Category Archives: Uncategorized

Guest starring in Fantasy/Animation on Coco

 

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The latest episode of the Fantasy/Animation podcast on Coco is also our first crossover instalment. Many thanks to Christopher Holliday and Alex Sergeant for including Michael Glass and myself. Coco´s great and this was great fun to do:

You can follow the link below:

https://www.fantasy-animation.org/podcasts/2019/3/11/episode-16-coco-lee-unkrich-2017

José Arroyo

Las Islas Marias (Emilio Fernández, Mexico, 1951)

A film that’s excessively melodramatic, choppy and incomplete, with strands of plot that get lost and don’t quite make sense; a film that’s nonetheless arresting to look at, engaging, and ultimately moving in spite of all the clichés. It´s an Emilio Fernández film, photographed by Gabriel Figueroa: melancholy and pure, mired in fatalism but with a path to redemption embedded in the very beauty of the shots, compositions and the people at the centre of it.

The plot is one cliché after another: A widow (Rosauro Revueltas) has struggled to bring up her three children properly and against all odds. But she´s not quite succeeded: Her daughter Alejandra (Esther Luquin) is running around wild with men she shouldn´t; Her eldest  son, Felipe (Pedro Infante), is drowning his sorrows with sad songs and alcohol. Luckily for her, the day before her house gets repossessed, she´s hosting a party for her other son, Ricardo (Jaime Fernández), the good one, perfect in every way, upstanding, honourable. But that night, Alejandra kills a man. Ricardo takes the blame but kills himself to preserve is honour as a military man, and thus Felipe then takes the blame so that his brother can die with his name untarnished.

As you can see in the clip above, the film is unabashedly melodramatic, throwing every cliché in the book at a story which needs all the help it can get: note the music, the angles, the cutting, all throbbing life and feeling at a plot point so cornball only a Dickens or this kind of treatment can bring to life. As  soon as the mother says, ´Our house is in trouble but thank God all my children are around me´´, the police knock on the door, and soon the house will be lost, one son will be dead, the other in prison, the daughter walking the streets and she herself reduced to working in a factory for subsistence living and soon to go blind. When misery descends there´s no escape.

 

If the story is a cliché, what the film wrings out of it isn´t. There are moments where sadness and pain are conveyed plainly in moments of spectacle that take us out of the plot and into pure feeling as here when Pedro Infante is introduced to us as Felipe, plaintively singing his sorrows through the lyric of ‘El cobarde/ The Coward’:

 

As the title of the film indicates, a major attraction is the setting, the penal colony of the Islas Marias. Once the pride of the government, beautiful, ostensibly ‘escape proof’, but infamous for its violence, disease and forced labour. The film depicts the beauty and the harshness of the island, the work, the incarceration in arresting, beautifully composed and balanced images (see a selection below).

 

 

 

Las Islas Marias is where the great Pedro Infante as Felipe goes to redeem himself. The film encases the characters in an ideology very dear to fascists regimes: characters speak of honour, duty, obligations, responsibility, who the head of the family is and what his —  it´s always a he — obligations are. The family runs through the film, prison is at the centre of it and it all ends in church. This is a film that structures all those tropes, so easily rendered reactionary, as prison bars throughout the film. But pierces them with something darker, sadder: a kind of pain that punctures all the certainties, howls through them and risks shattering them…but not quite.

At the heart of the film is this lovely exchange between Felipe and an older and wiser prisoner. There´s talk of a planned escape. Of how Felipe will be coerced into joining it through taunts of courage and manhood. But as the old man says, ´Where we have to escape is not from the Islas Marias but from ourselves. And that is so difficult. …Why does one get desperate? Because of lack of freedom? Liberty is like those herbs from the hills that cure everything and cure nothing. The best thing is not to want to leave where one is, not to want anything. Understand. If you want nothing, you can live in peace´.

