Thursday, December 22, 2011

My All-Time Favourite Movie Books: “Louise Brooks – Portrait of an Anti-Star”

This is one of those books that takes me back instantly to the early nineteen-eighties, when I was just embarking on my love affair with old movies.

I had of course never heard of her until she died in 1985, and the BBC showed an old documentary, Diary of a Lost Girl, Pandora's Box and, charmingly, Overland Stage Raiders (still one of my all-time favourite Brooks movies; still one of the very few westerns I watch for fun.)
I'd just turned twelve, and hitherto my old movie crush had been Marlene Dietrich, who had transfixed me in a BBC Saturday matinee double-bill of Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. But Brooks was something quite different, and my memory, rendered hyperbolic by time, insists that within a few minutes of watching her in Pandora's Box my voice had broken.

The book is a kind of scrapbook of various essays, articles and bits of ephemera. There are loads of photographs, not glossy or glamorously reproduced but, it seemed to me at the time, almost a portal into a world of slightly dark, slightly decadent allure.
I didn't know there were old movies like this, or old movie stars.

How I came upon it is a story inextricably interwoven with the geography of the city of Plymouth.
Plymouth’s city centre has been massively restructured in recent years. It was never the most charming of shopping centres: thanks to our proximity to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport it had been more or less razed by the Nazis during the war, then rebuilt in the Attlee years as a series of distended grey concrete blocks which, viewed from above, had a distinct and ironic touch of the Albert Speers to their fearful symmetry, but from the ground must have seemed unbelievably austere and lifeless compared to what had been there before.
Nonetheless, it was a design that still revealed the touch of a human hand. Not the work of a creative imagination, clearly, but you could still see the brushmarks for all that. What has now replaced it, with no war as excuse for further tampering, is incomparably worse, a drunken computer's nightmare, dominated by an enormous video screen hovering like a War of the Worlds tripod where once the eye was led gracefully through a straight avenue leading to the famous Plymouth Hoe, where Drake famously played snooker while waiting for the Vikings.

And Drake, our city's most famous son (with the possible exception of Wayne Sleep) gave his name to the site of my first encounter with this book: the Drake Circus shopping complex.
This was, depending on who you asked, either an ugly concrete rabbit's warren or a fascinatingly eccentric radiating splurge of subways leading in several directions to and from a central open air tapestry of mainly small, friendly shops. But I always thought that entering it was a bit like entering a secret cave, or passing through one world into another.
As a child, my mother and I would come here every Friday on the bus, get off at the library just on the outskirts, and pass down into the first tunnel which, like them all, offered a mysterious choice of directions (mysterious in that we always took the same route, and it was some little while before I was old enough to be there on my own, and find out where the adjacent passages actually took you).
Always there was a cheery busker, and with tiled walls depicting scenes from Plymouth’s past, these longish, dark and echoing tunnels were not remotely frightening. Week in and out we passed through them, never for a second entertaining the thought that they contained even the latent potential of threat, as indeed they did not at that time.
The first tunnel took you to a kind of central courtyard, where we would stop and feed bread to the pigeons. (This was the highlight of my week, partly because a goodly percentage of the bread ended up in me rather than the pigeons.) We then took the left path, into the Drake Circus complex itself.

The first thing you saw was the back entrance of C&A. The front was right at the other end of the complex, a fact I found incredibly impressive. Sometimes we would use C&A as a kind of unofficial subway into the town proper, but they eventually caught on to this and stopped people using the back entrance, so we had to pass through Drake Circus itself.
First on the left was a cheery, dimly-lit café, where tables would be routinely shared by strangers, and we would sometimes stop for a bowl of 'soup of the day', also known as minestrone. On the right, a wool shop.
Then on the left, the first Tesco supermarket I had ever seen. The exact layout of its two floors remains so vivid in my mind that you could give me a shopping list and I would know exactly where to find each item, something I still can’t do in my local Sainsbury’s after six months of regular usage.
But we will ignore Tesco’s today and march onward still, because we have another destination in mind.We will not even turn right, where at the top of one of the only outside escalators I have ever seen stood my favourite childhood shop: an Aladdin’s cave called Arcadia: two massive open-plan floors with, on the ground, paperbacks, magazines, annuals, sweets and records, and on the top, a wonderland of toys.
No, we are heading straight ahead, to a small but enchanting bookshop called Chapter and Verse.

Here is where my earliest memories of solo book buying are located, where I turned so many vague potential interests into lifelong passions, with careful purchases of judiciously chosen stock. Here is where I bought my first book on ancient Egypt (Romer's Egypt by John Romer) and my first book on Hitchcock, and my first Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion.
It seems to me there are no such bookshops now: they either sell nothing or everything, neither option really conducive to the kind of chance discoveries from which true devotion to a subject is built. Just as multi-channel television has killed the potential for stumbling upon and sticking with a film or programme you would not have chosen to watch but might just change your life, so too has the book superstore. If you know what you’re looking for, great, but stumbled-upon epiphanies are rare.
Chapter and Verse was shaped by human imagination. Space was at a premium, so stock was carefully chosen and the books were all good. And there, staring at me one Friday, was that amazing face I had just seen on television, the provocative, shiny haired, black-red lipped, hypnotic eyed, impossibly beckoning visage of Louise. The films had impressed me, but it was this book that made me her slave. For a few weeks I would simply go into the shop and browse through it, but soon enough I succumbed, as all men did around Louise, it would seem.

Of course all the iconic glamour shots were there, but the one that held my eye the longest was this one, a candid of her on a set, surrounded by books and eating a sandwich:

In later years, there would be other, technically better books about Louise to add to my shelves, but none were ever quite as exciting as this first one: I bought her own memoirs, collected as Lulu In Hollywood soon after, then a few years later Barry Paris's biography came along; just recently Peter Cowie's coffee-table tome became the ultimate photographic record of this most photogenic of all stars. Now, comes the mouthwatering news that her private journals are being prepared for publication.
My own view of Brooks has changed over the years too: my complete initial capitulation to her erotic hypnosis was eventually tainted by cynicism when I realised how well she stage-managed her decline, and how so many of the bad breaks that killed her career were brought about by her own stubbornness and vanity. But the delight I take in flicking through this book has never weakened for a second, and thus it belongs at the very top of my list of film books I cannot imagine life without. I only have to look at the cover to be transported back to that time when the cerebral passions of cinemania were first mixed with the more instinctive fixations that mark the transition from short to long trousers.

As for Chapter and Verse: well, we had many more pleasant encounters to come, but it disappeared eventually, as all things too good for this world must sooner or later do. And eventually, the entire Drake Circus complex was demolished and rebuilt, seemingly freehand, with whatever materials happened to be lying around at the time.
The original was by no means a pretty thing: it was grey, it was shadowy, and cold even in Summer. What it has been replaced by, however, is something only a computer could love, and I'm proud to say it was the 2006 inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the prestigious award given by architectural magazine Prospect to honour the most egregious eyesores in Britain.

(Movietone Books continues next year)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Adventures in Cinemagoing, December 2011

The late, lamented Gerald Stewart once wrote: "Rather than his directorial efforts, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s work as film enthusiast, preservationist, historian, and keeper of the flame."

I agree totally, having just enjoyed his amazing three hour love letter to cinema Italiana, My Voyage To Italy.
It's as good, as detailed and as deep as a book, and the man's insights into the films, both analytical and autobiographical, are fascinating.
I'm constantly amazed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge and appreciation of cinema, from Michael Powell to Antonioni to Hammer horror, and none of it guesswork.
Quite why so little of that leaks back out when he gets behind a camera is a mystery indeed.
I can see that Taxi Driver is a great film, and Mean Streets probably is, but neither are films I feel any need to see again: surely one standard of great cinema. The only Scorsese film that ever calls me back is The King of Comedy. And how a man who knows and loves as much as he does about classical Hollywood could possibly have made something as crass as Cape Fear is simply inexplicable to me.
This enigma was uppermost in my mind at the cinema last night as I got my first sightings of the trailers for two movies that have had my discerning fellow classic film bloggers reaching for the superlatives like they're coming into fashion: The Artist and Scorsese’s Hugo.
Of course, one should never judge a film by its trailer (they’re usually much better than the movie) but I confess I saw precious little to attract me about Hugo. It looks like a Spielberg film, with that new-fashioned fantasy look that somehow manages to dribble out of the boring CGI effects and spatter the actors too, so the whole thing takes on that strange, sharp, grey, metallic quality of computer-aided joyless magic. I can't care. And I didn’t much like the book either.
The Artist, on the other hand, looks so amazingly good I scarcely dare to dream that it might live up to its promise – could it, even? This really could be what I’ve longed for for years: not a pastiche, just a new old movie.

