Archive for the Dance Category

Wests Sides Stories

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2022 by dcairns

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

The Story of the Moral

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2021 by dcairns

Ellen Richter seems like a good subject for further study — I intend to check out on of her travel-adventure films (Reise-und-Abenteuerfilme), the only one available to me, DER FLUG UM DEN ERDBALL (THE FLIGHT AROUND THE WORLD, 1925). Richter produced her own films and her husband, Willi Wolff, directed them. Pordenone director Jay Weissberg speculated that she’s not better-known because she didn’t work with the big-name German directors, and so few of her films were preserved, but added the fact thats she was Jewish, and she and Wolff got out of the Fatherland in 1933 (emigrating to America but not making any more films there) — it seems to me possible that the Nazis actively tried to destroy her work, the way they went after Dietrich’s. (Langlois rescued the negative of THE BLUE ANGEL, allowing some forgettable travelogue to be cremated in its place, with the connivance of an S.S. man who was a big Marlene fan.)

Pordenone chose a different genre for streaming, MORAL, a sophisticated comedy with a musical theatre/smalltown theme. Guest-starring the Tiller Girls, a British variety act very popular in Germany, MORAL is intermittently very amusing and looks great. Wolff delivers some nimble touches — there’s a flurry of shocked reaction shots like a THIN MAN denouement, and a relay of embarrassed walks, where one character runs into another and reverses course, and the other guy, retreating in likewise embarrassment, runs into a third and the whole thing repeats. Quite fresh.

(My late friend Lawrie Knight directed the Tiller Girls, in a later incarnation. Not sure what the film was for. Day one went well, but on day two the girls were all bruised around the backside area. “What caused it?” I asked, naively. “Fucking!” Lawrie chortled. Some fortunate make-up artist had his work cut out for him.)

THE BLUE ANGEL, or rather its source novel, Henirich Mann’s Professor Unrat, seems to be in the mix here, as schoolboys pass around a postcard of Richter’s mildly saucy act under the (blue) nose of their despotic schoolteacher. Or maybe that was just something that happened so regularly in Germany that it was bound to make it into several media representations by sheer ubiquity.

You can see, perhaps, why Richter didn’t get into Hollywood movies — I don’t know what her English was like but her face is strong-featured, her build sturdy. But her ironic smile and her scintillating wardrobe exert charm.

I also watched a discussion about FILIBUS, a film which seems to cast a spell over all who see it. I didn’t learn all that much, except about the historical confusion as to who the star is and the mystery around who made it and whether it may have been a serial at one time. But my own enchantment with the film was confirmed by others who felt similarly, including the restoration team led by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.