To want nothing is a sadness the film understands. But the film doesn´t relegate Felipe to an eternal stare into the abyss. If he was a coward who cried for love at the beginning. he finds the courage to claim another love, pure and simple, like the life he´s willing to accept and has now earned. The film ends with him finding his mother, now a blind beggar, in a church. But he´s got a wife and a baby. The film has previously shown us the sister walking the streets but fails to bring her back into the family, indeed she´s blamed for all the harm she´s caused, if only by structurally absenting her from the final sacred reunion.

The ending is as trite and clichéd as the beginning. But plot is not what one leaves this film with. There is the beauty of the song, and then images darkened into a prison each character inhabits, literally and figuratively such as we can see above on the left, and then the dignity, openness, and beauty of the compositions , ennobled by being shot from below against open sky (such as we can see on the right). Can a film be simultaneously trite and sublime? If it can be Las islas Marias is.

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 139 – Alita: Battle Angel

A tweeny sci-fi based on a manga, Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a young cyborg found on a scrapheap and given a new lease of life by a kindly doctor. She doesn’t remember who is she or where she came from, but takes to the dystopian world around her, finding excitement and energy in it, quickly realising an aptitude for combat and inclination to explore, and developing a relationship with a young man who seeks escape to a floating city that promises a better life. Oh, and she’s completely CGI in a live-action world.

Neither of us is too enthusiastic about the film, though José is far less interested in it than Mike, who finds things worth praising, particularly how Alita’s attitude to her body can be read in terms of transgender experiences. But the world-building is weak, relying on simple tropes, and Mike decries the sequel set up, convinced that the story it’s likely to tell could and should have been a part of this film. We vaguely agree that the action is enjoyable, José holding the reservation that he felt no connection to the characters, and Mike picks up on a tonal imbalance, suggesting that a film so clearly aimed at tweens should be less comfortable with swearing (something he also notes about Marvel, though to a lesser extent).

Mike is at pains to point out that despite acknowledging flaw after flaw, he had a good time. José has no time for such nuance, finding almost nothing in it he liked.

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.

Christopher Holliday and Alex Sergeant

When muttering to myself, I keep referring to Chris Holliday and Alex Sergeant as the Fantasy/Animation boys. And I must stop doing that. They’ve become very considerable scholars currently doing some of the most exciting work in the field of fantasy and animation, the reason for my wanting to talk to them: Alex has a monograph on fantasy in hand; Chris’ book, The Computer Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre came out in May from Edinburgh University Press; their joint collection, Fantasy/Animation: Connections between Media, Mediums and Genres is an AFI Reader recently published by Routledge and already nominated as one of the best edited collections of the year by BAFTSS (British Academy of Film Television and Screen Studies); and their superb Fantasy/ Animation website (www.fantasy-animation.org/about-2/) is already a treasure trove of articles and podcasts by a great mix of new and established scholars in the field. The podcast below covers all of the above and more.

José Arroyo

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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 138 – Captain Marvel

 

It’s taken ten years but Marvel has finally branched out into films about heroes who aren’t white guys. Following last year’s Black PantherCaptain Marvel introduces Marvel’s first female protagonist, Carol Danvers, a young woman caught up in conflicts between worlds and the mystery of who she is.

José is enraptured by the film’s visual beauty, Mike by its cat. Its mid-90s setting is mined for tons of laughs, as is Samuel L. Jackson’s lively, witty performance. Neither of us is too convinced by Brie Larson, sadly, who lacks the charisma to truly sell her role, but the cast and storytelling that surround her more than compensate. Quite apart from the very obvious gender dynamics at play, other intelligent, interesting themes are brilliantly interwoven into the plot, giving the film real substance and emotional punch. It’s occasionally a little too transparently right-on, some moments of sisterhood rather unsubtle and even cringeworthy, but other scenes intended to inspire female empowerment truly soar.

It’s an intelligent, spectacular film that we hugely enjoyed, and definitely recommend.

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: 137 – Cold Pursuit

Remaking his own film, Hans Petter Moland brings us a revenge thriller, starring – who else? – Liam Neeson as a model citizen turned remorseless killer on the trail of those responsible for his son’s murder. Sounds like typical Neeson fare, but Cold Pursuit leaps between dramatic and blackly comic tones with verve, and offers something much more interesting and original than you’re likely to expect.

