Monday, November 26, 2007

My five favourite flappers


You can keep Marilyn Monroe.
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If it is true style, true glamour and true sexual allure you are after, pitch your tent in the late nineteen-twenties.
The twenties flapper has survived as an archetype longer than just about every other cultural phenomenon of her times, and here gathered are my five favourites of her many cinematic incarnations.
In rightful first place is the sexiest film star of all time: Betty Boop.
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In theory, Betty should be grossly unattractive: no man, if asked to design the perfect woman, would give her a head many times too large for a tiny body, with a spiky crown of black patent hair and huge eyes set much too far apart in a face that abruptly ends beneath her cheek bones, leaving her mouth hanging in the space where her chin should be. Yet it is as the perfect woman, somehow, that the blending of these peculiar features ends up.
Her design in fact reflects her slow evolution from her original incarnation, which was as a cartoon dog. But through superb accident, the curious hybrid that was finally christened 'Betty Boop' in Stopping the Show (1932) came to embody the ideal flapper as surely as the illustrations of John Held.
The character that emerged in her classic early thirties cartoons was both innocent and coquettish, knowing and naive, and far more attractive than a drawing has any right to be. Betty is an innocent, not unaware of her sexual attractiveness but somehow frustrated by it and as powerless to moderate it as the lounge lizards or street-car romeos who court her so relentlessly are in its thrall. Fate, too, conspires against her: in her earliest films she is always struggling to preserve her modesty in the face of gusts of wind and trips and tumbles that raise her hemline and expose her garter and frilly underclothes.
Male audiences instantly took her to their hearts, greeting her presence on the bill with the same drooling rapture as their counterparts on screen. They in turn were explicitly catered to by the film-makers, who included flashes of nudity and much sexual innuendo. As such, Betty remains the only cartoon character to have been seriously compromised by the institution of the Hays Code: like Mae West, she was never quite the same again.
You can't go wrong with any of these early cartoons; my favourite is probably Betty Boop's Rise To Fame (1934), from the very end of her pre-Code golden era, because it is a useful compendium of some of her finest moments, and a fascinating example of early combined animation and live-action.
The film begins with her animator Max Fleischer being interviewed by his brother Dave, who asks him to draw Betty. He does so, whereupon she comes to life, addressing him as Uncle Max and asking that he put her into the 'sets' of some of her favourite past films. This he does, leading into a series of clips from Stopping the Show (in which she sings That's My Weakness Now and does charming impersonations of Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier), Bamboo Isle (in which she does her hula-hula dance in a tiny grass skirt with visible breasts, left) and The Old Man of the Mountain (in which she sings a duet with Cab Calloway, gong-kicking references and all).
(Click here to watch some of Betty's early movies.)
The Hays Code would soon rob her of her more provocative outfits and characteristics, but it did little to dent her popularity with audiences. Indeed, as an animated star, Betty was granted a luxury not extended to her real-life counterparts. She was allowed to weather changes in fashion and remained a star long after the flapper boom itself was forgotten; indeed she is a ubiquitous presence on stationery and novelty items to this day.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Helen Kane, the original 'Boop-oop-a-doop Girl' (though what she actually says always sounds more like 'poo-poo-pa-do' to me) and one of the most charming talents of the late 1920's. Kane is unquestionably the inspiration for Betty: she looks like her, sounds like her, acts like her and has the same catchphrase. They even sing the same songs.
Kane was a Broadway star of the twenties who enjoyed a brief burst of success in movies during the pre-Code years and had a number of hits on record (including I Wanna Be Loved By You, reprised by Monroe, complete with boop-oop-a-doops, in Some Like It Hot). She faded fairly quickly, because it was felt that her bag of gimmicks - the squeaky voice, the girlish giggles, the pretence of naivety, above all the boop-oop-a-doops - was quickly emptied. Actually though, if you listen carefully to her songs you'll find that 'boop-oop-a-doop' rarely means the same thing twice. Sometimes it is mere musical punctutation, sometimes a means of establishing any one of a dozen moods, sometimes overt euphemism, as in Aintcha, where a plaintive request for jewels and lingerie from her new beau is backed up with the threat:
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Now if you don't, I'll get mad,
And I won't be nice and sweet to you.
