Sunday, December 25, 2011

Classic Scene #33

My Christmas morning consisted of taking toys out of elaborate packaging and assembling them for impatient, over-excited children, all the while wondering if it's too early to have my first drink of the day (it was, sadly). So I can only look on with frazzled envy at the Christmas morning of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. No one was unwise enough to get me a pellet gun and my wife isn't independently rich enough to buy herself expensive presents because I can't be bothered, but that's not really what appeals about this scene. It's the wryly bemused expression on Nora's face as Nick takes aim at the Christmas tree, and the studiously ridiculous poses he takes up. He's being childish but also entertaining her. That's his whole schtick, keeping this wonderful woman amused. Their life is a neverending playtime with responsibility for nothing more taxing than a cute dog and maybe the occassional murder to solve in between martinis and wisecracks. The perfect marriage then, but also the carefree boredom of the idle rich, never so charmingly portrayed. May we all maintain a small amount of their blithe spirit over the Christmas holidays. (Now, where's that Nerf gun...)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Amelia and the Angel

Amelia and the Angel is a charming short film made in two weeks for less than a hundred pounds by Ken Russell. It was the second of three shorts he made in the late '50s that landed him a job on Monitor, the BBC arts programme where he would make his reputation. It tells the story of a young girl about to play an angel in her school nativity play who brings her angel wings home to show her mother. This turns out to be a mistake as almost immediately her brother runs off with them and soon they're damaged beyond repair. We then follow her journey through ramshackle post-war streets and buildings as she searches for a new pair in time for the play. Amelia was played by Mercedes Quadros, the daughter of an Argentinian diplomat. 'She was delightful, no trouble at all,' Russell recalled years later, 'as long as I gave her scary whirlwind rides in an old, broken-down Morris 8 I had she was as good as gold.' While it bears many of the hallmarks and themes of Russell's later work, his interest in Catholic imagery, his background in dance, it's not just a curio for film buffs, a rough draft of future talent that needs excuses made for it. It's genuinely delightful, with all the whimsical charm of a Victorian children's story, fresh with Russell's love of the outlandish, his eye for composition, every frame saturated with natural light and verite movement.

Amelia and the Angel 1

Amelia 2

Amelia 3

Amelia 4

Amelia 5

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cinematic Enlightenment

'I want formal enlightenment. I need the secret consequences of a jump-cut to be revealed to me. I want to know how the rawness of the camera angles or the grain of the film material figures into the emotional equation. I want to learn about acting from the performances, about atmosphere from the light and the locations. I'm ready, fully prepared to absorb truth at twenty-four frames per second.' - Jim Jarmusch, quoted in John Cassavetes: Lifeworks

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween Little Pigs!

What makes The Shining stand out is its all-pervading atmosphere. It has its shocks and creepy moments but what really gets you is that slow, pulsing dread. Very few horror movies are genuinely scary, especially as you get older, but The Shining does it still. It's also got Jack Nicholson letting loose the Big Bad Wolf inside, the giddy release of it, especially in the famous 'Here's Johnny!' scene below.
'Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in', he calls, returning the nursery rhyme to its original fear setting, unleashing its allegorical power. It's not just scary though, it's funny, hysterical, in both meanings of the word, pure grand guignol ham. Maybe it's this tension, this close-to-the-edge quality, that inspires butterflies in the stomach every time I watch it. Every time.

And then there's the original trailer, a masterclass in less is more. Of course, when you've got an image as good as this, with all the deadpan clarity of a nightmare, what more do you need? Imagine seeing this in the cinema at the time, having no idea what's coming. Can you imagine the impact it must've had?

And finally, the mournful, unsettling theme by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, based on Hector Berlioz' interpretation of the Dies Irae, a medieval poem about the day of judgment, the last trumpet summoning souls before the throne of God, where some are saved and some are cast into eternal flames. It's grave music, complete with eerie electronic wailing, the souls of those unsaved no doubt, and it sets a suitably desolate mood for this Halloween night. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Last Five Films...

1. Detour (1945)

Edgar G. Ulmer is a fascinating character in film history, a talented man on the verge of a successful career exiled to the world of poverty-row b-pictures because he fell in love with the wrong woman. Could be a noir plot in itself, of course, which might explain why Detour stands up as one of the great noirs despite its manifest cheapness. 'No matter what you do, no matter where you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you up,' Tom Neal's hapless narrator tells us, and you can imagine Ulmer identifying with that. The film has the fevered compression and illogic of a nightmare married to location realism (cheap road-side diners, motels etc). Nobody in this film has star charisma. Ann Savage is an amazing presence but her Vera is every inch an ordinary woman driven to the edge by disappointment. Lord knows what she's had to endure but Savage manages to imply a world of desperation and pain. Like an animal mistreated once to often she'll bite the next hand that comes near. She's not going to let anyone get the better of her again, gonna take whatever chance comes her way. She's a monster, a rabid Bette Davis, the American Dream going crazy before our eyes, and the main reason (though far from the only one) to see this lo-fi cult classic.

2. Gun Crazy (1950)

Another unheralded actress delivers an even better performance in Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy. Peggy Cummins isn't exactly a house-hold name, even for fans of classic movies, but she's sensational as carnival sharpshooter Annie Starr. We first see her haloed with fire, a warning if ever there was one. But gun-obsessed Bart Tarr (John Dall) fails to heed it. Instead he's like a horny moth to her flame. 'We go together, Annie,' he tells her later, 'I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together'. It's noir fate then, but Gun Crazy is more than a standard noir and Cummins more than a femme fatale. She takes over the film, hijacks it. She's on fire, alive with heat and scheming energy, with outlaw lust, a hipster revolutionary out to play the system by its own game. She may say 'I've been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back', but you get the feeling grievance is only a small part of it. This is one dame who's been ready to go off for a long time, maybe forever. Sure she wants money, but more than that, she wants action. The sexual thrill of guns, of danger, of death. That's what's really turning them on, a death-wish so strong they can hardly resist it. It's the essense of American cinema; guns and cars, sex and death - living for the moment. And Lewis shoots it like that, with great verve and vérité energy. It's New Wave ten years before Godard, the camera hurrying through real locations, watching from the back seat of moving cars. It puts us right in the moment, especially during a one-take bank robbery that's arguably the greatest single-take scene in all of cinema, small-town streets a panicky blur as they screech around corners, the moment alive with giddy tension. By the end it's transcended its genre, no longer noir, but something more vital and tragic, a Freudian parable, an essential cinematic credo: Thrill crazy. Kill crazy. Gun Crazy.