We find lots to like in it, including its magnificent lighting and compositions, interesting and welcome inclusion of a group of Native American characters, as well as a commentary on their relationship to the very whitest America there is (the film being set in a Colorado ski town), and some surprisingly tender moments between adults and children, and people in love.

We highly recommend it, it’s a huge amount of fun!

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: 136 – Die Welle

n response to José’s excursion into the world of Michael Curtiz a few months ago, Mike has picked four films of his own to discuss, the first being writer-director Dennis Gansel’s 2008 high school drama Die Welle (The Wave). Based on the true story of a 1967 social experiment, Die Welle follows one week in a high school in which, as an exercise intended to teach his pupils about the methods and dangers of fascism, a teacher creates a fascist movement, named The Wave, that rapidly spirals out of control.

Die Welle is first and foremost remarkable for convincingly depicting the seductive aspects of fascist movements, such as the shared symbols that engender group unity and, indeed, simply the positivity of being a member of a like-minded group. Mike compares it to Starship Troopers, claiming that it doesn’t just argue its case but actually makes it work on its audience – rather than seeing why The Wave is appealing to the kids, you feel it too. José discusses what sets it apart from your typical high school movie and how an even greater focus on the kids, rather than the teacher, might have strengthened it.

The classroom scenes allow the film to develop its arguments about fascism through ersatz Socratic dialogues, the teacher’s seminar-style classes allowing pupils to make competing points in quick succession, clashing with each other as they do so. But Mike points out that perhaps all is not what it seems: one student, for instance, goes unchallenged when she claims that high unemployment and social injustice are social conditions that favour dictatorship, but the world in which these children live bears few markers of such sociopolitical problems, yet they enthusiastically join and build their movement. Indeed, one motivation behind the experiment is the students’ belief that Germany, having already experienced a fascist dictatorship, is immune from another. Perhaps, the film suggests, we aren’t quite as clever and protected as we’d like to congratulate ourselves on being.

Aside from the film’s central thesis, there are minor details in its world that pique our interest, José noticing the students’ access to and expertise in the use of image editing and web design software; Mike picking up on the educated, liberated attitude to sex the characters display (it’s hard to imagine an American high school movie treating sex with similar freedom and confidence). We remark upon how believable the characters are (with perhaps one exception) in their interactions and responses to the nascent movement.

Neither of us can claim that it’s a perfect film – there’s little in it that is visually expressive, and its mechanisms are too openly displayed, with some characters too clearly intended to represent ideas and serve plot functions. But Die Welle is an enormously engaging, intelligent, and rather bold exploration of the mechanisms and appeal of fascism that enthusiastically uses cinematic affect to convey its message that we may all be more susceptible to its dangers than we think.

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

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

The Rise of the Phoenixes

I´m currently enraptured by Chinese Television drama. The last being The Rise of the Phoenixes on Netflix. It has more kung fu and battle sequences than Yanxi Palace or Empresses of the Palace but the clothes and colour combinations are even more beautiful, the images better designed. It´s very melodramatic. People love but no will will let them be and the love is impossible to begin with due to family, class, obligations. Letters are carried back and forth, sometimes wrapped up in little wax balls and hidden in the immense nests that are part of the hairdos. Everyone is drop dead gorgeous, except some of the bad guys. Life is a violent chess game with people used as pawns, sometimes knowingly. No one is happy but all is beautiful. It´s all very romantic, very sexy even, but the characters barely touch throughout the whole show. .It´s blissful viewing.

José Arroyo

PS The show has a really interesting narrative device, where little capsule summaries are offered throughout when characters are reflecting on current dilemmas (as a way of reminding the audience how they got there all those episodes ago). Also, It’s a restful show. The viewer can just sink into it. And it´s made up of so many episodes that  for weeks on end you won´t need to worry about finding anything else when you´re too tired to see anything that actively requires thinking

José Arroyo and Carlo Anghel-Haltrich on Lost Book Found (Jem Cohen, 1996)

Discussing Jem Cohen´s ‘Lost Book Found’ with Carlo Anghel-Haltrich

There Will be Blog

An short amiable discussion about Jem Cohen’s poetic short documentary Lost Book Found. A rather rare avant-garde treasure (luckily it was picked up by the Museum of Modern Art), the film focuses on early 90s New York City as a space of perpetual transformation and renewal under the steady pressure of late capitalism. Atypically, the image of the city that is emphasized through its hypnotic extended montages is that of the obscure and the undesirable: lost trinkets, discarded notes, torn posters, written messages, advertising, and overproduced goods littering the streets and the discount shops. The film exudes an affinity for the cryptic, the unresolved, and the overlooked.