You know what I'll do?
I'll get the blues, and I'll refuse
To boop-oop-a-doop,
Boop-oop-a-doop!
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She is extremely funny, and while not exactly pretty - she is well-rounded and has a head not unlike Betty's in shape - is suprisingly athletic and, like Betty, she transcends her physical oddness to project a persuasive if unlikely sex appeal. (Though I could be just speaking for myself here; I'm not sure.)
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All of Kane's movies are fun - Dangerous Nan McGrew, Sweetie and Heads Up combine her talents with those of several other Broadway top draws, and the results are superb, fast-moving Paramount musical comedies with a flavour very similar to the early Marx Brothers movies.
If I have to choose one favourite I guess it has to be Pointed Heels (1929), if only because it is the one that gives her the fullest chance to do a bit of everything - singing, dancing, comedy and character acting. And as a major bonus, it happens to catch Fay Wray at her loveliest, too, and seeing these two in the same film - let alone in bed together - is surely more than we might reasonably have hoped of any one film. Their bantering relationship is a treat throughout (they play sisters-in-law); when Fay says that her husband is leaving for Europe, Helen replies: "Europe? That's in England isn't it?"
The film is a backstage saga revolving around chorine Fay and her troubled marriage to a disinherited millionaire composer, her irritating brother (Skeets Gallagher) and his wife (Kane), a lowbrow vaudeville duo, and the Broadway producer (William Powell) who is staging a show for the latter purely so as to pursue Fay. It all ends happily but a little anti-climactically, since the film as it exists now is missing a reel of the show itself in two-strip Technicolor. Still, what we do have is magnificent: a feast of theatrical style, cloche hats and beautifully primitive early-talkie film technique.
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Superior art deco title design for Pointed Heels, another strong contender for my all-time top ten
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Kane gets two great numbers in the film, Aintcha and I Have To Have You, which she sings twice, first in a hilarious 'highbrow' manner when her character, suddenly struck pretentious, decides to cultivate a new sophisticated image, then again in knockabout fashion after Powell deliberately gets her drunk to cure her of her affectations. This latter performance is perhaps her most physically uninhibited in any film; at the end she falls on her behind with such force she visibly bounces. Not for the first time she seems a cartoon character come to life, and with a face and shape as unreal as Betty's and often uncannily similar, I don't mean any old cartoon character either.
Indeed, much as I love her, it has to be said that Betty was basically a rip-off of Helen Kane. But when Kane took her creators to court for a share of royalties, slippery tactics were employed to squeeze her out of the picture. Betty's lawyers (she did not herself appear in court) pointed out that Kane was only one of several flapper artists who used the contested mannerisms, squeaky voice and phrases. Kane's career soon burned out, and it must have been galling to her to see Betty's popularity endure.
. To this day Kane is often erroneously listed as the voice of Betty Boop. In fact, the Kane impersonation was supplied by Mae Questel, another of the legion of Kane wannabes whose existence enabled Betty's creators to renege on their obligations to her. Questel sounds uncannily like Kane and wasn't a bad match physically, either, judging by her appearance in the wonderful Rudy Vallee short Musical Doctor. In her old age, she played Woody Allen's ghostly mother in the Oedipus Wrecks segment from New York Stories and sings the pastiche song Chameleon Days on the soundtrack of Zelig, still impersonating Kane, this time openly.
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Of the other great flapper stars, the most iconic is Clara Bow. Bow is remembered less for her films than for her nickname ‘the It Girl’ and, sadly, for a number of cruel and unfounded rumours and scandals. (No, she didn't do it with an entire football team; no, she didn't do it with a dog. She did, however, have a by-all-accounts highly passionate affair with Bela Lugosi, who kept a nude painting of her until his death.)
She was born into grinding poverty in Brooklyn in 1905, enduring regular beatings from her father and dependent upon a violent, mentally unstable mother who once attempted to kill her while she slept. By age ten she had watched her grandfather collapse and die while pushing her in a swing and her best friend burn to death in a domestic accident. Her salvation came when she won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1921) in a magazine competition. She was fresh and natural, and connected with audiences instantly. Stardom followed swiftly.
