Archive for the literature Category

The Mildreds

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by dcairns

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OF HUMAN BONDAGE is, I guess, the first kind of classic John Cromwell film, in that it’s well-remembered and has a classic source (Somerset Maugham) and iconic stars. And it’s compelling. Leslie Howard plays the mug of a hero beautifully, and Bette Davis, who invents the Dick Van Dyke cockney accent, gives a fearless, fiercely committed performance free of vanity. Though her attempt at being a Londoner is somewhat hilarious, it’s detailed enough to contain hints of Mildred Rogers’ social aspirations.

Cromwell was brought to Hollywood for the talkies, his theatre experience judged useful to help with actors who hadn’t been on the stage — for his first movies, he was paired with Edward A. Sutherland, the former Mr. Louise Brooks, who was judged in need of dramaturgical support. Those early movies fairly creak — VICE SQUAD is all but unwatchable, DANCE OF LIFE seems to have been photographed from the stalls (but worth it to glimpse a nubile Oscar Levant) and CLOSE HARMONY has been lost, for now, apart from its Vitaphone disc soundtrack. But somewhere in there, maybe making THE WORLD AND THE FLESH as an excercise du style with Karl Struss lighting and framing for expressionist values, Cromwell became more visually sensitive, and OHB is full of slick effects and interesting approaches. Not all of them come off — the phantasmal visions of Bette that plague Howard are hammy and stoopid — but on the other hand the Ozu-like dialogue delivered straight down the lens is extremely effective. Maybe he got that from Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but if so, he refined it.

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“I think she’s the worst woman I’ve ever seen,” said Fiona, adding that she felt she SHOULD be able to find some redeeming traits in the “contemptible and ill-natured” Mildred, but she just couldn’t. Davis plays it to the hilt as only she could, and Howard makes you believe in his masochism. There are lovely turns from Kay Johnson (a Cromwell favourite — his first wife) and Frances Dee as the other women in his life. This Mildred creature is one of a small regiment of monstrous women in Cromwell’s pics — usually the story resolves with the beastly female being found out by those she’s deceived about her true nature (THE SILVER CORD, THIS MAN IS MINE, IN NAME ONLY) but here, Howard is fully aware of her perfidy from the start. It’s his own masochism he has to wise up to.

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Another Mildred turns up in THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS, played by another Bette, this time Jane Greer (AKA Bettejane Greer). Her first scene with the parole board has you rooting for her as she pleads with her big, doll-like eyes — then we find out her parole officer is Lizabeth Scott, which seems like an interesting concept — what if your parole officer was a noir femme fatale? But we quickly learn that Greer’s innocence is an act, while Scott is a caring professional who wants the best for her. Things take another turn when Greer sets her sights on Scott’s man, Dennis O’Keefe — and gets him.

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It’s a highly unusual drama, scripted by the interesting lady noir specialist Ketty Frings. Cromwell made it right after the masterful CAGED, and it could almost be a sequel.

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Picked up when a fellow parolee is nabbed for stealing, Greer endures a night in the cells and a humiliating police line-up which have the same noir-sadeian tint as the earlier film, aided by chiaroscuro cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST, CAT PEOPLE) and a fierce bunch of co-stars including Theresa Harris, uncredited again (see Wednesday’s post).

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The Lizabeth Scott view from the floor again (see yesterday’s post): not literally, this time, but pleading Greer’s case before a swarm of unfeeling authority figures, she might as well be flat on her back.

The particular aspect of Cromwell’s talent in operation this time, asides from his steady hand with actors, is his compositional gift — the parole board scenes are particularly sharp. Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept in 72 hours, but I think this one is a little masterpiece, and ought to be better known. Eschewing overt melodrama, making strong use of real locations in the manner that was just coming into fashion at the time, and giving Greer probably the meatiest and realest role of her somewhat truncated career, it’s mature, unpredictable and impressive on all levels (down to the unusual score by the underrated Leigh Harline).

Also: Kathleen Freeman as a young woman, and Jeff Bridges as a baby!

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“Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Brainwashed

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Jonathan Demme seems like such a smart and likable fellow, and for a while there his films were really something to look forward to. I can’t explain the one-two punch of remakes THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (CHARADE recycled, confirming what SABRINA should have proven: don’t mess with Audrey Hepburn vehicles) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the early years of this century. Despite cameos by the likes of Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour (TTAC) and Robyn Hitchcock, Al Franken, Roger Corman and Bruno Ganz (TMC), they are weirdly UN-COOL movies, lacking the charm of the old and the freshness of the new. All the fun stuff (Karina as a chanteuse? Sure, if you’re offering!) is incidental, decorations on a dead tree.

I finally watched TMC on a whim — I picked up the DVD for £1 in a charity shop, then found to my chagrin that it was on Netflix anyway, started watching it, got bored, decided to some back to it and found it was deleted, so my disc came in handy after all. So, I freely confess, I watched it piecemeal, which is arguably not giving it a fair shot. But I think I’d have had the same problems with it regardless.

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Weird seeing Jon Voight as the liberal. But weirdly natural seeing him upside down underwater. Why is that? Then I realized: for some time now, Jon Voight ALWAYS looks like he’s upside down underwater.

I really like John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s original — this piece concentrates on its many flaws, but I hope succeeds in bringing out why it’s ultimately so satisfying. The 2002 version, I thought, was going to attempt to be a political update for the War on Terror, but even though Axelrod’s script for the original did not name political parties and Daniel Pyne and Dean Gorgaris’ does, the movie seemed irrelevant. Oddly, it ought to have deeper resonance now, with the idea of a puppet president, but since Demme’s Manchuria is a corporation not a foreign power, it’s the Frankenheimer that feels more of-the-moment… prophetic, even.