Old movies are the safest bet at Christmas, but we didn’t manage It’s a Wonderful Life this year. Our local cinema advised us to get our tickets early because “they sell out faster than Comet”. I have not the smallest idea what that means, but we did as advised, and settled down for a delightful evening, beginning with mulled wine and mince pies, and then a carol concert. So far, so lovely. Then, when the film started, the speakers farted and died and the film became virtually inaudible. We left after ten minutes, on the promise of a second showing with the same tickets.
In the event we couldn’t make it, so we swapped our tickets for Les émotifs anonymes. Utterly delightful. I like a romantic comedy as much as the next husband, but they rarely if ever actually make me laugh out loud. Parts of this, however, are really, really funny, and all of it is adorable. Incredibly warm performances from Isabelle Carré and Benoît Poelvoorde. The latter, a lifetime ago when I was a first year undergraduate, was a student-wall poster perennial on account of a wretched film called Man Bites Dog, but he has latterly aged and thickened into one of the most charming actors on the planet. What a face! Made for movies. And he made the entire audience laugh by saying "Hugde".
I cannot recommend this one enough; a delight from first frame to last.

I got my favourite ever reader’s comment last month.
It’s from the prolific Anonymous, who often drops in with something oblique to say, sometimes to offer me all sorts of interesting products and services, sometimes to tell me that my post helped him with an exam.
This time he looked in on my post on Patricia Roc and had this to say about it:

There is no doubt that Patricia Roc was a formidable movie star. However I would like to say that she had also very beatifull and elegant figure and the best woman legs up today.

He could be right. Or do you disagree? Who do you think has the best woman legs up today?
Suggestions in the comments please…

Monday, November 28, 2011

We see them all the time, and we never notice them

I can't remember the last time the death of a film-maker felt as epoch-defining to me as that of Ken Russell, who has left us at the age of 84.

And I suspect future generations will look back at how little room we gave him to manoeuvre in the last decades of his professional life with some considerable bafflement. His was an infuriatingly erratic talent, impossible to contain or divert, and his work, even in his peak creative years, is an uncommonly extreme combination of peaks and troughs. But however deep the troughs, some of the heights were giddy indeed. That he ended his life making eccentric vanity productions with amateur casts, shot in his house on home video, unable to find any kind of financing in other ways, will seem an epic indictment of us.

You could never be sure what he would come up with - it could be a masterpiece or a dud or, most likely, some previously undiscovered simultaneous amalgam of the two - but it would always be interesting - more interesting than, and certainly quite, quite unlike - the work of any other British director.
Looking at his career chronologically it is, unquestionably a tragedy.
First, apprentice works of enormous sophistication and beauty on television, most notably his sublime portraits of classical composers for the BBC arts series Monitor. The increasingly cinematic ambition (not to say iconoclastic provocativeness) of these productions segued naturally into a feature film career of profuse energy and commitment. Incredibly, there was a time where big studios were willing to give him big budgets and big stars to make wild, kaleidoscopic, intensely personal films on commercially suicidal subjects. Thanks to the surprise critical and box-office success of Women In Love in 1969 (definitely not one of his best films, actually: he himself considered it his worst) he got to make The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend and The Devils: a redefinition of eclecticism, but all of it rooted centrally in the same set of basic artistic concerns.
Perhaps inevitably it was not a ride he was going to be allowed to play on forever. A trip to Hollywood led neither to work of value (Altered States and Crimes of Passion both have followers, but to me they just do not give the impression of being shaped by a free hand) nor to useful opportunities thereafter, and after one final burst of frivolous eccentricity back in Britain (Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm, Salome's Last Dance) he was reduced first to hack work, and then, when even that dried up, to tail-chasing video experimentalism.

The great thing about Russell was that there was nothing predictable about his iconoclasm. He had no social or ideological agenda. He cared nothing for social realism (once beautifully suggesting that the Free Cinema movement got its name because the directors associated with it "received free handouts from the British Film Institute"). He cared only for art. As he wrote in his autobiography A British Picture he was "somebody who doesn't, on the face of it, seem too political, too committed or press his working class background. I can't be fitted into any of those pigeonholes."
No artist spent so much of their own creativity examining the artistic processes of others. His key mode was biographical, but always filtered through his own imagination, and with a commitment to underlying meaning over objective, historical truth.
As he put it in his book Fire Over England: "My intention was never to produce a factual, day by day account of the composer's life - that's the stuff of newsreels, explaining nothing of the man's inner life. What I've always been after is the spirit of the composer as manifest in his music."
This leads to varying effects, from the sublime simplicity of Elgar (1962, which I have described elsewhere on this site as "in a sense... his most truly rebellious film: in its pastoralism, its sobriety and its unabashed admiration for a key icon of unfashionable Empire Britain, it went against the emerging anti-establishment and London-centric mood of sixties Britain") all the way - via every intermediate gradation - to the self-engulfing excess of Lisztomania (1975), with Roger Daltrey as Liszt, reimagined as a pop star. "The fact that the treatment of the subject matter was symbolically and intellectually above the heads of the Daltrey fans was unfortunate, for the film was pure magic," is how he later summed-up the film's disastrous reception in his book Directing Film.
("How I wince when I see the words 'Based on a True Story' flash on the screen, because you can bet your bottom dollar it's going to be harrowing, horrible and banal," he wrote in the same book. "And so you are blackmailed into enduring the most awful claptrap on the grounds that the subject matter is worthy. Frequently they're about saints, disabled people or repentant rapists.")

Russell always had trouble with critics, and in fairness he went out of his way to court it. He certainly enjoyed playing the enfant terrible. "I sometimes think I would fare better in the hands of British critics if I was called Russelini," he once wrote, and he had a point. His flamboyance and theatricality would have passed unremarked from one whose background had not been in the British documentary tradition.
At his worst, there is a banality to his excesses that negates their potential even as a shock tactic. As I wrote in an earlier post: "The trouble I have with Russell when he goes crazy is that the wildness of his imagination is not matched by any comparable liberation in technique. Everything is shot in the same unimaginative and prosaic manner, so the end result is bathos; it just looks silly... There are two Russells (at least): one who loves being outrageous - and really naff erotica - and one whose experimentalism and occasional sensationalism are underpinned by a deep and sensitive commitment to high culture. Mahler (1974) in particular shows these two Russells at war: much of the film is straightforward and fine, then Russell the iconoclast bursts forth, and the effect is lost in the service of non-shocking shocks, non-frenzied frenzy, down to earth insanity."

But enough - let the retrospectives begin.
Pick any three Russell films at random, especially from among those made before Altered States, and there will surely be enough surprises, enough energy, enough beauty and enough wild invention to justify his status as one of the most important film-makers Britain has ever produced.
My own personal retrospective would begin with Elgar, certainly, then progress through Song of Summer, his pioneering study of Delius, for the first time incorporating scripted episodes with actors rather than mere documentary reconstruction; then leap to the temporary apotheosis of Dance of the Seven Veils, his scabrous life of Richard Strauss that proved so outrageous it was disowned by the BBC after protests from the composer's estate. Viewed today, it seems a clear bridge between the television and cinematic work: elements of it recur not just in the composer movies but also in The Devils, and like The Devils, its (often surprising) excesses are plainly defensible in a way that is not always possible in Russell's work.
Of the cinema films, I would have to start with The Devils, for its awesome power and passion, though it is, to say the least, not an easy film to watch at times. But the points it makes are valid, and much of it is quite brilliant.
I would like to include The Boyfriend, its immediate follow-up, mainly because I love the fact that he opted to follow The Devils with a twenties musical. But as my friend and fellow Russellmaniac Anthony Blampied warned me, it is sadly a film that defiantly refuses to be as good as it looks: there's just too much in it, without variation, to hold the spectator's enthusiasm, and what seems effervescent at first has tired by at least the halfway point. Still, it is a thing of wonderful parts, and is perhaps best watched as a serial, one twenty minute chunk at a time.
My other certain choice would be one of his least-known films, but in my opinion his greatest of all. Savage Messiah (1973) is his fascinating and moving study of the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, and outshines even Song of Summer as his most perfect mixture of drama, documentary and analysis. Further, the final few minutes are unbelievably moving.
In Directing Film, Russell recalls that he double-mortgaged his London mansion to finance it, only to then see it close after five days in the West End. "I'm now living in a small cottage in the provinces," he writes. "The fact that the film is a masterpiece is ample compensation."
The last film in my retrospective would be A British Picture, an autobiographical film made for British television to tie-in with the book of the same name. Bursting with vindicating insight and observation, it is the ultimate statement of Russell's artistic credo, and a fascinating summation of his career. The tragedy is that it seemed valedictory even then.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ken a few years ago when he gave a talk at a literary festival in Cornwall.
He was in fine and frequently ribald form, at one point attempting to lead the audience in a singalong of 'The Good Ship Venus. But the thing he said that really stuck in my mind was in response to the inevitable question; what is your next film going to be?
He said it was going to be about trees - just film of trees, with beautiful music in the background.
"We see them all the time," he explained, "and we never notice them."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Friday night is Falcon night

