When life gets busy and stressful, I find comfort in reading a biography and sinking into other people´s lives. This first week back teaching I read Demi Moore´s Inside Out. There’s surprisingly little on the career, a sparkly one that is central to an understanding of popular Hollywood cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and even less about the films: Joel Schumacher helped her keep her role in St. Elmo´s Fire whilst she got off drugs; people still want to talk to her about Patrick Swayze and Ghost; she thinks Indecent Proposal is a better film than is credited; she gives an insight into how she got that big paycheck for Striptease; the fights to resist the love affair between her character and that of Tom Cruise´s in A Few Good Man that the studio was begging for; she talks of how men in the industry reacted to her G.I Jane body etc. But there´s not much and more space is devoted to the Vanity Fair covers she did with Annie Leibowitz (perhaps rightly). The spine of the story is her relationship with her mother and the best parts of the book are her descriptions of growing up with two parents who were mainly interested in drink, drugs, gambling and a good time, running away from bills and responsibilities all over the country, scamming their way into new houses, and then repeating the cycle all over again every few months with new names, constantly on the move and always on the fringes of criminality. One of Demi´s daughters says she wasn´t raised but forged. And reading the book one understands why. A book I very much enjoyed reading.
A conversation with Richard Dyer to mark the 50th anniversary of his move to Birmingham, where he lived for most of his adult life and where he produced much of his celebrated work. Many thanks to Ian Francis and Flatpack for their foresight in marking the occasion. I too had the foresight to ask whether the conversation could be recorded so that those of you who could not attend the event might nonetheless be able to listen in. However, I then lacked the wit to press the record button on time, so the first five minutes or so of the conversation are missing. In the end you did have to be there I guess, although it´s not a great loss: what´s missing is mainly my fulsome introduction, which he has no need of, and which merely expressed what everyone else feels about him and his work. The conversation is all too brief but touches on his activism at the GLF, the Arts Lab in Birmingham, his arrival the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, his early work on Gays and Film with Jack Babuscio, Stars and White, with some commentary on entertainment, musicals, ‘In Defence of Disco’, filmgoing in Birmingham in the 70s and an introduction to Mai Zetterling´s Loving Couples (Sweden 1964)
Took a stab at cleaning my office this morning and found this; on the left a poster for a magnificent retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films, all screened on 35mm. at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver in 91-92, which I attended religiously, and which greatly informed my knowledge of Bergman’s career; on the left, a box set of some of those films. A more complete box set, mirroring the retrospective from a quarter century ago, is out now from Criterion. Sometimes things take a while to circulate.
The find made me reflect on how film scholarship and cinephilia have changed since then. As a tween film buff my main point of reference for Bergman was the Curtis F. Brown book on her career for the ‘Illustrated History of the Movies’ series I’d begun to painstakingly accumulate in relentless trawls through Montreal’s English-language second-hand bookshops. Now one looks at these books and it’s clear even the writers had often not seen all of the films they wrote about. But we didn’t know that then, and each volume was very handy in giving a chronology and a kind of arc to the Hollywood career of each of its subjects.
By reading, one more or less knew what Bergman had done and what she was celebrated for. But seeing the films was another story. I remember magical screenings of Casablanca at the Seville repertory cinema in the late 70s & early 80s; the whole audience with the film every step of the way; I saw it several times there — it seemed to be on rotation; and each time was the same; the hushed tones; what seemed like a whispered intensity; the glow that seemed to exude from Bergman; the intensity of Bogart’s mingled feelings for Bergman contrasted with his cool irreverence for authority and the law; the jokes, Dooley Wilson’s songs. It was an incantatory experience.
I also caught Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946) at a retrospective of Hitchcock films at Concordia University’s Conservatoire d’art cinématographique. I vividly remember the tiny Place Bonaventure Cinema, the smallest of the two — I saw Star Wars in the other — where I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and retain powerful images of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman’s faces in that film. I was also enraptured by her Golda Meir on television in A Woman Called Golda (1982). I have a memory of seeing the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) that I don’t wholly trust: Ihave a powerful memory of the newspaper ads for the movie but can’t remember the cinema; and it makes me wonder whether I did see it in a cinema: I would have been twelve. But I did go to movies on my own then. Still, it’s possible I caught it on its first television broadcast. Her ‘African babies’ monologue certainly made an impression and has always, for better and worse, stayed with me.
All of this to say that it was very difficult to see films. One had to grab the rare opportunities that offered themselves. One saw only some things, mostly only once, and randomly, as they appeared. The restrospective of the Swedish work in Vancouver, was the first chance I got to see so many of her films together, in a certain kind of order, where you could chart chronology, progression, compare the contributions of various directors (Gustaf Molander made a huge impression). It was also my first exposure to Bergman’s early work in Sweden. It would take me many more years to see her extraordinary work with Rossellini in Italy; and her wonderful performance in Elena et les Hommesfor Renoir; I did manage to see Saratoga Trunk (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945), Indiscreet (1958), The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), Cactus Flower (1968) on tv when I still lived at home. But it was haphazard; whatever randomly came one’s way, by accident: lovely to see, but very difficult to study.
Now it’s all changed. The films can be obtained: even personal ones like Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015), a wonderful documentary composed of images she filmed herself, and where her love for her children is evident in every composition, in every frame, is available to see currently on BBC iplayer. Anyone can make a project of studying an actor or a director and through purchase (the Criterion set of Bergman’s work in Sweden is superb) or torrenting, be able to see all or almost all of their work that still exists, and in chronological order. The surprise is that so few do.
David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film writes, ‘No matter how many times the profit ratio of Psycho is repeated, it does not alter the fact that Hitchcock made several flops, several films in which the entire narrative structure — over which he spent such time and care — is grotesquely miscalculated. Stage Fright, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, and Torn Curtain seem to me thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humour and uncooperative players (p.401).’ It’s all relative I suppose but I don’t agree; or rather, Hitchcock’s worst offers more pleasures than almost anybody else’s best. I found a lot to like in Torn Curtain.
The story is an espionage thriller about a Professor (Paul Newman) and his assistant/fiancée (Julie Andrews), three months from tying the knot, who are at a scientific conference in Scandinavia when, much to the fiancée’s astonishment, the Professor decides to defect to East Berlin. Is he a traitor or is he a spy? We soon find out. The film boasts memorable and typically Hitchcockian set-pieces: the killing in the country-side farm, Paul Newman being followed in a museum, the couple escaping the university, the way they outmanoeuvre the Stasi and manage to escape from the ballet when every entrance is blocked by police, etc. Really, even minor Hitchcock is full of pleasures. Of Hollywood filmmakers, only Lubitsch is Hitchcock’s equal in engaging with the audience, making us complicit in what’s going, trusting us to be co-creators of aspects of the story being told and teasing, tricking, playing with us in order to please and delight.
The performances of the stars of Torn Curtain have been widely criticised, Thomson calling them ‘drab’ (p.402). Others regurgitating stories of how Hitchcock had wanted Eva Maria Saint and Cary Grant; how Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, the top box-office stars of this period, were imposed on Hitchcock by the studio; how Newman was — to Hitchock’s annoyance — too method; how he found Julie Andrews not beautiful or sexy enough.
Be that as it may, there’s no question that he took great care with the presentation of these stars. We’re introduced to them in bed, with their coats over the blankets, making love and trying to keep warm. Then, we see their name tags of the characters they play in alternating close-ups, first Dr. Sarah Sherman and then Professor Michael Armstrong. We first see the backs of their heads, then extreme close-ups of the couple kissing. We know they’ve just had sex: ‘let’s call this lunch,’ says Armstrong. It’s a sexy spin on Julie Andrews’ star persona. Here is Mary Poppins and the novice from The Sound of Music in bed with Paul Newman; and they’re not even married! That must have been a thrilling star entrance to fans of both stars. Moreover, Hitchcock and his team light them beautifully. Look at the shine of the pin spot in Andrew’s eyes in fig. A. How Newman’s eyes, then widely publicised as the most beautiful blues in the world, are presented in an enormous close-up, so big as to encompass only one eye, made to shine against the light (fig. B). Note too, the prominent display of Newman’s body throughout the film (fig. C).
