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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 114 – Robin Hood (2018)

We argue about a film that neither of us can possibly claim is good, but in which one of us found things to like. Hot on the heels of watching Errol Flynn’s Technicolor classic a few weeks ago, we catch the latest telling of the Robin Hood folk tale, fittingly titled Robin Hood, a desaturated, guns and geezers-inflected version that transports us to a somewhat otherworldly, sci-fi-ish version of the medieval Midlands. Church and state are in cahoots, the poor are exploited – and it doesn’t look like they have much left to exploit anyway – and with Sherwood Forest nowhere to be seen, the only green thing around is Robin of Loxley.

We can both agree that no matter the intention, the film is poorly directed, though José would decry it more than Mike, who tries to look beneath the incoherent camerawork and dull set pieces to find areas of interest, such as the tangible sense of growing revolution and the charming Black Hawk Down version of the Third Crusade, complete with shoulder-mounted arrow bazookas, why not. We have good and bad words to say about the performances in equal measure, Jamies Foxx and Dornan standing out but Ben Mendelsohn and star Taron Egerton failing to meet expectations set by their previous performances. And Tim Minchin, with the best will in the world, isn’t an actor.

Mike takes issue with the film’s conception of Robin; a character learning to become the hero is one thing, but simply being nudged and told by everyone around him how to do so makes for poor character development. Little John is so significant he’s known here only as John, José speculating that as the biggest actor in the film, Jamie Foxx had the role improved at the expense of balance. We do find common ground in praising aspects of the world and visual design, but it’s always with the caveat that the direction generally works better to obscure than exhibit it.

All this and more in an edition packed with disagreement. Arguments and quibbles aplenty!

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 Helen Hanson on Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era

helen3.jpgHelen Hanson is a Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter as well as Academic Director of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. I’m a great admirer of Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era,  her new book. Hollywood Soundscapes not only provides us with new knowledge on the craft and production of film sounds styles in the classic era but is also an inspiring example of how to produce methods through which to do so.

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Professor Hanson came to Warwick to talk on Lela Simone, the music supervisor of the great Freed Unit at MGM, and thus responsible for the sound of some of the greatest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and many others. I sought Professor Hanson out to talk at greater length about her superb book.

The discussion touches on how her initial research question, ‘who were the most significant people working in sound in the classic era?’ changed into an account of how style is framed around structures that develop from group work and the sharing of knowledges. We touch on how the structures surrounding the work and practices of a sound editor in the 1930s might be shaped not only by the technologies that he or she was using but also forms of knowledge, professional networks and the conventions and expectations of the work.

One of the wonderful aspects of Hollywood Soundscapes is how we get detailed accounts of stereophonic sound systems that did not quite succeed. We touch on the Vitasound system which added speakers and amplified sound and also on the Fantasound system Walt Disney developed for Fantasia, two examples on which there is a much more extended and detailed account in the book itself.

The discussion ranges from  what constituted ‘ear appeal’ at any point in time to what she would advise a beginner to look for if he or she wanted to analyse and better understand the ways in which sound is created and deployed in film.

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The conversation touches on generic expectations in relation to the crafting of soundscapes. Sound technicians had a sense of how to shape the sound for different genres. When mixing the sound for a drama, for example, they looked for high contrast sound. For comedy, there was a tendency to seek a louder sound mix. But different studios had different practice conventions. Warners, for example,  liked to record wild sounds.

Hanson notes that, ‘The networks of professional and personal relationships made me understand how multi-talented technicians were. They understood aesthetics, technologies and economics. They understood how to please management.’

I hope the podcast sparks an interest in reading Hollywood Soundscapes, a very considerable contribution to what we know about sound in the classic era and an equally great contribution to methods of how to go about finding out more. The podcast can be listened to below:

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 112 – Widows – Second Screening

I drag a somewhat recalcitrant Mike to the cinema for a second go at Widows, joined by Lee Kemp (@leekemp), a Birmingham-based filmmaker and founder of Vermillion Films. And wow, we cover a lot!

Mike and Lee both agree that some of the cinematic technique is distracting on the first viewing, whereas second time round, knowing what to expect, it’s easier to appreciate the art of some shots and evaluate them more intimately. I simply luxuriates even more deeply than before in the visual splendour and tone. We agree that it’s a heist film that isn’t really about the heist, though what we then make of that – how clever we think that is – is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the film’s economy, both visually and in dialogue. It’s so, so elegant and deliberate, and that all becomes clear as we compare things that struck us.