One of the great things about not having access to any television channels is that you get to programme your own viewing like it's your own channel, which in my case invariably means a kind of mix and match approximation of the television I used to enjoy as a boy.

So while classic series detectives may be good fun at any time, they're just sublime on Fridays round about teatime, just as they were in the early 1980s, when BBC-2 introduced me carefully and sequentially to the adventures of Rathbone's Holmes, Charlie Chan and The Saint.
Friday night was going to be Charlie Chan night, in fact, but I was dismayed to pull out my old copy of The Black Camel two weeks ago and discover that the sound was almost completely inaudible. So a last-minute substitution was needed, and my eyes fell upon The Falcon, which I had never really payed much attention to before, and certainly didn't know inside out and upside down, as I do the Rathbones and many of the Chans.
I'd loved George Sanders as The Saint, and had always been intrigued by the idea of The Falcon's Brother, in which the Falcon hands over his investigations to his brother, played by his soundalike real-life brother Tom Conway, who then carried on for the rest of the series. So on it went.
The first, The Gay Falcon, was a treat, and so I pressed on the following week, and A Date With the Falcon was a treat too. So now Friday night is Falcon night for the foreseeable future.
Sanders is most of the show, of course, but they are distinctive, playful little films; I love the character's bon mots, his outrageously roving eye, and the interplay with Allen Jenkins as his ex-con Watson. It's sort of reminded me of something I was in danger of forgetting: that Sanders is actually one of my favourite actors of the forties.

Truth is, the movies didn’t really know what to do with him. He didn’t seem to fit any available type. With his chiseled good looks and supremely melodious voice he should have been a gift to Hollywood in leading man roles, but he projected a more complex and ambiguous persona than, say, Ronald Colman or Leslie Howard. Nor did he have the easy charm of a Cary Grant. He was never quite comfortable playing the straightforward hero. But neither was he suited to villainous roles: they tried that, too. He was too obviously good-natured to play the bad guy, yet too indolent for the hero, and casting him soon became almost impossible.
So the bulk of his movies, certainly the performances we remember best, are supporting roles: slimy Jack Favell in Rebecca, epigram-tossing Lord Henry Wooton in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the accidentally heroic ffolkes in Foreign Correspondent (opposite Joel McCrea, the kind of uncomplicated heroic lead Sanders could never be).
Had he been American, he might have been a natural fit for the kind of world-weary private eye roles in which Bogart came to specialise, but his deeply cultured voice counted against him there. The Saint and The Falcon were as close as he got (though his last full Falcon adventure was based rather impudently on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely): sleuths at large in a forties noir world, but with a distinctly 1930s urbanity.
It was his air of cynicism, detachment and a kind of amused boredom that most defined his screen presence, a dark twinkle in his eyes, the slight but ever present hint of a sneer around his mouth and a slightly mocking note in his voice. Sanders’s characters can be heroic if absolutely necessary, but they certainly don’t go looking for maidens to rescue and dragons to slay.

He had never longed to be an actor: that his good looks and even handsomer voice might be well-suited to the stage was suggested to him by the company secretary of an advertising agency where he was working, and on her recommendation he gave it a whirl, as he did most things, more or less in the spirit of a lark, never dreaming that it might actually come to something. (She didn’t do too badly for herself either: she was Greer Garson.)
“Acting is like roller-skating,” he later explained. “Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting.” But if you’re one of the lucky ones, it does offer a relatively undemanding means of paying the bills, which was exactly what he was looking for. In his autobiography he wrote: “I am not one of those people who would rather act than eat. Quite the reverse. My own desire as a boy was to retire. That ambition has never changed.”
Hollywood was especially useful because it kept him out of the war; according to David Niven he made no secret of his refusal to contribute to the war effort, which certainly took bravery of a sort. He also told him cheerfully that he would take his own life in his sixties, when it had ceased to interest him.
Witty and well-dressed cads seemed his stock in trade through the forties (“beastly but never coarse” as he put it, “a high class sort of heel”), though as he grew older he was able to diversify somewhat. He played a lot of costume roles in biblical and historical epics in the fifties, beginning with Cecil B DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949, and continuing through Ivanhoe, King Richard and the Crusaders and Solomon and Sheba.
But amidst all the corn he managed to turn in some of his very finest work: in All About Eve, ideally cast as wasp-stinged theatre critic Addison DeWitt and, even better in my opinion, as Ingrid Bergman's bored and cynical husband in Roberto Rosselini’s Voyage To Italy, a character one suspects to be very close to the Sanders of real life.
Voyage is one of those movies I have to strictly ration: I could watch it over and over. His interplay with Bergman, herself never more magnificent than when working for Rossellini (I love her Hollywood films, but this is simply a different actress), is excoriatingly real and vivid, and the film has an unmistakable power that makes its initial rejection, by critics as well as audiences, seem simply inexplicable.

With grey hair, stockier build and a new found gravitas he also made an ideal foil for comedians. I love him as the art dealer who takes on Tony Hancock’s pretentious painter in The Rebel, unaware that the Hancock masterpieces that send him into such raptures were painted by his former roommate: Hancock's own work (he considers himself father of the Shapist movement: all the colours are different shapes), though the rage of the dilettantes, is a mess of childish scribbling. (Galton & Simpson, Hancock's writers, recalled Sanders telling them that he had reached an age where sex was infinitely less preferable to a really successful bowel movement.) And he's hilariously deadpan as the millionaire under suspicion of murder in A Shot in the Dark who plays a memorable game of billiards with Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. He also revealed a new talent as a singer and songwriter, recording the delightfully titled album The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady, a collection of classic and self-penned romantic ballads, in 1958.

Off the screen his life was often unpredictable, and increasingly unsatisfying to him. His first marriage had come to an end in 1949, and he immediately married Zsa Zsa Gabor. Though this ended in divorce in 1954, the two remained friendly for this rest of his life. (His fourth marriage, in 1970 and lasting only six weeks, was to her older sister Magda.)
His happiest marriage, and the only one not to be ended by divorce, had been his third, to actress Benita Hume, the widow of Ronald Colman, in 1959. He was devastated when she died of bone cancer in 1967, and it was at this point that his habitual cynicism tipped into outright pessimism. He made a few more films, but he was drinking heavily, and was so distraught when a small stroke resulted in his inability to play his grand piano he smashed it to pieces with an axe.
Unable to stomach the thought of being helpless and cared for by others, he began to prepare the end by his own hand that, according to Niven, he had been planning since his youth. His prediction came to pass in a hotel room in Barcelona in 1972. He left three notes: one for his sister, a kind and thoughtful request that she not grieve unduly, one to the manager of the hotel, explaining that he had left the cost of his room in his jacket pocket, and one beginning ‘Dear World’.
In the latter he wrote, “I am leaving because I am bored”, and signed off “Good luck.”

Despite his once summing up his career by saying “I never really thought I'd make the grade, and let's face it, I haven't”, Sanders now seems one of the real standout actors of his day. You certainly don't mistake him for anyone else (not even Tom Conway).
Offscreen it seems he was a man who never really found his place in the world, or quite knew what he wanted to do with the life he had been given. But he left more behind to remember him by than he realised.
When I've finished with the Falcon, I'm going to reintroduce myself to The Saint.

