Film moment #16: Grease (1978)

18 July 2017


I stumbled across Grease on TV this week, and didn’t realise until I started to watch it again how much I hated it as a film. There really is nothing there. It is an empty shell propped up by American High School film cliches inserted to connect a string of songs and dance sequences (some, admittedly, not too bad). It is an utterly cynical piece of film making.

First day of term? Check. Girlie pajama party? Check. Cheerleaders and sports jocks? Check. The diner? Check. High school dance? Drive-in cinema? Check. Check. Drag race? Of course. Last day of school. ZZZZZ. You get bored just typing the list, and I bet I’ve missed one. Not that it would matter.

And nothing in the writing. No flash, no flair, no wit, no irony, not even a complicit knowing moment with the audience where writer and audience can agree that what they’re watching is a piece of nostalgic tosh and get on with it. The plot, if that’s what it is, is utterly predictable story-by-numbers stuff.  (According to Wikipedia, the original stage musical was tougher.)

I mean, even that moment when bad girl Stockard Channing thinks she might be pregnant and suddenly everyone in the year knows, well, y’know, it turns out five minutes later she’s not and everything’s just fine. Flat, flat, flat. (Stockard Channing, who is a terrific actor, is wasted in Grease. Go find her in the admittedly obscure Sweet Revenge if you want to see her at her best.) And while I’m at it, “Thunder Road” as the name of the drag strip? Three years after Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run?

The only saving grace: at least John Travolta can dance and Olivia Newton John can sing.

But there’s a deeper story as well. By 1978, America had been buffeted by failure in the Vietnam war, the turmoil of the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the ’70s oil shock. The story in Grease airbrushes 20 years out of American history, harking back to an idealised moment before all that bad stuff happened. Idealised for some. For although late-’50s Rydell High School looks at first sight like anywhere in the USA, it’s not: it’s anywhere white in the USA. In other words, it’s part of the same rhetoric (“Make America great again”) that propelled Reagan into the White House by both pretending that the past 20 years never happened, and then ensuring that nothing like it ever happened again. (I could go further, and riff on how formally conservative films are also politically conservative, but not today.)

The rules here on the Film Moment series are supposed to be that no film is so bad that it doesn’t have one moment that’s worth watching. I’m supposed to mention that moment. I can barely bring myself to do it, but here’s Stockard Channing just after word gets out that she’s pregnant, an actor making something out of nothing. If you want to see John Travolta dance, go and watch Saturday Night Fever, altogether a richer, darker, and better film.


Bernie Gunther, post-war

17 July 2017


I’ve stayed away from Philip Kerr‘s crime novels. This wasn’t because I doubted the universally positive judgment of readers and reviewers as to the excellence of the writing or the depths of the character, Bernie Gunther, but more because you get too much Nazi history in real life, even in 2017, without having to turn to fiction for it. (And maybe I get weary and wary when people compare other writers to Raymond Chandler.) 

So I was pleased to find in a second hand stack in the corner of a cafe a copy of one of his post-war Gunther novels, The One From The Other, set in the ambiguous demi-monde of reconstruction Germany and Austria, with war criminals trying to escape from justice, identity and personal history written in shades of grey, the “Amis” army of occupation resented, and Gunther played for a fool, and painfully, by people who are almost always one step ahead of him. Beautifully plotted, well written. 

The next one, no spoilers, looks to be set in Argentina.  I’m looking forward to finding it. 


Moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.


Moment #14: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

25 June 2017

I’ve puzzled about the bicycle sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ever since I first watched it. The bicycles seemed like an anomaly. Maybe it should have been more obvious to me. Anyway I stumbled across the film on television on a recent holiday weekend, which sent me back to the chapter that its screenwriter, William Goldman, wrote about the film in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Suddenly it became clearer.

Butch Cassidy is set in the last days of the Old West, a short period that lasted from the postbellum to the turn of the 19th century. As E.J. Hobsbawm reminds us, it wasn’t particularly violent, either. The film has some of the trappings of a Western, but it is a buddy movie about two men who find themselves out of time, because their skills as bank and train robbers are no longer useful. It is set right at the end of the period.

So Butch Cassidy and Sundance spend the film trying to escape towards the past, first literally, during the long sequence in the middle of the film as they are chased by the Superposse, sent by Pacific Railroad owner E.W.Harriman to track them down and kill them. The second time, metaphorically, as they head for a new life in Bolivia.

