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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Better ways forward, and back

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film featuring a subjective close-up of tears falling on a crumpled love letter, and, despite my at best nodding acquaintance with modern cinema, I’ll bet it’s been a while for all of us.

But that’s one of the good things about pan-European popular cinema: it’s still doing what it’s always done, more or less, following a template in which only the incidentals have changed, never the story-telling mechanics, in some fifty-odd years of reverse progress.
While British cinema continues to wildly oscillate between a crazed hubris that expects the world to assume it’s the coolest, cutest place on earth and an equally hysteric self-loathing that sees itself somewhere beneath Iran on the social justice scale (at the moment it’s in one of the latter troughs, so it’s all movies about heroin addicts on council estates again, almost but not quite a relief after the faux-sophisticate horrors of the Richard Curtis years), and while Hollywood digs itself deeper and deeper into a self-made pit of festering cow manure, it's nice to remember that the rest of the west has never basically given up on the confident, unpretentious notion that it can tell us stories we’ll enjoy using the basic tools of George Cukor.

This confidence is especially marked when it has a truly exportable star to centre the action around, as France has in Audrey Tautou, to an extent not really seen since Bardot.
True, France has always taken the lead in the almost casual discovery of iconic actresses, but they are for the most part darlings of the art house, even simmering glamourpusses like Beart don't actually make the kind of films that get shown nationwide.
But thanks to Amelie, however many years ago that was now, an Audrey Tautou movie is still a small event, which is why she is able to work so much more infrequently than her peers, and is so rarely required to stretch herself. Indeed, within its somewhat eccentric, or at least cultural-specific, self-set parameters, cinema doesn’t want her to stray too far from the reassuring - which is why in The Da Vinci Code, notwithstanding the laugh riot that was the film itself, her presence made even less sense than usual when Hollywood tries to make French screen goddesses walk two paces behind cultural midgets like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise.

Of course, she is not required to actually be Amelie every time – though I imagine a return visit to that character would bring out the queues – and provided she is playing against rather than merely ignoring that character’s heritage she can, in fact, get away with quite a lot (even insanity, in the excellent A la Folie Pas Du Tout). But a certain pixieish cuteness is always demanded, and even when not foregrounded, is still being acknowledged and celebrated, even in the gesture of its being withheld.
Indeed, in her two films for director Pierre Salvadori (2006's Priceless, and now in Beautiful Lies), between them her most comfortably successful star vehicles, she is actually brattish and unlikeable for most of the time, but never in such a way that we might actually believe it, only in a manner that makes us look forward to the transition, back into cute lovable Audrey, that the films never let us doubt is a foregone conclusion. The fun is in waiting for it (for us) and making us wait for it (for them).
This tacit acknowledgement and reassurance of the audience’s expectations is the mark of true star presence; what boring actors mistake for typecasting and fear like manual labour, but which the old stars knew was the holy grail of stardom. (And it's fickle: Nathalie Baye, in second lead as Audrey’s mother, might well have watched the cameras circling around the star and remembered wryly how times had changed since Venus Beauty Institute, in which Baye was the star and Tautou the newcomer, just as Judith Chemla, in an equivalent role as as nervous hairdresser Paulette, might have been doing likewise, readying herself to steal all her scenes just as Audrey had snatched hers in Venus.)

Beautiful Lies is a romantic comedy of confusion, of the sort built around anticipation of the moment when the characters reveal their true feelings for each other. It’s also one of those films that delays the lead characters’ discovery of each other’s true motives: when will a know the truth about b’s feelings for a, and when will b realise that a has done so… As a big tease and reveal tactic this rarely fails, and might be termed the Baxter-Kubelik resolution, after its most perfect cinematic demonstration. I thought 'when will a realise the truth about b' was handled rather better than 'when will b realise that a has realised' this time around, the latter moment being somewhat thrown away in a rush of last-minute plotting.
It's a little long, and on the whole I preferred Priceless, but this is not the kind of film one is supposed to judge on the grounds by which we all tend to judge movies in the home entertainment age, ie: how will it stand up on the 275th viewing?
This is a film like a fifties Bardot comedy, to be watched and enjoyed, perhaps just once, and then forgotten about even, but with no hard feelings on either side. Just a movie. Bring on the next. The only difference is that they don’t bring on the next anything like as swiftly and easily as they used to, which is why each new trifle has to be sold as if it were a main course, and on those grounds alone Beautiful Lies might disappoint. But it shouldn’t, and the more people go to see things like this – instead of Batman and instead of Ken Loach – the more of it they’ll make for you. I can think of no higher praise for the film than to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and have already forgotten most of it.
My wife was unsure of the merits of Audrey’s audaciously short hairdo, however, which is a far more important reservation to have about a film of this sort than any trifling concerns about narrative structure or film technique. I was happy enough with the barnet but we both agreed that she was far too thin.
She spends the whole film in trousers until a very short scene at the end, and her legs are like breadsticks.

