Archive for the Politics Category

The Sunday Supertitles: The Yellowface Peril

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by dcairns

I was mildly impressed by director Walter Forde when I first saw some of his thirties comedy-thrillers. None of these are at a Hitchcock level, although the comedy sometimes approaches the irksomeness of the worst bits of British Hitch. But his two INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH sequels (the original, confusingly, was directed by Eugene Forde) are witty and stylish — Forde could bring noirish atmospherics to his music-hall romps. ROME EXPRESS has some very inventive cutting and comes close to being a legit precursor to THE LADY VANISHES (Forde often worked with that film’s writers, Launder & Gilliatt, as well as other talents like Val Guest).

   

THE SILENT HOUSE is probably Forde’s most elegant piece of filmmaking, from an early tracking shot that passes ghostlike through the latticework of a window (surely Hitchcock was watching and nodding his chins in approval) to the use of big, frontal close-ups as shock punctuation. The plot lets it down — it starts as a simple but fun spooky house mystery, complete with will-reading, then plunges into a lengthy, hypnosis-induced flashback, then hits us with a flurry of reversals and suspense-menace involving hidden panels, apparent deaths that aren’t, and an actual snake pit. Yes, the villain has constructed a snake pit off his own living room, just in case he should need one.

The other thing that lets the movie down, or at least problematizes its simple pleasures, is the race angle. The movie is a colonial fantasy/nightmare, a bit like Hammer’s later ventures into this arena. Racism performs a queer sort of dance — at first, it looks like it won’t be as vicious as you feared, then it turns out to be much worse, then it unexpectedly backtracks, then lunges forward, and so on. We end up in a complicated place that does actually soften some of the most horrible aspects of the film. But they’re still there.

(Forde also directed CHU CHIN CHOW with Anna May Wong as an Arab along with George Robey and Fritz Kortner.)

The first hint of this angle is the appearance of Kiyoshi Tanase, an actual Japanese actor playing a Chinese manservant. The moody opening sequence, in which his master is flattened by a falling stone balustrade (a favourite country house assassination technique — see AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — probably never attempted in reality) seems to set him up as a villain. Still, it’s unusual and sort of cheering to see an actor who isn’t white given a substantial part in a Brit flick of this era.

Then Arthur Pusey, heir to the depleted estate, arrives, accompanied by his comedy relief chum Gerald Rawlinson. They learn that valuable bonds and a certain rare gem are hidden somewhere in the house. By curious chance, this is the exact set-up of The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I had just read. This movie really is a mash-up of every mystery meme in the air at the time. Will the gem turn out to have been plundered from an eastern idol, like The Moonstone or The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God? It will!

Rawlinson’s effete pal, a sort of Cecil Vyse figure, reacts with superstitious horror whenever he sees a Chinese character — and it seems we’re supposed to share his anxiety. The next sinister orientals we meet DO provoke discomfort, as they’re played by white folks in wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery? false eyelids and yellowface. There are a couple of Portuegese-Chinese “half-castes” lurking about, and the respectable-seeming but obviously villainous Chang Fu, played by Gibb McGloughlin, a name which gives you some idea of how convincingly Asian he’s going to look, but that won’t stop me from inflicting his rotten face on you ~

Then we learn that Fu Manchu Chang Fu has an innocent white girl (Mabel Poulton, looking very innocent and positively pasty) under his hypnotic spell, the fiend! No suggestion of where he learned mesmerism, despite the lengthy flashback to the Mystic East — it just seems to be an inherent genetic trait he’s got along with the rubber eyelids and loose sleeves. And snake pit.

It is obligatory to mention that Mabel is one silent film star whose career really was derailed by sound — or, rather, by the class system. Cockney accent, you see.

Genuinely exciting climax, with the snake pit, a retracting floor, heroes in danger, and Tanase-san to the rescue. The one actual Asian turns out to be a good guy! And Chang Fu Manchu turns out to be motivated by religious passion — he’s relocated an entire Chinese temple (with a statue of some unidentifiable god, definitely not Buddha, but hey, at least he doesn’t have eight arms) to his English country house just so he can replace the stolen gem on its bosom as his dying act. A noble motive for all his perfidy, presented by the filmmakers with some awe and approval. But we have to think the whole kit-and-kaboodle’s now going to wind up in the British Museum, so was it worth his trouble?

And I guess the snakes will find a happy home in London Zoo, but the charming coda doesn’t tell us. Pusey and Poulton are married, Tanase is rocking the baby, and THE SILENT HOUSE is silent no more ~

I love a happy ending!

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The Sunday Intertitle (for some reason on Saturday): Under the Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on February 3, 2018 by dcairns

AEGIR, billed as “A Festive Film,” is in fact a German propaganda effort from 1918, though it tries to be festive by taking a fantastical, mythological view of the war. Aegir, our protagonist, is sort of the Norse Neptune, though of lower rank. And the guy playing him here, one Wilhelm Diegelmann, looks a lot like the heavy-set, slo-mo beard guy who’s the most disappointing element of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Curiously, his face is made up a nice dusky shade, but his torso is a gleaming white: nobody thought to powder his moobs.

(Diegelmann would go on to work for Lubitsch several times and appears in THE BLUE ANGEL.)