3. The Big Combo (1955)

Five years later, Lewis delivered another cult gem, but this time the noir conventions are adhered to throughout. All the earlier film's energy and movement are gone, replaced by a stylized, shadowy mise-en-scene that comes close to abstraction. The cinematographer is John Alton, the Rembrandt of noir cinema, the man who literally wrote the book on lighting. It's hard to imagine Lewis daring to shoot on the hoof when Alton was painstakingly setting up the visual geometry of a shot. The result is weapons-grade noir, a world where it's always nighttime, where talk is hardboiled poetry and cops are dogged loners on a mission. It's lifted above the routine, though, not only by Alton's lighting but by the performance of noir-stalwart Richard Conte, fantastic as mouthy gang boss Mr. Brown. He's having a ball rattling out killer dialogue ('Joe, tell the man I'm gonna break him so fast he won't have time to change his pants,') high on his own sense of invincibility, smarter and more ruthless than the mugs around him. Cornel Wilde is suitably weary and dour as Brown's nemesis, Detective Leonard Diamond, but it's hard to warm to him. This is probably what denies the film classic status, the elevating persona of a star performance. (Compare Wilde, say, to Glenn Ford in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, made two years earlier and very similar in plot and characterisation, where Ford brings a charismatic righteousness to his role that Wilde can't match, a sense of the film's moral universe flowing through him.) Unlike Lang, though, Lewis didn't seem interested in a moral universe. As in Gun Crazy, characters are motivated by instinct and desire. It's an amoral tone that sets the film apart even as it's undermining the plot. We don't really care about Diamond's crusade because Lewis doesn't either, he's having too much fun with the baddies, more alive and vital because they've embraced instinct instead of fighting it. There's an almost gleeful air of perversity, a nasty, unsettling edge that sets the film apart. Brown's henchmen, Fante (a super-cool Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) are clearly meant to be homosexual and the crimelord's classy moll, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) stays with him mainly because she gets off on being treated rough. For Lewis, sex is at the heart of the action once again, characters are defined by it, their sexuality as inescapable as any noir fate.

4. Black Legion (1937)

Interesting early Bogart. He plays a factory worker called Frank Taylor who joins a 'pro-American' secret society called the Black Legion when he loses out on becoming foreman to a Polish-born immigrant. The organization is a version of the Ku Klux Klan complete with mumbo-jumbo initiation rites and black robes who intimidate, torture and kill those they believe are taking their jobs. Behind them are shadowy right-wing industrialists hoping to use them for their own ends. As his involvement deepens Frank's marriage crumbles and he turns on his best friend. It's a cautionary tale fresh from the headlines that still retains its power today. There really was a Black Legion and the film is based on an actual killing that took place a few years earlier. Shot in real working class locations it's an unflinching look at the dark side of 30s America, the heart of fascism lurking, anti-foreigner agitation. (It would make a great double-bill with Lang's Fury.) While not a great film it is a fascinating one, a real eye-opener. You just don't expect 30s films to be this realistic, to face up to this kind of ugly truth. Archie Mayo is no-one's idea of a great director but he was a veteran of the cheap potent style of Warners pre-code films and brings an unfussy realism to proceedings, happy to follow the script and get as much in as the Hayes Code would allow, which turns out to be quite a lot. He also directed The Petrified Forest (1936) which saw Bogart make his debut as gangster Duke Mantee, so was possibly responsible for getting him the part (the producers originally wanted Edward G. Robinson). Whatever way he became involved it's a key film for Bogart. You can see him discover the satisfaction of exploring flawed characters, their meanness, paranoia and self-delusion, a seam he would continue in later films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Caine Mutiny. And the film doesn't sugar-coat Frank's involement in this fascist group. For a while he relishes it, high on the power, the late-night adrenaline, admiring himself in the mirror as he holds a gun for the first time, imagining himself in a film (the pre-echoes of Travis Bickle are there). It's a tribute to Bogart's skill as an actor that we retain some semblance of sympathy for Frank by the end. The story received an Oscar nomination and the National Board of Review named it best film of 1937 and Bogart best actor. It should have been his breakthrough but he had to endure four more years of playing second fiddle to Cagney and Robinson before High Sierra finally made him a star. Black Legion should've been it. A must-see for all Bogie fans.

5. You Can't Take It With You (1938)

The Capra Problem was in full effect by 1938, a soft-headed belief in the folksy goodwill of 'ordinary' people. Capra the artist was always at war with Capra the idealist, so the bad things in the world were given their due, Capra understood full well the malign forces in the world, the small-mindedness and greed, (his films keep coming back to them) but he choose to believe that community could overcome it, that simple human empathy would set an example that would save the Republic from ruin. (By 1946, the nightmare seemed so much closer, it was called Pottersville, and the dream of community was so much more feverish and desperate). But this sentimentality always seemed at odds with the darker forces of his films, contrived, something willed and false, as if Capra himself didn't really believe it, or feared he didn't. Here powerful businessman Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) needs to buy one more house in a twelve block area to build a munitions factory in advance of the war that's coming. How's that for cynical. Only problem is the house belongs to Martin 'Grandpa' Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and he isn't selling. This loveable eccentric has renounced the world of work and money and turned his home into a menagerie of impractical kooks and dreamers. The only 'normal' member of the family is his grand-daughter Alice (Jean Arthur) who works as secretary for Kirby's son Tony (James Stewart). Unaware of the conflict developing between their families Tony and Alice proceed to flirt and fall in love. And so the coming together of the Vanderhofs and the Kirbys is set in motion. It's the stuff of stage farce and romantic complication, sure, but it's also an essential American conflict, money versus freedom, conformity versus rebellion, those who believe in and profit from the system verses those who turn their backs on it, not so much the haves and the have-nots as the haves and the want-nots. Despite this ideological battle the film teeters on the edge of being 'quirky' or 'kooky' or any of those dread words. Only towards the end does it fall over that edge completely. And yet, there's a delicately played romance between Stewart and Arthur that's so good you'll wish there was more of it, some precient speeches about fear and a couple of genuinely funny scenes. As so often with Capra, there's much to like, much to chew over in his contradictions and failings. Live your life for yourself, be true to yourself, there's more to life than money. All these platitudes are true but they don't make great art. Telling a banker he's a bad father and getting him to play the harmonica will not change American capitalism no matter how much Capra wants it to. If only it was that easy.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Building A Statue Of Snow

"LAWRENCE!" O'Toole spat out, swallowing his Scotch. "I became obsessed by that man, and it was bad. A true artist should be able to jump into a bucket of shit and come out smelling of violets, but I spent two years and three months making that picture, and it was two years, three months of thinking about nothing but Lawrence, and you were him, and that's how it was day after day, and it became bad for me, personally, and it killed my acting later. After Lawrence...I did BAAL and a close friend of mine, after my dress rehearsal, came back and said, `What's the matter, Peter, what is it?' I asked what the hell he meant, and he said, `There's no give!'...Christ, his words struck terror in me. Oh, it was bad acting! I was flabby, diffuse...Later I said, 'You're in trouble daddy,' and I felt it in my fucking toes. I was emotionally bankrupt after that picture.

"Oh a BBC show...I said that after LAWRENCE I was afraid of being mutilated. That filming for that length of time, two years, three months, and having all the responsibility for the performance but none of the control...Christ, in one scene of the film I saw a close-up of me when I was 27 years old, and then 8 seconds later, there was another close-up of me when I was 29 years old! 8 goddamn seconds! and two years of my life had gone from me!

Oh, it's painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed," he said, staring straight ahead toward the rows of bottles. "Once a thing is solidified it stops being a living thing. That's why I love the theatre. It's the Art of the Moment. I'm in love with ephemera and I hate permanence. Acting is making words into flesh, and I love classical acting because...because you need the vocal range of an opera singer...the movement of a ballet have to be able to's turning your whole body into a muscial instrument on which you yourself play...It's more than behaviorism, which is what you get in the movies...Chrissake, what are movies anyway? Just fucking moving photographs, that's all. But the theatre! Ah, there you have the impermanence that I love. It's a reflection of life somehow. It'' building a statue of snow...."