From France to Italy. My excitement at the prospect of Salt of Life was so great that to wiser heads disappointment might have seemed as inevitable as it was unthinkable to mine.
In the end, I won the bet: it’s not the film that Mid-August Lunch was (what is?) but it was still the best time I’ve had at the movies since Ghost World.
A semi-sequel to Lunch, the film could easily be enjoyed by anyone who had never seen or heard of the first film, indeed many, I’ll wager, would enjoy it even more on those grounds, mistaking the film’s assumption of audience familiarity for the elliptical meandering of Sofia Coppola or Jim Jarmusch, with which it shares a non-architectural structure and loosely connected, minimalist episodes. The resemblance is superficial, though, because the brush strokes are deeper and surer: Di Gregorio is a John Singer Sargent of cinema, not a Picasso.

The film lacks the tightness of structure that was part of what made Mid August so impressive, and it plays more plainly for laughs, but that’s perfectly fine in context, since the film's focus is on a more obviously comic subject: Gianni's flailing attempts to rationalise the prospect of no longer being considered a romantic prospect by the women he meets in the course of his day. The structure mirrors his metal state, not least in a wonderful sequence, simultaneously moving and hilarious, in which he wanders Rome all night with his neighbour’s enormous pet dog after accidentally ingesting an hallucinogenic at a party, playing like a child in the city fountains while the dog looks on unimpressed. Later, when he and the dog are sat in the street, there is a moment where he tries to get the dog’s attention by tapping it on its shoulder, the implication being that he either wants to tell it something or point something out to it, and when the dog ignores him he gives up with a look of bemused resignation. I fear it is impossible to convey why this is so hilarious, but it's one of the funniest, truest bit of comic-improvisational playing I’ve ever seen in a movie. And the ending is so perfect I wanted to stand and cheer.

It’s very different in tone from Mid-August, which also had a perfect ending but one which was perfect in a very different way, and is best viewed, I think, as a kind of reward for those of us who came out for the the first film, and cherished it, and told our friends, and made it the modest but future-bankable international hit that it was.
There is an element of crowd-pleasing contrivance here – Valeria De Franciscis is back as Gianni’s mother, and at times the film sweats to keep her relevant to the story, her appearances often seeming like guest turns. But that's fine. She's just as good as she was last time, and the narrative set-up of the climactic, aborted family meal, in which the two halves of his life come together, is superb.

In Italy, apparently, they’re calling Di Gregorio he Italian Woody Allen, a nice indicator of worthiness, though while Allen is seen by many as an increasingly spent force, Di Greogorio, a relative whippersnapper at 61, seems hardly in need of the comparison. Neither does he share Allen’s tics and inconsistencies and blind spots. His refreshing acknowledgement that his stories and performance are drawn 99% from his real life stands in marked contrast to Allen’s habitual, often petulant reluctance to cede autobiographical relevance to even his most blatantly self-inspired works.
In Gianni De Gregorio the Italian cinema has found its finest, most idiosyncratic, lovable, charming and cherishable creative voice since you know who.

Monday, September 5, 2011

James Mason: a thoroughly insecure investment?

The first time I saw James Mason was in the early nineteen-eighties.
He was near the end of his life by this time, grey-haired and moustached. I was about nine or ten, and he scared the crap out of me.
This was when the BBC showed the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979), and those pasty, floaty vampires that leaped out of dark corners and scratched on your window panes at night were scary, but Mason’s icy, refined creepiness was even more lingering when the time came to turn the lights out.
When I saw him again a year or so later, I couldn’t believe the transformation.
Now he was Dr Watson to Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree (1979); he looked the same, but instead of evil he was warm, charming and eminently trustworthy - the very model of an English Victorian gentleman.
I was still scared, this time by what remains the most darkly terrifying recreation of Jack the Ripper's London on film, but Mason's steadfast, decent and reliable Watson was one of the film's few beacons of light.
I was even more impressed.
Then, finally, a little later again, I saw The Wicked Lady (1945).
Now he was young, dashing, passionate, with thick black hair and a magnetic vitality: every inch the man film historian David Thomson described as “the most stylish leading man in British films.”

