Category Archives: Uncategorized

Part of why some stars become gay icons — Lola Flores’ funeral plans

 

An excerpt from a 1980s interview with Lola Flores by Lauren Postiga where she discusses her funeral arrangements. I found it amusing and rather touching, partly for its acknowledgement and accommodation of a gay audience at a time where it wouldn’t have been a given, certainly not publicly: ”I’d like to die in Madrid. Then after the embalming I’d like to be taken to the theatre of my successes, the Calderón in Madrid. I’d like to be left in the lobby for quite some time so that all the gay boys who love me very much and all the other people who also love me very much and are great admirers of my art, so that all may have a look, forming a little orderly queue so that all can see.  ‘Poor Lola’, they’ll say, ‘how sad. And she was so amusing.’ I know exactly what they’ll say. And after being a little while at the Calderon theatre, I’d like to be taken to Seville with a great orchestra behind me like they used to have in the Alameda playing ‘La zarzamora’.

This is why some people are gay icons and some not: acknowledgment of appreciation, inclusiveness in ritual, drama, theatre, and a big funeral send-off, like in Imitation of Life, but, since she’s a Spanish gay icon, playing coplas instead of spirituals.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 96 – Skate Kitchen

First of all, huge thanks to the Electric Cinema in Birmingham for not only screening a preview of irresistible hangout flick Skate Kitchen, but for hosting a Q&A with director Crystal Moselle and some of the cast – not professional actors, but girls who genuinely hang out and skate in New York City under the name “Skate Kitchen”, and whose daily lives form the basis of the film. A chance meeting on a train led to Moselle shooting a short film with them and ultimately this feature. Moselle has been here before: her debut, The Wolfpack, also came about due to her curiosity about a group of people she came across in New York, but that was a documentary, and Skate Kitchen is narrative fiction.

Indeed, the narrative works to bring out the best of the setting and people, structuring the documentary aspects to avoid losing much focus while bringing out observations of these girls’ lives that feel deeply authentic, pointed, and original. It follows a teenage skater with a rebellious streak becoming part of the Skate Kitchen collective, the changes to her life as she grows up away from home, and the inevitable conflicts between the girls and the boys who dominate the skate culture they want a part of.

We discuss the nuances in the film’s construction of a divorced family in which both parents are nonetheless present, and in which the child is given agency over her relationships with them; the wholesomeness of the girls’ interactions, particularly with one of their dads; the dimensionality of the boys, particularly in terms of sexual desire and their interactions with girls – and the way the girls’ bodies are displayed not as passive, simply intended to look sexy, but as active and really, really fucking talented. Watching them skate is, just like watching the horse breaking in The Rider – also played by non-professional actors using their real-life skills – a pleasure in which the film allows us to indulge deeply.

Finally, Mike wants to apologise for the sound quality in this episode. He forgot to plug the mic in.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 95 – King of Thieves

A heist movie for the twinkly wrinklies, with a nostalgic and homophobic angle we disliked. Based on the true story of the 2015 Hatton Garden burglary, King of Thieves features an all-star British cast and one joke: they’re all old.

Mike is keen to give the film credit for its charm early on, as well as its sensitive depiction of the sense of loss felt by Michael Caine’s recent widower. But the film is uninspiringly shot, incompetently and unwisely edited – it’s absolute mayhem – and when it swaps its charm for aggression after the heist, it loses all interest. Ray Winstone comes in for particular criticism from José, and Mike explains why he found The Theory of Everything wanting.

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

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

La danza de los deseos (Florían Rey, Spain, 1954)

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Lola Flores, designated ‘The Pharaoness’, or ‘Lola of Spain,’ was the leading star of Spanish folklore musicals of the Franco years, a period where, as a popular saying had it, ‘everything that wasn’t obligatory was forbidden’. She introduced many hits that marked an era — ‘Ay pena, penita, pena‘, La zarzamora’ , ‘Limosna de amores‘, ‘Lerele’, ‘Al verde limón‘ — and that would be associated with her throughout her life. Her back catalogue was the soundtrack to an era and continues to evoke it.

