Film

Anna Boleyn (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1920)

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A disappointment. Until now, all Lubitsch films I’ve seen have been ones  I can imagine non-specialist audiences delighting in today. Anna Boleyn is of obvious historical interest — the most expensive film made in Germany to that point, thousands of Berliners worked on it, the President of the Weimar Republic visited the set sparking off riots amongst the extras, etc. I can’t imagine admirers of Lubitsch or of Weimar Cinema or of Silent Cinema NOT wanting to see Anna Boleyn. The story is a legendary historical tragedy so famous everyone’s familiar with the bare outline of it: Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) rejects his wife and his religion for Anne Boleyn (Henny Porten) but eventually sends her to the scaffold when she can’t produce what he wants, a male heir.

Henny Porten and Emil Jannings
Henny Porten and Emil Jannings

Anna Boleyn is an attempt by Lubitsch and his producers to repeat the success of Madame DuBarry (re-titled Passion in the US). Lotte Eisner historically situates both films as part of the Kostümfilme cycle, a ‘flood of historical films that swamped German cinema from 1919 to 1923-24’, which she damns as characterized by a ‘rather superficial treatment of certain purely exterior elements’ and sees as ‘an expression of the escapism of a poverty-stricken, disappointed nation which, moreover, had always been fond of the glitter of parades’[i].

No expense was spared
No expense was spared to show the glitter of parades

No expense was spared in the making of Anna Boleyn. According to the Lichtbild-Bühne in 1920, ‘‘The buildings alone gave employment to 14 site foremen, 200 carpenters, 400 plasterers, sculptors, etc. The historically accurate copy of Westminster Abbey required 380 sculptures, while 500 horses and 4000 riders and spectators were required for the tournament scene. Miss Henny Porten had to have sixteen costumes, and Mr. Jannings ten.’ [1] It’s always a bad sign when producers publicise numbers; as if large numbers of extras and high cost were indexically linked to quality with the publicity magically transubstantiating accounting into aesthetics. No one’s that much of a sucker.

The film certainly looks wonderful and must have seemed an astonishing spectacle in its time: the river barges, the jousting tournament, the weddings and coronations: all look sumptuous. These scenes seem as much of the time they were made in as of the time they portray and picking apart this mix of Weimar Berlin and Tudor England can in itself be a kick for the audience.

The Queen, child and nurse
The Queen in foreground,  nurse in background, child in the middle, almost out of sight

Anna Boleyn boasts a very beautiful Henny Porten – noble, self-sacrificing, loving — and Emil Jannings as Henry VIII. This film helps us understand why Porten was the biggest star of her era in Germany: aside from her beauty, she embodied particular ideals of womanhood: this Anne Boleyn is submissive, loves poetry, rural pleasures, her country and her baby. Her final scene where she goes trembling to her death for the good of her child, her country and the future remains moving and is a powerful ideation of the value of self-sacrifice, probably just the moment before all we’ve since come to know as ‘Weimar Berlin’ would sneer those notions down and jazz them out of view for another generation. We understand too why Jannings was considered the era’s greatest actor; he’s brutish here and with a violent edge but also evoking a sexual danger  I’ve not seen in him previously.

A crowd, framed and given character.
A crowd, framed and given character.

Lubitsch does give character to a crowd. It seems to have a life of its own here, a personality, and one that shows different moods in different scenes; and of course this is an example of how Lubitsch told the of the social through the private, the historical through the personal. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, the production was a great success. It cost around 8 million marks but ‘ticket sales in the US alone, however brought in 200,000 US dollars, almost double those costs.’[2]

Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn, Weimar Germany Tudor England
Lubitsch frames Anna Boleyn; Weimar Germany frames Tudor England

 

This lovely tinted version looks sumptuous and is a real pleasure to watch. But this is the first of Lubitsch’s films that I haven’t wanted to show an excerpt to friends and say, ‘Look at this; isn’t Lubitsch great!’ If he is in this film; it’s in ways that I can’t yet fathom or know how to appreciate.

 

Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.
Jannings is both hammy AND great as Henry VIII.

José Arroyo

 

dying to do the right thing
dying to do the right thing

 

 

[1] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p.92.

 

 

[2] ibid. p. 92

 

[i] Lotte Eisner, ‘Lubitsch and the Costume Drama’, The Haunted Screen, p. 72.

Max Reinhardt and Lubitsch

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Was Max Reinhardt an influence on Lubitsh? Lotte Eisner thought so. In the The Haunted Screen she tells us that Lubitsch was ‘less sensitive to his influence than other German filmmakers’ (p.79) but also notes the Reinhardt influence in ‘the famous square market place around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds in Madame Dubarry, Sumurum and Anna Boleyn. In each of these instances, the imitation of Reinhardt effects is of an almost documentary fidelity’ (p. 76).

It is hard for us now to imagine the significance of Max Reinhardt: he was simply the most celebrated man of the theatre of his day, not only in Germany but internationally. Eisner writes that, ‘we should remember that Max Reindhart from 1907 to 1919 (when the revolution brought  Piscator and his Constructivist theatre to the fore), was a sort of ‘Kaiser’ of the Berlin theatre. He had become so important that in solid middle-class families everybody skipped the newspaper headlines to read Alfred Kerr’s article on the previous night’s performance. Berliners often went to the Reindhardt theatre several times a week, for the programme changed daily’ (p.47).

Morover, ‘the links between Max Reindhardt’s theatre and the German cinema were obvioius as early as 1913, when all the main actors — Wegener, Bassermann, Moissi, Theodor Loos, Winterstein, Veidt, Kraus, Jannings, to mention but a few — came from Reindhardt’s troupe (Eisner, p. 44). Though the second part of the title of Eisner’s book is often elided, it might be worth reminding ourselves  of it here: The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and The Influence of Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch was not an expressionist or at least not much of one (The Doll and other films do show traces). Indeed Tom Tykwer views his later move to Hollywood as a lucky escape from Expresssionism.  But Lubitsch did not avoid the influence of Reindhardt nor indeed did he want to. He had a lot to learn; and he learned quickly.

Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.
Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.

Reinhardt was born Max Goldmann on the 9th of September 1873, in Baden, near Vienna. He was the first of a family of six children. An actor since 1890, he directed his first production in 1900, Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy. He becomes director of the Deutsches Theatre and opened his school of acting there in 1905. In 1906 he bought the Deutsches Theater and opened the Kammerspiele next door. The first production there was Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The Theatre as Cathedral of Art
The Theatre as Cathedral of Art

According to J.L. Styan, from 1910-1912, Reinhardt became ‘known throughout Europe. It was Reindhardt’s privilege to put into practice some of the thinking of the “aesthetic drama’” movement which wanted to combine the art of space and light, of music, design and the spoken word, and of acting, mime and dance. His invention of the Regiebuch (on which more later) as a master promptbook was both a monument to his work – and a necessity if that work was to be carried out’. [i]From 1915-1918 he also becomes director of the Volksbühne in the Bülowplatz, Berlin, saving it from possible extinction during the war years. His first production there is Schiller’s The Robbers. Lubitsch became a Reinhardt actor in 1911, at the height of the director’s fame.