“Its beauty is quite ineffable. It’s the sort of visual experience that transforms everything seen by the viewer for several hours afterward. . . What it actually does is capture the subconscious of the city itself, the dream state of the whole…

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Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1934)

mandalay.jpgPart of a cycle of Orientalist films in which white people undergo exotic adventures in the Far East, with the female stars (Dietrich, Harlow, Stanwyck) playing characters with names like Shanghai Lily, China Doll, Megan, and Poppy Smith, women forced to live by their wits and their bodies; the film dramatising their progressive decline into sexual degradation as a forbidden frisson of delight for the evil men in the narrative and for the audiences in the cinema: Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, 1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1932), China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935), Shanghai Gesture (Josef Von Sternberg, 1941).

Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934) falls in the middle of this cycle. It’s a Kay Francis vehicle in which she starts off as  Tanya Bodoroff, a woman stuck in Rangoon who finds love with gunrunner Tony Evans (Ricardo Cortez). He’s going through financial difficulties and thinks nothing of selling her off to Nick (Warner Oland) where as the ‘hostess’ of his nightclub she becomes the notorious Spot White, who sells her favours for profit  and who’s main mission is to make men pay with much more than their wallet. She finally escapes this life and becomes Marjorie Lang, a woman intent on redeeming herself and the alcoholic Dr. Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) by bringing medical relief into the fever country where only one in a hundred returns alive. Tony returns to claim her just as she’s getting close to the Doctor, but he only wants her as the ‘Spot White’ who will make him money. He’s s quickly disposed of, in the exact fashion he’d tried to trick the authorities with earlier, falling overboard after poisoning, and thus freeing her to properly redeem herself. It’s a camp classic.

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The movie has a nonsense of a plot, all packed into 65 minutes and worth watching today mainly because of Michael Curtiz’ direction and Kay Francis’ star presence. The film has all the things I like about early Warners films: those lovely title sequences where stars are introduced as the characters they play (see above),, that quick pace of the narrative where worlds can be turned upside down in under 70 minutes, the wipes galloping through the action, here both vertical and horizontal, and the hardboiled dialogue.

 

In Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career (London: McFarland and Co., 2006), Lynn Kear and John Rossman write, ‘Just in time before the Production Code took effect, Warner Brothers released Mandalay. Yes, it’s another melodrama, but it gloried in its sordidness and is still great campy fun. Kay played a woman sold into white slavery by her bad-boy boyfriend, and virtually spat her lines – finally given the chance to play Poppy in Shangai Gesture, she unleashed an unforgettable performance as Spot White. It will always remain a popular Kay Francis film. One reviewer realized its appeal when it was released. ‘Make no mistake, you’ll like Kay Francis in her clothes, her rich, exotic lure, her drama, no matter how you quarrel with the over-wrought story. The camera presents some lovely pictures of Miss Francis’.

It certainly does. Some of the credit for that is, as I’ve previously demonstrated, due to Orry-Kelly. But much of the credit must go to Michael Curtiz. As you can see below, he affords her a great star entrance, with the camera clearly on a boat, dizzyingly dollying onto Kay wearing a louche wrap-around dress and framed by a parasol. It’s a visually exciting presentation of the star (see below).

 

 

The film also has a superb montage of Tanya’s transformation into Spot White, interestingly introduced by a few notes from a xylophone striking a generic oriental tune, with Kay encircled in the centre, wearing a different outfit each time, and shown in a different place with a different man, so we can chart how each step in her moral downfall is also a measure of her worldly success –an opportunity to delight the audience with her wickedness and her outfits (see below).

