Monday, August 26, 2013

An Unseen Enemy (1912)

The Gish sisters first film is a key moment in the development of cinema. It was childhood friend Mary Pickford who brought them to D.W. Griffith's office one day in 1912, Lillian nineteen (though claiming to be sixteen) and Dorothy just fourteen. An Unseen Enemy is a key moment not because it employed Griffith's ground-breaking use of storytelling techniques (although it does) but because in it his camera discovered Lillian Gish. And cinema was never the same again. It was the beginning of arguably the first director/muse relationship, that symbiotic double-act that inspires the best work of both. Film history is littered with examples; Browning/Chaney, von Sternberg/Dietrich, Godard/Karina, Scorsese//de Niro. Four years earlier Griffith had worked with cinema's first real star Florence Lawrence, although she remained uncredited at the time, known simply as The Biograph Girl. Since then she'd left Biograph to become famous under her own name for the publicity-savvy Carl Laemmle. With Pickford establishing herself at this time too, the powerful connection between faces on screen and the audience watching in the dark was beginning to dawn on filmmakers. That Lawrence and Pickford could project winning personalities that audiences wanted more of, identified with even, was one thing though. What Gish brought was something else. Just imagine Griffith looking through his camera and seeing her through it for the first time; natural, unhurried, with graceful hands and pre-Raphaelite hair. Pretty yes, a Renaissance princess, but with something else, something chaste, a hint of Puritan heritage. She seemed an ideal, instinctively unworried about the camera's gaze. No mugging, no desperation to please. There were secrets behind that reserve. The camera wanted to know her. It was clear, or implied, already, that her presence demanded more than potboiler quickies, more than pantomime gestures. So everything changed, even if no-one was fully aware of it. At the time, though, this was just another Griffith film, one of dozens he made that year. A doctor's death orphans his two young daughters. (Interestingly, it was only months since the Gish's real father had died). Their older brother (Elmer Booth) converts some of the estate into cash and stores the money in the household safe. But the 'slattern' housekeeper sees an opportunity. She phones a criminal friend to come help her rob the safe. They lock the girls in a room and threaten them with a gun through a hole in the wall. One of the girls manages to telephone their brother who rushes to the rescue. It's all absurdly watchable, even now (especially with the right music. I recommend Deep Waters by The Dirty Three). Griffith's direction is full of vitality and suspense. And it's fair to say Dorothy's good too. Griffith didn't rate her, more or less ignored her around the studio. But that prudish eye-roll at the end suggests the comic potential she had. There are many lovely moments in its short running time; the natural light through the sisters' hair, the gun pointing at the camera, at us, the anticipation on Dorothy's face as she closes in on the gun, her fabulous faint, the man in a straw hat dancing at the lobby desk (amazingly this is Erich von Stroheim), and while Booth's performance is fussy and over the top at times, right at the end, there's that little bit of comic business, the fingers to the lips, the tap on the belly. Lovely detail.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My drafts section is clogged up with half-written pieces and reviews. So in an attempt to de-clutter I'm throwing out some quick reviews.

Drive (2011)

The city at night, the car as a means of escape, Taxi Driver (Albert Brooks), History of Violence, that jacket, Carey Mulligan's perfect face. The loneliness of the existential hero. A fairy-tale, found innocence and the violence required to protect it. He's doomed, like Mitchum in Out of the Past, he even works in a garage. His past is violence, he can't escape it, can't drive fast enough, can't resist the urge to risk, to be a driver of crimes. Gosling's monotone, reigned in, from a distance cool, up close wary, in control of situations, in control of himself even more. Then a woman comes into his life and he starts to make wrong decisions. It's noir, a sleek rethread of old themes, moody and gorgeous with LA light.

Date Night (2010)

Middle-aged married couple in a rut, the Fosters, decide to treat themselves to a night in the big city. Unable to get a table at a swanky restaurant they pretend to be another couple and take their table. Big mistake. The other couple are wanted by gun-wielding thugs and soon the Fosters are on the run. It has the feel of a reheated 1980s plot (the idea of New York at night as a dangerous place). Steve Carell and Tina Fey make it work even as the plot is insultingly unconvincing (the cops and baddies don't exist in any reality), the great Ray Liotta is wasted and the ending is lame. On the other hand it captures mundane married life well, there are several funny scenes and good support from a shirtless Mark Wahlberg and especially James Franco and Mila Kunis as a bickering criminal couple who nearly steal the film in one scene. You come away thinking that, given better material, Carell and Fey could be a great screwball couple. Fey in particular has a Diane Keaton meets Irene Dunne thing going on that could be, should be, great.

