Archive for the 'film' Category

Strictly Ballroom

February 16, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz Luhrman’s first film, since it was on television at Christmas, and have just realised that it reminded me of an essay by Umberto Eco about Casablanca, which he described as being like a party full of archetypes. Archetypal stories are running wild in Strictly Ballroom too, plucked from different genres, but artfully.

There’s the young gun taking on a corrupt establishment; the migrant family making their way suspiciously in a new world; the tyro who needs to be licked into shape for the big event, in – of course – an impossibly short time; the boy in love with the girl on (literally) the wrong side of the tracks; art-and-love is more important than winning;  and the archetype which shapes the denouement, ‘that the only thing new in the world is the history you didn’t know’, played out in two versions for dramatic effect.

And of course this is a meta-story as well, of the young director announcing himself to the world as one who is going to dance his own steps, and not be overawed by the weight of Australia’s cinema history. And Luhrman knows – because we’ve all watched a lot of films – that we understand the familiar steps and are able to follow him when he mixes them up a bit.

Two of his choices are distinctive. The first is the subject matter, ballroom dancing, a decade before the BBC stole half the name and most of the underlying idea to renovate its own dancing show. It is, let’s face it, the least Australian of sports, a world away from the blood and thunder of Aussie Rules or the green and gold of the rugby teams, or even the lean power of track cycling. (But write what you know; his mother was a teacher of ballroom dance).

The second is the scale, for Strictly Ballroom is an anti-epic, a small world, perfectly formed. It may seem paradoxical, but stories of small worlds – think of Gregory’s Girl, or Cinema Paradiso, or The Full Monty – are often the most universal.

Marketing or art

January 25, 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

The Lady Eve

January 22, 2011

I feel like I’m continuing a mini-series of posts about classic films, but I watched the Preston Sturges’ film The Lady Eve this weekend, and wanted to write something about a couple of the sequences in it. Sturges pushed the screwball comedy into satire in a career that reached its peak in the war years, testing the limits of the Hollywood ‘Hays Code’ censors as he went.

The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, professional card hustler and unworldly breweries heir respectively, and love, of course, gets in the way of the hustling business. Stanwyck is as sultry as she is in Double Indemnity, but with better intent (watch the clip at the top if you want to see what I mean).

Sturges has many strengths as a writer-director (his scripts always sparkle), and I’ve written about some of these before. From The Lady Eve, there are three distinctive scenes which show his talent.

The first is his inventive use of mise-en-scène, the film word used to describe the way scenes look and film. Early on in The Lady Eve, when Fonda has just joined the liner to sail back to New York, he’s sitting on his own at dinner being watched, it seems, by every unattached woman on the boat. We know this because Barbara Stanwyck is watching the entire room from a mirror – we see it from this as well – and adding a running commentary on the feeble strategies being used by the others, unsuccessfully, to attract his attention. (Eventually, as he leaves, she ‘inadvertently’ trips him, which works just fine.)

Similarly, when Fonda eventually proposes to Stanwyck, the scene’s undercut in two ways; the script has already told us how and where this is going to happen (all part of Stanwyck’s plan), and Fonda’s horse, always in shot, keeps interrupting his speech.

Secondly, he’s adept at building the comic moment. On the boat, Fonda, Stanwyck, and her father are playing poker (this is their livelihood, but Stanwyck has fallen for Fonda and is determined to make sure her father doesn’t clean him out.) Fonda’s $2,000 down, and Stanwyck decides to help him out a bit, by dealing him a decent hand. As the scene unfolds, we see the visual equivalent of ‘see you and raise’, as the card-sharp father improves his hand by a variety of (illegal) means, and Stanwyck undercuts him each time.

And finally, Sturges is a master of ambiguity. We can’t be sure (spoiler alert) until the very last scene that Stanwyck is in love with Fonda rather than simply unfolding the longest of ‘long cons‘, turning down a lucrative legal settlement en route. For the Hays Code censors, who did not permit films to show criminals profiting from their crimes, it must have made for an anxious ninety minutes viewing.

Magic on 34th Street

January 3, 2011

Seasonally, I picked up a copy of Miracle on 34th Street in a pile of second-hand DVDs just before Christmas – the 1947 original with Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, not the 1994 version in which Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle, or Santa. It has a charm that is lacking in the remake, or come to that in the Santa-on-the-Shopping-Channel version that I stumbled across recently on daytime TV, with Whoopi Goldberg as the doubting sales exec played by O’Hara in 1947.

Looking at the 1947 film from 2010, it’s interesting to see that even then – a decade before the post-war consumer boom really started to accelerate – part of of the rationale for the story was that Christmas had become over-commercialised. But in its original incarnation, Miracle on 34th Street is about the rise of the rational and the decline of magic: Weber versus wizardry, as it were. It is presented as quite reasonable that Doris Walker (O’Hara) should want her daughter (the young Natalie Wood) to grow up without believing in things which are untrue.