The influence of Shanghai Express, such a big hit for Dietrich and Von Sternberg just a few years earlier, is everywhere evident, particularly in the scene below: ‘So you’re Spot White’? ‘Yes, is it overwhelming you’?…

Mandalay also has one great song (see below), which in typical cheap Warners fashion, the film uses over and over again, but here intelligently, underlining character, situation and aspirations, and used first in relation to Tanya, then Spot White, and then Marjorie to mean slightly different things in each instance and for each character. It’s a lovely song, very well used, and affording Kay many opportunities to wear dazzling gowns:

‘I’ve so many dreams to be mended

When Tomorrow comes

So many cares to be ended

When tomorrow comes

I took the worst and made the best of it

Because I always hoped a new day would dawn

I struggled on.’

In Michael Curtiz: A Life, Alex K. Rode writes that, ‘after watching the pre-release cut in December, Jack Warner raved to Hal Wallis, ‘it’s a hell of a good women’s picture, in fact, it’s great!’

According to Rode, the film was considered so racy that, ‘Warners would be denied a reissue certificate for Mandalay in 1936, as Breen wrote to Jack Warner,’This picture also has the basic Code violation of presenting the heroine as an immoral woman’.

The film raises once again the perennial question regarding Curtiz´s films: Everything looks and moves great. But to what end? Yet the film is 85 years old and we´re still watching. It´s still offering us pleasures that we think of as cheap because they´re ‘merely´visual, decorative. It´s a film of pure form, including its characterisations: that´s partly why it works as camp, these places and people are ironised exaggerations of fantasy ideals. They´re ideologically loaded and make one ideologically aware. I wish I´d seen a transvestite ´do´Spot White in a nightclub in 1935, the jailhouse of fantasies, social and personal that would have been exposed!

Kennington Talkies presents at the Cinema Museum is currently screening a cycle of her fims.

José Arroyo

 

 

Alfie Watson-Brown and José Arroyo on Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Alfie Watson-Brown and I discuss Lynne Ramsay´s Ratcatcher

There Will be Blog

In this podcast, we discuss Lynne Ramsay’s gritty Glaswegian drama, set in the height of the Glasgow binmen strike in 1973. Following the life and struggles of a 12-year-old boy, James, Ratcatcher is at times oxymoronic, merging beautifully poetic images, grounded in Ramsay’s background in photography, with a score which is somehow both disconcerting and momentarily blissful, to underscore its largely depressing themes.

José and I work through the general intentions and messages of the film, making an attempt to digest this complexly artistic piece’s stylistic elements. We discuss a range of elements, from Ratcatcher’s lack of sentimentality over its themes of poverty and family, to the joy and entertainment which some sections of the film evoke, and inform the discussion with some relation to the rest of Ramsay’s career. A key piece of contemporary film from one of cinema’s most well-equipped directors, Ratcatcher’s value only increases with discussion.

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Kay Francis Wears Orry-Kelly in Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, Warners, 1934)

Kay Francis was one of the biggest stars of the early 30s, probably best remembered today for Lubitsch’s delicious Trouble in Paradise (1932).The clothes she wore in movies, and the way she wore them, were a central lure to female audiences of the day. In Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934), she changes outfits for practically every scene, and in this post, I merely want to render hommage to her and to Orry-Kelly, who designed the clothes, by posting them in chronological order. Sometimes, you’ll see various aspects of the same outfit, again as the film shows them to us, in order to better understand how the clothes look in close-up and and long shot. I’m doing a separate post on the film itself where you’ll be able to see how at least some of the outfits photograph in motion.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 135 – Double Indemnity

The film noir to end films noir, Billy Wilder’s classic crime drama Double Indemnity made its way to The Electric in Birmingham for a one-off screening, where a packed cinema ensured a great atmosphere. Mike, as usual, hadn’t seen it, while José is very familiar with it, even having taught it before.