The bicycle was a huge American craze in the 1890s, and this is a captured in the film quite early on by a bicycle salesman.

SALESMAN: Soon the eye will see nothing but silk-ribboned bicycle paths stretching to infinity.

The bike becomes a motif of this new world they are running from, first innocently, then more ominously as they leave for Bolivia. 

The moment is not the bicycle scene above, but the way in which the film prefigures its ending. The first time is when the two men are on the run from the Superposse and try to get Bledsoe,  a magistrate they know, to enrol them in the army. He spells out the limited choices they face:

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The second time is a few pages later, when Butch and Sundance decide to go to Bolivia. Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, agrees to go with them, but on one condition:

ETTA: I’ll go with you, and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks and I’ll stitch you when you’re wounded, and anything you ask of me I’ll do, except for one thing; I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.

And as they leave the house for good, on the next page, Butch hurls the bicycle outside, shouting:

BUTCH: **The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles.**

Script extracts courtesy of Dailyscript.com.

 


Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

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It is always interesting watching films about the very old, not least because there are relatively few of them. Mr Holmes, made in 2015, has Ian McKellen playing the 93-year old detective in post-World War II England. He is long retired to a house on the south coast, looked after by a housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her son, Roger, wrestling with the details of his last case, some thirty years previously. He is trying to work out why the case, “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove”, made him retire.

Through some makeup magic by Dave Elsey, the film tells two parallel stories. The ageing and forgetful Holmes looks after his bees, obsesses with things (like Japanese prickly ash) that might postpone his death, while trying to write his own story of the case of the dove grey glove. In flashback, his 60-something self investigates the case, or perhaps reinterprets it. John Watson’s version of the story makes him appear a hero, but he can’t ask him, for Watson is long dead.

As he tells Roger:

SHERLOCK HOLMES; I’ve decided to write the story down; as it was, not as John made it. Get it right, before I die.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, were stories inside stories, apparently written by Watson, and as with the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, on the BBC, the film plays off Watson’s invention of the character of Holmes. In Japan, while he is collecting the prickly ash, Mr Umezaki asks him:

MR UMEZAKI: My mother, she wonders if you have brought your famous hat.
HOLMES: Oh, the deer stalker. That was an embellishment of the illustrator. I’ve never worn one.
MR UMEZAKI: And the pipe?
HOLMES: I prefer a cigar. I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative licence.

In similarly recursive mode, the McKellen character goes to see a Sherlock Holmes film in Mr Holmes. It seems to be a film based on the “Dove Grey Glove”, which before you ask is an invention of the novel the film is based on.

The moment. The film is built around a triangle; Holmes, the young Roger, whom he’s taken under his wing, and his mother, the housekeeper, who is worried about what will happen to her and her son when Holmes dies. She’s heard about a position in a hotel in Portsmouth. Her son doesn’t want to go. Unknown to the viewer, she’s been to visit the hotel owner that day. After she returns her son asks Holmes to “do his thing… where he tells people who they are and where they’ve been, just from looking.” The ageing detective demurs, then summons up his powers and does his thing.

HOLMES: I’m sure your mother doesn’t need to be told where she’s been.
MRS MUNRO: Let’s not bother Mr Holmes with any foolishness.
ROGER: It’s not foolishness. Here. You come and stand in front of Mr Holmes. Just like that. And he will tell you where you’ve been. Do it.
[to HOLMES] You want her to turn in a circle?
HOLMES: No, that won’t be necessary.
ROGER (to mother): Turn in a circle.
HOLMES: You’ve been away most of the day. The soot on your dress attests that you went by train to Portsmouth, as all other nearby rail lines which might accommodate a return trip of this length are under repair or beyond it. In Portsmouth, you met the couple who run the hotel. Your hair and nails are evidence that you wished to make a favourable impression. They made you an offer, you accepted. You declined tea, and did not see the sister for whom you have no particular fondness, using my indisposition as an excuse to hurry back.
MRS MUNRO: It wasn’t an excuse.
ROGER: You accepted?
MRS MUNRO: Start a week Monday.
ROGER: Both of us?
MRS MUNRO: We’re both going.
ROGER: She wants me to be a bootblack!

One of the things that scriptwriters are taught is to “make your exposition argument”. But this revelation seems, to me, to be done far more cleverly.