Lubitsch's contract with Reinhardt.
Lubitsch’s contract with Reinhardt.

Alfred G. Brooks tell us that Reinhardt’s ‘creative career had spanned the birth and demise, the rejection and acceptance, of the host of forms and movements which sought to provide new perspectives in the visual and performing arts during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Reindhardt influenced playwrights, critics, painters, designers, architects, composers, dancers, actors, directors, and managers. His basically eclectic nature led him to develop an enormous stylistic range which ranged from the studio to the circus, to palaces, vast outdoor arenas, garden theatres, opera houses, small baroque theatres, and cathedral square; all the world was for him a receptive home for theatre. During his lifetime, the vast range of his activities and his widespread influence made him a natural focal point for both admiration and vituperation. Critics and historians who sought neat descriptive labels either described him as a creator of spectacles or attacked him for lack of a clearly identifiable style’[ii].

Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911
Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911

Rudolf Kommer thought Reinhardt a magician of the stage: ‘To be called a magician and to be one are two very different things. If anyone in the realm of the stage deserves this title, however, it is Max Reindhardt of Baden, Vienna, Salzburg, Belin and the world at large’.[iii]Diana Cooper, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, a great beauty and a cornerstone in British cultural life from WW1 right to the 60s, performed in his production of The Miracle in England and the US and her biographer Phillip Ziegler tells us, ‘Diana knew little about Reinhardt, except that he was popularly reputed to be a genius and probably slightly mad… (he lived) in Salzburg (in the) baroque palace of Leopoldskron’.[iv] However, when The Miracle opened in New York , George Jean Nathan, arguably the most influential critic of the day, wrote in The American Mercury, ‘The theatre we have known becomes Lilliputian before such a phenomenon. The church itself becomes puny. No sermon has been sounded from any pulpit one-thousandth so eloquent as that which comes to life in this playhouse transformed into a vast cathedral, under the necromancy that is Reinhardt. For here are hope and pity, charity and compassion, humanity and radiance wrought into an immensely dramatic fibre hung dazzlingly for even a child to see. It is all as simple as the complex fashioned by genius is ever simple’.[v] A mad genius, living in a palace who directed epic theatre on a mass scale in huge theatres and with whom none could compare. That’s who Lubitsch got a contract with in 1911, when he was nineteen, to play small roles.

Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.
Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.

 

Lubitsch had always wanted to be an actor, he loved acting and as is everywhere evident in his films – see To Be Or Not to Be – he loved actors. But Lubitsch was not, as they used to say, exactly an oil painting, and his father tried to discourage him by grabbing his face and pointing it towards a mirror hoping that would bring him to his senses. His mother, who by all accounts ran the family business and the family, supported and encouraged her youngest child. With her help and that of Victor Arnold — a soulful comedian who worked for Reinhardt, gave Lubitsch free lessons and helped get him an audition — Lubitsch finally became a Reinhardt actor in 1911.

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Lubitsch was contracted to play small roles only. Bigger parts were given to stars such as Paul Wegener whom Lubitsch later gave leading roles to in his film. But his parents were delighted because, such was Reinhardt’s reputation, that a contract with Reinhardt, even in small roles, was a signal sign of success. In fact it was an honour so great that that many like Dietrich were late to claim it falsely. Reinhardt is a figure most great émigré directors to Hollywood from the German-speaking world (Preminger, Sirk, Siodmak) had some kind of connection to. With Reindhart, Lubitsch played a variety of roles, Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, the Innkeeper in The Lower Depths. He appeared in the legendary staging of The Robbers and in some of the iconic theatres of his day, The Deutsche Theatre, the Kommerspiele, and later when Reindhart took it over in 1915, the Volksbühne Theatre, barely 200 metres from where he lived.

 

Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.
Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.

Lubitsch was lucky to work with Reinhardt for many reasons but foremost is that Reinhardt, who had started as an actor himself and who, according to Otto Preminger, ‘knew more about actors and about the nature of acting talent, than anybody in the history of the theatre’[vi], also revered actors. In ‘Of Actors’, Reinhardt writes, ‘‘It is to the actor and to no one else that the theatre belongs. When I say this, I do not mean, of course, the professional alone. I mean, first and foremost, the actor as poet. All the great dramatists have been and are to-day born actors, whether or not they have formally adopted this calling, and whatever success they may have had in it. I mean likewise the actor as director, stage-manager, musician, scene-designer, painter, and, certainly not least of all, the actor as spectator. For the contribution of the spectators is almost as important as that o the cast. The audience must take its part in the play if we are ever to see arise a true art of the theatre – the oldest, most powerful, and most immediate of the arts, combining the many in one’[vii] An interesting way of looking at actors but one which would be influential to Lubitsch, particularly in the perception that the audience too was an actor and played a role in the drama.

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Reinhardt was interested in all forms of popular entertainment, not only theatre but vaudeville, musical comedy, mime, and film. Every Reinhardt actor was potentially a film actor and according to Tom Tykwer, the theatre experience with Reindhardt proved a decisive one in shaping Lubitsch. One must not underestimate the extent of this for Lubitsch has historically been credited with developing not only the concepts of kammertheatre and Massentheater but, importantly in relation to Lubitsch, the concept of ‘Regietheatre’ which gave a centrality to the director. Reinhardt was famous for directing spectacles and crowds, skills that would prove handy for Lubitsch’s historical dramas, he revered actors like Lubitsch did but often gave them precise line readings like Lubitsch was to do, but perhaps most importantly is Reindhardt’s precise attention to all elements of mise-en-scène.

From Reinhardt's production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen
From Reinhardt’s production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen

As noted earlier, Reindardt kept a Regiebuch. According to J.L.Styan, the Regiebuch, was ‘a copy of the play interleaved with blank pages. It was a workshop in itself. Prepared in extraordinary detail, and corrected and modified over and over again, it became the indispensable blue print from which many assistants could conduct rehearsals while the master watched over the results. In it he would write down every movement and gesture, every expression and every tone of voice. Diagrams of the stage plan and even three-dimensional sketches of the scene and of its characters would be squeezed into available spaces. Over the years a production lasted, he never finished adding notes in this book, often with pencils and links of different colours’[viii].

Reinhardt's promptbook for Hofmannsthal's Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940
Reinhardt’s promptbook for Hofmannsthal’s Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940

Lubitsch started making films in 1913. He never once performed in a starring role on stage for Reinhardt but continued working for the Reinhardt ensemble in small parts until May 1918. Could there be better training for a director in the making than to be working for ‘the first theatre man in the world’ who worked in a way so interestingly transferable to cinema? ix

compare Reinhardt's Regiebuch to Michael Mann's densely annotated script for Heat.
Compare Reinhardt’s Regiebuch to Michael Mann’s densely annotated script for Heat.