Mike didn’t entirely click with it, though he’s able to appreciate much of what makes it a classic. Perhaps the stylistic and thematic elements that identify film noir are so perfectly employed by Double Indemnity that it leads to an ironic, detached mode of viewing – the genre, though it has existed since its inception, is strongly connected to its classical era of the Forties and Fifties, and has been parodied and pastiched more than most, burdening the film with unfair baggage to audiences not in that frame of mind. José, on the other hand, relishes the chance to see it with a paying, enthusiastic audience, finding that he notices different details and appreciates the film differently outside of an academic setting.

Unquestionable is the strength of Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive performance as the femme fatale, her Phyllis Dietrichson the archetype of the dangerous woman who bewitches her doomed victim, in this case a chump played with distracting self-importance by Fred MacMurray. And every time Edward G. Robinson appears on screen he lights it up, capturing the audience, whether with the array of witty retorts and bon mots with which the script furnishes him, or dialogue as ostensibly dull as a recitation of an actuarial table for types of suicide.

With all of this in mind, Mike is sure that a second run at the film would help him appreciate it more. There’s no doubting its place in cinema history, and that it continues to pack out cinemas with eager filmgoers is testament to that.

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.

 

Luke Mott on ‘The Love Witch’ (Anna Biller, USA, 2016)

Luke Mott and I talk about The Love Witch

There Will be Blog

Luke Mott, concentrating on ´The Love Witch´

Elaine, a beautiful young witch, is determined to find a man to love her. In her gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, and then picks up men and seduces them. However her spells work too well, and she ends up with a string of hapless victims. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, her desperation to be loved will drive her to the brink of insanity and murder. With a visual style that pays tribute to Technicolor thrillers of the 1970s, THE LOVE WITCH explores female fantasy and the repercussions of pathological narcissism.

Throughout the podcast Jose and Luke discuss The Love Witch´s many layers, from Witchcraft’s inherent link to feminism to evaluating how successfully Biller maintains a clear cut vision throughout the film. The podcast can be listened to below:

Luke Mott.

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A Note on The Asphalt Jungle

I’ve seen this great heist film, one of the very darkest of noirs, before. What makes this noir different from all the others is that each character is not only mired in an underworld of greed, corruption and crime but also possessed of a kind of grace, be it Dix Handley’s (Sterling Hayden) code of honour in relation to his friendships and his dignity, or the kindness that’s at the core of Alonzo D. Emmerich’s (Louis Calhern) elegant putridness.

What struck me most this last viewing were the following:

a)It hadn’t quite registered before how striking and original are the compositions of the images in the film. I’ve included a selection below; everything is elegant but also off-kilter, like throwing a curve to the classical; motivated, expressive, almost standard; but by not quite being so making one see things afresh. Often, the camera is placed quite low so one’s always looking up at characters that loom but that are also hemmed-in by ceilings, lamps, shades, doorways

 

b)I was struck anew by Sterling Hayden’s handsomeness in this film. His Dix Handley is someone who once had it all but lost it, doing his best to get it back but also prone to quick excitement and danger, making a quick buck with a gun but losing it just as quickly on the track. The scar on his face a symbol of the scars he carries inside. The combination of Hayden’s handsomeness, the sadness in his eyes, and the elegant resignation of his bearing evoke fatality (see below). A man dreaming of the fields and horses of his youth but taking a detour on the road to nowhere.

 

c) Seeing Marilyn Monroe, in one of the first roles in which she made an impression — the other this same year was as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Acting in All About Eve — one is struck again by her charisma. She commands attention and gives this odd impression of being at once amateurish, inept — her line readings are hesitant, artificial — and authentic; of completely being that young girl using herself up with old men who can buy her the things she hopes will make her happy. She’s both fake and real, and at each instance sparks a dialectic where through the falseness she evokes something real and true, the surface but a pathway to depth.

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Marilyn

d)I’d forgotten that the ‘Doll’ in the film is played by Jean Hagen, later to be everybody’s favourite character from Singing ‘in the Rain, the immortal Lina Lamont (‘I caiiin’t staaanhd it’). If, like I, you’ve wondered why the purveyor of such a great performance never became a star, you’ll find your answer here. Her ‘Doll’ is needy, loyal, desirious. The film gives her great moments, like the one below where she turns to Dix and takes her eyelashes off. But she also comes across as studied, and artificial, she’s ‘acting’ her carefully considered performance and comes across as too much and too coarse next to Haydn’s pointillism. She’s a better actress than Monroe but her ‘Doll’ comes across as less authentic, real and believable than Monroe’s Angela Phinley.