She was a great dancer, one only needs to look at the care she takes with her hands and fingers — every part of her body is expressively deployed. Though a perfectly adequate singer, particularly in her younger years, when her voice was higher, she was the first to admit that there were better ones than she. Her acting on film is  bit stiff and awkward in the dialogue scenes and a bit overblown in the musical numbers. On stage no one could touch her; she was arguably the defining figure of show business in Spain for several generations. She became a star on stage barely out of her teens and remained one until her death.

As her career progressed, her stardom expanded to radio, records, film and she finally entered everyone’s home with television, where she became even more beloved, a towering myth made as knowable as one’s neighbours, part of the psychic furniture of homes across the nation. Her stardom extended throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often signifying a Spain of flamenco, bullfighters, and the gypsies she was almost always relegated to play on film. To my Mom, she was a ‘whirlwind of joy/ un torbellino de alegría’.

It’s interesting to read Camilo José Cela’s La colmena/The Hive, with Lola Flores in mind. That bleak wintry Spain of hunger, secrecy, and surveillance was the other sign of the coin represented by Lola’s radiance, sexyness, and the freedom of spirit she embodied and evoked. The characters of La Colmena might have looked askance on Lola but she signified the liberty, plenitude and joy they lacked but wished for themselves. She still does.

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Who she was behind her as Lola Flores faces who she’s become

La danza de los deseos, whilst far from a good film, might be one of her best in spite of the excessive melodrama and moralism of its plot. She plays Candela, the daughter of a gangster who is killed whilst trying to escape the authorities on a boat. She gets marooned on an island and is raised by a blind recluse and his assistant.

Candela grows up a child of nature taking pleasure in the people around her, the sun and the sea, innocent and loving, wild and free. On her birthday, as she dances on a cliff for the man who raised her and now calls grandfather, she’s spotted by rich people on a boat. Juan Antonio (José Suárez), a young millionaire, goes to the island to seek her out. She becomes instantly besotted and swims after him to his yacht after he leaves. The rich people bring her with them to Marseilles but she overhears a conversation between Juan Antonio and his betrothed  in which she’s spoken of a  threat to their relationship and runs away.

She’s so innocent that she’s instantly picked up by a pimp in a dive and exploited into the lower depths of a Marseilles of cabarets and whorehouses. The image above showing the wild innocent she used to be,  associated with nature, on the right; and the fallen woman she’s become, on the left with her drink, cigarettes and the leg as advertising of the goods for sale, vividly communicates this transformation.

 

I initially wanted to show you the clip above to make a point about the social construction of race. There’s a moment in the clip were a black Cuban approaches the pimp and he says that it’s a white girl he wants today, referring to Candela. Now part of the reason Lola is often associated with gypsies is because in Spain, she’s as dark as one can be without  Spanishness coming into question. But in England, for example, she’d easily pass as a South Asian, and in India she might be mistaken for a native. However, next to a black woman from Cuba in a Spanish film with a Marseilles setting, she’s ‘white’. People often think of markers of race as absolutes dictated by skin colour whereas as we can see so clearly in the film, how we reads the colours and features of skin, faces and bodies are a construct.

The other reason I wanted to show the clip above was to praise the narrative economy. In five minutes a young girl gets corrupted, moving from a millionaire setting to a low-down dive and ultimately, through a bottle of rum, we’re told she’s been taken advantage of by a man who wants to first use her then sell her. It’s very fast and very skilful, like the plots of early Warners films.

But one can also see in the clip above the extraordinary display of skills in the mechanics of direction. Florian Rey, does the whole thing in very impressive long takes, with the last one that begins with a close-up of the bottle of rum, moves back to show us the pimp with Candela in bed, his disdain and her shame, all in one long take would be impressive on its own. But just as you think the film is going to cut, the maid enters the room and the patterned movement of the take is repeated once more but this time with the maid.

