Archive for the 'film' Category

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

13 July 2016


One of Aircraft Is Missing is not one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films—it’s better thought of as a sighting shot. It is the first film made under the Archers’ banner. But watching it again when it popped up on television, there are already resonances with later work. If there is a theme in The Archers’ films, it is of cultures trying to understand each other—one thinks immediately of Colonel Blimp, but also of the laird teaching “highland economics” in I Know Where I’m Going or the great Anglo-American set piece in A Matter of Life and Death. Or even the failure of the Himalayan convent and the nuns’ departure from India in Black Narcissus.

This might also be a metaphor for the partnership between Powell and Pressburger itself: the patrician Englishman and the polyglot emigré.

So, specifically, my interest in One of Our Aircraft is in the scene about 45 minutes in where the airmen from the bomber crew are waiting in the front room while the Dutch villagers debate what is to be done with them in the dining room next door. The airmen are a social melange, largely for dramatic purposes, though perhaps for propaganda purposes too. They are indignant that the Dutch do not take them at their word, and they start to worry that they might be turned over to the Germans (although, as one of them observes, no-one has left the house.)


Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) explains they’re going to church.

Of course, the villagers are right to be careful, for they are taking all the risks. If the airmen are caught, they will be dispatched to a prisoner of war camp; if the villagers are caught helping them, they are likely to be deported to a forced labour camp, or shot. Actually, we’re reminded of the risks they’re taking even in a pre-credit sequence.

Eventually, the airmen offer a cutting torn from yesterday’s Times (what else) as proof of identity. As the Dutch schoolteacher (played by Pamela Brown, who appeared in several Archers’ films) takes it back into the room where the villagers are debating, she says:

ELS: I thought airmen had better eyesight than that.

Another look around the room identifies the codes of those Dutch opposed to the Germans: orange blossom above the lintel, and a concealed portrait of the exiled Queen.

Pressburger’s cultural fencing continues as the Dutch formulate the escape plan, which involves cycling in disguise to the local church, which is 6 miles closer to the coast, and for which they already have the necessary papers. Of course, it is a Catholic church and two of the crew are “chapel.”

ELS: But it’s our only plan.

EARNSHAW: If this gets back to Halifax, I’ll never hear the last of it.

ELS: We will dress you in Dutch clothes. Nobody will know.

EARNSHAW: You don’t know chapel folk.

The sequence where they disguise the airmen for the journey is also a wonderful piece of film-making: the actor in the aircrew is put into drag, in a shot that tilts rapidly down the RAF uniform, dissolves from his boots through to the clogs now on his feet, and then tilts back up just as quickly to take in the new outfit, along with some crisp luvvie banter.


Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) gets into his disguise.

In his biography of Pressburger, Kevin Macdonald observes that the screenwriter was “immune to cliché.” A quotidian phrase from the news bulletins (“one of our aircraft is missing”) that probably floated past native English speakers, stuck with the Hungarian Pressburger, now working in his fourth language. The choice of Stuttgart as the target of the bombing raid was deliberate:

The references to the girls in Stuttgart and the song ‘I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madam’ (“The composer was a Jew, I believe”) certainly have a personal resonance… [H]e had so disliked the town as a student—it was the place where he had first experienced anti-Semitism.

It is also one of the few Archers’ war stories in which we don’t see a “sympathetic German.” In fact, we barely see the enemy: “We only see their shadows,” writes Macdonald, “or hear their clipped voices shouting orders, the demonic screeching of their vehicles shattering the peace of the countryside, and the clicking of marching boots.” Macdonald exaggerates, but only slightly.

The film is also formally interesting because it has no score. The soundtrack, from the drone of the plane’s engine in the first sequences, to the noise of the Dutch villagers and their British escapees cycling to church, to the canal water lapping the boat and the crowd at the football match, is all “natural” sound. Shades of the 1930s documentary movement. And perhaps because of this influence, the Germans speak German, the Dutch characters speak Dutch (except to the aircrew), and the English mostly speak English. Our confusion as to what is happening matches that of the aircrew; their confusion is often part of the story.