The film’s use of the Church comes into focus – morality and God is almost never in question when it comes up, the film instead framing it in political, corporate and corrupt terms. The film equates the worlds of politics and gang crime, one white, the other black, a theme expressed through the two opposing political candidates and their associates.

We take time to consider the similarities and differences between the central female characters; how, for instance, the two black women are members of very different social classes. We praise how the film depicts how they deal with grief, the lack of connection they so desperately feel, and the way it affords each of them their scene to express it. Mike has, since the first podcast, watched the first Prime Suspect (written by Lynda La Plante, creator of the original Widows) and talks a little about it; I find it interesting that an originally British television programme adapted in part by a British filmmaker should yield such a sharp commentary on American society, and in such a condensed form.

We also consider wider questions of how to watch films critically. Mike goes on a brief rant about why the lack of seriousness with which media studies education is still taken has resulted in a world of Trump, Brexit, and fake news. Methods of analysis come in for scrutiny; we mention the video essay series Every Frame a Painting and discuss how one of its episodes in particular, the one on 2011’s Drive, is or isn’t a good example of textual analysis. We discuss the scene in which we see the protagonist’s son’s death; would we have watched it differently ten years ago, when it’s set?

All this and even more in a discussion that’s full to the brim. Mike is begrudgingly forced to concede that he misjudged the film the first time. I love it even more than I thought I could. And many, many thanks to Lee for joining us. And check out War of Words, the UK battle rap documentary on which he worked as executive producer, now on iTunes!

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.

Mirrors in Mildred Pierce

The use of mirrors is also a key component of mise-en-scène in Mildred Pierce.  The film begins with the shooting of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). There are several shots, some land on the mirror, he falls over. The mirror teases us with off-screen space but in this case angled so that we don’t see the perpetrator. Screenshot 2018-11-24 at 08.40.05.png

Mirrors are used for expressive purposes. Here at the beginning Mildred (Joan Crawford), having led Wally (Jack Carson) into the beach house is planning to leave him on his own so the police may find him and he can take the rap. The duplicitous action suggested by Mildred being doubled for us through the mirror.

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Mirrors, of course, also appear simply as part of household or office decor, fulfilling no other function than to make a room seem ‘real’. See the office mirror here in the centre of the frame on one wall reflecting the painting kitty corner to it.

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But usually mirrors are used to much more expressive and narrational ends in Mildred Pierce, like in this moment where the dress her mother’s bought her does not at all fit in with the kind of woman Veda (Ann Blythe) wants to become; and how both Mildred’s and Veda’s differing ideas of a pretty dress and the notions of femininity it might help project  are contrasted with Kay (Jo Ann Marlow), happy in her overalls.

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Curtiz makes use of any reflecting surface to mirror and creates a striking image with it as here below. Mildred, walked off her feet and needing a rest before she enters the cafe. She’s elegant in her hat and coat, potentially too elegant for the for the type of  job the sign is advertising (though we know she’ll take it). The fact that the reflection is from below expresses something of how low she’s willing to go to work, no job is really beneath her. A striking image conveying lots of story information, densely condensed.

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We get some of this also in the scene where Mildred goes swimming with Monte and goes to the wardrobe to find a bathing suit. We see her doubled with Monte off-screen but as she opens the wardrobe, eliminating him from the picture, she sees that she’s far from the only woman Monte’s brought there. As Mildred and her reflection open the wardrobe, Monte gets effaced by what the contents of the wardrobe reveal:  all the ‘sisters, ‘ all to be scantily clad, he’s brought to the beach house before Mildred. The mirror here is used dramatically, as revelation.

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Here below, the mirror is used as a kind of narrative punctuation. Monte and Mildred are embracing, the record ends, the camera pans to the record continuing to spin whilst the mirror shows us they’re too hot for each other to bother to change it. The embrace starts and ends the shot and at the end is framed next to and against the record player. It’s a brilliant piece of visual direction, made more so if one also remembers this is the mirror is not unlike the one behind Monte as he was shot at the beginning of the film. Thus the initiations of an uncontrolled passion are already linked with death from the beginning.

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Whilst Momma’s been playing, baby’s been dying. In the next scene, the finality of Kay’s death is brought home by the mirror. Mildred, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) and Veda are mourning. And we see that there’s no hope as the doctor and nurse recede and disappear through the mirror.