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The great myth about Clara is that her career faded in the early sound days because audiences objected to her strong Noo Yawk accent. In fact, the public enjoyed her early sound films just fine, but she herself was terrified of microphones and hated the restrictions imposed by the new technology. Though her best films (and performances) are probably to be found among her silent work, I personally prefer the early talkies, especially her first, The Wild Party (1929). It's one of the great pre-Code films, fresh, joyous, sexy and ridiculous, as delightful and utterly of its time as its fashions and opening song:
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When I am old and you are old, we'll fall asleep at nine
But until that distant day, let's make whoopee while we may
Wild party girl of mine!
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It's directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was Hollywood's only major female director at the time, one of its most stylish, and a lesbian - fortunately enough for male audiences, who are rewarded with an obsessive focus on revealing costumes, lingerie and naked thighs. Clara is Stella Ames, the most popular girl in college and leader of the self-styled 'Hard-Boiled Maidens'. They decide to crash the annual college dance (or, according to an intertitle, 'the annual "Costume" - the feminine equivalent of a stag') in shockingly brief and clingy outfits and are promptly ejected again by the head girl, who is dressed as Bo Peep. ("Anything for a thrill! You never think of the example you set the younger and weaker girls!") Still in their provocative costumes, they enter a sleazy roadhouse where Bow is abducted and almost raped, but is saved at the last moment by Fredric March, their psychology professor, out for a midnight stroll in plus-fours, and displaying an unexpected streak of Hemingway masculinity. And this is just Act One!
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Though my personal favourite of all Clara's movies, it was sadly the beginning of the end. Nervous, untutored and insecure, she was adored by the public but openly shunned by the Hollywood community, who considered her uncouth and stupid. Crippled by bouts of depression, she came to loathe her career, retiring in 1933. But as well as an iconic star she was also a genuinely gifted actress, as natural and expressive as Louise Brooks. It is significant that Brooks was one of the few to recognise and acknowledge her talents, and consistently champion her cause.
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"So they didn't like my accent, eh?" - Clara prepares to do battle with the writer who claimed her talkies were unpopular in the book 501 Movie Stars. (Okay, okay, it was me - but that bit was stuffed into my piece without my permission. Sorry, Clara.)
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Brooks herself is the great lost flapper. Remembered most for her moody work in two gloomy German silents, she was in reality an almost infuriatingly high-spirited and free-spirited twenties socialite, a former Ziegfeld girl and dancer. Her cult has depended for its longevity on the serene and penetrating beauty of her black bobbed features and the ease with which she can be slotted into fashionable myths of brutal, artless Hollywood devouring its individualists. Such mythmaking both underrates her true achievement and overplays her tragedy. More than merely beautiful, she was a great actress, one of the very greatest of the silent era. And while the elder Brooks who presided so carefully over her revaluation would never have embraced victimhood, she was happy to endorse the fiction that her estrangement from Hollywood was caused by studio philistinism.
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In truth, she was the architect of her own downfall. Refusing to do retakes on The Canary Murder Case (1929) after it was decided to convert it from silent to sound was a typically self-defeating gesture that earned her a justified reputation as a troublemaker.
It's a convoluted murder mystery in the Philo Vance series, and the solution doesn't really play fair, but what is not at all hard to believe is the central conceit that Brooks's character, a show-girl known as The Canary because of her gimmick of performing on a swing high above the stage, is fatale enough to provide an entire suspect-list of sugar daddies, each potentially driven to murdering her out of sexual jealousy. Long after she leaves the film - she is killed in the first fifteen minutes - she remains a vivid presence in it, and the most lasting impression left by the film is of its first scene: Brooks in feathered wig and costume, kicking her legs and swinging over the audience.
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The other attraction in this somewhat fragile relic is an adorable performance by Jean Arthur from her own squeaky flapper period. (She's equally charming as Clara Bow's sister in The Saturday Night Kid [1929].) The only thing that spoils it is the crude dubbing (and physical doubling) of Brooks's role - and for that we have nobody to blame but Brooks herself.
