Archive for the Mythology Category

The Devils and Miss Jones

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2016 by dcairns

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I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.

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As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.

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Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.

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How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.

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*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.

The Look 2: Lukas Rejects

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , on July 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Reminder: I’ve embarked on an occasional series about moments when actors look at the camera.

A tricky one — I wasn’t sure if I was remembering this correctly.

But when I think of actors looking at the camera, I always think of Paul Lukas in STRANGE CARGO (1940), or STRANGE FILM as surely somebody else must have called it.

Frank Borzage’s films were often religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, but this one is a full-blown allegory, with Ian Hunter unusually effective as the Christ figure, who is part of an all-star group of escaped convicts including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Peter Lorre.

Lukas plays a serial killer of women — for profit. He leaves the group midway through the film to take up his profession again. Hunter has been on at him to repent of his sinful ways. Lukas leaves, but after doing so, when he is alone apart from US — he turns, glances about in the direction of the camera — eyes flickering wildly so that for a moment I was afraid my memory was playing me false and he wasn’t going to do it — and then he looks right down the barrel of the lens and says, very firmly —

“No.”

Borzage’s camera, which has been following Lukas, seems to have become briefly identified with the eye of God. This is Lukas’ final rejection of the grace of God. Delivered to us. As if we were all, collectively, the best stand-in for the deity that Borzage could think of.

So that’s nice of him.

Casares Through the Looking Glass

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on July 29, 2016 by dcairns

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It had been YEARS since I watched Cocteau’s ORPHÉE, so when Fiona got a free copy from Criterion as reward to her contribution to my vid essay on CARNIVAL OF SOULS, I was eager to run it.

When I last saw it, did all the talk about the dead, who are forbidden to love, strike me as having resonance with Cocteau’s outlaw sexuality? I feel like it didn’t, but now it seems inescapable, though of course Cocteau was right to dismiss any overall symbolic intent. It’s more like the film tells its own story, quite literally and shamelessly, but also exists in a nexus of intersecting possible meanings, none of which is THE meaning.

Elaborating on the source myth, Cocteau creates two couples, except they’re not couples… another nexus is created, this time of yearning. There’s Jean Marais as the title poet-superstar (scarcely a plausible job description except when you remember, oh yeah, Cocteau was one), married to Eurydice, Marie Déa, whom he neglects. Then there’s Maria Casares as Death, or A Death anyhow, who is in love with Orph, and Heurtebise (François Périer), Death’s driver, a student who recently committed suicide, who falls in love with Mrs. O.

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The black dress has changed to a white dress within the same scene. Apart from THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, what other films do this?

By film’s end, throwing out the Greeks altogether, Cocteau has contrived an implausible happy ending for the living characters, while leaving the dead ones to face an uncertain but clearly unpleasant punishment for their transgressions against the Natural Order. And they’re not even facing this punishment along with the one/s they love. Death and her chauffeur enjoy a pretty snarky relationship through much of the film, but by the end they stand united, and Herteubise, along with Eurydice the one really sympathetic character, seems to respect Death for her sacrifice, for the way she’s put herself in harm’s way first to pursue the one she loves, then to make sure he’s OK.

The message would see to be: some (the living) have happiness as their right; others (the dead) are forbidden to love and are doomed to unhappiness.

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Cocteau felt bad enough about this that he let the characters return in LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE to give him a hard time for dropping them in it.

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