Which is a roundabout way of saying that James Mason was among the most versatile and talented of all British leading men.
Do people still love him? He doesn't get mentioned a lot these days, but he's always been one of my favourites, and it's a very interesting career. Few British stars had his range, or his magnetism, his dynamism or his sensitivity.
He was born in Yorkshire in 1909, and even in his later Hollywood years a trace of Yorkshire accent can always be discerned in that oh so melodious speaking voice.
If the voice is the actor's basic instrument, no actor was so fortunate as Mason. I don't know if he worked on it, and played it up in professional circumstances, or if it was how he really talked all the time, but if the latter it's pretty amusing to imagine him ordering a pizza.
It's simply the greatest actor voice of all time, simultaneously soothing and disquieting, like honey-coated gravel.
For proof, turn to the 1953 animated short The Tell-Tale Heart, with Mason narrating Poe's first-person confession of a madman trying to convince the reader of his sanity, and just wallow in it. The combination of the mesmerising, stylised imagery and Mason's voice makes for probably the most creepily effective Edgar Allan Poe movie ever made. Sorry, Vincent.

The essence of Mason for me is in the Gainsborough melodramas that first brought him true stardom: rollicking bodice-rippers that exploited the relaxed censorship of British wartime to wallow in sadism and villainy, decadence and duplicity, rape, murder, bondage and flagellation. And all in wonderful approximations of period dress and settings, and peopled with a gorgeous rep company of British stars: Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert. For ladies who liked their men upright, dashing and unthreatening, there was Stewart Granger, for everyone else there was Mason. In The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey and Fanny By Gaslight he was mad, bad and dangerous to know, but devilish handsome for all that, and providing, as writer Jeffrey Richards put it, “the same powerful sexual charge as those dark, cruel, fascinating outsiders of nineteenth-century Romantic fiction, Rochester and Heathcliff.”
Women adored him regardless of, and a little bit because of, the depths of misogynistic villainy his characters plumbed, bringing his cane down upon Ann Todd's poor defenceless fingers as she played the piano in The Seventh Veil, horse-whipping Margaret Lockwood to death in The Man in Grey or, as highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson in The Wicked Lady, surviving a public hanging before returning broken-necked to Lockwood's boudoir to give her one from beyond the grave.
Rather like the later Hammer Horror films, these barnstorming historical dramas were savaged by the critics but audiences (particularly Britain’s newly emancipated home army of women) flocked to them.

A pacifist, Mason was a conscientious objector during the war, a stance which estranged him from many in his own family (and cost him a part in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve) but did not, surprisingly perhaps, alienate the film-going public, who consistently voted him among the top male stars at the British box-office throughout the period. And while Granger laboured under his matinee idol image for the rest of his career, finding worthwhile roles harder and harder to come by, Mason continued to flourish as a hugely talented character actor.
Immediately after the war, he appeared in Carol Reed’s brooding masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947) as Johnny McQueen, a mortally wounded IRA operative on the run in wintry Belfast. Considered by many to be his best ever performance, his work in the film was aided by a magnificently doom-laden score by William Alwyn and some exceptionally poetic images.

At this point, Mason decided to try his luck in Hollywood. In later life he was wont to characterise this period as a failure, and it is true that he never became a Hollywood star in the strictly limited sense of one whose name alone is enough to sell a picture. But he was in regular demand, and he gave many noteworthy performances in several of the fifties’ most memorable and important films.
He was Oscar-nominated for A Star is Born with Judy Garland and a splendid Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (both in 1954), a sensitive and convincing Rommel in two films, most importantly The Desert Fox (1951), Brutus to Brando’s Mohk Annunny in Julius Caesar (1953) and one of his best smooth villains in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).
“The public never knows what it's getting by way of a Mason performance from one film to the next,” he said around this time. “I therefore represent a thoroughly insecure investment.”
Physically, he seemed to get older very quickly, and to welcome the chance, in the early sixties, to slip into offbeat middle-aged roles in unusual, sometimes controversial projects such as Lolita (1962) and the Swinging London drama Georgie Girl (1966) with Lynn Redgrave, in both of which he played older men making predatory advances to younger girls. The latter is on the whole rather a charming relic of the era and one of its more worthy, if entirely typical, prospects for reappraisal; the former is a Kubrick adaptation of a Nabokov novel, so it's really up to you.

