Wooden Double Crosses

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2015 by dcairns

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An addendum to René Clemént Week.

So, finally I see Clemént’s FORBIDDEN GAMES, and on the big screen — part of Mark Cousins’ excellent Cinema of Childhood season. Unfortunately, the heating in Filmhouse 2 had broken down, so it was baltic, but th cinema compensated by offering free hot drinks and choccy biccies. With the spirit of the blitz in our minds, the substantial audience hunkered down in mufflers to absorb the audio-visual culture being fired at them in sub-zero conditions, like Eskimos listening to a tribal tale, And, since a previous ticket purchase (to INHERENT VICE) had gotten me a half-price deal for the Cinema of Childhood showings, and since I discovered an ancient, crumbling Filmhouse gift voucher at the back of my wallet, the whole experience was effectively free.

Seeing ones breath haloed in the projector beam (I exaggerate a bit for, I think you’ll agree, splendid poetic effect) reminded me of the legends of Jim Poole, Cameo manager or yore, who would turn the heating up or down to enhance tropical or arctic features. Here. the frigidity had no particular connection to the film, but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment. Sharing a little discomfort may in fact have silently bonded us, as this was one of those rare, even endangered, occasions where the presence of an audience really does enhance an experience. In particular the guy behind me who was utterly flabbergasted by each new plot development and would splutter “What the fuck?” every time the children did something shocking, was a genuinely lovely part of the experience. It’s fun to hear someone else being so into something that they spontaneously voice your own emotions.

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Because the thing I hadn’t expected about the film — which deals with two children in WWII France, at the time of the nation’s fall to the Nazis — it looks at death through the eyes of a small child — is how funny it was. Funniest damn film I’ve seen in ages, actually. It’s emotional TOO — devastatingly so, but I expected that (but expecting any kind of pain is never actually a preparation for experiencing it). I didn’t know going in that I would bust a gut.

And here we learn why Truffaut hated the film, because much of the humour is anti-clerical, as with Autant-Lara’s L’AUBERGE ROUGE and others, there’s a gleefully vicious iconoclasm going on. Truffaut’s famed essay A Certain Tendency of French Cinema makes it quite clear that anti-clericalism was something the somewhat right-wing Truffaut wouldn’t tolerate, though he blurs this by claiming that what he’s objecting to is scenarists Aurenche & Bost claiming to respect the spirit of the books they adapted, while hypocritally distorting them to reflect their own depraved atheistic tendencies. It’s an objection that shouldn’t really bother any sensible adult — whether they’re evasive about it or not, the adaptors are perfectly entitled to change anything they like, and the critic can assess whether the meaning has been changed but should only condemn the film if the alteration is ineffective.

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That dot on her nose is a housefly making a walk-on appearance.

Notes — this is one of the most flyblown films I’ve ever seen, with many many shots of insects alighting on the cast and set decor, more even than A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, my previous reigning champion in this category. All part of the film’s bracing attitude to national nest-fouling, in which rural life in France is persistently portrayed as squalid, brutal and filthy. Amid this muck, the bucolic characters are all still somewhat sympathetic — as in Clouzot, I found that the more vices they were shown to have, the more I regarded them as believable human representatives. We should try to love awful people, especially when they’re just in films and can’t hurt us.

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Movie also guest-stars a 100-year-old owl called “the Mayor,” so what’s not to like?

Five-year-old Brigitte Fossey is terrific, but as she says in the DVD interview (I went home and watched my Criterion extras), little Georges Poujuly is also amazing. Unlike NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (which successfully bundles together a whole panoply of violently clashing thespian styles), there’s no real collision between Fossey’s actual childhood innocence and the twelve-year-old Georges’ presumably more studied performance. Their director was so committed to psychological reality he was able to bring them together in the same space.

Inevitably, unless we’re dealing with Bresson, the adults do have a slightly different performance style, and their characters are a shade closer to caricature, although it’s quite nuanced caricature. This is in keeping with the film’s decision to see the world through the children’s eyes. (I noted with approval that the kids got top billing — I was always outraged that Peter Coyote got first mention in ET. Contractual, I suppose, but mildly obscene, and quite out of keeping with the film’s stated approach.)

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The irreligious comedy kicks in when the children start assembling their own graveyard, built around little Brigitte’s dead puppy (slain in a shockingly realistic bombing raid that has some viewers yelling “animal abuse!” online — it seems to be the case that the pup was merely anesthetized). Firstly, the kids are inventing their own faith, based on clues from the outer world, in much the same way as cro-magnon man may have done, and it functions as a kind of parody of “grown-up” religion. This leads to the stealing of crosses from the cemetery, which ignites the conflict between two feuding families, who now suspect each other of sacrilege. One of the funniest lines, to me, was one patriarch yelling “Vampire!” at another. Stuck for a response, he comes back with the sublimely irrelevant “Landru!”

My eyebrows shot up when I discovered the deleted opening and closing sequences on the DVD. I’ve wondered if Clemént, brilliant though he was, was a bit of a fumbler when it came to endings, and here I suspect he proves me correct. He seems to have chopped the framing structure at the last moment — possibly even after the prize-winning screening at Venice (the titles have been adjusted to accommodate mention of the award). I think they’re beautiful and make the ending even more unbearable (and it’s already super-powerful. It will fuck you up). The abruptness of the conclusion as it stands is quite effective, and when the lights come up you haven’t had a chance to compose yourself. But I don’t believe the coda planned would lessen that effect, and it makes a much more elegant outro.

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I’m reminded of the story Mitchell Leisen told about his wartime weepie TO EACH HIS OWN, one of the most gloriously manipulative four-hankie jobs ever perpetrated. Leisen was actually approached by exhibitors requesting him to tack some more footage onto the end of the movie to give the audience a chance to get their shit together before the house lights went up, because people were staggering up the aisles, blinding by tears, and gashing their foreheads on columns.

