Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scarlett Johansson and the modern costume epic

Generally bad reviews for The Other Boleyn Girl, which seems odd to me. Most bad films still manage to get good reviews, and this one was quite good. The fact that it is as often as not compared unfavourably to the same screenwriter’s Last King of Scotland and The Queen gives the game away here: the film is basically being attacked for not being relevant and edgy and contemporary, all the things that the BFI used to get so sniffy about when reviewing Merchant Ivory movies.

I rather like popular historical epics; I go along entirely with the thesis of the late great George MacDonald Fraser’s Hollywood History of the World, which showed how the old saw about them all being ludicrous travesties is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, demonstrably untrue. It’s basically snobbery, though the snobbery of historical purists has now been replaced by the snobbery of social realists, outraged at the mere existence of a film not set amongst the small-animal torturers of some blighted Midlands council estate.
So here I am defending a new film against its critics. It’s not great, but it is good, and it is serious, and after sitting through no fewer than six obscenely wasteful car adverts (I pray no man hates another as much as I hate cars), and trailers for a plethora of films in which even greater sums are frittered on the realisation of puerile fantasy, it is refreshing to see a large budget being used for the much nobler purpose of recreating reality.

Surely this is what budgets are for: to bring the past, or some hard to imagine real event (as in Titanic, for instance), to stunning, convincing life - not to bring comics to life. And in fact, the film achieves a texture unlike any other Tudor movie I have seen: it could, in fact, be the most visually convincing recreation of the period yet.
The director's passion for shooting scenes through partially obscured apertures - lattice work, mullioned windows and, relentlessly, chinks in slightly ajar doors - can get a little monotonous, and still we have that annoying sound effect, a stupid ‘ching’ noise, that has accompanied all stabbings and sword blows in American films since the early nineties. How hard can it be to record a new one?
But the photography is gorgeous, and all costumes, set dressing and location work without fault.
The girls are both good. I’m never sure what I think about Scarlett Johansson: I have a soft spot for her largely because of Ghost World, but I also admire her commitment to an extremely old-fashioned concept of Hollywood glamour that eschews the fake Oxfam hypocrisy of her generation in favour of Jean Harlow gowns and an excess of red lipstick; she’s not afraid to risk looking like a dog’s dinner at premieres and interviews. And more interesting films than most of her peers, too, including some that are genuinely fine (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Prestige). I do also like Lost in Translation, though it is obviously a hundredth of the film it was hailed as. On the other hand, there is something about her persona that can seem a little alienating, a touch narcissistic, and she has shamelessly played concubine to the very worst elements of modern culture: pop music, fashion and brand-endorsement advertising. (Her recent stooping to a ‘role’ in a misogynistic pop video for that absurd pipsqueak idiot Justin Timberlake is a near-fatal error in taste and judgement.)
Natalie Portman is technically on my banned list owing to her involvement in V For Vendetta, a film which, if remembered at all (an unlikely prospect, I’ll admit), will come to be recognised as our generation’s Triumph of the Will, a shocking display of cultural tyranny disguised as protest and a work of loathsome consensus propaganda, though it obviously lacks any of Triumph’s merits as cinema. She looks and sounds rather like Keira Knightley, who probably turned the role down before she got to it. There is, surely, box office in a Scarlett-Keira collaboration. Until it happens, Keira has got one about the Duchess of Devonshire on the way soon.
This is good costumey stuff, and that future audiences will find more in it than in anything by Mike Leigh surely goes without saying.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My useless old tickets and I

For at least the last twenty years I have kept my old tickets from films, concerts, plays etc.
I don’t know why I started, and I don’t do it so much anymore. But I often browse through the bulging old wallet that serves no function other than to store them, and each time some new memory is recalled.
Here’s Norman Wisdom (18th April 1993, he cut himself slightly but carried on of course), Anthony Newley in Scrooge The Musical (9th December 1993, not long after a funeral), Vivian Stanshall live in Exeter (12th December 1991, we had to leave before the encore and run for the train), and Cannon & Ball live at Torquay (29th August 1998, they did a routine with a miniature plastic trumpet that made me weep with laughter, but all that I can remember about it is that it involved a miniature plastic trumpet).
Here are the films I thought it my duty to see in student years: the Walerian Borowczyk shorts, Pasolini’s Salo, Syberberg’s 7½ hour Hitler - ein Film aus Deutschland, even a ‘Rare Warhol All-Nighter’ – I was nothing if not fearless.