I extracted the clip above as an example of the type of song, the copla, of the period and also as an example of the musical number so typical of Spanish musicals of this period, though this one constructed with greater skill. Note how Rey films the whole thing in medium long shot so that we can see Lola perform, but then at the end moves to close-up for the song’s refrain: ‘I no longer believe even in death/ Let it come free me/ Why can’t I be lucky enough to die and rest/ I no longer seek in consolation/ I don’t even believe in myself/ But when I look up at the heavens/ when I look up at the heavens I believe in God and you’. Note also the camaraderie amongst the women, with no discrimination as to colour.

 

As you can see above, the millionaire who in spite of himself led Candela from nature and innocence to the corruption of the big city, rescues her from prostitution and jail. But by the time he brings her back to the island it’s too late. She’s dying. She arrives on the island only to say hello to her blind grandfather. Whilst he thinks she’s off to marry her millionaire, she is in fact buried practically in front of his face, without his knowing, and next to her father.

The messages in this film are mixed. There’s no place in this Spain for gangsters and prostitutes. But millionaires who cavort outside the borders are destructive even in spite of themselves. On the other hand, there’s the image of Lola Flores, dancing her joys and her pain, even though they’re joys that are not meant to exist outside of marriage and pains that are not allowed to exist at all.

I’m often moved by Spanish films of this period. They’re so rickety. So low budget. So poor in terms of means, ideas, skills, aspirations. But contra all of this, one of Florian Rey’s camera moves, or a Lola Flores, will leap out of all that poverty and oppression and assert something powerful and fundamental about what it is to be human that all the censorship by Church and State simply can’t dampen. They’re moments. But they’re moments that assert a huge gap between the way things are and the way things should be. They’re moments to cherish. They’re moments to seek out in a cinema too easily dismissed for its obvious faults.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 94 – The Rider

A contemporary Western played by non-professional actors and based closely on their real lives, The Rider is heartfelt if perhaps over-reliant on cliché. Brady is one of a group of young men in the American Midwest who ride bucking horses and bulls, risking severe injury and death, in what can be seen at once as both a vital act of keeping tradition alive and a tacit admission that the opportunities offered by America are dwindling and serve to keep people in their place. Mike describes it as “a stupid sport”.

José sees a kinship with American Animals in its portrayal of young American men with no sex lives or apparent interest in sex lives and also part of a long cycle of films that mourn the idea of America, a subject which he was written on extensively  in this blog; Mike believes it’s a film that will flatter those who like to pride themselves on seeing “quality” cinema. There are scenes of beauty, including those with a former rider profoundly injured and restricted to life in an assisted living facility – Brady’s love for his friend, expressed throughout the film, is touching. And the horse wrangling is simply spectacular and worth it for its own sake.

A film with deep flaws, an indulgence in cliché, a great visual debt to the Western and a too easy acceptance of its structures of feeling, particularly in a world with so little place for them. Nonetheless, The Rider also has extraordinary sequences with flashes of beauty.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 93 – Cold War

Cold War is Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow up to the Academy Award winning Ida. We delighted in the Midlands Arts Centre’s fabulous projection system, which Mike says makes these beautifully lit and composed images “sing”, allowing their poetry to resonate. The film is unashamedly a love story, framed in a 4:3 ratio that best frames faces and sharpens the focus on the feelings they express, in glistening black and white.

Cold War begins unusually in that the love each of the protagonists has for the other is never in doubt. The problem, the threat, the barrier, is how the geopolitics of the post-war period interrupt that love – the whole world is against them! We discuss the resonances of the film’s setting, the period 1949-1964, and the significance of the film moving back and forth from Paris and several ‘Iron Curtain’ countries; with settings in the Polish countryside, Warsaw, Berlin Yugoslavia, Zagreb and then back to Poland. Is part of the theme that in the Iron Curtain countries they’re forced to prostitute their art whilst capitalist countries encourage the prostitution of the self?