Despite this, along with the equally unlikely Cary Grant, he was one of the many actors initially considered for the role of James Bond in Dr No. The casting seems unimaginable now, but it prompts the reflection that he would have made a first class Bond villain, at least one of which (Drax in 1979’s Moonraker) he was offered but declined.
But he seemed refreshingly happy to do work that was cheerfully beneath him. Many a Briton of a certain age will remember him warmly in an eccentric documentary, The London Nobody Knows, in which he lugubriously tours the capital's dying markets, rotting and condemned music halls, and Jack the Ripper murder sites, captured for posterity in grainy Eastmancolor mere seconds before the re-developers obliterated them forever. Americans might remember him doing 'The Wonderful World of Beards' on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
And here he is revealing that he likes the unusual flavour of Thunderbird wine. I'm not surprised it tastes unusual if you drink it out of a tumbler stuffed with ice and sliced fruit.

And here he is on What's My Line?:

Never entirely comfortable during his years of stardom in the forties, he found far greater fulfilment playing supporting roles in the second half of his career.
He published his autobiography Before I Forget in 1981. It begins: “My purpose in writing this book is to get things out of the way.” Revealingly, he once said that he would like to be remembered “just as a fairly desirable sort of character actor”.
His final film, The Shooting Party, was released after his death from a heart attack in 1984.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Call your daughter Googie

The last standing great British star of the forties, the wonderfully named Googie Withers, left us all in July, at the age of ninety-four.

A stylish, elegant but also very quirky actress, with lustrous dark hair and slightly quizzical, slightly imperious features, she ably personified the well-spoken, well-mannered high society dramas and comedies that were the backbone of British cinema in the forties.
But her popularity, I think, attests to the fact that she made sure audiences could see there was more going on underneath all that. Her speciality was playing outwardly refined women finding reserves of resilience in moments of crisis, or revealing hidden depths of desire or duplicity beneath the placid exterior. There was a furtiveness to her screen persona, a haughtiness; male audiences seemed to sense that the posh and proper surface was paper thin, and a tigress growled beneath.
She had a long career, with notable successes before and especially after her forties heyday, and if she never quite became a superstar, she enjoyed a longevity as an actress that others, more briefly cherished, may well have envied.

When she started out, audiences might have been forgiven in seeing little to distinguish her from many another hopeful British starlet. If thirties viewers noted her at all, it was probably in dolly bird bit roles, frequently in a maid’s costume, and usually with her hair dyed blonde.

Did you remember she was in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, for instance?
Surely that was Margaret Lockwood, I hear you cry.
Yes, it was Lockwood in the lead, but Googie’s there if you look for her, with a line of dialogue or two, as one of her pals in the opening sequences. She often appeared in support of star comedians – a thankless job if ever there was one – giving her all alongside the likes of Arthur Askey and George Formby, and rewarded for her pains in the latter case by sharing a dunking with him in an enormous vat of beer, in his 1939 beauty Trouble Brewing.
But with determination, her hair restored to its original rich chestnut, and a natural talent that was, eventually, permitted to flower, she became a regular and reliable presence in several notable movies.
I think I first saw her in the ‘Haunted Mirror’ episode of Dead of Night (1945), an anthology of creepy tales untypically produced at Ealing Studios, that still retains the ability to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. She’s charming, too, and very funny, as the long-suffering wife in Miranda (1948), whose husband brings a real live mermaid – in the fetching form of Glynis Johns – back to their London penthouse after a Cornish fishing holiday. ("She never wears panties?")
And what about her glorious villainess, cold-bloodedly poisoning her husband, in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), an Ealing melodrama that gave the Gainsborough team more than a run for their money?