As a result of such bloody-minded obstructiveness, the pre-code era lost the performer who, perhaps more than any other, embodied its every attitude and affectation. As great a presence as she is in those masterpieces of Expressionist tragedy upon which her culthood rests, it is in her absences that we see the real tragedy of Louise Brooks. Watch her in God’s Gift To Women or It Pays To Advertise (both 1931), then think of all the Lubitsch and Frank Tuttle and Mitchell Leisen movies she should be in.
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If Brooks is the lost flapper, Joan Crawford is the forgotten one. Long before she became the big-shouldered queen of women's pictures, before Grand Hotel gave her class, she was a ex-chorine, boisterous hoofer and "the spirit of all that it means to be young and gay today" - the foremost screen flapper in other words.
This is a role she perfected in the twenties and carried through to the early thirties (until Mayer decided to upgrade her image) , most famously in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and its sequels Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) - the latter my favourite, and the only talkie of the three.
Around the main plot-line - which is one pre-Code fans will have already encountered about a hundred times: pretty shop-girl trying to make ends meet in the big city falls for the dashing son of the shop's owner - swirl a host of interlinked subplots relating to Joanie and the two girls she flat-shares with. They all work in the same department store, modelling lingerie for snooty women and their lascivious sons and husbands. The cast of characters is the usual mix of predatory wolves, arrogant floorwalkers, unsuitable boyfriends, landladies and love-rats.
Beginning as comedy and ending in tragedy, it is a soap opera cunningly concocted for what Variety would have called 'maximum femme appeal', opening a fascinating window onto vanished mores, fashions and customs, and studded with lovely spiky dialogue: "You don't know it, but I've just slapped your face", says Joan to one ardent admirer. When her flatmate swoons, "I just happen to be going out with a hot number who throws hundred dollar bills about like confetti," she shoots back: "Does he make 'em himself?"
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I'll close with a great picture of my other favourite flapper: Lillian Roth. Lillian's finest appearance is as Trixie in DeMille's Madam Satan (see my post Pre-Code DeMille) but she is equally - that is to say sensationally - sweet, charming, sexy, funny and talented in The Love Parade, Meet the Boyfriend (an adorable short), Animal Crackers (with the Brothers Marx, of course), Sea Legs, Take a Chance (in which she does a striptease number) and Ladies They Talk About - basically in anything she made in the thirties, actually. After much personal trauma she re-emerged in the fifties as a brassy torch singer, but it is the thirties Roth that really captivates.
Here she is giving thanks, Hollywood style. The broad on the left is none other than Jean Arthur, who was more than happy to do weird cheesecake like this, before she became the face of Frank Capra's social conscience.
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Whatever happened to all this glamour?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Looking for Fellini


Just back from Italy, and thinking inevitably of Fellini's films, which have done so much to define the country to outsiders. But memories they tend to remain; I'm not sure I've ever found myself actually in Fellini's Italy, whereas Antonioni's, say, is ever present, and any left turn down a side street can land us unexpectedly in Argento's.
Our guidebook goes so far as to describe Parma as "Fellini-esque", but try as I do, I'm never fully transported into the maestro's world. Occasionally something vaguely evocative flashes by the window of the train, quiet stretches of simple habitation that might once have been something like the open, dusty landscape of La Strada (1954) or Le Notti de Cabiria (1957). But we tourists rarely end up where Fellini's characters do. It's when I'm back home that the link starts to take shape: Fellini's is an imagined Italy, a remembered Italy, an Italy of the soul rather than the senses.
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His critical reputation has fluctuated over the years; acknowledged in the sixties as one of the great international masters, his work has more recently come under attack for being over-sentimental, insufficiently critical, too whimsical, lacking in political engagement, too pretty visually, and more entertaining than the work of a serious artist has any business being.
The qualities in his work which once seemed daring and new – the celebration of misfits and outcasts, the lurches from realism into fantasy and back again, the non-condemnatory presentation of decadence and criminality – tend now to be overshadowed by those which once seemed reassuringly traditional: the commitment to narrative and characterisation, the communication of emotion, the underlying optimism, the love of showbusiness and artifice.