Peter O'Toole looked at his watch. Then he paid the barman and waved good-bye to the drunks in the corner. It was 1:15 P.M.--time to be getting to the track.

- from FAME AND OBSCURITY by Gay Talese

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Classic Scene #32

Hello! Haven't had time for blogging recently as our third child arrived in the world last Friday, nearly five weeks early. His sudden appearance has left me feeling much like Martin Blank in this scene from Grosse Point Blank; ambushed, perplexed, awestruck. 'Love dares you to care...' Bowie sings as Martin begins to feel the earth move beneath his feet. To hold that little life in your hands is to feel self-interest dissolve, to find yourself, yes, under pressure, but in a good way, undone by relief and stupid happiness, by responsibility for something fragile and mysterious and greater than you. How has this creature ended up in my arms, Martin's expression tells us, and why can't I stop looking at him? That's been me for the last six days.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm Ready For My Close-Up Mr Steichen!

An amazing portrait of Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen from 1924. The eyes behind the veil are amazing, those of a seer, a prophetess, a hypnotiser of silent movie audiences.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Clip Joint Round-Up: Voice-Over

I love a good voiceover. It's always annoyed me when people (like Robert McKee) dismiss them as a failure of cinematic storytelling, as if cinema was a pure art form and not a mongrel one made up of all the others, plus that little bit extra, that cinema magic, that alchemy. There are plenty of sloppy voice-overs, of course, but the best add mood, poetry, depth and complication to the cinema experience. I liked this Clip Joint because it laid out, in clip after clip, how essential the voice-over/narration has been to so many great films and filmmakers, how the history and development of the medium would be immeasurably poorer without it. Once again, picking favourites was tough, but I ultimately choose the five below. Steenbeck's well thought-out choices are here below the main article.

It's clear now the theatrical soliloquy was always a frustrated voice-over, the only way dramatists had to let audiences know what characters were thinking. But cinema solved this problem. Now we were inside their minds, their inner voice somehow speaking in our minds, a new form of telepathy. It's one of cinema's great weapons of seduction, the intimacy of that disembodied voice, especially if delivered in the velvet purr of a great actor. Laurence Olivier used it in his Hamlet (1948) to emphasise certain lines in the 'to be or not to be' speech, but couldn't resist the actorly chance to declaim much of it as he would have on stage. It was left to Orson Welles (as it so often was) to fully merge the theatrical with the cinematic in his Shakespeare films, especially Othello (1952) where he seems to have realised the soliloquy was a natural voice-over, that it added that air of brooding self-absorption required for acts of tragic folly.

Noir captured that late '40s mood of existential dread, a generation's collective hangover from the traumas of war, its uneasy awareness of how the forces of history and politics could sweep people away. So if you could die at any minute, if you were merely an expendable pawn in someone else's game, what did anything matter? (This was the seed from which cool was born, of course. Not caring being the essence of it). This fatalism was inextricably linked to the laconic tone of the voice-over. Think of Robert Mitchum in Out Of the Past (1947) watching Jane Greer enter La Mar Azul. 'And then I saw her', he tells us, 'coming out of the sun.' That line's no accident I think. We're in Mexico, Acapulco, home of the Aztecs, whose sun gods demanded human sacrifice as tribute or they'd refuse to move across the sky. So here comes Kathie Moffat, out of the sun, demanding a human sacrifice of her own. And Jeff Bailey is it. He doesn't know it yet but his voice-over does. That's no woman coming towards him in a cool white dress, face hidden in the shadows, it's fate.

As noir prospered and matured it was inevitable that someone would take the genre's fatalism to its logical conclusion. And that someone was Billy Wilder. In Sunset Blvd (1950) his narrator, Joe Gillis, isn't on a trolley-car to the end of the line, he's already there, face down in a Hollywood swimming pool. Listen to the bright, cynical tone of the voice-over, the disembodied voice of Gillis' soul mockingly declaring 'poor dope' to his corporeal self, floating in the water with three bullets in him, press cameras flashing in a grotesque parody of the Hollywood dream of fame. Wilder brilliantly realised the analogous link between noir and fame, both were ritualised traps, and when fame was gone, the living might as well be dead. Norma Desmond's mansion is, after all, little more than a fancy mausoleum, a ghost house where silent movie stars like Mabel Norman and John Gilbert once swam in the pool 'ten thousand midnights ago...' Time is different in Hollywood, stars disappear in the dark, ghosts flicker in projector light and the dead speak to us in voice-over.

Contrary to popular opinion, cinema isn't a visual medium. It's a hybrid one that synthesises all the other art forms into itself. Take this scene from Badlands (1973) where music, words and images work together in perfect harmony. There's even the musical quality in Holly's accent. Her voice-over is like the narration of a girl's book, a story she's telling herself. They're like the Swiss Family Robinson, building underground tunnels and tree houses on a desert island. But the images play off this, like the gun beside Kit as he sleeps. The mood this sequence captures is almost exactly what Holly imagines is happening, an idyll, timeless revery. They've taken two steps to the left and are in an adventure, inventing passwords and watching the clouds go by. Even the casual way she says 'they hadn't found but one set of bones in the ashes of the house' betrays nothing of the fact that those bones belong to her father, murdered by Kit. It's like none of it is real to her, or rather, that reality can't compete with the yearning fantasy set free by the arrival of Kit, that adolescent desire to feel like you're in a book or film. Imagine the feeling if your life started to resemble one? Wouldn't that seem real to you, inevitable, a fulfilment of some kind? Don't we all want to escape the random drift of our lives and enter a world shaped by plot, by the rhythmic certainty of sentences? Aren't we all telling the story of our lives to ourselves in our minds, increasingly disappointed by its refusal to take shape into any recognisable narrative? Holly's voice-over tells us how a girl could end up on a killing spree with a boy she hardly knows. Kit is like a character from a movie who's materialised out of nowhere to take her through the looking glass. Twirling her baton in the Texas dust his appearance has the inevitability of a dream, of a promise foretold.

With Taxi Driver (1976) we're back to noir, to the insularity cities can provoke, the loneliness, to what it sounds like when that loneliness edges towards madness. In other words, welcome to the mind of Travis Bickle. While the loner is a hero of fiction, in the real world, as Philip Larkin once observed, 'virtue is social', and the loner/misfit is generally not liked or trusted. But inside most people there's a yearning for self-reliance, a sneaky admiration for those who refuse to take the daily compromises required to exist in society. 'Hell is other people,' as Sartre said, and we seek the escape of fantasy worlds to release this tension inside us, worlds where men stand alone against a corrupt world. 'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,' Raymond Chandler famously wrote, 'who is neither tarnished nor afraid..a man of honor...with...a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.' That's Travis Bickle, a hero out of time, a social misfit who takes girls to porno movies and talks to himself in mirrors, but who, in a different context, could easily be a hero, a man of honour. It's just his fate to exist in a world where heroism is a myth and honour an anachronism, where loneliness isn't a manly virtue but a slow disease, an inner voice telling you crazy things. Betsy, his would-be heroine, calls him '...partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction,' quoting Kris Kristofferson's song The Pilgrim. (A pilgrim, of course, is someone on a quest for the sacred, like the Pilgrim Fathers, those English Separatists who founded the first American colony. Travis is like one of these puritans, these outsider/outcasts in search of a shining city, finding himself instead in '70s New York, fascinated, disgusted and confused). He writes in his notebook and we hear these thoughts. We could see the words on the page instead, of course, which would make Robert McKee happy, but would, obviously, be stupid. These thoughts are, after all, in his head before they end up on the page. We hear them forming as he rides the night streets, watching New York in its vibrancy and breakdown (possibly the same thing). It's seductive, the poetry of it, 'whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies', how easily it makes us identify with the confused voice, how righteous it makes his thoughts sound, all that externalised self-hatred passing for moral purity. Good and evil. Salvation and damnation. God's lonely man and the scum of the streets. (How close, by the way, is this scene to the Pottersville sequence in Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Travis is the right-wing George Bailey, a man who would not take it anymore, who decides to stand up rather than throw himself off a bridge in despair.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Burnin' And Lootin'