José swoons over the sadness, sexiness and romance of the film. Mike draws attention to a certain sketchiness and notes that Tomasz Kot looks like he belongs in a Stella Artois ad whilst admiring his performance and that of Joanna Kulig as Zula. José loves it so much he wants to see it again to further explore the patterning of images and sounds. Mike feels he’s seen enough but is willing to go along, particularly since the film is unexpectedly short at only 85 minutes. It’s certainly good, but precisely how good is Cold War is the question that overhangs the podcast.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies – 92 – Crazy Rich Asians

An utterly charming, friendly rom-com set in and amongst the very wealthiest of the Singaporean elite, Crazy Rich Asians is also full of odd tensions and problematic complexities. In one sense a highly specifically Chinese story of a second-generation American immigrant’s return to Asia and the conflict she experiences in negotiating her way into a world that finds her somewhat unwelcome; on the other a genre comedy that would feel no different were the characters all white. It’s a friction that bubbles under everything, but the film is so light and likeable that it never spoils anything.

We find Michelle Yeoh’s performance as the intimidating mother-in-law a delight, her character completely avoiding the one-dimensional dragon mom stereotype. On the other hand, there are stereotypes in which the film does indulge, though we disagree on how critical we should be of that. Thinking back to Searching, Mike feels that that film’s joy of seeing ethnicity have no bearing at all on anything is not replicated here, as the film’s insistence on themes of separation from one’s background and identity come into conflict with its desire to be no different from any generic white rom-com. Jose doesn’t find this an issue, instead sinking into the diasporic aura of the film. We discuss the film’s occasional TV movie feel, its use of music, its depiction of class through accents, and the way the opening sets up a much darker, more subversive film than we get.

And above all, it’s really, really funny.

Recorded on 16th September 2018

Four Seasons in Havana

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I was delighted to find Four Seasons in Havana, an adaptation of Leonardo Padura’s The Havana Quartet/ Vientos de la Habana on Netflix. I’m a huge fan of the Leonardo Padura’s novels they’re based on: Pasado perfecto (1991, translated as Havana Blue, 2007; Vientos de cuaresma (1994, translated as Havana Gold, 2008); Máscaras (1997, translated as Havana Red, 2005); Paisaje de otoño (1998, translated as Havana Black, 2006).  They’re set in the ‘Special Period’ between the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic reforms and Venezuelan aid of the 2000’s. Like Walter Moseley’s Easy Rawlins novels, part of the conceit and narrative restraint involves the solution of crimes in which the detectives are hampered in their investigation by no-go areas, in the case of Rawlins by virtue of being black, in the case of Mario Conde, Padura’s protagonist, by virtue of the various types of bureaucracy and corruption that hinder his investigations. A good detective novel can sometimes tell us much more about the culture it is based on than a sociological treatise. I’ve not seen enough of the series to recommend it myself but I’m already loving all the on-location shooting, the gorgeous views of Havana, the way people’s homes are furnished and other details not often available to those of us who have visited Havana as tourist. I here mainly want to signal its existence. But it’s been getting good reviews.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

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After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.

Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 91 – American Animals

 

An imperfect combination of documentary and dramatisation, American Animals gives us a lot to talk about. Its story of four college students embarking on a heist raises ideas of privilege, ambition and hope (or lack thereof), self-image, and above all, masculinity. In its self-conscious invocation of the kinds of films twenty-something white guys adore, such as Fight Club and Reservoir DogsAmerican Animals builds a portrait of the modern young man with which Mike sympathises but which José cannot tolerate.

Neither of us finds the film without deep flaws, and indeed we could not claim to have really enjoyed it. But it is valuable and leads to a lively debate. We use the phrase “American masculinity” a lot without burdening ourselves with defining it, and Mike observes that all films with American in the title are full of themselves.

