Archive for the 'moments' Category

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

easyliving

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

An-american-in-Paris-poster

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

220px-Theawfultruth1937

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

Intolerable_cruelty

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.’

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.

Moment#3: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

2 May 2017


Moment #3 Barefoot Contessa is a movie about movies. It was written and directed by Joseph Manciewicz, who had a long and successful Hollywood career, and stars Humphrey Bogart as a writer-director working for a business magnate who has decided to go into moves, and Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas, a Spanish dancer who becomes the “face” of those movies. The film is told in flashback from her funeral, although we don’t know how or why she dies until the end of the film.

There are some curiosities; the flashback sequences are narrated consecutively by Bogart, by the magnate’s PR flack Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), by Gardner’s husband, and finally by Bogart himself. Some scenes replay from the different perspectives of these protagonists. As in Casablanca and Gilda, we don’t see the female star until quite a long way in (about 12 minutes), although the second scene of the film watches the audience as she dances unseen on camera. And, as in Gilda, we hear plenty about her before she appears. The film is also interesting because Bogart doesn’t play the romantic lead. His relationship with Maria Vargas is strictly platonic, more a protector and a confidante.

Along the way, Mankiewicz gives us a unsympathetic picture of the rich at play, especially in the voice-overs, and the relationship between wealth and poverty, though for my money the Cinderella metaphor was laid on with a trowel. I also hoped that the argument about the meaning of the Faust story, which plays out in the long early scene in a Madrid nightclub, might be more woven into the screenplay, but I was disappointed.

At the start of the film, magnate, PR guy and Bogart have gone to a Madrid club to watch Maria dance. They’ve missed her, and eventually manage to persuade her to come to their table to talk to them. It doesn’t go well, Maria leaves, and Bogart is despatched to find her. It’s worth noting how poor Spain was in 1954, still making a slow recovery from the Civil War.
The moment: the scene where Bogart arrives at Maria Vargas’ house (a tenement flat) to ask her to come to Rome for a screen test. Bogart doesn’t go in, and we watch the scene in one continuous shot through the door looking into a cramped front room; her mother denying that she’s here at all, her brother saying she is, her father sitting in the corner of the room, the radio blaring, Maria herself arriving in the room, and a furious argument breaking out between the four of them, mostly in Spanish with subtitles.

MOTHER (in Spanish, to BROTHER): What does he want with Maria? (Beat) Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER: Maria is going to America, to be a star.

MOTHER: I won’t let her. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all my life, Now it’s her turn. Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER (to BOGART, in English): You don’t understand my nother. Is liar.

MOTHER (to MIGUEL, in Spanish): I won’t tell you again!

BROTHER (to MOTHER, in Spanish): Since she was a child, you made her dance for men and kept the money. Now she’ll keep it for herself.

BOGART (in English): Why don’t you fight this out later, I haven’t got much time… Every minute counts.

MOTHER (walking across the room to the husband, in Spanish): You deaf? I told you to turn down the radio. (And she turns it off)

Maria appears from the back room.

MARIA (still in Spanish): He can play the radio as loud as he wants. (And she turns it on again).

MOTHER: You won’t go to America.

MARIA: I’ll go where I please.

And she sashays across the room towards the door and towards Bogart, touching her brother’s scheek affectionately as she passes him and closing the door behing her.

MARIA (in English): I think we can talk better outside.

The door immediately reopens, and he mother appears in the doorway:

MOTHER (in Spanish): Over my dead body!

MARIA (in Spanish): One more word, and I’ll go even if I don’t want to. Whether you live or die.

It’s a fabulous scene, and the blaring Spanish music on the radio makes it seem even more intense, as does the single two minute take. I suspect the use of subtitles was unusual in a 1954 big budget film, but the scene, and the use of Spanish, manages to convey in an instant the cultural gap, the claustrophobia of her family, the poverty that she’s escaping from, and also a milieu that in different ways she returns to throughout the rest of the film, most notably in the sequence where her husband-to-be, an Italian count, sees her for the first time.

One other curiosity. Bogart doesn’t trust the business magnate he’s working for, so he surrepitiously invites three other big-noise producers to watch the screening of Maria’s first screen test. Their names:ack, Mr Brown, and Mr Blue. Now, I wonder where I’ve heard that before?