Topical as ever, the opening of La Haine (1995).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Caligari At The Cathedral

Went to see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari last night in St Canice's Cathedral as part of this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival. The music was provided by my old favourites 3epkano along with organist Eric Sweeney. The 19th century organ is one of the biggest in Europe and looks like it came from The Phantom of the Opera. Most people I spoke to afterwards seemed to think it didn't contribute as much as they were expecting but this is a minor quibble in what was a wonderful experience. The Cathedral was a suitably gothic venue for the screening, the mediaval arches of the alter bathed in flourescent blue, the musicians hidden in the dark behind the screen, everyone sat happily in their pews, worshipping at the high altar of cinema.

The film cast its spell too. Despite some ripe acting it's still remarkably effective, sophisticated story-telling mining psychology, dreams, prophecy and fear. Werner Krauss is indelible as Dr. Caligari, a malevolent imp, a nightmare figure, irrational and devious, while Conrad Veidt is unforgettable as somnambulist killer Cesare, bringing subtlety and otherworldly grace to cinema's first great monster. The moment he opened his eyes at the fair was truly electrifying (due, in no small part, to 3epkano's rising, intense accompaniment). The famous expressionist sets, with their painted shadows, distorted perspectives, warped windows and angular, narrow streets, still work even now as a disorienating mechanism for audiences, the action imbued with unsettling dream-logic, a fable-like quality that remains strangely disturbing.

Other highlights were Cesare's kidnapping of the heroine and the asylum director's obsession toppling over into insanity represented by the name Caligari appearing everywhere around him. Moments of irrational intensity then, expressive fantasy, a knife in the dark to realism's throat that just won't go away. It's influence has been huge, from James Whale's Frankenstein to Scorsese's Shutter Island. As usual, 3epkano did a wonderful job of responding to the film's rhythms and moods, partly rehearsed, partly improvised, they made it another unforgettable experience in suitably exalted surroundings.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Classic Scene #31

The opening sequence of Fritz Lang's Spies (1928) is just plain brilliant, so much information compressed into such a short space of time, the economy and sophistication of it is still startling, the excitement of those rapid scenes, their comic book vitality, all leading up to the appearance of criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and that wonderfully ominous 'Ich'. It's Lang inventing the visual grammer of the spy movie thirty years ahead of the game, just as he did for sci-fi epics with Metropolis and serial killers with M. You want to watch the rest of it now, right?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mark M For Murder

Fritz Lang's first talkie, M is a masterclass in mise-en-scène, creating pace and tension in quick scenes that click together like a mathematical equation, dialogue from one scene spilling into the next, inducing a sense of urgency, the city overrun with suspicion and fear. It begins as a police procedural, a kind of 1930s CSI Berlin, with both the criminal underworld and the police trying to find child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). Beckert is nothing more at this stage than a lurking shadow and an eerie whistle, a bogie man luring children away with presents, like the balloon he buys for Elsie, whose death is conveyed by two unforgettable images; her ball rolling out from behind a bush (we're left to imagine what has happened behind that bush) and the balloon snagged in telephone lines, fluttering in the cold breeze like a distressed soul, or a struggling body.

But then we enter Beckert's world, are with him as he suffers the agony of temptation. Suddenly the film inspires both empathy and horror. The criminal world's attempts to catch him are heroic at first, we're on their side. But as the trap closes in and the hunter becomes the hunted our allegience wavers. Surely this is the film Hitchcock learned how an audience will side with anyone if we're put in their shoes, shown their point of view. In many ways it's a modern film, a classy chase thriller. But it's much more too. It's impossible not to see it as prophetic, an x-ray of the society that so easily let the Nazis into power only two years later. It understands how public mood could be manipulated by fear, by tales of monsters, how the rule of law, with all its sophisticated techniques, was no match for the outrage of the mob. Beckert is a sick and dangerous man, but a man he is, not a monster. And yet the children are dead. If the police can't protect them, who will? There are no easy answers here which is what makes it resonate still. Lorre is extraordinary as Beckert, a man of cunning and weakness, tormented by demons, by his own desires, a pathetic wretch and a vision from our worst nightmares.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Classic Scene #30

The ending of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point comes in three stages; first the multi-angled explosion, a thrilling succession of detonations, each one closer, each one beautiful in its annihilating force, like a Michael Bay wet dream. But then it goes somewhere Bay would never dream of going, wet or otherwise. The sound of Pink Floyd's Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up drifts over a scattershot ballet of graceful, slow-motion debris, an atomised universe of shattered glass, torn clothes and flying food swimming in the blue ether, surreal and haunting. Then the music changes to a screaming intensity as explosions bloom out at us, books bursting like ripe flesh, pain and anguish erupting from beneath the visual. It's extraordinary, like nothing in cinema before or since. And then it just ends, abruptly, and we're back with the girl. Remember the girl? She's just imagined all that it seems. What could it mean?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two Steps To The Left

''I remember people coming through La Junta while we were filming, crew members who were working on another film somewhere that had just wrapped. While they stopped off to see some of their friends who were working on Badlands, I remember thinking, "They're making a film somewhere else?" It seemed like the center of the universe. Like nothing else really existed.''

Sissy Spacek quoted in GQ's excellent Badlands: An Oral History.

''The film has this very American notion, I think, that two totally humdrum kids with hardly an ounce of education between them—if they just take two steps to the left, they're into fame and legend. After all, what the fuck else are they gonna do with their lives?''

Film critic David Thomson from the same article

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Scenes From The Suburbs

Just watched Scenes From The Suburbs over at MUBU, Spike Jonze's short film based on Arcade Fire's recent album. Obviously meant to be the fragmentary recollection of one of those teenage summers that change everything, it portrays the relationship between two suburban boys as a dystopian military state tightens its grip around them, the violent, repressive atmosphere beginning to erode their sense of humanity. Beautifully shot, with fine performances from the young cast, Scenes From The Suburbs still left me a little frustrated, maybe because it was rich enough to have been a full length film. Although then we'd loose the eliptical nature of the narrative, supposed to replicate how we only remember the past in confusing fragments, some intensely present to us after years, some vague, others absent altogether. Why do we remember some things vividly, and other things, often as important or even more so, not at all? It's a fascinating question and Jonze uses it to create tension and unease very well, the real touched by the nightmarish. I'd like to see it again to get a clearer idea of whether it stands up as a short or whether the richness discovered deserves to be explored in full. Still, even now it's an engrossing half hour that captures perfectly the intensity of teenage friendships and the world-threatening pain of change.

