Archive for the Politics Category

The Comedy of Terrorists

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by dcairns

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JOY OF LIVING/CHE GIOIA VIVERE (1961) is an oddity in the René Clément canon — a comedy, a genre he rarely dabbled in, apart from his early short with Jacques Tati, SOIGNE TON GAUCHE and an early feature with Noel-Noel, LE PERE TRANQUILLE — an Italian film, though Clement was open to co-productions throughout his career, shooting THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA/BEYOND THE GATES in Italy in 1949 and THIS ANGRY AGE in Thailand (and Cinecitta) in 1957 — a period movie that’s NOT set during the French occupation, but just after WWI in Rome.

(Side-note: though Clément and Truffaut were vocal in their disgust for one another’s work, the rambunctious title sequence here feels like it may have influenced JULES ET JIM’s, though it’s not as chaotic — whereas Truffaut basically grabbed the trim-bin and emptied the off-cut footage into his movie — leading to what Scorsese called ” the most exhilerating thing I’d ever seen” — Clément can’t help but stick to some kind of narrative sequence. His approach is less bold but more skilled, which is the relationship between old and new waves in a nutshell.)

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Alain Delon, the director’s most frequent leading man, plays Ulysse, a glib and plausible young man who accepts a job from the fascists, searching for a printing press that’s been churning out anarchist leaflets. But when he finds the place, he falls in lust with the daughter of the lead anarchist, played by the extraordinary-looking German actress Barbara Lass, whose eyes are bigger than Barbara Steele’s, wider apart that Gene Tierney’s, and seem constantly on the verge of breaking loose from her head altogether to pursue independent destinies. She’s an actual flesh-and-blood Margaret Keane painting, and she somehow makes it work. Maybe because she projects a human sweetness, which tames the uncanny Na’avi qualities of her funhouse countenance. At any rate, when she and Delon are on the screen together, in Henri Decae’s exquisite framings (they needed a wide screen for those eyes), there’s almost too much beauty to take in.

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As in THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA, Clement is as obsessed with crumbling architecture as he is with plot or character, and the Piranisian tableaux of this film are to die for. And it’s pretty funny ~

Food fight! from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The period setting and frankly astonishing scale of the enterprise (Clement’s two Oscar wins obviously equipped him to command considerable resources — he blows up the Arch of Constantine!) connect this movie with romps like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES and THE GREAT RACE, but it’s more controlled than those, even if it doesn’t have a linear chase plot to focus it. And, oddly, Clement proves better at organizing visual gags than his colleagues — a food-fight between anarchists and fascists is particularly impressive. And there’s just enough seriousness underlying the hi-jinks — Delon’s character is sufficiently deceitful that we worry he might go blackshirt at any moment if a pretty enough girl shows up on the other side — the dark days ahead for Italy hover low on the distant horizon — the film’s affection for the family of anarchists, partly justified by their being so irrelevant to the match of history, is somehow reconciled with a horror of bomb-throwing and acts of terror. The genuinely gripping climax has fascist stooges planting bombs around a huge public exposition (with balloon ascensions, roads paved with German helmets, and the first pre-fab house as part of the attractions) while Delon scoots around after them, gathering up the infernal devices in a perambulator. A man pushing a pram is slightly comic, a stunningly handsome man pushing a pram while in fear of being imminently smithereened is really very funny indeed.

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A piece of espionage worthy of Pynchon — illicit communication lines in prison, running through the plumbing system!

The film stops capering just long enough for a chilling exchange between Delon and his old school friend, now a committed fascist, who warns him, “You’ll be persecuted for the rest of your life.” Delon replies with the brilliant, and unanswerable “And you’ll be a persecutor for the rest of yours.”

Iron Men

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2015 by dcairns

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One of my purchases from the beloved Mercer Street Books of New York was a volume called Merely Colossal by Arthur Mayer, subtitled The Story of the Movies from the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue, a humorous account of the author’s career in movie promotion, exhibition, distribution, etc. It looked like the kind of book you might never see twice, so I couldn’t let it go, even though at $9.95 it was more expensive than most of my purchases.

Mayer talks about his days running a film import company, distributing THE NEW GULLIVER, a Soviet animation which had been banned in the USSR for perceived counter-revolutionary tendencies: the powers that be were still willing to allow it to be shown in America, since that would bring in a little cash and the audience would be pre-corrupted. I noted this because one of my prouder accomplishments in life is having helped to get a copy of this movie to Ray Harryhausen, who remembered seeing it in the 30s, and whose career it had helped inspire (although the lion’s share of the credit must go to KING KONG, of course).

Mayer also mentions making a tidy profit on ROME: OPEN CITY, since audiences assumed that the title must refer to an openness to decadence and debauchery, whereas René Clément’s “documentary” BATAILLE DU RAIL flopped. This reminded me that I hadn’t seen the 1946 wartime drama, a kind of French answer to neo-realism, so I popped it in my Maidston supermarket-brand blu-ray player and pressed PLAY…

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It isn’t a documentary, of course — Clément uses actors, and everything is staged and scripted, but in the days when all documentaries were assumed to require reconstruction and staging, I can see how it could be taken as a kind of verité: it’s location shot, based on fact, and has a rough texture to it that smacks of authenticity.

In reality, the purpose is somewhat propagandistic — Clément’s tales of the Occupation all traffick in “the myth of Resistance,” implying that the whole of France was involved in actively resisting the Nazi occupiers, with the exception of a few quislings and collabos, regarded with contempt by all right-thinking Frenchies. In fact, as Melville pointed out, at the start of the Occupation there were only a few hundred in the Resistance, and the impulse to get along was at least as prevalent as the tendency to defy.