Born Georgette Lizette Withers in Karachi in 1917, she was the daughter of Edgar Withers, a Captain in the Royal Navy, and his Dutch wife, from whom she inherited her exotic second name. The name under which she became famous, however, was not a corruption of Georgette but a nickname given her by her Indian nurse – it means ‘little pigeon’ in Hindi.
It was often said that she would have escaped ingenue and cheesecake roles and progressed more quickly to serious drama if she had not decided to retain Googie as her professional name, but she fought against all advice to change it. “I have won a certain reputation with it,” she reasoned, “and I don't feel like beginning over again with a fresh name. Besides, my real name sounds even crazier. I was christened Georgette Lizette!”
As it transpired, the golden key that unlocked her mature career was again in the hands of director Michael Powell. Cast as an extra in his 1935 film The Girl in the Crowd (1935) she reported for work to be told by Powell that the second lead actress had been dismissed, and would she like to take her place? The girl in the crowd had arrived, and he used her twice more in the thirties, always in light supporting roles. But had made a point of telling her that he would provide her with the more serious work he felt she deserved as soon as he could, came good on his promise, and basically started her serious career for her by casting her as a member of the Dutch resistance helping stranded British airmen to flee the Nazis in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). Critics seemed amazed that this familiar figure from so many undistinguished movies had turned, seemingly overnight, into a poised, talented and confident leading lady, holding her own opposite Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in Night and the City (1950), and standing out as the married woman attempting to shelter her former lover, now an escaped convict, in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947).
She made six films at Ealing Studios, but from her own perspective the most important of them was probably The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Not only is she at her gutsiest in it - as a sheep farmer - but it was also on the set of that movie that she met and fell in love with John McCallum, her Australian co-star. They were married the following year and went on to make ten films and three kids together. They eventually returned to Australia in 1959, where Googie went on to become the first ever non-Australian to be given the highly prestigious Order of Australia. (She was also honoured with a CBE back home.) A marriage widely considered among the most successful in showbusiness, it was ended only by McCallum’s own death, last year, at the age of 91.

If she were around in movies now, I suspect her name would have caught on among the general public, but wartime Britons were made of less frivolous stuff. It's a shame she didn't inspire a generation of little Googies, but it's never too late.
Go on. Call your daughter Googie.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Le Notti di Italia

Fellini, of course.
Hard at work as usual.

Another ritual my wife and I are really getting into is Italian Night.
We both love Italy and just about everything that goes with it, and Angela is learning the language, so we like to watch Italian movies, and have recently hit on the idea of making one night a week into a bonafide celebration of all things Italiano.
So we start with Italian music: Puccini if we're feeling grandiose, Mina if we're in retro mood, traditional songs from Tuscany at other times.
In the background while cooking we get the laptop out and watch the free Italian channels you can access online (the only TV we ever watch is Italian TV); our favourite is one called Yes Italia, which has interesting documentaries on different regions and cultural topics with English subtitles.
Angela prefers this to the kind of entertainment typically to be found on the Berlusconi channels, which tends to adhere to the golden formula of Italian live tv: men in weird foam rubber costumes and women in bikinis dancing in front of an audience clapping in time. I on the other hand can watch quite a lot of this without getting bored, but we both agree as to the excellence of the game show L' Eredità (so much more riveting when you don't have a clue what they're saying) and its startlingly orange presenter Carlo Conti.
Food-wise, we try to vary the menu, but we're creatures of habit, and have lately fallen in love with a deceptively simple concoction of spaghetti, garlic, olive oil, red peppers and flaked parmigiano-reggiano (which according to its own website is both the king of cheese and 'gives energy for sports' - only the Italians would promote cheese as an aid to athletic prowess).
I spent years avoiding spaghetti, and favouring every other imaginable pasta, because I had always associated it with its British incarnation, sold in tins of slimy tomato sauce and with a consistency so soft it only just held its shape before instant obliteration followed its first encounter with the human mouth. Nasty stuff. But proper spaghetti, I now realise, she is magnifico, and the perfect accompaniment to Federico and Giulietta.

