A wide-ranging conversation with Kieron Corless, Deputy Editor of Sight and Sound on the magazine itself and issues that arise from it: What is film criticism? What is good criticism? What is the changing function of criticism? How has the digital turn affected not only what cinema is and how we see it but also what film criticism is and how it is now done? How has the eco system or matrix in which audio-visual work is produced, distributed and exhibited changed over the years, with galleries and museums displaying moving image work on one end; and perhaps Netflix on the other.
We talk about cinephilia and film culture at home and abroad; and further discuss the importance of advocacy, particularly in relation to international films that often get seen only in small film festivals. We agree that the online environment has immeasurably improved criticism and helped create a different way of appreciating and writing about cinema, pushing film criticism in new directions, not least the increasing importance of the video essay. It’s an exciting time.
Because I was so gobby in the podcast, I’v also added some excerpts from a workshop Kieron led at Warwick. The short one below is on Sight and Sound itself.
The longer one below is on writing film criticism in general and writing for Sight and Sound in particular. Kieron’s talk ranges from how to pitch, the writing of a draft, right up to the submission and editing stages. Top tips from Kieron, rather choppily edited by myself. But bound to be useful and certainly interesting.
‘The aim of Alternate Takes is to provide analysis of cinema that is informed by academic debates, but also walks a line between the journalistic review and the critical essay. It publishes long-form essays that embody this ethos, but the most obvious way the site has achieved this compromise position between reviewing and scholarly criticism is by writing about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of experience it offers; the idea is that this is a review to read before you see a film. Then, after you’ve watched it, you can read our Alternate Take – a longer, more in-depth critical piece, which usually digs more deeply into a particular critical issue that the movie raises. While over the years this dual-review format has become less rigidly enforced, the overall approach it fostered has remained the same, and the site has continued to publish film criticism that is in-depth, critical, mindful of social and artistic contexts, but also accessible and enjoyable.’
The impetus for this conversation with Josh Schulze was merely to find out if there was a new direction he, along with co-editors Matt Denny, Patrick Pilkington and Leanne Weston, wanted for the now celebrated digital platform and what that might be.
In the podcast Josh and I discuss Pauline Kael, cinephilia, the pressures of writing quickly and its effects on film reviewing, the nuances of film criticism and how Alternate Takes is devoted at looking at films and television in depth. We also discuss our admiration for the video essays of Adrian Martin, Catherine Grant and Kogonada, and how contributing to Alternate Takes is a great way for early career people and students to explore their ideas and take new approaches to film.
Jurassic World returns. J.A. Bayona, the director of The Orphanage and A Monster Calls, is in charge, transforming the colourful knockabout thrills of the previous instalment into a volcano disaster-cum-Gothic horror film. We both love the heightened drama of the mansion half of the film and how Bayona finds new life in what has, over the last 25 years, somehow become somewhat stale imagery of reanimated dinosaurs. José adores the casting of Geraldine Chaplin and Mike finds the reduced importance of love stories a positive thing. And seeing businessmen get killed is always fun. Cracking movie. Hugely enjoyable.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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
The Pictures is published by Oneworld and available in bookshops across the country and on kindle via Amazon
The second instalment of the ‘Eavesdropping on Mike and José after a movie’ podcast with Michael Glass of Writing About Film, where we hope to offer the experience of eavesdropping on friends chatting informally about a movie after just watching it. The focus this week is on The Dark Tower and topics under discussion this week include whether Idris Elba has it in him to be a film star, the excellence of Matthew McConaughey’s performance, the value of watching a film in 3-4DX, and whether Mike has better eyebrows than Carla Delevingne.
This is a trial episode of a possible podcast that Michael Glass of ‘Writing About Film’ and I are posting primarily to get feedback. It’s done as an mp4 so you can play it on your computer’s usual player, like a video. I have this romantic idea of the movies as a conjunction of place, people and experiences, all different for each of us, a context in which individual and separate beings try to commune, where the individual experience overlaps with the communal and where that overlapping is demarcated by how we measure the differing responses between ourselves and the rest of the audience: do they laugh when we don’t (and what does that mean?); are they moved when we feel like laughing (and what does that say about me or the others) etc. The idea behind this podcast is to satiate the urge I sometimes have when I see a movie alone – but that I also hope is shared by at least some of you — to eavesdrop on what others say. What do they think? How does their experience compare to mine? Snippets are overhead as one leaves the cinema and are often food for thought. A longer snippet of such an experience is what this podcast hopes to provide: it’s two friends chatting immediately after a movie. It’s unrehearsed, meandering, slightly convoluted, certainly enthusiastic, and well informed, if not necessarily on all aspects a particular work gives rise to, certainly in terms of knowledge of cinema in general and considerable experience of watching different types of movies and watching movies in different types of ways. It’s not a review. It’s a conversation. One roughly transmuted into another format so that you may overhear. We know the design of the image is lousy; and that the transitions between snippets are roughly cut. But what do you think of the idea, the title, the format? Feedback and suggestions most gratefully received.
Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944) again yesterday brought to mind a half-remembered anecdote from some long-forgotten biography where, in the mid forties, L.B. Mayer fired a writer in a fit of pique for giving the wrong answer to the question: ‘who are the greatest actors on the MGM lot’? ‘Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland’ seemed to Mayer a wiseass answer when Greer Garson was the reigning queen of the lot. But who wouldn’t side with the writer now? By then, Garson was doing ‘great lady parts’ in a way so ripe for satire that Garland did just that in the ‘The Great Lady Has an Interview/aka Madame Crematon’ sequence of Ziegfield Follies (various directors but Minnelli is credited with this Garland sequence, USA, 1945). Garbo was long gone; Katharine Hepburn was on the lot but the only good material she got was the material she brought to the studio earlier (The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Woman of the Year in 1942) and later (Adam’s Rib in 1949, Pat and Mike in 1951); the mid-forties is one of the low-points in Hepburn’s career: Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bouquet and Jack Conway, 1944), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947), Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), etc.
What tends to be regarded as great acting is often extremes of emotion in extreme situations (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot [Jim Sheridan, UK, 1989); Charleze Therzon as Aileen Wuornos in Monster [Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003]) and more subtle, more complex, more humane, mundane but no less affecting realms of emotion – the kind Garland so beautifully depicts — are often ignored. But look at what she’s able to accomplish in a few shots of the Christmas Ball sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis extracted above.
Esther Smith (Garland) and her sister Rose (Lucille Bremmer) have planned an evil tease on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) because their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) had planned to attend the ball with her but she instead came with the boy Rose had set her eyes on, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully). As revenge, they’ve filled her dance-card with the least desirable men at the ball. But it turns out that Lucille really wants to be with Lon and Warren Sheffield wants to be with Rose. The plans have been changed, Esther is left holding the bag, her grandfather discovers what they’ve been up to, and Esther chooses to take over Lucille’s dance-card and suffer the punishment they’d planned for her so as not to impede the other couplings and so that the social niceties may be maintained. Their last Christmas in St. Louis, planned as a triumph has derailed into self-sacrificial torture.
Ignore if you can Minnelli’s gorgeous and complex mise-en-scene, the compositions, the way the couples are paired off or enter the frame (though I have in the past written here, and on this film in particular, as to why you shouldn’t); ignore if you can how purposefully and beautifully staged it all is. But let’s not bypass every element. When evaluating acting, the long take is a consideration. Not all actors can do them and it has become a test of a film actor’s skill. George Cukor famously observed that whilst Joan Crawford could act any emotion, she was incapable of showing transitions from one to another; she could only do one at a time; but then her whole face would scrunch up like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when transitioning. Thus there always had to be a cut between one emotion and another. She couldn’t do it in long take. But see what Garland does here.
We first see her enthusiastic entrance into the group, kind of gleeful at the plans afoot, ‘I’ve been very anxious to meet you’. Then there’s a cut to the three girls where she explains that they’ve taken the liberty of filling out her dance card. Note the look Esther gives her sister and note the laugh Garland achieves in that look as if indicating ‘Ha, she doesn’t know what’s in store!’ Then note the change in Garland’s expression, all within the same take, as Lucille responds with extraordinary kindness, offering to give them a party when they arrive in New York. Garland’s face is transparent, first we see a hint of guilt, her mouth opens, she’s bewildered. Her sister nudges her, ‘The plans have been changed’. Then the couples pair off, leave the shot, Garland still slack-jawed with bewilderment and then her grandfather enters the shot. She’s been caught, she hides the dance-card, attempts to laugh away the situation and flee. Then look at her expression as her grandfather reads out the names. ‘Clinton Badger’? She nods, it’s brutal and she’s been caught. She doesn’t respond to the next one, it’s unbearable. Then see what she does with her face when Sidney Gorsey’s mentioned. We see shame, embarrassment, the sense she now deserves everything that’s coming to her.
Garland is extraordinarily transparent through a range of emotions, often conflicting or contradictory, and often played for laughs, she seems to pluck them out of thin air and achieve effects few actors are capable of. It’s quite remarkeable in quite a low key way. Then in the next shot, when Lucille goes to get her dance card and Garland says she’s made a mistake, note her reading of the line ‘This is mine’. She’s achieving laughs facially, vocally, and in the series of dances that follow she proves herself a superb physical comedienne; all whilst simultaneously evoking a range of feeling, sometimes complex and contradictory, that is emotionally recognisable as truthful.
Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016) is such a marvellous book; superbly researched, including exclusive access to Mary Pickford’s letters, full of new information and elegantly written. The reasons to be interested in Fairbanks are innumerable: an icon of his age, founder of United Artist, a man who helped shape our understanding of entire genres (swashbuckler), still potent archetypes (Zorro, Robin Hood, ‘The Gaucho’, D’Artagnan) and mythos (The Thief of Baghdad). His influence is everywhere still: his Zorro is what inspired Bob Kane’s Batman, particularly the Bruce Wayne/ Batman dual identity. In fact he was one of the main shapers of what we’ve come to understand as Hollywood.