Leisen refused to adjust his concussion-inducing emotional climax. Quite right.

Anna May Wrong

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by dcairns

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It was a thrill to see PICCADILLY on the big screen at the Bo’ness Hippodrome. I confess I hadn’t been that excited about this one — I knew EA Dupont’s film looked spectacular, but I’d seen it before, I own the DVD, I can watch it anytime…

But the pristine restoration looked amazing on the big screen, and Stephen Horne’s daring multi-instrumental score was the perfect compliment. Also, this second viewing allowed me to get over a few issues I’d had with it before.

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Certainly, the film is guilty of shameless exoticism (and Exoticism is Racism’s sexy sister) — the great Alfred Junge decorates Anna May Wong’s Limehouse flat with a lot of bogus frippery including some kind of Chinese version of the mult-armed Kali which I don’t think is authentic AT ALL. It all looks nice though.

But last time I was disappointed that the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears in only one scene, sitting at a table in the night club, getting stroppy about a dirty plate. Knowing this time that I wasn’t going to get much Charles, I was better able to appreciate what I got — a fantastic display of sullen, fish-faced glowering from the great man.

And the racial politics disturbed me at the end. Heavy spoilers here as there’s no other way to deal with it.

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I didn’t like the way Wong turns nasty in her last scene as a living person. She’d been quite sympathetic up until then, a working class kitchen skivvy on the make, hoping for some of the wealth and comfort she sees all around her. Why not? Then she turns mean, and then she’s dead — slain off-screen as if she didn’t matter.

I got more pissed off when the two posh, Caucasian lovers are exonerated and it turns out the film’s one other Asian character, nicely played by King Hou Chan (about whom little seems to be known — one other film credit and no date of death) is the killer.

It seemed like the film served as a kind of dark racial warning — nice, rich, posh, white, English people shouldn’t get mixed up with fiendish orientals. It’s bound to end in murder.

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Except that the film isn’t saying that at all, as I belatedly realized. If it were, we’d absolutely require a moment of the lovers reunited at the end, having come through their ordeal. That resolution would be the film’s entire point. But once the fact of Chan’s guilt is established, via a terrifying flashback in which Wong’s rage to live makes her once more a thoroughly sympathetic person, we never really see the erstwhile protagonists again. Dupont doesn’t show them looking relieved, or embracing. The big love scene is in the morgue, with Chan committing suicide over Wong’s body.

It’s also worth noting that the other lovers are quite unsympathetic — he’s cheating on her, and her hatred of Wong isn’t initially to do with suspicion, it’s motivated by her professional jealousy and insecurity, and it’s inflected with snobbery and racism. We can’t like Gilda Gray, despite her winning way with a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive (but she might bond with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME over this shared taste.)

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The last, ironic moment headlines the words “Life goes on” and shows the entire plot reduced to a little story in a newspaper, disregarded by a reader who’s merely pleased that he’s won a bet. The big city will pause only a microsecond to acknowledge a tragedy. We’re not being reassured that the deaths we’ve seen don’t matter, we’re being shown the disturbing reality that, to society at large, such a crime is insignificant. Each man’s death does not diminish London, the crouching monster.

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Prisoners in Cell Block L&H

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by dcairns

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My dodgy photo of a very good photo of Laurel & Hardy on a visit to Scotland — this is on display at Bo’ness Library as part of an exhibition showcasing Silent Stars in Scotland.

Laurel & Hardy shorts at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema always play to a packed house, and a packed house dotted with derbies and fezes, at that. Ace pianist John Sweeney joined the fest for the first time to provide accompaniment upon the “music box.”

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I had seen two of this year’s trio of (very) dumb shows fairly recently: I wrote about the early pairing DO DETECTIVES THINK? here. It’s a lovely example of the more macabre style of terror comedy (see also the sublime OLIVER THE EIGHTTH).

When the Hippodrome ran DOUBLE WHOOPEE, it inspired me to check out Jean Harlow’s other work with the boys, so I saw BACON GRABBERS then. Watching it afresh, I really felt Ollie’s frustration at having to rely on Stan’s inept assistance. Since Ollie doesn’t realize that he himself is an idiot, Stan’s foolishness is a thwart disnatured torment to him.

Silent movie maven Bryony Dixon explained to me that the show’s somewhat mysterious title stems from it being basically plagiarized, by Stan, from a Fred Karno music hall sketch he’d appeared in. Since Karno had sued Charles Pathe and Max Linder for stealing Mumming Birds and adapting it into AU MUSIC HALL, the boys were being cautious in giving it a new name.

Many of the Laurel & Hardy shorts have quite peculiar titles which have little to do with the contents– one plus side of this is that whenever I think I’ve seen them all, it turns out there’s one I’ve never had the pleasure of. This turned out to be the case with THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, in which the boys break out of prison and then back in. This was the movie for which Stan shaved his hair, according to Fest director Ali Strauss, and when it grew back it was all tufty…

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It kind of fizzles out, but it has some great stuff. I liked an exchange between Stan and another convict. “How long are you in for?” “Forty years.” Stan smiles and passes an envelope. “Mail this for me when you get out.”

What did Stan and Ollie DO, to earn sentences clearly in excess of forty years??? I have to assume that with their usual luck, they simply appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time and got mistaken for someone else. Still, soon they’ll be at LIBERTY.

The program came complete with newsreel footage of a 1930s Glasgow pantomime featuring two (fairly good) L&H impersonators, and afterwards I chatted with Tony McKeever & Douglas Muir, no slouches in the looky-likey department themselves ~

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