Friday, November 18, 2011

“I’ll never look like Rita Tushingham”

To a young boy growing up in Britain in the late nineteen-seventies, Diana Dors seemed to be on television virtually every night of the week.
I wasn’t sure exactly what she did, but she was always there: large, loud, in big pink tent-dresses from which gold high-heeled shoes peeked at the bottom, and white blonde hair exploded at the top. She was always rosy-cheeked and smiling and laughing, but the knowing eyes and gravelly laugh seemed charged with the cynicism of experience, and some kind of unspoken common history seemed shared by her and her interviewers, and we the audience, that only I was not privy to. She seemed jolly, and straightforward, like an eccentric aunt, but was there something hidden there, too?

I didn’t know until much later that in the fifties she had been Britain’s biggest, brassiest movie star - but then, to someone born in 1973, 1953 might as well have been the Middle Ages.
Now I’m of an age to see how truly short a period of time twenty years really is, I have a fuller sense of just how fast her career was, and just how much experience and living was packed into it.
When she died in 1984, I thought she was in her late sixties at least. In fact, she was just 52, and she had been a star for over 35 years.

The future Miss Dors was born Diana Fluck, in Swindon in 1931. Her mother Mary lived with two men, and Diana never knew which was her father, but it was Bert Fluck, sub-head of the Great Western Railway’s accounts department, that brought her up. (Dors was the surname of her maternal grandmother; she would explain that she changed it in case it was ever painted in lights on Broadway, and the 'L' malfunctioned. Is it true, or apocryphal, that she was once mistakenly asked in a tv interview the no-U turn-possible question: 'Was it embarrassing growing up as a child with the surname Clunt?')
Diana's dreams of stardom were not pursued in the face of parental indifference or resistance: Mary deliberately took her to see glamorous Hollywood movies, and encouraged both her ambitions and her air of precocious sexual knowingness.
By the age of fifteen she was earning a guinea an hour modelling, and was the youngest ever student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where she won several medals for elocution and dramatic excellence. Her very genuine talent led almost instantly to a contract with the Rank organisation and an endless series of variations on the same few roles: blowsy good time girls, dance hall queens and barmaids.
She had something new: a relaxed, natural quality on screen and an obvious authenticity in working class roles, and both assets paradoxically but magnetically combined with the kind of natural glamour audiences expected to find in Hollywood movies but was rarely to be found in Swindon. (And though invariably compared to Marilyn Monroe, it is important to remember that Diana was no carbon copy: she actually achieved stardom first.)
Rarely did a film come along to challenge her or offer anything new or surprising to the public, and while the production-line fodder of the early fifties looks just wonderful to us today, British audiences of the time generally found such product an entirely drab alternative to Hollywood, at the time at its most tv-obsessed crowds-of-thousandsish. The key to Diana's initial appeal, perhaps, was that she seemed like an authentic piece of Hollywood glamour in the mundane context of British B-feature comedies and crime thrillers. Titles like Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? and My Wife’s Lodger (currently available on a charming, highly recommended double bill DVD from the BFI) did little to enhance her critical reputation, but audiences weren’t complaining. They liked her on screen and most of all they liked her in the newspapers and magazines, where she was happy to pose in eye catching outfits and swimwear, and proved a witty and attractively self-deprecating interviewee.
At 20 she was the country’s youngest registered owner of a Rolls Royce motor car.

Diana herself was becoming restless with the treadmill, however, and interviews increasingly became dominated by two aspirations: to crack Hollywood, and to get serious, meatier roles to play. (Her hopeless desire to play a nun was a frequent refrain at this time.) She also spoke of her ‘five year plan’: “to make enough money while I’m young and enjoy it; five years and then a family and real living.”
She never quite achieved any of these goals, and the main reason – in all three cases - was Dennis Hamilton, the first of her three husbands. She never picked her men well, indeed she seemed to perversely and knowingly pick them badly, but Hamilton was the worst: a ghastly, violent sponger who comfortably settled into the role of her manager and promoter, encouraging her to turn down work if the money was not lavish enough, and to present a more arrogant, aloof public image that he felt was better suited to a screen goddess. Sometimes he turned down work on her behalf without even informing her of the offer, especially if Burt Lancaster was pencilled in as co-star.

She never did play that nun, but dramatic roles in The Weak and the Wicked and, especially, in Yield to the Night (a drama about capital punishment inspired by the Ruth Ellis case, in which she dared to appear without make-up), showed a little of the very real talent the studios left so deliberately untapped at all other times.
And Hollywood did come calling: RKO put her under contract and launched her on a wave of publicity, but her Hollywood experience never really survived its disastrous beginning.
Her marriage to Hamilton was by this time seriously on the rocks, his increasingly violent and bizarre behaviour exacerbated by her unwillingness to make a permanent base in America, take up citizenship and devote her attention solely to a Hollywood career. ("Diana will do what I tell her to do," he told an interviewer around this time; "When you quote me you're quoting Diana, and never mind what she says.") At a swanky party designed to introduce her to the Hollywood elite, a drunken Hamilton, jealous of the limelight rightly angled at Diana alone, picked a fight with a press photographer and savagely attacked him. Her reputation stateside never really recovered. Though she would continue to work sporadically in America over the next few years – the leads had dried up but she did some decent supporting work and television – the Hollywood dream was basically over before it had ever begun.

Back in Britain, she found the climate changing. Like jealous lovers, fans and newspapers who had once supported her now condemned her for abandoning them for tinseltown, and columnists wrote disparagingly of her lavish, lawless lifestyle. When her first autobiography was serialised in the News of the World in 1960, some of her scandalous revelations of life with Hamilton, replete with wild parties, blue movies and two-way mirrors, caused outrage. The Mayor of Swindon denounced her for “bringing shame on the town” and the Archbishop of Canterbury called her “a wayward hussy”. The announcement that she would be appearing in that year’s Royal Variety Show was met with a storm of protest, and even though she did appear as planned, she wasn’t presented to the Queen.
And the movies were also changing. The naivety and artificiality of the films Diana had known was giving way to kitchen sinks and angry young men, in worlds where Diana’s brand of impossible glamour had little place. Overnight, standards of female beauty changed, and she seemed instantly anachronistic alongside the likes of Julie Christie and Twiggy. “No matter how hard I try,” she told one interviewer resignedly, “I’ll never look like Rita Tushingham.” And so British roles, too, began to dry up, just as the American ones had.
Her first solution was to take to cabaret, where she was promoted by the man who became her second husband, Richard Dawson. After divorcing him she married her final husband, the actor Alan Lake, in 1968. Though not as disastrous as any of her previous relationships, it was still an ill-advised match. Lake was neurotic and fiery, an alcoholic given, like Hamilton, to the occasional public brawl, and Diana, cast increasingly in a maternal role, found him draining and unpredictable. (Five months to the day after her death, an inconsolable Lake returned to their former home, now up for sale, and committed suicide. He was 43.)
Diana quickly put on weight, and segued instantly from sexpot roles to playing frustrated landladies and matronly, faded women. Michael Winner's brilliant first film West 11 introduced this new Diana in 1963, and though she remained elegant and dazzling off screen, despite her ballooning size, on screen she seemed to positively revel in looking as dowdy and washed-up as she could, perhaps thinking that this would at last give her the chance to be recognised for her dramatic capabilities. Even so, there was something self-demeaning in the way she seemed so frequently to play characters whose unattractiveness was of their essence, and even commented upon, like the slatternly wife of Peter Sellers's doorman in There's a Girl In My Soup. (Describing the latest girlfriend of Sellers's randy tv chef as having "legs all the way up to her arse", he adds that when Diana stands up "her arse comes all the way down to her knees.") You can imagine the impression she might once have made on the young Harold Steptoe in the one-and-nines, but by the time they meet in one of the spin-off film Steptoe and Son Ride Again she is a nymphomaniac who invites him into her flat while her late husband is still lying in state, her sturdy legs packed into white knee-high boots, and from whose attentions Harold cannot escape fast enough.
Such work was now typical; she had become a professional guest star, taking a scene here and a scene there in bawdy comedies and horror films. Of the latter, the most interesting was probably Herman Cohen's well-named big-top blood-spiller Berserk! (1967), in which she got to co-star with a similarly down in the world Joan Crawford. By all accounts the two got on like a house on fire.