I wish I had more time to write more extensively on the book and the actor. But since I don’t, I’d like to point you to Thomas Gladysz excellent ‘Best Film Books of 2015′, which is how I came across the book, assert its many virtues and offer you an idea.The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks extensively documents how from the moment Fairbanks moved to the Triangle Picture company in 1916, where he started his first independent production even before he officially formed his own production company, Fairbanks had enormous control over what projects he starred in and how they were shaped. This is true from beginning with In Again, Out Again (d: by John Emerson, scripted by Emerson and Anita Loos, USA, 1917) right to his founding of United Artist along with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin in 1919.
Once he started at UA, he was not only financing his films but helping to shape their every aspect, from the narrative of The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, USA, 1920), camera placement and stunts in The Three Musketeers (Fred Niblo, USA, 1921) the cutting and distribution of all of his works throughout the 1920s, and even the look of the two-strip Technicolor used in The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, USA, 1926). He was clearly as much the author of his films as anyone; and as the one with final say, much more so than any director. The book doesn’t quite make the argument of star as auteur in silent cinema but it is there implicitly, at least as regards Fairbanks. The book also implicitly makes the case that this would be true of Mary Pickford and by implication anyone else who had a similar kind of control and final say over their pictures. Perhaps silent cinema is awash with female authorship that we have yet to discover or render explicit. It’s a thought.
Re-watching An American in Paris on TV now makes me wonder if Vincente Minnelli was the most popular of 1950s directors; the Steven Spielberg of his day? I note from wiki that Father of the Bride was the no. 5 box office hit of 1950, An American in Paris was no. 5 in ‘51, The Bad and the Beautiful was no. 2 in ‘52, The Long Long Trailer, 13th in 1954, Gigi no 5 and Some Came Running at 9 both in 58, then Designing Women, Tea and Sympathy, The Band Wagon, Father’s Little Dividend and many more were also considerable hits that decade. Even if wiki is not entirely reliable, it’s a thought.
A woman looks at a man’s penis and faints. That would be a glib way of describing what is undoubtedly my moment of the year in long-form television. But it’s so much more than that. It seems to contravene and subvert all that we’ve been told could be shown in popular audio-visual media. It is a man who is the subject of the three looks Laura Mulvey describes in her famous ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The parts of his body are not fetishized – the penis does not function as a phallus but as a penis and as a reminder of sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the woman looking — the male’s sexuality is not displaced but put at the forefront, the male can be the subject as well as the bearer of the look; though, as he does here, he might faint as it happens.
That moment in the fifth episode of Sense8, ‘Art is Like Religion’, seems to me to be both revolutionary and typical in a way that indicates a paradigm shift: after all the space-time continuum did not unravel, no coronaries were reported, it caused no more of a stir online than the usual lustful longings expressed in social media in relation to whatever semi-clothed pin-ups happen to be the flavour of the month . Male nudity on TV has become so commonplace that a headline of an article in Vulture by Maria Elena Fernandez tries to answer the question: ‘Why Full-Frontal Male Nudity was all over TV in 2015’.
As you can see in the clip above, the woman, Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae), is beautiful and fully clothed (and in India); the man, Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt), is naked, powerful, handsome (and in Berlin). They are, along with others, psychically connected. More than that, there’s clearly a sexual frisson between them. What interests me here though is that the whole scene is inflected with melodrama. She is about to get married to man who’s rich but whom she doesn’t love. Her parents have been very happy in their marriage, which was arranged, and see this as a love match. Traditionally, when a minister asks the congregation whether there is any lawful impediment to the wedding taking place; the accent has been on the law (i.e that one of them is previously married or contracted, that they are not who they say etc.), a lack of love has not in itself been seen as an impediment; sentiment has been secondary.
But here, as in all moments of high melodrama, what’s at stake is desire and the social structures that prohibit its fulfilment. As she takes the final of seven circles with her husband-to-be that will finalise the Hindu wedding, the sight of Wolfgang’s penis, disturbing as it is for her, is troubling not only because even in its fragile state it hints at a rollicking good time in bed but because it’s a reminder of her lack. But her lack here is presented not as a penis or as a phallus but as a life without love. And I think it’s that combination of melodrama – the wedding is stopped, she falls, the whole of her community rises up at the ceremony in shock and bewilderment at what’s happening—and a sly camp timing – the rhythm with which her eyes gaze down and the timing of the sudden cut to her fainting – that undercut whatever might have shocked: it’s moving, and funny; and making it so means that it’s not about cock, or mere fucking, or even the phallus as symbol of patriarchal power – it renders it about love and it’s lack; of a connection so strong that he also faints at the thought.
But let’s look at that again with a bit more context as to what precedes it. You can see that the scene as I’ve selected it above begins with Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae) entering the wedding ceremony with that nice husband-to-be of hers that she doesn’t love. The scene keeps intercutting between her face and the body of Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt) and seems to cut first onto his body and then making sure that he doesn’t remain just a body by recurrently following that with shots of his face. She’s pictured surrounded by structures, strictures, traditions, all that community represents; all the powers society has to forbid, repress, deny, and damp-down individual desire. He’s alone, naked, swimming, possibly thinking of her.
