Sunday, May 29, 2011

I liked the Weimar Republic much more the second time


I suppose I can understand why some people find Ute Lemper a bit much.
There's an element of deliberate artifice in her showmanship than can be read as insincerity, and her affectations - the facial contortions, the gurgling tongue-rolls, the ear-splitting yelps, the slightly mocking exuberance - presume rather than request our adoration.
But then, idiosyncrasies always divide opinion. When I talk to people who love Barbra Streisand, it's no use listing the things about her performing style I find so repellent - the grotesque sentimentality, the self-veneration, the pretence of profound emotion - since these are not denied by them but read as something else, indeed as the very tricks with which she enchants. And even I love these things when it's Anthony Newley doing them. Where I look at Streisand and see only a pampered, pompous medusa, they see a shaman, and quite right too.

Anyway, we both loved Ute's Last Tango In Berlin show, her customary musical tour (through Brecht and Weill, and Brel, and Dietrich) performed with her customary energy, intensity and sinewy grace.
Not easy, I should think, to hold a large room with just two musicians and yourself (though she did add to the instrumentation with a pretty convincing imitation of a trumpet solo, which she prolonged, as she does most things, to the point where amusement is spent and only admiration - for her accomplishment as much as her gall - remained).
A mistake to think of her as an exclusively shouty kind of performer, as she also reminded us. Fully fifty percent of the show was conducted at the level of such a still intensity you could sense the audience leaning forward as one to meet it; the magical transformation of a large theatre space into the closer and more revealing environs of a cabaret room, achieved purely through theatrical presence.
She drifts into rambling soliloquies, with a cultivated but no less convincing spontaneity, occasionally into stream of consciousness comic monologue, blending in and out of fragments of song, carried on the breeze like memories. She's at her most affecting when at her quietest, and it makes the subsequent explosions all the more effective for it. A one-woman variety bill, blown back from Berlin, 1929.

To think I would have travelled far for this - twice in the past I have nearly been to see her in London but couldn't make it - now I find the wait rewarded by being able to stroll to the venue ten minutes before the curtain rises, and be back home ten minutes after it falls again. (Eventually I will stop going on about how amazing it is to live in Bath, but it's still new at the moment, so your tolerance is kindly requested.)

Her mad talent convinces me more than her commitment to the wonder of Weimar, though. It's an era better recalled than endured, I would have thought.
Decadence, in recollection, has obvious aesthetic appeal, but freedom is a nebulous concept, applied to the absence of government and to wise government both: the first a recipe for tyranny, the second the only freedom really worth having.
Any cultural moment that romanticises prostitution, pornography, corruption or dissipation of various kinds is clearly one of little use, until it's over at least: this is the kind of freedom that tramples on people who can't keep up with it.
It seems to me that if we are entitled to give the vindictive terms of the Versailles agreement a measure of responsibility for the rise of Hitler - a very different thing from offering excuses for it - then the provocative and confrontational nihilism of Weimar culture must stand accused also. It made it far too easy for Hitler to recruit political reactionaries to his cause, without whose support his otherwise uncompromisingly progressivist stew of socialist-revolutionary citadel-storming would have been far harder to get off the ground. Consensus may insist that the Cabaret was the last stand against Nazism; little imagination is required to see it, instead, as a vital facilitator.
That the music was good is never enough until afterwards - but it is good, and as long as we're in the business of looking backwards then fine. Theme park Weimar cabaret-land, with Ute as your guide, is terrific: actually being stuck there at the time, I should think, would have been hell.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seeing the old girls off in style


Well, here we are in Bath.

Normally I defer to Dr Johnson at all times, but it has to be remembered that when he opined that the man who is tired of London is tired of life, he was speaking before the invention of car stereos.
Were this not the case, he too would have moved here.
I'm not sure why every Londoner doesn't, though I'm glad they don't, obviously.
In London, even the good bits, unless you live in one of its inner circles of Hell, are a soul-eroding underground journey away from you, so it feels like living somewhere else, and by the time you arrive you only go through with the thing you actually intended to do because you can't bear to repeat the trek back home just yet.
So you traipse dutifully round Tate Modern looking at their latest exhibition of metal filings in glasses of urine suspended on strings, but what you really want is your sofa, a glass of wine and another episode of Man About the House.