Within this “natural” soundscape there are a couple of moments when the Dutch national anthem plays an important part in the plot. The first time, more low key, in the church, when the organist uses it to distract a German soldier; the second (no spoliers, but more critical to the narrative, and a clever plot device) when some German soldiers are tricked into playing it on their mess gramophone. One of Aircraft is almost an exact contemporary of Casablanca with its famous rendition of “La Marseillaise”; both films were likely borrowing from, or paying homage to, the singing of the French anthem in La Grande Illusion.

Pressburger’s time working for UFA in Berlin weaves its way into the script in his play on cultural stereotypes. Jo de Vries, the woman who engineers the crew’s final escape is thought by the Germans to hate the British because her husband was, apparently, killed in a British air-raid on Haarlem.

I never heard that we bombed Haarlem.

ELS: The Germans want us to believe it, so Jo de Vries obliges them. They like her, because they believe she hates the British. That is what she wants, so everyone is happy.

In fact, her husband is broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda from London.

As both Macdonald and the film critic Ian Christie observe, the film is the inverse of The 49th Parallel, in which a German U-boat crew has to abandon their craft a long way from home. The German crew, in a hostile environment and a hostile society, falls apart, with one member shot for desertion when he tries to join a German-speaking religious community they encounter in northern Canada.

The British crew in One of Our Aircraft, helped by a sympathetic population who have learned to play on German sensibilities, hangs together and escapes. But the two films have this in common: the heroes, in both films, are the people of the country; Canadians in one, Dutch in the other.


Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) helps the aircrew reach a boat to escape

Looking for Ida

22 June 2015


The first dialogue in Ida, Pavel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film, comes about two-and-a-half minutes in, after a series of shots that establish the life of the convent where Ida is a novitiate in 1960s Poland. It runs like this:

MOTHER SUPERIOR: Her name is Wanda Gruz. She is your aunt. We wrote to her many times asking her to take you. But she never did.
IDA: Maybe she never got the letters?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: She did. Because finally she replied that she couldn’t come. You should meet her before you take your vows. She is your only living relative.
IDA: Do I have to, Mother?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: Yes, Anna. You will go and see her and stay there for as long as necessary.

And in this brief exchange we know almost as much as we need to about the dynamics of the plot. Ida is going on a journey, she doesn’t want to, but if she doesn’t do it she won’t be able to become a nun. And we also know that time doesn’t matter. So this isn’t going to be one of those stories where the plot is driven by a deadline.

Watching the film reminded me of a paradox I learnt in my short and unsuccessful career in the film business: you’re more likely to produce a film with global appeal by writing something that visits a small and intensely local world.

This was 25 years ago, and at the time the favoured example was Cinema Paradiso, which had become an international smash. But it doesn’t just apply to period films. The Bill Forsyth film, Gregory’s Girl, also fits this bill, set in the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, made largely with unknown actors, and released in the United States with subtitles because of alleged thickness of the Scottish accents. You can probably think of your own examples.

For Pawlikowski, the subject matter of Ida is perhaps an unusual choice. Despite his name, he has spent most of his film career working in Britain, having come to the country in his teens. He is as British as he is Polish,  although he returned to live in Warsaw recently following the death of his wife.

And this may be one of those films that could only be made by a culturally-connected outsider, who sees the place through fresh eyes, with new questions. And perhaps also the Poland in Ida is a country remembered: remembered as an idea, or remembered as an affect, from his childhood.

No spoilers, I hope, but the film’s impact also comes through its use of genre. It has the form of a road movie, as Ida and her aunt drive deep into rural Poland, and deep into the family’s past, to find the secret of how Ida came to be orphaned.  But in using genre it also plays against it.

The car, in ‘60s Poland, is a status symbol (the aunt is someone in the Party) and not many people have them, but it is also pretty clapped out.

Most road movies have at their heart a dream of freedom, albeit a dream that is often dashed. But watching Ida one knows from the start of the film that this is a journey back into a closed and claustrophobic world, a world which the aunt has kept at bay for twenty-plus years with alcohol.

ida_still_12But it’s not completely closed. The Poland of Ida is on the edge between an old Poland, still dominated by wartime secrets and wartime legacies, and a new one, seen best in the milieu of the jazz sub-plot, which represents a side to the Eastern Bloc countries that is rarely seen.

Pawlikowski’s portrait of it is every bit as affectionate as Josef Skvorecky’s neglected Czech novellas in The Bass Saxophone, along with his introductory essay. With the benefit of hindsight we also know that the Catholic church, which seemed to be part of the old Poland, turned out to be crucial in shaping the new one as well.