Wedding vows express a yearning for how things should be. I often find them very moving. Certainly the Hindu ‘Seven Steps’ that Kala here exchanges with her husband-to-be are very much so: ‘ I take the first of seven steps that we may cherish each other..’ but then the camera cuts to Wolfgang instead of her husband. She continues ‘and promise that we will grow old together in mental and spiritual strength’ and again the camera cuts to Wofgang. She’s clearly vowing to the wrong person. Yet what the words express are important not just to Kala but to what the show is trying to express.
That Sense8 is trying to express a more complex, more inclusive, and more nuanced view of love is made clear as Kala walks the sixth of her seven steps with her husband-to-be. As her husband to be vows :’ I take the six of seven steps with you my wife-to-be, a promise of everlasting companionship…’ the camera cuts to a happy and loving gay couple sharing that companionship with a woman; on the line of ‘we shall share love, share the same tastes’ the camera cuts to a young man and a young woman, happy to be with each other; on the line ‘share the same food’ we get to see a middle-aged woman in Africa cooking for for her grown-up son and each sharing the joy in the other and in the food; on the line of ‘sign a vow, sign a statement’ the camera cuts to Korea and we see a woman giving up her liberty and the dog she loves out of duty to her father; on the line of ‘let us make a vow and share our strength’, the camera cuts to a transgender woman and her lesbian girlfriend entering their apartment which has just been ransacked; on the line, ‘we shall be of one mind’ we cut to Wofgang again; and again the camera first shows us his body then his face. The physical a part of the personal, the body AND the mind. This is the prelude to Kala fainting at the sight of Wolfgang’s cock.
The penis, the desire for it, what it might signify to someone in terms of carnal pleasure or indeed as part of love, is put in the context of a much deeper and wider understanding of what love is; one that encompasses food and pets; mothers and fathers; heterosexual, homosexual, trans; duty and feeling; the stomach and the heart as well as sexual organs; and indeed a much wider one, because all of these characters we are shown are connected, in ways that that the Series will continue to reveal.
Sense 8 is an extraordinary series, doing things I had not yet seen before — things that still feel transgressive in cinema — and with feeling and humour. It’s melodrama, it’s a little bit camp, it’s very sexy. But there’s a depth of ideas being dramatised here that is worth watching and thinking about. It’s an extraordinary sequence in an extraordinary series.
I’ve been trying, whenever I remember, to signal articles that I wrote elsewhere but are easily available online. This was one of the interviews I did with Almodóvar in his middle period for The Guardian:
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein is a delightful sex comedy, a movie about teenage rebellion from a hundred years ago, funny and amiable but not without edge. Ossie (Ossie Oswalda) is a young woman who enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, playing poker and flirting with the boys. What’s not to like? Well, for one, her governess (Margarete Kupfer) doesn’t think it ‘proper’ for a young girl to do these things. She prevents her from smoking but then can’t stop herself from getting giddy on a few drags herself. Likewise, Ossie’s uncle, Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) is shocked to catch her drinking a thimbleful of wine from an itsy-bitsy wine glass but then gulps away on a huge goblet himself. The older generation has not only forgotten what it is to be young, they’ve become hypocrites in the process. The boys love Ossie and gangs of them gather on the street as she sits by her window. But when she flirts with them, the governess is appalled: ‘And you want to be a refined young girl!’ ‘I don’t want that at all!’ says Ossi.
It seems like all the adults are preventing Ossie from having fun, from doing what they do as a matter of course, from being a person, from being herself. All their urges to be ‘proper’ are experienced as restrictions on personal freedom and individual desires. When her uncle goes away on a trip she gets a new guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz), a handsome but stuffy disciplinarian who asks that she stand in his presence and bow to his wishes. ‘I’ll break you down yet!’ he tells her. ‘ Why didn’t I come into the world as a boy?’ she in turn moans at us in the final inter-title of the 1st act, soliciting our agreement as to the unfairness of gender roles and the injustice of their social enforcement. These early scenes, showing as they do social constraints on individual freedom and identity; and more specifically, patriarchal constraints on women’s desires and behaviour, are an eye-opener to anyone interested in the representation of women or the on-screen treatment of gender. I had never seen Ossie Oswalda before. She’s as alive, witty and transgressive a presence as I remember on-screen and I found her a revelation: irrepressible, joyous, transparent, energetic, social; a utopian flower in the worldly garden of weeds, a light that everyone’s out to extinguish. One would expect the Second Act to ‘correct’ some of Ossie’s transgressions, to claw back and reclaim for men some of the injustices towards women exposed in the first act. But this is Lubitsch. We do get to see some of the difficulties men have in dressing: those bow ties can be such a problem; and poor men have to give up their seats in the U-bahn when ladies are standing up; and they musn’t whine; and they’re so aggressive at the coat-check!; and the way women chase them is so ruthless! Boo-hoo. All of this ‘poor men’ malarkey is clearly undermined by Ossie being OUT, without a chaperone, on the street, in the U-bahn and in the hustle and bustle of a glamorous nightclub, doing what she wants and being free.