We don't only watch Fellini, by any means, though he remains a kind of touchstone. Odd that he has been so unfashionable in recent times, but then, as a teenager, I too affected to prefer the colder pleasures of Antonioni; now I unashamedly prefer human warmth and the clink of glasses to slow immersion in ice water.
I have to say that Bicycle Thieves disappointed me this time round too, and I really wasn't expecting it to.
Realism is all very well, but pessimism is lazy, I've come to believe. Nobody needs a filmmaker to educate them in what real life is like, and it is patronising of them to suppose otherwise. Neorealism was a good idea, but the fact that it lasted such a short time tells you how much of it audiences needed. Escapism has become a dirty word, but surely that's what cinema is for, or 'transportation', perhaps, a term I prefer because it doesn't come trailing connotations of idle Spielbergian fantasy.
Of course one can argue that it is too easy to reach for the lazy absolution of a glib, unearned happy ending, and you'd be right. But it's easier still not to bother at all, and let the narrative lead its creator down the most predictable of cul-de-sacs until his nose is against the wall, as if it had a life of its own and there is no controlling intelligence shaping it at all.
The clever thing, surely, is to bring the narrative to a non-glib, well-earned point of transcendence, one that does play fair by the narrative but displays the effort its creator has put into getting it there (and the underlying worldview that compelled the attempt). Or, in the case of the best of Fellini, those combinations of tragedy and hope that leave the viewer truly lifted to another plane.
I don't mean to attack Bicycle Thieves, which is a great film in so many ways, but I was struck, as I never had before, that the ending I once thought so powerful now seemed merely inconclusive, and self-satisfied in a way that went against the spirit of empathy informing the gesture.

And really, what great principle would been violated if he had found his bicycle at the end? Would we have been less moved; less inclined to take seriously the plight of the people we have encountered?
Surely De Sica's point is that these are people buffeted randomly by fate, not actually cursed by it? If he can lose his bicycle, he can find it: it's all a lottery and the fates of us all hang on threads of circumstance and coincidence. After all, we knew how many other unemployed men were passed over so he could get the job. Presumably one of them will now get it? Or are they less important? In life, no; but in the film, inescapably yes, because the film has chosen to tell one man's story at the expense of the others. That in itself is a cinematic choice, an artifical choice, an anti-realist choice; it comes from conventional narrative structure, not realism which must surely aspire to documentarian non-involvement. If we are to invest prioritised interest in one man over another then it's folly to allow some the concomitant rules of fictive structure to be obeyed and not others.
And I think De Sica thought so too, which is one of the reasons why I still like him a lot. I think he got fed up with neorealism even before audiences did. There's a revealing quote in an interview shortly after Bicycle Thieves came out, where he says that his next film will be an exercise in "irrealism", aiming to make "the unreal seem real, the improbable seem probable, and the impossible seem possible", but all, he stresses, "without camera tricks". The Sight & Sound interviewer is frankly baffled ("this could mean plain fantasy," he ponders, "or, preferably, an experimental attempt to go beyond literal vision in the way Jean Vigo did").
What it sounds like is Fellini - what it is, of course, is Miracle in Milan (1951), which makes all necessary neorealist points, but boldly defies its governing ethic by daring to offer a last act that, as Halliwell puts it, "sends one out of the cinema in a warm glow".
Some critics never forgave De Sica for abandoning the streets and returning to the glossy cosmopolitanism with which, as an actor, he had begun his film career. But I love the fact that the director who made so vivid a success of casting amateurs and unknowns came home as a compositor framing Sophia, and Shirley Maclaine, and even Peter Sellers. (In a charming comedy called After The Fox, Sellers plays a master thief who disguises himself as an Italian film director and stages a gold robbery as if it were a movie. He steals his film equipment from De Sica, playing himself, and in a true gesture of exorcism, De Sica has Victor Mature, likewise brilliantly self-parodying as an ageing actor refusing to admit his pin-up days are behind him, ask "what's neorealism?" "No money," comes the reply.)

To take the raw indredients of sadness and tear them apart until you find the grains of hope they conceal, and then amplify them, is the noblest service drama can perform to the disaffected. It's what Capra did, and it's still such a controversial way of looking at things that many people still affect to passionately hate Capra, for this very reason. And it's certainly what Gianni Di Gregorio does in his brilliant Mid-August Lunch.
This was Italian night's biggest hit so far: our third time of watching, and it just gets better and better. Every time you notice something new, and every time it leaves you more moved and uplifted. Some critics called it a welcome return to neorealism, but if so its an altogether better, neo-neorealism.
And now there's a semi-follow-up, Salt of Life, which I had no idea was on the way at all. I can't remember the last time I was so excited about a new film that I could hardly wait. (Well actually I can: it was Rocky IV.)
Tonight, 6.25, the Little Theatre Cinema, Bath. Perhaps I'll see you there.

Go Mina!