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

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

 

Ceesepe R.I.P

Carlos Sánchez Pérez, the celebrated painter, illustrator and graphic designer best known by the sounds of the first letter of each of his names, (Ce, ese, pe) — Ceesepe, — died of Leukemia in Madrid on the 7th of September. RIP. Ceesepe was the painter of the scoundrelous (is that a word?: ‘el pintor de lo canalla). He did the great credit sequence for Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, etc, the posters for Labyrinth of Passion, Entre Tinieblas and The Law of Desire.

 

His images are a vivid conjuring of the Spain of ‘La movida’ covering as they did albums, comics, advertisements for bands, all the night life of the Madrid of the period.

His work was even sought after outside Spain:

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This is one of my favourite alternate posters he did for Law of Desire:

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José Arroyo

A quick note on Ekaterina (TV Series, Russia, 2014-)

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Those of you who are interested in historical drama might be interested in Ekaterina, a dramatisation of the transformation of a young and unimportant German Princess into Catherine the Great,  on Prime. It covers the same story and period as Von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress. It’s got excellent production and a charismatic cast with Empress Elizabeth (Julia Aug) foregrounded here much more than in other narratives. What made it so interesting for me is that it’s Russian; it was ostensibly a big hit there and much talked about. It’s interesting to see the story of Catherine the Great’s seizing of the Russian throne from a Russian point-of-view and difficult to see some of the faults outside that context; the patriotism is tied to a particular rough type of masculinity; the villain of the piece is Fredrick the Great (Hartmut Kurg), made villainous through his sodomy and his love of culture; likewise Peter III (Alexandr Yatsenko) is seen to be too interested in the arts, too unpatriotic and not masculine enough to inherit the throne. So all the homophobia etc of the culture is subtly evident throughout the work, but very glamorous and enjoyable to see in spite of that; and certainly informative.Marina Alexandrova gives a great star performance as Ekaterina: charismatic, beautiful, glamorous but also capable of conveying subtle, wide-ranging and even simultaneous and contradictory registers of emotion. She’s great.

The series is directed by Alexandr Baranov and  Ramil Sabitóv; and written by Arif Eliev and Elena Palmer

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 89 – Searching

 

You wait all day for a new type of film and then two turn up at once. Hot on the heels of Unfriended: Dark Web, which we discussed a few weeks ago, is Searching, another desktop film (as we’re calling them). John Cho plays a father whose teenage daughter goes missing and conducts a search for her using her laptop and an old family PC.

It’s formally a little different from Unfriended, and we consider that even more formal difference might have suited the story. But the form does allow the film to cleverly and subtly address themes of generational difference and familial disconnection, and the drama the film builds is deeply involving.

We also remark upon the film’s surprisingly unique and welcome depiction of an Asian-American family, and Mike misremembers the origin of the term “woman in the fridge”.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 88 – Red Sparrow

We catch up on home media with an erotic thriller that, while it fails to titillate, offers a fascinating portrayal of totalitarianism, sexuality, control and ownership of the female body and the way power is expressed through it, revenge, and more. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a ballet dancer forced into working for the state as a honeypot, tasked with seducing Joel Edgerton’s CIA operative for the purpose of smoking out his mole.

We are in agreement on the extravagant thrill of the opening, and the electifying darkness of the sex school’s complex dynamics and brutal methods. Mike is less interested in what occurs when the action moves into the field, and holds out hope for an ambitious (and insane) conclusion; José, more realistic, expounds on why the film’s developments should be interesting enough for Mike as they are. The plot grows convoluted, the visual design less expressive, but ultimately we love what Red Sparrow offers and wish we’d caught it when it was at the cinema.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 87 – The Happytime Murders

 

Raunchy, vulgar, adult puppet comedy. You’d think it’d be right up our street. But The Happytime Murders is incompetent, embarrassing and infantile, with almost no comic instinct – the couple of moments that drew laughs from us did so primarily through sheer insistence and excess. Mike tries to reckon with what the difference is between the likes of this and something like Team America: World Police, which he likes but is superficially similar. José can’t comprehend how simply bad the filmmaking is. A conversation about Melissa McCarthy ensues, with differing opinions on her talent, but her box office appeal is not in question – at least until now.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 86 – The Equalizer 2