Anyway, I promised no spoilers, so I hope this is elliptical enough. It turns out that the freedoms that might be open to Ida are just another kind of prison. Having reluctantly gone exploring at the instruction of the Mother Superior, at the end she knows the place for the first time.

The stills are courtesy of the film-makers: there is a wonderful gallery here.




Hollywood on Hollywood

25 May 2014

Of course, if you want to win an Oscar, making a film about film-making is a pretty good way to do it. The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 are only the latest in a line going back to A Star Is Born in 1937. Argo, no spoilers, is a film about the CIA pretending to make a film, and therefore gets all the upside of telling jokes about Hollywood while also having Hollywood as one of the good guys. And a bit more upside, since the story is mostly true.

John Goodman plays John Chambers, the make-up specialist who is enrolled in the plan to set up a fake movie to rescue six American Embassy staff who are in hiding in Tehran out of the country after the Embassy was seized by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979.

When the CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) goes to LA to meet Chambers, there’s some inevitable smart, knowing, writing:

Tony Mendez: I need you to help me make a fake movie.
John Chambers: Well, you came to the right place.
Tony Mendez: I wanna set up a production company and build a cover around making a movie.
John Chambers: That we’re not gonna make?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: So you wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: Without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

And just a bit later, it gets better, almost all because of the way that Goodman delivers the lines.

John Chambers: Look, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it. The Kominiacs are fruit loops but they got cousins who sell prayer rugs and 8-tracks on Le Brea. You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist. You need a script, you need a producer.
Tony Mendez: Make me a producer.
John Chambers: No, you’re an associate producer at best. If you’re gonna do a $20 million dollars ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, you need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. [BEAT]

Somebody respectable, [BEAT]

with credits, [BEAT]

who you can trust with classified information, [BEAT]

who will produce a fake movie, [BEAT]

for free.

And CUT to Alan Arkin.

In other words: set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ payoff. And almost all of it done through the timing.

Thanks to Movie Quotes and More for the extracts.

The Lady Vanishes

29 March 2014

LadyVanishesStillAThe Lady Vanishes, made in 1938, is my favourite of Hitchcock’s pre-war English films. As few spoilers as possible, but it’s about a train journey from a fictional central European country back to England – a journey on which, as the title promises, a lady vanishes.

At its heart the film has the form of a thriller (Will they find the lady? Why has she vanished? Why are these people lying?), and the story is driven along by one of Hitchcock’s favourite devices, the couple who take an instant dislike to each other. (It made stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, seen in the publicity still above with the sinister Paul Lukaz). Along the way we get some fine Hitchcock set-pieces, notably the fight in the guard’s van, stuffed full of magician’s props, and of course (it is set on a train) the climb between the carriages along the outside of the train.

But this is wrapped around with a set of stories that capture the good and bad of inter-war England (yes, I do mean England). The good? The cricket obsessed Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, desperate to make their connection at Basel that will get them to England in time for the last day of the Test match who come good when the chips are down. The bad? The ambitious lawyer who’s taken his mistress on holiday, but (it becomes clear) has no intention of leaving his wife. And also the plucky: the English governess who is not quite what she seems to be. A lot of this is down to the writers, Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, who had completed the script for another director before Hitchcock joined the project. Their work often had a sharp eye for Britain and its culture.

There’s some fine writing here, and some fine construction; the sequence on the train where several people swear that they haven’t seen the vanished Miss Froy for reasons that are to do with their own small worlds, rather than malice or conspiracy, is a wonderful thing.

But there’s a lot more: we get a film that both prefigures the imminent outbreak of war and, in its way, is an elegy for the England that will be swept away by it. (The peerless Philip French called it “a faultlessly cast mirror held up to the nation in the year of Munich.”) The hotel where the action starts is both a metaphor for pre-war Europe, with guests from dozens of countries crammed in by an avalanche, and an anticipation of the privations of war (Radford and Wayne have to share a maid’s room, and take so long dressing for dinner that the restaurant has run out of food).

And the shootout on the train (spoilers here) is almost like Dunkirk: outgunned by the military surrounding them, they are down to their last bullet, and on the verge of having to give up, when they manage to make an unlikely escape.

But, before the escape, one of them decides the position is hopeless and chooses to surrender:

Just because I’ve the sense to try to avoid being murdered, I’m accused of being a pacifist. Alright. I’d rather be callef a rat than die like one. … If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.

Despite his white flag, he ends up getting shot – in cold blood – for his pains. Before Munich, before the annexation of Czechosolvakia, Hitchcock – and Launder and Gilliat – knew what was coming.


You can watch the film at the Internet Archive, and come to that, all over youtube. The image at the top of the post is from Joe Landry’s excellent Vintage Hitchcock site, and is used with thanks.



Between two worlds

27 August 2013

I got round to watching Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film, on a TV re-run recently. It tells the story of a man sent back in time to work out who planted a bomb on a commuter train – the same eight minutes, almost, over and over, until he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

Shades immediately of Groundhog Day, although Bill Murray’s weatherman had all the time in the world to get himself straightened out – enough time to learn how to play the piano, master ice skating, and to stop being a curmudgeon.

But the film that Source Code reminded me of at least as strongly is the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death [AMOLAD]. And I know, by the way, that I’m not the first person to notice this.

Some of the references are clearly there, even without spoiling the plot of Source Code.

The epigraph at the start of AMOLAD is,

“This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and the other which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life & imagination have been violently shaped by war”.

Source Code tells the story of an airman (a helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens) who is similarly caught between two worlds, one real, one a simulation that might, indeed, exist only in his mind.

There’s also a visual and narrative match, between Goodwin, the operator in Source Code who is the link between Stevens and his two worlds, and June, the wireless operator in AMOLAD, who links the two worlds straddled by its bomber pilot, Peter Carter, after bailing from his burning plane. There are some script echoes as well.

The films share a pervasive sense of rules being broken, of the boundaries between the two worlds being negotiated, although in A Matter of Life and Death this is a far more formal negotiation, through the great set-piece of the courtroom.

It would be a spoiler for both films to extend the comparison to their endings. Does Stevens cheat death? Does Squadron Leader Carter? In both films, in their different ways, the women are the key. But go watch the films. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Bryan, William, and Nanette

11 May 2013

Bryan Forbes, the film director, has died – a British director who managed to have a fairly successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He directed interesting British films such as Whistle Down The Wind, but for me The Stepford Wives is the one that has stuck in the fabric of the culture.

If you haven’t seen it (I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a spoiler) it is set in a small town in Connecticut in which the men become disatisfied with their wives and set out to turn them into clones of what the “good wife” should be. It was made in 1975 and you don’t exactly need critical theory to locate it as a story sparked by the feminist wave of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Anyway, the screenplay was written by William Goldman, from the book by Ira Levin, and it’s one of the films Goldman writes about in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade.

In fact he opens the chapter with an epigraph, a couple of lines of dialogue between him and Forbes:

FORBES: I think Nanette might be rather good for the part of Carol, don’t you?

GOLDMAN: She’s a wonderful actress; I think she’d be fine.

“Nanette” was Nanette Newman, Forbes’ wife, then in her early ’40s. A good actress, as Goldman describes her, “but not a sex-bomb”. And casting her has a big consequence for the film. In Levin’s story, as well as being willing and supportive providers, the women are male sex fantasies as well, all shorts, thighs and cleavage. That wasn’t Nanette Newman, however:

“By having Nanette Newman in the part, the whole look of the film had to alter. Forget the tennis costumes. Forget the parade of Bunnies walking through the A&P in shorts on their perfect tanned legs. She can’t wear the clothes.”

And so the Stepford Wives in the film end up in long pastel dresses. Goldman, looking back at the film, clearly thinks this is a problem.

But you never know how things will turn out. That other version of Stepford Wives, without Nanette Newman, would be unwatchable now, the sexism right there “on the nose” rather than embedded in the psyche, a period piece that screamed the mid-70s at us. As it is, long dresses and big broad-brimmed hats and all, it still stands up as a story – and one worth re-making 30 years later – about men who’re so threatened by intelligent, independent women that they’ll …. Now, that would be a spoiler.