The script extracts are from Springfield! Springfield!


Moment #12: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

4 June 2017

 

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Knowing nothing much about Saving Mr Banks, the film of how Walt Disney persuaded P.L.Travers to make a film of her Mary Poppins novels, I’d expected it to be more sentimental than it was. She had agreed because she was running out of money; book sales had dried up. But she was suspicious of everything that Disney had in mind: the songs, the animation, the casting of Dick van Dyke. (Indeed, she thought she had an agreement that there would be no animation in Mary Poppins).

Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, is largely set in the two weeks that Travers spends in Los Angeles with the writers and composer team on the studio lot, as Walt Disney cajoles her into allowing the film to be made, but with flashbacks to her difficult childhood in Australia, a childhood largely effaced by her very English public persona. Emma Thompson is outstanding as Travers, the best I have seen her; Tom Hanks is a credible Disney.

The character of Mr Banks, the father in the novels, is partly based on Travers’ own father, an alcoholic who died young; Mary Poppins on her mother’s aunt, who came to look after her and her siblings after his death.

At its heart, this is a film about film-making, maybe never more so when Disney flies to London after Travers, believing that she has been deceived, has suddenly gone home. The scene has one of those speeches that actors die for. Here’s an extract:

WALT DISNEY: Mrs. Travers, trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear, every time a person walks into a movie house, from Leicester Square to Kansas City, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids. They will weep for his cares. They will wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite… Oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and heads of my kids and other kids, and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Now, maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

My moment from the film is slightly earlier, when Travers finally lets go in the rehearsal room as the composing team (the Sherman brothers) play ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ to her. At one level, this is a nod to the whole tradition of ‘Let’s do the show right here’ of the MGM musicals of the ’50s, such as The Bandwagon. But it’s also another reminder that film does redemption better than any other medium.

Travers was never reconciled with Hollywood after her experience with Mary Poppins, although it solved her financial crisis. When Cameron Mackintosh approached her in the 1990s about a stage version, she agreed, on condition that only English-born writers be involved—and no-one involved in the making of the film.


The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.


Moment #11: North by Northwest (1959)

29 May 2017

Before the invention of VHS, it was an act of dedication to find and watch classic films; sometimes you would catch a ‘live’ TV screening, otherwise it was a trip to a cinema that cared enough about film to show them. Now, a film like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run and all at sea, can be found everywhere.

The theme of the “wrong man” who ends up on the run, both tying to solve the mystery and to clear his name, recurs in Hitchcock’s films. Think of The 39 Steps. But in North by Northwest, in a way that is both more plausible,and more sinister, he’s being left out there as a decoy.

Most of its big set-pieces are well-known; the murder at the United Nations; the attack by the crop duster plane; the final set-piece among the American Presidents on Mount McKinley.

The moment: the sequence before the attack by the crop duster plane, which builds the suspense, and oh, so, slowly.

It’s worth breaking it down a little to see what Hitchcock did.

The sequence starts with a high static fixed shot, probably from a crane, looking back along the road. The bus that Thornhill/Grant is on appears in the distance, and the shot allows it to drive all the way, to the bus stop at the bottom, where Grant gets off, and the bus leaves again. We get the picture: this is the middle of nowhere. It runs for 48″.

There’ then a series of shots, also static, that intercut between Grant by the side of the road, the few cars passing on the road, and the flatness of the Plains. We (spoiler) still think that he’s here to meet “Kaplan”. This sequence runs through 27 shots and lasts 1’52”.

Now something happens. A car appears from a side road (more a track), and stops at the junction, on the other side of the road, where a man gets out. There’s a fabulous shot of the two men, on opposite sides of the road, the  horizon no more than a quarter of the way up the screen. Grant, eventually, eventually, walks across the road towards him; there’s an immediate contrast between Grant’s expensive grey Manhattan suit and the man’s cheap brown suit and hat. Ernest Lehmann’s dialogue is laconic, as we hear the plane for the first time.

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The scene ends as it began, with a bus heading away along the highway, and Thornhill/Grant standing by the roadside. It is also worth mentioning the sound design, although it wouldn’t have been called sound design in 1959. The audio during this whole sequence is “natural” sound; the cars on the road, doors being opened and closed, Grant’s shoes clicking on the dirt as he looks around. No music. In fact, there’s no music until after the plane has hit the truck.

