Archive for Gregory La Cava

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

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The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

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Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

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Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

News from Edinburgh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2012 by dcairns

The author goes cine-ballooning at Edinburgh International Film Festival. Photo by Chris Bourton.

Sudarshan Ramani, the artist formerly known as Arthur S, has set up his own is now editor of an excellent online film magazine, Projectorhead. I’ve contributed my own Edinburgh round-up, but I urge you to check out the good stuff also.

Also, over at Electric Sheep there’s another Edinburgh round-up, to which I’ve contributed reviews of the retrospectives, as well as Christine Laurent’s dazzling DEMAIN? and Peter Strickland’s tricky BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIOS.

I don’t want to go to bed I’m having too much fun

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2012 by dcairns

The important bit is Scene 2 at 1:07. You have to watch it first otherwise my singing won’t make sense.

SHE MARRIED HER BOSS. Yes, more La Cava, with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas. But the scene I have in mind, around 1.50, involves Claudette and Michael Bartlett (who’s really good in this), little Edith Fellows, and the magnificent Jean Dixon. A shame Bartlett and Dixon had such short careers, but they pixellated the thirties alright.

Leave it to La Cava to have a child write the world’s greatest drinking song. I have this number going round and round in my head and I keep inventing new and ever more inane lyrics.

I have a toy piano and I wear it round my neck

The personal note I give with it is better than a cheque.

I don’t want to go to bed I’m having too much fun!

The film sets home life against the workplace to see which is more importance, before concluding that the answer to life’s problems is really at the bottom of a bottle — I don’t recall seeing the alcoholic rampage quite so earnestly celebrated in any other movie. By the time of UNFINISHED BUSINESS, La Cava, a sadder and wiser man, was concluding that sobriety might have its uses, but for now it’s all wine and roses, women and song. Lots of songs!

Mary ran away from home she said she had to scram

With a jar of very nice mint sauce she took it on the lamb

I don’t want to go to bed I’m having too much fun!

There’s also a young and dapper Raymond Walburn as a comic butler, and numerous other pleasures. Even a more serious kind of recital, starting around 5.20 ~

The great non sequiturs (“Because you’ve got freckles”) call to mind Mischa Auer in MY MAN GODFREY (“I like onions, they make me sleepy.”) La Cava had a gift for irrelevance, surely as important as irreverence in a comedy director. I think what’s so miraculous about his best scenes is how they seem tight — the comedy crackles, the timing is exquisite — and loose — everybody seems naturally themselves, responding to what’s happening in a spontaneous manner.

In common with the darker PRIMROSE PATH, we learn that savage corporal punishment is the way to tame unruly children and that anything involving the people and language of Portugal is inherently amusing.

They say the squid has tentacles but they are only eight

They ought to call them eightacles and get a discount rate

I don’t want to go to bed I’m having too much fun!

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