 

Quiet, meditative, sensitive, gradual. Not the first words that come to mind when considering 2014’s vigilante thriller The Equalizer – though they do apply at times – but certainly descriptors of its sequel, which we loved. Denzel Washington’s ex-spy, Robert McCall, who had managed to extricate himself from a life of state-sanctioned violence and murder, now works as a vigilante for hire, an avenger, conducts himself as a role model, mentor, and cheerleader for those whose lives with which he comes into contact.

We discuss The Equalizer 2‘s ethos of personal responsibility and self-improvement, and its meditative tone. José orates on his love of Denzel and his position as perhaps the most significant figure of black masculinity throughout the history of cinema. Mike adores Antoine Fuqua’s aesthetic of long lenses, shallow focus and moody lighting; a visual sensibility that looks wonderful and intimidating on the big screen, but somehow makes small screens seem big too.

While it’s certainly cut from the same cloth as the first film, The Equalizer 2 is more confident to bask in contemplation and even a kind of plotlessness, and it’s not quite what you’d expect. We think it’s great. Worth seeing while it’s in cinemas.

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

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

Pecado de amor (Luis César Amadori, Spain/Italy, 1961)

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Pecado de amor is camp enough at the beginning: Sara Montiel is Sor Bélen, a nun in a woman’s jail. A young female prisoner tries to commit suicide, and by way of comfort, Sor Bélen recounts her own past as Magda Béltran, cabaret singer and baddest woman in Madrid.

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Terence Hill acting under the name of Mario Girotti

Magda’s story is thus told in flashback. We see her trifling with the affections of a young man, Ángel (a very young and handsome Terence Hill acting under the name of Mario Girotti here), so in love with her he forges his father’s name on a check to buy her an expensive bracelet. She has trouble offloading him. The father, Adolfo (Reginald Kernan) gets involved, tries to buy her off, but falls in love with her instead when he discovers she’s really a nice woman from a humble background trying to do her best to raise an illegitimate daughter.

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A woman of the people, but fully coiffed and in fur.

She’s about to achieve happiness with Adolfo when the manager of her nightclub and semi-pimp gets involved and she shoots him in self-defence. She’s taken to jail and at her trial denies knowledge of Adolfo so as not to ruin his career and social position. She expects to be in jail for a long time and gives her daughter up for adoption. Adolfo, however, comes to her defence. But it’s too late. She’s free but has now lost her daughter, her lover and her career and is forced to go outside Spain to seek work, an opportunity to see her garnering applause in the great capitals of Europe.

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Jailbird Sara

 

In Greece, she reunites with Adolfo, they cement their love but then he disappears suddenly. It turns out his wife, who’s been in a sanatorium in Switzerland for all these years, has recovered; and moreover it’s Adolfo who adopted her daughter and raised her to be a lady.  This is all too much for Magda. The nuns taught her to pray when she was in jail; and now she decides to find comfort in God.

 

 

If the beginning was camp, I nearly fell off my chair at the end (see above) where Sor Bélen is in Church, surrounded by a glorious choir, singing at her daughter’s wedding, as she stifles a sob whilst the camera cuts to her former young lover now married and with his wife, then to his father, the man she loved but can’t have, and then to a stained glass window in Church. The official sinner of the Spanish cinema of those years thus comes face to face with all her sins, in church, even as she gets redeemed and sanctified by a holy spirit voiced by the choir and pictured by the icons in the stained glass window. It’s as great an ending as Barbara Stanwyck’s in Stella Dallas, though this one will make you laugh rather than cry (but in a good way).