At the beginning of the second act, we see the sly pleasures Ossie takes in having all the taylors fight to take her measurements for her men’s suit. In the latter part, we see her being chased by women and not getting a lot of joy out of it: Ossie’s clearly heterosexual. We’ll find out her guardian’s sexuality is much more questionable. We already know that sex is the very air Lubitschland breathes. When Ossie sees her uncle at the nightclub flirting with a girl, she sets out to steal her away from him but before she can do so, the girl has already found someone else and Ossie, masquerading as a young roué, becomes friends with her guardian. On the evidence of this second act, Lubitsch is already a master of the medium. When we’re shown the nightclub (fig. 1), we get a wonderful composition with waiters entering from the left bottom corner of the frame on a diagonal and towards the band leader, set up as the frame’s horizon, to which waiter, after waiter, after waiter, is heading. The composition is brilliant, the staging sublime , and the rhythm of the scene, already that of the ‘Lubitsch’ we know.
Lubitsch handles compositions in depth with ease and they recur frequently here. For examples, see the scene where Ossie and her guardian are in opposite balconies whilst the dancing happens between them (Fig. 2), the frame split vertically into three areas of action, with Ossie in the upper, receding third. The upper two thirds of the vertical frame is also split three ways horizontally, with Ossie, out of focus in the middle of the top third; her guardian and the woman Ossie sets out to steal from him are in focus and occupying all of the bottom third of the frame. See also the marvelous use of the mirror, when Ossie momentarily forgets she’s a man and is laughed at for powdering her nose, and how this enables us to see space that would normally be off-screen, distinguish between foreground and background, and create a dynamism in the composition through Ossie looking down, the women laughing and looking directly at the mirror, and the men looking in the opposite direction, towards the coat-check. Note too how this composition is not only dynamic and aesthetically pleasing but also coheres narratively: Ossie is shown twice, herself and her reflection, at the moment that she forgets that she is a woman passing as a man. Terrific.
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein well illustrates one of the things Lubitsch learned from Reinhardt and that Lubitsch would be an acknowledged master of from this period until he departed for Hollywood in 1922 and beyond (see, for example 1929’s Eternal Love) : his handling of the crowd scenes. And this not only in the nightclub scenes with their dozens of extras but in other story-telling moments where an abundance of extras does not on the face of it seem absolutely necessary: our introduction of the guardian in the nightclub for example, where he’s framed by a bevy of people dynamically arranged in the staircase behind him; and the rhyming shot with Ossie in front of a similar grouping, before both of them coming together (see fig. 4)
Lubitsch likes actors so that he always gives each a bit of business. One can look at any part of the crowd and find something interesting going on, something thematically linked to the story. See for example the still from the coat-check scene below (fig. 5): Ossie is in the centre, the woman on the bottom right already checking ‘him’ out, the two women chatting on the right hand corner that will also soon be flirting with ‘him’, the man talking to the two women in the background in front of a curtain they will soon move through, thus creating a feeling of depth; see also the man at the coat-check looking towards the crowd of men who are all headed towards him jostling to get their hats checked-in. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but lively; one gets a sense of a whole world, a complex one, one in which Ossie’s story can take place. For if Lubitsch demonstrates he’s a master of the medium, it’s because of the stories he tells and how he tells them.
In the last act, Ossie and her guardian get tipsy. They smoke, drink champagne, and offer a toast to ‘brotherhood’; and then…. their lips lightly brush. ‘What’s your name,’ asks the guardian. ‘It’s better not to ask’, says Ossie. Then the lip-brushing becomes a more conscious, if still very light kiss. It’s not a deep French as they used to say in my home-town. They’ll then kiss some more and will continue to do so in the cab on the way home. The scenes are undeniably erotic, very subtly handled, with a frisson of the transgressive that is yet so light as to be mistaken for accidental whilst going slightly over the edge. In this way, even the more staid members of the audience can feel daring without having their hair stand on end.
Nicola Lubitsch, Lubitsch’s daughter, has called this film Victor/Victoria fifty years before Victor/Victoria but it is so much better than the Blake Edwards film (I’m aware of the 1930s German version but have not yet seen it). I Don’t Want to be a Man is less coy, more complex, more human than Blake’s film. For one, Ossie likes being kissed, is clearly heterosexual, but is enjoying her transgressions which to her simply amount to kissing and which give her a kind of power, in that she gets the upper hand over her guardian. Equally interestingly, the guardian knows he’s kissing a man and in the cab it becomes clear that he is not at all embarrassed by it, likes it, and does it again. One can so easily detect how this film was an influence on Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Morocco, not only sartorially, in that Dietrich is wearing a sleeker version of the top hat, white tie and tails that Ossie wears here, but in the labile view of sexuality, one with a ‘twist’ in that Ossie doesn’t like the girls as much as Dietrich does whereas the guardian likes the boys a lot more than Gary Cooper.