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Sci-fi implants just don’t have the resonance of brainwashing, something we can still somewhat believe in. So we don’t believe in the device, and the Evil Corporation feels like a standard movie trope, not an impassioned political stance. It’s like Demme’s response to the Bush administration was to come out against Webscoe, the Evil Corporation from SUPERMAN III.

Everything about Demme’s film is perfectly decent. So instead of Frank Sinatra’s moving, anguished performance, we get Denzel Washington’s perfectly decent one. Instead of Frankenheimer’s taut, surrealism-inflected visuals, we get Demme’s perfectly decent filmmaking. Where Laurence Harvey imbued his brainwashed “war hero” with that rather hateful quality Harvey always had, combined with spectacular good looks, Liev Schreiber gives an exceptional performance made less affecting because, with his odd, features, he’s much more obvious casting as a Man Without Appeal. He’s like a thin George Bancroft whittled from cork.

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Actually, maybe he’s meant to have appeal because the script makes a few changes, so that Schreiber is a vice presidential candidate who stands to get the top job, while Washington is the one who’s been programmed as an assassin. This actually makes a kind of narrative sense, or it would if it led us to a satisfying and disturbing conclusion. But a dark, scary ending would have turned this into a clone of THE PARALLAX VIEW, so it has to have a wishy-washy happy ending, making heroes of the FBI (who have received a surprising amount of positive PR from Demme’s career).

Streep is the highlight. I’ve come round to Streep, if not to her movies.

 

Into The Psyche.

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Dante: The Divine Comedy –  ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.’ – Inferno Canto 1: 1-60. The Dark Wood and the Hill.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
You are not alone
No one is alone

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Fiona here.

I was not expecting to become a sobbing mess during Into The Woods.

Truth be told, I am in a very delicate place. The blasted landscape of Grief. My brother died under traumatic circumstances this year and my response was to go into ‘coping/organisational’ mode, then numbness then dissociation. Something had to give eventually and after many months the reality of the situation started to seep into my bones and finally my brain, where it’s presently wreaking havoc in the a form of a PTSD like condition.

Into The Woods is a clever confabulation of classic fairy tales, which hearkens back to their dark origins. The end of the film is a virtual holocaust, with many characters dead and others bereaved.

Fairy tales, the old-fashioned kind, are very potent. They represent the shadowiest recesses of the human mind. Our hopes. Our fears. Everything that makes us human, including unimaginable pain.

Just watching this film version of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s remarkable piece, pierced my very thin defenses and touched the rawest nerves in my being. At this moment, that is perhaps a very easy thing to do. Films can be cathartic and healing in an odd way. Through this film I was able to release some of the pain I’d been holding onto for decades (losing both parents very young), along with my present pain. The old and the present pains are of course connected.

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Here’s a temporary thesis – Good Fairy Tales are about teaching us to deal with loss and impermanence. Bad Fairy Tales are saccharine things full of lies that merely distract and teach us nothing. The Fairy or Folk Tale is of course, closely aligned to dark fantasy writing and horror fiction/movies. Horror is primarily a young person’s genre as the undeniable truth that we will all die has not yet fully penetrated the developing mind. Fairy Tales are created for even younger minds. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial Of Death (1973), he outlined the thesis that the human personality is formed around the process of denying death so that we can continue to function. The downside is that this belief obscures self-knowledge and is responsible for much of the evil in the world.

43 years later, The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski actually verified this theory using psychological testing (over many, many years). They called it terror management theory.

Let’s go back to my Good/Bad Fairy Tale hypothesis. I think we can now see that MOST Fairy Tales and horror movies, although they include the idea of mortality, also deny it by having characters rise from the dead. How about Snow White and Michael Myers? In fact very few horror movies and film/theatre adaptations of fairy tales deal with bereavement, ageing and death in any meaningful way, apart from possibly Don’t Look Now and Into The Woods, which both riff on Little Red Riding Hood.

TMT combines existential philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and proposes that the avoidance of the idea of death has far-reaching consequences into how we manage our personal lives, our society and more disturbingly, our politics. In fact it penetrates to the very heart of humanity. It has existed since we became self-aware and has molded how we have conducted ourselves through history. It probably led to the invention of spirituality, religion – and art, and has helped us build the world we now inhabit. A sometimes beautiful but mainly monstrous, warring planet overwhelmed  with an obsession with fame, social injustice and unimaginable cruelty towards our fellow kind.

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It’s not all negative however, despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted. We have ART; the desire to represent the world around us and the feelings it provokes. Hense story telling. It’s unclear whether spirituality encouraged story telling or vice versa. At any rate we NEED story telling, much like terror management theory, to navigate our lives. Stories can act as guides. Unfortunately our own lives do not have clear cut beginnings, middles and ends. The narrative can be cut off by sudden death. Most people do not like ambiguous endings. They need resolution. Usually a happy one. Very young minds are very similar to older minds in this regard. What the best Fairy Tales and Into The Woods provides is something different. ‘Good’ wins over ‘evil’, then everything falls apart and becomes as chaotic as the real world itself. Characters have to make tough decisions that don’t chime with their original desires. (‘I wish. I want’) They then have to adapt to an imperfect world. I think this is a good message for children. A good message for all of us.

Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn