Anna May Wrong

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by dcairns

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It was a thrill to see PICCADILLY on the big screen at the Bo’ness Hippodrome. I confess I hadn’t been that excited about this one — I knew EA Dupont’s film looked spectacular, but I’d seen it before, I own the DVD, I can watch it anytime…

But the pristine restoration looked amazing on the big screen, and Stephen Horne’s daring multi-instrumental score was the perfect compliment. Also, this second viewing allowed me to get over a few issues I’d had with it before.

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Certainly, the film is guilty of shameless exoticism (and Exoticism is Racism’s sexy sister) — the great Alfred Junge decorates Anna May Wong’s Limehouse flat with a lot of bogus frippery including some kind of Chinese version of the mult-armed Kali which I don’t think is authentic AT ALL. It all looks nice though.

But last time I was disappointed that the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears in only one scene, sitting at a table in the night club, getting stroppy about a dirty plate. Knowing this time that I wasn’t going to get much Charles, I was better able to appreciate what I got — a fantastic display of sullen, fish-faced glowering from the great man.

And the racial politics disturbed me at the end. Heavy spoilers here as there’s no other way to deal with it.

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I didn’t like the way Wong turns nasty in her last scene as a living person. She’d been quite sympathetic up until then, a working class kitchen skivvy on the make, hoping for some of the wealth and comfort she sees all around her. Why not? Then she turns mean, and then she’s dead — slain off-screen as if she didn’t matter.

I got more pissed off when the two posh, Caucasian lovers are exonerated and it turns out the film’s one other Asian character, nicely played by King Hou Chan (about whom little seems to be known — one other film credit and no date of death) is the killer.

It seemed like the film served as a kind of dark racial warning — nice, rich, posh, white, English people shouldn’t get mixed up with fiendish orientals. It’s bound to end in murder.

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Except that the film isn’t saying that at all, as I belatedly realized. If it were, we’d absolutely require a moment of the lovers reunited at the end, having come through their ordeal. That resolution would be the film’s entire point. But once the fact of Chan’s guilt is established, via a terrifying flashback in which Wong’s rage to live makes her once more a thoroughly sympathetic person, we never really see the erstwhile protagonists again. Dupont doesn’t show them looking relieved, or embracing. The big love scene is in the morgue, with Chan committing suicide over Wong’s body.

It’s also worth noting that the other lovers are quite unsympathetic — he’s cheating on her, and her hatred of Wong isn’t initially to do with suspicion, it’s motivated by her professional jealousy and insecurity, and it’s inflected with snobbery and racism. We can’t like Gilda Gray, despite her winning way with a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive (but she might bond with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME over this shared taste.)

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The last, ironic moment headlines the words “Life goes on” and shows the entire plot reduced to a little story in a newspaper, disregarded by a reader who’s merely pleased that he’s won a bet. The big city will pause only a microsecond to acknowledge a tragedy. We’re not being reassured that the deaths we’ve seen don’t matter, we’re being shown the disturbing reality that, to society at large, such a crime is insignificant. Each man’s death does not diminish London, the crouching monster.

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Prisoners in Cell Block L&H

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by dcairns

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My dodgy photo of a very good photo of Laurel & Hardy on a visit to Scotland — this is on display at Bo’ness Library as part of an exhibition showcasing Silent Stars in Scotland.

Laurel & Hardy shorts at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema always play to a packed house, and a packed house dotted with derbies and fezes, at that. Ace pianist John Sweeney joined the fest for the first time to provide accompaniment upon the “music box.”

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I had seen two of this year’s trio of (very) dumb shows fairly recently: I wrote about the early pairing DO DETECTIVES THINK? here. It’s a lovely example of the more macabre style of terror comedy (see also the sublime OLIVER THE EIGHTTH).

When the Hippodrome ran DOUBLE WHOOPEE, it inspired me to check out Jean Harlow’s other work with the boys, so I saw BACON GRABBERS then. Watching it afresh, I really felt Ollie’s frustration at having to rely on Stan’s inept assistance. Since Ollie doesn’t realize that he himself is an idiot, Stan’s foolishness is a thwart disnatured torment to him.

Silent movie maven Bryony Dixon explained to me that the show’s somewhat mysterious title stems from it being basically plagiarized, by Stan, from a Fred Karno music hall sketch he’d appeared in. Since Karno had sued Charles Pathe and Max Linder for stealing Mumming Birds and adapting it into AU MUSIC HALL, the boys were being cautious in giving it a new name.

Many of the Laurel & Hardy shorts have quite peculiar titles which have little to do with the contents– one plus side of this is that whenever I think I’ve seen them all, it turns out there’s one I’ve never had the pleasure of. This turned out to be the case with THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, in which the boys break out of prison and then back in. This was the movie for which Stan shaved his hair, according to Fest director Ali Strauss, and when it grew back it was all tufty…

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It kind of fizzles out, but it has some great stuff. I liked an exchange between Stan and another convict. “How long are you in for?” “Forty years.” Stan smiles and passes an envelope. “Mail this for me when you get out.”

What did Stan and Ollie DO, to earn sentences clearly in excess of forty years??? I have to assume that with their usual luck, they simply appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time and got mistaken for someone else. Still, soon they’ll be at LIBERTY.

The program came complete with newsreel footage of a 1930s Glasgow pantomime featuring two (fairly good) L&H impersonators, and afterwards I chatted with Tony McKeever & Douglas Muir, no slouches in the looky-likey department themselves ~

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Posthumous Pink Panthers #3: S.O.P.P.*

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2015 by dcairns

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*Standard Operational Posthumous Peter.

And so to SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, the third and perhaps final installment in our series looking at Blake Edwards’ attempts to artificially resuscitate a franchise after the death of its star. After CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER this movie had to wait ten years to be born — it took that long for memories to fade. Hitching his wagon to the apparently rising star of Roberto Benigni, Edwards invents an illegitimate son for Inspector Clouseau, who is present here only as a photograph and a statue, which is a relief from the effigy-haunted CURSE. Herbert Lom, Graham Stark and Burt Kwouk are along for the ride, making this definitely officially a part of the series.

Mind you, Edwards’ compulsion to muck up his own continuity is still in evidence. My favourite example of this was way back in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER when we were all so young, and somebody proposes that Clouseau is the perfect man to recover the stolen diamond since he found it last time it was stolen — ignoring the fact that in the original PINK PANTHER, Clouseau was actually convicted of STEALING the diamond. Here, we have Claudia Cardinale (always welcome), as Clouseau Jnr’s mother — her presence “explaining” Benigni’s Italian accent, through which he attempts to bellow in a French accent, superimposed exactly like glazing on ham. But in the first PINK PANTHER, Cardinale played a middle-eastern Princess. And the character she’s playing here was originated by Elke Sommer in A SHOT IN THE DARK. If we had any minds left after TRAIL and CURSE, they would boggle.

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Now, there must be a plot, mustn’t there? Well, not after the previous two films — plot seems to have been ruled as redundant as the vermiform appendix. But, in fact, this film contains, if not a lucid narrative, at least — what? — footage… footage suggestive of narrative ends being dimly pursued. No diamond his been snatched this time, but a Princess of Lugash (the series’ vaguely Arabic Ruritania) is kidnapped by hard-working heavy Robert Davi. This scenario leads to a lot of what I have to term faint-hearted sexploitation, with poor Debrah Farentino continually punched, kicked, injected with dope, and dumped into a filthy oasis. Also, we get a belly-dancer threatened with having her nipple cut off. Forget the fact that none of this is remotely amusing, we have to ask, has Edwards ceded the reins to Jesus Franco? Actually, the cheap mock-Arab sets, and high-chroma lighting by Dick Bush (Ken Russell’s cameraman and a regular on these late PP films) do suggest the world of, say, 99 WOMEN (which Herbert Lom was IN, come to think of it).

Everything ultimately hinges on Benigni, doesn’t it? And what an unfunny spectacle he is. True, the material is mostly pitiful — Edwards has decided that the phrase “That felt good!” is a Clouseau catchphrase which everyone remembers and will laugh at whenever, apropos of nothing, a character says it — but Benigni murders any gag with a vestigial pulse. I haven’t seen LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL since it came out, but I thought he had talent then — bits of it made me laugh, especially the early stuff, and then the Holocaust stuff was exactly as awkward, dishonest and unsucessful as everyone had always assumed Jerry Lewis’ THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED would be. In Jim Jarmusch films, Benigni seemed not exactly hilarious, but a useful ingredient — someone whose mode of being/performing was so radically other than John Lurie and Tom Waits et al, that he made them seem even more like themselves.