 

José Arroyo

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[i] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, Directors in Perspective Series, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982, p. xv

[ii]Alfred G. Brooks, ‘Foreword’, Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, Edited by George E. Wellwarth and Alfred G. Brooks, Archive/Binghampton, New York, 1973, p. i.

[iii] Rudolf Kommer, ‘The Magician of Leopoldskron’ in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’ ed. by Oliver M. Sayler, trans from the German by Mariele S. Dudernatsch and others, New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1968. First published in 1924. P.1

 

[iv] Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: The Extraordinary Life of the Raffish Legend who Charmed and Inspired a Society Through Two World Wars London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981, pp. 128-130.

[v] Cited in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’, op cit., p. ix.

[vi] Otto Preminer, ‘Otto Preminger: An Interview’ Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit, p.11

[vii] Max Reindhar, ‘Of Actors’ in Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit., p.1.

[viii] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, op. cit., p. 120.

[ix] Sylvia Jukes Morris, Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce New York: Random House, 1997 p. 110

Additional Bibliography

 

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Marx Reinhardt, London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

Jewish Culture as Context for Lubitsch

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In 1992 Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and  Gunter Romesch (owner of the Notausgang cinema, famous for showing To Be or Not to Be continuously for many years)  wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth and decided on a comprehensive retrospective of his films. At the time American Lubitsch was already much appreciated but German Lubitsch remained largely unknown even in Berlin. The retrospective would be an opportunity to gather, get to know and disseminate the German work. They needed, however, something that would propel media interest and help publicise the event. Their first thought was to have the street where Lubitsch was born, originally Lothringer Strasse but renamed Wilhelm Pieck Strasse by the GDR, rechristened once again as Ernst Lubitsch Strasse. But the city of Berlin turned them down in favour of Torstrasse (Gate Street). Tykwer still seems astounded by this refusal.

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François Truffaut famously entitled his appreciation of Lubitsch, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’[i] but we know of more modest beginnings albeit not, as Nicola Lubitsch insistently reminds us, as modest as legend would have it. In Fischer’s Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood we’re told that Lubitsch’s father immigrated to Berlin in the 1870s from Vilnius, in what is now Lithuania but was then Russia, in order to escape the pogroms.

In a short biography of Lubitsch published by Cahier du cinéma in 1985, Hand Helmut Prinzler tells us instead that Lubitsch’s father Ssimcha (Simon) was born in 1852 in Grodno, Russia whilst his mother Anna Lindenstaedt was born in 1850 in Wriezen an der Oder, Germany[ii]. Scott Eyman in Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, concurs with Prinzler and adds that ‘Grodno was largely settled by Jews expelled from Lithuania between 1000 and 15000. It was, in turn, the site of several major pogroms in the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century, Grodno was part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the mandated residence of five million jews’.[iii]

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In Jonathan Sperber’s magisterial biography of Marx, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Sperber recounts how ‘For Europeans of the eighteen century, Jews formed a nation whose members were spread all across Europe. This Jewish ‘nation’ should not be confused with its modern namesake, in a world of nation-states, since pre-1789 European states were the patrimony of their rulers, not the product of nations. Rather, it was one of may groups within the society of orders, whose place was guaranteed by its own charters, although these tended to contain more obligations and restrictions than right and privileges.’[iv] According to Sparber, Napoleon’s invasion of nations to the East of France and the imposition of the Napolenic Code on them had the effect of simultaneously freeing Jews from the concept of the Society of Orders and allowing them to become citizens. But according to Sperber, ‘The Jews’ identification with the new regime, which for all of its problematic features promised an improvement in their conditions, meant that opposition to the Napoleonic rule would be focused on the Jews’. [v] Thus in the broader context of European history, Lubitsch can be situated between a moment of emancipation and a moment of anninhilation that luckily for him and for us would come once he was safely ensconsced in the United States.

Lubitsch's siblings
Lubitsch’s siblings

 

This first section of Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood shows us how Lubitsch grew up as the fourth child, second son and youngest child of a well-to-do family of taylors. His siblings were Richard (born in 1882), Marga (1884) and Elsa (1885). There was thus a ten year difference between Ernst and his elder brother. They grew up in the Jewish ghetto around what was then Bülow Platz and is now Rosa Luxembourg Platz. For more than twenty years Lubitsch lived in this neighbourhood, he was formed by it and the culture of the milieu and its ‘structure of feeling’, is everywhere evident in his early films. This is the world of Pinkus and of Meyer. A world of apprentices trying to get a job and get the girl in the face of all kinds of barriers, a world where one has to learn about appearances that don’t come naturally, about manners not one’s own.

Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)
Lubitsch with his father Ssimcha (Simon)

 

In 1900 Lubitch’s father has a tailoring business specializing in ladies’ coats with eight employees plus jobber. According to Prinzler in his Cahiers biography, he’s also got a business associate, Max Friedländer. They’ve got a phone, a considerable marker of status in the Berlin of the time. Berlin itself, according to the 1900 census, had 1.88 million inhabitants, 2.48 million if you include the 20 surrounding independent communities of Charlottengurg, Wilmesdorf, Schöneberg and others that would now be considered part of Berlin. By the1910 census Berlin has 3.4 million inhabitants with the ‘independent communities’ now incorporated into Berlin proper. There are now 30 permanent theatres and many seasonal ones. In Nollendorfplatz, a concert hall is transformed into a cinema, the biggest in Germany: the Mozartsaal-Lichtspiele seating 1200 spectators. The theatre belongs to one of the greatest film trusts, ‘Allgemeine Kinematographen Gesellschaft m.b. H, founded in 1906 by Paul Davidson, a figure that would become central to the history of German cinema in general and to Lubitsch’s career in particular.[vi]

 

Lubitsch's mother Anna who ran the business and the family
Lubitsch’s mother Anna who ran the business and the family

 

From 1899 to 1902 Lubitsch went to prep school, after which he was admitted to a very reputable high school; The Sophien-Gymnasium, Weinmeistertrasse, not far from Alexanderplatz. An old syllabus tells us that he was taught German, Latin, French (from the seventh year) Greek (from the eight year) history, geography, math, arithmetic[vii]. There’s a wonderful scene in Schuhpalast Pinkus, where Lubitsch playing Sally Pinkus is sweeping the floor and the intertitle tells us, ‘I learned Latin for this?’, a refrain that’s probably been echoed in different variants through the ages and up to now.

Walking in the 'kiez'.
Walking in the ‘kiez’.

 

In 1900 there were only 92,000 Jews in a total Berlin. According to Scott Eyman, ‘Like many of their Jewish brethren in Berlin, the Lubitsch family was assimilated and not at all religious. The synagogue was a place for an obligatory visit on the high Holidays and little more….Overall the family’s specific identity was as Berliners not as Jews.’[viii] According to Gottfried Reinhardt, Max’s son and later famous Hollywood producer (The Red Badge of Courage) and director (Town Without Pity), ‘‘Berlin ignored the anti-Semitism towards its indigenous ethnic groups. The Viennese knew their ‘Jews’; for the Berliners, the Jew was a Berliner, though as strange as any other’.[ix]

 

A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.
A culture that shaped Lubitsch, was central to Berlin in the Weimar era, and was destroyed by the Nazis.

