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Homophobia in Z

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As discussed on our podcast on Z in Eavesdropping at the Movies, Z is a great political film marred by homophobia. In talking to friends about it, many of whom had seen the film on its original release, it became clear that they could not remember this aspect of the film. And yet it seems to me to be central. Vago (Marcel Bozuffi) and Yago (Renato Salvatore) are the film’s main henchmen with Vago taking particularly glee in the damage he causes.

In the first clip (below), shortly after we’re introduced to them, and as Yves Montand’s voice talks of the problems of society and the great ideals he espouses, Yago follows Vago’s gaze, tells him, ‘shit, that’s all you think about’, the camera moves up to show us where Vago’s gaze is leading to, and we see an adolescent boy in his undies. Vago grins knowingly and says, ‘yes’. I have mixed feelings about this.

I like that Vago is unashamed of his desires. I like that Yago, particularly as he’s played by the amiable open-faced Renato Salvatore, knows of it; that Vago is out to Yago and that the latter jokes about this in what seems a ‘natural’ way. I don’t think the response would be any different if Vago had been looking at a woman, say. However, it’s very clear that Vago is meant to be the anti-thesis of the handsome, intellectual, heterosexual, idealist, Doctor/Poltician/Saint played by Yves Montand. Montand’s voice-over is the context through which we see and follow Vago’s gaze.

In the second clip (below), Vago, who has earlier wanted his name in the paper, now, since the police are making a case out of the incident he caused,  wants it out. What the clip shows us is that the newspaper editor is gay and there’s a suggestion of trading sex for favours. This feeds into the old cliché of gay men forming a cabal. Vago then runs to the bar next door and clicks his heels. Is this because he doesn’t have to have sex with the editor who’s his age but too old for him? Is this because his mission’s accomplished? Because he’s high on the havok he’s wreaked? Perhaps a combination of all these? After he clicks his heels he runs to the bar, positions himself next to an adolescent boy, makes sure their hands touch, first trying to make it seem by accident and then very deliberately so. The stereotype of the homosexual preying on vulnerable adolescents rendered explicit, and particularly disturbing in a film which finds cause and reason for and  which humanises every other poor person complicit in causing damage that day.

If it’s not enough that Vago is the anti-thesis of Montand’s Z, preying on young boys and part of a secret homosexual cabal, by the end of the film we’re told he’s a convicted felon found guilty four times, including once for raping a young boy whilst a camp counsellor. So to add to all the damaging stereotypes presented so far, this homosexual is a convicted pedophile.

But that’s not the end, as you can see below, Vago’s thuggery is shown to be brutally misogynist as well.

I find this representation of gay men simultaneously exiciting, unusual and reprehensible in what is meant to be a left-wing film. It’s typical of the era’s politics where the ideal left wing figure is that which Montand represents here (and particularly so considering his star persona of working class Communist man of the people; a model of virility who married Signoret and bedded Monroe); and where to be the era’s most reviled figure is to be that which Vago represents. I suspect the only reasons to make Vago an exuberant thug rather than a mincing queen is to condense clichés of that most reviled by the era’s Marxists into one figure. The gleeful thuggery and lack of shame is what makes Vago unusual and exciting. But to put this figure forth at a time when gay men were actively oppressed in all areas of life seems to me to be reprehensible and one of the film’s great flaws.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 36 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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An extraordinary, near-Shakespearian meditation on misdirected rage, guilt and grief, deeply marred by clumsy lunging into a loud theme of racism and a strong sense that the film neither knows nor especially cares about the culture it’s portraying. Frances McDormand excels as the bullish, bellicose, foul-mouthed mother, but the film suffers as it shifts its focus to Sam Rockwell’s stereotypical racist hick. The central premise is brilliant; its treatment is ultimately uneven, and although there are elements we absolutely adore, we can’t get its lurches between tones out of our heads.

Do Americans have a case against the use of foreigners in their cinema? Language is one of the glories of this film yet we find there are considerable misjudgments with language in relation to gender and race. We can’t find enough superlatives for Frances McDormand yet we question why all the other women in the film seem to look 19, even when they’re meant to be married to Woody Harrelson. The film is very conscientious about its representation of race, yet comes across as rather racist. A tonally deaf film with some great moments.

Rewarding to watch, though, and it would benefit from a second viewing.

Recorded on 18th January 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies 37 – The Post

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Spielberg. Streep. Hanks. Nixon. A political thriller that adopts some clichés and slightly sidesteps some expectations, The Post is a historical drama that follows the internal conflict at The Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers scandal. We find plenty to talk about in its parallels with the Trump White House and the current President’s attacks on the news media; its careful but stilted style; its relationship to the 70s cinema it evokes; its central figure of a woman out of place in a world of men; and the balance between its nationalistic boosterism of the US Constitution and American exceptionalism on the one hand, and its surprisingly direct denunciation of the powers that be in Washington. You can literally hear Mike learning about the Nixon era, live!

Also discussed: Mike loves Bridge of Spies, Jose doesn’t love Bridge of Spies, Mike thinks Spotlight is uniquely brilliant, Jose espouses his theory on Meryl Streep’s stardom, and why is everyone in the Post’s newsroom over 65?

Recorded on 22nd January 2018

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, Netflix, 2017)

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Those of you who love celebrities and fashion will enjoy this documentary on the world’s most famous shoe designer. An eccentric of Hungarian descent who grew up on the Canary Islands, modelled himself on Cecil Beaton and constantly dreams of Sicily, Manolo Blahnik, wearing beautifully tailored suits and with scarves and socks carefully colour co-ordinated, is very much himself and a joy to behold. His career is legendary and touches on everyone who’s anyone in fashion: Diana Vreeland encouraged him to focus on shoes; Anna Wintour took solace in his company and his shoe-shop before either of them were famous; Paloma Picasso hung out with him in Paris; a thin André Leon Talley became pals with him in London in the 70s; he was the first man to grace the cover of Vogue in 1974, shot by David Bailey and with Anjelica Huston by his side. All of these people alongside Rihanna, Rupert Everett, Penelope Tree, Sofia Coppola and many others come to sing his praises. The film itself charts his career from an unknown emigré in Paris to becoming a fixture in fashion in the 1980s and household name in America in the 90s thanks to Sex and the City. It’s an enjoyable film to watch and, as expected, a delight to the eye.

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Gracing the cover of Vogue with Anjelica Huston for David Bailey in 1974

There is only one moment however that seems to break out of the luvviness of the fashion world and hint at something deeper. John Galliano appears at Blahnik’s shop in the middle of a shoot. They clearly adore each other, lavish each other with compliments and then begin an homage to legendary Spanish flamenco diva Lola Flores. As they look into each other’s eyes and sing ‘Pena, penita, pena’, that classic and classically excessive song of hurt, both equally adoring  but each trying to out-trill the other for the cameras, two lost boys are revealed; homeless, exiled, lonely and finding a connection in a shared appreciation of a culture they’ve largely lost but perhaps the more meaningful for that: it’s camp, silly, touching. I wish the film had gone deeper. Manolo Blahnik claims that there is nothing deeper to find, that shallowness is all there is when it comes to him. That’s what the film offers. But Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,  in flashes of moments like those with Galliano,  hints  that it’s not quite so; that there’s a much more interesting story to tell, although it could very well be it’s not one Blahnik wants told.

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A shared love of Lola: surrounded by glamour but singing ‘Pena, penita, pena’

 

Jose Arroyo

 

Plan B (Marcos Berger, Argentina, 2009)

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A film that begins as a slacker sex farce and develops into a poetic dramatisation of changing desires. Bruno (Manuel Vignau) regrets dumping his girlfriend (Mercedes Quinteros) and wants to win her back. She’s now got a new boyfriend, Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and whilst continuing to shag Bruno on the side claims no desire to get back together with him. Bruno hears from one of Pablo’s friends that he’s known to have expressed an interest in men and decides to seduce him in order to break up their relationship and win back his girlfriend. You can guess how it will end.

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One of the pleasures of watching foreign films is to learn about other cultures. Here the bodies, faces, flats, utensils; the ways of being;  the spaces people inhabit and the norms of the culture in which the protagonists dance their game of seduction; all seem strange and appealing to me.

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The film depicts an interesting tension. The protagonists watch TV, have sleepovers, talk about treasured childhood toys, they get to know one another and in doing so discover feelings for each other they didn’t know they had in them. Dramatically, the physical dimension of desire in the film is always blocked, sometimes literally as when half-way through the film, Bruno and Pablo are sleeping together, Pablo goes to cuddle up with Bruno in the night, and Bruno’s arm rises up like a shot to block him. The film seems to take place in a world of feeling — confusing, unexpected, troubling — where homosexual desire is seen as burgeoning but with no release. Characters are confused by their own feelings, uncertain of the feelings and motives of the other, scared to express for real what has heretofore only been expressed as a joke. It’s very beautifully done.

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The formal aspects of the film tell a different story. one that is in productive tension with what we are shown. The camera lingers on these young men’s faces, finding beauty in a glance, a gesture, a way of speaking. The camera is often fixed so that we first see characters from their crotches or bums before they sit down so we can get a big close-up their faces. The camera is often placed low so that we get particularly sexualised views of the characters bodies. And yet it’s only a look at. The faces and bodies themselves are not fetishised by make-up, lighting or lenses. It’s almost as if the rapt attenuation of desire inherent in this particular way of filming  sexualises the relationship in a  way the protagonists restrain themselves from until the end.

In attitude, if not in looks, Bruno is like John Malkovich’s Viscomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, a better looking but equally charming sexual mercenary who ends up hoisted on his own petard. However, the filming of it reminded me of Ozu or Takeshi Kitano. Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.

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The characters speak of feeling; the use of the camera speaks of sex; the editing of that deeply felt but as yet unresolved. The combination spoke to me of a sexual awakening with all the urgency, hesitation, confusion, humour and embarrassment one remembers from life.

A friend recommended Marco Berger’s films to me in the light of my appreciation of Lucas Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. And I can see why to an extent: there’s a shared theme of sexual awakening here, and with a much more complex rendering of the spectrum of sexuality than in most movies (and one that Call Me By Your Name still hasn’t been given credit for). But the styles are very different.

Plan B is slower, more meditative, with leisurely editing, sparse shots composition, terrible music, and many shots where the audience is only half informed and where what the characters are reading or even saying to each other remains unheard by us. It’s a film with mystery, beauty and feeling; all achieved with the simplicity one has to be very skilled in order to achieve. I look forward to seeing the rest of Berger’s oeuvre.

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José Arroyo

 

 

Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938

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I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director  in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.

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Joint Christmas card from Henry Fonda, John Swope, James Stewart and Josh Logan

The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).

Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t  well convey.

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In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou —  immediately underneath her name —  are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.

It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 35 – Darkest Hour

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A chamber piece about history which looks like a combination of Rembrandt and an old photograph. In the podcast we discuss how Joe Wright might be getting short shrift as a director and the excellence of the performances:Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James are all marvellous. Mike mentions how the film is not the life of Churchill but a few defining weeks in the life of Churchill; how the film shows us nothing of Dunkirk, we merely see it on a map; and how wonderful a supercut of this and Dunkirk might be. Mike also highlights how the cemeteries of Belgium tell a very different story from the official one in relation to Britain’s ‘going it alone’ in the two World Wars.  We discuss how the film’s emotional manipulations are cheap but how one finds oneself responding to the film’s jingoism. I would have enjoyed it more had the film been less of a Brexit film, whether the filmmakers intended it or not. I would really like to see a film with the same actors just focussing on the relationship between Clemmie and Winston, and there’s a wonderful volume of letters full of sketches of kitties and piggies called Speaking for Themselves that I wish someone would draw on for a film. Mike guardedly recommends the film and is instantly remorseful but agrees there are pleasures to be had from it. But…..

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies 34 – Jumanji – Welcome To The Jungle

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Boy oh boy, there’s a lot to talk about, and the word of the day is denial. Specifically, Mike’s unspoken, subcutaneous, existential denial that 1995’s Jumanji is crucially meaningful to him, because how else can you explain the tension in the air as he grapples with the simple question, “Do you recommend the new Jumanji?” Ironic, really. The new Jumanji depicts characters who are forced to confront harsh truths about themselves, and in doing so forces Mike to confront the fact that he can talk about Jumanji for an hour with very little prompting.

And that new Jumanji provides a surprising amount of food for thought. We discuss how the film uses and satirises videogames, how much it made us laugh, the Jonas Brothers, Mike being a sucker for a happy ending as usual and Jose rolling his eyes, the stereotypes from which the central characters are built, how the film has its sexist cake and eats it, the ways the stars play off each other and suit their roles, aspects of performance, the muddled nature of the world and fundamental change in the characters’ relationship to it, how much harder it is to play videogames than it is to watch films, moviegoers’ over-investment in films from decades past, and last year’s Power Rangers movie.