All these things conspire to relegate him in the age of alienation that his work anticipated, explored, and prematurely forgave.
He entered the film industry in the early forties as writer and occasional actor, often apprenticed to Rosselini. His early films as director gave notice of his preoccupations, but what now seems the instantly identifiable Fellini style was perfected in three consecutive masterpieces, La Strada, the lesser known Il Bidone (1955) and Cabiria, perhaps his best film of all.
All three feature his wife Giulietta Masina, an extraordinary actress - half Doris Day, half Harpo Marx - and few artists in history have been fortunate enough to find so perfect a muse. In their collaborations she developed a unique screen persona: broad, often brash and loud, defiantly unrealistic yet affectingly vulnerable and sincere. She could be naturalistic when necessary, but her speciality was the girl who belonged in the circus yet was somehow washed up in the tenements of post-war Rome, a misfit whose simplicity acted as a magnet for misfortune. She died a few months after her husband in 1994; her clown-like face remains one of the key icons of world cinema.
La Strada has her as a simpleminded young girl sold by her mother to a travelling strongman (Anthony Quinn); he mistreats and rejects her, only realising her true worth when she dies. Il Bidone is the picaresque story of a band of travelling conmen who rob the poor disguised as priests (with Masina wasted in a subsidiary housewife role). Cabiria returns Masina triumphantly to centre stage as a naïve prostitute whose dreams of love and happiness are constantly rewarded with sorrow and bad luck.
The scenarios sound like something Thomas Hardy may have rejected as too depressing, but Fellini’s handling elevates them from mundane realism almost to the level of fairytale, aided in every case by beautiful use of locations, stylised composition, a rich, often grotesque gallery of supporting players, Nino Rota’s hauntingly distinctive scores and Masina’s amazing performances.
Their dramatic climaxes – Quinn’s enigmatic moment of anguished realisation on a darkened beach in La Strada, Masina stoically walking in step with a band of strolling musicians after yet another crushing betrayal in Cabiria – transcend their pessimism to become deeply moving, cathartic experiences for the audience, more epiphany than tragedy.
La Dolce Vita (1959), which both confirmed and consolidated his international reputation, is glossy, stylish and still relevant in its scepticism towards a society proudly cutting itself loose from its core values. Its pose of total objectivity, standing back from itself and observing without comment, remains its most striking feature, along with its now iconic visual highlights (the massive airlifted Christ, Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain et al). But there is a brazen self-assurance that was new for the director, a kind of methodological shorthand that seems to suggest Fellini knew he was now established and could afford to play the maestro, to be a little showier and less rigorous.
He was famous now, an arthouse celebrity whose name was familiar not just to his followers but also to the wider public, for whom he became totemic of world cinema to those with no time for it. There is a superb episode of Steptoe & Son in which Harold takes Albert to see (1963), though the latter would prefer Nudes of 1963. Galton and Simpson were always astute monitors of fashionable intellectual traffic, Colin Wilson and Bertrand Russell having provided lively inspiration for some of the best Hancocks. That Fellini had now penetrated their world of British bourgeois aspiration indicated his ascension to the ranks of cult hero, and the status couldn't fail to influence the work.
With his gaze turned inward completely, and there is a similar sense of self-indulgence in its attempt to turn director’s block into existential crisis, despite the customary mastery of style.
Both are major and important works, and full of good things (including an appearance by Barbara Steele in the latter), but they lack the emotional resonance of the less autobiographical films. There is no point in denying the man’s keen sense of himself as auteur, and it could be argued that it got the better of him after 1963: whatever else Fellini Satyricon (1970) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) may be, they are certainly as hubristic as they sound. Fellini at his best wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to be deemed naive, and he was never better than in the three exceptional works made immediately prior to La Dolce Vita.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear


Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento.
The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.
Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy. Antonioni and Fellini are nowhere evoked for me; Dario is everywhere.
Look at this house we saw in Ravenna:
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It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used. And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.