The sequence lasts for just over five minutes; longer, in fact, than the scene in which the crop duster plane attacks Grant. When we call Hitchcock the master of suspense, it’s because of sequences like this, which signal to the audience a sense of foreboding and makes the action more intense when it starts.

Most of the sequence is here.


Moment #10: Love Happens (2009)

28 May 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kindest thing that can be said about Love Happens is that it’s functional. An eight year-old movie, more romantic drama than rom-com, that washed its face at the box office and now fills out the Film Four schedule.

In brief: Aaron Eckhart is self-help guru Burke Ryan, who runs workshops on dealing with death, in the aftermath of his own wife’s death in a car crash three years ago. Jennifer Aniston  is a florist, Eloise, whom he meets in the lobby of the hotel in Seattle where he is running this week’s workshop.

You can more or less join up the dots from there, though for a whirlwind romance–the film plays out over the three and a half days he’s in town to run his workshop–there’s not much chemistry between the leads.

Anyway, the moment: She takes him for a drive in one of those trucks with a lift in the back, having dropped off her VW van at her mum’s house (“Are you trying to dodge the FBI?”, he asks her.) It turns out that top (fictional) group Rogue Wave are playing in town that night, tickets have been sold out for weeks, and she’s borrowed the truck so the pair of them can watch the gig over the wall from its elevated platform.

Actually, this moment works a little bit harder than this description makes it sound. One of the things the Burke Ryan character talks about in his workshops is overcoming fear; he still walks up the stairs rather than taking the elevator. So in a small way, the scene also reinforces that story arc.


Coping with pressure

23 May 2017

In his book Etape, Richard Moore revisits stages of the Tour de France through the eyes of the protagonists. The first chapter in the book is about Chris Boardman’s win in the Prologue in Lille in 1994, which made him only the second Briton to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. Boardman’s route into the professional peleton had been an unusual one; he turned professional relatively late, at the age of 25, after winning the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then breaking the world hour record in Bordeaux in 1993–a record attempt that took place just as the Tour went through the city.

Boardman was invited onto the Tour podium the day after his ride, although not all of the Tour riders were impressed. Luc Leblanc, then the leading French rider, said publicly that most members of the Tour peleton could better Boardman’s distance if they put their minds to it.

Boardman was always quite anxious about his performance, and before Barcelona, he went to see John Syer, a leading sports psychologist.

Prior to the Barcelona Olympics, Boardman spilled out his fears to John Syer. “What if this goes wrong? What if I can’t go fast enough? What if the other guy’s faster? What if I puncture.”

Boardman expected Syer to offer words of reassurance. Instead he said: Yeah, well, those things could happen.” Boardman was puzzled. “I said, ‘Hang on, aren’t you supposed to be helping me here?’ But he said, ‘No, this is the deal, mate–elation and despair are two sides of the same coin, in equal and opposite proportion. If you want to risk the big win, you’ve got to risk the big low. So instead of trying to deny that, why don’t we stare it in the face?'”

John Syer was the first well-known sports psychologist in the UK. He was a former international volleyball player and coach, who came to prominence from working with the Spurs first team in the early 1980s. His book Team Spirit, one of a string of books he wrote or co-wrote to explain his methods,  was published in 1986.

A story I remember well from that book was of his work with the forward Steve Archibald, a talented player who needed a certain amount of anger to play well, but didn’t need it in the rest of his life. Syer helped him deal with this by having him visualise letting a bear(Archibald’s own image) out of a cage before the game, and then returning it to the cage after the game.


I remember the story because I tried a version of this myself in the early 1990s. I had taken a job in a new role that brought me into conflict with some of the engineers in the television company, and the head of department and his deputy proceeded to try to undermine me in every way they could. Nothing was too little trouble for them. Every day–for the better part of a year–was a sea of passive aggression.

By the time I went home each day, having absorbed the best or worst they threw at me, I always felt terrible. Remembering Syer’s story, I found a box and put it in the bottom of my filing cabinet. Before I left for the night, I would go through a ritual of visualising removing their hostility and leaving it in the box, in the office. It worked well enough.

As for Boardman, in that famous Prologue win, where he rode faster than any Tour rider before or since, he caught his ‘minute man’, the rider who left sixty seconds ahead of him, which shouldn’t really happen to professionals in a ride that lasts for eight minutes. His minute man? Luc Leblanc. What goes around, comes around.