Bride Wars (2009)

I don't know why I watch these things. Sometimes the brain just wants to wallow in the shallows for awhile. And so, this. Predictable, tiresomely glossy and aspirational, full of product-placement and godawful music. It's barely film-making in any real sense. The only use it serves is to confirm what a brittlely sour actress Anne Hathaway is. The trick to making your character a selfish bitch in a rom-com is to cast an actress who can make us forget all the bad stuff by the end because underneath they're really nice. Hathaway displays no such ability here.

Knight and Day (2010)
Low expectations can be a film's best friend. This was a case in point. I'd heard nothing but bad things of this film or, to be more precise, I'd sensed an overwhelming wave of meh emanating from its general direction. It came out at a particularly low point in Cruise's public reputation and the lack of hype or interest seemed to portent the end of his career as a top action movie draw. Plus it was called Knight and Day. This didn't help. So imagine my surprise to discover that it was (at least for the first half hour) a fast-paced hoot, as June Havens (Diaz) gets caught up with spy Roy Miller (Cruise), an apparently unhinged, homicidal lunatic she does her best to escape from. This is the best part of the film because they don't have to explain the plot, just rush headlong into action, spouting funny lines. Unfortunately they have to bring the plot in, although, a say plot, I mean whatever nonsense someone wrote on the back of a cigarette packet and got paid an obscene amount of money for. It doesn't warrant any attention, the plot, just an excuse for bringing June and Roy together in various exotic locations. Cruise and Diaz have real chemistry together and James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) directs it with easy charm but too much dodgy CGI, especially towards the end. It isn't anything special, but it's way better than its reputation. Likeable, throwaway nonsense.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dynamic Erection

In the twenty-four-seven matrix of our media world it's hard to imagine films languishing forgotten, cast out into obscurity, left behind by the forward-moving juggernaut of time. Now everything exists at once. History is a time-line we can traverse at will. Everything of value (and much that isn't) is being championed somewhere, everywhere, as we speak, as the never-ending desire for new stimuli goes on, for new old things even, rediscovered gems, lost classics. How is it possible for a film (or anything else) to remain hidden, gathering dust, a rumour, a secret, a film maudit, the preserve only of dedicated enthusiasts and lovers of the willfully obscure? Even cave paintings locked away for thousands of years are exposed to our prying cameras these days, find themselves on t-shirts, mugs and computer screens. What could possibly escape the voracious, interactive maw of 21st century multi-mediated culture?

Well, nothing probably, to be honest. But things can certainly still fly under the radar, existing on sporadic blog entries, occasional screenings at festivals or a brief appearance on the Guardian's Clip Joint. It was during a recent Clip Joint on The Beatles that I encountered Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against The Eunuchs, the first film produced by George Harrison. The clip shown, this corduroy exchange, stopped me in my tracks. How could something so good have never crossed my path? Surely I'd have heard of it before at least, a film with a Beatles connection starring two stalwarts of British cinema like John Hurt and David Warner? But no. It was a complete mystery to me. I had to investigate more.

What I discovered was a darkly comic political allegory based on David Halliwell's acclaimed 1965 play which marries kitchen sink Northern locations (we're in Oldham) to word-driven scenes of heightened theatricality. Which is to say it doesn't try to normalise the play, but like Glengarry Glen Ross, uses the camera to intensify scenes, to revel in the language and the glorious opportunities for actors to take off into spellbinding monologues. While many films would end up falling between two stools, Little Malcolm manages to achieve a convincing symbiosis between play and film, a third way. Somehow the locations, superbly captured by cinematographer John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange), with their wintry drabness, isolated plots of land, dour high-ceilinged bedsits, industrial red-brick grime, all-pervading misty dampness, anchor the characters, allowing them to breathe and exist as both real people and political allegory. They're the kind of misfits places like this breed, men driven crazy by the never-starting futility of their existences, dreamers and idealists, fantasists, but also blowhards and inadequates, comical in their self-deluded bragging and schemes, their determination to force themselves into the flow of history.

We first see Malcolm Scrawdyke in his cold, run-down flat trying to make himself get out of bed, to trick his mind into moving, to act before thinking. (It's like everything that follows is the result of this desire to act, to avoid the sheer boredom and inertia of his life). We soon learn he's been expelled from Art College for being a disruptive influence. He takes two of his loyal followers, Wick (John McEnery) and Erwin (Raymond Platt) to the pub where they plot their revenge not just on the art college tutor they despise but on the whole country. Malcolm considers himself a leader, a militant revolutionary, and now he sees his expulsion as an opportunity to put into action what they've often spoken about, to start their own political movement, magnificently called - Dynamic Erection.