Here are the cinemas that are no longer with us: Eyes Wide Shut at the Catford ABC (21st September 1999), Dirty Weekend at the MGM Oxford Street (29th October 1993), Manhattan Murder Mystery at the Camden Plaza (no date, but I remember sitting next to Simon Callow).
Here are tickets for every single Marx Brothers film, some of them many times over, A Night at the Opera in double figures. Here is the proof that I saw Ghost World five times at three venues between 24th November 2001 and 11th March 2002 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me three times in a single week at Tottenham Court Road.
Here is the proof that I saw films I have no recollection of ever seeing at a cinema in my life: Tod Slaughter as Sweeney Todd (14th May 2001), Basil Rathbone in Pursuit to Algiers (28th August 2002), 10 Rillington Place (12th September 2003). Did I really spend the teatime of Wednesday 21st July 1993 watching Boxing Helena at the Drake-Odeon in Plymouth? I have a little piece of paper that says I did.
And here are the tickets with the happy memories attached: rushing across Hungerford Bridge from the National Portrait Gallery, where I worked at the time, to get to the NFT in time for a 6.20 showing of Joan Crawford in Berserk (29th April 2001). A late showing of The Exorcist at the Trocadero before it had been reissued or was legal on video (28th May 1993). The screening of The Black Cat I walked out of because the audience wouldn’t stop laughing at it (9th August 2004). The Hour of the Pig at the MGM Tottenham Court Road – actually forget I mentioned that one (31st January 1994).
Sometimes one ticket is enough to bring back a memory of some experience I would otherwise have lost entirely. Why on earth did I go to see Urban Legends: Final Cut at the Catford ABC at, of all ridiculous times, 9 in the evening on the day after Boxing Day 2000? For a while, I couldn’t imagine. Slowly the fragments of memory came together: I had returned to London after spending Christmas with my parents in Devon to find snow on the ground, and a flat so cold that it was literally uninhabitable. I put all the heaters on full blast and trudged off down the hill for the warmth of the cinema while it returned to something like a tolerable temperature. And what happened to be showing? Urban Legends: Final Cut.
Not the most eventful story ever, but the point is that I can now remember a dozen different and discrete sensations: the smell of the cinema, the feeling of being pleasantly thawed, the dark, snowy streets, my cold, empty flat and - indivisibly linked to all - the sight and the sound of that one fair-to-middling film. And all because of an old ticket.
The moral of the story? If you want to experience the Proustian rush, don't delay: start saving crap today.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A brief guide to Hitchcock and Elsa Lanchester

When I was a kid I used to dream of one day living just around the corner from a cinema that screened old films. (And I mean that literally – I would actually have dreams about it.) Now here I am, just shutting the front door with two minutes to go before a double-bill of British silents at my local, with live accompaniment of course.
First up, Blue Bottles, a new one on me – and I won’t admit to that very often – and completely captivating: a 25 minute short with a bizarre pedigree: directed by Ivor Montagu from a story by H G Wells (and a screenplay by his son Frank) as a vehicle for Elsa Lanchester, then a kind of hip cabaret turn, popular with the sort of urban sophisticates at whom this film, I imagine, was also aimed. It’s avant garde slapstick comedy, inventive and very opaque in its humour, with Elsa weirdly gorgeous (and gorgeously weird), not as herself but as a character called Elsa Lanchester (she gets called ‘Manchester’ and ‘Lancashire’ by other characters).
Lanchester seems like a great new find: it’s saddening to remember that this is 1928 we’re watching, that this career has been and gone, and it amounted to not much more than comic support and the occasional flourish of grotesque.
How strange not to see the potential in this extraordinary woman, thin and gawky and all odd angles, huge eyes and newspaper cartoon features. She does almost nothing but stare and comprehend; seemingly without any volition of her own she only reacts as caprice pushes and pulls and propels her through a course of events that begins with her absentmindedly blowing a whistle she finds in the street and ends with her receiving a commendation for bravery – in between comes an armed siege between the police and the delegates at a convention for criminals, all in striped jerseys (one of them Charles Laughton). Things happen to her as they do to Buster Keaton, she merely responds, entirely at their mercy.
Great roles did follow: the Bride, of course, and a singularly foxy and coquettish Mary Shelley in the prologue of the same film, along with several good roles in support of her husband, in Rembrandt and Henry VIII, as a splendid thawing puritan in Vessel of Wrath (think Hepburn in The African Queen but better) and the fearsome Miss Plimsoll in Witness For The Prosecution.