Here, though, there's everything London has, and more, and much more attractively housed, and all a ten minute walk from my door. A gorgeous theatre, a little art cinema, bookshops, Italian restaurants, museums, entertainment... and no transport necessary, ever. We're going to see Ute Lemper tonight; Acker Bilk next weekend (ask your dad). I have landed, at last.
It's hard to credit that I was still in London just over a month ago. The last thing I wrote here, the last London Movietone entry, was to mark the passing of Jane Russell, and in the interim I've said goodbye to both old gals in tandem. My memory will always record them receding together: London, the wheezing old candidate for euthanasia, unmourned; Jane, the eternal, gone to never be forgotten, off to join her image on the other side of the silver curtain.
Most of my last London days, spent in my almost totally empty flat (our things went to Bath first) were given over to watching Jane's triumphs on my laptop.
Cineastes with their heads in the nineteen-seventies can obsess all they want over Robert de Niro staring at his reflection in the mirror and demanding, "You talkin' to me?", but until they've experienced Jane's "Lookin' for me?" in The Paleface, staring down the bad guys from behind a six-shooter, in her smalls, in a bath house, before blazing away... well, they might as well have never watched a movie in their lives, I say.
This time round I tried to steer clear of my usual favourites - the grittier ones I wish she'd made more of: Macao, His Kind of Woman, Las Vegas Story - and concentrated more on those I'd seen only once, or not for years, or had told myself I didn't think so much of.
Oh, and The French Line, of course. It's impossible to embark on a course of Jane studies without including The French Line. Nobody can love her and not it. The man who is tired of The French Line is tired of life.
Plus it's TOTALLY CONDEMNED, so you get the added bonus of feeling sinful when you watch it.

It doesn't leave you in the dark as to which commandments you're breaking, either. Thou shalt not covet they neighbour's wife, obviously. Then of course there's Thou shalt not worship any Gods - or Goddesses - but me. And when she starts dancing in that 'Looking For Trouble' outfit, try to remember Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain, too. "I'm gonna melt all the snow in Alaska till it steams like the tropical Amazon..." and who would bet against it? Basically the whole film is an excuse to get to this number; it's all overture, and though never less than fun to watch nothing else is truly memorable: not a scene, not an idea, not any other character, not any other number. The plot is sheer flim-flam, concocted in equal parts of the old one about the rich gal who swaps places with her best friend so she can be sure her man loves her for herself rather than her millions, and a generous chunk of the previous year's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And when I say the whole of the film is an excuse to get to 'Looking For Trouble' I don't mean to provide narrative justification for it, far from it in fact. The song is a performance given by Russell's character on stage rather than an integrated number, and if anything the narrative works against it: the situation she is in at the moment she launches into it is one so fraught with reouble that it's unlikely she would want to be bothered, certainly she would be too distracted to perform it with such carefree exuberance. And who cares about any of that? Nobody, that's who. Nobody making it gave a damn, and nobody watching it does. Though Jane did, a bit, according to her autobiography, but she's in a minority of one. What a stretch of film! Your mouth will still be hanging open for days after.


Novelist Peter Ackroyd once opined, in a review of Michael Winner's remake of The Wicked Lady, that cinema devoid of all purpose can be a wonderful thing (sort of 'how I learned to stop worrying and love a bomb'). Remember that when next you find yourself watching Underwater.

What we have here, superficially, is a mildly compelling yarn about deep sea treasure seekers. What we in fact have is the consummate fifties entertainment package, as delivered by Howard Hughes (by this time so far lost in his own obsessions as to be by no means the man best qualified to supply such a thing), marshaling the following hundred lures to fifties sensibilities:
1: Superscope wide screen, and colour so thick you need to watch it through misted glass.
2: A hit tune in the catchy trumpet serenade Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, taken to the charts in sundry versions, with and without lyrics, by Eddie Calvert (the man with the golden horn) and many others.
3: Beefcake, if your tastes run to such things, from Richard Egan: he's fine, easily mistaken for a dozen or more other fifties hunks; agreeable, colourless, and with a jaw you can even strike dead matches on.
4: Underwater photography in profusion, as beautiful and hypnotic as only that most alien of earthly kingdoms can be.
5-100: Jane. Jane dry, and Jane wet. Jane on a boat, in a boat and under a boat. Jane in a red swimsuit swimming from one side of the engorged screen to the other, and then - wait for this - back again. Jane running and Jane climbing. Jane doing her pout, her sneer and her sassy backchat.
Of course the plot is the thing that the word 'nominal' was hanging about in dictionaries waiting for, as how could it not be in the face of such provocation? Dostoyevsky couldn't keep the human drama central against this kind of opposition.
The days when this was all it took to thrill, to arouse and to engross are long gone. Minds tuned only to the wavelengths of our more cynical age will find only bunkum, perhaps tedious bunkum at that. If the film is ever enjoyed, it is with that precocious condescension with which a culturally bankrupt generation instinctively reviews the achievements of its betters, as if our parents were children with nursery-level tastes, and should be pitied for their naivety, while we in our wisdom sit once removed and take purely sarcastic delight in the dialogue, the fashions and the simplistic thrills. (Then get back to rhapsodising Batman, which is where even I start getting confused.)
But recognise instead that the loss is truly ours, and pleasure can be reclaimed from so irresistibly innocent a concept of spectacle. The loss remains: ultimately, we can only imagine - or, if we are lucky, dimly recall - what it truly meant to be swept away by such things. But for those brave enough to acknowledge the shape of decline, a more than merry Saturday afternoon's fun can be dredged from this particular sunken wreck.
The Revolt of Mamie Stover, on the other hand, needs no special pleading. It's a little lost gem.

