Archive for the Fashion Category

Good God

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2023 by dcairns

We finally caught up with BABYLON. A very hard artifact to account for.

“I’m not as angry as I thought I’d be,” Fiona began, after the three hours had gushed over us.

“‘I’m not angry, just disappointed,'” I finished for her.

We’d read some highly magnificent takedowns of Damien Chazelle’s film, so we can’t claim to have come to it unprejudiced. Still, I was rooting for it to be better than its reputation, and I was trying to make sense of the filmmaking decisions. But they defy sense. Here’s my best attempt at working out the thought processes and thoughtless processes that resulted in this misshapen specimen of cinematic teratology.

Firstly, I’ll admit that the cinematography is often breathtakingly beautiful, even by the high standards of this age, when digital colour correction has made an almost obnoxious degree of beauty attainable even by hacks. The music and sound design are also pretty great, and maybe Justin Hurwitz’ sort-of-anachronistic but catchy and pleasing score hints at some of the effects the film is aiming at and missing: it’s an invention rather than a recreation, it has little to do with 1920s and 30s music, but it transports us to another time and place — an imagined time and place rather than an actual one. Put it this way, it’s a more effective soundtrack than MANK’s.

It’s tempting to blame Baz Luhrmann, but maybe we should blame Fellini first? Chazelle may well be familiar with the maestro’s work, or he may merely have seen and misunderstood films influenced by it, but the ahistorical approach of SATYRICON, which must have been infuriating for classicists as BABYLON can be for most film buffs or scholars, provides a kind of mind map for BABYLON’s weird choices.

And SATYRICON begat GANGS OF NEW YORK, “a western set on Mars” just as Fellini had described his opus as “Flash Gordon set in the past.” If you throw out what normally constrains a period movie — the requirement to produce a commercially acceptable (for the period you’re actually shooting in) version of supposed historical accuracy, then you need some other creative guardrails so it’s not anything-goes masturbatory anarchy. Scorsese, making GANGS, no doubt had some kind of a vision, but he couldn’t achieve it as he was forced to make the film “about” a romantic couple he evidently had zero interest in. A bizarre case of history repeating itself: Scorsese struggled with the squaring the same circle that had defeated Julien Temple on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS — what interests you is just voyaging plotlessly through a world, but there’s a large and voluble productorial presence squatting on your shoulder barking instructions gleaned from Syd Field or Robert McKee.

MOULIN ROUGE! came out the year before GANGS, couldn’t have influenced it, but probably influenced BABYLON. Anything goes. Chazelle, to give him his due, is a bit better at organizing his mismatched materials than Luhrman, who at every stage of the creative process seems to be merely throwing shit at the wall. In a film called MOULIN ROUGE! our first entry, with our protagonist, into the titular and exclamatory venue, might seem to be a moment of some dramatic import, but Luhrman can’t wait the required three minutes for Ewan McGregor to get there, so he flashforwards to the joint purely in order to ruin the moment. Fiona likened the film’s affect to have glitter shot into your retinae for two hours, which is fair — the Cuisinart approach to montage is a big part of what’s so offensive — but the sheer ineptitude of the story certainly enhances the repulsiveness — are we actually meant to be on the edge of our seats worrying whether Nicole Kidman will be shot or die of consumption? I came to the conclusion that a bullet would be quicker, and would allow the villain to be punished, so it would be preferable all round.

What oddly enough isn’t a problem with MR! is the wild anachronism. Cinema can do that — you can justify pop songs and the fancy dress of two centuries if your big idea is simply to generate excitement, and your big insight is that the Moulin Rouge was an exciting place. You could actually take the costumes further into craziness if you wanted.

And so, in BABYLON, Margot Robbie (in full Harley Quinn mode) attends a movie premiere in a chorus girl costume rather than a gown, a peculiar choice which is likely to work only for audiences who have no idea of the film’s period. Her hair is a tangled mop of wrongness for most of the runtime. The maze of open-air sets is authentic for 1914, not for 1926.

A lot of the weird choices are not just ahistorical but illogical.

Brad Pitt’s character is supposedly a fake Latin lover, but he acts under the name Jack Conrad. A character decides to pay off the mob with Monopoly money. I think a lot of this illogic accounts for the way we felt nothing — the melodrama all fell flat. Because we couldn’t believe any of it. But then, the characters are mostly obnoxious — Robbie’s Frankensteinian assemblage of Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and others, is so obviously a nightmare when she first rocks up to the party that it’s incomprehensible that Diego Calva’s protag, Manny, wouldn’t slam the door in her face. Sure, she’s beautiful, but so is nearly everyone in this film, save the fat guys Chazelle keeps serving up for our mockery. (Fellini’s freakshow aesthetic had both an innocence and a measure of sympathy, at least by comparison.)

