Archive for the Politics Category

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.


Red Face, Blue Pencil

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , on August 23, 2017 by dcairns

Marvelous Mary brought me back a present from her travels: a 1949 Penguin Film Review. This series, edited by Roger Manvell, was a bit like John Boorman’s late lamented Projections — it looks like a paperback book but behaves like a magazine. It provided a smart look at the film industry from a practitioner rather than a critical viewpoint, and probably helped prepare a lot of future filmmakers for getting into the studios before they started closing down…

This one has, besides writing from the obnoxious Harry Watt and the lovely Eric Ambler, an interesting piece by one A.T.L. Watkins, secretary of the BBFC (then the British Board of Film Censors, now Classification, though they still censor a bit). It’s very readable and cogent, a useful primer, and ably expresses a lot of the horrible assumptions underlying censorship in Britain.

Censorship is only news when it makes a mistake. The fact that the British Board of Film Censors has been viewing films at the rate of 3,000 a year for many years is a matter of indifference to the majority of cinema-goers. And rightly so. The effect of a good censorship should not be noticed. The result of its work lies on the cutting-room floor of the studios, and though the trade may be all too aware of this, the cinema public, which sees only the completed and apparently untouched film, is happily ignorant. Indeed, they might reasonably be pardoned for wondering why censorship is needed. They well might ask, “Who is this censor? Why should he take upon himself the duty of saying what I should and should not see? What does he mean by “should not”? Because I may suffer harm? Well, if I am in that danger, isn’t he in his examining theatre? What is there in his mental equipment that enables him to emerge unscathed from seeing things I’m not allowed to? Surely intelligent adults may be allowed to look after themselves in these matters?”

You see? Already we’ve had beautiful phrases like “examining theatre” (do/did such places really exist? With a sign on the door? I am thrilled to hope so) and “mental equipment.” A.T.L. goes on ~

The answer is that intelligent adults could be. But the world is not made up of intelligent adults, any more than it is made up of morally balanced individuals. The cinema public in particular represents all ages and all stages of mental and moral development. And while an intelligent adult audience might be relied upon to reject bad taste and to remain undisturbed by immoral influences, he would be an optimist who would expect such qualities of resistance in the average patrons of the local Odeon or Granada. Bearing in mind the mixed audience which attends the ordinary cinema, imagine what would be the result if no obstacle were placed in the way of films which misrepresent moral values, condone cruelty, debase marriage and the home or mock at religion. Does anyone believe that such films would have no ill-effect, particularly on the young people who represent such a large percentage of the thirty million weekly cinema-goers?

Now we’re getting somewhere. (Plus, I never thought of “Granada” as an archetypal cinema name, but apparently it was.)

British censorship has always been about class (“Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover a book you would be happy for your wife or servants to read?”), fear of the underprivileged, and fear of the young. The specific traits we fear they may acquire from movies has evolved over the years, but that’s where the anxiety was located. Nice middle-class viewers could watch anything that was out there, and the censors DID, with no apparent ill effects, but you couldn’t trust the hoi polloi. (Or those outside London: in 1950, Ophuls’ LA RONDE was passed for the metropolis but barred from the provinces.) Books were always far less censored than films, because it was assumed readers were a bit more educated than movie audiences.

Note that at this time, all films released in Britain were open to all ages. Certification was merely advisory. I know at one point there was an “H” certificate for horror films, but it didn’t last, and I don’t know if kids could still go. I know they DID…

A.T.L.’s assumptions about what qualities his readership will be united in condemning are hilarious: “misrepresent moral values” assumes an absolute set of immovable laws, “debase marriage and the home” is something I have a hard job visualising any film doing; “mock at religion” is something I’d certainly commend as a valuable service, tracing its honourable history back to Voltaire, and of course by “religion” A.T.L. means Christianity. “Condone cruelty” does seem like a pernicious one, but certain forms of cruelty have always been staples of entertainment, especially in comedy. But maybe that’s merely exploiting rather than condoning. And, interestingly, cinema at it’s most uncensored has rarely gone in for condoning serious cruelty. The vilest Italian concentration camp movie of the ’70s still makes a show of being on the side of the victims. This only seems hypocritical because they exploit their suffering so blatantly.