The secret of Groundhog Day

9 February 2013


It turns out that Groundhog Day is twenty years old this month (going by its US release) and The Guardian has an engaging article by Ryan Gilbey, who has just written one of those natty BFI guides to the film. I’m a fan (how can you not be) and I’ve written about Groundhog Day before, but Gilbey has an interesting take on why it has become a classic – and gone into the language.

1. The writer ruthlessly expunged all references to the 1990s.

[Scriptwriter Danny] Rubin urged [Director Harold] Ramis, with whom he shares a writing credit, to expunge any nods to the 1990s: “You’ve gotta take all this out,” he said, “because this movie is really going to go on for years and years.” Compare this with Judd Apatow’s films, which are peppered with gags about early-21st century celebrity culture. … our descendants in 2063 will have no trouble understanding Groundhog Day when they download it on to their frontal lobes.

2. The film refuses to explain how TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) got trapped in Groudhog Day:

There is no magical fairground machine (Big), no mantra (Shallow Hal), no curse (What Women Want). … Rubin was urged to write a Gypsy-curse scene explaining the loop, which Ramis wisely never shot. The mystery has only fortified the film’s magic.

3. Or any explanation of how long he is there:

It could be 10 years or a thousand, however long it takes him to memorise the personal histories of Punxsutawney’s townsfolk, and to become, among other things, a pianist, an ice-sculptor and a doctor (“It’s kind of an honorary title,” he shrugs).

4. The film has a classic redemptive story structure. I’ve written about redemption stories here before, and the article suggests that Groundhog Day borrows here from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s more. It’s just plain clever in the way it disregards many of the Hollywood conventions. Terry Jones enthuses, for example, about the way it subverts structure.

“Normally when you’re writing a screenplay you try to avoid repetition. And that’s the whole thing here, it’s built on repetition. That’s so bold. The way they get through it is to short-circuit everything, so just when you think something is going to happen that you’ve seen before, the film gets to it before you and changes or abbreviates it in some way.

And the artist Gillian Wearing compares Groundhog Day to films such as L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad. She tells Gilbey:

All those films reinvent structure and create a new conceptual framework that makes you understand them. They share an almost surrealistic vision, and they pose philosophical questions.

In short, Groundhog Day succeeds because it is, says Gilbey, that rare creature: “an art film in mainstream clothing.”

The picture at the top of this post is from What The Movie, and is used with thanks.

Heading out to wonderful

24 March 2012

One of my unexpected pleasures this week was was catching up with Still Bill, a documentary about the singer Bill Withers which was released in 2009 shown on BBC4 a few weeks ago. When I first heard Withers’ songs, I labelled him as a bit of an MOR cocktail singer (a bit like Johnny Mathis, say) and it took a friend and colleague who knew his black music, Paul McCrea, to put me right on that. All the same, I had no great expectations of the documentary, beyond a mild surprise that it ran to 75 minutes, and when I started watching it I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. (If you’re still not sure who I’m talking about, you’ll know his songs – ‘Lean On Me‘, ‘Use Me‘, ‘Grandma’s Hands‘ (covered by Gil Scott-Heron), ‘Lovely Day‘, ‘Just The Two Of Us‘, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine‘.)

It turns out that he is still alive – he turned 70 while the film was being made – and he last recorded in 1985, because he decided he had had enough enough of the music business and wanted to be a father to his young family.

The picture the film painted of Withers, and the reason it was so memorable that I ended up watching it twice (I had’t been very attentive the first time), was of a man who was both grounded and self-reflective, two qualities that obviously reinforce each other. He didn’t start in the music business until he was 32, after serving in the Navy and working in California fitting toilets into 747s, and although this late success could have made him desperate for success, it seemed instead to have given him the confidence to be his own person, respectful of the people he had worked with before he was famous. He’s been married to his wife, Marcia, for 35 years.

The film takes him back to Slap Fork, West Virginia, where he grew up in a coal camp (‘Grandma’s Hands’ is autobiographical), and follows him to a tribute concert to raise money for an American foundation which supports stammerers – a condition Withers suffered from as a child. He was visibly affected when he went to meet some of the kids at the foundation afterwards, as meeting them clearly dragged him back into a childhood that wasn’t entirely happy. But it’s built about a long interview, in which he tells his story. He clearly has little time for the music industry (early on in the film he recounts scathingly an A&R man coming up with the idea that he should cover ‘In The Ghetto’), and talks about the way in which the music industry thinks in formulas which he was lucky to escape precisely because he was a late starter.