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Sometimes, mirrors are used to anchor context and create atmosphere. Here below, the main function seems to be to make us aware that Monte and Mildred are at a party — they’re surrounded by people whilst nonetheless allowing for a private conversation: one about money. They’re in public, the moment is private, but the private is always threatening, on the verge and in danger of becoming public.

 

 

But of course we mustn’t forget that this use of mirrors, potent, as it is constructed so as to appear incidental and that, although I’ve extracted still images above, it usually takes place in motion and as part of other elements of mise-en-scène. In the scene below, which is really about Monte and Mildred getting together and Bert granting Mildred her wishes, all encased in the break-up of a family. The mirror behind the bar first appears discretely and then gains in dramatic force helping to shows us how Bert and Monte are at odds, how the appearance of Bert onto the scene underlines the break-up of a family.  The conflict is generated by who appears facing the mirror, the whooshing of the camera movement from the mirror following Mildred and onto Bert which begins around 45 second into the clip below and shows Bert appearing in the mirror onscreen whilst following her, past Monte and as she’s pictured between them onscreen. At 1.29, after he says, ‘I’m doing fine’, the scene cuts onto Bert and Monte exchanging challenging gazes through the mirror. The composition once again indicating that the ‘private’ word is being played out publicly, or at least within Monte’s sight (through the mirror).

 

I wanted to include the whole clip above rather than still images so you could see how important  motion is to the potency of the pictures. They’re moving pictures. And in relation to other elements of mise-en-scène. Thus in the clip above I’ve made the cut after the swish pan to the left, which brings us out of the flash-back, and also underline the inverse rhyming of the camera movement from the last scene in the bar to the first shot at the police station.

It’s extraordinary work by Curtiz, and only a tiny example of his astonishingly imaginative mise-en-scene for this film.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Mirrors in ‘Angels With Dirty Faces

After writing on the consistent use of shadow play throughout Michael Curtiz’ work, Brian M. Faucette urged me to look at his use of mirrors, mentioning he’d written a whole master’s thesis on this subject, one I’d be eager to read. Sure enough, a cursory look at Angels With Dirty Faces proves him right. In the first set of images below, Rocky (James Cagney) is walking with Laury Martin (Anne Sheridan) when he suspects he’s being followed, pretends he’s got something stuck in his eye, and goes look in a mirror to see what’s behind him.

 

In the second trio of images below Rocky holds up James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) in order to see what’s in his safe. In the first image, we get an expressive use of the mirror: Bogart surrounded by a set of Cagneys. In the second, Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito use the reflecting surface of the safe’s door to frame Cagney’s gloating face, again offering us a set of beaming Cagneys whilst Bogart, supporting player that he is at this point, gets seen only from the back. In the third image, Curtiz uses mirrors so that the frame can encompass off-screen space and we can keep the crooked lawyer played by Bogart in the picture.

 

Curtiz, also uses mirrors, to enhance production values. The image below is part of a shot that begins filming a reflection, making the room look bigger and fuller and as it pans from the two women on the left re-arranging themselves cue us in on having just watched a reflection rather than the room itself.

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Mirrors are also handy dramatic devices. They can be exploded, shattered, shot at in ways that are visually exciting (see below right). Again this is part of a moving shot that tracks back (see below left) so we have an image shattered in front of our eyes, the camera tracks back and our field of vision is re-drawn, re-arranged in a dramatic manner that makes the shot richer and more exciting.

 

And of course mirrors frame, re-frame, create frames within frames, and thus can hide as well as reveal. here Curtiz shows a shootout which begins with Cagney drawing the gun but the camera pans to his face, framing Rocky’s reaction/Cagney’s face; moving attention from an action to a reaction,  framing feeling on an action, whilst of course creating a very striking image.

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Curtiz is indeed a visual wiz.

Thanks again to Brian M. Faucette for bringing this to my attention,

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 110 – Angels with Dirty Faces

We continue our Michael Curtiz kick with Angels with Dirty Faces, a James Cagney gangster film with surprising subtleties. We consider Cagney’s stardom and how he remains unique, the film’s themes of hero worship and glorification of crime, and the interesting relationship between Cagney’s gangster and Pat O’Brien’s priest.

A film that’s very much of its time but remains an interesting and entertaining watch.

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.