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Jena Hagen

e) What struck me anew watching the film is how beautifully fleshed out all the supporting characters are. Thus Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is not only a safe-cracker but a family man with a child that’s ill and a wife who wants him out of the game. Good at his job, part of a large extended Italian family, a guy who’s kept awake nights by the health of his baby and not by the dangers of his profession. Or Dix’s pal, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), not only loyal to a fault but strong also, protective of the weak (his kicking out of the truck-driver who hates cats); victim of a life-long derision and abuse due to his being a hunchback (the conversation with Ciavelli’s wife) and putting his whole body into railing against injustice (the jail scene). Each character is given so many facets that when they come to the fore in the moments they´re given,  they do so on top of carefully textured depth and evoke a character in a world that is connected to but also distinct from the film’s main narrative. Of these, the one that stands out most is Sam Jaffe’s Doc Irwin Riedenschneider, the mastermind of the heist: intelligent, cool, a man who goes about his business weighing the odds calmly until distracted by a pretty girl. The role and Sam Jaffe’s performance of it are surely one of the treasures of film history.

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Sam Jaffe as Doc Irwin Riedenschneider

f) The last thing I wanted to comment on here was the symbolism of the final shot. The whole film has taken place at night, in the darkness, viewed only through shafts of light, in the city, the Asphalt Jungle. Dix’s drive has been to return home, to the horse and the farm that were taken away from him. He admits this history to Doll, this past that’s sparked a longing much stronger than his for her, a desire for a place —  whether she’s in it is by the bye –a quarter of the way through the film. The only moment of greenery and light is in that shot. He reaches the farm only to die on it, the horses that were his dream and his friends, now licking his corpse. Is it heavy-handed? I don’t think so. For Dix what drove him into the Asphalt Jungle was that loss, regaining the farm and the horses has been what’s propulsed him through the narrative; and in a world where there’s no way out, it makes sense that the only way he’ll reach that farm is as a corpse.

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The Asphalt Jungle gets greater with each viewing.

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 134 – If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight – Second Screening

We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)

We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.

Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.

We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.

And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and MoonlightBeale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.

A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking films.

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: 133 – It Happened One Night

It’s Valentine’s weekend and we take a romantic trip to The Electric Cinema to see It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy that is one of only three films to win all Big Five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). As usual, Mike hasn’t seen it before, while José’s seen it plenty. Does it hold up?

José talks of its democratic appeal, set largely in the American South during the lowest point of the Great Depression and showing people coming together despite hardship, lack of work and even fainting from hunger. We discuss the development of the relationship between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, including the wisdom of sharing a motel room with a man you just met, the propriety depicted (such as forgoing a lucrative reward, instead only claiming your expenses), and of course, the madness of Alan Hale’s singing.

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.

 

José Arroyo in Conversation with Tom Seymour

 

Tom Seymour is the writer on art and photography that’s most incited my interest in the last year. His writing on Bill Viola and Michelangelo in Wallpaper* is what got me to the Royal Academy; his article on Don McCullin, also for Wallpaper*, is what occasioned a trip to Tate Britain. He’s how I was introduced to Chernobyl as a rave site, how I first heard of Sian Davey’s show at the National Portrait Gallery and why I was moved to petition for the release of Turkish photographer Çağdaş Erdoğan. I wanted to talk to him about all of this and more. The podcast below is the result.

 

Tom graduated with a degree in Film and Literature from the University of Warwick in 2007 and since then has contributed to The GuardianThe ObserverThe Financial TimesThe TelegraphWallpaper, CNN, BBC and other important newspapers and magazines. He was also the digital editor of The British Journal of Photography for several years and has recently become Senior Writer for Creative Review.

