Thursday, July 28, 2011
The blank female face, staring from the screen just above or below or to one side of us, has come to be the defining motif of European art cinema.
And nobody stares as meaningfully as Binoche. Foremost among contemporary French actresses, Binoche is equally at home in France, Britain or America, in art films or commercial prestige pictures, in roles that call for stark minimalism, naturalism or old-fashioned star quality.
Remember her enigmatically gazing out from the posters for Kieslowski’s Bleu: the abstract ideals of the Jacobin death-cry may have been the unifying concept behind the Trois Couleurs, but what united the films aesthetically was their reverent but uncomprehending genuflection before the female face.
Binoche's, like Delpy's in Blanc and Jacob's in Rouge says nothing and everything; its strength is in its obliquity as much as, perhaps more than, its beauty. Emotions are to be hinted at and meanings fragmented; these days we lack Bergman’s faith in narrative as journey and we are wary of catharsis.
(Do look out for those blankly staring faces, by the way: they have been the instant markers of a movie that wants to be taken seriously since the late sixties. When American cinema has lofty ambitions, from The Graduate to Lost in Translation, characters stare meaningfully to the accompaniment of pensive pop music, in European art cinema they just stare meaningfully.)
Her performance as the young widow in Kieslowski’s Bleu, first and finest third of his basically sound (if over-rated to Hades and back at the time, and now, tellingly, more or less forgotten) trilogy, is one of the great, defining performances of arthouse cinema. And it is one of the great modern screen performances, with reams of psychological and emotional information conveyed in the tiniest gestures and nuances of speech. Even doing nothing at all, as Kieslowski’s camera simply stares at her face, she rivets attention, and all without a trace of mannerism or forced feeling. It will last as long as anything by Masima, or Karina, or Vitti.
Nowadays, she seems content to settle into elder stateswoman roles, leaving the lighter stuff to Tautou, her cinematic lovechild.
She was first noticed in Rendez-vous (1985) in a sexually provocative performance that now seems untypically self-effacing. Mauvais Sang (1986) remade her as the muse of director Leos Carax, and English-language success in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) proved her bankable internationally. Emerging personally unscathed from Carax’s hugely expensive white elephant Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) she was a surprise Cathy in Wuthering Heights and an enigmatic femme fatale in Louis Malle’s Damage (both 1992).
"She was no different from anybody else", reflects Jeremy Irons at the end of the latter film, catching sight of her again at an airport, after her desirability has destroyed his marriage and career, and inadvertently brought about the death of his son. To somehow play the vamp straight and get away with it, and yet still retain enough normality to make that final observation play too is more than most actresses of the day could have taken on. The result was true international popularity of a kind enjoyed only occasionally by European stars, and more box-office success in The English Patient (1996) and Chocolat (2002).
The trouble with her English language films is that there simply are no anglophone male actors capable of keeping up with her, or not seeming grotesque in her company, so the viewer has a stark choice: miss a Binoche performance, or sit through two hours of Johnny Depp or Daniel Day Lewis.
Fascinatingly, for this most meaningful of faces, when she consented to pose nude for Playboy magazine, her face was covered in every shot.
(Written for the book 501 Movie Stars)
Monday, July 25, 2011
Few men have been so frequently misquoted as W.C. Fields, though it has to be said that in many cases, perhaps the majority of cases, it was the man's own fault.
For someone with such a gift for language and such a perfect and idiosyncratic turn of phrase, he was quite bizarrely happy to let studio publicists do his talking for him.
Despite a reputation for extreme difficulty in just about every other department, he was a publicity man's dream: he simply didn't care what supposed quotes they invented for him, or what image of his character they crafted for public consumption.
The popular image of his comic persona, that owes so very little to what is actually to be seen in his wonderful, amazingly subtle and inspired films, was almost entirely studio flim flam, and so were most of the quotes that go with it. The dog-hating, child-hating, woman-hating, whisky-obsessed curmudgeon was the studio Fields. List the most famous Fields quotes you can think of from memory, and chances are most if not all of them will be the work of others.
In the last few years, though, to the legion of phony quotes have been added a few bizarre misattributions.