They bring in Dennis Charles Nipple (David Warner), a duffle-coat-wearing would-be writer, a rival to Malcolm in his ability to use language, his half-hearted participation and argumentativeness. They proceed to rehearse kidnapping their nemesis, stealing a painting, practicing speeches and how to deal with assassination attempts, all the while seeming like overgrown children at play. This is a point it's making of course. So much revolutionary talk and posturing is just that, fantasy and play, childish in essence, and just as threatening or likely to succeed. Malcolm is like a militant Billy Liar, Lancashire rooftops echoing to the cheers of imaginary crowds as he prepares his rousing speech. He's the leader because he's the most eloquent, knows the tricks of oratory, the emphatic hand gestures. But behind all the talk of action, the railing against the eunuchs, he's just as impotent and 'little' as the rest of them.

And yet, despite all this, we kind of like these deluded malcontents. They're in a fine line of British losers railing impotently against their lot from Hancock to Steptoe and Son. In fact only three years after Little Malcolm, the sit-com Citizen Smith would mine a similar seam, making comic hay from the gap between leftist revolutionary ideals and the mundane reality of British life. But beneath the comedy, the sympathy, runs a warning about taking these things for granted. The parallel is with Hitler (an art-school reject himself) and the National Socialists. A laughing stock in 20s Germany basically, little men acting big, until, that is, the political geography altered and they found themselves in power. Then it wasn't funny anymore. And so it is here. As Little Malcolm gets darker, we see how censorship and bullying evolve from the words, from the refusal to see any other reality but their own. They're dreamers but cowards, socially and sexually inadequate, fantasists unable to access or deal with reality.

It's like a cross between Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter. Director Stuart Cooper understands that the words are king, they lead to the performances and the whole thing works from there. The camera is another layer, another visual language, and the play needs to be translated into it, but not transformed into something else altogether. Why shouldn't cinema have the same freedoms of expression as theatre, the right to be an imaginative space not held down by the actual? We seem to have no problem with cinema making the visual more heightened or amazing but if people speak in oddly eloquent ways we seem to find this objectionable.

Despite winning the Silver Bear at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival Little Malcolm quickly disappeared from view, only to be resurrected by the BFI in 2011. Yet echoes of it can be found in other films like sarky misanthropic Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked (Leigh directed the first stage production of Little Malcolm)Withnail and I for the comic verve of the dialogue and even Chris Morris's inept terrorists in Four Lions. Yes it's a filmed play but when the dialogue is this good it doesn't matter and the acting is sensational. You have no idea how great an actor John Hurt is until you see it, or David Warner. When Malcolm gives his would-be speech to the massed ranks of snowy Oldham rooftops Hurt launches into an oratorical tour-de-force while at the same time hand gestures and passionate emphasis of words are pitched just too much to make them ridiculous. It's brilliant. The way he bellows 'seeeeeeize the init-i-a-tive' is both thrilling and hilarious. In its own uncompromising, unique way, it's a classic.

Watch Me Move - Little Nemo (1911)

There had been earlier forays into animation, James Stuart Blackton's chalk-drawn Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908) before Winsor McCay got in on the act. By 1911 McCay was the most famous cartoonist in America, creator of two hugely popular comic strips, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland when, apparently inspired by his son's flip books, he decided movement was the logical next step. He hooked up with Blackton at Vitagraph Studios and they set about constructing a film around this process. Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and his Moving Comics, as it was called (usually referred to now as Little Nemo) begins with live-action sequences in some kind of club where McCay showcases his quick drawing skills (he was famous from a young age for this) to his artist buddies. He makes a wager that, in just one month, he can create the four thousand drawings required to make these comic characters move. They laugh good-naturedly at this madness. (Note that Cohl used 700 drawings over a four to five month period to make Fantasmagorie). Next we see him hard at work surrounded by cartoon-like props, comically large containers for paper and ink. Finally he's finished. A projector is set up in the club and we see the three famous characters from the strip - Little Nemo, Flip and The Imp - come to life, forming magically out of thin air. What follows is a moment of freedom, liberation. They contort, fight, expand like fair ground mirrors, draw other characters (that's McCay animating a character speed drawing another character) until finally Nemo rides off in the jaws of a dragon with a princess. These are not just chalk drawings but finely-rendered characters, in colour, moving through space with anarchic glee. It's the true birth of animation. Although McCay would go on to more ambitious projects like Gertie the Dinosaur, these two minutes of plotless transformation retain the magic of first moments, the breakthrough wonder of discovery.