Lubitsch was born in Germany and he was a Berliner but he was also a Jew. This whole culture that we’re shown, the diasporic milieu of Lubitsch’s childhood, the culture of the kiez, the small community within the larger town that was the Jewish neighbourhood in Berlin; and of Schönhauser Allee; both so integral to Berlin culture and indeed to German culture as a whole, was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Thus it is right that the film and Tykwer attempt to reclaim at least part of Lubitsch. He was a Berliner and as the film will argue, central to the German cinema of that age. But one can also understand why the city of Berlin might want to refuse to name a street after a Berliner who also happened to be one of the great artists of the 20th century: Berlin would be reminding itself that it had just sat by or worse whilst an integral chunk of itself had been destroyed. But then again, perhaps it should. Well, no perhaps about it. It should. But as we can see from The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, in certain ways it does. Could it be that they didn’t think he was worthy of the honour? If so, the should definitely watch the ‘Lubitsch in Berlin’ boxed set available in the Masters of Cinema Series.

 

A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.
A young Lubitsch wearing a dark hat.

According to Sabine Hake, ‘categories like nationalism/internationalism and conformism/ marginality are crucial for understanding Lubitsch’s marginal position as a Jew in Germany and an immigrant in the United States’ [x].  Moreover, Jewish culture is central to Lubitsch’s early works with ‘Jewish humour providing a main source of inspiration'[xi]. The tension between diaspora and belongingness, the push and pull, the claiming and the kicking out, are all underlying tensions in Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood and are clearly critical contexts for what ‘Lubitsch’, the person and the work, grew out of and are key to understanding what helped shape him and it.

José Arroyo

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[i] François Truffaut, ‘Lubitsch was a Prince’, The Films of My Life, trans by Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, pp.50-53.

[ii] Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘Première partie: Allemagne (1892-1922)’, eds. Bernard Eisenchigtz and Jean Narboni, Ernst Lubitsch, Cahiers du cinema, Cinémathèque Française, Paris, 1985

[iii] Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 19.

[iv] Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013, p. 5.

[v] Sperber, ibid., p. 12.

[vi] Prinzler, op.cit, pp. 11-12.

[vii] Prinzler, ibid., p. 11.

[viii] Eyman, op. cit., p. 24.

[ix] Cited in Prinzler, op.cit., p. 14.

{x} Sabina Hake, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 7

[xi] ibid., p. 29

Britishness at the BAFTAS

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Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?

He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.

But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.

Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.

The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway  graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.

A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as  a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:

Our revels are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

is rounded with a sleep

It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.

José Arroyo

A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as  https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162

Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)

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2 Days in Paris

A charming tale of a couple’s visit to Paris: he’s an American interior decorator; she’s a French photographer; they’ve already been together for two years; but not in her culture, not in her hometown, not with her parents, not in Paris. The film has genuinely funny moments of culture clash, and it’s definitely an intelligent woman’s take on romance. I found it an enjoyable film to see even though it’s not quite good. Adam Goldberg is totally charmless and very badly cast. Daniel Brühl appears as an eco-terrorist who might be gay. I suspect the woman in the audience will laugh out loud and all the men who don’t find Delpy adorable will feel unable to utter the ‘ouch!’-es they’ll so acutely feel. The film doesn’t know how to end, so a contrived voice-over is meant to wrap up what should have been left open and painful. Too bad….but a very promising directing debut from Delpy nonetheless.

José Arroyo

César et Rosalie (Claude Sautet, France 1972)

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Cesar-et-Rosalie

César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.

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70’s fashions by Yves St. Laurent (with the 20s influence clearly in evidence)

César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is  head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.

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Vogue is pictured behind and Romy looks like she’s just stepped off its pages.

Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular,  there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980)  which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.

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Platform shoes, bell-bottomed trousers, long hanging necklaces. Very 70s and very chic.

But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames  into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.

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velvet choker, no jewellery, neckline plunging through sheer fabric that nonetheless covers the arms; hair piled up like an Edwardian Lady.

At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat  before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.

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Sporty, wintry, beachwear. The sophistication of the patterning on the jumper, the elegance of the hair pulled back, the white stripes on the wellies: casual ware? Only in a French movie.

These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.

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Romy returns. But for whom?

Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be;  big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see  that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.

Montand, laying on the charm but with his too big shirt collar betraying his class origins.
Montand, laying on the charm but with his too big shirt collar betraying his class origins.

The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of  clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.

Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie:  there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as  a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie  is exquisite.

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Sami Frey, intelligent, artistic and sensitive eye-candy for Romy and for us, for better and worse.

José Arroyo

American Vagabond (Susanna Helke and Mary Morgan, Denmark/Finland/ USA, 2013)

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american vagabond

A feature documentary about a young man, James Temple, barely 18, life made impossible by his family for being gay, who runs away to San Francisco in the hope of finding a gay paradise. Instead he finds hunger, homelessness, and a desperate if short-lived descent into prostitution. The America we see in all kinds of films today is no longer that of the ‘American Dream’. You have to be brave in this America but that’s because it’s no longer free and it’s no longer just. What’s wrong with a family who prefers to see their child hungry, cold, homeless, abused and sold so that they can uphold their ‘Christian’ principles? What’s wrong with a country that puts a nice teenage boy in jail for three years and permanently stains him as a pedophile because he slept with another teenage boy who was under two years younger? What’s worse is that once the boy is put in jail, that family becomes his main source of support. One comes out of this film in a rage against that family, that system of injustice, this shocking, new and barbaric America. Russia is brutalising its gay youth officially; America no less efficiently for being unofficial. In ‘The Swimmers’ a short story written for The Saturday Evening Post ( 19th of October 1929),  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea…was a willingness of the heart.’ This makes one ask where is that willingness of the heart now in America? Or has that heart withered so  its only willingness is for hurting its young, its poor and its weak? The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th, 2013

Official_release_poster_of_American_Vagabond,_2013_film

Labyrinth of Passion (A note on) (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1982)

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The film is over thirty years old now, still potent, and now seems a lot darker than it used to, with the incest and the rapes taking on a different significance in the light of Almodóvar’s subsequent work. I first saw it in the mid-1980s at a packed midnight screening at the Alphaville cinema in Madrid where the audience itself made the event seem a party for and a celebration of what the film represented (a new way of being in a new Spain) and of themselves (a postmodern coalition of dissident youth cultures, gay and straight, with a shared view of the past and shared hopes for the future). The audience knew all the lines and uttered them before the characters in the film did, with the appearances of Fabio de Miguel as Fanny McNamara being greeted with particular enthusiasm (he remains a highlight, his very presence a witty and forceful protest against domineering institutions and homogenizing ideology).

fanny

This 25th of July, over thirty years later, it was the opening film at Kitoks Kinas, the LGBT film festival in Vilnius, introduced by His Excellency Don Miguel Arias Estévez in front a whole host of dignitaries (Ambassadors from The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark etc.). Lithuania is going through a transition not unlike what Spain went through in the 1980s. The right to a Gay Pride March through Vilnius City Centre was against the wishes of the City’s Mayor, had to be fought all the way through to the Supreme Court, and was won only just before the march itself, which took place in the face of vociferous right-wing opposition. It was an honour to be there and to participate. The Spanish Ambassador gave a witty and elegant introduction to the film explaining why it had been chosen to open the LGBT film festival in Vilnius and what it had meant to his generation in Spain.