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But anti-German sabotage on the railway lines, often an inside job, was a big enough deal that Jean Renoir’s THIS LAND IS MINE!, made in Hollywood, references it. Clément’s film concentrates solely on this area, suggesting that the Germans were consistently thwarted by crafty railwaymen (which raises awkward questions about how the mass deportation of Jews could be carried out).

If the comforting myth, intended to soothe a nation humiliated by defeat and collaboration, is not 100% convincing, the atmosphere and environment of Clément’s film certainly is. Black and whte cinematography is so good for capturing texture, and the clanking, hissing machinery captured by Henri Alekan’s camera here has a fierce power, anticipating the steam-driven nightmares of early Lynch. Clément had assisted on Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and it’s amazing to think of Alekan lensing two such contrasting shows in a single year.

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Clément’s approach does share with Cocteau an infusion of poetry — he isn’t really a social realist elsewhere in his career, and this “documentary” is enlivened by an imaginative eye which can penetrate character. As one rebellious engineer stands in line to be executed, Clément shows the last sights he’ll see, infusing each image — a spider on the brickwork, black clouds billowing from funnels — with an ecstatic intensity.

Up Against the Wall from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fans of Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (and I’m one) will also be impressed by the industrial-scale destruction of rolling stock, with Clément’s insurrectionists gleefully trashing fifty-foot cranes and transport trains loaded with armoured tanks. All of this is arranged with sneaking subversion — maybe the railway men made such ideal resistance fighters because employees of large corporations are always looking for ways to get on over on their faceless employers anyway. War just offers an excuse to do it on a massive scale. The surreptitiousness of the sabotage reminds me of my school days — looking for ways to game the system without getting caught, or ways of annoying the enemy without them being able to say for sure you’re doing it on purpose.

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And at the end of the colossal derailment, the most French thing imaginable: through the cascading debris, an accordion saunters down the hillside, a wheezing slinky of defiance.

Special

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Managed to largely ignore the Oscars again this year. My overall take on the awards is that they can pretty much be guaranteed to go to the wrong people for the wrong films. If an award-worthy actor gets a little golden swordsman, it will be for the wrong film, probably in the wrong year. I have to be careful here because I have a great good friend who has three of the metallic minions, and he totally earned them. Maybe I can make my rule work by saying he should have won his 2001 award in 2003, his 2002 award in 2001, and his 2003 award in 2002. Yeah, that makes sense. Good.

I have a sort of perverse respect for the tradition of the Honorary or Special Oscar. Why should the year’s great accomplishments be forced to fit into a set of more or less random categories? Traditionally, these went either to children, black people and the disabled, or, by some special dispensation, to Walt Disney, who got three. Maybe because he made children’s films, and although he was neither black nor disabled, he was a racist, which is a kind of disability which relates to people of colour.

 
Prepare to cringe: at 3:14 Clooney utters the most disappointing words of his life (apart from, I guess, for some, the words “I do”). Disappointing since he’s supposed to be smart.

If you’re an able-bodied actor pretending to be disabled, obviously you can get a normal Oscar. Confusingly, Harold Russell got a Special Oscar AND a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Although they don’t actually manufacture a special Oscar with hooks for hands, or a child-sized Oscar struggling to see around the bloody great broadsword. So it’s sort-of special, but not THAT special.

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Still, though there’s a certain amount of confusion about how Honorary Oscars work (James Baskett got one for playing Uncle Remus, but Hattie McDaniel got a regular award for playing Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND: she just had to sit at a segregated table away from her colleagues on the production), I think the tradition should be expanded upon. Anything that makes the Academy more ridiculous and self-parodic is to be encouraged, so that the awards can be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

There should, upon occasion, be an award for Best False Nose, and this should be presented not to the actor or to the makeup artist but to the actual nose. The acceptance speech would be gratifyingly short. To avoid any sensation of anti-climax maybe Rick Baker could rig up some kind of air pump so the nose could sneeze its gratitude.

There should be an award for Best Dead Person Left Out of the Obituary Montage. This might have to be annual and there might have to be multiple winners.

Rather than giving honorary gongs to people who have never won fair and square and who are now approaching death, they should randomly pick a young up-and-comer each year and give it to them, on the understanding that the Academy can henceforth ignore this person’s work without feeling guilty about it. A sort of pre-emptive Lifetime Achievement Award. If we’d given that to Michael Keaton for NIGHT SHIFT, imagine how much better we’d be feeling now. Or MR. MOM, or JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY!

Look at how well it’s worked for Roberto Benigni.

The honest thing to do, now that we recognize that going “Awww” in the form of an Oscar isn’t an appropriate response to children, ethnic minorities and the disabled (although, given the Academy’s reluctance to hand out awards to any of those groups, why not give ‘em a chance at a patronizing consolation prize at least?), might be to give Special Oscars to people who have been humiliatingly dumped by their celebrity partners. Jennifer Aniston is overdue for this. The poor woman STILL seems to evoke sad-face sympathy reactions ten years post-Brad, despite her wealth and success and constant visibility. It’s as if she had invisible hooks for hands. She deserves a medal — or an Oscar. Hmm, who could present it, to drive the point home?

There could be award for people who have contributed greatly to the cinematic culture by stopping making films. If he just took a short sabbatical, Michael Bay could qualify, and let’s face it, what other chance does he have?

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Imagine this guy in gold!

No person of diminutive stature has ever won the Oscar for anything — clearly an insulting mini-Oscar should be gilded in preparation for the moment when Time has whittled the surviving Munchkins down to one. Treat it as a tontine — the Oscar goes to Last Dwarf Standing. The Academy — nay, the industry as a whole — has a proud history of insensitivity and bogus good intentions — there’s so much to live up to.

Your suggestions are welcome.

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