Archive for the 'moments' Category

Film moment #16: Grease (1978)

18 July 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


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

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

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

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

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

25 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2017-06-09 21.56.23

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

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

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

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

Script extracts courtesy of Dailyscript.com.

 

Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

Mr._Holmes_poster

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

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

As he tells Roger:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The script extracts are from Springfield! Springfield!

Moment #12: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

4 June 2017

 

MV5BMTc0MTQ3NzE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzA4NDM5OQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.