Television became her real home, and this is where I came in, waiting for Robin's Nest to start and wondering just who these people were with names like Kenny Lynch and Bernie Winters and indeed Diana Dors, whose presence seemed instantly to represent something they were never obliged to demonstrate. Like Kenneth Williams she had become a professional celebrity, and her real career was in chat shows, panel games, cabaret clubs and kiss and tell autobiographies (she wrote no fewer than five), helping to keep her profile high with memorable appearances in The Two Ronnies (packed into leather as the dominatrix head of all the all-women secret police in the serial The Worm That Turned) and a regular diet spot on new-fangled breakfast television.
In the early 1980s she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and though early early treatment was deemed successful, the condition recurred. She died in May 1984.
It had been a troubled and difficult life, for all its glamour, but today, she is more highly regarded than at any time during her career. Her very real comic and dramatic talent is widely acknowledged, and several sympathetic biographies have told the true and often tragic story behind the glitzy façade. And as far as British movies are concerned there really has never been anyone else quite like her. Had she lived, she would have been eighty last month.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lots of buzzing moths

For anyone that enjoyed Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold now brings you a revisionist Wuthering Heights, with lots of buzzing moths and a black Heathcliff. Those who have seen it tell me it also features anachronistic swearing and genuinely traumatised dogs, in what context I can only guess. But I can confirm that it has the most pretentious trailer in film history.
So, sadly, the Bath Film Festival is an almost total waste of time. I left London mainly to get away from Ken Loach; now the loony old bastard shows up here. And the films on offer are, in the main, all too deserving of his patronage.
Apart from a few meagre reissues - increasingly the sole purpose of film festivals for me - I only left the house for The Awakening, a ghost story with a twenties setting and Rebecca Hall from Vicky Christina Barcelona. It's that one again: the one that starts with the uncompromisingly rationalist ghostbuster disrupting a fake seance, then shows them going to a spooky old pile on their next case in the same confrontational frame of mind, only to have their certainties overturned after a few encounters with the other world, before a poignant resolution reveals a) their own personal involvement in the hauntings, and b) the fact that some of the people they had been interacting with throughout were in fact ghosts from the start.
It probably wasn't all that original when James Herbert wrote it up as Haunted 25-odd years ago, and a lot of M. Night Shyamalan has flowed under the bridge since then. (The film they made of Haunted with Kate Beckinsale was even more similar, being set, unlike the novel, in the twenties too.) This one's by Stephen Volk, still plugging away; the usual meticulously maintained period atmosphere and settings knowingly undermined by proudly deliberate anachronisms of characterisation and dialogue, a few good scares, and a made for television look to it. Still I suppose we'll have to get used to stark, camcorder visuals and sound recording now that they're not making movie cameras anymore. Another miracle advance of the digital age we're all so proud of.

The new Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method, is a dramatisation of the 'Anna O' case, that made a superstar of Freud and condemned the twentieth century to understanding the mind via a totally fraudulent and irredeemable set of schema and assumptions. That's Keira at the London premiere in the photo. Good to see she's still doing herself up to the nines and coming out for these premieres, even in winter, when she must know the films she gets cast in are always headed for nowhere. Cronenberg hasn't made a really good film since The Brood in 1979, and if this film presents the story in terms even vaguely flattering to Freud, as certainly appears to be the case from the trailer, then I fear this is yet another back door-bound Keira epic I'll nonetheless trot along to regardless: no other actress in history has so consistently rewarded unconditional support with such relentlessly duff movies.
They rarely make any money either, but somehow the next one always comes along: Keira, like Garbo before her, is clearly understood to be one of those commodities for whom actual box office take is largely irrelevant. It's like their films were/are seen as future investments, that will pay off when the appeal is retrospective.

Does the same apply to Jennifer Aniston? Has she ever made a hit movie? I ask only for information, implying no blanket dismissal of her cinematic output. For reasons I explained here, I’ve actually seen an ungodly number of her movies, and some of them are quite good, some of them not so good, a couple are very pleasant indeed, and The Good Girl registers the full Clockwork Orange on the universal crapometer. But none of them, so far as I can see, went over wowsville at the big B-O. And yet she seems to be one of those subsidised stars who always gets a second chance, whereas others can be killed by just one flop, and still more are never given the big chance in the first place.
When you look at the golden age, you sometimes ache to see more of a particular star, but you can’t, because they were at a studio that only had room for them in B’s or support, while the kings and queens got all the plums. Odd thing is that even without a studio system, much the same thing happens today.
At any given time, a vast list of well known names toil in quickies or pop up only now and again, while a select pantheon take home all the cherries, even those to which they are far less suited than many another contender. I mean, I like Anne Hathaway a lot, but does she have to be in everything?
And because all the stars do the publicity rounds, keeping their faces as fresh as possible in chat shows and premieres and fashion shoots; because therefore at the moment you're just as likely to open a magazine and see Anna Faris as Anne Hathaway, you tend to forget how long it's been since you saw Anna Faris in an actual movie, and you get the illusory feeling that there's work enough for them all, and they're all busy beavering away out there under the plastic rainbow. It takes a generation to get a really true sense of what the pecking order was.
This is more obvious the further back you go, and is just coming into focus now for the film stars of the 1990s, my first fully adult filmgoing decade. To anyone who went to the movies regularly then, it is interesting to see that more recent generations of moviegoers know exactly who Sharon Stone is, for example, but may be a little hazier on Madeleine Stowe or Virginia Madsen, regardless of how many films they've seen with each of them in. We thought of them as equal contenders, but of course they weren't really. Longevity, like stardom itself, is a surprisingly hard thing to predict, and the mood of the moment is no help, as anyone who picks up one of those F. Maurice Speed Film Review annuals from years past, and looks at either the 'Top Ten Box-Office Stars' or 'Ten Most Promising Faces' section, will realise in a sobering moment.

So will our children know much about Jennifer Aniston? Not sure.
Here she is in a film I only watched last night, but try as I might, I just can't remember the title of.
I had to go to the shelf to remind myself in order to Google for this photo, and I'm now going to have to go to the shelf again - and we're talking less than ten minutes later - to remind myself again in order to write the title here.
Ah, yes. It's called Just Go With It. Ask me to remind you at the end of this post and I'll doubtless have to go and check a third time. A suicidally unmemorable title, I'd say.
Originally sat to Jen's right in the picture is Adam Sandler, a light comic actor whose true level of popularity I've never quite been certain of, but who also keeps working away, in films that seem to do consistently well-ish but rarely smash (or bomb). I've only seen him in The Wedding Singer and Fifty First Dates. He gatecrashes when we invite Drew around. (Even Winona couldn't hold my attention too long into Mr Deeds.) He's showing his age in this one; getting a bit stocky, and it looks like he's dyeing his hair now. Comes to us all, I suppose. Quite a nice little actor, albeit not one I would have picked from the chorus line personally.
A few good laughs here. Not too bad. It's not really a pure pink film but a kind of couples movie that strives to appeal to both sexes equally, and full of references to contemporary popular culture, of which I understood just enough to realise how much of the rest of it went careening over my head. And even when they're not punchlining about tv shows and pop groups I've never heard of, they're talking very quickly, often at the same time, and with a lot of ambient noise. And I know this is supposed to be a golden age of sound recording, but to me at least a lot of the dialogue reached my ears like this:

Adam: Dgfgf rhrhhr jjytuwpq shdh?
Jennifer: Kf Lotrgfcd ghtyr!
Adam (unimpressed): Thf hghr jkupzcmght agde.
The blonde cutie Adam's trying to pull: Wqryr hghfde slpu.
Adam's dorky brother: Aw, come on! Retss fgfhr hjyt!
Jennifer (in comic triumph): Ghjfkjtye puytrew!!!

Two surprises: first, when Nicole Kidman shows up half way through in a funny but basically nothingish guest star supporting role (the best bit, actually, is the hula contest where she and Jennifer try to upstage each other) and then at the end, when I found out it was a remake of Cactus Flower (which I've never seen). This latter surprised me, at least, because the plot seems so entirely typical of contemporary comedy: an utterly and desperately absurd premise that must be swallowed whole and uncritically if the ensuing shenanigans are to have any comedic value. Loose remake is my guess. Presumably the original didn't have Ingrid Bergman indulging in bikini rivalry with Goldie Hawn.

