Archive for October 9, 2008

Cinephage

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by dcairns

Arch-blogger Girish (if you don’t know his site, stop reading this and get over there now!) was generous enough to send me a copy of the original, 210-minute French cut of HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATEQUE, which is a superb documentary with a fascinating subject. In archive film, Langlois himself commands attention, shambolically dressed, greasy-haired, bulbous-bodied, his arms two tapering tentacles undulating through the Parisian air, his hands two sub-octopi appended to their tips, each finger a fat sausage tendril, a tiny stub of cigarette wedged between two of these, the hand making darting, almost instantaneous trips to those voluptuous Langlois lips to deliver its precious cargo of life-giving nicotine.

But there was one moment that stopped me dead, and forced me to halt the film while I tried to retrieve bits of my sundered consciousness from around the room. It quite literally BLEW THE BLOODY DOORS OFF my mind.

A snap of Louis Feuillade’s great star, the Irma Vep of LES VAMPIRES, Musidora, fills the frame, and an interviewee remarks, quite casually, some words translated in subtitle as “Musidora ran the switchboard.”

The film’s persistent strategy is to hype the Cinemateque de Langlois as a magical, mystical and impossible venue, a place of anarchy where Lotte Eisner read the tarot cards and decaying nitrate stock summoned spectres of the past. The above one-liner did it for me.

When I had retrieved enough fragments of my mental faculties, I was able to reflect on the irony of a silent movie star working the telephones, and then to decide that “Rosemary, your glamorous switchboard operator” from the Hong Kong Phooey cartoons had damn well better MOVE OVER.

Returning to the splendid doc, which mounts a compelling case for Langlois’ anarchic administrative style, and forms a damning indictment of the bloodless bureaucrats who have fumbled his legacy, it has an ending so transplendently beautiful that I hesitate to give it away, but this blog is never what you’d call spoiler-free, so I’m going to anyway.

A story circulated just after Langlois’ death: a member of staff was sitting in on a screening of a Pastrone epic, when he spotted a minor character who looked just like his former boss. The following night, several staff members spotted another lookalike playing a major role in a Sjostrom drama. And so on — Langlois began turning up in every film, and his staff would congregate in the audience to receive their instructions from the screen.

The fable evokes our impossible dream of the Permeable Movie Screen. Something about that speaks to us, and accounts perhaps for Langlois’ injunction to sit in the front row and “eat” the movie. If you run Woody Allen’s PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO again you find that there aren’t as many good jokes in it as you’d expect from ’80s Allen, and his writing of the Danny Aiello-Mia Farrow relationship is startlingly flat (he doesn’t KNOW these people), but the central premise is so compelling that the film plods its way to the human heart anyway. No wonder the film begins with Fred Astaire singing “Heaven / I’m in heaven,” — to get up there and stand IN a film, as Buster Keaton does, with difficulty, in SHERLOCK JNR, is to enter a celluloid afterlife, occupied by little slivers of time, lovingly scraped from the souls of the dead.

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Finally du Jour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by dcairns

At last, the day after Duvivier’s birthday, I get around to writing something substantial, or at least what passes for “substantial” around here, about LA FIN DU JOUR, the film I’ve been promoting to the best of my ability. In fact, the film has also been promoting me, since various mentions of the GREAT DUVIVIER GIVEAWAY around the blog-O-sphere have bolstered my stats and got Shadowplay some favourable mention. What goes around does actually seem to come around.

I think I mentioned in an intervening post that, having borrowed the film from the Lindsay Anderson Archive, a non-lending VHS repository in Glasgow, I ran it for my late friend Lawrie, who was always enthusiastic about French film, especially that of the ’30s and ’40s. It was a field that was mostly a blank to me when I first met Lawrie, but he had lived through it and seen Rene Clair and Duvivier and Carné films when they were new. As I was able to get a few of the films, we ran them together, and agreed in the end that while much Clair had dated a bit, Carné’s classics stood up brilliantly (and some of his non-classics seem to deserve reappraisal) and Duvivier was in serious need of rediscovery. Lawrie wasn’t so keen on Renoir, it seemed, and so my appreciation of him had to wait a little while (and I’m still in the process of catching up with him as a result).