I couldn’t LIKE any of these people: it can’t be coincidence that Manny gets the bosses’ attention first by devising a means of smuggling an overdose victim from a party, and then fires the titles writer to avoid a lesbian scandal (the fact that the silent era is over and titles-writers are no longer required would seem reason enough), and persuades the Black jazz musician to black up. Obviously the message is that moral compromise is the way of the business, selling out your principles is the way to get ahead. There’s some sense that we’re being told a story, one which could end with Manny going a step too far and losing his soul, or crossing a line and getting in trouble for it, or finally discovering there’s something he won’t do (like Sidney Falco in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, who’s also a louse but a more entertaining one). But the story isn’t paid off in any of those ways, it’s just truncated.

To the Fellini-Scorsese-Luhrman vortex, the film adds more than a splash of BOOGIE NIGHTS — network narrative structure, a lot of the same story beats — and then great splatters of Farrelly Bros gross-out comedy, which become an insistent refrain. I didn’t spot any ejaculate but all the other bodily fluids seem to be accounted for, to the point where the absence of emission becomes an odd omission. The purpose of the buckets of shit, gore and vomit seems to be mainly comedic, and the decision to create the comedy in this manner is presumably iconoclastic in intent: Hollywood was not the pantheon of celluloid gods and goddesses, but a Pantagruelian horrorshow of malfunctioning flesh.

Chazelle has Luc Besson’s giftless approach to comedy: force the audience to laugh by applying a comic rhythm to fundamentally unamusing material. He has considerably more varied means of modulating the rhythm, mostly with the skilled sound design, so it’s not just characters looking at the camera with quizzical expressions (a gag Besson lifted from Landis and dots throughout his “comedy” sequences with wearying repetition). But after you’ve been nudged into laughter a couple of times, you do notice that nothing funny is happening.

Enough of the comedy revolves around the deaths of minor characters that this, too, erodes one’s abilities to care about major ones. If a cameraman expiring horrible in a soundproofed booth is meant to be humorous, why should we feel a sentimental pang at Manny’s romantic yearning, which is objectively less important?

If Chazelle is copying PTA, Scorsese, Luhrmann and, at least indirectly, Fellini, without understanding how any of them get their effects (I suppose we have to credit Luhrmann with “effects,” though I consider them all deleterious), we still cannot absolve Kenneth Anger from all blame.

If Hollywood Babylon impressed some part of the world upon publication, it was probably because the world suspected all these stories might be true, and that even if they weren’t, equally vile, tragic or absurd things would be. Nowadays, to me, the book interests mainly for the insight it provides into Anger’s psyche — a great deal of unexamined misogyny and self-hating homophobia seems to be mixed into it.

Chazelle seems to have been thrilled by the gossip, then presumably disillusioned a bit when he read further and discovered most of it wasn’t true. And then confusion set in. In interviews, Chazelle is unable to really explain what relationship he wants his film to have with the truth. He cites Kevin Brownlow as a more reliable source than Anger, but then basically says “But who knows what really happened?” All bets are off.

It’s hard to draw the line once you take that attitude. Once you take the view that Hollywood debauchery exceeded all rumour, and that the rumours weren’t being hyped by the yellow press for their own commercial reasons, you’re into a fantasy. Fantasy is an acceptable genre, though it’s probably good to examine what each particular invention is based on. And you probably had better make the individual characters’ stories meaningful. Romanticising suicide, celebrating alcoholism, leering over orgies with hypocritical disgust, none of that is going to wash.

There is evidence here that Chazelle could make a scary and effective horror film — the descent into the subterranean club is pretty terrifying. There’s a whole lot of skill being blasted like fire extinguisher foam at a cardboard infrastructure that inevitably grows soggy and collapses.

Chazelle’s confusion explodes into the fireworks display of the closing montage, comprised of these-you-have-loved highlights of the preceding three hours, enormous chunks of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, blipvert subliminals of all film history, with special care given to neglecting the silent era. It’s one of the sequences, along with the protracted snakebite farce, where the film’s macro-confusion as to what on earth it’s about spills into the micro-business of an individual scene. What I mean is, usually you can tell why a scene is happening, even if it isn’t working. But sometimes the scenes become simply incoherent. Why does Brad Pitt drop a reference to GONE WITH THE WIND a decade before the source novel was published?

I was really sad when Edinburgh Filmhouse closed, and what made it sadder was that one of the last posters displayed was for Andrew Dominik’s BLONDE, a film I despised. Somebody somehow got in and changed it, I’m glad to say. But it created in my mind a confluence, BLONDE = DEATH OF CINEMA. BABYLON seems, in its closing minutes, to be not just attempting a muddled rip-off of CINEMA PARADISO, but to be mourning the demise of the medium. But the medium deserves a better epitaph.