So why not a big star? I suppose because this is back then we’re talking about, and back then stars just didn’t look like Elsa Lanchester.
ddddd.....dddddd What stars didn't look like in 1928
My local, by the way, is Britain’s oldest working purpose-built cinema, and Hitchcock’s The Lodger, next up, gains immeasurably from the knowledge that it is unspooling in a venue where it played during its first run.
Is this Hitchcock’s greatest film? Certainly it is one of his most perfect. He liked to think of it as his first (in fact his third, but the first to bear any clear authorial stamp), and it is still conveys the energy, freshness and stylishness that electrified audiences in the twenties.
The style is heavily in debt to the German masters Hitchcock had observed while making his first two pictures, and some elements - particularly the stylised intertitles with their flashing graphics and recurring motifs and phrases - seem lifted whole from this source. Other bravura touches, such as the famous plate-glass ceiling effect whereby we witness the upstairs lodger pacing up and down from beneath the soles of his shoes - display precocity if not, perhaps, personality.
What is new, and clearly Hitchcock’s own touch, is the complete lack of moral seriousness. It is about Jack the Ripper, more or less, a savage killer of fair-haired girls at large in a still-gaslit London, but Hitchcock wants only to manipulate his audience. He chooses his subject because it is the easiest route to his chosen aim: to generate mass emotion through cinematic technique. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that in the course of this his people must suffer and die; this is fun, and that, I suspect, was new. Just compare it with Lang’s M.
Striking, too, is the close-up embrace between the lodger and the heroine towards the end, a vivid, almost morbid marriage of two pin-sharp white faces shot from a variety of subjective positions. Was Ivor Novello matinee idol enough to make the suggestion that his character might be the killer utterly impossible, as was later the case with Cary Grant in Suspicion? Or are we right to find this sequence sinister?
The film's other delights are incidental, but potent indeed - chiefly the rare chance to enjoy London's version of twenties fashion and social mores. The central character, Daisy Bunting (played by 'June'), is the first Hitchcock blonde and 'a mannequin' by profession (according to the titles) so we get to see a lot of her standing around in the latest styles before Hitchcock puts her in peril; there's also an unexpected scene of her taking a bath (in a British utilitarian bathroom, however, this is not a DeMille picture!) complete with a close-up of her feet beneath the running tap.
ddddddddd Hitchcock doing his Eric Morecambe impression
It may not be his greatest film, but it is surely among them, and there is a sense in which only remakes followed. Hitchcock’s career falls easily into discrete phases, each marked by periods of experimentation and uncertainty, and then by runs of efficient, often greatly successful work when he settles into the groove he has cut for himself.
Everyone knows Hitchcock, but his work is rarely assessed chronologically because the critics who lived through it with him are dead. Now we cherry-pick from his oeuvre and lose sight of its creative trajectory. Here, then, is my brief history of Hitchcock’s movies, and if I seem a little less generous than others that is only because there is a risk in pretending that everything he does is great: the risk of alienation by future generations. I’d hate to see him turn into an ossified God, a Shakespeare of whom it is an insult to say that most of his work is extremely good.
The Lodger opens phase one, the silent era, which ends with Blackmail, and this is the apprentice phase, beginning and ending with works of experimentation and characterised throughout by trial and error approaches to form and genre.
(Watch Hitchcock's The Ring, an interesting example of his silent work, for free here.)
It is followed by what is surely his golden age, the British sound period, in which he finds his feet and produces an almost unbroken run of masterpieces and near-masterpieces: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn.
(Watch The Man Who Knew Too Much for free here or The 39 Steps here.)
This is ended by the trip to Hollywood at the invitation of David O Selznick as the thirties become the forties, and by a new round of adjustment and experiment – literary melodrama in Rebecca, a clear masterpiece, an attempt to regain the pared-down British style in Foreign Correspondent (another) and Suspicion (fine but lesser, because of the strain of bigger stars), an entirely commendable crack at screwball comedy in Mr & Mrs Smith.
In general, though, this third phase lacks the confidence and quality of the British work, and there is a lot of gimmickry: Lifeboat, Spellbound, Saboteur (an attempt to replay The 39 Steps as his first really American film). The masterpieces come from nowhere and are not followed-up: Shadow of a Doubt (seemingly the most obviously Hitchcockian of the bunch but one that I have unforgiveably never seen somehow), pops up between Saboteur and Lifeboat; Notorious, brilliant but untypical except in its mechanics, between two heavily Selznicked glossies (Spellbound and The Paradine Case). It is as if he himself does not quite realise what is the right material for him, though he rises to it magnificently whenever it does come his way.