Like all Montiel vehicles post-El ultimo cuplé, the film is a musical melodrama. This one has great songs such as Gardel’s ‘El dia que me quieras’. Like other of her films such as El ultimo tango, Montiel does a number in drag, here Pichi (see clip above), which allows the film to show Sara to us as sinner, nun AND pimp; and as her stardom became international, she sang in other languages (here Sous les toits de Parisin French and Tinaini in agape in Greek); and as her stardom became international and the budgets of her films increased, there are little travelogue montages of beautiful and exotic places most of her audience couldn’t then actually visit but possibly dreamed of seeing (here mainly the Greek islands).

One of the IMDB comments notes that, ‘Maybe I saw another version, or the soundtrack is wrong, but I would like to make note that, in this movie, Montiel never sings “Madreselva” (she does in an album appropriately titled “El Tango”) neither (does) she sing(s) “Under the roof of Paris” since she did that in “La Violetera” (in Spanish for the Spanish version, french in the french version). This is not important but accurate.’ But for the sake of accuracy, I’d like to say that my version of Pecado de amor definitely contains both numbers, the first as part of her international tour (see the [suggestive] image on the left), and the second whilst in Greece (image below right).

In an hommage to Montiel from the TV series, ‘El Legado de…’ one of the commentators notes that one of the keys to Montiel’s appeal is that women liked her as much as men. Men may have been drawn to her sex appeal but women loved the clothes (some here by Balenciaga), the jewels, the hair-do’s, and the working out of so many sufferings women were earlier, then and later, condemned to. So many of her films are like a continuation of the ‘fallen women’ cycle of American films of the thirties but in gorgeous Eastmancolour and with highlights of music from the ‘Great Hispanic Songbook’. But unlike in America, in the Spain of the late fifties and through the sixties, sin had to be paid for not only by suffering but by, as we can see in one of the campest endings of all time, Christian redemption.

As I’ve noted before in relation to some of her other films, Montiel breaks the unspoken rule that the actor must never look directly at the camera and often does so in some of her numbers. See example below:

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José Arroyo

La dama de Beirut (Ladislao Vajda, Spain/France/Italy, 1965)

I love musicals and I thought I’d seen every variant. But a musical melodrama about sex trafficking in the Middle East is a new one on me. Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, USA, 1967) was made later, a comedy, and the white slavery is something that happened to Mary Tyler Moore rather than Julie Andrews.

In La dama de Beirut, Sara Montiel is Isabel Llanos, a cabaret singer only recently sprung from jail for a crime she did not commit and on probation. Xandro ‘The Greek’ (Alain Saury) and Gloria (Magaly Noël), see her perform in a cheap dive in Barcelona, like what they see, and offer her a contract. She doesn’t have papers but they arrange to get her a false passport and get her on a boat to Beirut. There she meets and falls in love with Francis (Giancarlo de Luca). But when she arrives in Beirut it’s clear that she’s meant to be performing in a whorehouse and that singing is not the only service she’s expected to render.

Much of the film is about how the women around her are treated (drugged or beaten into performing) and deal, or fail to deal, with the circumstances they find themselves in: one of the younger girls commits suicide. Isabel, however, lets herself be picked up by an elderly gent, Dr. Costello (Fernand Gravey) a distinguished doctor, who will not only help her escape but get her to Paris and arrange a television appearance which will lead to her triumph at the legendary L’Olympia. Even better, he turns out to be the father of Francis, the handsome playboy she fell in love with on the boat.  You couldn’t make this up, except, and of course, someone did.

marcelino pan y vino

Ladislao Vajda the legendary Polish director who worked mainly in Franco’s Spain and directed one of the great hits of the period, Marcelino pan y vino (1955)about a young boy who talks to Christ, directs this briskly, with attention to the film’s main selling points: Montiel, the sound-track, and the production values.

la dama de beirut soundtrack

It’s now clear that all of Montiel’s films of this period, amongst the most successful and international in the history of Spanish cinema, follow a formula: The films are all musical melodramas rather than musical comedies. The story is strung along a series of songs chosen with great care and taste and with a best-selling sound-track in mind (see above): they include some of the great classics of the Spanish-speaking world and beyond; in this film: Perfidia, Frenesï, En Secreto (Cada noche un amor), Perdida (mulher de Ninguem), Les feuilles mortes, etc); that some of those songs will be about Spanishness (La Española, Adios Granada). That each of the songs turns into a very distinct type of number.

