Archive for April, 2011

Ecto-chromatic

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , on April 27, 2011 by dcairns

Was fascinated by this image in the indescribably handsome and massive book Silent Magic of unknown title, on loan from my local library (bolster your coffee tables if you want to buy this one). A row of “What the Butler Saw” machines… but what is that strange fluid trickling across the floor? Has one of the smartly-dressed patrons mistaken a Mutoscope for a novelty urinal?

I reject that hypothesis, and the even more disgusting one about the pornographic film and the stream of over-excited movie-lovers hand-cranking themselves into a state of climax, which wouldn’t happen since all Mutopornoscopes came fitted with crotch-nozzles for the tumescent cineaste to vent into. The byproduct was collected in pails and used to make papier mache breeze-blocks, from which were eventually constructed the sets for INTOLERANCE.

Se, eliminating the impossible, I arrive at the one remaining explanation: ectoplasm.

You see, it’s no coincidence that a film showing in France is known as a “seance”. It’s not by chance that cinema is known as a “medium”. We know of course that movies contain dead people, more of them with every passing moment. They are a way for us to commune with the Other World.

In the early days of the nickelodeon, when film was less photochemically stable, some of these phantoms would occasionally leak from the films, permeating into our sphere and eventually coalescing into pools of ectoplasm trickling across the floors of the screening galleries. Intent on the images visible through the Mutoscope’s visor, the customers rarely noticed these silent, colourless intruders, who flickered briefly into life before melting like so much decayed nitrate stock. Even when an unwitting viewer glanced up to be greeted by the shade of a ciné-spectre, the impression was fleeting, for ghosts know the side-doors into amnesia through which they can flit, dragging all conscious memory of their manifestation behind them like tattered veils.

These phenomena were well-known to the exhibitors of their day, but those worthies well knew how to keep a professional secret. Soon, advances in film processing would seal the apparitions within their filmy worlds — you will note that, outside of the movie screen, ghosts of famous film players are never reported.

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by dcairns

MEEK’S CUTOFF, directed by Kelly Reichert, is an unusual arthouse western, following a small wagon trail across parched desert, on a seemingly endless quest to find water — by half an hour in, the ideal of finding land to settle in is forgotten, and mere survival is the goal. Different from TRUE GRIT in nearly every particular, it does bear some resemblance in its evocation of historical speech patterns, agreeably strange to modern ears, and in the character of the guide, Meek, who shares some of Rooster Cogburn’s bluster and bullshit, but seemingly none of his redeeming competence.

Fiona and I went with my parents, who like their westerns. Though this one is unconventional, relying not on onscreen death and action for dramatic high points, but on creeping uncertainty and desperation, it still gave them some pleasure. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t wear his hearing aid — movies are usually so over-amplified he doesn’t need it, but MEEK’S CUTOFF goes the other way, presenting most of its speech at the fringes of audibility.

This is part of the film’s you-are-there aesthetic, and its identification with the female characters, who are excluded from the major policy decisions of the party, even those which affect their chances of survival. So much of the key talk is eavesdropped upon from a distance, and the soundtrack reflects that. The you-are-thereness is reinforced by impenetrably dark night scenes where the campfire illuminates only itself, long, numbing scenes of trudging across the plains, the arrhythmic squeak of a wagon wheel producing highway hypnosis of the ears, and a refusal of all but a little atonal droning in the way of music.

The you-are-there approach can be quite a powerful thing, and it can be used with taste or otherwise. Mel Gibson’s religio-snuff flick actually turned a soundtrack of dead languages into a commercial asset, by making viewers feel present at the authentic crucifixion. That makes sense of Gibson’s preference that the film be screened without subtitles, to make the ancient-world jabber as incomprehensible as it would be to a church outing of chrononauts. The excessive gore wasn’t just Gibson’s sado-masochistic impulses at play, although it was mainly that, it was also an attempt to make us feel uncomfortably close to the spectacle of torture and murder.  I suspect most devout Christians, if they could time-travel, would choose to go back and see Christ — but since they wouldn’t be able to understand a word he said, I guess they’d have to settle for watching him in action — what’s odd is that his death is judged of more interest than his miracles. Possibly, in fact certainly, the walking on water could not be portrayed with the brute viscerality Gibson brings to slaughter, the need for special effects would take us out of you-are-there literalness, so as he saw it the film’s are of effectiveness was violence, pure and simple.