And it’s a name-heavy edition of the podcast, with Jose getting names wrong left, right, and centre, and a final, authoritative correction of our pronunciation of Jia Zhangke’s name. (Thanks to Sam and Jessy Stafford for their contributions.)

Recorded on 16th January 2018.

 

he podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies 33 – Z

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We visit a French-Algerian political thriller from 1969. It also happens to be a bona fide classic that won a ton of awards, enjoyed great popularity, and even succeeded in markets where it was subtitled or dubbed. Neither of us has seen it before; both of us are glad our first encounter with it was on a cinema screen.

We discuss its relevance to society today – the reason the MAC is screening it, no doubt – the precision and economy of its editing and storytelling, its control of information, its title, its geographical setting, its surprising sense of humour, and indeed something we both found left rather a bad taste in the mouth. We also run down the eleven films from 1969 that outperformed it at the US box office, and Mike teaches me about  The Stewardesses.

 

Recorded on 11th January 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies 32 – Mountains May Depart

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Mike’s brother corrects our pronunciation of director Jia Zhangke’s name, helping us settle into a discussion of his ambitious, deeply moving tale of friendship and loss that spans two and a half decades. We talk about motifs of keys and coats, themes of capitalism and home, the changing aspect ratios and clarity of the image, the documentary feel to its portrayal of Fenyang and the way of life there, and much more besides. We admire almost everything and still can’t get Go West out of our heads.

Recorded on 11th January 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 31 – Human Flow

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Ai Weiwei brings displaced peoples from across the world together in his documentary on the global refugee crisis. In the podcast below, we discuss their plight, the film’s use of poetry, Weiwei’s imagery, and the countless ways in which he humanises people who are insulted, ignored, used as bargaining chips, and condemned to lives of confinement with no end in sight. Weiwei is kind, respectful, occasionally playful; the film itself is uncompromising. It’s a film that makes you want to do  something about what you’ve just seen,

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 30 – Happy End

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Michael Haneke’s precise, layered Happy End takes on – what else? – the bourgeoisie, and sees Eavesdropping welcome 2018 and iTunes availability at last! Opening with praise for the extraordinary image quality provided by the mac’s 4K projector, we consider the film’s surprising comic sensibility, its observation of different social strata, how our expectations shaped our experiences of what we saw (or didn’t see), Haneke’s surprising and subtle subversions of cinematic conventions, and his continued exploration of violence as a central theme and colonialism and race as something that would be invisible but for it constantly being on the edges and structuring.

The humour is dark but there’s lots of it: We never before knew that Haneke wanted us to have a good time.

Recorded on 7th January 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

In Conversation With Guy Bolton, author of The Pictures

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Guy Bolton, author of The Pictures, is the subject of our third ‘In Conversation With ….’ Podcast. The Pictures is a detective novel set in 1939, around MGM, during the making of The Wizard of Oz. It begins with two deaths: a young woman, Florence Lloyd, has been brutally murdered; and Herbert, Stanley, an MGM producer, married to MGM star Gale Goodwin, has hung himself.

Detective Jonathan Craine of the LAPD is called in ostensibly to ‘investigate’ but really to present whatever happened to the producer in the best light so that it doesn’t affect the box office of his wife’s new film. In doing so, he and his partner Patrick O’Neill begin to discover links between the murders that lead them to the mafia, Las Vegas, the corruption of the film unions, the availability of drugs in the studios, the uses of prostitution in Hollywood, how coverage in newspapers can be bought and the fine line dividing a studio ‘fixer’ from a hardened criminal.

It’s a tough, sexy, brilliantly textured whodunit that depicts a 1939 Hollywood in a rich and layered way, with characters as you like them in noir, and a plot that will keep you guessing. It’s been widely and excellently reviewed and we here get an opportunity to discuss it with its author: on the lure of pulp; the attractions of Hollywood as setting; what are the influences, both literary and filmic; what decisions were made as to structure and point-of-view; and when the next one is coming out. Enjoy.