Footnote: actually, watching the video below, there are several scenes and moments not in the film, which leads me to believe there may well be a full length film and that Scenes From The Suburbs is a kind of extended trailer, a teaser for the fuller experience to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Clip Joint Round-Up: Pianos

Hello. It's been a while. Been busy with proper life stuff and general brain freeze. To get back in the groove I thought I might do a round-up of last weeks's Clip Joint over at The Guardian, one of the few things I've had the attention span to contribute to recently. So, the task, choose five from all the suggested clips. This week's theme was pianos, which turned out to be an inspired one. As the great clips kept coming I thought to myself, god, I wouldn't want to have to pick five from this lot. And then I thought, but if I had to, what would they be? So here I am, doing that. The five chosen by Tess can be found here, just scroll down a bit to see them.

First up for me has to be Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings. It was hard picking just one Howard Hawks scene as I've had to leave out Hoagy Carmichael and Lauren Bacall's iconic double-act from To Have And Have Not but in the end that undulating thing Arthur does with her arm and Grant yelling PEA-NUT! swung the deal. In two minutes the piano tells us plenty about her; that she's a tougher cookie than she first appears, a practised performer who's been around plenty of those disreputable rogues, musicians. And the brief bit of introspective noodling tells us she's been hurt in love too, almost certainly by one of those musicians. Here then, we not only have the Hawksian world-view encapsulated in one scene but also an example of the way pianos act as social hubs, focal points for gathering around, starting parties, lining up shots glasses. A piano, this scene tells us, is more than an instrument, it's a test of character, a hurt unlocker, a standing invitation.

Or, in the case of The Seven Year Itch, a libido unlocker. That's certainly how Tom Ewell sees it, or imagines it. This was the scene posted, but we forgot about an earlier one, where Ewell fantasises about the effect Rachmaninoff will have on Monroe, how its deep romantic seriousness will induce shakes and quakes and goosebumps, leaving her helpless putty in his arms. Here we have the less exalted reality. Instead of Rachmaninoff we get chopsticks, instead of a fantasy sex goddess there's a girl having thoughtless fun. Marilyn still gets goosebumps, though. And how! But Ewell ends up flat on his face. Monroe's girlish enjoyment is infectious. She's not some pretentious siren of desire, classical dream-cords reverberating through her body. She's the simple, surface fun of chopsticks. The piano, in this case, is a personality decoder, an arena of (would-be) seduction, a reservoir of lost childhood pleasure.

As I said above, the piano is a standing invitation. Especially in an empty room. And double-especially in an empty bar. It seems to call to certain people, to tempt them away from reality, like Alain Delon in this scene from Jean Pierre Melville's Un Flic. It's a homage I'm sure to Sinatra, who invented (or crystalised) this tough-guy-reveals-sensitive-side-playing-piano-in-an-empty-bar schtick. It's a moment of private reverie, time holding its breath, Delon playing an introspective, jazzy piece, cigarette in his mouth, Catherine Deneuve listening unseen in the shadows, falling for him with every note. The piano, this tells us, is an interzone, a world unto itself, touchstone of timeless cool, summoner of goddesses from the dark.

'It hurts', Ingrid Bergman explains to Liv Ulmann, 'but he doesn't show it.' The film is Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata, the he is Chopin, the piece is his Prelude No. 2. which Ulmann has been playing just before this, every halting note clearly torture to her concert pianist mother, who is now going to show how it should be played. What follows is a lesson and a humiliation. As she plays, Ulmann gazes at her. The look is mesmerising, total; need, resentment, love, hurt, all held in sway by those hypnotic, mysterious notes. Just look at me, notice me. It's almost unbearable, the longing for her mother to pay her the same attention she does the piano, to touch her with the same tenderness, the same care. 'Total restraint the whole time,' Bergman emphasises, surely aware of the naked gaze, but refusing to acknowledge it. 'Feeling is very far from sentimentality,' she lectures, as her daughter sits meekly, saying nothing, craving sentimental connection, reduced to a mousy nothing by her elegant, brilliant mother. This piano is a cuckoo in the nest, an all-consuming lover, an instrument of pain, both exalted and plain.

And finally, I've gone for this old gag from Ballot Box Bunny, so good Looney Tunes used it more than once. I like this one best mainly because Yosemite Sam says pie-anna but also because his volcanic temper makes what he does in the end wonderfully inevitable. It's all in the timing. Get that right and it'll be funny forever. I've watched this ten times in the last week and laughed every time. Why when I know what's coming? Well, partly because I do know it's coming and partly it's the rhythm of it. Bugs plays the tune slow, Sam plays it fast. That's part of it too. So, what does this scene tell us about the pie-anna? That it's a potential booby-trap, a punisher of impatience, and comedy's favourite slapstick musical instrument.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Big Clock

In J.G. Ballard's short story Chronopolis,the inhabitants of a run-down city live without clocks. Time-keeping has been outlawed. But a young man's curiousity (his name is Newman) leads him to a deserted part of the city where time once ruled peoples' lives absolutely. Clocks are everywhere here, on the side's of skyscrapers and in the central plaza that was ground zero for a civilisation controlled by time. All the clocks have long since stopped at the exact time of the revolution that overthrew them. Newman sets his sights on restoring the enormous central clock through which all the others were once run. The idea of the story is that free of the tyranny of time, people gradually stagnate, society runs down, that while a society controlled by time may be highly efficent it is nevertheless soulless, a fascist state where human autonomy is virtually outlawed. Let time take over and it will rule you like a dictator, ignore it and you'll sink into boundless lethargy. It captures our natural fascination with clocks, with questing minds setting out in search of answers, but it also articulates our unease with time as a personal and political tool of oppression. I thought of it the other day while reading about Christian Marclay's amazing art piece The Clock, a video installation sampling thousands of time-related film clips to create a metaphysical meditation on time. It also happens to be a twenty-four-hour clock merging real time with its more elastic cousin, cinema time, creating in the process a kind of Venn diagram, an interzone where life and art meet, a world where clocks are everywhere and every minute is not only catalogued and synchronised but significant. It sounds amazing and I'd love to see it but unfortunately being an art piece it's only on exhibition in certain galleries in big cities, so I don't have much hope. Some considerate person has, however, uploaded about six minutes of it onto Youtube.

