Archive for May, 2017

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.

NbyNW.001-001

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.

Moment#9: The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

21 May 2017

Glass-Bottom-Boat-1966

The technical name for a film like The Glass Bottom Boat is a “confection”. It is a vehicle for Doris Day to play Jennifer Nelson, a kooky and accident-prone youngish widow who gets a job in the PR department of a space lab that has developed a gravity simulator called GISMO. Day was 44 at the time, but looked 30-something thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. The boffin/genius (Bruce Templeton, played by Rod Taylor) who runs the lab falls in love with her, at which point she is suspected of being a Russian spy. Is is a spy spoof? Is it a romantic comedy? Frankly it’s impossible to tell, as you can see from a quick look at the trailer at the end of the post, or the poster at the top.

It was directed by Frank Tashlin, a well-regarded comedy director, towards the end of his career, and it made a profit.

What it definitely is, is of its time. In 1966, we’re only four years on from Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech, and a couple of years after a British Prime Minister had won an election on a slogan about the “white heat of technology”. We’re still in a moment when people can believe in the meaningful advance of technology, before the internet closed down our horizons.

This means that the boffin’s house has the kind of paleofuturist automated kitchen that used to come with a breathless Pathé voiceover, he has a motor boat driven by remote control (of course the remote control ends up in the water, with hilarious consequences), and the lab itself provides opportunities for some good gags and some excitable 1960s gee whizzery. And since it’s a vehicle for Doris Day, a couple of songs are shoe-horned in: the whimsical title track, and a quick reprise of her calling card, ‘Que Sera Sera‘.

The moment: a neat bit of set-up/pay-off in a slapstick sequence involving a cake and a waste bin. Man fixing the PA system at Templeton’s house for a big party accidentally steps on a big cake that Day has brought over. Trying to minimise the mess. she inserts his shoe and the remains of a cake into a waste bin, where it gets stuck. And then the ladder he’s standing on topples over. There follows some comic physical business as she tries to get his shoe back out again.

MAN (in overalls, with foot stuck in wastebin): You know something? You’re irritated with me, I’m irritated with myself [as Nelson/ Doris Day helps him to his feet]. It’s just a good thing that I didn’t fall into the pool, with my cold, that’s all.

At which point you know that sooner or later he’s going to end up in the swimming pool. And he does. But not until we’ve had a bit more slapstick involving some physical comedy, cake icing, and Day getting her foot stuck in the bin as well.

There’s a terrific visual gag at a party where the man from U.N.C.L.E.  Napoleon Solo pops up at a party, and then vanishes again. Blink and you’d miss it. As you also would if you’re younger than about 50.

Moment#8: Easy Living (1937)

15 May 2017

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The writer-director Preston Sturges is best known for a string of edgy comedies during the war years that somehow managed to run rings around the Hays Code; Easy Living—not to be confused with the 1949 film of the same name—is one of the screenplays he wrote that persuaded Hollywood to give him the opportunity to direct as well.

It plays off the genre conventions well; women against men, rich against poor.

The film has one of the great “inciting incidents”–the event that kicks off the plot. The third richest banker on Wall Street, in a fit of rage at his wife’s extravagance, hurls a fur coat that she has just spent $58,000 on from the roof of their townhouse, and it lands, literally, on the head of Mary Smith, a clerk at a magazine business (played by Jean Arthur), who is going to work on an open-topped bus.

Comedy is often about a fish out of water, and Sturges is brilliant at this in his films, most notably in Sullivan’s Travels, in which rich and successful film director John Sullivan is granted his wish to discover what it’s like to be poor in 1940s America.

Easy Living, which was directed by Mitchell Leisen, is also a fish out of water story, but Mary Smith gets to discover what it’s like to be rich and influential.

The moment: Mary Smith has the $58,000 coat, and a hat to match, and is living in a suite at an expensive hotel, all for perfectly credible reasons as far as the story goes, but she’s also been fired from her job and is down to her last nickel. She’s at the Automat, where New Yorkers used to get budget food before MacDonalds was invented. And there she runs into the banker’s son, who is clearing tables, trying to prove to his father that he can get by without the family money.

This is quite a long sequence–the whole scene runs for about eight minutes–but I love how it starts low-key (and about the lives of the rich) and ends up in slapstick mayhem (and much more about the lives of the poor). The way the hungry Jean Arthur looks longingly at the plates of the other diners could have come straight out of silent movies. And the whole thing is full of wonderful detail: there’s a lot going on.

There’s pretty much a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film by Cameron at her blog, The Blonde at the Film. And the whole film is on youtube, with some interruptions for ads.

 

Moment#7: An American In Paris (1951)

10 May 2017

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Moment #7. Everything that can be said about An American in Paris has probably been said already. With On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain it represents the apogee of the American musical, and in particular of the work of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM. It pushed the Hollywood dance sequence to new limits1–the 17-minute “American in Paris” ballet sequence, created by Gene Kelly, cost almost half a million dollars to make, in 1951 money–and the film won a hatful of Oscars.