'Never work with children or animals' is an old, old showbiz maxim that most of us, I had assumed, have been familiar with all our lives. The first time I came across it being attributed to Fields (presumably mistaken for the itself spurious "anyone who hates small dogs and children can't be all bad") was in, of all places, Syd Little's autobiography, and I thought it was just Syd getting himself in a muddle and thought no more of it. But since then I've seen it claimed by three more, increasingly authoritative sources. Now I find it's all over the internet like a rash, including in the imdb.
Quotes written by others in his name are one thing; a well known expression that is vaguely similar to something he was once supposed to have said being inexplicably attributed to him is, I suppose, one thing as well. But this is quite another kind of a thing:
This sign appears outside a pub in Bath.
I have never come across this quote before being attributed to anyone, much less Fields. I have done an internet search, and the only place I have found it in conjunction with Fields's name is on the website of the brewery that owns this pub.
What we would appear to have here, then, is a totally fake quote that somebody has made up, and cynically attributed to Fields on the (erroneous) grounds that it's the sort of thing he might have said, and the assumption that nobody's going to know any better, or care.
Or am I wrong?
Have any readers ever come across this quote attributed to Fields before?
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Half the time I haven't got a clue what my fellow movie bloggers are talking about.
I nod along, and pretend I do, because I don't want to look like a Big Silly, still less a Big British Silly, but the truth is I'm just bluffing, and hoping none of them asks me a point blank question that gives the game away.
They say confession is good for the soul, but are we all too far down the pike now for me to admit I don't know what Netflix is?
When someone says that they're going to put a film I've mentioned 'in their Netflix queue', does that really mean something? I thought it was just jazzy new slang, meaning they're going to look out for it, or they like the sound of it. I say, old chap, that Monica Bellucci certainly is the cat's pyjamas. Wouldn't mind putting her in my netflix queue. That sort of thing.
What on earth could a Netflix queue actually be? If pressed, I would have guessed Netflix was something a bit like a thing we have over here among the hobbits called LoveFilm, where you rent films online and they come in the post in a little white envelope. But why would there be a queue?
Then there's this fellow Robert Osborne. All film bloggers worthy of the name love him with that special love they reserve for their firstborn.
I wouldn't be able to pick him out of a line-up of one.
If he came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Robert Osborne", I'd probably believe him, but only because I wouldn't be able to think of any reason why he'd be lying. People rarely lie when they're telling you their names.
If someone said to me after he'd moved on, "Hey! That wasn't Robert Osborne was it?", I'd confidently say, "Yes, I believe it was." But I'd wonder why they were asking.
But in Blogland, someone coming up to you and saying "Hi, I'm Robert Osborne" would be like Jennifer Love Hewitt coming up to me and saying "Hi, I'm free this Friday."
For a while I thought he was an obscure golden age actor, probably from the fifties, a slightly vague decade for me, when everyone was either Richard Egan or else might as well be. But too obscure even for me to know the name? I didn't like that one little bit. I am, after all, the man who won a bet by identifying Nick Cravat in My Friend Irma. (No packet of Skittles ever tasted as good as the one that earned me.)
And then imagine my confusion when the truth emerged. He was in fact something to do with 'TCM'. I do know what TCM is, though I won't dare tell you how recently I found out.
Thing is, I'm British. It's just the way it is: I've seen all the best doctors in the east, and while none of them seem able to agree on a fee, they all agree there's no cure. Of course, I'm not the only film blogger who isn't American, but I am in that cute little slice of the massive pie. Not only are all my blogging pals American, the stats tell me that all my readers are too.
Why are old movies so little supported over here and so generously over there? (That's almost certainly 'over where you are', if you're reading this.) Dunno. Is it just because it's so much bigger there and there's room for pretty much every enthusiasm to get its day in the sun? (Here, for example, is an online poll that invites you to cast your vote as to whether you'd rather give up shampoo or toothpaste, in the unlikely eventuality that so stark a choice will become a practical necessity.) Or is there something specifically philistine about Britain? It's one or the other and my guess is both but I'm not sure which.
But I do know what Warner Archive is. It's this spiffing thing Warners do, where they'll produce an on-demand DVD of a film that you might once have thought there'd be more chance of finding in an owl's pellet than in the catalogues of a company that seriously wants to make some money. Of course the trick is that they charge way over the odds, even for a film like Reducing, a Marie Dressler comedy set largely in a Turkish bath that they'd be lucky to shift one of in a month if they stood on a street corner trying to flog them off a barrow. But pay we do, because they're clever, these Warner johnnies, and they know how much we need Marie Dressler comedies set in Turkish baths once some wiseacre dangles them in front of our snouts.