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But here… oh my. It certainly doesn’t help that the editing lingers agonizingly on the worst sequences of yelling and fumbling, while jumping away anxiously whenever anything remotely promising develops. But Benigni’s forced enthusiasm, muddled schtick and high volume are instantly wearying. Enough of the scenes are shot in Edwards’ long-take style (there’s even a bit of mock-DePalma steadicam in a hospital) to allow us to appreciate the actor, if we are able, and despite the tiredness of the plaster cast leg slapstick routines, this material HAS been kind of funny in the past, so Benigni’s failure to raise more than the occasional smirk, while frequently inducing wincing, grimaces and Chief Inspector Dreyfus eye-twitching, must count against him.

As usual, the chief interest of the film is psychological — what does it say about its auteur? I distinctly recall a loyal Shadowplayer commenting that it shows the aging Edwards becoming more resigned to his most famous creation, making a kind of piece with the moustached albatross around his creaking neck. This is shown by the way in which Dreyfus/Lom/Edwards comes to accept Clouseau Jnr, despite his tendency to wind up bleeding (how hilarious! An old man’s head is gashed!) whenever Clouseau is around. And in fact Lom ends up marrying Cardinale, becoming, in essence, Clouseau’s father, which Edwards always was.

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The titles — the “high point” of the film, actually, depict Clouseau Jnr. tormenting the hapless Pink Panther, which is the first time it’s been played that way around. Since Edwards had Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt base the animated Panther on his own suave persona, the Panther is one of the various Edwards surrogates in the series. Here, we open in a recording studio where the film’s score is set to be recorded. We have Henry Mancini handing his baton to Bobby McFerrin for an a cappella rendition of the theme tune. As sixties-style pastel squares slide about on a movie screen, revealing the credits, a cartoon Panther and Benigni go to battle, getting slung into and out of the screen like Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK JNR. It’s all vaguely encouraging, especially as the post-ROGER RABBIT combo of live action and cel animation is reasonably well done. The lack of a typical pre-credits sequence may sound a faint alarm bell (maybe someone isn’t trying too hard?) but that and the film’s reassuringly short runtime might equally signal a New Narrative Efficiency. (In fact it seems to indicate Carelessly Deleted Scenes. The film Sellers wanted to make without Edwards was to be called GHOST OF THE PINK PANTHER. The credits for SON list a character as “Clouseau’s Ghost” but no such figure appears. Make of that what you will.)

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It is not to be so, of course, but the film’s attempts to cut poor Dreyfus some slack are kind of redemptive. A second Chief Inspector is concocted for Clouseau to mangle, sparing Lom some of the more undignified disasters (in a series swarming with doppelgangers, this is hardly noticed), and he’s handed a romantic interest (Mrs. Dreyfus, seen in TRAIL under a disfiguring facepack, and spoken of as early as A SHOT IN THE DARK, appears to be permanently out of the picture, perhaps retroactively erased by the vanishing ray from STRIKES BACK.) And so, swathed in bandages, twitching manically, and probably quite, quite insane, Dreyfus/Edwards hobbles off into the sunset. But we don’t actually see this happen — after a triumphal “That — felt — GEUID!” from Benigni, Edwards freezes on the gurning idiot face (looking more like one of Clouseau’s disguises), and a saw cuts through the image, neatly excising the offensive kisser. We cringe, expecting a jammy residue like Edith Scob’s in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, but instead we get a yawning abyss, through which the cartoon Clouseau Jnr. pokes his own ugly mug, as if posing at one of those seaside cut-out scenes. Benigni’s amputated features, a flat piece of chipboard, meanwhile fall and crush the Panther’s foot, and the enraged wildcat then leaps through the Benigni face-opening to pursue the cartoon incompetent off into the vanishing point, in a vast Outer Darkness which seems to represent many things — it’s the world of reality Behind the Screen, where Edwards will largely spend his declining years except for some stage and television work and an entertaining appearance at the Oscars to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award; it’s the emptiness inside Clouseau/Sellers, since (a) Sellers is dead and absent and (b) as Sellers said, “I have no personality. I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed,”; it’s The Future, into which Edwards imagines himself pursuing the phantasmal Panther for all Eternity; and it’s Death.

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