 

 

Jimmy the Gent, prince and democrat

I forget who wrote that ‘Cagney displaces air’. But he does. He’s got such kinetic energy that one is constantly riveted by his movement. And also he’s an old vaudevillian: every gesture is made to evoke character but also to please an audience, to get a laugh, or a reaction. And most of all, Cagney in the thirties, is the great working class hero, the man of and for the people. There’s been no one like him since in gesture or indeed. The clip above from Jimmy the Gent gives a hint as to why.

Montreal in Warners films

In Warners films of the 1930s, Montreal seems to be the place rich women send their discarded lovers to. In Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933) when rich Ruth Chatterton’s boytoys ‘get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia’. Poor gangsters take advantage of Montreal’s reputation as both a ‘free city’ where women, jazz, and booze abound but one that also has a lot of woods to hide in: as you can see in the clip below from  Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933), Montreal’s a good a place to go on the lam to when escaping the heat in the States:

Cagney ushers in a filmgoing experience in Lady Killer

Running a movie theatre was evidently a military operation in 1934; certain customers expected a different level of service.

 

In the film, Cagney will start as an usher, get involved with a criminal gang clipping gamblers, and end up a movie star. The bit in Lady Killer above is very  evocative of cinema as a social institution and part of an enormous and wide-ranging apparatus in America. But, at least as relates to film theatres, things were not too different in Britain. In ‘Working at the Gaumont,’ an unpublished interview Sheldon Hall conducted with Dennis O’Grady, who’d worked at the Gaumont in Sheffield for many years, in 2009, O’Grady tells us: ‘

‘The hours at the Gaumont were long: we started at 9 am and worked until the cinema closed at whatever time of night. We did have a break of two hours in the afternoon and one hour in the evening – unpaid, of course! We started the day by polishing every bit of brassware in the cinema, and there was plenty. The front entrance was a large marble-floored area which was scrubbed daily by an army of cleaners who used bars of hard soap and scrubbing brushes. Each woman had an area of “the marble”, as it was called, to scrub clean – it was rather like a scene from Dickens! While they scrubbed, we polished – the front doors then had brass handles, the stair rails to the circle were brass and there were about six steps up to the stalls area, which had brass hand rails.

Around 11.20 we went to the staff room and changed into our very smart uniforms. The uniform then was pale blue with silver trimmings. We also wore a high peaked cap and a pair of white cotton gloves slipped through one of the shoulder epaulettes. There was then a staff parade where all the uniformed staff were inspected, usually by Barbara. The manager changed into evening dress from 6 pm. A great deal of pride was taken in looking smart as the Gaumont was then the number one cinema in the city centre, although we had in opposition the Cinema House, the Hippodrome, the Palace, Union Street, the Classic, and on the corner the Wicker and the Don. I can’t recall the exact date of the Odeon opening in Flat Street [16 July 1956] but we had very little to do with them.

The programmes were continuous throughout the day, starting with the main film, then the adverts and trailers for the following week (there was not then the endless stream of the same type of film trailers we get now in the multiplexes). There was also a newsreel and the second feature. The only breaks were for the sale of ice cream and drinks when at least eight sales girls went round the whole auditorium. The adverts for the various ice creams and drinks on sale advised patrons to “kindly remain seated – the sales staff will visit all parts of the auditorium”.

It was not considered at all unusual for patrons to enter the cinema halfway through a film, watch the programme until they reached the point when they had entered, then leave having seen the whole programme. At busy times there would be a large queue outside the cinema and the usherettes would advise us that we had, say, “three doubles and six singles” as people left the cinema. A doorman would then go to the queue and announce “Three doubles and six singles” to the front part of the queue, moving up the queue if the first people did not want the seats. At the end of the evening we all went round emptying the ashtrays on the backs of the seats before changing to go home. Unlike today there was very little litter on the floor; there was no popcorn and hot dogs were a novelty, sold from a barrow in the foyer. I dare not think of the mess if performances were continuous in today’s multiscreens.’

Michael Fisher, who managed several cinemas into the nineties, says tells me that, ‘Staff parades were carried out before premieres. Probably still are. It was written into Odeon Manager’s contracts to change into Dinner jackets after 6pm. This continued until the 1990s at least.  I was on the Uniform Committee for a while. Every time there was a new Managing Director there was a change of Uniform to show they had arrived and were doing something. The worst one had the Odeon O over the left tit of the usherettes’ blouses. Just like a target’.

Seeing the clip also reminded Chris Schneider of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’: ‘You’re the top, you’re the pants on a Roxy Usher’. The cinema in the clip is the legendary The Strand, Warner’s New York showcase, and one of the first luxurious movie palaces built to show only motion pictures.

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 109 – The Adventures of Robin Hood

One of the early three-strip Technicolor films (1938), and an action adventure classic, we visit 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring Errol Flynn at his dashing, cheeky peak. We get swept up in its excited use of colour, social conscience, pleasantly laddish tone and swashbuckling combat.

Mike sees some of the film at an ironic distance, particularly the action, which he finds charmingly amateur. But while some things might have significantly changed over the last eighty years, the connection to the characters and the film’s sense of fun is intact. There’s a discussion to be had over the film’s messaging – José greatly appreciates the democratic tone to everything, the fairness with which Robin treats everybody and the grace with which he is able to accept defeat, while Mike suggests that his magnanimity would be more impactful if we were able to feel he were ever in true peril – but Flynn is simply so charming, so in control, and indeed, such a star, that the film can never sell it. Flynn conveys a certain superiority through masculinity, as José notes – he is a man among men.

The Robin Hood legend endures, this 1938 version only one of countless film adaptations, and we discuss why that might be. And there’s always room to mock Americans who try to tell English stories and get things wrong. It’s the joy of being English.

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: 108 – Bohemian Rhapsody

The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.

José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.

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Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.

Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)

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 David Baldwin, Film Programmer, Midlands Arts Centre

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A conversation with David Baldwin, new film programmer of the Midlands Arts Centre Cinema and former programmer of The Electric, with some timely interventions from Michael Glass of Eavesdropping at the Movies.

An illuminating talk not only about David’s hopes for the Midlands Arts Centre cinema program but also about distribution practices in general, about the different factors that need to be weighed in relation to programming, the availability or lack thereof of works in relation to particular venues, new distribution practices and video on demand.
We talk about programming for venues as part of a network of information on film, the brochure, local listings information, the importance of Filmwire and the usefulness of at least a second screen in relation to what can become pragmatically programmable.
We also discuss audiences from different social formations and how to engage and involve them (LGBTQ, East Asian, Polish, Spanish-speaking, differently abled audiences etc.). What do audiences go to the cinema for nowadays and what to entice them with? How important is the projection system and what do introductions to films and discussions after bring to an event? What’s been doing well and what hasn’t and why?

The podcast can be listened to here:

José Arroyo

A book recommendation

Gary Giddins’ new book on Crosby is great. But even so, I didn’t think it was quite as good as his first, extraordinary volume, that went up to 1940.  After reading the second I re-read the first to make sure. And I was right: it’s almost as good but not quite. Yet, who’s quibbling? I don’t think anything could be. Cumulatively, the books are one of *the* great accounts of twentieth century American popular culture ever written. Reading them you get not only a sense of Crosby and his significance but a thorough account of the recording industry of those years, what was innovative when during the period, an account of radio at its peak and an excellent account of Hollywood at its height. All meticulously recorded, annotated, thought through.

One of the wonderful things about living now is that you can read Giddins, go to the song he’s talking about on youtube (they’re almost all there), and then read him as to why the singing, the song, or the arrangement is interesting or innovative, and one in fact does end up understanding. Giddins claims Crosby as the most significant figure in American popular music next to Louis Armstrong (and he well explains why it’s not Sinatra, Presley or any of the other contenders). And whatever your views are before reading, you’ll be absolutely convinced after.

Those of you into fan studies might also be interested in the newest volume for other reasons: much of the account of Bing in New York during the war years is taken from diaries of two sisters, dedicated fans, one of them in her late twenties, who stalked him so thoroughly it would put the FBI to shame. It is a meticulous researched and ethically woven through the narrative.

If you’re at all interested in American popular culture, in music, cinema, radio or the performing arts in America in the twentieth century, these two volumes are essential reading. I sincerely hope there are plans for a third.

 

José Arroyo

José Arroyo in Conversation with Gary Horrocks

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Gary Horrocks came to talk on Judy Garland at Warwick University and I grabbed him briefly to discuss fandom and Judy Garland; how he became a Judy Garland fan; and how he eventually went on to run The International Judy Garland Fan Club and become editor of, first, The Rainbow Review, which originated in 1963, and, more recently, Judy Garland: A Celebration.

Judy Garland is famous for starring in some of the most renown and celebrated films of all time: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Star is Born (1954); films which are seen and re-seen, from generation to generation; films which for some become totems through which to make sense of their lives and the world they live in: ‘what is it to have a heart?,’ I’ve heard children ask their mothers after watching The Wizard of Oz, and children ask a deeper, more complex and philosophical question than most adults do when using the same words.

Aside from her film work, Garland also appeared regularly on radio when that was at its peak in the ‘40s, she made dozens and dozens of albums, had her own television variety show and gave thousands of live performances in concert, some, such as the Carnegie Hall concert from ’61, so legendary that Rufus Wainwright re-interpreted it in 2006 and toured with for several years after. Since her 1951 performances at The Palladium to her last ones at The Talk of The Town in ’69, The UK was fundamental to her success.

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In the podcast below, Gary talks of how The Judy Garland Club’s journal has been used as a primary source of research in biographies. The Rainbow Review, which was started in 1963 by Lorna Smith, and ran for over 100 issues is a mine of information and the club has kept every letter from every fan, many now sadly deceased. Fans also meticulously kept every newspaper article, review, etc., all of which the club has kept, filed and curated. The club also filmed interviews with people who’d met her, and this now amounts to over 400 hours of footage.

In 1998 Gary Horrocks was invited to take over the editorship of the The Rainbow Review, which eventually evolved into Judy Garland: A Celebration. There are now members from all over the world. They’ve recently produced a documentary on the 1957 Dominion show based on the archives, written by Gary Horrocks and created by Andy Warrington. The actor/comedian/author Tony Hawks is narrator.

The documentary can be accessed here:

In 2019 the Club is publishing its next journal with an extensive contribution from its founder Lorna Smith, alongside iJUDY – its online newsletter. More information on the club can be found at: www.Judygarlandclub.org.

The conversation, which can be listened to above, touches on I Could Go on Singing, Judy’s first UK tour, the appearances at the Dominion, the cult of Dorothy, her recordings at Abbey Road, the importance attached to her sincerity, and the various types of Judy fandom: ‘Some fans say I don’t like that version of Judy or I prefer the 60’s version. Or they say, ‘I don’t do Dorothy’. People approach her in different ways. There’s lots of friction amongst the fan community due to a sense of ownership around her. She gave the impression that she was singing just for you. Again I come back to ‘sincerity’. Her flame seems to get brighter every year.

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José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 107 – Widows

José falls in love with Widows, a portrait of life and survival in modern America in the skin of a heist film. Mike can see exactly why he should love it, but just doesn’t click with it.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows sees three women lose their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong, and their attempt to complete their final job with the promise of a big payoff. The film draws parallels between urban gang violence and entrenched political dynasties, complicates the widows’ grief with sex and intimacy, and constructs the potential payoff not as a cause of celebration but as a way out of bad situations. José finds the film a visual marvel, layered and expressive, but to Mike it’s more a reminder of what he loved so deeply about You Were Never Really Here than great in its own right.

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: 106 – Casablanca

One of us has seen it countless times. The other has never seen it. Fortunately for José, Mike instantly falls in love with Casablanca.

In a way, the pressure was on for Mike to enjoy it, as it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time, and its screenplay in particular held up as a shining example of the craft. And how effortless it is to enjoy it! José notes how rare it is in cinema to see a man suffer for love, as Rick does, and the film’s romance is intense and unapologetic. We swoon over the elegance of Michael Curtiz’s direction, the sheer beauty of the cinematography – nobody these days is shot like Ingrid Bergman is here – and the rich cast of characters, played by one of the all-time great supporting casts.

José considers how the refugee situation and politics depicted – that of a war-torn world relocating regular people to geographic and bureaucratic purgatory – haven’t gone away, and Mike picks up on Madeleine Lebeau’s Yvonne, a minor character whose story recapitulates Rick’s in microcosm. The Marseillaise scene in particular gives us a lot to talk about. And so does much, much more.

It’s a good film. Who knew?

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: 105 – They Shall Not Grow Old

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.

Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.

We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.

As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.

All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.

Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.

Lawrence Napper’s first blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/05/they-shall-not-grow-old/

Lawrence’s second blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/12/they-shall-not-grow-old-2-the-abject-archive-the-sacred-archive/

Lawrence’s review on Iamhist: http://iamhist.net/2018/10/they_shall_not_grow_old/

Pamela Hutchinson’s review on Silent London: https://silentlondon.co.uk/2018/10/16/lff-review-they-shall-not-grow-old-honours-veterans-but-not-the-archive/

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.