Labyrinth of Passion was never a masterpiece. It is technically rough and the shoe-string budget (reported then at 20 million pesetas) is everywhere evident. However, it’s still cheeky, corrosive, queer punk at its best. Worth seeing for many reasons not least Fabio McNamara, early appearances from mainstays of Spanish-speaking film and TV such as Immanol Arias and Cecilia Roth and Antonio Banderas’ very first appearance on film, already fearless as an actor and clearly a star from the get-go, as a gay Muslim terrorist with pictures of the Ayatollah on his wall and an unerring sense of smell.

The scene with the sniffing of the nail polish, and the one where Almodóvar himself directs Fanny in a fotonovela where Fanny is pleasured by having his heart and his guts drilled, are still hilarious (and we get to see Almodóvar and McNamara in a rare, crudely camp performance of ‘Satanasa’ as well). And of course, all of Almodóvar’s themes (sexual identity, gender, uncontrollable desires, consumer culture, various kinds of violations, etc) are already present, some in scenes that recur and get better executed in later films (for example, the chase to the airport that we later see in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but many others as well).

 

Seeing the film again all these years later made me reflect on camp humour, and how the film’s deployment of it now seems so culturally specific. The film went over well but not brilliantly in Vilnius and I suspect it’s because some of the humour is simply untranslatable. One of the things that fascinates me about camp is that the structure of its operations seems to be transnational, you find it almost everywhere, certainly everywhere I’ve been to. But its specific manifestations are often highly coded, work on various levels simultaneously and only manifest to a few, those in the know. The reference points to La Movida, the pop and underground culture of the era, even the narrative woven by Hola (Hello magazine) throughout the 1960s about the tragedy of the Shah of Iran having to divorce Soraya, the woman he loved, because she couldn’t bear him children, the basis for the film’s story, all of these sets of knowledges that enhance one’s appreciation of the film, I don’t find to be essential.

However, much of the camp humour in Labyrinth of Passion comes not only from situation, which is relatively easy to get, in spite of missing specific references, but from dialogue. Almodóvar is simply brilliant at everyday quotidian dialogue. I sometimes felt that I could close my eyes when seeing his films and hear my aunts.  But in this film more than others, those phrases work on multiple levels: who says them, the intonation with which they’re spoken, whether a line is inflected at beginning or end; all bring different meanings, draw on different sets of knowledges, set the perfect pitch and the optimum timing for the punch-line: the Vilnius audience only got the visual. Might this now be true of all audiences except the generation of Spaniards who grew up around the moment of the transition?

It’s worth remembering that the film was made a year after Colonel Tejero’s armed intervention in the Spanish Cortes, the coup that failed; that only a few years earlier, Almodóvar would have been arrested for such representations had they been possible; that in 1982 there was no guarantee that there would not be a political reversal (much as the situation now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring).  To dare to make a film as nasty, as queer, as funny as this one in that context: no Spanish artist of the last four decades has been braver or more true to himself. Few have grown, developed and improved as much as he did since Labyrinth also. The film works best as a document of its time. Yet, the wit, the daring, the corrosive critique, the in-your-face queerness of it all still thrills, still shocks, still makes it worth seeing at any time.

José Arroyo

The Wolverine (James Mangold, USA, 2013)

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You gift filmmakers a fantastic imaginary world, characters that are mythic yet three-dimensional, wonderful actors who can play them; and you get…. The Wolverine? It doesn’t seem a fair exchange. The story is good if predictable but structured around dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that don’t quite work; the set-pieces are sometimes very imaginative (I love the tactile bed we see in the trailer) and there is a truly superb villain in The Viper (a magnificent Svetlana Khodchenkova). For fans of the comic book, the fact that the story is set in Japan, will also have special resonance (and the way Japan is designed for this film makes for a joyous setting). The film seems to have all the ingredients for a great film but everything seems slack, even the humour seems off-rhythm and badly timed, the punch-line arriving after the audience’s already got the joke.

It’s a proficient movie but I didn’t feel moved or thrilled; and the film never once made me feel part of a somewhat embittered community of the alienated and disaffected who shared higher morals and ideals than the world depicted, the way the various x-men comic books at their best did. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about declining audiences and the industry trying to figure out whether it’s changing ways of viewing, or marketing, or delivery platforms. But really they should look at the films; all the big-budget ones seem to be made by a transnational committee and by-the-book but also by-passing feeling altogether; and if films don’t engage with dreams, hopes, aspiration, conditions of existence or the way people think and feel, see and/or experience, what’s the point of them (other than to make one feel a feeder for some corporation’s bank-balance)? And I suppose that’s the problem with this film; it’s ok but so what? And that in itself is a condemnation of the present industry because these are great characters in a superb imaginary world that audiences have loved and identified with for decades and the filmmakers have been given a lot of money to turn it all into a movie. If ok but so what is the response you get, you didn’t deserve to get to make the movie.

José Arroyo

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1933)

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design for living

A Lubitsch film adapted by the great Ben Hetch from the Noel Coward play about his relationship with the legendary Lunts*? The heart speeds, the mouth salivates. Yet, it’s extremely disappointing; indeed almost awful. Coward and Lubitsch are like oil and vinegar or rather two superb vinegars that might have got toxic when mixed by Hetch. The film tell of two artists, playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), who love the same woman, like each other, and decide to share a flat. Miriam Hopkins is the ‘free spirit’ who makes a condition of their living together that she will critique their work but won’t sleep with either (probably everyone’s idea of hell).

Fredric March was a big star, but on the evidence of his work here, his appeal is lost in the mist of time. Miriam Hopkins is made for Lubitsch. She’s simply wondrous as the elegant crook in Trouble in Paradise and her Princess in The Smiling Lieutenant is a continuing delight (Her transformation from princess to flapper, culminating in her performance of  ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’, ciggie in one hand hand, garters visible, and visibly vibrating to post-ragtime jazz,  is priceless). She always exudes a slight harshness but here she doesn’t have enough funny lines to compensate. She seems merely harsh; and not as pretty as Gary Cooper.

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Orson Welles said Cooper was so beautiful he practically turned into a girl whenever he saw him; one look at Cooper here and one understands Welles completely – even Miriam eventually succumbs. He does some good double-takes too. But ultimately he’s unbelievable in the Coward role; whenever he’s discussing art you sense he’d really rather be on a horse. The first Lubtisch I’ve not liked. It is a pre-Code film and as daring as  American cinema would get for another thirty years; but not delightful.