The split with Selznick institutes another phase of nervous fumbling; there is an infatuation with invisible editing that yields one masterpiece (Rope) and perhaps his least appreciated film of all (Under Capricorn), a return to Britain for Stage Fright and no cigar, the murky I Confess, fascinating but not fun. Again there is the one isolated classic when the correct spark ignites his old energies: Strangers On a Train, in which the physical traumas are again rooted in psychological malevolence.
We are into the fifties now, and the Big Hollywood Years then follow, in roaring Technicolor, and another lucky streak begins. And I would certainly start the list with Dial M For Murder, a drawing-room mystery and his best fake-English film since Suspicion, notable for its restrained and subtle use of 3-D and for its celebration of Grace Kelly, who next pushes James Stewart into delinquency in Rear Window (in which a methodical murder mystery provides the justification for the most perfect ever translation to cinema of Hopper's America), and frolics delightfully with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, a dessert between the main courses.
. eeeeeeeeeeeee Hitchcock doing his Bill Clinton impression
A new kind of critical appreciation begins to rear its head here, however, as Hitchcock is canonised by the French auteurists and finds himself celebrated as craftsman rather than showman; the result is self-consciousness and further indecision, and only one more complete masterpiece: North By Northwest, itself an act of self-pastiche, a round-up and summation.
The rest is often interesting but never perfect, and some of it is poor. The Trouble With Harry and The Wrong Man are tangents. The Man Who Knew Too Much is always a remake (though the scenes of Stewart and Doris Day in eerily empty London streets represent the perfection of Hitchcock’s obsession with fear in broad daylight, and the supporting cast is a spotter's delight: Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke, Carolyn Jones, Richard Wattis, Reggie Nalder). Vertigo is his Shakespeare movie: very good, which is to place it insultingly beneath general estimation, Psycho is a purely technical exercise - with a dopey plot and no meaning beyond its own mechanics - that works splendidly the first couple of times and deserved its popularity, The Birds is a much flabbier one which is fascinating as a lab specimen but lucky indeed to have made it as a crowd-pleaser.
As to the rest, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, except to say that Frenzy, a last return to England is at least lean and effective, if cruel and grim and clearly the work of a man forty-five years older than the one who told basically the same story in The Lodger.
Certainly, The Lodger shows all that Hitchcock has to show, and it is true that there is a machine-like excellence to his best work that rarely spills over into emotional connection (only really, in fact, in Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman really is in danger and Cary Grant really does love her, and Rope, where James Stewart feels palpable shame for his role in inspiring a sickening murder and spits venom as he tells the killers he is going to see that they die).
The ever-excellent Stephen Horne provided live accompaniment. Naff audience laughter was minimal, but present nonetheless, particularly at the hilarious spectacle of Ivor Novello climbing over a fence. (It's even funnier than it sounds, trust me.)
To my relief, Stephen agreed with me about this phenomenon, explaining how easily his concentration can be affected by any noise: laughing, coughing or, indeed, snoring. (“The ones who fall asleep often choose to sit in the front row.”)
He also told me of a time when, as an audience member at a sound film, he was so annoyed by two women constantly discussing the film as it went along that he had to change seats: “When the house lights went up at the end, I saw that one of them was Beryl Bainbridge.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Any port in a drought

Monday March 3rd - She may only be 9, but Shannon O'Hanlon has a scream to match a famous movie queen.
The fourth-grader from Glendale, Queens, came away the eardrum-splitting winner of Sunday's Fay Wray Scream-Alike contest, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Radio City Music Hall premiere of "King Kong."
Shannon's screech beat out the howls of 20 other contestants at Manhattan
's Film Forum, earning her a DVD of the movie and a free trip to the top of the Empire State Building.
"I was so nervous I was shaking," she said. It was the first time the Hannah Montana
fan watched the black-and-white classic from 1933 - and it will be her first trip to the iconic skyscraper, too.
"I want to see if it looks close to the one in the movie," said Shannon, who attends Public School 113. Her yowls stood up to a tough judge - Fay Wray's daughter, Susan Riskin
, 71, who had to wait until she was 12 to see her mom manhandled by the ape.
The "King Kong" starlet died in 2004, at 96. "It's wonderful how she's remembered," Riskin said.
As Fay's most devoted servant, I am of course in two minds about this. Do we really need to reinforce the one and only, and dreadfully misleading, thing for which her name survives in the pop culture memory bank? Isn’t it a shame that we can't focus on something other than this press agent's reduction of her talents and achievements?
