choose to believe her. But a gunshot indicates the gun had enough bullets for Carlos to shoot himself. As you can see below the scene is fabulously conceptualised –and Felix plus the way she’s dressed and filmed renders it superb — but it’s not very well directed; and sadly this will be true for the rest of the film.

In the story, Maria follows the Colonel to Mexico where he has a wife, a niece and a secret bastard step-brother. He sets her up in a magnificent house, with magnificent clothes and magnificent jewels. But the stepbrother Capitán Jorge Serralde (Amando Calvo) happens on her by accident and falls in love with her. She plays along, pretending she’s free but in doing so falls in love with him. One night at the opera, both brothers will end up in her box and the truth will be revealed. The scene at the opera is reminiscent of the opening of Cukor’s Camille. One of the things I’ve been learning by watching these Félix films so close together is how often they were inspired by Hollywood, the elements from Dark Victory in Camelia; the influence of Mildred Pierce on Doña Diabla; and here, as you can see below, Camille.

One of the things one notices in watching these Mexican films, is that the best are as good as anything. But when they’re not quite top notch, one also notices that the sets, grand as they are meant to be, are done on the cheap. If you compare the clip above to the clip below, note the variety of angles, the numbers of extras, the use of music etc. in the Cukor clip. Aside from being great, it’s sumptuously produced in a way that would have been out of reach for La mujer de todos. It would be too unfair to compare Garbo in arguably her greatest performance to Felix in a by-the-numbers vehicle so let’s just say that both are beautiful, and each as interesting to look at as the other. La mujer de todos, already a piddling effort, would be nothing without Felix.

 

At the end of the film, the half-brothers duel it out. As she looks out the window, María sees they’ve both survived. One looks at her with triumph, the other with disdain. In voice-over she reads us the letter saying she’s leaving the older brother and acknowledging the younger one, whom she’d renounced everything for, was the only man she’d ever loved. The brothers end up in their cosy male privilege. A moving train indicates that she’s on to other pastures, perhaps out of the country itself.

One of the many fascinating things about these films is how often women are put on trial  — metaphorically but sometimes literally also — for being women; how the limits of what is socially permissible for women are clearly delineated, often by other women. The films are all about transgressing those limits: Camelia, like María here, is a courtesan. But it is only exceptional women who can transgress and even so, as many of these Felix films show us, they are punished in spite of all their self-sacrifice, all of the goodness these foolish men fail time and time again to recognise. Luckily Félix’s women are strong an smart as well as beautiful and can usually survive the judgment, restrictions and lack of understanding of the very limited men life throws  their way.

 

La mujer de todos is a bad film that offers great pleasures. Felix’s star entrance; the clothes, hats and jewels. The focus on female desire. It’s addressed primarily to women but I think also makes some kind of nod, perhaps unconsciously to a gay male audience. See the clip above as an example. Look at how the shot begins at the gym, with nude male torsos, then the focus on the gymnast. What’s the point of this narratively? I can’t find any other than that it’s fun for men like me to look at,

 

José Arroyo