I watched the film on DVD again at home in a back-to-back American in Paris multi-format experience immediately after going to see the latest stage version in London, which is a trumphant reimagining of the film.

The moment: the sequence early in the film when Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, describes to the musician Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) the delights of Lise, (Leslie Caron), the young woman he’s in love with, and we see Caron perform a series of balletic routines. I’ve chosen this because it’s doing several things all at the same time.

It’s introducing the 19-year old Leslie Caron, spotted by Gene Kelly dancing in a French ballet company, to the Hollywood audience for the first time.

It’s showing us that she’s a proper dancer, and doing so without her having to talk (at the time her English was only serviceable).

It shifts the film from the realism of the narrative, and the browns of that narrative palette, into the colours of the dance musical.

And I think it does one more thing as well. It maybe conveys to us, quite early in the film, that Henri Baurel is maybe in love with an idea of Lise, rather than the actual person, which helps explain (spoiler) why he’s willing to give her up right at the end.

Here’s the clip.

Arthur Freed had tried to buy only the rights to the American in Paris Suite from Ira Gershwin (George had died in 1937) but Ira shrewdly insisted that all the songs in the movie should be Gershwin songs. I think Freed got lucky here, since it gives the musical a coherence and quality that a patchwork of songs by several composers would not have provided. And Kelly’s dancing shimmers in this smart adaptation of ‘I Got Rhythm’.


1. Although, of course, Powell and Pressburger’s British film The Red Shoes, made three years earlier, also had a long ballet sequence in it. Kelly screened the film for MGM executives before An American in Paris was greenlighted, according to imdb.

Moment#6: The Awful Truth (1937)

8 May 2017

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Moment #6: Still on the screwball trail, this is one of the BFI’s ‘ten great’ screwball comedies. It won its director, Leo McCarey, an Oscar, leading woman Irene Dunne an Oscar nomination, and established Cary Grant as a leading man. And watching it, you can see why: it’s wonderfully written, sharply plotted, moves along at pace, is packed full of fine comic moments, several involving their dog, and it takes you, eventually, to the place you want to be. As a scriptwriter I once worked with observed, you need to take the audience where it wants to go, but not by the route they expect to get there.

The film is set, mostly, in the ninety days from the date of the divorce. I could have picked any one of a dozen moments or more from the film, but the sequence that sets up the plot is a sublime piece of staging. Jerry Warriner, played by Grant, has been away, apparently but most likely not in Florida, and he returns home with some friends to find his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) away. Well, he finds out that she’s away quite slowly.

First, one of the women in the group scans the table with the mail on it and observes that there are some letters on the table for Lucy, some from yesterday.

JERRY: That’s the trouble with most marriages today. People are always imagining things. (Beat) The road to Reno is paved with suspicions. The first thing you know is they all end up in a divorce court.

GUEST: The broad-minded man from the Rio Grande.

JERRY: If you think I’m going to get a chance to prove my broadmindedness any minute you’re crazy. No, Lucy’s really up at her Aunt Patsy’s cabin, I’ll bet on it.

And Jerry’s on a roll, extolling the virtues of Aunt Patsy’s cabin as we see Aunt Patsy arrive in shot behind him, seen by everyone in the room except for Jerry.

AUNT PATSY (her first words): Any idea where Lucy is? You know she invited me to this…

At which point Lucy arrives, looking stunning in white, followed a moment or two later by her singing teacher, and a long story about how they’d been on their way home from a concert when the car broke down and they’d had to spend the night in “the nastiest little inn you ever saw,” insisting of course that it was all completely innocent.

LUCY: Can’t have a happily married life if you’re always going to be suspicious of each other.

JERRY: Right again […]

LUCY: But I don’t know why I’m boring all of you with private matters.

GUEST: Oh, we’re not bored.

LUCY: No one’s interested in mine except for Jerry, and he knows it’s innocent, just as he knows (pause), well, that he just got back from Florida.

Part of the ambiguity is probably to dance around the restrictions imposed on what films could show or say about sex, under the Hays Code, but the effect is to make the film funnier.

One of the moments I could have chosen is the scene in which Lucy and her new fiance, Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy, run into Cary Grant at a night club. This clip gives a sense of both the film’s dialogue and the comedy, and a version of this scene plays out in a different way later on in the film at a decisive point in the story.

Intolerable Cruelty riffs off The Awful Truth in several places, and I couldn’t also help wonder if Marilyn’s iconic scene in The Seven Year Itch borrowed from it. Its director, Billy Wilder, would certainly have been familiar with The Awful Truth, and in their way the two films have a similar theme.

Moment#5: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

7 May 2017

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Moment # 5 The Coen brothers always make their films with a smile on their face and a knowing nod in the direction of Hollywood’s history and genre conventions, and Intolerable Cruelty is no exception. It is a modern version of a screwball comedy, as I realised watching the smartly plotted final act, which I’m not going to spoil for you here.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a divorce lawyer at the top of his game (the creator of the best and most ironclad pre-nup agreement in the business, and the President, we later discover, of his industry body, N.O.M.A.N)1 while Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marylin Rexroth, a woman who is trying to divorce her way to enough money to be financially independent. Both characters are compelling, though neither is particularly likeable. When he says to her over dinner, “I assume you’re a carnivore”, she laughs and replies, “Oh, Mr Massey, you have no idea.”