‘Performance’ is not everything in commercial filmmaking, particularly when it’s a question of stars. Newman and Andrews are not bad; the director makes an interesting play on audience expectations, giving them a theatrical star entrance, lighting them gorgeously, dressing them both attractively and meaningfully, and playing on and developing their star personas, particularly that of Andrews. I loved seeing them in this, and stars by their very nature should not need to play a ‘role of a lifetime’ to bring their audience pleasure; often their presence is enough for their fans. When presented as carefully and to so much advantage as here, it is much more than enough. Newman and Andrews were a draw then and are still reasons to see this film.
It is true that the stars, delightful as they are to see, do not give memorable performances. But I do think it would be fair to say that some of the performances in Torn Curtain have become legendary. Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek, Armstrong’s East German body-guard, with his East-European accent and his American slang, funny and menacing, always watchable, is an outsize cartoon. It’s a particular type of performance, very theatrical, very knowing, aimed at the audience, and clearly a type Hitchcock delights in.
I’ve made a gif of his famous death scene so as to exaggerate his hand gestures (see above). This is an actor who knows how to make the most of a scene even in the absence of his face or even most of his body, who steals the scene from his co-stars by showing us his expiration only with a wave of his fingers, but they wave and wave, each movement expressing something slightly different but within an overall arc, like those hams who can turn being shot into a five minute dance with death. I find it delightful, so much better than merely ‘realistic’ and Hitchcock must have also, or he would have shot it differently, shortened it or cut it altogether.
Much as I love Kieling’s performance, one never gets a sense that he’s playing a real person. This is not true of Lila Kedrova’s marvellous turn as the Countess Kuchinska, the Polish Countess, not ‘communistical’, sneering at the quality of the tobacco and the coffee and desperate for American sponsorship of her visa application. As you can see below, each of her ‘faces’ is beautifully expressive, and she does run the gamut of expression.
I tried to do some image capture to illustrate and the enormous range of vivid expressions she brought even within one shot quickly became evident. No single still would do, so I created a compilation from her scenes in the cafe with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. Kedrova’s performance is theatrical, almost Delsartean in her gestures, and she looks like a wounded French bulldog, but one gets a sense of a person who’s elegant, pained, powerful but helpless, bewildered. There’s a person that’s constructed out of those arresting expression and those wounded eyes. How did the countess arrive from Poland to East Berlin? What did she have to live through? It’s clear that she was once beautiful and that maybe she could no longer use that to the advantage she once did. What did her class, her gender, her beauty and her foreignness play in her survival? What sort of desperation drives an already old person to go to such lengths to get out?
I love the last shot in the clip above. The countess has finally gotten the American couple the information they needed. But just as they succeed the police arrives. She trips the policeman to allow the couple to escape, knowing that doing so seals her own doom. Hitchcock shows us a close-up of the rifle falling down the stairs, and then the camera cranes right up the stairs into a close-up of Lila Kedrova’s face as the Countess says, ‘My sponsor, my sponsor for United States of America’. It’s simultaneously camp and touching. Kedrova is giving a charismatic, theatrical performance (her elegant posture on the stairs, her voicing of the dialogue) that moves us through the recognisable humanity she expresses. For her all is lost. And Hitchcock wants us to see this enough to arrange a complex shot that is in itself arresting, spectacular. The American couple has a chance; for the Polish Countess in East Berlin, there’s no more hope. And Hitchcock and Kedrova, together, know how to convey the drama and truth of that moment, a moment where spectacle and feeling are rendered one. It’s lovely.
Dress, Décor, Angle and Framing as Part of Mise-en-scéne:
I understand that Hitchcock was disappointed with Torn Curtain but was pleased with what he’d been able to accomplish as an exercise on light and composition. These are some aspects of the film that aroused my interest and delighted my sight.