I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and suddenly I can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly. Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)
The films are highly formulaic, often revolving around a black-gloved killer who murders obsessively and sadistically out of some Freudian compulsion lodged in childhood memory, and a hero who sees more than they can remember, or is haunted by the possibility that they have all they need to solve the mystery, but cannot quite arrange the pieces in the correct order. The unfolding mystery is punctuated by murder scenes which are staged and presented almost as mini-movies in their own right, frequently outrageously inventive and horrific, and accompanied by pounding music. The finales often pile twist upon twist, revealing that the murderer is in fact not the murderer after all, or is long dead and his role has been taken on midway through the film by another character entirely, or that the hero and killer are one.
Though the plots are often incredibly intricate, the essence of the films is in their distinctive visual and aural style, and the seemingly compulsive, uncontrolled nature of their violence.
Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two would certainly be among my favourites, as - in plot terms, at least, and notwithstanding its flashy look and sound - would Tenebrae, one of his cleverest yarns.
But best of all is Profondo Rosso, perhaps the only Argento that still seems to me an almost complete masterpiece. The plot is superb, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.
There's something to be said for most of his subsequent films, but they tend to be things of parts, in which remarkable scenes or images frequently give way to the risible or banal.
But Suspiria achieves an atmsophere of nightmare (and nightmare-logic), or of modern Grimm's fairy tale, unparalleled in the supernatural horror film, thanks in part to the incredibly rich colour-saturated images, achieved by using outdated Technicolor film stock. It also features by far his most effective collaboration with the Italian rock band Goblin, and deserves praise for its casting of Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as evil witches.
In recent years he has found his muse most often in his daughter Asia, with whom he has collaborated four times between 1993's Trauma and this year's La Terza Madre. Herself a director and an often striking presence in the films of others (La Reine Margot, Marie Antoinnette), Asia is the most distinctive feature of his later work, most of which is uneven and some of which (The Card Player, The Phantom of the Opera) is poor indeed.
Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her. It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.
Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.

With Charlie in Bologna



I’m in Bologna, because that’s where the Charles Chaplin Archive is housed.
I’ve come to do some research on Stowaway, the film he planned in 1936 as a vehicle for his then-wife Paulette Goddard.
He scripted parts of it, but for whatever reason the project was abandoned, until it was taken out of mothballs in the sixties and re-jigged to form the basis of his final film, A Countess From Hong Kong.
It’s a project that’s always fascinated me, since it would have been his first all-talking film, and his first comedy vehicle for a star other than himself.

I had been forewarned that little original material survives on the venture, presumably because whole chunks had been taken and converted into the Countess script. I found far more than I was expecting to, however, and what I did find all pointed to it being a far more adventurous and provocative project as originally conceived than in its later incarnation as his generally dismissed swansong.

The original treatment is, like the remake, a farce comedy, but it aims far more than the later film to texture the comedy against a realistic backdrop of Shanghai and its underworld.
It deals frankly with prostitution, drug addiction, crime, corruption and politics; as with his squabbles over the working status of the Marilyn Nash character in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin seems to be baiting the censor without even realising it, through his inability to accept that there is a prohibition against references to prostitutes. (There are prostitutes in life, why not in drama, seems to have always been his plaintive appeal.)
There is frank discussion, too, of communism (the Paulette character is a 'White Russian', fled to Shanghai to escape the Bolsheviks) and a great deal of the kind of philosophical conjecture of the sort to which he was addicted in life, but usually held in check in his screenplays.
What if any of this would have remained in the finished draft even before the intervention of the Breen office is of course a matter of pure conjecture, yet the more I struggled with the scattered fragments, scrawled in pencil on yellowing notepaper, the more I became convinced that this could have been the most ambitious departure of all his aborted projects.
Quite why he abandoned it is to some extent a mystery, and I'll speculate on the most likely alternatives in my forthcoming essay on the subject.
The simplest being usually the most satisfactory, it was probably a combination of Goddard’s blossoming career elsewhere and his mounting fascination with Hitler, soon to be the subject of The Great Dictator, the film that became his first all-talkie in Stowaway's stead.
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What a critical essay cannot convey is the specific pleasure to be found in archival research. The working notes of one of the half dozen true masters of the cinema establish a bond between author and reader that is not to be found in transcripts or secondary accounts. It is the laying bare of the creative process that fascinates, which is why the passages that are crossed out or abandoned, or rewritten in variant forms, are often the most interesting sections of all.