LA FIN DU JOUR was a big hit with Lawrie. I don’t think he’d seen it before. While the fact that it was about elderly characters may have resonated with him, the pleasure probably had more to do with seeing favourite stars Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet in meaty roles, and finding Victor Francen a revelation. Rather than reviewing the film in detail, I just want to talk about those characters a bit.

Victor Francen as Marny. Francen is, I suppose, the nearest thing to a leading character in the story, which is more or less an ensemble piece. Unlike Michel Simon’s Cabrissade, Francen isn’t a clown, and unlike Jouvet, he isn’t mad. But Duvivier and co-scenarist Charles Spaak deliberately divide our attentions and sympathies, so that Francen doesn’t quite assume the status of hero.

For one thing, he’s a bit of an old stick. He stands on his dignity too much, and thus makes an irresistible target for Cabrissade’s practical jokes. One can’t entirely blame Cabrissade for picking on the stuffed shirt Marny. It seems likely that Marny’s “dignity, always dignity” approach to life has hampered his career as an actor. He describes himself as an actor without a public, and his overall stiffness is perhaps responsible for this. It may also be to blame for the failure of his marriage: one can imagine a young wife preferring the dash and vigour of the irresponsible Saint Clair.

Louis Jouvet as Raphaël Saint Clair. Isn’t that a great name for a classical actor? Jouvet is introduced in scene one almost as if he’s the protagonist, but this is really just a narrative device to take us from the familiar circumstances of a touring theatre troupe to the less familiar setting of a retirement home for actors (a brilliant location to set any kind of drama, it seems to me — I tried on one occasion to interest the producer of BBC3’s wretched Twisted Tales series in a supernatural comedy with such a setting).

Saint Clair is a complete egomaniac, introduced as such, whose character development consists of a slide into madness which is really just an exaggeration of his normal personality. “We ought to hate him!” observed Fiona when I ran the film for her. Miraculously, we don’t. Other people just don’t exist for Saint Clair, except as an audience for his greatness. So there’s no possible malice in him. But he’s blithely unaware of the emotional destruction he leaves in his wake. If somebody kills themselves over him, that’s just fuel to his ego. He’s perhaps the most stupendously selfish character ever written, and it seems he got this way just by basking in the audience’s affection. This is a movie with some fairly tough things to say about the acting profession — yet it’s full of love and admiration for actors.

Michel Simon as Cabrissade. Only 44 when he made the film, but with the face of a compressed buffalo, Simon represents, on one level, the failure of the popular front. Duvivier, who apparently was fairly conservative in his politics, lays this old radical to rest, dismissing him as a mediocre player and a case of arrested development, but celebrating his love and devotion to his craft. But Cabrissade is closer to Duvivier than politics would suggest: the spark of the film came from J.D.’s experiences as an actor, and in particular the nightmarish moment when, like Cabrissade, he “dried” on stage, forgetting all his lines and standing paralysed and sweating before a derisive audience.

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The late Ken Campbell — still can’t believe he’s gone — described his own experience of this phenomenon in colourful terms. He was performing in Ben Jonson’s “comedie” The Alchemist and was frustrated with the lack of actual belly laughs in it, so he had just decided to attempt a fart, to get the audience going a bit, when an angel descending and informing him that he was going to have his acting ability, or license, or something, taken away, and then the angel extracted his fart, bubble by bubble, and departed, leaving Campbell unable to access his memory of the lines except as if through a thick fog. He never played a leading role again… although the angel did visit him again about a week later to say, “Small roles in film and TV: still OK.”

The fact that Cabrissade’s drying, followed so soon by his dying, may be poetic evidence for the existence of this theatrical angel…

So: not a film review, but I think THIS IS THE PLACE for anyone who has received and watched LA FIN to chime in with their responses, questions, demands for emotional reimbursement or whatever. Let’s talk!