On the other hand, if the choice is between this kind of fake longevity and total oblivion, it becomes no contest. And that is the choice. Thanks to this contest, the name is revived, the image is revived, and one little girl has gone home with a movie and an association that may just inspire her to dig further, and discover that matchless Howard Carter moment when a treasure trove that had lain just beneath her feet is suddenly revealed in all its limitless majesty.
This moment, when you encounter the world of old movies and start to make ravenous sense of it as one find follows another and then another, is denied the overwhelming majority of children today, thanks to the increasingly narrow and undemanding focus of a culture obsessed with its Newspeak version of ‘choice’.
Were I myself a child now, I would surely not have gone looking for Miss Wray either. My love of cinema was not a genetic aberration, nor the result of influence by any second party. It came to me on a plate, thanks to what now seems the most valuable experiment in television history: BBC-2.
BBC-2 showed old movies. Every once in a while it still does, even today, and this, like the Scream-Alike, is better than nothing. But a random sampling of titles (usually from an endlessly-repeated tiny store of cheap or public domain titles, programmed by people with no knowledge of what they are handling) can at best only occasionally yield the single reward of one memorable experience.
To fall for the entire world of old movies, to make some sense of the terrain and form the mental associations of personnel and period that are essential for informed connoisseurship, what you need is film seasons. And that is what made BBC-2 the greatest channel in tv history.
When I was growing up, BBC-2 simply handed to me, without request, a map of vintage Hollywood that created overnight lasting and fulfilling passions. Through carefully arranged and ordered seasons, it was this one channel that gave me my first taste of the Marx Brothers, Universal horror, Hammer horror, Garbo, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Chaplin, Welles. In each case, the pleasure given by one film was followed-up by the opportunity to see another, then another, then another still.
They showed complete runs of Charlie Chan and the Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses on Friday teatimes. They regularly programmed Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy shorts, even Leon Errol and Edgar Kennedy.
They are the reason that everyone of my generation not only knows who Harold Lloyd is but can sing the theme tune to the compilation tv series that delighted us all, with no regard whatever for the age of the material. The climb from Feet First was the talk of the playground the day after they showed it - over fifty years after it was filmed.
Neither were we struck by anything aged in the serials they revived, in Flash Gordon or King of the Rocket Men with its famous cheat cliffhangers. (I still remember an argument with a primary schoolmate who contended that they never finished the serials they began: they ran them daily, but he was misled by the ‘Next Week:’ title card into missing the following episodes. The point is that it simply hadn’t occurred to him that these artefacts had any kind of a history to them. They just were there, and we enjoyed them as much as we enjoyed The A-Team and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.)
And this bewildering choice, such as can only be dreamed of now, existed when there were only three television channels. When the fourth did come along, it had Leslie Halliwell on board as film programmer, so it too was stuffed to the gills with great afternoon matinees, late night rarities and comprehensive seasons: the Marxes and Universal horrors got another run-through, and Jimmy Cagney’s death was solemnised with a seemingly endless run comprising the vast majority of his starring vehicles. And as context and supplement, Channel Four re-ran I Love Lucy, The Munsters and the Abbott and Costello Show, and plugged gaps in the schedule with Three Stooges shorts and Pete Smith Specialities.
How can you go looking for things you have never even heard of?
fffffffffffff Fay Wray taking a well-earned break between screams
Of course, the world of old cinema will not literally disappear. It will survive as an area of academic study. But there are all sorts of reasons why this is a very poor substitute for vibrant, popular appreciation. For one thing, academics are a dull and unimaginative lot. They rarely say things they have not first heard their colleagues say. They can be soul-destroying when they have a bee in their bonnet and are horribly prone to the drivelling excesses of postmodernism. They can suck the life and joy out of just about anything. And they do love their canons. The politique des auteurs has created an entirely false perspective with which to view cinema history, but it will prevail, and students will toil over the dullest and least interesting works of Welles and Hawks and Hitchcock, while so much that is fresh and innovative and different and imaginative, but does not come with an approved name attached, will be left to decay.
But most of all, academic dissection is no match for the true purpose of cinema: to enthral and delight the crowd, to create a world of magic and glamour with the resources of a big studio, a star system and sheer craftsmanship.
That is what Fay Wray represented, what the movies once meant, and what is being dimly recalled by Scream-Alikes and similar well-meant exercises in the reduction of such sprawling profusion to a few neat lists and observations.
So well done, Shannon – but keep going. There’s much, much more.