But, it may be said, no director would make such films. The answer is that, even with a censorship, he occasionally tries to. And if the Censor so much as nods in his direction, a storm breaks. Angry members of the public reach for their pens. Responsible public bodies demand an inquiry into the methods of censorship. The Board has no right or desire to resent criticism when a mistake is made, but from the letters which from time to time reach the office, it might be inferred that some of the critics never visit a cinema and have little or no knowledge of how censorship works. Though the best censorship may be the one that works with due reticence, not seeking advertisement or expecting commendation, it must rely for its success on public support and co-operation. For this reason it may be useful in this short article to clear up one or two of the commoner misconceptions.

And he goes on to attempt to do so… Let me know if you’d like to hear more from this stuffy fellow with the quaint prose style, and I can type up the rest of his essay, with my own notes.


Mad in USA

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on August 21, 2017 by dcairns


One of my big theories, which I may have mentioned before, is about projection. We project onto our enemies our own most shameful traits, and so who we hate and why we hate them sometimes says more about us than them. I don’t feel bad about hating Donald John Trump for his stupidity, grandiloquence, intolerance, aggression and dishonesty, since those are all qualities I can find in myself, and I find them deplorable.

What I find interesting is how all the insults Trump applies to others — and for a man with such a limited vocabulary, he has used quite a few — apply better to him than to those he attacks. Crooked! Sad! Failing! And the alt-right’s phrase “virtue signalling” — used whenever someone to the left of Hitler says something they be honestly believe to be nice, something that actually IS virtuous, becomes an interesting one.

Firstly, when did virtue become something to be held in contempt? But the addition of “signalling” makes the intent clear: this supposed virtue is a sham, it is merely part of a ritual whereby leftie types self-indentify to one another. I’m nice, are you nice? It still doesn’t strike me as that awful. I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with it. But the alt-right are pretty different from the conservatives. It’s been argued that while liberals care about the most good for the most people, or at least like to think so, conservatives care about “values.” Which have nothing to do with anybody’s wellbeing and are often mere bigotry. So a conservative can be in favour of something that will have only negative effects, like the war on drugs or the right to bear arms, but that doesn’t matter, because what’s important is that it’s, in fact, virtuous, according to the rule-book (which is typically some interpretation of the Bible, the Constitution, or something heard on Fox News).

But at a certain point, conservatism shades into the even more toxic alt-right, who are full of hatred and negativity and know it. It makes them feel better to believe the left are insincere, full of the same nastiness, just lacking the balls to come out and admit it.

But ironically, the right are the ones who are always signalling. Liberal “virtue signalling” could be more simply described as “stating your beliefs” or maybe “stating your professed beliefs” if you want to be cynical about it. The signallers, the code-users, are on the alt-right. “Globalist” means Jew. They know it, and they know we know it, but only those dumb neo-Nazis who are spoiling the fun for everyone else would admit to anti-Semitism. The right have all these corny sayings, “red pill” and shit like that, and they also have this carefully maintained not-too-plausible deniability, a gossamer-thin veil between their outward presentation and their obvious, but never confessed racism.

Is Trump’s obsessive use of the “OK” gesture a White Power sign? (The three raised fingers form a W, the circled thumb and forefinger and the ball of the thumb a P.) This seems to have started off as a 4-chan hoax. But now it’s a well-known enough meme that a smart president would avoid doing it. So that the fact that Trump continues to do it, can’t seem to SPEAK without doing it, starts to look like a genuine signal.”Look, I’m using a symbol with racists associations, AND I DON’T CARE.

If you look at the OCCASIONS his tiny thumb and forefinger meet during his notorious, and live-in-ignominy historic Trump Tower press conference, I would point out two things –(1) it now seems connected in his mind with white power, because he uses it whenever talking about white supremacists and (2) he definitely isn’t using it to mean “OK.”

One last movie-based observation since this is supposed to be a movie blog (but this stuff is OBSESSING me right now). Ronald Reagan: movie star. George W. Bush: executive producer (of THE HITCHER and others). Steve Bannon: movie producer (appalling political “documentaries,” somehow owns a piece of Seinfeld). Maybe nobody associated with the movie business should be allowed in politics?

Donald Trump has been in several movies, but he should have been disqualified anyway for being an evil, stupid, corrupt, racist asshole.