Bird Man of Sing Sing

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2022 by dcairns

I showed STEAMBOAT BILL JR to my class of 1st years today and that seemed to go well. I may have some deeper thoughts later, or maybe not. I guess I was most struck by how it’s at heart quite a moving story about a young man needing to connect with his dad… but the story is told entirely through gags.

Meanwhile, in ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE the young associate of Jimmy’s decodes his message with a simple stencil… which he hardly needed, to be honest. If that note had fallen into the hands of Det. Doyle, I don’t see him puzzling over it for long.

Meanwhile, there’s a bird man in Alcatraz Sing Sing. I guess this is one of the location shots the opening title card boasts of, but it could be anywhere. This is the lookout from Jimmy’s gang, pinched during the bank job. Will he sing like a birdie in sing sing?

Tourneur pere, like his son, is keen on atmospheric shadows.

It may be necessary to point out once more: they’ve only been making feature films for a year at this point. It feels like the move to a larger scale story has propelled filmmaking into a speedy advance, but then you look at DeMille and think, maybe not. It’s just that Tourneur is really good.

Jimmy, escaping by train with one of his cronies, stops the rat from harassing a female traveller. So we know he has a noble heart, if only he could remember where he left it (San Francisco, perhaps?). Tourneur has the best qualities of French, American, and somehow Swedish filmmaking going on here — as Jimmy delivers a punitive drubbing in the observation car (and is observed doing it) — Tourneur daringly shoots with natural daylight, allowing the train interior and tussling cracksmen to sink into silhouette. Finally, when the cad will not simply take his licks like a man, Jimmy hurls him onto the tracks. One hopes a safety platform was arrayed on the caboose to catch the plummeting thespian, but given Tourneur’s noted ruthlessness this may not have been the case.

(“All directors want to kill actors,” claimed Wallace Beery. At times, possibly.)

IMDb again doesn’t know who the cinematographer is, possibly the same genius who shot LORNA DOONE so splendidly.

The guy rolls on the tracks, face smeared in blood (or it could I suppose be chocolate syrup) and Jimmy legs it. But the accosted lady is not to disappear from the narrative, it seems:

The filmmaking may be ten years ahead of its time (five, anyway), but the fashions are bang-on 1915, alas. Peak frumpery. The poor actor (who would I’m sure have preferred “actress”) is Ruth Shepley, in her screen debut. One film later (supporting Marion Davies in the Hearst super-production WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER), she retired. Then she retired, possibly due to marriage.

I don’t REALLY know the O. Henry story, so I don’t know what her role is to be in the plot– I suspect, though, that Rose is a later interpolation to give the film what is called femme interest.

We shall soon see, for this saga is TO BE CONTINUED

Fever Dream

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2021 by dcairns

THE GOLD RUSH, part two.

The storm ends, and Big Jim and the lone prospector go their separate ways, Jim to get clonked on the head by Black Larsen, transforming him into a glazed amnesiac, and the lone prospector to become properly lone again.

(Red is then disappeared from the story by a conveniently yawning crevasse. His dog has previously disappeared, as Fiona noted with concern.)

The reconstructed silent version (as opposed to Chaplin’s post-war sonorized cut) includes a scene of Charlie pawning his shovel, so he’s given up being a prospector so we can’t call him that anymore. Chaplin’s performance in this one shot seems shaky, uncertain, and it looks to have been shot outdoors, so maybe the cold was affecting his performance or his perfectionist (it’s hard to strive for perfection when you’re freezing to death), leading to his decision to reshoot in the studio. He flashes the camera, is what he does, and it’s not an example of the Little Fellow’s ability to share a joke with his chums in the audience, it’s Chaplin breaking character to shoot a glance at Rollie Totheroh, asking if the move from the pawnshop balls to his face had worked…

We meet Georgia, the “saloon girl” (we know what THAT means), collecting some glossies from the photo shop, and we meet the awful Jack (Malcolm Waite), her steady guy. Jovial Jack is MUCH more hateful than Black Larsen, though he doesn’t actually murder anyone. That we know of. Funny that Chaplin’s films have fairly often opposed his character with more classic leading man types, and he loses the girl to one in THE TRAMP, but they haven’t been portrayed as horrible until now. (Jack will also disappear from the movie, unmourned, and with no explanation whatever.)

Georgia is Georgia Hale, discovered working as an extra by Sternberg, who cast her in THE SALVATION HUNTERS. She’s the first Sternbergian woman, and she puts on her eyebrows with a used matchstick in that film, the way Dietrich did for real later. Chaplin hired both her and Sternberg, but it’s fair to say the Sternberg thing didn’t work out: he walked off his first assignment after aiming the camera at the ceiling, and Chaplin burned his second one, the Edna Purviance vehicle A WOMAN OF THE SEA.