Moment#2: High Fidelity (2000)

17 April 2017

High_Fidelity_poster

Moments No. 2. Stephen Frears directs a version of Nick Hornby’s novel, relocated to Chicago with John Cusack as Rob, the owner of the struggling record store, breaking up with his girlfriend Laura (played wonderfully by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle). The Chicago version of the record store is still called “Championship Vinyl,” which can’t translate well across the Atlantic. Although set in a nominal 1990s present, High Fidelity is more an elegy for a lost 1970s and ’80s world of vinyl records and small independent stores run by fans. At heart, film and book are about growing into adulthood and accepting the pleasures of commitment.

Formally, the film’s interesting: the novel’s interior monologues are translated into speeches direct to camera; Bruce Springsteen pops up to give advice (shades of Woody Allen); some scenes replay several times in Rob’s head. Some critics found this irritating but it worked for me. No reason why mainstream cinema shouldn’t break the fourth wall.

Two moments: number one, when the neighbourhood skateboarders shoplift some records, but when they’re noticed they leave a skateboard in the shop in their rush to escape. There’s a standoff and the skateboarders put the stolen records down on the pavement. “I think you have more”, says Rob. One of the skateboarders throws down a dogeared copy of “The musician’s guide to home production.” It’s a visual gag, yes, but it’s also a joke that turns out to be a plot point.

Second: after Laura leaves, Rob rearranges his record collection. His record store colleague Dick drops by to invite him to a gig:

Dick: It guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?

Rob: No…

Dick: Not alphabetical…

Rob: Nope.

Dick: What?

Rob: Autobiographical.

Dick: No fuckin’ way…

Rob: …If you want to find “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.

Dick: That sounds- –

Rob: –Comforting.

Though I’m not sure that Rob would actually have Rumours in his record collection. Joan Cusack–who also lights up The Runaway Bride–is terrific as Laura’s fried Liz.

Script courtesy of Springfield Springield

Moment#1: The Runaway Bride (1999)

16 April 2017

Runaway_Bride

Moments #1. I keep forgetting which films I see, so here’s a small project. In the spirit of the film critic Manny Farber, who thought that film was about moments, I’m going to try to do a short post about a particular moment in the film when I watch something. Think of it as a deliberate strategy to try not to write too much.

The Runaway Bride teams up Richard Gere and Julia Roberts nine years after Pretty Woman, borrowing the plot of a 1947 Ginger Rogers’ film, It Had To Be You.

He’s a columnist on a big city paper. She’s the woman who keeps ditching her would-be husbands at the altar (three and counting). He knocks up an inaccurate column about her, she complains (in the sort of witty letter-to-the-editor you only get in movies), he gets fired, he decides he needs to go and meet her to find out the truth. It’s not a great film, by the way. As the vastly lamented Philip French put it, “Scene after scene falls flat, and promising situations are set up only to expire like deflating balloons.”

It’s a romantic comedy, so you can fill in the rest of the plot right from there.

The moment (and massive spoiler alert): She’s about to marry him (like I said, you can fill the rest of the plot right there) but she runs away from the church and gets a lift from a FedEx van.

“Where’s she going?” asks a guest.

The reply: “I don’t know, but she’s guaranteed to get there by 10.30 tomorrow morning.”

Shooting the past

26 March 2017

Theresienstadt_film_crew

There’s a scene in Mark Herman‘s 2008 film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in which the concentration camp commander plays for his family and officers, by way of an after-dinner entertainment, the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. It is a fabricated account of Theresienstadt which portrays life in the camp as a kind of Butlin’s with a dash of Mittel European cafe culture. (23 minutes of rushes survive; there is an extended sequence on youtube.)

In the context of The Boy it is a moment in which a half-fiction is wrapped inside a half-fiction in pursuit of a greater truth. Theresienstadt was briefly converted into a model camp in 1944 as a result of political and diplomatic pressure by the Danish government, which wanted assurances about the well-being of Danish citizens sent there. With hindsight it is interesting that diplomatic pressure by the government of an occupied state had such an effect on the German government during wartime.

Most of the prisoners who did the work of sanitising the camp were shipped out immediately to Auschwitz, including the director of the film Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt inmate, and his family, who were murdered on their arrival there. The Nazis thought about distributing the resulting film, but decided against; it’s not clear, at least from some brisk online research, how the rushes were found.

When Herman decided to use sequences from the Theresienstadt film as part of his version of John Boyne’s novel, he found (unsurprisingly) that the surviving prints were old and scratched, and would not have looked good cut into a modern feature film. So they set about re-shooting the Nazis’ propaganda film. There are scenes from this modern shoot on the DVD of the movie. Mark Herman said that re-making it made him feel uncomfortable. I bet it did.

The image of the crew shooting The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Village is a public domain image via Wikipedia.