*(Alfred and Lynn, considered the great acting couple of their day and so famous they even figure in J.D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye, ‘they didn’t act like people, and they didn’t act like actors’)

José Arroyo

Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1931)

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Tonight or Never

A soap opera about a Hungarian prima donna (Gloria Swanson) who believes she needs to experience ‘love’ so she can put more feeling into her opera singing. She falls for Jim (Melvyn Douglas) who she thinks is a gigolo. Her feelings for him enable her to sing so divinely she gets a contract to perform at the Met. She discreetly leaves him her emerald necklace by the bedside table as payment for services rendered. Quelle surprise!: he’s not a gigolo.

It’s tosh but tosh worth seeing because a youngish Gloria Swanson in an early speaking-role plays the diva and because Chanel’s wardrobe for the film is glorious. A close-up of Swanson glowing with diamonds and emeralds alone is sufficient to make the whole film worth seeing, though the film does offer other pleasures. Swanson  is too short and squat to be the ideal model for Chanel’s clothes, she’d thickened around the middle by 1931 — but they certainly did have faces then; she’s stunning. As for  Melvyn Douglas as the not-quite-gigolo… you can see why all those great stars (Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford) chose him as a leading man; in spite of his proficiency, you don’t look at him whilst they’re around; you certainly don’t here when Gloria appears with her hats and her clothes and her diamonds and those beautiful eyes. Because he had so many hits and because we still see so many of the films he directed (I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Gold Diggers of 1933,  Broken Blossoms, Random Harvest, Gypsy) we sometimes forget that Mervyn Leroy was a terrible director. Tonight or Never will remind you.

José Arroyo

Swanson wears Chanel
Swanson wears Chanel

I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, USA, 2012)

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I Want Your Love

An uneven film but very interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least the way it was — and is currently being — distributed, the context in which I saw it and the film itself: it’s a greatly flawed but bold and daring work.. I happened on the film by accident whilst looking up what was showing at Cineworld, noted that it was only showing for one night without the benefit of any publicity and, following Pauline Kael’s advice that one should always try to see that which the major distributors seem to want to dump, I raced to see it.

Of course, we live in a world were films are not quite released in the way they were in Kael’s time, and this film has nothing to do with the major distributors. It’s a 71 minute indie out on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures. But the idea fuelling Kael’s advice, that we should make an effort to see what others have a stake in not wanting to show us, holds. The combination of being screened only once but at Cineworld was interesting enough to attract a considerable crowd though I suspect the greater part of the audience went to see it based on the title, probably expected a nice romantic comedy, and seemed first a bit surprised when it turned out to be a gay film, then somewhat more agitated when the hardcore fucking started onscreen. However, only a few people walked out.

The story is straightforward, Jesse (Jesse Metzger) a young performance artist whose been living in San Francisco for a decade has finally run out of money and his notion of options, and has decided to move back home to the Midwest. On his final night, his friends, community and the ex he still hankers for gather together for his leaving party. This sets the context for an exploration of gay relationships, the importance of sex, the influence of context on identity, sexuality and art, and what it might mean to be a gay man, an artist and an adult today.

Making the film about performance artists in San Francisco means it’s almost de-facto a bit navel-gazy and narrow. I generally don’t like it when artists make their subject artists and their struggles because it tends to generally be a looking in to the self – me, me, me! – rather than a look out onto the world. However, and perhaps paradoxically, I Want Your Love also seems comparatively more true to life than the standard film. Perhaps because the production values are low, and there probably wasn’t much of a budget for sets and costumes, one feels that how these people dress, where they live, and how they talk is an accurate and evocative representation. I remember living in flats like Jesse’s in my youth: never a straight surface, all wonky, with too many coats of paint and never quite clean. You rarely see apartments like this in American cinema.

What I liked best about the film was its star, Jesse Metzger. He looks shabby, alternative, handsome in an unassuming way, the way someone who doesn’t want to bring attention to his looks sometimes makes himself appear. His face is absolutely transparent and the longing, hesitation, speculation, awkwardness and fear that he conveys at various moments, is palpable. There are two other actors who make a very considerable impression but whose names I was able to neither get nor find: the chubby man with the Asian boyfriend who does a marvelous step dance on the sidewalk; and a thin nervy black actor who ends up making out with Jason’s ex Ben, the impossible object of his affections. The black actor manages to be funny, smart, ironically distanced and vulnerable all at the same time and is a joy to watch.

What the film will probably best be remembered for is its integration of hard-core sex into a narrative feature. Bruce La Bruce tried doing something like this over ten years ago with Skin Flick — a.k.a. Skin Gang (Bruce La Bruce, Germany/Canada, 1999), which perhaps interestingly was also produced by a company that specialized in porn, Cazzo (I Want Your Love, is produced by NakedSword). But it wasn’t quite the same as, if I remember correctly, La Bruce ended up with two different versions of the same film, the hard-core and the not hard-core, to be released in as slightly different way to different audiences. The non-porn version caused a sensation when it was shown at an NFTS screening which I hosted featuring a Q&A session with the director: members of the audience protested that the very idea of a skinhead gang raping a black man was unacceptable (such a depiction would be banned if as today’s Independent claims, ‘Possessing pornography that depicts simulated rape is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales ‘. Skin Flick was a daring if ultimately unsuccessful experiment functioning neither as porn nor as drama.

I Want Your Love does what audiences and critics are salivating Lars von Trier may do in Nymphomaniac – which is to integrate the representation of sex into a fictional narrative on film. I Want Your Love is a graphic gay romance whose main intent is to show sex as part of life rather than as something to make the audience come. The sex is emotional with elements of embarrassment and humour as is true so often of sex, but full on hard-core even though the accent is on feeling; and those faces ‘feeling’ sex is also so different from porn that it is, I don’t know what, different, new; I didn’t quite know how to process it. I found it alternately erotic and embarrassing as if you were being turned on by something you should’t be watching in the first place, but beautiful. Seeing it on a big screen and in public is a factor as well: it might very possibly just look like not-too-hot porn viewed on a monitor or small screen. In any case, I found that it worked in that I’d never quite seen anything like it (emotional hard-core sex; hard-core sex rendered to depict intimacy) but it also worked against the film in that the sex kicked your head right out of the narrative and focussed your eye right on the genital area no matter where the camera was placed.

We live in a pornographic culture. What I mean by this is the many products of the culture industries are designed to simply get you off; to place you on the quickest route to ejaculation, either literally or metaphorically, and which is not quite the same, to me, as orgasm much less jouissance. ‘ Getting you off’ is the American expression, or cumming, and that’s what porn is designed to do. That’s why we have food porn, and real-estate porn, and so on, it’s not about cooking but about salivating, not about helping you find or make a home but just about increasing your desire for spaces you can’t own at prices you can’t afford. It’s all about creating desires and about eliciting the bluntest and quickest physical reaction possible to make one feel that those desires have in some way been met. As Herbert Marcuse noted, it’s the very structure of ‘One-Dimensional Culture’.But such ejaculations, what the French nickname la petite mort, ‘the little death’, even in a hyperreal form, do chip away at a notion of what it is to be human. Representations affect and have an effect.

What’s so interesting about I Want Your Love is the attempt to reclaim feeling not only for the society at large that keeps insisting that queers are simply disobedient, disorderly, fractious, frenzied, headstrong, hysterical, impetuous, indocile, insubordinate, insuppressible, insurgent and lawless desire that is out of control. But also its attempt to reclaim feeling and intimacy from a commercial gay culture that teaches us that being gay is about having a particular look, going to particular places and having sex in particular ways. There’s an interesting split in that most gay men watch gay porn of various kinds that creates a particular way of being gay, entirely focused on particular kinds of sex; and then there are ‘gay’ fictional narrative films that overly sentimentalise romance and relationships. By integrating sex into love in the ways that it does, I Want Your Love is a protest not only against the mainstream culture we all live and participate in, but the commodification of ways of being imposed by commercial and/or official gay cultures themselves. A flawed film, yes; but a must-see one.

José Arroyo

(July 22nd, 2013)

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010)

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Winter's Bone 

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA, 2010) is a quest movie with a deadline: Ree Dolly’s father has put up the family home and the land they live off as bond for his bail. As the film begins, we’re told he’s due to go to court but the Sheriff can’t find him. After he misses his court date, the bail bondsman tells Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) she has a week to get her father to turn himself in or the family will be evicted from their property. Barely seventeen, Ree is presently taking care of her mother, who is clearly suffering from mental illness and a residue of drug addiction, and her two younger siblings, who are too young to feed themselves. They currently live off the land and without it they’re lost. There’s a discussion of separating the children and leaving them with various relatives but the film also intimates that this would make them vulnerable to abuse, though whether it’s sex or drugs or violence is menacingly hinted at without being fully articulated. Ree has no choice but to search for her father. This will put her in the path of danger and in turn offer the audience a prime view of a rural American culture ravaged by poverty and crystal meth.

The centrality of the necessity of the father to the very existence of the home and the family is one of the most powerful structuring elements of this film. Without the father, the family will lose land, house, each other. Ree lives in a patriarchal culture, clearly gendered in relation to tasks (‘don’t you have no menfolk who can do this for you?’ she’s asked). But men just fight, drink, strut, abuse their women and leave them helpless. We not only see them do this but the film underlines men’s absence (even when they are there), their uselessness or threatening presence by the way the film photographs them: in acts of aggression towards woman (fig.1.1-1.2), or far away and out of focus to show that they’re not there or simply won’t help(fig 2), or at a low-angle to make their threat a looming one (fig 3), next to weapons (fig 4), or constantly doing drugs.

fig 1
Example of Acts of Aggression Towards Women A
fig 1b
fig. 1.b
fig.2
fig.2
fig. 3
fig. 3
fig. 4.1
fig. 4.1
fig. 4.2
fig. 4.2

A man is necessary but the family is better off by just bringing his bones in and proving he’s dead. The film shows us this over and over again in the conversation that she has with her best friend Gail(who has to ask her husband’s permission to have access to the family truck); in the names given to the men (most prominently Teardrop and Thump Jessop and the interesting dynamic created by the juxtaposition of those two names), in the gentle songs of suffering (mostly country and bluegrass in relation to women with the odd notes of honky-tonk or thrash metal woven in at low volume in relation to men). Men here are a problem; whether it’s the bail bondsmen, the sheriff, the father himself, or the other patriarchs in the film. They’re threatening either when they are the law (the bondsman, the sheriff) or outside the law (drunk, violent, or repressive), even the military recruiter, who is shown as kind, cannot help (and the help he has to offer is one most of us would refuse. Note how what stands between the patriotism signaled American flags on the right of Fig.8.1 and the recruiting poster which avows that the military’s mission is a better future is the reality of Ree’s conditions of existence and the military recruiter’s advice to heed them). Teardrop, as is indicated by his name, is a kind of bridge between a male figure that enables and a masculinity that destroys; he begins oppressively (‘I’ve already told you to shut up with my mouth. Don’t make me have to say it again’) but eventually helps because of bonds of blood (and guilt?).

8.1
fig. 8.1

If men are a problem, women are the solution in this movie. Their faces might be ravaged by meth, they might also take a turn at ‘laying on the hurt’ but they’re also the ones that solve every problem all the patriarchal structures put in place of the family’s survival. And it is through women that Ree finds food (from her neighbor Sonya), emotional sustenance (from her friend Gail, but also that final adoring look her helpless mother gives her at the end) and finally even her father’s bones (through the woman who is attached to the gang leader who had her father killed –the film hints he’s head of a bike gang which is a front for a drug distribution business).

 

fig. 9.1
fig. 9.1

These gendered relationships are supported by labyrinthine set of  social mores with extremely codified rules of behavior (depending on gender, kinship, age, and bounded by the school, the military and the law) which we see Ree teaching her younger siblings (e.g. ‘don’t ask for what should be offered’). And they take place in a particular place, the Ozark mountains of Missouri, hillbilly country, here shown as the face of rural America, traditional moonshine land now cranked up and crippled by Crystal Meth. Often we are shown this wintery rural landscape with horses, hay, dead leaves on the floor; a landscape that reaches a peak of beauty in its autumnal dying; and in the midst of this natural setting we’ll see some clothes hanging and a waft of smoke that could be fog before we realize it is really smoke from an illegal lab; the pastoral and the domestic enshrouded and infected by the chemical and the synthetic(see fig 9.1). The culture of the market is seen as a culture of crime (what we see constantly on demand and constantly being supplied is drugs); manufacturing is here shown as only the making of poison and forgetting (there’s a haunting travelling shot following our heroine and another woman through a junkyard full of old cars, a cemetery of an America with no place to go which is very reminiscent of Walker Evans’ Depression photographs of car graveyards, (See Fig. 5.2); education is shown in relation to taking care of babies and marching with guns; American individualism at its most extreme is shown as an underage girl with no social safety net having to risk her life for basic food and shelter.

fig. 5.2
fig. 5.2

In Winters Bone the American century is over. The most striking images in the film are those of decay and here they mourn what America has become. But instead of setting the action in a retro future as in Blade Runner or other futuristic dystopias of a previous era of American Cinema (The Running Man, Total Recall, the Robocop films, the Aliens films, etc.), Winters Bone’s dystopia is constructed from putting an idea of the past in the present rather than in the future. The film is set in the rural heartland and we are made to see it as a problem that not much has changed since the days when Elvis was a child and his mama could only cook squirrel on shortening. In fact the places and faces very much evoke Dorothea Lange’s Depression photographs (see Figs 6.1-3)

fig 6.1
fig 6.1
fig 6.2
fig 6.2
fig. 6.3
fig. 6.3

We see not a culture of consumption but the remains of one, its detritus is everywhere but the things themselves are no longer affordable. Children ride their old, dirty toy horses on trampolines. But this is a consumer culture where the evidence of an abundance of things is only a sign of the lack of essentials (almost industrial size trampolines but no food; gun rather than book displays at the High School, bars and all-night convenience shops but no churches or other places where people can socialize). We do see a gathering with Marideth Sisco singing but the song is Fair and Tender Maidens (‘To all the fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your man. They’re like a star on the Summer’s morning, they first appear and then they’re gone… I wish to the lord I’d never seen him. Or in his cradle he had died…’).

What hope the film offers is one centered on human will and character rather than institutions (‘I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t going nowhere’, says Ree at the end). Children have to be taught to shoot, and gut animals in order to survive (‘There’s a bunch of stuff you’re going to have to get over being scared of real soon,’ Ree tells her brother). The film shows a regression into a social organization that offers no structures of support except kinship, which it simultaneously posits as the greatest danger to the individual and to the family.

Winters Bone is directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the script with Anne Rossellini. It’s a rare American film that places a woman at the centre of the action, this is rarer still in that the narrative takes us through a relay of female characters for the action to be completed and it does so through a woman’s point-of-view. But greater still is the film’s creation of a new archetype which Jessie Lawrence embodies with warmth and purpose. For whilst people like Ree might not be new in life, they are rare in mainstream representation: a woman that we first see in the home making breakfast; who takes care of her Mom and her sibling but is good with a gun; who’s ashamed of her father’s dealing and snitching but finds room to love him; who considers joining the army and embarks on her dangerous journey to save her home; this is a representation we’ve not seen much in cinema before: a young girl takes out a gun to nourish her siblings and risks her life to fulfill the obligations her parents cannot meet; her duty and her actions exceed her obligations; and importantly they centre on a domesticity that this film finds courageous.

That Ree is so earthily brought to life by Lawrence, and that this actress playing this character connected with audiences so vividly that the type  was almost instantly reprised in The Hunger Games, is something to celebrate. In it’s mourning for what America has become the film has also created a new idea of person who might yet transform that culture for the better. The film’s dystopia is the culture that now is; it’s utopia is that the type of person who can make it better is a woman, and one who doesn’t need men to keep the house going.

José Arroyo.

Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2013)

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oz

The 3-D is piercing —  I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis  can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy,  her make-up and costume people have  done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.

José Arroyo

The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

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The Spiral staircase 1946

 

 

A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, USA, 2012)

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kiss of the damned

A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.

Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).

He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from  Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.

Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood.  Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?

All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).

The characters in Kiss of the Damned  feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss  of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.

2013-07-20 13.26.46

José Arroyo

The Turin Horse (Ágnes Hranitzky, Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2012)

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The turin horse

A masterpiece but one which may require a big screen to fully appreciate. The film begins with an anecdote about how, in trying to save a horse from a whipping, Nietzche fell and that fall may have spurred the serious mental illness that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. The anecdote ends with a question: what happened to the horse? And then the film begins and goes on to show us a peasant and his daughter with that horse, living through a storm in a barren land, day-by-day of poetic harshness: they get visited and threatened by gypsies (who also leave them a holy book), the horse refuses to work, the water runs out, they try to leave but the storm pushes them back. We see them eating an uncooked potato and certain to starve. It’s repetitive, slow, harsh, bleak, shot in black and white; the poverty grinds, albeit in classic, and classically beautiful, compositions that ennoble the attempt to keep on going on in the face of all evidence. János Derzsi as the father has one of the most beautiful and expressive faces, a leonine one, I’ve ever seen on screen. The harshness of life is everywhere and relentlessly present. No other film has so vividly and remorselessly highlighted to me how basic food, shelter and clothing mustn’t be taken for granted. The film is ennobling of its characters, shaming of its audience. Very beautiful.

José Arroyo

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1974)

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Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 22.13.09

The Parallax View ss a marvellous, paranoid conspiracy thriller. It has wonderful set-pieces: the opening, the end, the subliminal programming, the judgment, the scene at the damn; and even a pretty good car-chase. Gordon Willis did the cinematography and it is beautiful; some of the most interesting lighting of any film from the 70s, sparsely modernist, with an almost geometric composition, and all in the vernacular of noir. Warren Beatty is good as the lead but he is almost too beautiful: I kept staring at his lips. The 70s clothes and haircuts were not really attractive on men though he pulls it off as well as anyone ever did. The film is so bleak it’s hard to imagine anyone thought it could be hit. Also the story doesn’t quite work; or I didn’t get it; who’s behind the conspiracy and why? It’s an important question to leave unanswered. And yet, the film does seem great to me – at any rate, a visual masterpiece.

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 22.15.44

José Arroyo

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, USA, 1973)

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The last Detial

A film that is beautiful and great.  I’d heard how terrific Nicholson is in it; I don’t remember reading anything on Randy Quaid; and, to me, he’s Nicholson’s equal here. He’s got this great baby face on this very tall — and at this point in his life, lanky — body and he makes you feel like giving him a hug, though he’ll probably pick your pocket whilst you do so. He doesn’t necessarily need what he steals, but he can’t help himself. He’s like a greedy and gleeful baby who simply wants more of what he likes. Quaid possesses the rare quality of looking innocent and vulnerable whilst also seeming unquestionably heterosexual. The Last Detail is also more interesting visually than generally acknowledged; each shot is thought through and planned yet unobtrusively so; you have to look at it mindfully to see how well designed it is; and to appreciate how much its mise-en-scène brings to the story it is telling. Ashby appears briefly (he’s a surprisingly tall bloke) and Carol Kane, she of the high whiny voice, a 70s Betty Boop, is any filmgoer’s delight as the young hooker. A humanist film about the injustice of the law and about the importance of kindness in the face of systemic unfairness; a film that makes one sad and hopeful; a film to love.

José Arroyo

Looper (Rian Johnson, USA, 2012)

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looper

Visually disappointing but narratively enthralling film about a Looper, an executioner who kills people from the future in the present. Time travel doesn’t exist in the present but it does in the future, thus people from the future get shipped back to the film’s present, the looper shoots them as they appear, disposes of the body and gets paid. No one is looking for the bodies in the present and nobody can find them in the future. But who is disposing of these bodies and why? That’s what the rest of the story tries to tell in this dystopian futuristic thriller in which one can detect elements of The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976) and The Fury (Brian de Palman, USA, 1978). The story lacks tension and feels a bit long but it does fascinate. The drugs, the want, the sense of a failed state with no law and order, with hungry people rummaging the countryside and those prairies full of rotting fields are a subtle critique of America now and, like many contemporary films, Looper deals with current anxieties by depicting, denouncing and somewhat resolving the most hateful aspects of this new Depression we’re living in, albeit tangentially. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a subtle imitation of a young Bruce Willis, it’s mostly the nose, but with a few mannerisms thrown in; then he shows what a truly brilliant actor he is because he can let go of the disguise; it’s not straightforward imitation. Emily Blunt disappoints; sadly, because she’s so sympathetic one wants her to be good. Looper is intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that offers well-executed action and also leaves audiences with an interesting set of ideas to think about and discuss.

José Arroyo