Susan, the six-year old, didn’t need to be brattish to move the plot along, and Maureen O’Hara doesn’t need the leaden backstory visited on Whoopi Goldberg to explain why she holds her views. (Come to that, not a line of script is given to explaining why she is a single parent; we could guess, but we don’t need to, and the plot doesn’t need us to either).

No matter how reasonable rationality is, it gets corrupted in the wrong hands. Here, these hands are given to the store’s psychologist, Granville Sawyer. Seven years after Freud’s death, forty years after the work which made his name, Sawyer, unqualified, interprets the pleasure that a young employee gets from playing Santa at his local YMCA as being a psychiatric disorder, rooted (inevitably) in his childhood. When confronted by Kris Kringle, Sawyer uses a mixture of his positional authority and some deception to despatch him to New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

The courtroom scene that follows is a masterpiece, treading a fine line between the processes of the court, the stories we tell ourselves, popular sentiment, and self interest. The judge, nearing re-election, is desperate not to rule that Santa doesn’t exist; the Macy’s store boss is about to say – rationally – that Santa isn’t real, before seeing in his mind’s eye – equally rationally – his Xmas sales slump.

Eventually (spoiler alert) the lawyer who’s believed in Santa all along – a lawyer is the good guy – gets the proof the court needs: a ‘competent authority’ which believes that Kris Kringle is Father Christmas. The moment that makes this possible is a flash of the blue-collar in the sorting office, rarely seen in films. As it happens, Miracle on 34th Street is unusually deft and knowing all the way through about the way that organisations work. The rational world, it turns out, needs a bit of magic to get along.

Goodbye Lenin

October 30, 2010

I watched Goodbye Lenin on DVD recently – the German comedy, or perhaps satire, on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East German regime. In Germany it outgrossed Harry Potter when it was released in 2003.

The plot in outline, and without spoiling: Christiane Kerner has been a devoted supporter of the East German state since her husband defected to the West 15 years earlier. She collapses into a coma shortly before the Wall comes down. When she comes around, a few months later, her son Alex decides that the shock of learning about reunification would kill her. So he enrols his sister, girlfriend, workmate and neighbours in an elaborate pretence so that his mother doesn’t find out.

Of course, she has her suspicions, for example when a giant Coca-Cola banner is unfurled on the building opposite her apartment. But these are kept in check through an endless supply of fake news bulletins, inventively generated by Alex’s ‘Westie’ video technician workmate Denis.

One of the striking things about the film is the way in which it allows the complaints about the unification process – the dismissals, the loss of savings, the loss of favourite foods – to surface through the story.

The criticism that’s been made of it is that it has nothing to say about the East German Securitate, the Stasi, and its huge apparatus of surveillance and coercion. It’s true that Goodbye Lenin isn’t The Lives of Others. But it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes film can work more subtly, and the theme of deception, of things which are known but concealed, is embedded all the way through the story.

“When does it stop?”, asks Alex’s girlfriend, Lara, the film’s ‘centre of good’. It doesn’t, and as the deception continues, we discover the other deceptions which followed the father’s defection to the West, the stories which families keep from one another. The political, it turns out, is personal.

Melbury Road

October 29, 2010

I had to walk down Melbury Road in Kensington today, which always puts a spring in my step, since the great film director Michael Powell lived there for some years, at number 8. The garden of the house, and some interiors, were used for the “home video” sequences in Powell’s late (1960) low-budget horror film Peeping Tom; number 5, now redeveloped, stood in for the house of the film’s killer, Mark Lewis. Peeping Tom, of course, was written by Leo Marks, the former SoE cryptographer, and was reviled on release; it got some of the most hostile reviews seen in British cinema history. It’s now regarded as a revolutionary exploration of the relationship between director, camera, and audience, of the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic gaze. It is both significant and shocking. It was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t shown on television until 1997, and Powell never worked in the UK again.

The photo is from She Blogged By Night: lots of intriguing photographs of film locations, and is used with thanks.

 

Groundhog Day, again

September 26, 2010

I recently watched Groundhog Day again – and before we go any further, please, just insert your own joke here. In case, somehow, you missed it, and my joke has just sailed past you, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an ambitious and obnoxious Pittsburgh TV weatherman doomed to replay the same day over and over again, in the small town of Punxsutawney. (Punxsutawney, by the way, is a real place which really is famous for its Groundhog Day ceremony.) The film was made in 1993, and was a commercial and critical success. The title has entered the language.

Watching it again, three thoughts come to mind.