The reason why I started off writing this piece, but which I’ve left to the end, is that even in the worst of Hitchcock one finds moments of real poetry. In the scene below there are many things to admire. I decided to start the clip in the previous scene, so that you can see the close-up on Julie Andrews’ face as she says ‘East Berlin, but that’s behind the Iron Curtain’. That will rhyme with the very last shot of the scene, which is a masterpiece of expression. In between note how the cut is on Michael’s face seen slightly from behind now on the plane. From her to him, each facing in the opposite direction, and now in a new context, note how the camera tracks slowly back to allow us to take the new context in, and in full, before the camera pans right to a close-up of the befuddled Sarah. Note how the cutting speeds up when he sees her, the repetition of the tracking shot, but much faster as Michael heads to Sarah, then the change in direction but at the same speed as he approaches her. They’re superb choices.
But the pièce-de-resistance is the last shot on Sarah. That last close-up, after Michael has told her to stop following him and go home, which rhymes with the close-up of her finding out he’s going to East Berlin, but now filmed from a slightly higher angle to indicate Michael’s point-of-view on Sarah, and then the beautiful way the image begins to dissolve, goes out of focus, undulates, distorts. Note Hitchcock’s confidence in the length of its duration. And then the quick cut onto the opening doors of the plane with its view of East Berlin’s airport. It’s like all Sarah’s hopes, dreams, are extinguished and expire in that moment where everything goes out of focus and distorts only to be confronted by the harshness of a new reality with all her past knowledge put into doubt. It’s beautiful. A great moment of cinema. And one of many reasons to see the film.
I saw this on a gorgeous blu-ray transfer from Universal Studios: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.
I’d put off seeing In The Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, USA, 2015) because the trailer looked dull, because I’ve never seen a fully satisfying film about man versus whales, because another attempt to demonstrate American ideals of human courage under fire, or under water or even against aliens from another dimension, all seem the same and all make one just want to curl up and die.
I’d loved Rush (Ron Howard, USA, 2013), the previous Howard/Hemsworth collaboration, but I suspected, rightly, that the undoubted excitement it incited might be a one-off: Howard is too nice — and perhaps has been too lucky — to draw out complexities and contradictions and dramatise them compellingly, e.g., In the Heart of the Sea tells us that the greed, barbarity and cost to people and the environment that drove the American whaling industry in the 19th Century is not that different than that which would later drive a different type of oil industry: oh, okey dokey.
What got me to the theatre on a cold winter’s day was seeing that Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw were also in the cast; and, really, it was the tantalising thought of Whishaw as Herman Melville that was the clincher. In the end, he was disappointing. The part is a thankless one; a mere narrative device through which to get Gleeson to narrate the story that would then form the basis of Moby Dick. Whishaw isn’t on for very long; he doesn’t have much to do; it’s a part that could have been played by many others and just as well. But what Whishaw offers that others might not is the potential for surprise. It could have been different, exciting, unexpected, delightful; it has been so many times in the past
Ben Whishaw may be the first out young star who, whilst playing a great variety of roles, nonetheless is building quite a repertoire of homosexual characters. It’s instructive to compare what he offers to, say, someone like Stanley Tucci, who in the last few years has also played a whole variety of roles, gay and straight, but seemingly specialising, at least since The Devil Wears Prada, in ones clearly coded as homosexual (The Hunger Games films, Burlesque, Gambit), and playing them all in one smug note as the sort of fey cultural deviant that raises a superior eyebrow at what everyone else is saying whilst criticising their dress sense for their own good. That’s the limit of how Tucci can imagine ‘gay’.
What Whishaw brings at this point, as his star personae unfolds and changes, is the imbuing of humanity to a category; his ‘gays’ could be a widower trying to connect over his loss with his ‘mother-in-law’, or sub-proles trying to fight the system over that which is just, or marginalised people trying to find a connection, or romantic heroes who cannot see life beyond art and love. ‘Gay’ is not what defines these characters when Wishaw plays them, as is so often the case when Tucci does (and ‘gay’ always means ‘camp’ and ‘supercilious’ for Tucci). Another interesting point about Whishaw is that other than when I saw him in Mojo onstage, he never seems to depict characters with any sexual threat (and his Baby in Mojo was a psychotic so…); they might be sexy but passively so, their minds are on love and sex always seems to be connected to some higher plane of feeling, even when the narratives hint that this was not always so in the past.