As Birmingham’s Electric reopens following a protracted period of uncertainty as to whether it was gone for good, it turns to a programme of classics to invigorate its audience. We catch The Apartment there, Billy Wilder’s dark romantic comedy, which Mike has never seen and José not for years, to discuss corporate alienation, whether the suicide story structure works, the cynicism in Wilder’s work and his personal history that it can be seen as a product of, the appeal of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, and the takers, those who get took, and the mensches.
I was nominated by Andrew Grimes Griffin – One movie poster a day for 10 days. The no explanation bit is annoying people so:
I get older. Lubitsch films only get younger, wiser, more inventive, more understanding, more inclusive and funnier. Time and understanding have made depths from all its delightful surfaces. I love them all but have a few on pretty constant rotation: Lady Windermere´s Fan, To Be or Not To Be, The Shop Around the Corner, and todays choice, Trouble in Paradise. As I schlep around my flat from fridge to desk, stove to sofa, the peerless elegance, glamour and wit, the graceful skating over surfaces, the intelligence of Lubitsch become more welcome than ever. And anyone who hasn´t seen the scene where MIriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall reveal what each has stolen from the other as a a form of flirtation, an indication of attraction and then a final declaration of love, each gag topping the other, is missing out on one of THE great moments in films history, I am single-minded in trying to convert people, but a particular failure since such enthusiasms breed resistance when all that is really needed is to see the films. But this might be the moment. What could be better in Covid Times than a little Lubitsch touch?
Watching Spanish musicals of the ’50s and sixties, I’ve noticed how often the protagonists look directly at the camera, and thus at the audience. It’s generally a no-no in Classical Hollywood Cinema, though there’s more of a history of it than is common acknowledged, particularly in musicals and comedy: one need only think of how wittily Lubitsch (and Cukor) deploy it in the opening scenes of One Hour With You (1932) (see clip below); and of course it’s woven into the Crosby/Hope/Lamour ‘Road’ films for comic effect, often as an in-joke the audience is also privy to.
The distancing effect, the alienation effect, the estrangement effect; all of these translations and derivatives of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and rooted in the Russion Formalist notion of making strange, of de-familarizing, in cinema as on stage, is supposed to distance the spectator emotionally by making the familiar strange, making them aware of the constructedness of the drama and in doing so allowing for a more intellectual understanding that would empower the individual to analyze and perhaps even change the world. A characteristic device in theatre and in film is the look back directly to the audience, in theatre the breaking of ‘the fourth wall’, a direct address that is supposed to disrupt ‘stage illusion’ and generate a distancing effect.
Spanish musicals offer further proof, if proof were needed, that no one meaning or effect can be attributed to any formal device; that indeed it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. Seeing a lot of Sara Montiel films I’ve noticed how this look back at the audience is something that she does regularly in her films (Pecado de amor, La dama de Beirut, Noches de Casablanca ), it’s almost a trope in her vehicles. What interested me about the use of that device of looking directly at the camera in La Reina del Chantecler (Rafael Gil, Spain, 1962) is that it seems to me that it does the opposite of what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do, i.e. it sutures in rather than alienates or distances.
As you can see in the clip below, the pre-title opening sequence of the film is a musical number where Sara Montiel performs, ‘Colón 34’, the refrain goes as follows:
Colón, Colón 34
tiene usted su habitación
y una chica muy decente
sin ninguna pretención
en la calle de Colón, Colón, Colón
siempre a su disposición.
Colón, Colón 34/ You have your own room/ and a very good unpretentious girl/ always at your disposal/ in the street of Colón, Colón, Colón (trans. my own).
As you can see in the clip below, the sequence begins in medium long shot, covering her face and figure, the camera then cranes back into a proper long shot so you can see that quite extensive and impressive set. It then moves in to medium close-up as Montiel starts another verse. As the refrain recommences, the camera gets closer to medium close-up. Then it cuts to a plan américain again, but now intercuts with the audience, demonstrating how Sara is heating up the men in the audience with her risqué song.
At 2.12, the camera cuts to a close-up of Sara, once more singing the refrain, but this time looking directly at the camera until the last line: ‘always at your disposal’. i.e Sara is at the audience’s disposal in the cinema just as her character is in the theatre. There’s meant to be some link between the men in the theatre listening to her character, and the audience in the cinema. It’s a way for the narrative to present the spectacle of Sara, make some structural homologies whilst allowing for particular variations (Sara had a large female following), but also present the film audience as the ideal audience.
After Sara’s name appears in the credits, and then the name of the film, accompanied by illustrations that are meant to signify period (the twenties, though they look like Toulouse-Lautrec imitations from the French Belle Epoque), the narrative proper begins; and there will be no more looking at the audience then. But this sequence seems to be saying, ‘you can enjoy the spectacle of Sara Montiel even better than the audience in this theatre is enjoying the spectacle of the character she plays. Now sit back and lose yourself in this dream of song, and sparkling Eastman colour, a pre-war Spain of song and romance’. That’s not what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do.
I was surprised to see an even more overt example of this in La vida sigue igual (Eugenio Martin, Spain, 1969), a film inspired by Julio Iglesias’ real life, a wannabe Real Madrid goal-keeper has an accident, is prevented from following his dream, and whilst he’s recovering chances upon a world of music, enters a singing contest, wins it, and becomes a pop star. The title of the song is also the title of the film and was a hit before the film began shooting. It’s the song that won Julio the Benidorm song contest in 1968 and launched him as a pop star.
As you can see above. The opening sequence of La vida sigue igual is more familiar to us, with a form very familiar to us from MTV videos: Julio singing directly to the camera, a title card telling us this film will be based on Julio’s real life, then intercut with couples and all the forms of love Julio is singing about, a series of shots some of which literalise the lyrics others which allegorise the theme, with cuts on the beat, that return us to Julio singing directly to us so we can then metaphorically enter his life through the subsequent narrative.
Again, rather than make strange, this sequence is more like one of the ‘attractions’ Tom Gunning writes of in relation to early cinema. He writes that it’s “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” This certainly displays its visibility, it’s Julio Iglesias, pop star, winner of the Benidorm song contest, singing his song for you, in a movie. It solicits the attention of the spectator but it doesn’t so much rupture a self-enclosed fictional world. But create a setting and context for it. Just like Sara does.