At the end, they wake up in each others’ beds, he with a feminine lace cap on. She has to trudge home through the streets of Berlin (and these are clearly shot on location). When he discovers that it was his guardian he had been kissing and asks her if this was so, Ossie retorts in the intertitle, ‘That’s right. The one and only!’ ‘And you let yourself be kissed by me’, ‘Well, didn’t you like how it tasted?’. The film ends with her turning the tables on him ‘I’ll bring you down yet…Down to here’, she says pointing to the floor just as he had done at the beginning. As the end, they kiss, and she tells us ‘I wouldn’t like to be a man’. But we’re left with the impression that she actually had a really good time impersonating one. She got to do the drinking, smoking and carousing that she’d been forbidden in the beginning of the film. She sure seemed to enjoy having a man’s freedom and his agency, even if it was exhausting stuff. Plus she got her man in the end and put him in his place whilst doing so. Extraordinary stuff.
Watching the last third, I wondered what audiences who saw it might have made of it; how exciting it must have been to women and to the lgtb members of the audience, however such identities might have been constructed then, lucky enough to see this; and what it might have meant to them. I’d like to learn more about that. What I do know now, almost a hundred years later, is that the film enchants and dazzles with its technique, its joy, its appreciation of freedom and its expansive notion of humanity and its foibles. And on top of that there’s the brilliant exuberance of Ossie. Alice A. Kuzniar, writing in The Queer German Cinema on I Don’t Want to be a Man and on Der Geiger von Florenz writes that ‘the “gender trouble” of these films does not reside solely in their depiction of independent, strong-willed women and their rejection of patriarchal authority. Both films deeply unsettle sexual as well as gender divisions in a way inconceivable for even independent gay cinema as well as mainstream straight cinema today’. i I’ve not yet seen Der Geiger von Florenz but that is definitely the case in relation to I Don’t Want to be a Man and but one of very many reasons to see it. i. Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford: Standford University Press, 2000, p. 33. José Arroyo
A really smart and ambitious take on Dostoyevsky’s The Double that doesn’t quite ‘play.’ In the film, the present is imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisenberg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. That it doesn’t quite ‘play’ is not as bad as it sounds. Many great movies don’t: La règle du jeu, The Magnificent Ambersons, many others; and if Ayoade’s film is nowhere near that level, it still makes for a fascinating watch. The Double is beautiful to look at, all noir-and-amber lighting, characters in frames within frames, boxed in, and with the camera often zooming out so that their imprisonment becomes complete. Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska are mesmeric and I loved seeing Cathy Moriarty again. After Submarine and The Double, Richard Ayoade is no longer a director of promise but one of achievement.
A film that any aspiring filmmaker should see. You want to know how to make a fine film with only one actor in one set? See what Steven Knight and Tom Hardy do with Locke.
Ivan Locke is a construction manager wrapping up work for the day. Tomorrow will be the apotheosis of his career, the biggest cement pour outside of that undertaken by government or the military in history. He’s in his car on his way home. His wife is making sausages and wearing the team shirt. His kids are all excited about the big game that they’re all about to see. But he won’t be there. On his way home, he gets a phone call that will change his life. At the end of his car journey, he will have lost his wife, his home, his job and his children. But he will have made sure the cement job gets done properly and he will have done the right thing. Plus, knowing Ivan Locke as we’ve come to know him on this journey, it’s hard to believe that he won’t return home tomorrow and win back all he’s lost.
The film is like a Hawkesian tale in which professionalism is indistinguishable from morality. Locke has to make sure the cement job gets done right and he also has to do the ‘right’ thing no matter what the cost to himself and those near him. He’s almost autistic in his attention to detail and he can’t lie. It’s an iconic role. If Hardy weren’t already a star, this role and his performance of it, would surely make him one. The character is bound to become iconic and a cultural reference point. Who wouldn’t want to be like Locke, slowly, methodically, systematically, humanely trying to answer everyone’s queries, solving everyone’s problems, being kind but truthful, trying to move resolve issues even as he knows that solving another’s problems is a move forward for another and a step backward and into the unknown to himself. Hardy is very moving, the changing tonalities of his voice in that gentle Welsh tone he adapts a mini-masterpiece of emoting.
The film is in the tradition of those tour-de-force theatre pieces like Cocteau’s La voix humaine where a woman breaks up with a lover over the telephone and the whole play is one long monologue. Except here it’s a man talking, sometimes to his absent father, about what it is to be a man. And you do get to hear other voices at the end of the line, all wanting something. This is a tour-de-force performance for Hardy, who gets to act out practically every emotion going whist in the service of a character who must remain calm, stoic, methodical. Because, it’s a one-character piece in one set, the dialogue here also has to bear the brunt of exposition that in an ordinary film would be spread amongst other aspects of mise-en-scene. This is of course an opportunity for the director and cinematographer, how to make the visuals interesting and expressive whilst remaining locked in one car. They succeed. Haris Zambarloukos does a fabulous job with the cinematography. We get neon colours at night, reflections of reflections depending on Locke’s state of mind, frames within frames, sometimes one a direct image, the other but a shadowy reflection of one, the softening of fog, the sharpening of focus, multi-coloured indicators in the night. What starts off as a long journey into night ends up as a cantering journey into clarity, purposefulness, decisiveness. This is why the film is so pleasurable to watch. Locke is very moving, very fine. But it is perhaps also why it is no more than that. Hardy, however, is nothing less than great.
PS Brummies might note with pleasure that in the film, the construction site in which the cement pour is to take place was the construction site of what is now The Cube.
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson notes that Locke is the film that established Tom Hardy as a major figure and that, ‘No film I’ve seen in recent years is more eloquent on where we are now, and on how alone we feel. There is nothing left to do but watch and listen’ (p. 41).
I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.
There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.
This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?
The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.
Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.
The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.
‘Movies will never die’, writes James Wolcott in ‘Prime Time’s Graduation’, his influential 2012 essay for Vanity Fair, ‘but TV is where the action is, the addiction forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. Even in cine-mad Manhattan…the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies. Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer’.
I’ve been thinking about Wolcott’s argument because I’ve been away for several weeks in Cuba with no access to TV or internet and found that I hadn’t missed TV at all and furthermore had no desire to ‘catch up’ on anything I missed. My Twitter feed however was full of dozens of articles, comments and lists on the new season of Game of Thrones. This same kind of gigantic publicity whirlwind is now also starting on the new season of Mad Men. I have seen all previous seasons of both shows and they are indeed marvelous. It would be naïve, however, to think that the reason why those shows seem to be central to ‘the conversation’ that happens socially on culture is because of their inherent quality or their superiority to anything else that is happening at the moment or indeed that they’re sufficient to the needs of every cultural conversation worth having.
I did return from Cuba with a desire to catch up on what I’d missed at the movies and was really startled and delighted not only by individual works but by the range of films on offer:
Jalil Lespert’s Yves St. Laurent is a biopic of the coutourier. It’s not really a good movie but the clothes are of course sumptuous, and we get to see practically all of his landmark collections (the Mondrian, the Le Smoking, the Ballets Russes). Pierre Niney give a great central performance, shy but self-centred, slightly repressed, as if when not coiled in he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous. The film is mostly drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness but it’s also the only gay film I can think of that’s about what happens after a gay couple move in together, what they do to stay together. It is at times very moving.
Joe and Antony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel Comic Book adaptation and one of the best of the recent crop of super-hero films. It’s got superb set-pieces, a sexy and witty performance from Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow and is part of a series of films (The Place Beyond the Pines is one of many that fit into this category) that mourn the idea of America, that compare the America of the film’s setting to the idea of America as found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and finds it lacking. Neil Burger’s Divergent, also currently playing, is a sci-fi teen film, clearly inspired by The Hunger Games, that thematically plows the same furrow. American cinema has never been more critical of what America has become — of the gap between it should be, what Americans want it to be, and what it is — and, despite the films being of varying quality and some of them, like Divergent, frankly not even very good, they’re collectively fascinating to see and stimulating to talk about.
Also at my local cinema are two other types of adaptations: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Noah transforms the Bible story into a sci-fi movie of epic proportions, one with an environmental moral. It’s had mixed reviews but is conceptually imaginative, visually dazzling and with another of those great Russell Crowe performances that make one almost forget how crude and obnoxious he often appears in ‘real’ life, or at least in talk shows. The other adaptation is Ayoade’s noir-and-amber take on Dotoyevski’s The Double, a present imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisengerg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. These are films that dazzle the eye and stimulate the mind.
And these were not even the best of the films playing: Stefan Zweig, the Viennese author of Letter from an Unknown Woman, inspired Wes Anderson to a wit, charm and elegance in The Grand Budapest Hotel that Ernst Lubitsch himself would have been proud of. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful and daring exploration of desire in the face of death that is as complex and haunting a depiction of sexual compulsion as I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson again, a mysterious, ambiguous and rather magical film on no less a subject than what it is to be human. These three are truly great films, films that deserve to be written about individually and at length, that deserve to be part of ‘The Conversation’.
I’m not sure what TV is at the moment. I’m not sure that series like Mad Men or Game of Thrones are TV or something else (Andy Medhurst has called them TV for people who don’t like TV). I do think that old divisions between high culture and low culture are reasserting themselves and, if the appearance of visual media in art galleries is something to go by, film is falling on the high side of that divide. It certainly seems to have lost the mass audience. As Edward Jay Epstein so ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, people don’t go to the movies, they go to a movie, the one they’ve been primed to see by publicity budgets that often exceed the cost of making a film.
But if you want to take a pulse reading of the state of an art, you can’t base it on one work, or indeed one medium, you need to see at least a representative range of what’s on offer, and put that in a larger social and cultural context. And from what’s on offer at the cinema now, film is as exciting, stimulating and beautiful as it’s ever been. It might not be ‘The’ conversation but might be another, or many, with probably fewer people but just as, if not more, interesting. It’s telling perhaps that Wolcott’s very latest column for Vanity Fair is a re-think of the arguments that began this column entitled ‘Everyone Back to the Cineplex!’ In this, I’m with Wolcott.
As everyone knows, The Seventh Seal is a masterpiece. It’s been the subject of countless parodies (e.g. French and Saunders, Monty Python or even in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, where the boys play Battleship instead of Chess and win, thus cheating Death, an outcome possible in comedy but never in Bergman, despite his work being funnier than his reputation admits to). But in spite of their number, they have yet to diminish the film’s power. In fact The Seventh Seal‘s seriousness, its humour, its meaning and its beauty seem only to grow with repeated viewings.