In another age this might have paired Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, or maybe Claudette Colbert. And I think they would have made more of Marylin’s background: given the spelling of the name, we can probably assume she started out on the wrong side of the tracks.

Arguably the film’s a little too knowing for its own good (Roger Ebert wanted the Coens to lay off the ironical detachment and just enjoy what they had created). But there is much to like, including  the way they love their minor characters, including, for example, Zeta-Jones’ second husband, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and –mild spoiler– the reverend who marries the pair of them at midnight in Las Vegas. “Love your minor characters” happens to be one of Robert McKee’s screenwriting rules.

So the moment is about minor characters. It is the only time in the film, a film about law and lawyers, when we see Clooney on his feet in a courtroom. Zeta-Jones’ case is going well until he calls Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, the concierge at an exclusive Alpine resort, who arrives in court with his dog. You can see it here:

 


1. National Organization of Matrimoney Attorneys, Nationally. The strapline on the screen at their annual conference is, ‘Let N.O.M.A.N put asunder.’

Armstrong, Pantani, and ‘Ventoux’

5 May 2017

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As a cycling fan I went to some lengths to see the stage production of Ventoux, currently touring in the UK, after I missed it in London. But it is an interesting piece of theatre as well: it’s not all about the bike.

So what is it? A double hander, with one actor playing Armstrong, the other Pantani, restaging a famous Tour de France contest between the men on Ventoux in 2000, helped along with a couple of turbo bikes and some big coolboxes, of the kind you might use to store, say, doped blood. There’s some back projection as well, and also from time to time the audio of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. As far as I can tell, the script is “found,” edited from actual words spoken or written by the cyclists, which is the modus operandi of the production company, 2 Magpies Theatre.

In terms of the racing, that stage was epic. In 2000, both men had won the Tour once, Pantani in 1998, Armstrong the following year. They had contrasting styles: Pantani a maverick who would race when he felt good, Armstrong the calculator who stacked the odds with a strong and dedicated team, going head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s the footage, with an appropriate music track:

With hindsight, we know that both men stacked the odds in other ways as well. Pantani died in Rimini in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, but we also know that he had used EPO, which boosts performance, especially when climbing, and that Armstong’s entire team was doped up. Liggett’s commentary on the day, used in the play, notes the pace that his team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingstone were setting on the early part of the climb, and we know from Hamilton’s later testimony that both he and Armstrong had had blood transfusions to top up their red blood cells on the rest day, the day before the Ventoux stage.

What the play does well is explore why, when we know all this, we still admire Pantani and regard Armstrong as a cheat. (Sure, Armstrong was a cheat, a systematic cheat, as the USADA’s Reasoned Decision outlines in jaw-dropping detail, portrayed on stage as flurries of yellow legal paper. But we know that Pantani cheated too). And, by rearranging the chronology of the stage, so we hear parts of twice, knowing the result long before we hear the drama of it, it also reminds us that even when corroded by doping, cycle racing is still thrilling when two well-matched riders duke it out at the edge of their physical limits.

And some of that explanation in the play comes from Armstrong himself, in a speech taken from an article he wrote long after Pantani’s death, and after his own disgrace and lifetime ban from the sport.

Pantani wasn’t a star, he was more like a rock star. He had the aura, he had the following and he was huge. As an American coming over and playing a European sport, I was in a different position… If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist. He had all the panache in the world, all the panache you could fit into a small climber, and I, if I’m honest, didn’t have that.

Here are the actors talking about the production.

Even if you’re not interested in cycling, it’s an interesting piece of theatre. If you are, it’s compelling.

 

Moment#4: How to get ahead in advertising (1989)

3 May 2017


Moment #4 How to get ahead in advertising teamed up writer-director Bruce Robinson with actor Richard E. Grant after the cult success of Withnail and I. In truth, I don’t think it has aged well: the story of a successful adman, stuck on a brief for a boil cream, who grows a talking boil that represents everything dislikeable about advertising. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but spoilers.)

Nothing about it is subtle, though Grant’s performance is mesmerising. But it is a product of its time, released a couple of years after the hubris of Saatchi and Saatchi’s absurd bid for Midland Bank, when for a thankfully short moment in the dog days of the Thatcher ascendancy ad executives were treated like rock stars.

The moment: Other people might have chosen the moment when Grant, naked but for an apron and a shower cap, decides to rid the house of all products that bear the mark of advertising. But, given the time it was made, I think it’s actually the moment earlier in the film  where we see his office for the first time, a huge corner affair full of awards, career-defining ornaments, a statue of a horse, and expensive leather armchairs, with a view across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament and along the river to Lambeth Palace. There’s a large telescope trained on the Palace of Westminster: the designer has had fun. Much of the scene is in this youtube clip:

The film is a satire, and in its way the location, the advertiser looking down on the institutions of government and religion, makes the point as well as anything else in the film.

The poster at the top of the film is via the blog Random Rambings.