With MEEK’S CUTOFF, the effects aimed at aren’t violent (there’s only one blow struck onscreen, I think), and the purpose behind the approach isn’t rubbernecking at a martyrdom, but participation in a fearful state of unknowing. I was reminded very much of John Sayles’s LIMBO, only here the domain of emptiness is more powerfully evoked. At first the travelers are uncertain as to their guide’s ability — he seems to have gotten them lost, but can he get them unlost? As doubt turns to the certainty that Meek is no reliable guide — “The only question is, is he evil or merely stupid?” — a new guide is discovered, a lone indian who speaks no English. Given his probable hostility (he’s been wounded and kidnapped by Meek), his inability to communicate verbally, and his alien culture, this man may be no more reliable than Meek, but putting faith in him seems the only way to proceed with hope…

The appearance of the line “Stay the course” made me wonder if the film was in any way a political metaphor for present American embroilments in the Middle East. I think it can read that way, but it doesn’t force the thought upon us. If we follow that line, cowboy Bush is succeeded by non-white American Obama, and the journey through the wilderness is one where the outcome cannot be known: all that’s clear is the mistakes already made, which it’s too late to correct. That seems, at least in part, reductive, though, since the film’s thematic openness is part of it’s strength, and the tactile dustiness seems to insist that the film is about exactly what it is about — THIS journey, THESE people.

Excellent performances all round, notably from Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood. Haunting cinematography. Bold, mesmeric pacing. I don’t award stars, but imagine lying on your back on the prairie at night, looking up at the sky.

Gloria Swan Song

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2011 by dcairns

MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934) is the last film of the first phase of Gloria Swanson’s career — she would return to the screen for one movie in the early 40s, then make a more decisive, immortalizing comeback in SUNSET BLVD. Already here she’s playing an egotistical diva, a sort of light comedy sketch for the Norma Desmond to come. And one of her writers is one “Billie Wilder.”

But that isn’t even the most interesting aspect of this film, a Bavarian-set operetta-film which tries hard for charm but just misses. Joe May’s direction is solid, and maybe “solid” isn’t the word you’d want to describe a soufflé, but it’s apt here. Movie also features Douglass Montgomery (AKA Kent Douglass, in a baffling mid-career name switch), unjustly forgotten star, looking very fetching in lederhosen (literally, singing-trousers), June Lang, real-life gangster’s moll, more of less convincing as an innocent small-town gal, and John Boles as Gloria’s ham beau. Montgomery and Lang’s singing is dubbed, apparently, but the full-throated work of Swanson and Boles is their own. But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the film either.

No, what’s most interesting about the film is the way its plot intersects with that of Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID, mad twenty years later. Just as in the later film, the hero is a smalltown teacher and aspiring songwriter with an ambitious partner. Success seems to depend on winning the favour of a music biz bigshot, but romantic entanglements threaten the stability of the hero’s home life. Intriguingly, the 30s version stems from a musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, whereas Wilder credited the inspiration for the 60s iteration as Anna Bonacci’s L’Ora Della Fantasia, by way of the 1952 Lollobrigida epic WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

I’m stressing the similarities, but there are substantial differences. The showbiz star played by Dino in KMS is split in two here, with John Boles and Gloria as singing stars and partners. And it’s the pair of them who are neurotically jealous, as well as obsessively philandering, so that in a sense both of them are playing Dean Martin and Ray Walston at the same time. And rather than staying in a small Bavarian village/Climax, Nevada, the movie relocates to Vienna for its second act.

If the movie isn’t too funny, and only gestures towards the endearing, featherweight charm it wants to own, it nevertheless is put together with skill and a dash of wit, and certainly doesn’t get anywhere near the hinterland of discomfort and revulsion that makes KISS ME, STUPID so… memorable. If we look at KMS as a kind of unofficial semi-remake, it puts it in line with Wilder’s demusicalisation of IRMA LA DOUCE, as well as his refusal to make CABARET and his discomfort with THE EMPEROR WALTZ — something in Wilder’s character made him reject the musical.

This is an interesting specimen, by the way — since the characters are mostly songwriters and musical stars, pretty well all the songs emerge from the action in a more naturalistic way than we associate with the form: Boles introduces a song of seduction by telling June Lang that it’s a number from his upcoming show, but he’s changing the lyrics to suit her. To call it “meta-textual” might be overdoing things, but it sort of is