I think this was the fourth time Angela and I have watched this and the third in English (the other occasion being a dubbed showing on Italian TV that we enjoyed in a hotel in Florence) and we admire it more each time. Basically it's Sadie Thomson again, with a nice balance of certainties and surprises (Jane the redhead!), showing the aged Hays Code's ability to tame wayward scenarios at its most heroic, mixing fiction and historical fact cleverly, and allowing for a number of standout scenes and cameo performances. It's also one of the small number of movies where you see just what a good actress she was.
Its faults are obvious and easily dealt with. First, it's no small task sanitising an original novel which included not only prostitution and lesbianism but also a scathing attack on Hollywood vice, and clarity is obviously going to be the first casualty of the effort.
The result is a successful job of sleight of hand but once in a while desperation shows: the Agnes Moorehead character's lesbianism is subtly and cleverly suggested, but a scene or two later explicitly disavowed; the euphemism of the 'champagne rooms' to which the taxi dancers take their higher paying clients is rendered senseless by the frequent assertions that sex is not on offer. (Why pay more for less physical contact?)
Then there is that more general flabbiness of fifties cinema, the abundant evidence that the technique, flare, style and uniformity of purpose that thirties Hollywood had perfected is now in a state of dissolution, indeed just a few years away from irreparable destruction. The old-style majesty of Jane, too, reminds us just how much star power had faded. Richard Egan's back - I can only repeat there's nothing wrong with him - he's handsome and pleasant - but the film was half over before I realised it was the same guy from Underwater.
But all that is outweighed by the film's strengths, as compelling drama, as star vehicle. It benefits from the obscurity into which it has mysteriously fallen. Hopefully, our losing Russell may prompt a serious reevaluation of all her films - not just the Bob Hopes, Blondes and The Outlaw. If so, this is the one ripest for rediscovery. It is, I would suggest, Russell's best all-around vehicle, and perhaps her best dramatic screen performance.
But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was the big treat: a surprise present from the missus before she went on to Bath ahead of me, and a film I had thought was impossible to track down, let alone in a bootleg print of such high quality. I watched it over and over. I love it.

Part of the reason it gets such a bad rap, I suspect, is because it's just not the film people expect it to be, let alone the film they want it to be. Unlike the Anita Loos novel from which it blithely and opportunistically takes its title, it's not a sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Jane does not play the same character, or even a similar one: in actual fact she's far more like Lorelei than Dorothy - she's the shallower, ditzier one - and Jeanne Crain is the level-headed half of the team.
This is a whole new story about a sister act attempting to make it in Paris, where their aunts - also played by Jane and Jeanne - had been stars in the twenties. It's a hoot. The main reason usually given for its lowly status is that the song numbers are subpar, but are they? I loved them all. And the costumes. There's lots of good jokes, Rudy Vallee plays himself, Jane comes on in old age make-up at the end (it's the sort of corny finale you expect of a Road movie) and the male lead is Wilbur from Mr Ed. Now, I don't know what you want from the movies if not this, but frankly...

All who are familiar with my ramblings on this site will know how appropriate it is that the last film I watched in company in London was my beloved Madam Satan, and at the most delightful of venues - The Palace of Solitude, aka Silver Screen Suppers Towers, aka Jenny's flat.
Jenny has quite possibly the most stylish living quarters in the western hemisphere, an amazing deco flat that looks like Poirot just moved out the week before, decorated in bewildering profusion with ephemera you'd give your right arm for and - now - boasting a seriously enviable DVD projector that enables her to turn her siting room into a cinema at a moment's notice.
Amazingly, she'd never seen Satan before, so I was delighted to be able to introduce it to her, as my last good deed before departing the Smoke. Luckily she loved its insane, rug-pulling changes of style and direction, and reacted just as I'd hoped to the Zeppelin finale, and Trixie's soft landing in the men's sauna. At the end, she pronounced it the maddest film she'd ever seen, which was both no small achievement and, I think, a compliment.