 

The podcast can be listened above or by clicking here

 

José Arroyo

 

The Pictures is published by Oneworld and available in bookshops across the country and on kindle via Amazon

Cagney Camps it Up in The Public Enemy

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In The Public Enemy Tom Powers (James Cagney) now has money to burn and he’s gone to the taylor, who’s just groped his biceps whilst measuring him for a suit.  But does he care? Humph!

 

José Arroyo

‘Such a muscle’! Cagney gets felt up in The Public Enemy

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Hard to imagine that pansies were once everywhere in Pre-Code cinema, even in gangster films such as ‘The Public Enemy’.

 

Jose Arroyo

A minor observation on the influence of Little Caesar on ‘The Godfather’ films.

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We know that The Godfather films draw knowledgeably and extensively on classic 30s gangster films for their structures and iconography. But watching Little Caesar recently I was struck by how closely and directly the influence of Little Caesar can be seen in  The Godfather  and The Godfather II. Here are but two examples:

On the left, the killing of Tony Passa in the Church Steps in Little Caesar and on the right the finale of killing during the baptism scene in The Godfather.

The funeral sequence in Little Caesar on the left closely resembles the festival of San Rocco scene in The Godfather: Part II where Vito Corleone plans to murder Don Fanucci.

 

José Arroyo

The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel (Amy Sherman-Palladino, Amazon, 2017-)

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My sister turned me onto The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel: she was describing how much she loved comedy, how much more when it was the type of Jewish humour set in New York’s East Village in the 50s; when the protagonist was a woman who wore Chanel, Jacques Fath and Balenciaga; and when the show has bursts of glorious show-tunes that pop throughout the series and create little bubbles of feeling, usually upbeat. In fact the whole show is as stylised as a musical but with the glossy shine and setting of a Rock Hudson – Doris Day romantic comedy of the period. It’s clearly inspired by Joan Rivers’ career and there’s a glorious Totie Fields-type antagonist, Sophie Lennon, wonderfully played by Jane Lynch in both guises, the fake onstage hick shtick and the sophisticated doyenne of a butlered West Side townhouse under the onstage fat-suit.

 

Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam ‘Midge’ Meisel is smart, funny, beautiful. She knows her lipsticks well enough to charm most women –there’s a tinge of Legally Brunette about her character — whilst being interested and open enough to also get to know and like women who despise make-up and everything it stands for, like her butch manager Susie. Part of what’s lovely about this show is women’s relationships with each other. And interestingly, though one of the main storylines is Mr. Meisel (Michael Zegen) leaving and what happens next, the relationships that I treasure most in the series are those Mrs. Meisel has with her mother (a tart, delicate and witty performance from Marin Hinkle) and with her manager Susie Mayerson (Alex Borstein, looking like a wounded bulldog ready and willing to bite at any moment).

 

What makes Mrs. Meisel so marvelous is that offstage she’s kind, thoughtful, smart, a can-do problem solver whose quite efficiency makes everyone’s life better. Onstage, however, her Id takes over: she ends up in jail twice, sharing the paddy-wagon with Lenny Bruce, bares her tits and biting the hand that feeds her. Like Joan Rivers, she can’t help herself. And like Joan Rivers, she struggles to find a spot and be heard in a patriarchal phallocentric milieu where as Sophie Lennon tells her, to be a comedian you’ve gotta have a dick or a schtick. The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel eschews both and creates a space for a humorous point of view of a female experience in a changing world that is both critical and delightful. The show feels like sinking into a cloud whilst eating ice-cream. But after the ice-cream’s been eaten and the clouds have dispersed, one finds oneself also remembering a complex account of a time, a place and a struggle that feels as truthful as it is delightful.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 29 – Molly’s Game

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Eavesdropping celebrates the New Year with a snappy, sharp crime flick about the world of underground, high-stakes poker. We discuss the material’s weakness, our different takes on Molly’s character, the film’s descent into schmaltzy daddy issues, Sorkin’s directorial mediocrity, what David Fincher might have done with the material; the audience’s response to Sorkin’s dialogue; how good Chastain, Elba and Cera are; and the way Star Wars is dominating every bloody screen in every bloody cinema. Mike sounds different because he has a cold; I, because I’m occasionally trying to eat cake and talk simultaneously.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

An observation on colour design in Scarface

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The image above is from one of Scarface‘s most iconic moments: ‘say hello to my little friend’. Practically everyone knows or has heard the line either in the movie or cited or imitated elsewhere. Pacino’s performance is galvanising and his reading of that line unforgettable: we now have over 35 years’ evidence that this is so. But what caught my eye in my most recent viewing is how the film’s set, costume and colour design — not to mention all other elements of mise-en-scène — also build up to this moment.