Aegir is having a great time because the U-boats are sinking lots of ships and sending their supplies to the bottom of the sea where he can enjoy them at his lavish aquatic banquets, served up by mermaids on wires.

Eventually he visits his benefactors, leading to the odd sight of a topless man with a trident standing on the deck of an actual for-realz Unterseeboot. He even sits down to a glass of “fine English whisky” (there’s no such thing) he’s had retrieved from  torpedoed wreck.

The movie resolves into a tour of inspection of the mighty German navy, month or maybe days before its total surrender. Aegir dons a flying jacket and boards a sea plane, his pallid, sinewy legs a pitiful spectacle as he tries to manoeuvre his unwieldy trident into the cockpit. There’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

There’s a visit to Berlin, then to a German destroyer. Everyone is pleased to see the mythical jötunn or demi-god. I expect he makes a nice break in the routine.

Aegir urges Germany, in the form of the movie camera observing him, to buy war bonds, “~ and let a happy peace be the reward for your steadfastness!”

Germany immediately surrenders.

The Noms

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2018 by dcairns

So, unusually, I have actually seen some of the Oscar-nominated films.

We saw THE SHAPE OF WATER. Fiona is a big Del Toro fan. I like him as a person on the movie scene, but usually wish I could like his films more than I do. I like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE best, the rest seem to miss the mark. I like the compromised MIMIC better than I like PAN’S LABYRINTH, which gives you some idea.

This one disappointed both of us, but all the reasons I could give you don’t mean much, because the real reason was we didn’t buy into the central relationship and as a result we weren’t moved. We were interested, but we didn’t get weepy, which we should have, surely, since this is basically E.T. (and SPLASH, but then SPLASH is E.T. too).

The romance seemed to consist of Sally Hawkins giving Doug Jones some hard-boiled eggs. I can imagine that Guillermo sees this as the highest form of love, and he might feel he would be tied by unbreakable romantic bonds to anybody who gave him some hard boiled-eggs, but I couldn’t relate to this. Now, if it had been cheese on toast…

The production design of Hawkins’ apartment, styled after Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (episode: The Drop of Water), is gorgeous. We didn’t buy the light from the cinema downstairs filtering through the floorboards, but we were willing to be indulgent. But then when Hawkins fills the bathroom with water, we stopped indulging. You can have a flimsy, permeable floor or an impossibly strong, almost-watertight floor, not both. And that flooding the house was a stupid thing to do when you’re hiding from the authorities.

(How I know about water and floors: there’s an anecdote from the filming of TOMMY. The production made what can in hindsight be seen as a mistake in putting Oliver Reed and Keith Moon in the same hotel. One evening, Moon knocks on Ollie’s door and asks for help moving his water-bed. Ollie is a very strong man: his party trick was to seize a bar-top and hold his entire body out horizontally. But he doesn’t know that it’s impossible for a human being to move a water-bed when it’s full of water. It weighs about twice what any strong man could lift. Still, Ollie has a try, and does succeed in ripping the water-bed, flooding the room with 200 gallons of water, not enough to fill a bathroom but enough to cause Moon’s hotel room to collapse into the room below. So I always laugh at stories of rock stars destroying hotel rooms. They merely destroy the contents of hotel rooms. Moon and Reed destroyed two actual rooms. This may seem like a digression but the film is called THE SHAPE OF WATER so it isn’t.)

Other bits of production design we liked: well, all of it, but the dais Jones is strapped to is borrowed from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

And the idea of a film set in a secret government lab but centering on the cleaners is lovely.

But I didn’t buy the baddies wanting to dissect their only specimen, I didn’t buy the Russians at all (what they wanted seemed to make no sense). I couldn’t invest because I couldn’t believe. The twist was cool, but the sudden miraculous powers bit kind of confused that. It seemed odd that a writing team wouldn’t pick up on each others’ mistakes more. But I’m sure if Del Toro asked me to co-write a film (ain’t going to happen NOW, is it?) I would be somewhat in awe of him and just agree with all his ideas even if I privately thought maybe they were silly.

We also saw THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. That has lots of entertainment value, and we did respond emotionally, and I think we’re all grateful Martin McDonagh isn’t trying quite so hard to be Irish. I did have qualms, but mostly some time after seeing it, so I can kind of recommend it as a cinema experience.

At first, when I heard people having an issue with the film’s treatment of race, I thought, well, that’s not really what the film’s about. Which I would stand by. But Sam Rockwell’s character is explicitly identified as a particularly horrible racist. And then he’s put through quite a lot, and tries to redeem himself. But racial awareness never plays any role in that character arc, that shot at redemption. He doesn’t seem to think about it, and nor does the movie anymore. Which I think is a problem. It does seem rather too urgent and serious an issue to drop into and out of your movie. Would it have been better to leave it out, or else deal with it more fully? How would they have done that?

By making Frances McDormand’s character black, I guess. Hmm, would that make it a more urgent, serious and meaningful film, all by itself? I think it might.

And we have seen GET OUT (no complaints, a masterpiece — so why didn’t I write about it?), THE DISASTER ARTIST (a wasted opportunity), I saw DUNKIRK, Fiona saw and liked LOGAN, we saw the STAR WARS and the BLADE RUNNER and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Gotta see PHANTOM THREAD! That’s the one I feel doltish for not having caught. But oh look, it isn’t out here. So I’m not stupid for missing it, yet.