Finding new plots for these romantic complication movies is a problem, of course. There are only so many ways boy can meet girl, lose girl over some comic misunderstanding or girl can realise that boy she took for granted is really boy of her dreams. Perfectly understandable if the desperation shows.
If (re-check and insert title here before publishing post) has a plot that seems to lean on the absurd side, Failure To Launch is just plain ludicrous. Possibly the silliest idea for a romantic comedy I have ever encountered, and not helped for me by the lead presence of Matthew McConnaughey, by no means a man without any rightful place in our cinematic wonderland, but surely one whose stock company villain's wolverine face positively screams 'Don't cast me as the lead in a romantic comedy'.
But the plot's the real snag: it would defeat any chemistry. Never mind Matthew McWhatsisname and her off Sex and the City, Cary and Audrey would lose a gallon of sweat each trying to keep it greased. It really is crazy. From the big central premise to the most peripheral subplot (Zooey Whatshername trying to get rid of a noisy nightingale) via just about every scene and set piece, all of it plays like someone telling you about the weird dream they had last night. And when you think of the number of screenplays being written that never see the light of day, and how many frustrated writers there are out there, the fact that this one got greenlighted and then went all the way to the screen, that a major studio had and never lost faith in it from draft to premiere... well, that's why I'm not a studio executive, I expect.

Our other pinkie this month was Morning Glory, seemingly a star vehicle for Rachel McAdam, of whom I had not even heard whispers, until we saw her, being very good, in Woody Allen's new one. I was also attracted by the elder supporting pairing of Diane Keaton, always good in anything, and Harrison Ford, an annoyingly underused actor who could have been a kind of modern Gary Cooper and second lieutenant to Clint (who in this movie he resembles quite a lot, especially vocally) if only he hadn’t got so rich so early, chasing robots down white corridors and Nazis through underground tombs. A handsome and likeable actor on the rare occasions he set his sights on appealing to adults – excellent in Polanski’s Frantic – he has proved wilfully elusive for most of his career. He’s nice in light comic roles, and here, though underused (as is Keaton), he's very funny indeed.
It's from the writer of Devil Wears Prada and has the same weird narrative arc: in the first a bright and talented girl takes a job on a fashion magazine she rightfully considers beneath her but comes, somehow, to love and share the superficiality of its worldview; now here a respected news journalist is forced to take a job on morning television, initially holds out against its banalities but comes, somehow, to learn respect for it, happily taking part in cookery demonstrations and forced banter with the co-host. Despite this cockeyed take on the subject the film, like its predecessor, is good fun.

This post is already too long, so here's just a brief rundown of what we've seen lately on Italian Night (see here for explanation):

Bread and Tulips: Delightful romantic comedy with the kind of wonderful actors with wonderful faces that only Italy seems to find, not like film stars at all, just fascinating-looking people: witness Licia Maglietta in the lead and Giuseppe Battiston as a hapless private detective. Audaciously happy: always a plus.
Marriage, Italian Style: Lovely, glossy De Sica trifle from his triumphant post-neorealist betrayal period; Marcello and Sophia halting the decline of the European film industry.
Malena: Monica attempts to revive the European film industry by walking down the street and having all the young men follow her, just like in those old Sophia movies. I just wish she only made Italian films, instead of naff European and Hollywood things like Shoot 'em Up and Irreversible. Always interesting to see an Italian perspective on World War 2; this is from the Cinema Paradiso fellow.
Summertime: David Lean unleashes his magic camera on a fifties Technicolor Venice: the smile takes a few hours to fade, though the scenario would have needed big print to fill the back of an envelope. Technique, and mood, are all.
Lights of Variety: Critical restraint dies when you love Fellini, so let's just call this a sink-your-teeth-in feast of magnificence. Actually, once colour and reputation got the better of his imagination, he became a unpredictable speculation, but he rarely lets you down when he's in black and white. Second case in point:
I Vitelloni: We set aside an afternoon on our honeymoon in Florence to watch this in our hotel. Granted, a film would have to be pretty bad to fail with that kind of build-up (Argento's Giallo managed it, though), but coming to this now, for a second time and just over a year later, it seemed if anything even more impressive: that 'can't quite catch it in your fingers' atmosphere, a concoction of photography, music, location, performance (all the cast are magnificent) and that extra spell Fellini waves over it all somehow.

Now I'll leave you with a couple more pictures of Keira looking fandabidozi at the Cronenberg premiere. As premiere outfits go, I'll give this one ***.
It's the only fair way to judge her movies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What are Woody Allen's most under-rated films?

We both enjoyed Midnight In Paris, nervously hailed (yet again) as Woody Allen's 'return to form', a claim treated with justified suspicion after a few writers jumped the gun after preview screenings and said the same of Melinda and Melinda and Match Point.
Vicky Christina Barcelona had also picked up good reviews and even earned a dollar or two, albeit only at the demeaning cost of literally hiding the fact of Allen's involvement from all advertising. (This includes the DVD packaging, which does not mention his name once, except - literally unreadably - in the tiny credits bar at the bottom.)
That was all very nice, but very laid-back and unsurprising: this one has a bit more get up and go.

Owen Wilson plays Woody Allen playing a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist, obsessed with the ambiance of twenties Paris, who finds that he is able to travel back in time and hang out with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and the film recreates more than one era of Paris's past with a degree of sumptuousness that suggests someone's put a bit more money into this than usual. (It's distributed by Warners: his first major release in I don't know how long.)
For me and probably you this premise is obviously irresistible, and developed as invitingly as it sounds, even if Allen - equally true to form - does come close to souring it by giving Wilson a moment of climactic realisation that seems to endorse the anti-nostalgia sentiments of the character played by Michael Sheen, an obnoxious intellectual with no time for golden ages. (He's also unable to resist two chances to get easy laughs with arrested adolescent party politics - perhaps as insurance against potential attacks on the film for its reactionary premise, perhaps not, but either way reminding me just how weird it feels on those rare occasions this so stubbornly idiosyncratic a man feels the need to play to the gallery.)

There's some simple but undeniable fun with the cast of real-life figures Wilson encounters (including that ridiculous actor Adrien Brody as an appropriately ridiculous Dali) - I was amused despite myself by the moment in which Wilson, tipped-off by the future, attempts to pass on the plot of Exterminating Angel to a baffled and disinterested Bunuel - and the supporting cast has its usual quota of nice surprises (including a pleasantly unaffected Carla Bruni as a museum guide, and Priceless's Gad Elmaleh in a very funny, wordless cameo as a private detective).
It's good fun, not hilarious, for the most part entirely disarming, and I enjoyed it especially because I had just got back from a trip to France (and, among other things, had visited a farm to see how the apple brandy Calvados is produced, and which I was therefore most amused to see Wilson and Marion Cotillard quaffing in the film.)
Way back, when I, like Wilson, was visiting Paris with my then-fiancee, I too went on a tour of its twenties literary past, visiting the various Hemingway haunts, the (new) Shakespeare and Company booksellers, and Gertrude Stein's house. The difference is that my fiancee was happy to go with me, and I'm pleased to say is now my wife. Also, of course, Gertrude wasn't in.
And it's good to see Woody's name on the posters again.

I've never seen a Woody Allen film I've regretted surrendering the time to, though some are clearly failures: I suppose the one I've seen that fell widest of its potential is Match Point, which had the makings of a masterpiece. A very few seem to me slightly overrated: Sleeper (an amusing attempt to prioritise visual over verbal humour, but verbal humour is surely what we want from the man), Annie Hall (still riding on its initial reception, when it seemed breathtakingy new and advanced, but now, surely, an obviously transitional effort, instantly eclipsed by Manhattan), and Hannah and Her Sisters (good stuff, but there's lots better, and the major post-production restructuring does show).
The only one I didn't really enjoy at all, and have never felt the need to see a second time, was Husbands and Wives, the film that became synonymous with the Mia Farrow scandal, and was praised for its dramatic and aesthetic rawness, but which seemed to me irredeemably ugly in both capacities, with exactly the right visual style to match its utterly horrid cast of characters. (Lysette Anthony's character, a sweetly naive New Age idiot loathed by the author as much as his characters, is the only one I wouldn't have happily watched driving off a cliff. Deconstructing Harry, which was attacked far more for its mean-spiritedness, I found much more appealing, perhaps because the nastiness was addressed by the film itself, and the character of Harry was more overtly at odds with Allen's own persona. The film's narrative structure is somewhat gauche, as Allen can often be, but the film makes me laugh more than a lot of other Allen films of its vintage.
The other side of Husbands and Wives was Manhattan Murder Mystery, a retreat into whimsy and an exercise in ingratiation in the wake of the scandals, that Allen preferred to describe as an indulgence (a dessert, he called it, between weightier courses), the triviality of which, he claimed, made him guilty. Some critics felt the same, but on the whole it was hailed as a refreshingly light and charming - if not especially witty - return to a less preoccupied style. In more recent interviews, I've noticed, he seems to have warmed to it, and singles it out for especial praise, which, as you'll know if you've ever read an interview in which Allen discusses his own work, makes it a lucky film indeed.
The return of Diane Keaton - in a role written for Farrow and which she insanely thought she would still undertake after falsely accusing him of child molestation - is a happy event (why didn't she hang around for a few more?), and her (and Allen's) interplay with Alan Alda is especially relaxing. Nice, too, to see Alda play an unequivocally likeable role, after his charm was so effectively used against type as the horrendous Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanours; Anjelica Huston is rewarded too for her all too convincing intensity in that film with an excellent supporting role as a funny, maneating novelist. You may find yourself surprised at the relative lack of memorable lines, but how anyone can come out of this without a big grin on their face is beyond me. At university I saw it three times in one week, the last time at the now closed Camden Plaza, where I saw it as a last-minute substitute for The Vampire Lovers (playing at a rep cinema I couldn't find until after the film had started), and sat next to Simon Callow.

Of the films he has made subsequently, I think judgement in many cases still needs another layer of dust before it can reach certainty. I loved Mighty Aphrodite on release, but my friends hate it, and with their criticisms still ringing in my ears I've never quite liked it as much again. Everyone Says I Love You is an obviously happy film, with some beautiful sequences - and Drew in a Woody movie! - but there's no question that while an Allen musical is so delightfully odd an idea the film cannot fail to please, nonetheless Allen does not direct the musical sequences well, and the lack of old-time talent is not a myth.

Then, speaking of old-time talent, there are the Scarlett Johansson collaborations. I've already mentioned Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, but I did think that Scoop, though unquestionably Allen at his silliest, was unjustly maligned.
The only of his collaborations with Scarlett in which they also co-star, I really enjoyed the onscreen rapport between his crap magician and her student journalist. He doesn't play bumbling idiots often but he always does it well, and a geeky Scarlett (or as geeky a Scarlett as is possible, given her natural inheritance) is a nice change too. I also like the way well-known faces from British comedy turn up in both her English movies in tiny straight roles (look out for John Standing and Paula Wilcox in Scoop). I'd love to see more of Woody and Scarlett, especially co-starring, partly because the combination seems on paper such an unlikely one yet in Scoop turns out so very nicely, also because Allen rarely seems to warm up to his stars (as a director I mean), but in Scarlett's case he is clearly a besotted fan as much as (or more than) a shrewd judge of performance.

The big bone of contention comes when he tries straight drama. Generally, I like them, especially the 'vintage' ones: Interiors, Another Woman and September, and would certainly include them among the more under-rated titles in his filmography.
The common complaint that the scripts are mannered and full of over-composed observations and over-formal sentence structure would not bother me in the least ordinarily: naturalism is just one technique among many, not the gold standard to which all drama should aspire. That said, critics of these movies do have a point in so far as Allen always picks very naturalistic actors, and encourages them to give naturalistic performances, and so his scripts often make a bad fit with the acting. It is this disjunction, rather than the dialogue's artificiality per se, that can cause audiences to laugh at the heightened moments. But the patent sincerity and seriousness of intent in these movies does earn points with me, and all three seem to me sufficiently laden with cherries as to outweigh the occasional stalks.

I suppose the most underrated Allen films must inevitably be found among those that either flopped most significantly (in the days when the difference between an appreciated and an unappreciated Allen film could still be measured in box-office take) or else received the worst write-ups in the years thereafter, yet still seem not just better than critics or public allowed but actually in the top half of his work.
A film like Shadows and Fog, for instance, seems to me plainly better than its reputation, but not so much better as to justify making any big case for it. And I have not seen Hollywood Ending or Curse of the Jade Scorpion (the latter sometimes nominated by Woody himself as his worst), so as to whether they are hugely or only slightly underrated I can make no comment (beyond registering my strong inclination to believe that they do lie somewhere on that spectrum).

So, omitting the serious dramas, objection to which comes down as much to one's personal view of the very idea of them as to their specific merits on their own terms (which makes them a special case, a separate question, to be reserved for another day), these are my nominations for Allen's four most unjustly maligned efforts.

1. Stardust Memories (1980)
Memories does have a following, and a reputation, now, but at the time it was a major disaster for Allen: his first real failure not with audiences, whom he was happy to malign, but more crucially with critics, on whose support he had plainly been counting. Partly it was on account of the obvious indebtedness to other film-makers that continues to be an occasional problem for him (Fellini this time, rather than Bergman) but mainly it was the perceived sourness, and the sense that Allen was biting the hand that fed him, attacking public and critics alike for their failure to get behind Interiors. And so, the hand was abruptly and decisively withdrawn.
Rather than face up to this breakdown in communication, Allen prefers to this day to write off the film's initial reception as a mistake - audiences were too silly to see that the film was a fantasy, with no autobiographical relevance at all. This is obviously disingenuous from frame one, but as someone who feels artists are entitled to their frustrations I've never had a problem with it, and dramatically it seems to me the obvious masterpiece among his overtly experimental films.
As for wanting to be Fellini: nothing wrong with that, either. Much of this is funny, and all of it is gripping.

2. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
Not so much hated as ignored by critics, this was, according to Allen, his most commercially unsuccessful film of all. Made back to back with Zelig, with Allen literally shooting scenes for one movie, then the other, then back again, it was conceived as a conscious change of style - period not modern, bucolic not urban, romantic not cynical. It is also beautifully photographed and styled, and I have never shown it to anyone that didn't find it utterly charming, or that didn't come away with the overwhelming desire to live in the house in which it is set. (The house was in fact built for the film on unused land but was left standing and is now occupied.)
This was the first Allen film I ever saw, but that it is a true masterpiece, and not merely a nostalgic indulgence, I have no doubt whatever.

3. Anything Else (2003)
Maltin calls this Allen's "all-time worst movie", a position I simply cannot make any sense of. To me it is both fascinating as an experiment and entirely successful as a comedy. In essence it's a remake of Annie Hall for a new generation, with Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci as 21st century Alvy and Annies (he's a comedy writer in analysis with an ex-wife, she's a frustrated singer lacking in confidence) and Allen as an older Tony Roberts: in the same trade, and keen for the hero to join him writing comedy in California. At one point, the pair discuss whether or not an overheard remark was anti-Semitic, or if Woody is merely being paranoid.
But because Woody cannot be at all Woodyish, since Biggs is playing Woody, he instead has a ball making his character as unlike the traditional Woody persona as possible: a gun-nut and survivalist, a car driver, and prone to episodes of irrational violent behaviour.
As well as really interesting on this level, I also found it the funniest Allen film for some time, with Danny DeVito outstanding in an especially good supporting cast. Maltin must have seen a different film.

4. Celebrity (1998)
Not a disaster, the critics seemed agreed, but very much Allen coasting along, a little film, with nothing much new or distinctive to offer. I thought it was among his best, not least because it had one of the great Allen endings - of which Crimes and Misdemeanours is the masterpiece example, as it is of everything else worthwhile about Allen's movies - where it all comes round in a circle so neatly and cinematically that you, or I at any rate, just want to stand and cheer. (Incidentally, have you noticed how people increasingly tend to applaud at the end of movies now? Pretty weird. They can't hear you.)
The first time Allen faced up to the need either to change his main characters or to cast other actors as himself (Kenneth Branagh is very funny indeed as his spiritual twin and physical opposite), the film is full of good one-liners, smart observations, well-cast cameos and acidic comment on the modern media which posterity, at least, will side with, even if contemporary film critics, understandably perhaps, did not. Plus Winona Ryder as she was meant to be seen - in glowing black and white.

Which of Woody's films do you consider land widest of their reputations?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Much snow here recently

Dear Matthew,
Congratulations on your coming marriage.
Enola and I were married in the month of October in the same year that Frances McDormand was born. A particular favorite but more for Blood Simple and Short Cuts than for Fargo.
Much snow here recently.

Short or long, it was always good to get an email from Gerald Stewart.

I loved the way he talked in movies ("my frame of reference is film," he once told me). I loved the way he was so deeply knowledgeable on so many subjects, and could tie them all together, and relate them all back to the single overarching subject of cinema, so cleverly.
I'm assuming that the photograph above, which he appended to the email quoted from at the head of this post, is of his own house, in the beautifully named Pocono Pines, PA. If it isn't his house, I don't want to know. Ever since he sent it, I always pictured him in it.
I can't imagine him living anywhere else.

You may know Gerald better under the name Gordon Pasha, the alias (derived from his lifelong study of General Gordon) under which he wrote the blog Laszlo's on Lex. (Read this to understand the blog's title - and because it's superb.)
His other interests, according to his blogger profile, included modern jazz, New York City, John Buchan, South Asian cuisine and baseball - and that was only scratching the surface. He also knew England well, and London encyclopaedically, and would travel here for a month or two with Enola every year to revisit favourite old haunts.
Typically, he revealed the extent of his knowledge of London to me while in the act of downplaying it:
"It would be arrogant to say I know London. But I am comfortable there and have a map of it in my head. Enola and I have probably spent a total of two years out of the last eleven, living and working there. We wander endlessly, and ride tubes or buses from Tottenham to Brixton, from Barking to Southall. We play “bus roulette”, which can take us anywhere (have you ever been in the Willesden Garage?) We always go to Hammersmith on Sundays. My barber is in Holborn. And I feel at home in Highbury."

So when I noticed that Laszlo's had been on an uncharacteristically long hiatus recently, I imagined him strolling around Hammersmith, assuming he was again on his travels (always travels of the mind as much as the body), immersed in the land of Gordon and Sherlock Holmes (another of his extraordinarily knowledgeable passions).
I dropped him a line anyway, just to double-check that all was well.
A little while later, I received a reply from Enola, to say that Gerald passed away on August 5th.

Gerald rarely spoke to me of matters as private, or should I say as uncinematic, as health. The closest he came to acknowledging those few sides of life that cannot be converted back into controllable illusion was this laconic aside:
"The years encroach and I spend much time going from one medical site to another as parts wear out. But my recent round is settling and I hope that I might spend February watching films, posting an idea or two, and catching up with your past posts and those of others whom you recommend."
I think I was most amused by the impatience here - there is a trace of melancholy, but a trace only. Mainly he's annoyed that getting old and sick cuts back on the number of films he's able to see.

Laszlo's was a film blog with a difference: the author's reflections on forties movies were informed not by memories of a television childhood, rediscovering the black and white world in the postmodern living room, as is the case with myself and most classic movie bloggers I know. He had been there, really been there, in New York as a kid, watching them when they were new and part of the cultural pulse of modern life. (See here, for example.)
This perspective gave his writing a unique extra dimension, and he had a rare gift for evoking the mood and moment of times past. His memories, scattered through his posts not systematically but elliptically, in hints and fragments, gave his pieces unmistakable authenticity.
He was, by any standards, a first class writer. Yet there was about him not a trace of pomposity or, it seemed to me at times, even of awareness of how good he was at what he did. He saw himself as an amateur, experimenting in a field entirely new to him.

I can no longer remember how I came across Laszlo's, but I'm proud to say that mine is the first icon on its followers' board.
I wrote to Gerald first simply to tell him how impressive I thought it was, and in particular how the pieces seemed to have so much of his own personality invested in them.
He replied, "Everything I have posted I really care about. I do it for myself (and my wife) only. I think no one has viewed these entries but the two of you."
I made it my quest, then, to change that, mentioned the site whenever I could, gave it an award (which he accepted with his customary thoroughness) and was delighted to see a small number of like minded bloggers making the same discovery I had.
"I would certainly appreciate your mentioning Laszlo’s to others, as such linkage brings together people of like interests from which synergies develop," he wrote to me afterwards, adding "I can share and learn and I can handle adverse comments".
I don't think he ever received any.

Gerald saw me as a kind of blogging mentor (oblivious to my own relative inexperience) but from this beginning, I'm pleased to say, a friendship grew.
We spoke about movies we both loved but felt were under-regarded by cineastes generally: Portrait of Jennie, The Magnificent Ambersons, Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. We wrote of our shared obsession with Edward Hopper.
He loved Woody Allen's Radio Days because it represented an almost entirely accurate picture of the world and the culture in which he was raised. He was genetically programmed to respond to James M. Cain, hardboiled noir, thrillers with a strong New York background (Naked City was another obvious favourite: a film that could have been made with him in mind), but he also enjoyed Ealing comedies, Top Hat, Preston Sturges, Duck Soup. And Michael Powell: he was strongly attracted to films and film-makers with a sense of the mystical.
I was able to send him a copy of Jazzboat, an obscure British musical comedy in which he thought he might appear in a crowd scene, having been there during the filming. (Sadly, however, he didn't.)
When Gerald left a comment on one of my posts, or a reply to one I had written on his, it was his habit to email it to me as well, in case I hadn't seen it. Sometimes a whole new conversation would be initiated this way. (I especially cherish his thoughts on the death of Sherlock Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, the circumstances of which he enigmatically likened to the film Dead Of Night in a post comment, then elaborated upon in private correspondence in case, he explained, the comments box wasn't the proper place for it.)

He had so many stories still to tell.
When I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his post Walled City, but how much potential I thought there was for taking it further, he replied thus:

"I have thought about extending the idea of Walled City first by enhancing the experiences of the 1940s – and then carrying it through to what I saw into my dating days in the mid fifties. Then into films I saw as a soldier in Germany in 1958 and 1959. I came home to the rediscovery of film as an art movement, which took full flower with the Sarris/ Kael wars - I was and am a Sarriste.
With a family, viewing diminished and took us out of dark halls. There was television but the fare was sparse. After a time came VCRs, DVDs and the reemergence of television with cable and TCM and Fox. For the past ten years we have been shipmates to the aging movie stars shuffling around QE2 and QM2. (Patricia Neal in robe and slippers was no longer looking the part. Then there was the obnoxious Carrie Fisher, and the sweet and charming Jane Russell. And as Kurt Vonnegut told us … )
Comments on books and materials, remarks made about images, remembrances of events, and the choice of material alone – might all provide additional insight. There is a built in conflict between the world of research (e.g., bibliography) where everything has to be right and those film blogs that deal primarily with remembrance. It seems if too much research is done, it takes away from the immediacy, the nostalgia and the mood of recreating yesterdays. Editing the thoughts of yesterday with the new found knowledge of today can lead to choppy waters. Writing, like good films, is always full of conflict."

So many avenues opened up in just a few paragraphs!
This was Gerald's habitual method when writing letters and blog posts both. I eventually learned more of his Jane Russell encounter; the Carrie Fisher story, however, was always put off until another day that now will never come.

It's tough to accept that I will never again rise from my bed, switch on the computer, and find that while I slept, Gerald has been reading my old posts an impossibly long way away, and leaving kind, perceptive, erudite comments.
Or that there will never again be an email from him waiting for me in my morning in-box, containing some obscure literary allusion that sends me scuttling to the reference books, or some knowledgeable aside about bit part actors long forgotten by the overwhelming mass of the public for whose approval they had worked.

I had just mentioned him in a piece I had published a few posts back, about how one of the joys of the blogosphere was of getting to know such wonderful people. Now I have to get used to his not being there anymore.
Indeed, he had already left us when I wrote that. I just didn't know it yet.

But Laszlo's will still be there, and just as Gerald described it:

A portal, perhaps, attempting to bring the distant near. A reminiscence of films and players seen during 70 years. First seen in dark buildings surrounded by strangers and now watched again and again on diminished screens. Herewith some random thoughts on that flickering past. Remember when the lights went on and we had to leave the theatre? From Rick’s Café Americain to Lexington Avenue? Laszlo's on Lex...

Others have left far less to mark their presence, that's for sure, and in time, perhaps, it may seem more than sufficient.
But at the moment: much snow here recently.