His handwriting takes a lot of getting used to: you’re tempted to give it up as indecipherable at first, but over time you become accustomed to the shape and idiosyncrasies of it, and there is a rush of joy when a few words suddenly fall together as a sentence, and sentences fall together as paragraphs. The writing sprawls over pages, sometimes just a few words to the page, often rendered even more opaque by the frequent spelling mistakes that remind us again that this Hollywood millionaire, the world’s most famous man, began his days as an ill-educated Dickensian child in the poverty and squalor of Victorian London.
But this is all part and parcel of the energy of it, the sense of ideas falling over each other in the race to the page. This, too, is a whole new kind of discipline for Chaplin, who was accustomed to thinking of a story in visual terms, and developing it via on-set improvisation.
Here he seems to be doing with words what he once did with film stock: trying things out, seeing how they look, fine-tuning some, discarding others. For all his natural inclination toward pantomime as story-telling method, all accounts concur that he himself loved to talk and to expound ideas, and in these notes you can sense a excited infatuation with dialogue as a means of conveying them.

How well he succeeded at this divides even sympathetic commentators, and the general view of his sound films is that they are, at the very least, beneath the standard of his silents.
I’ve never really found them so; one must make major adjustments for the change of pace, but once locked into their rhythm they display that same combination of sophistication and naivety that made his earliest films so entrancing to the overwhelming majority of the cinemagoing world.
But whatever you make of them generally, I was left with the vivid impression that Stowaway was an absence from his filmography much to be regretted.
.Happily, our visit coincided with the final days of a major Chaplin exhibition in Bologna’s centre, a wonderful assembly of stills, posters, projected extracts and memorabilia, and it was heartening indeed to read so many expressions of affectionate enthusiasm in the visitors’ book, and hear the laughter of teenage girls in the screening rooms. It was the sound of rediscovery; the realisation that these are not merely museum pieces but comedies, put together by a man who knew what he was doing.
How would such an exhibition fare in London, I wonder?
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The Cineteca, which houses the Chaplin archive, is not the only link between Bologna and cinema history. For it was a court in Bologna that first seized and banned Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, declaring it “characterised by an exasperating pan-sexualism for its own end, presented with obsessive self-indulgence”. The decision was of course soon overturned, and time has lessened the film's shock value to the point where it now even seems a little quaint, but the essential wisdom of that "obsessive self-indulgence" charge surely holds firm: I just didn't realise you could actually ban films on those grounds! 
Two reasons, then, why lovers of film should be grateful to this place.

Bologna Diary


I took this photograph of a building visible from our hotel bedroom in Bologna.
Look carefully and you'll see there's nothing here we Londoners don't have also. Bricked-up windows? Got 'em. Peeling paint? Got it. Scavenging pigeons? More than we know what to do with.
Yet somehow, as you can see, it remains attractive.
Doubtless, a large part of what seems pleasant to us is just the typical Italianishness of it, such as would presumably be lost on an actual Italian.
But we can still be objective, and presumably even an Italian would see instantly that this is a more welcoming sight than the featureless architecture of England. Buildings are given personality with shutters and balconies, and painted in rusty orange or citric yellow (which looks pretty even when peeling). There is a delicacy and humanity even to civic architecture, softened with exterior paintings or stone carvings of flowers or birds. And this is when they aren't trying to impress you!
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This is when they are..!
The fifth century mosaics of the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, poised between worlds as antiquity meets the dawn of the modern, are unlike anything else I've ever seen.
The Germans may write the music, the Russians the literature, the French may have the best-looking film stars... but the Italians do religious art and architecture.
St Paul's is like a McAlpine rush job next to the Chiesa della Steccata in Parma. Every scrap of space on the walls and ceiling, every collumn, is adorned with sculptures and hung with tapestries, alive with paintings too detailed for the naked eye to comprehend; there is polished marble and stained glass and everywhere the glint of gold. Compare such unapologetic papal excess with England's weaselly puritan tradition!