I have a particular love for the moment excerpted below: Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) has returned from the Crusades. He’s seen enough horror to make him doubt the existence of God, he’s already playing a game of chess with Death and fears his life has been pointless. Death is ever present; God has yet to answer his prayers or to make himself known. He’s trying to find meaning in life and to make his life meaningful. This moment of community in the face of plague and death, the sharing with friends, an appreciation of the music, the beauty of the light, the sensuousness of the strawberries and fresh milk, the promise of the young baby; all ending with the drinking of the milk, which is in itself an act of communion but with a loving community instead of the blood of Christ, is what will spur him to a later act of generosity and goodness that will end the search to that which he sought. It’s a gorgeous moment in which people of all faiths or even adherents of therapy such as mindfulness will find in Bergman’s dramatisation of that which is holy in nature and in community a reverberating reflection of their own best beliefs.
Angela Lansbury’s mere entrance in Blithe Spirit last night was greeted by an eruption of wild applause. We wanted to thank her before she’d even done anything. Or rather for all she’d done for us thus far; all she’d made us feel and think and dream of; for the role in our lives that she continues to occupy and that we continue to treasure. She provides the comfort of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, the artistry of her musical triumphs on stage (Gypsy, Mame, Sweeny Todd) and some of the most complex and/or appealing and/or comforting performances in a long and varied film career. Take your pick from The Manchurian Candidate, Gaslight, Bedknobs andBroomsticks and so very many others.
Pauline Kael famously said that she didn’t think she could be friends with anyone who didn’t love her Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I always misremember that and cite it incorrectly as the young maid in Gaslight. She’s so delicious in both that perhaps I can be forgiven for the error. We probably all have our own favourite Angela Lansbury moments. Mine begin with her saloon ‘hostess’ in The Harvey Girls, my first memory of either her or Judy Garland, seen on a little black and white television and the beginnings of my love for both. This is one of my all-time favourite moments on film (though Angela, unbelievably glamorous, appears only towards the end of the clip). There’s something about Judy’s fear in going into the saloon and then the way she blows into the smoking guns that is a comic delight. And of course all of this is followed by Lansbury’s bad-girl sashay at the end. Who could remember that Lansbury was a bad girl or that she could move and pout like that? Too much Jessica Fletcher has made most of us forget. But not I. It’s how I first got to know her.
Blithe Spirit is the perfect theatrical vehicle for an 88 year-old star which is to say it is the perfect vehicle for Angela Lansbury now. The play is from Noel Coward, one of THE great and most long-running of West End hits during WWII, and there’s not a single creak in it. It’s still a marvel of theatrical mechanics. The introduction of the characters, the entrances and exits, the curtains, the spectacle provided by what beings from ‘The Other Side’ can do on our world – all work superbly; thus all the actors get their laughs and a chance to shine, and thus is less of a burden is placed on the undisputable but aging star of the evening. She appears in only a few scenes but they are key ones; they were enough to make Margaret Rutherford a star. It’s a cracker of a role.
The music, many of Coward’s greatest hits plus Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, is a treat; and the producers are aware of the element of nostalgia in all of this and milk it; the stage is framed as if it were a silent film and as if we are all longing for a Cowardesque past of elegant living, witty sayings, perfectly made plays and great stars – which we, or at least the audience last night and certainly myself at any time, certainly are.
The Gielgud is also a perfect venue for a Noel Coward sophisticated drawing room comedy — intimate, gilded, bijou-y, decorated with caricatures of Coward and Gielgud and Ivor Novello, Beaton photographs of Binkie Beaumont, and an oil painting of Margaret Rutherford. The bar, a round rotunda balcony from which you can lean over with your gin and ogle at the people coming in through the box-office is itself worth the price of admission.
Lansbury’s character, Madame Arcati, is forever associated with Rutherford so Lansbury is not without a challenge on her hands. She only appears in a few scenes and needs to not only get her laughs but also try to efface the memory of Rutherford, one rendered more vivid by being immortalised in David Lean’s film of the play. Lansbury appears dressed like the salacious Salome Otterbourne she played in Death on the Nile but acting like Maggie Smith’s curt companion to Bette Davis in the same film, all brisk common sense. She was a bit wobbly on her lines and her voice was lighter than that of the other actors. To me, she did not efface the memory of Margaret Rutherford in the movie, particularly the relish with which Rutherford pursed her lips and rubbed her hands before starting her communications with ‘The Other Side’. But Lansbury still got all her laughs plus a few more that weren’t there for a marvellous quasi-Egyptian dance she does when she goes to turn off the lights for her séance. At the end, when she got that standing ovation it was not just due to the audience’s gratitude for a lifetime of lovingly remembered work — her career is like a huge box of assorted movie madelaines — as it could be said to have been at her entrance, but for still owning that stage like the star and actress she proved to be; for giving us another reason to love her; and for giving us the chance to show our gratitude personally.