Actually, I tend to think of Warner Archive as a specifically pre-Code movie service, because that's what I tend to buy from them. But actually they do films from all eras, linked only by their occult appeal to people who would never in a million years have bemoaned their absence from catalogues before, and would never have gone looking for them as bootlegs, but will somehow realise their life depends on obtaining them when Warners puts them in a decent-looking box and charges twenty of the best and fastest. Do you think they have prize competitions among the staff: who can make the silliest suggestion for a Warner Archive release that actually leads to a sale? If so, I've created a few happy smiles round the office I'm sure.
Oooh, look! Lady In Cement! I didn't even know they made a sequel to Tony Rome! That must be because it's great! And Raquel Welch is in it! When did she ever make a bad movie? Ker-ching!
And Get To Know Your Rabbit! How many collaborations between Brian De Palma, Orson Welles and Tommy Smothers can you name? You just can't let this one go!
Return To Salem's Lot!!!
It's like I've died and gone to the Betamax cupboard of Video Express, Laira. (Yes, having just established that only Americans read this blog, I thought I'd slip in a joke about an old video shop that depends for its effect on knowing the city of Plymouth really, really well.)
And another thing. Warner Archive DVDs are technically DVD-Rs, which are like DVDs except they have a shelf-life of as-long-as-the-film-takes-to-watch-if-you're-lucky. This may seem at first to be a bad thing, since it means you have to pay too much more than once for something you should never have bought at any price in the first place. But look at it from the inside of the big building marked Warner Brothers and you can begin to see the cleverness of the idea.
If you have a friend who loves old movies and has got all the obvious stuff, get 'em a Warner Archive. You can rarely go wrong. This birthday my wife got me Street of Women (1932), a typical pre-Code moral tract concerning the romantic tribulations of a married property developer whose mistress is a slinky frock designer who is also loved by her lover's best friend who is also the employer of her brother who is in love with the daughter of her lover. I know what you're thinking, but his wife won't give him a divorce. Needless to say it all comes out right in the end, thanks to that habitual harbinger of a pre-Code happy ending: a near-fatal car crash.
This has got everything you want from a pre-Code film, including one of those swanky dress shops where girls come out modelling the clothes customers are going to buy, and some excellent real footage of thirties skyscraper construction.
Then there's the racy-sounding title that doesn't mean what it seems to, and has to be pointedly explained in specially-inserted dialogue, and that quintessential oddball casting, so evocative of those years when the golden age stars were starting to make movies but hadn't yet settled into their familiar personae. So here's a ripe example from Roland Young's straight actor period (or straightish, at least), obliging him to play hangdog as Francis's failed suitor, forever turning up at her flat and failing to get her to come out with him for the evening. The only time he makes her laugh is when he draws her a picture of a pessimistic rabbit. In the romantic leads, we have Alan Dinehart (as the tycoon), who moved on quickly to semi-comic proletarian support before dying in 1944, and Allen Vincent (as the brother) who hung around in bits before throwing in the towel in 1939. You might know him as the doltish hero in Mystery of the Wax Museum but not much else I'll wager.
As usual in a pre-Coder, though, it's the female casting that will really make you want to stick around. As the mistress: Kay Francis, chic as ever in an early Warners role, when she still had that sullen, sultry Paramount air about her and plenty of gel in her hair (you won't find it easy to keep your eyes off her hairdo, in fact). And as the daughter: Gloria Stuart, in her movie debut. There's always something a bit suggestive about Stuart's characters, even when they are as simpering as here: as in Secret of the Blue Room she gives her father a big smacking kiss on the lips in one scene. (At least her dad's not Lionel Atwill this time, though, which in that picture hit the perversity meter so hard the bell broke.)
I can't recommend it enough if you've got more money than sense; failing that you can always put it in your Netflix queue.
Monday, July 11, 2011
As my contribution to haemorrhoid surgery prevention month, I've stopped keeping Russian novels in the bathroom.
Film trivia books are another matter, though.