The red-carpet is like a pathway of blood, leading up to that oh-so-white and oh-so-deadly — ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ — little mountain of coke on the desk, all the darkness of the furniture showing edges of gold, including those two big bars that seem to frame the desk itself. It’s like the colour of killing leads to the whiteness of the coke, which is nonetheless enshrouded in the darkness one has accept and travel through to get to the gold. It’s patterned, meaningful, great use of colour and set design. Note also that foot and the patch of purple or violet on the lower right-hand side of the frame. Most of this post will be about that.

But before that let’s just establish how the colour is designed and patterned. Note below, Tony Montana’s phone call after the chainsaw scene with the Columbians were he manages to obtain both the coke and the money in spite of the suspicion that he’s been set up by by Omar (F. Murray Abraham). It’s what leads to his first contact with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) The image is almost the inverse one of the scene where Lopez himself decides to off Tony Montana and which will instead lead to his own demise. See images below. It’s like the colours of the shirt in the picture on the left have been rendered onto the landscape that’s a backdrop and then combined so that the landscape is painted in the colours of the shirt and then transposed as the wallpaper that is a backdrop to a newly endangered Tony in Frank Lopez’s office. The first is a ‘Hello Frank’ moment. The latter is a ‘Goodbye Tony Montana that ends up being Goodby Frank Lopez’ moment. And the link between them, how one is the result but opposite of the other is partly communicated through a similar inversion and transposition of colour.

Another example of this consistent, patterned and expressive use of colour is the use of red. The first frame-grab below on the left is the two pillars of red that frames the entrance of Tony and Manny (Steven Bauer) into Frank’s house. In the second we see that the house is meant to evoke rich Miami moderne, so the red remains an accent if vibrantly evident. In the third as they sit down to discuss business with Frank, the red occupies the bottom third, but now the black predominates in the leather sofas, and Frank is wearing the colour of his merchandise, cocaine. Then compare this again to the final shootout at Tony’s mansion on the last frame, where the red predominates, the black, gold is evident and carried through, and the the sculpture that ironically proclaims the world is yours is in gold and dead centre.

To return to the ‘say hello to my little friend’ image from the beginning and the peek of purple at the bottom right of the frame, the colour of the nightgown Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the person Tony loved most was wearing when he killed the second person he loved the most, Manny. She’s still wearing it after being killed in his own office. When I saw it I wrote a note to myself:

‘Colours converge at the end, sister wearing husband’s mauve which he’s been associated throughout, the carpet of red, leading to the gold, the black and the cocaine, all the dominant colours of the last set-pice in the house with the world is yours fountain at the end, borrowed wholesale from the neon sign in the original film.

‘The World is Yours’ appears often in the film, sometimes written onto airborn Zeppelins, sometimes as a sculpture outside the new Montana headquarters,, sometimes in Tony’s own office, and at the end as the centrepiece in the middle of the dual staircase (see below).

I had a theory about the colour purple based on this image below:

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It’s the moment where Tony kills Manny. Manny has been dressed in or surrounded by the spectrum of colours between red and blue that generally centres on violet. Manny is newly married and robed in white (and, after Tony, shoots him splattered in red). As you can see below there is hardly a scene in the film (I noted two important but brief exception) where Manny is not wearing some form of violet. My theory was that marriage had transferred his colour onto that of his wife.

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Even when naked Manny is surrounded in violet (here through the colour of his bed). Note also the golden hues of the bedding and the blonde.

However, looking back on the film I see that this is not quite the case. Gina has also been wearing that colour throughout the film and in fact in their first proper meeting where he takes her home, they’re both wearing slightly different shades of the same colour.

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When Tony makes his sister’s dream come true neither Gina nor Manny is wearing violet but they are surrounded by its various hues. Would it be too much to say it’s as if surrounded by a kind of love?