Even this short excerpt is hypnotic, time hovering behind everything surreptitiously. (We're not watching time; time's watching us). The ingenuity is compelling enough but what I really like is the way time links each clip to the next, creating a sense of inevitability, like these random clips from past and present are meant to go together, like there's meaning here, a narrative just out of reach. There's no past, present or future, it seems to suggest, only time, continuous, backwards and forwards, where Laurel & Hardy and Roger Moore are in the same film and cinema has been engaged in a secret process of accumulating clips for this very project all along, a High Noon-style countdown across cinematic history. 'Time is the substance from which I am made,' Jorge Luis Borges once wrote. 'Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.' Substitute cinema for time in that and you might have an answer. Cinema carries us along too, devours us. Maybe it's our collective dream of escaping the heartbeat ticking of clocks, of re-entering the timeless flow of eternity, floating away on it like Michel Simon's anarchic tramp at the end of Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning. On the other hand, we like the sense of control clocks give us too, the sense of purpose, which is probably what makes a cinematic clock such a potent idea, the best of both worlds, mysterious and accurate, a Chronopolis we can escape from.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Classic Scene #29

In honour of Sidney Lumet, who died today, here's my favourite scene from Dog Day Afternoon, not only one of the great 1970s movies but one of the great 1970s New York movies, that sub-genre that captured the great metropolis in kinetic meltdown. Pacino is marvellous here, feeding off the tension, giddy with fear, an actor revelling in the stage. It's still electric to this day, as quintessentially New York as Lumet himself. Everybody now: 'Attica! Attica!'

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Classic Scene #28

Clark Gable attempts to teach Claudette Colbert the subtleties of hitchhiking in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), the unbeatable template for romantic comedy ever since, an evergreen road trip through 30s America which tells us plenty about the rich and the working class, men and women too, with Gable in his prime and Colbert in his pyjamas. As the critic Pauline Kael observed:
'It made audiences happy in a way that only a few films in each era do. In the mid-30s, the Colbert and Gable of this film became American's idealised view of themselves - breezy, likeable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained. It was the Annie Hall of its day - before the invention of anxiety.'

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Classic Scene #27

The great Lotte Lenya singing Seeräuber Jenny from G.W. Pabst's 1931 version of Brecht and Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). It's her stillness, I think, that's so spellbinding, and the veiled look in her eyes, like she's seeing that ship in her mind as clear as a vision, like it's not a dream but a promise.
You can imagine this woman at the French Revolution, at every bloody uprising of the poor and exploited before and since, her vengeance pure and justified, watching tyrants' heads roll one by one, crying out as each one falls - hoppla!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Last Five Films #5

1. No Man Of Her Own (1932)

Likeable pre-code fare with Clark Gable in full virile mode as big city card sharp, Babe Stewart, wooing small-town librarian Connie Randall (Carole Lombard) with some full-on flirtation. ('Do your eyes bother you?' he says, leaning close to her in the library. 'No, why?' 'Because they bother me.') She resists him, but in truth it's all she can do to not buckle at the knees every time he comes near. 'The girl who lands him will say no and put an anchor on it,' she tells a friend, 'but isn't it tough when all you can think of is yes?' Which is exactly what makes the first half of this film so enjoyable. The aching knowledge that she wants to say yes, even though (or precisely because) he's a predatory heel who'll high-tail it back to New York as soon as he gets his way. There's an animal intensity between them in these scenes that's a pleasure to behold, a blatent sexiness that holds the film spellbound. Unfortunately, on the toss of a coin, ('I never go back on a coin') they get married instead, and he brings her to the big city. Despite some funny scenes the film peters out somewhat after this trying to redeem Gable, who goes from criminal badass to charming rogue to love-sick good guy willing to endure prison and even work for a living! In the process the film looses much of the heat that made it such good sexy fun. Still, well worth a look, if only to see Lombard in her undies!

2. Bombshell (1933)

Cheerfully cynical early screwball with everyone involved rattling off the zippy dialogue at breakneck speed. The plot is meta before its time with Jean Harlow playing Hollywood star Lola Burns, dragged down by mooching family and thieving employees, torn between tough-guy director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), continental lothario Hugo (Ivan Lebedeff) and studio press agent E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy). Tracy is the engine of the film, an endlessly scheming Iago with an angle for everything, manipulating Lola at every turn while professing to love her. We're on the edge of a corrosive truth about the Hollywood machine here but the film never stops moving or talking long enough to admit it. You can see fact and fiction already beginning to blur in the Hollywood sun. Lola profits from the scandal Hanlon creates around her but she craves respectibility, the realness of domesticity (posing for kitchen photo-shoots), the ideal of motherhood (trying to adopt a baby), the sanity of being unknown (she runs away to a spa resort). All these fantasies end in failure. The idea is Hanlon is saving Lola from herself by sabotaging her desires for class and stability, helping her realise that where she really belongs, where she's really happy, is in the mad-house of vulgar chaos that is Hollywood. Fast and funny, Bombshell is a love letter to that vulgar chaos, a brazen celebration of deception and bullshit that can't entirely hide the truth in its meta twists and turns, the shadow of fame's devouring neon hovering over it all.

3. My Man Godfrey (1936)

'Life is but an empty bubble,' sighs Carole Lombard's spoilt socialite in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, casually summing up the philosophy at the heart of the screwball comedies of the '30s. In fact, this is probably the prototype '30s film, a Depression-fuelled screwball romance with all the blithe wit of a Broadway play leavened with scabrous contempt for the rich and blessed with that mysterious light touch that the best directors of the era seemed to have in abundance. It's a classic. William Powell plays homeless bum Godfrey Smith living at the city dump and minding his own business when snobby rich girl Cornelia Bullock turns up and offers him five dollars to be her 'forgotten man' for a scavenger hunt. He refuses and she storms off. But her younger sister Irene (Lombard) stays behind, intrigued by this strange man. Touched by something sweet-natured in her (and by a curiosity to see such an event at first hand) Godfrey offers to help her beat Cornelia. In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel we're treated to a scene of undignified chaos as hundreds of socialites push and shove and argue over who gets to register their scavenger hunt items first. Irene's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette) observes, 'all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people'. And that's the film right there, the rich are crazy (with greed and boredom), American capitalism is teetering on the brink of savagery, but the poor, the forgotten men, have had all the crazy knocked out of them. It's touch and go as to who should be pitied more. Only Irene is absolved, she's a kind of holy innocent who offers Godfrey a job as their butler so she can have a protege like her empty-headed mother (Alice Brady), who has free-loading poet Carlo (Mischa Auer) as hers. As the new butler in the Bullock madhouse Godfrey is the most refined character in sight. No one had the elegant poise and knowing intelligence of William Powell. He moves through the film with the careful reserve of an adult trapped at a children's party. And Lombard is sensational, a ditzy dope with a big heart, a loveable child prone to funny moods and irrational fits of mania. There are twists and turns that ultimately let the rich off the hook somewhat, lessons learned, the social satire softened, but somehow it doesn't matter as the faultless direction pulls us through to the kind of perfectly delivered last-line closer most films would kill for.

