Archive for January, 2008

Euphoria #33: Lip-flap a-go-go

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns

High-powered producer/assistant director David Brown (pictured) is the most well-placed film industry bod I can claim as friend. Even I’m impressed I know him!

 The Whistle Blower

Here, David cameos in his first ever film (as unit runner), GREGORY’S GIRL. More on this little beauty in Euphoria #32.

At our recent outing to SWEENEY TODD, I twisted David’s arm and got him to think of some favourite film moments for this spot: scenes that create the kind of rosy glow and feeling of well-being that can be detected on Geiger counters.

To his great credit, the first title past David’s lips was Powell & Pressburger’s 1946 A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (or STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, for those of you afflicted with an oceanic handicap). He subsequently volunteered several OTHER great suggestions, but we’re keeping them for later. We veered back and forth between the rose and the table tennis scene, but I finally put my foot down and insisted on the rose, since I have more to say about it.

At this point I must hand over to my deceased friend Lawrie — a fellow assistant director of David’s, though of an earlier generation, present on the set as these sequences were shot.

‘David Niven, you know had odd hands, like a labourer, so whenever there was a close-up of hands to be done, they would say, “Get Lawrie.”‘

(So that’s Lawrie’s hands we see holding the flask.)

‘The line was written as, “One is so starved of colour up there,” but we’d done several takes, and Marius Goring, who was one of the cleverest actors I ever knew, was bored, so he said, “One is so starved of Technicolor up there,” and we all fell about laughing. He was just having fun, but Mickey [Powell] must have liked it.’

Sharp-eyed Shadowplayers will have spotted the fairly heavy lip-flap on that line: Goring’s mouth movement’s don’t quite synch with what he’s saying. My theory is that Powell must have decided he liked that improv later, but didn’t have a good take of it, so he used a “straight” take and dubbed the sound in from Goring’s ad-lib, or else got Goring in to post-synch the line.

Powell said that when he heard the audience laugh at that line, he knew there was no such thing as realism in the cinema. It’s true, too. All films bear a purely allegorical relation to reality — it may suit their purposes sometimes to strive for an illusion of “naturalism”, but it may not. British cinema seems to have arrived at something close to a “house style” which is either faux-naturalism (Loach) or FAILED faux-naturalism (almost everyone else) and which excludes nearly everything that can be enchanting or exciting about film art. One could pretty easily draw up a Dogme 95 list of commandments for British film and see that nearly all of them tow the line. (Note to self: try this and see if you’re talking crap.)

What else to say? Well, I purposely kept this clip long, because I just couldn’t stop it. It’s the same when I watch the film or show the opening to students. It takes a rare force of willpower to hit the STOP button. That’s cinema.

But the moment that primarily concerns us is the transition from b&w to colour on the rose, and the line afterwards. When Pressburger first suggested mixing media in this way, Powell assumed that the earthly scenes would be monochromatic, with fantasy otherworld in colour, as in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Pressburger set him straight: “Look around you: the world is in colour, therefore it’s Heaven that must be in black and white.”

Does anybody know? #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2008 by dcairns

Wayward Hayworth 

Does anybody know if Columbia Pictures ever made a good musical?

I was all set to enjoy YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH — I like Robert Benchley*, and I love Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. The film has an amusing credit sequence, there’s a little dance between Fred and Rita which is quite charming, and then it becomes a shapeless unfunny lumbering thing without appealing characters or interesting situations or even much good musical action. I haven’t seen all of it but I probably won’t watch more unless somebody tells me there’s a great dance at 1hr 22 mins or something.

I haven’t watched the other Rita and Fred show, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER, but am I wrong in assuming it’s identical in every way?

I got a deja vu feeling and remembered how much I’d disliked DOWN TO EARTH as well — forced and unfunny and kind of DUMB in a way that even really silly Hollywood movies weren’t, usually.

In a flash, I just remembered THE SKY’S THE LIMIT, which has Astaire’s great angry dance to “One for my baby”, but checking it, I find it’s an R.K.O. Radio Picture.

TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT kind of bored me too, and it had some really horrid colour schemes, like M.G.M. seen through a hangover, though there was one nice bit where a young artiste tap-dances to a Hitler broadcast: “No, leave it on, I often dance to this fellow.” You don’t see nearly enough of that sort of thing.

It might actually be that I just don’t like Columbia. Their idea of greatness was Capra, who I’m rather iffy about. My favourite Columbia films were made by visiting independents — ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. I love GILDA, but the director of that one, Charles Vidor, ended up suing studio boss Harry Cohn for psychological injury. This could be one of those studios that I’m just temperamentally unsuited to.

(I love Paramount, especially 20s-30s. Love Warners, esp. 30s-40s. Love R.K.O. — almost everything. Love lots of different things from Universal. Love M.G.M. musicals but almost nothing else from that studio, and even with the musicals I have to leaven them with something drier or I tend to break out, and not in song.)

happy shiny person

*I like Benchley for his dreamlike qualities. There’s an essay that starts something like this: “So, on top of all this other work I’ve got to do, they tell me I have to build the Hoover Dam. I said to them I was already very busy and couldn’t they get somebody else, but no, it had to be me.”

Quote of the day: Wonder Kid?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2008 by dcairns


From Ezra Goodman’s marvellous The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood ~

‘Director King Vidor’s story, in his autobiography, A Tree is a Tree*, about how [M.G.M. executive Irving] Thalberg coolly conducted a story conference during a funeral, is a hair-raising tip-off to the man’s character. The funeral was Mabel Normand’s, and the screen story under discussion was that of  the homicidal Billy the Kid. The busy Thalberg did not have any time to waste. The conference between him and Vidor started in a limousine on the way to the funeral, continued intermittently through the services (“Too many murders,” Thalberg whispered of the movie plot at one point), and was concluded by the time the car reached the studio again. Thalberg bounded up the steps to his office, told Vidor “I’ll call you,” and, as Vidor noted, “the story conference was at an end.”‘

tell me Mabel are you able?

Goodman’s book is full of such insights, drawn from many other sources but also from his long experience as a Hollywood press-man. The lack of respect shown by Thalberg to Normand, a key figure of the silent era (she’s rumoured to have thrown the screen’s first custard pie) is horrifying. On the very next page, Goodman gives us:

‘Thalberg’s successors never enjoyed the esteem he did. It has been said that the imposing M.G.M. executive building, named after Thalberg, is air-conditioned and hermetically sealed “so that the ghost of Irving can’t get in to see what they are doing.”‘

Lovely. And he’s good at demolishing the myth of Thalberg’s genius: ‘For sheer bad taste and bad movie-making, it would not have been easy to beat some of the pictures Thalberg turned out,’ — I’m inclined to agree. Then as now, the pursuit of “quality” in Hollywood is usually an alibi for middlebrow tedium and/or vulgarity. The really interesting work is made by people who are aiming for something more, or less.

*I haven’t got this book and I WANT IT! But I do have A Cast of Killers, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, which details Vidor’s retirement project: investigating the 1922 murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, a case which involved numerous Hollywood greats — including Mabel Normand. Film directors don’t like unsolved murder cases, especially when the victim is a film director: it’s what you call a vested interest. Plus they tend not to like inconclusive endings in Hollywood. Anyhow, Vidor, being a storyteller, convinces himself of a massive conspiracy, which may well be true but is just the story you’d expect from him. Fiona and I love the idea of Vidor as detective. He could carry a badge with the M.G.M. lion on it and say things like “Freeze! King Vidor!”

Where were you on the night of February 1st 1922?