If violet/purple can be seen as the colour of Tony’s loves, then that little peek of purple by the foot in lower right hand corner of the image that began this post signifies all that his striving to make the world his has cost Tony. The darkness, the coke, the blood is still there with more intensity to come albeit only for a brief time. But that which was love is now dead, barely there and receding fast. It’s great and expressive use of colour throughout the film and this is only but a brief example.

Patricia Norris deserves credit for the costume design; Bruce Weintraub for the set decoration, Edward Richardson for the Art Direction, and Brian De Palma for drawing on Ferdinando Scarfiotti as visual consultant and co-ordinating all of it.

 

Post-script:

Chris McNicolls has brought to my attention the following: ‘Along with black, violet/mauve are colours of death and mourning in many cultures, so in a way its use seem to foreshadow how things are going to end with Manny and Tony’s sister. But in Cuban culture in particular, especially in its African inflected influences, mauve/violet are the colours of the goddess Oya, that imperious lady who rules the cemetery. And in that frame where Tony emerges from his office on that red carpet with his little friend. The entire setting is dominated by violet/purple and that raging red which, not surprising, is the colour of Oya’s one-time consort, Chango/Shango the lord of fire, lightning, and destruction. And let me tell you, his manly prowess is far from little, hence Tony’s ironic description.’ Something to think about and pursue.

 

José Arroyo

A memory of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983)

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Brian De Palma’s Scarface was released in December 1983. I was then an undergraduate at McGill trying to earn a few bucks during the holiday season by working as an usher at the Place du Canada cinema in Montreal, an 815 seater with one screen that opened in ’67 with Expo and closed in 1989, after the multiplex boom made such theatres impractical.

 

I got fired eventually, ostensibly for reading on the job but really because the holiday season was over. Scarface was Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release that season. During the whole time I worked at Cinema Place du Canada, which must have been just over a month, it was the only film we screened, and we could only show it twice weekdays as the film was so long (2h50). Despite mixed reviews, we got good crowds, and queues were common at almost every screening.

I have many fond memories of working there; the sound of kernels of corn popping steadily away, the smell of the newly melted butter. I thought that’s the way all cinemas all over the world made their popcorn until I moved to England. Here I found the popcorn on sale popped who knows when, looking forlorn and strewn behind big glass windows, usually sweet instead of salty. Why is that? It’s so inexpensive to pop corn fresh and the melting butter makes the whole cinema smell enticing and delicious. What an alienating way to cut corners, especially at the prices they charge.

I’ve never forgotten the way guys with their dates leaned up to the box-office and said ‘Two for Al’ at the Place du Canada cinema screenings of Scarface. It was almost always ‘Two for Al’ instead of ‘Two for Scarface.’ That’s how big a star Al Pacino was then. If the guys were Italian, they’d purr a ‘Hey’ up front with that extra relish, musicality and élan so typical of East Coast North Americans of Italian descent wanting to present ‘la bella figura’ and taking particular pride in Al Pacino’s accomplishments: ‘Hey! Two for Al’. Remember John Travolta aspiring to Al-ness in Saturday Night Fever? 

 

Pacino then was every immigrant’s Al. That Scarface has since found a central place in hip hop culture in particular and black cultures in general is no surprise. One can point to how the cocaine, the guns and the gold might have a particular appeal to hip hop ‘pimp’ culture. But of greater significance in Scarface is how it presents the gangsterism of the system itself, the lawlessness of the cops, the muderousness of the privileged and the constant exclusionary practices put in place against any kind of other. Scarface spoke — sang really — not only in operatic style but with operatic range and depth to immigrants and outsiders of all kinds.

 

At Place du Canada I wore a tux; a cheap, scratchy and ill-fitting one, which probably made me uncomfortable wearing any kind of suit for life. I repetitively took and tore up tickets. I had a flashlight and sometimes lit the way and led the last stragglers to their seats.

But hey, there wasn’t much to do, which meant I was already in place in the dark to delight in the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene in the shower, probably the most graphic and violent bit of cinema your average filmgoer had seen to then — the not so average had probably already revelled in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) — and one which has surely shaped my taste.

I also got to see the rest of the film, over and over again, maybe 70 times in all, which surely also shaped the way I understand and think about cinema now. In between shows, I was reading Pauline Kael in short bursts, which I imagine must also share some of the blame, and not just for getting me fired.

 

There will be more on De Palma’s Scarface in later posts.

 

José Arroyo