Archive for the Politics Category

Pipe Dream

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on April 5, 2014 by dcairns

Why am I so amused and bemused by this scene in the Don Siegel-directed melo NIGHT UNTO NIGHT, in which Ronald Reagan has an epileptic fit?

It isn’t because it’s Ronald Reagan — not everything he does is automatically funny. Admittedly, some aspects of his presidency were humorous, but I didn’t, on the whole, find the idea of this jocular, ruddy-faced buffoon hovering over the doomsday button particularly funny. I spent my adolescence in a state of terror. I would have probably been terrified anyway, for more general/biologically reasons, but I still hold him responsible for that part of my anxiety not linked to hormones.

And it isn’t because it’s an epileptic seizure — those aren’t funny at all, certainly no funnier than any other neurological malady.

It isn’t even the unlikely combination of Ronald Reagan having an epileptic seizure. Though that makes me smile a little bit.

It’s more to do with Siegel’s direction, which is weirdly ineffective and wrong. It turns out that his talent, on sure ground when dealing with direct, determined action — he would have made the best movie ever of a Richard Stark Parker novel if given the chance — falls apart when called upon to render the hallucinatory, the abnormal, the fugue-state. Instead of some kind of evocation of perceptual crisis, we get a low angle or two placing striking emphasis on Reagan’s smoking material. Pipes are just funny, I think, in a way that Reagan and epilepsy aren’t, always. Pipes are always a bit funny. Making a pipe the fulcrum of a dramatic neurological crisis experienced by Ronald Reagan is very funny.

And then there’s the dog. Interesting to note that was a montage director at Warners before his directing career took off. That’s not at all the same thing as being an editor. Siegel shot his own material to create montage sequences for other directors’ films, showing the passage of time, the development of a situation, or just the atmosphere of a place. It probably explains his admirable terseness. But nothing explains that very voluble dog, who barks and reacts for an extraordinary length of time. The shortness of the shots suggests that Siegel had trouble getting the mutt to understand his direction (Later he would have similar struggles with Shirley MacLaine, but succeed). It looks as if all the usable bits of dog footage have been spliced together — and then abandoned, left in the film without any narrative shaping. It’s quite peculiar.

But the pipe bit is the best.

 

Next Stop, Rocket Science

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2014 by dcairns

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It seems the biopic of Werner Von Braun, famed for his role in the US space program, but rather less popular for his rocketry for the Nazis in WWII was originally called WERNER VON BRAUN, and then somebody got cold feet and thought, Maybe we aren’t quite ready to forgive him yet? and so the title was changed to the more poetic I AIM AT THE STARS, but this mealy-mouthed approach was too tempting for someone or other, who suggested appending the subtitle …BUT SOMETIMES I HIT LONDON.

Nobody seems to know who thought of this wizard wheeze, but I suspect that further research would show that it was either Noel Coward or an anonymous wag. Previous research has shown that this kind of thing* is almost always the work of Noel Coward or an anonymous wag.

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The film itself is typical of director J. Lee Thompson’s energetic approach at this time, with a swinging camera and dynamic blocking. Laurie Johnson’s percussive score adds to the general sense of being yelled at, and in case that gets old, Curt Jurgens is on hand to do actual yelling. I don’t quite understand the Curt Jurgens phenomenon. Calling him “Curd” doesn’t help either. I guess we can blame …AND GOD CREATED WOMAN for turning him from a perfectly respectable German character actor into somebody regarded as an international movie star. With sex appeal. And yet I can’t convince myself that history would be any different if Gert Frobe had played all Curt or Curd Jurgens’ roles and vice versa.

*A further example of This Kind of Thing. Noel Coward remarked, upon seeing a poster for THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM with Dirk Bogarde and Michael Redgrave, “I don’t see why not, everyone else has.”

Attendant Woes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Cinema will learn to talk soon, I promise, but for now I’m still mulling over films seen at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

THE LAST LAUGH is one I’d seen a few times but probably not, in its entirety, as often as I should’ve. It’s the kind of film which wouldn’t necessarily compel me to make the trip (which is rather difficult, the bus service being singularly erratic) by itself, but in combination with a bunch of other films I fancied, it made for a delightful extra, if delightful is really the word for F.W. Murnau’s desperate vision.

One smart person with a beard suggested that the film, in which hotel doorman Emil Jannings is robbed of his uniform and its concomitant status when he gets too old to lug suitcases without breaking his wind, could be read as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war enforced demilitarisation*, but I’m afraid my mind was on other things, such as Jannings’ putty forehead, which looks quite real on home video (though the shading in his cheekbones is recognizably kohl, not natural hollows) and becomes a big part of his performance.

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Also, I located the movie in the supernatural tradition of German film (NOSFERATU was just two years before) — when Jannings turns up to work and finds another man wearing his uniform, we seem to be in the doppelganger genre first seen in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Seeing one’s double is meant to be a portent of death, and in this case it’s the death of Jannings’ hopes, career, dignity. It’s perfect that he sees the younger version as they both pass through the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door, so that the new guy seems like a reflection of the old.

When Jannings’ family face him knowing that he’s now a lowly toilet attendant, they react not with pity but horror, and I was reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Samsa’s transfiguration provokes only the faintest hint of sympathy from his loved ones, who are more concerned with the practical problems entailed. Jannings doesn’t actually get an apple stuck in his back, but it’s a close thing. (Given his love of wallowing in humiliating scenarios, I’m posi-sure that if Murnau had produced a golden delicious and proposed ramming it under his shoulder-blade, Jannings would’ve shrugged off his undershirt and gotten down on bended knee in a twinkling.)

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The film seems, on the face of it, bracingly anti-capitalist, with Russian-style dialectical montage contrasting the rich patrons slurping down oysters while poor old Emil eats his toilet soup in the men’s room. It’s not even HOT toilet soup, as Murnau mercilessly photographs the steam escaping as Jannings is forced to attend to an untimely urinator who arrives during his break.

This is undercut in some ways by the conclusion, a bit of proto-Bokononism in which the film debunks its own happy ending. Jannings inherits a fortune from an eccentric American who expires, offscreen, in his arms, in the loo (the Atlantic takes away but it also gives). With his new-found wealth, Jannings becomes a guest himself, gorging himself suicidally and treating his friend, the sympathetic night watchman (whose kindness has hitherto only made the world seem bleaker) to an equally painful looking repast. Ignoring his disappointing family, Jannings heads off into the city with the watchman. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of social inequality, exactly. On the other hand, we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this ending is not the kind we get in real life (the Atlantic gives but it also takes away).

The BFI’s rather wash-out print was compensated for magnificently by a new arrangement of the original score, performed by Sabrina Zimmerman on violin and doorman’s whistle and Mark Pogolski on piano, who created between them a very rich soundscape, one of those accompaniments that really helps you climb inside the film and smell its pungent air.

*The film’s opening title card (absent from the BFI print) gives some support to this theory. “Today you are the first, respected by everyone, a minister, a general, maybe even a prince — Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?”

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