As you can see in the example above, where Montiel sings Perdida, most of it is shot in close-up, with Sara in 3/4 shots favouring the left side of her face. Much of the number takes place with Montiel in front of an audience shown through back-projection so that she seems to jump out of the screen, and with so much light on her face she stands out burning bright. During the number there will be cuts to Montiel in full-figure plans Américains, sometimes placed amongst the orchestra, that serve no other purpose than allow the audience to see her dress, usually cut to favour her legs. Once in a while she’ll do a little shimmy, but she really can’t dance. The focus on the close-up, most unusual in musical numbers, creates the affect of a dream-like self-absorption and narcissisim that invites devotion and worship, and as history demonstrates, has succeeded in obtaining it. Sometimes, and most unusually, Sara will also look directly at the camera (see below), as if she’s not only singing to the audience within the narrative, but directly to the viewer, to you. I’ve not seen this used so consistently, almost a trope in her films, in any other type of musicals.

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Sara looks at the audience

The film has a whole host of ‘attractions’ for audiences of the period: the Balenciaga dresses Sara wears in the Spanish portions of the film, on location filming in Barcelona, Tangiers (passing for Beirut) and Paris, then the epitomy of all that was liberal, elegant and sophisticated (see below).

 

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Sara, now free, and after her triumph at L’Olympia, walks through the Arche du Triomphe, with her love ten steps behind her, as is right.

The co-stars- —  Giancarlo Del Duca, Fernand Gravey, Alain Saury — are of course their own ‘attractions’ but I want to here single out Magaly Noël as the vicious Madam/ White Slaver Magaly Noël, who first rose to fame performing the great ‘Fais-moi mal, Johnny’ with Boris Vian (see clip below). Still no one should kid themselves: Sara’s films are all about Sara: singing, with new hairdos, couture clothing or risqué showbiz costumes, looking as glamorous as a whole team of people can make her and surviving what fortune throws her way in what then passed for glamorous and exotic locations in and out of Spain.

Of the film, Sara Montiel writes in her memoirs, ‘I re-encountered my first director, Ladislao Vajda, in La dama de Beirut. Vajda was one of the best directors in the history of Spanish cinema, and his films are the proof. Unfortunately, he died half-way through the filming and his assistant Luis María Delgado, took over the shooting. It’s not bad but is missing greatness.’

 

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 85 – Dial M for Murder 3D

It’s Eavesdropping’s first anniversary and we celebrate with a film Mike’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a decade. Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released at the tail end of the short-lived Fifties 3D craze, and has rarely been seen in that format (even at the time). But it rolls around every so often and this week came to the Electric, so we jumped at the chance to see it.

A dialogue-heavy chamber piece, Dial M for Murder might not seem the obvious choice for the spectacle of 3D, but it’s for this reason that we find it interesting. José, who has seen it before in 3D, recalls his previous impressions of the importance of items – the keys, the handbag, the scissors – and how the stereoscopy relates to it. Mike, who wrote on 3D film at university and has defended it ever since, places Dial M for Murder in context, comparing it to both 3D of the time and today, suggesting how it was ahead of its time.

Away from the 3D, we find the film slight, a trifle, though enjoyable throughout and respectful of the audience – the film’s methodical nature is lovely. We find some of the performances disappointing, and one in particular delightful. We’re glad we saw it, even though José’s spectacles were broken.

José’s note on Dial M for Murder can be found here: https://notesonfilm1.com/2013/08/07/a-note-on-dial-m-for-murder/

Recorded on 23rd August 2018.

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

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

 

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