  • The first is that the film is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast – but in this version the Beast (Murray) is trapped in time until he discovers his humanity. Only after he has done this can he win the love of the beauty.
  • The second is the large nod in the direction of Frank Capra and the small town America of It’s A Wonderful Life, Just as George Bailey can’t escape from Bedford Falls, so Phil Connorscan’t escape from Punxsutawney. And – spoiler alert – when he is free to leave he decides he wants to stay there forever. There’s even snow.
  • Because of the film’s structure (it’s set almost entirely in an endless sequence of February 2nds) it is, obviously, able to play games with narrative. But Connors’ journey appears to follow Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, as he moves through disbelief to anger, to depression and acceptance.

It’s said that the director, Harold Ramis, wanted more comedy while Bill Murray wanted more philosophy. The tension probably explains the film’s enduring quality. And it’s hard, in hindsight, to watch Groundhog Day and not to think of a later film starring Murray, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, about a man coming to terms with himself while trapped in a strange location.

The picture comes from an interesting retrospective article about Groundhog Day in The Film Journal, which describes the film as “one of the cinema’s greatest exercises in repetition”

Spotting the ball

July 21, 2010

What’s the difference between English football, and the end of Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting? Not a lot it seems. Big spoiler alert, but if you’ve seen Trainspotting you’ll remember that at the end the mostly druggie pals find themselves with a bag with £16,000 in it and try to work out how to steal it from each other.

Here’s Wikipedia’s account:

As Begbie and Sick Boy leave to order another round of drinks, Renton suggests to Spud that they both steal the money. After a moment of hesitation, Sick Boy returns and notes that the two friends have not already run off with the money. Sick Boy then asks why they haven’t, indicating that he would have. … Begbie savagely attacks another customer over a spilled beer. As his friends try to stop this senseless attack, Begbie slices Spud’s hand open with a knife. This incident convinces Renton to go through with the plan of stealing the whole £16,000 from his friends.

And here’s Owen Gibson, in The Guardian, explaining why the Football Association and the Premiership haven’t been able to agree on a winter break for football, despite a general consensus that it is a good idea:

The FA would seek assurances that clubs would not arrange potentially lucrative overseas tours during the break and that players would be available for an England squad get-together. … Premier League clubs, meanwhile, would want binding assurances that the FA would not seek to fill the gap with a lucrative Wembley friendly.

In Trainspotting, of course, Renton, who’s cleaned his act up, gets most of the money, and gives some of it to Spud. Begbie gets arrested. It’s as happy an ending as could be contrived for such a bunch of characters. In the footballing sequel, none of the characters are as likeable.

The poster, designed by Paddy Dunne, is for Devious Theatre’s 2008 stage production of Trainspotting.

Moments of redemption

June 2, 2010

Film is mostly a narrative medium, and quite a manipulative one. And what that means is that it tells redemption stories better than any other medium. By ‘redemption’ stories, I mean those stories where private virtue is – at the last – made public or visible. The classic redemption story, of course, is It’s A Wonderful Life; I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, and still find the tears welling up as (spoiler alert!) George Bailey runs home through to the snow to find that the people of Bedford Falls have paid off the deficit of the Savings & Loan, as George’s younger brother Harry – who’s flown through a blizzard to be there – toasts “the richest man in Bedford Falls”.

I found another fine example this week in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (link opens review) about life under the gaze of Stasi, the East German security police. The film won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2007, and although this isn’t always an indicator of quality, in this case it was well-deserved. The Lives of Others captures well the grim combination of intimidation, thoroughness, graft and complicity which enabled Stasi to maintain its control on East German life.

I’m not going to give away too much (spoiler non-alert), but for reasons of professional propriety a well-regarded agent – Wiesler – chooses not to do his job monitoring a well known writer as diligently as his superiors would like, eventually obstructing the investigation, and wrecks his career as a result. When the files are opened, after the Wall falls, the writer discovers the full story, and finds a way to acknowledge his debt. And there go the tears again.

The film hinges on Wiesler’s realisation that his surveillance job on the writer has been authorised only to put the writer in jail so that a member of the East German politburo can pursue an affair with his girlfriend, and the scene where he realises this is wonderfully well-written. Of course, it doesn’t all end well. As John Le Carré once said, love is whatever you can still betray. But sometimes we can also redeem our debts: even if it takes years.

Alone, again

May 13, 2010

Fulham’s close-run defeat against Atletico Madrid in the final of the grandly named ‘Europa Cup’ last night reminded me, as it would, of the late playwright Dennis Potter, who is almost as strongly identified with Hammersmith and Fulham as he is with his native Forest of Dean.

At the end of the original UK television version of Pennies From Heaven, of course, Arthur Parker commits suicide (or not) by throwing himself from Hammersmith Bridge.

In The Singing Detective, the detective (Michael Gambon) observes – and this is from memory at the moment – that people go to football matches ‘to be together’. ‘Except for Fulham’ he adds, of a team which would have been in the second or third tier of the English League at the time. ‘You go to Fulham to be alone’.

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