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Ah, yes: anti-puritanism. I don't know if you've seen any Italian television, but I don't mind admitting we sat slack-jawed through a considerable quantity. In fact we did something which still strikes me as inexplicable behaviour: had an early dinner so as to be back at the hotel in time to watch the final of their celebrity ballroom dancing show.
Our excuse is that Angela is learning Italian, and so she enjoyed being able to understand it. But I found it equally compelling for opposite reasons; that it was infectiously wonderful to immerse yourself in a tv show you cannot understand, peopled by celebrities you've never heard of, making incomprehensible jokes. (After one dance, a judge said a bunch of Italian stuff and then, suddenly, "Strangers in the night, Fred Astaire", to which the contestant responded "Fred Astento!", and everyone cracked up. I hope I never find out why.)
True delight is to watch game shows where you have no idea of the rules or what the questions are. I love it when the audience responds warmly to stars I have never seen and no idea of what they do. (Though two of the celebrity dancers I did recognise: one was Catherine Spaak from Argento's Cat O'Nine Tails, another was Anna Falchi from Michele Soavi's Dellamorte, Dellamore. Anna danced a nifty cha-cha-cha and worked the crowd like Sammy Davis Jr. She was the obvious winner from the start; the Italians clearly adore her, and she turned up on tv in one context or another every night we were there. Here she is enlivening some sporting event or other.)
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According to an Italian acquaintance of mine, Falchi has an annoying regional accent, which is obviously something my ears could not possibly detect. Even under normal circumstances.
Which reminds me. I have never heard Italian spoken in an American accent before. I may have even doubted such a thing was technically possible. The idea that there could be circumstances in which a native Italian might even wish to put on an American accent was something I had never considered. I suppose on reflection it is no odder than British people doing it, as, for instance, Elton John does.
But then I heard the announcers reading out scores on game shows. And oh, the exponential hilarity of hearing the scores on the dancing show being yelled every ten minutes or so by what was clearly an Italian faking American vowel sounds, so much weirder than American-accented English, vastly weirder even than a real American trying to read Italian. And oh, the fun of joining in whenever the score-board flashed on screen: "Lamberdo Spozeeni: Settay!"
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Other odd things we noticed: Adverts often use English language songs, but indiscriminately, since they are designed to be heard by non-English speakers. So Nutella was plugged with the enigmatic lyric "we can make the shadows turn to light", surely the most audacious claim ever made on behalf of chocolate flavoured peanut butter.
Television shows are full of people older than twenty who smile when they talk. No ghetto wall divides old presenters, or audiences, from young ones, who all sit cheerfully on the same sofas. The weather forecaster on one of the morning news shows was some sort of retired military man in full uniform. The comedy guests on prime time shows are often very old men indeed who have obviously been at it for decades.
And most of the prime time shows seem to run for about three hours.
And they are full of gorgeous women in swimwear.
Even quiz shows of the Deal Or No Deal kind of sobriety find room for girls in sexy costumes to dance about between rounds. A report on a morning news show about drunk driving was accompanied by a line of girls in swimming costumes in the studio, each holding a glass of wine and a crudely cut out carboard steering wheel. Throughout the report they simply stood there, while the cameras tracked up and down and across them.
This is a specifically Italian kind of earthiness, cheerful and vulgar but pretty much harmless, I'd have thought. Certainly there is none of the opiate languor and ghoulish, underfed pastiness of our sex idols, nor any of our sinister misogyny. Healthy voluptuousness is the fashion here, perhaps it never went away since the days of Loren and Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale. They have a woman here called Juliana Moreira. For some reason unknown to me, she is not an international film star. Perhaps she can't act. But then, neither could Lollobrigida.
It reminded me of the New York Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of Italian film posters, where well-known Hollywood stars and films are given just that extra brush of European knowingness by such considerable artists as Luigi Martinati, Anselmo Ballester and Alfredo Capitani. Capitani even manages to make Rita Hayworth in Gilda sexier than she was to start with (by taking her famous black-gloved, arms-raised pose and making it look as if she is reclining). It's the quality that Visconti added to James M Cain in Ossessione, unquestionably the sexiest film ever made under a fascist government.