Hale’s career went nowhere after this, though she acted until 1931, and Chaplin considered using her again in CITY LIGHTS when he was having trouble getting a performance from Virginia Cherrill. Sternberg blamed alcohol for her decline. She appears lucid when interviewed in later years. And if the 1926 GREAT GATSBY had survived, we could see her in another major film.

Georgia is the one obvious anachronism, with her silvery patterned twenties dress, but I’ll overlook that because it’s a great dress.

Dance hall: Charlie’s arrival here, and this whole first sequence of him meeting Georgia, is the greatest evocation of loneliness in a crowd I’ve ever seen. The shots of him entering the joint are among the most beautiful of Chaplin’s career.

This whole sequence is skating on thin eyes, pathos-wise. Chaplin’s previous successful use of pathos in THE KID centres the heartbreaking emotion on Charlie’s relationship with the Kid. Here, we have to feel sorry for Charlie alone, while also being able to laugh at him. Well, feeling sympathy for a comic character is nothing unusual — it’s a trick to pull off, no doubt,, but one that we frequently see done successfully. Keaton thought the sympathy was an essential ingredient. But Charlie comes close to being pathetic here, a stooge rather than a lord of misrule. It’s a delicate operation. I think what helps is our position in the narrative — it’s OK for the laughs to be fewer and quieter in the middle of a film, and Chaplin has another raucous cabin scene lined up for his big finish.

Charlie gets to be naughty here once — stealing a drink — and funny when he has trouser trouble dancing with Georgia. An elaborate Freudian explanation could be concocted for the situation where he ties up his baggy pants — suddenly a problematic fit in proximity to The Girl — only to find himself tethered to a dog which then takes off after the resident dance hall cat…

Fiona got quite impatient with Georgia — she’s genuinely hard-hearted, which is a first for a Chaplin film and a rarity for silent comedy in general. But she will eventually melt. Chaplin has to pull off one of his cleverest narrative tricks to convince us she has a heart at all.

Interestingly, she’s softened slightly in the voiced-over version, since Chaplin is able to report her thoughts.

The eternal triangle drawn up, we follow Charlie to Henry Bergman’s cabin, where he feigns hypothermia (back to his trickster self) and is taken in as help. So that Jack MacGowran could play frozen rigid in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Polanski had him encased in a chickenwire exoskeleton under his costume. Chaplin does it by musclepower alone. Well, that’s why they pay him the big money.

Then Georgia and her girlfriends happen by, setting up the idea of the Hogmanay dinner party. Here, Charlie’s tongue-tied intertitles feel a little awkward — all that “Yes mam,” stuff doesn’t feel like him. I think a better effect could be achieved with actual wordlessness. But Georgia’s discovery of the tattered photo Charlie’s saved and keeps under his pillow is a lovely moment. What stops us hating Georgia is probably the music.

Charlie’s street-sweeping routine sees him back in character — turning the performance of a social good into a racket, sweeping one doorfront in order to bury the one next-door, then charging five times more to clear that one. It’s as good as a scam as the window-breaking glazier act in THE KID.

Then comes the bleak “party,” and Chaplin’s best dream sequence. It doesn’t matter too much that the bread roll dance is stolen from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle —

— although it always comes as a shock when you find out.

In any event, Chaplin’s version is far more elaborate, far more illusionistically convincing, funnier and greater. He saw the potential in a brief amusing bit and turned it into a whole performance. Johnny Depp, who had to copy this routine in BENNY AND JOON, talked about how difficult it was. “It’s all in the shoulders,” he said. And, I would add, in the eyes. The solemnity and inwardness of Charlie’s performance is what cracks me up, along with the fact that he alone makes you SEE him as a giant Mardi Gras head with fork legs and bread roll feet, dancing.

You’ll notice that “creative” camera angles and cutting don’t help here — they basically wreck it. Chaplin’s simplistic, stagey decoupage was CORRECT.

Then there’s the beautiful Old Lang Syne sequence at the dance hall, which makes Georgia yearn to see her absent friend, but she STILL hasn’t become, in the term of another festive comedy, “a mensch,” she presents the idea of a post-midnight visit to Charlie as a chance to prank him. She can’t admit to the sentiment this film celebrates. Anyway, Charlie and Georgia miss one another in the dark, and she sees into his private lonely world again when she finds the Marie Celeste dinner party.

Then Big Jim arrives, still amnesiac, recognises Charlie — who is understandably terrified by his manner — Mack Swain is the only one doing operatic silent movie acting in this film — and the movie prepares for the big finish…