4. Easy Living (1937)

Poor Mitchell Leisen. So many good films, so little credit for any of them. With Easy Living the reason is screenwriter Preston Sturges. The film feels so much like a forerunner of the Sturges style he has to get much of the kudos. Smart lines, farcical plot, slapstick shenanigans? It's all here along with several of the Sturges stock company. But then, Leisen trained as an architect before going into movies and surely he's responsible for the amazing rooms Jean Arthur is shown around by hotel owner Louis Louis. They're a dream of opulent elegance, the kind of insane luxury that makes it obvious why Louis is going bankrupt. The only possible response is Arthur's when left alone in this impossibly swish suite; a half-awed, half-appalled 'Golly!' Wealth here is like a fairy-tale. You are always only a lucky break away from riches. It's a lottery that can fall on anyone. There's little of the moral distain that fuels My Man Godfrey, no forgotten men, just a good girl struggling to get by whose life is changed forever when fate lands a fur coat on her head. The coat in question belongs to the third richest banker in New York, J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), who throws it off the roof of his penthouse apartment in a row with his wife. It lands on Arthur as she passes by in an open-topped bus, breaking her hat. When J.B. tells her to keep the coat and takes her to buy a new expensive hat rumours spread that she's his mistress. As newspaperman Van Buren brilliantly puts it, 'the bull of broad street, with a girl, in the sable-est sable coat they ever sabled!' As a result she loses her job but gets offered the hotel suite by Louis as a way of insuring J.B. doesn't foreclose on the hotel. Suddenly everyone wants to cash in on her notoriety while she remains oblivious as to why. Add in a romance with J.B.'s cheerfully useless son (Ray Milland), a near riot in an automat, a run on the stock exchange and plenty of shouting, outrage and confusion and you have a cock-eyed cocktail to savour. The end is too neat (a Leisen failing) but Arnold's manic bluster, Milland's boyish charm and Arthur's sweet smile are what will stay with you afterwards.

5. Nothing Sacred (1937)

'For good clean fun, there's nothing like a wake,' declares newspaperman Wally Cook in William A. Wellman's Nothing Sacred, supplying this acid satire with the perfect tagline. In this case the wake is Hazel Flagg's (Carol Lombard) except she isn't dead yet, just dying (of radium poisoning). And, frankly, everyone couldn't be more pleased about it. There's just one thing; she isn't dying, she was misdiagnosed. But the chance to escape her small town, to enjoy the big city delights of New York, prove too tempting, so she lies to Cook (Fredric March), a once great reporter in need of a big story. She's exploiting everyone's sympathy while the newspaper exploits her, and the public get to bask in the glow of her 'bravery' and cry crocodile tears at her impending death. No one escapes in this savage film. You only have to think of the recent Jade Goody story (hated loud-mouth celebrity transformed by cancer into brave mother and national heroine) to see how on the money this was and is still. The only other film I can think of that displays the same contempt for the malign influence of the media and the baser instincts of its audience is Network (1976) but unlike that film's atmosphere of intense, shrill seriousness Nothing Sacred maintains its era's fast-paced, crazy spirit throughout. Ben Hecht's script zings with great lines while tough-guy director Wellman keeps all sentiment at bay. It doesn't waver for a second. As the man says to the Dutch girl; 'Show them the finger babe'. And it sure does.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The '30s Project

Currently watching, and writing various pieces on, 1930s films with a view to a mini-weekend festival we're planning for the summer based around films from the era. Still in the planning stages at the moment, we may even dress up, but for now all I've finished is a playlist of '30s music to listen to while I write (because this is, of course, a vital component of the whole enterprise).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Strange World Of Charley Bowers

In his 2002 novel, The Book of Ilusions, Paul Auster invented his own silent movie comedian, a once celebrated figure forgotten by all but a few archival specialists. Hector Mann had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1929 and over the years his star had faded to obscurity. Then, in the early 1980s, canisters of his lost films began turning up in archives around the world.
It's hard not to think of Mann when confronted by the real-life story of Charley Bowers, a silent movie comedian/cartoonist who made his last proper film in 1930 and essentially disappeared too, although his vanishing act wasn't total or mysterious. He just went to live in New Jersey where he drew cartoons for the local paper until his death in 1946. But if it wasn't for a chance find of French copies of some of his films in the 1970s he would still be entirely unknown.
Although his screen persona was reminiscent of Buster Keaton, Bowers was only an average performer. What makes his films interesting today are their stop-motion flights of fancy. He's closer in temperament to someone like Georges Melies than to any of his contemporary comedians. His strange imagination was so pronounced that even Andre Breton, the principal founder of Surrealism, championed his first sound film It's A Bird (1930). In it, a comical, metal-eating bird consumes some car parts before laying an egg which proceeds to hatch a small, dark object that transforms into a full-sized car before our eyes. It's a little marvel of technical skill and private imagination following its own oddball reveries.

And then there's this madness. One of his twelve silent films, There It Is is a bizarre tale in which a house is terrorised by a little bald man called the Fuzz-Faced Phantom and a Scotland Yard detective is sent to investigate along with his assistant, an animated insect. If that sounds weird it's nothing to the actual film. It may not be very funny but that hardly matters when the actions of the Fuzz-Faced Phantom amount to nothing less than an attack on rationality itself, an exercise in epic randomness that has the illogic of a nightmare.

But my favourite Bowers moment happens near the end of probably his most successful film, Now You Tell One from 1926. In it, members of a Liars Club are competing to see who can tell the tallest tale. This section has some nice moments, especially the forty-seven elephants streaming into Capitol Hill, but then Charley tells them about a potion he's invented that allows him to graft anything onto anything else. Setting out to sell this potion he arrives at a farm overrun by mice where he grafts a much-needed cat from a plant. The result is a protoplasmic effusion of cats growing from this plant like balloons, bodies forming in seconds. It's a surrealistic image worthy of Rene Magritte or Max Ernst.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hollywood Surreal

Mentioning Dali and Disney yesterday reminded me that they did actually collaborate once. The two met at a Hollywood party while Dali was working with Hitchcock on the dream sequences for Spellbound (1945). Dali was a huge Disney fan, considering him one of America's great surrealists along with Cecil B. De Mille and Harpo Marx. (He'd clearly never seen a Fleischer cartoon). In fact Dali's first links with Hollywood went back to 1936 when he'd met Harpo at a party in Paris. (Someone really should do a thesis on the importance of parties to the development of 20th century art).

After sending him a present of a barbed-wire harp Dali came to Hollywood the following year to paint Harpo and wrote a typically bonkers screenplay while he was there for a proposed Marx Brothers film to be called Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Not surprisingly it was never made. There was also a sadly-aborted project with Fritz Lang around 1940 before he teamed up with Hitchcock four years later and finally got something on screen.

And then he met Disney. By January 1946 he was working under contract with studio artist John Hench on storyboarding a six-minute sequence for the film Destino. Every morning he'd go to work at Disney's studio (on Dopey Avenue!) just like a regular employee. Can you imagine Dali turning up at your work place every day? Eating his melty cheese in the canteen, waxing his moustache in the tiolets? This unlikely scenario must have seemed pretty surreal in itself. But Dali really was there to work. He produced paintings, sketches and guide images on lined paper. Unfortunately, like many of his Hollywood ventures, it never came to fruition. Disney's financial problems at the time meant the film was mothballed indefinately.

But in 1999, during work on Fantasia 2000, Disney rediscovered the lost project and decided to bring it back to life using the original storyboards. Finished in 2003 (and given a limited theatrical release with, of all things, Calendar Girls - now that's surreal) it tells the story of the Greek god of time, Chronos, and his love for a mortal woman who dances through a virtual compendium of classic Dalí images. The song, by composer Armando Dominguez, sung by his Mexican compatriot Dora Luz, casts a moodily romantic spell. 'This heart of mine is thrilled now, my empty arms are filled now, as they were meant to be' she sings as if in a reverie. 'For you came along, out of a dream I answer my call, I know now that you are my destino.' The dream of love triumphs then, in classic Hollywood style, over surrealism's Freudian nightmares, over time itself. Destiny, it seems to say, is time's DNA, forever with us, ready to spring from our dreams and save us, if only we can decipher it.

Dali's stock may have fallen greatly in his latter years, and his Hollywood ventures may well have been the start of his decline, but they were also a genuine, if star-struck, engagement with the dream factory, an attempt to bring his surreal ethos to a mass audience. In Destino, though, it feels like the opposite happened, that nearly a decade after he first followed Harpo to Hollywood, it was Dali who was being taken over by its ethos, undone by the high romance of popular song, the heady power of princess dresses and wild hair.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Swing You Sinners!

More wonderful Fleischer madness, this time from 1930. Swing You Sinners is based around a reworking of a popular gospel song of the time called Sing You Sinners, which it jazzifies and scats to great effect. Once again an ordinary situation, dog tries to steal chicken, quickly evolves into a surreal, nightmarish tour de force like nothing you've ever seen before. The Fleischer world is alive with the mutability of forms, booby-trapped with malevolent or mischievous intent, everything in danger of changing at a moment's notice. It's like what would've happened if Salvador Dali had secretly replaced Walt Disney, except it has a primitive power closer to the superstitions of folk art or the medieval biomorphic weirdness of Hieronymus Bosch than to Dali's arid dreamscapes. In fact the latter stages of Swing You Sinners are Bosch-like in spirit, with all the demented Dutch master's hellish glee in the damnation of sinners. Unlike Bosch though, it also has gallows humour, slapstick charm and the swinging rhythm of the music. A strange little masterpiece.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Minnie The Moocher

Before Disney annexed it to colonise the imagination of children forever more animation was a place of anarchic possibility. Take that troubling minx Betty Boop. Always cavorting half-dressed through life, Betty was the 1930s most unlikely sex symbol. Originally Bimbo the dog was the star with Betty only making cameo appearances, unnamed and not even really human. Before she was a woman, Betty was a dog, a cat and even a fish. It was evolution cartoon-style and the man responsible was Max Fleischer, the greatest rival to the early Disney empire, an audacious pioneer also responsible for the first Popeye and Superman cartoons.
As film archivist Dennis Nyback explains, Max and his brothers, Dave and Leonard, had a unique way of making their films, working backwards from music to drawings in exactly the opposite way most other animation outfits work. Jazz fan Leonard would bring in the latest hot records from black artists and the animators essentially improvised to the music. The results were often surreal and revelatory. Take Minnie The Moocher from 1932. It starts off with real footage of Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing the song, Calloway doing his super-cool (and much-imitated) dance moves. Dennis Nyback explains the reason for this live-action footage:

...the head of the New York musician’s union...didn’t like the use of records without paying royalties. Max invited him to the studio and made him a deal. He offered to have the musicians come to the studio and be paid for performing. He would then film and record them. The filmed images of the jazz performers would appear in a Fleischer cartoon based on their record, exposing them to wider audiences...As a result we can see Cab Calloway...and other jazz greats of the early thirties in Fleischer cartoons. (This did not sit well with bigots. The appearance of black performers with white Betty Boop elicited threats from the Ku Klux Klan.)
The film starts with Betty getting into a fight with her parents. Upset, she decides to run away. She calls Bimbo, they meet up and begin their escape. Soon though it gets dark and the strains of Minnie The Moocher begin. Frightened, they duck into a cave where a strange walrus creature appears and sings the song to them. This is clearly Calloway. The Fleischers used their own invention, rotoscope, to animate his movements by tracing frames of the live action film. (It was one of the many innovations they were responsible for. They also pioneered the use of synchronised sound three years before The Jazz Singer). What follows is a nightmare vision of skeletons, ghosts, dead-eyed cats and the scariest witch to ever fly towards a camera from out of nowhere. Even the Calloway-infused walrus is disturbing, with its weirdly distended and fleshy body. Soon a terrified Betty is running home to hide under her bed covers. As would any of us if confronted by this night of the dead. It's creepy enough as a cartoon. Hi-dee-hi-dee-ho indeed.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Please Look Now!

I've been toying for some time now with the notion of doing one of those Youtube videos that are all the rage with the kids these days. Decided for my first effort on a tribute to Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now, which I wrote about here a few months back as part of my classic scenes series. Its inspired imagery was half the battle won, of course, even before I started, so picking the right soundtrack was the real task. I finally went with the My Bloody Valentine-inspired Babelonia by School Of Seven Bells, a suitably mysterious, gothic sound with appropriate lyrics about fractured time. I'm reasonably pleased with the end result, for a first effort anyway, especially as it took me six hours to figure out how to upload it! Hope you like it.

John Barry (1933-2011)

With the death of John Barry yesterday the film world has lost one of its true greats. In an era of fine composers Barry's unique versitility and class stood out, from low-budget cool to Hollywood pizazz, he could do it all, usually better than anyone else. So here, in tribute, are five of my favourite pieces of Barry magic.

His first soundtrack and what a way to start, the opening of Beat Girl (1956) sees him capture the heady excitment of teen rebellion way better than the film does. Music so cool it makes you wish you were in that packed cellar club for real, dancing like a hipster loon.

His most famous work will always be the main James Bond theme, but he composed many fabulous pieces for all the Bond films. The one I keep returning to is Piz Gloria Escape/Ski Chase from possibly my favourite Bond film On Her Majesty's Secet Service. It's sinuous, atmospheric and thrilling all at once. Try listening to it while doing the washing up and even that mundane task will suddenly be infused with all the glamour of international espionage. Honest.

His main theme for the British epic Zulu (1964) showed he could do blockbuster bombast with the best of them, producing a rousing piece suitable for tales of heroic sacrifice, bloody battles and the wide open spaces of the African veldt.

And then he could do this, practically the polar opposite, the main theme for Midnight Cowboy (1969), music so wistful and feather-light it sends the listener into a reverie, evokes complex feelings of melancholy and somehow expresses all the burning hope and disappointment of the American Dream while making you want to gaze out windows and contemplate the passing world.

And just for good measure, he proved he could master the TV theme tune and inspire a generation of electronica musicians in the process, with this classic for The Peruaders, music so unique and innovative, moog-moody and exotic it should really have been soundtracking something far greater than this larky, lightweight vehicle for Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. Honestly, it's like Beethoven doing the theme music for bloody Spooks. He was just so ahead of the field by then, could compress so much into a few minutes of music, few filmmakers could match him. Genius.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Classic Scene #26

'Ring out the old year, ring in the new, ring-a-ding-ding.'
What better way to start another year than with that line sighed by Miss Kubelik near the end of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, the words hollow with derision for the lies of festive hope, the final flourish mocking the flip verbal smartness of the executives at Consolidated Life, the heartless ease with which they seem to pass through life, leaving girls like Fran Kubelik in their wake. Wearing that paper crown over her blankly disappointed face she seems, briefly, like the loneliest person in New York, her heart soured forever.
But then that wonderful smile slowly lights up her face, sweet with release, as the drunken crowd mindlessly sing 'we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.' And then she's running, in one of the most purely happy shots in all of cinema, her face blissful in the breeze, running towards C.C. Baxter, towards fruit cakes and card games and the kindness she deserves.