But what comes through is a deep sense of humanity and respect for people who haven’t had his good fortune. Half way through, he talks about some advice he gives to his (now adult) kids:

‘One of the things I also tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through Alright, and when you get to Alright, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re going to go.’

Singin’ and deceivin’

17 December 2011

Singin’ in the Rain may be the best musical ever made – it’s certainly a candidate, and everyone who sees it remembers the (spoiler alert) big reveal in the final scene. Gene Kelly’s big dance sequence with Cyd Charisse – by this stage something of a hallmark of the MGM musical – and is probably better than its equivalent number in An American in Paris – and there are memorable moments throughout, mostly associated with the main supporting actors, Jean Hagen as the monstrous Lena Lamont and Donald O’Connor playing Kelly’s sidekick Cosmo Brown.

I’ve seen the film a few times, and watched it again a few nights ago after taping a re-run on my PVR. And realised two things. The first, to my surprise, was that I’d forgottn the entire opening sequence, with Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lamont turning up for the first night of their latest movie – ‘film’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it – and Lockwood reprising, on the red carpet, the official version of his life story, in the days when the studios’ PR machines were a beast to be feared and admired.

And that was the second realisation: that the sequence – in which the story that Lockwood tells is undercut by the much seedier story we’re seeing onscreen – sets up the theme of Singin’ in the Rain. I hadn’t realised it before, and it seems obvious when you write it down, but Singin’ in the Rain, set in the days of the transition from silent to talking pictures, is a film about deception, or more exactly, deception revealed.

Film is an inherently deceptive medium of course, and this story weaves deception throughout after the opening sequence. To quickly run through the others, Kathy Selden (played by Debbie Reynolds, who the studio were trying to build into a star) pretends to Lockwood, as he falls into her car, that she knows nothing of Hollywood and doesn’t read the fan magazines. As the studio tries to salvage The Duelling Cavalier, working around Lena’s Brooklyn twang by having Kathy re-record, secretly, Lena’s lines, Lena bursts in on the recording session, having been tipped off by another actress: (‘Lena:  “Zelda told me everything.”  Don:  “Thanks, Zelda. You’re a real pal.”‘)

And then of course, the most famous revelation of them (massive spoiler alert) as the studo boss ‘RF’, together with Lockwood and Cosmo  Brown pull back the curtain to reveal that Kathy is Lena’s singing voice, creating a new star as they destroy an old one.

in his essential monograph on the film, Peter Wollen argues that this sequence allows the lies to end; the voice of Kathy is reunited with herr body, while Lockwood can stop pretending, for the benefit of the studio’s PR, that he is in love with Lena, and be united with Kathy.

In telling this film story, though, Wollen lets us in on Singin’ in the Rain‘s last great deception. Debbie Reynolds, for all her star potential, was neither a great dancer, nor a great singer. She mastered her dance numbers through hard work and application, but the version of the song heard at the film’s climax is actually sung (and how good is this?) by Jean Hagen, the actress who played Lena Lamont.

Reynolds spells it out in her autobiography: ‘Jean’s real voice, however, was lovely, and she dubbed herself’. And as Wollen observes, ‘what we see and hear is the unveiling of a mystery that subverts its own appearance of authenticity’.


Eisenstein and Eisenstein

2 August 2011

Chunks of Riga’s new town were built quickly at the height of the gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the result is a dense concentration of art nouveau architecture. Many of the most flamboyant buildings were built by Mikhail Eisenstein, the Russian architect who graduated from St. Petersburg. At the time Riga was part of Tsarist Russia. The detail is the devil, and the façades of his buildings are full of details, each floor of each house decorated differently.

More unusually, there are more than half a dozen of his buildings in the space of about 500 metres, most of them in one street, Alberta Iela, where he designed five buildings in a row.

He was also the father of the great Soviet film director Sergei, who, it’s said, hated his father’s work. “My father must have had nightmares putting all that detail into his buidings”, he is reputed to have said.

One hardly has to be a Freudian analyst to see signs of the son’s rebellion: instead of deeply decorated buildings for a rich clientele, the son preached the simplicity of the cut and threw himself into the Soviet revolution.

The photographs on this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.