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The conversation ranges from how he got into writing about photography, the experience of going to and writing about Chernobyl, how he pursued the Çağdaş Erdoğan story, and the changing cultural status of photography as well as the current ecosystem of  the medium in London. We end with an extended discussion of the great Don McCullin exhibition currently on at Tate Britain, which we both urge everyone to see.

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José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 132 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Achingly romantic and visually rapturous, If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, utterly bowls Mike over, while José expresses some reservations about it, despite also finding it enormously impressive. A love story set in New York City in the late 60s/early 70s, the film follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they fall in love, begin to build a life together, but are threatened with its destruction by a racist cop and a false accusation of rape.

The title refers to a street in New Orleans that Baldwin, and subsequently Jenkins, use as a metaphor for the black experience across America, and arguably this is overambitious (if not simply impossible). The universality implied by the title is dissonant with what the film offers, which is much more personal and idiosyncratic. José points out the lack of anger in the film, anger that would be absolutely justified to express given both the general institutional racism the characters face in their place and time, and the specific instance of racist behaviour to which they are subjected: the rape accusation. Instead of fury, we see coping, survival, sadness, resistance and love, all communicated with an extraordinary depth of feeling and a camera that finds the beauty and subtlety in everyone’s face. And ultimately this is wonderful, it’s just that the title and opening intertitle that explains it somehow don’t seem to quite understand their own story.

There’s a huge amount we discuss, including the narration; the film’s excursion to Puerto Rico and how its depiction of the experience of Latinx people might or might not offer an interesting comparison to its central interest, the African-American community; how Brian Tyree Henry shows up for a scene and steals the entire film; how the film aims for visual poetry; how Jenkins conveys rich sense of different people’s lives and environments with just a few shots; and how the film chokes you up with its incredibly tactile depth of feeling that is sustained more or less throughout. We also bring up comparisons to Green BookGet Out, and in particular, Moonlight, Jenkins’ previous film – José has issues with how he copped out of giving his story of a gay black boy’s difficulties growing up an honest ending, and takes issue with how viscerally one feels Tish’s desire for Fonny due to the way he’s shot, finding it even more disappointing than before that Jenkins didn’t do the same in Moonlight.

It’s a film we want to see again, infectious and emotionally rich, and if you don’t see it in a cinema you’re missing out. It’s great.

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: 131 – Green Book

It’s already being portrayed as the film that will undeservedly win Best Picture for its cuddly, comfortable, comedy-drama version of American racism in the Sixties, but do we dissent from that view? Green Book tells the true story of a road trip through the Deep South shared by jazz pianist Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen).

Mike immediately seizes upon Tony’s inconsistent characterisation, the film using other characters to describe him as deeply racist, but his actual interactions with Shirley consisting of essentially polite microaggressions rather than real malevolence and anger. José also takes issue with the revelation that Shirley is gay, Tony having no problem with it, saying that in his regular job as a bouncer he sees it all the time – the film makes no attempt to explain how he can be entirely understanding and accepting of sexuality while intolerant of skin colour. Mortensen, though, is very characterful, imbuing Tony with entertaining irreverence, and the love Tony displays for his wife, writing her letters every day, is very sweet.

Ali doesn’t match Mortensen’s level of performance, though he is perhaps asked less of, largely remaining aloof throughout the film. Again, we find problems in Shirley’s characterisation. The film sets him up as a fish out of water, not just as a gay, black man in the Deep South, but also amongst other black people – it’s a quirk too far to believe that he’s never heard a Chubby Checker or Little Richard record. And the movements made in the film’s final minutes to engineer a classic happy ending (at Christmas, no less) are as predictable and obvious as they come, but Mike is moved by the ending nonetheless, leaving the cinema with a smile on his face.

Despite the character issues, lack of subtlety (every aspect of the issues it depicts is explained in dialogue), weak visual storytelling (this film doesn’t appear to actually know that it’s being shown in cinemas, so fully does it lack any sense of cinematic nous or style), and project of delivering an unchallenging, white man’s version of racism in which everyone can learn to get along without having to face any hard truths, we found things to like in Green Book, and recommend it as long as you keep your expectations low.

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.