Archive for A Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

We Can’t Have Nice Things

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by dcairns

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Images m Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe. Showed this one to a small but appreciative batch of students at Screen Academy Scotland on Wednesday night, and it was interesting to discuss it afterwards. Since the film is both magnificent and flawed (note that I don’t say “but flawed”), a lot of the discussion was about things that didn’t quite live up to the high standard set in the movie’s best scenes, and in particular I got to thinking about the weird fight scene that climaxes the film.

I first encountered the movie in Scorsese’s American Cinema series, where as I recall the clips shown consisted mainly of (a) the broken mirror, (b) the PTA meeting that Mason almost turns into a fascist rally, (c) the scene of James Mason home-schooling his kid, his giant shadow looming on the wall, (d) the dinner scene with Ray tracking relentlessly in on the kid as he listens to pop berate mom — the move swiped in AMERICAN BEAUTY, and (d) the climax with Mason planning to “sacrifice” his son. I think his reading of the Bible, and the line “God was wrong,” may be the reason Eddie Izzard uses James Mason’s voice whenever he “does” God in his stand-up act.

What Scorsese does with these clips is create a miniature version of the film that’s even more brilliant and intense than the real thing. Although Ray’s film, unlike Scorsese’s, gets to build up more momentum, and sets up more nuances and resonances and themes and social critiques (like ripples in a pool, the narrative starts from a single point — a teacher gets sick — then spreads out to cover EVERYTHING), it also contains leaden moments and implausibilities that maybe work against it’s overall success. Or maybe not.

That fight — the Scorsese edit (not a version of the film, I know, merely a sort of helpful precis) ends with Mason, on the point of carrying out his child sacrifice with a pair of scissors, literally seeing red: after all the spots and splashes of red in Ray’s meticulous colour scheme, the entire screen is now engulfed in a sort of blood maelstrom, causing Mason to collapse and his son to escape. The full version of the film then has good old Walter Matthau come to the rescue, resulting in a kind of western brawl, with James and Walter crashing through a banister, smashing furniture to matchwood and tumbling over the couch, a sequence which rather reminds one of the incongruity of casting the slope-shouldered, bow-legged Matthau as a fitness-obsessed gym teacher. Yet the actors seem to struggle through without a lot of obvious stunt-doubling.

Now, once Mason has had his disabling fit of redness, and the kid has escaped, the worst-thing-that-could-happen (that event all stories are heading for) has been averted. So arguably the movie should climax there, without the domestic donnybrook that follows, proceeding directly to the reconciliation scene, with its shades of King Lear, at the hospital, and thence to fadeout. I couldn’t see the purpose of the big punch-up, and found it a bit… embarrassing. But, wrestling with it, I did come up with a sort of explanation for its presence.

Of the several Big Themes weaving their way through the narrative (a story shouldn’t really be able to handle this many, but somehow this one manages it), one of the most prominent is that of the lifestyle that causes sickness. At the film’s start, Mason is holding down two jobs, one of which is kept secret from his wife. To maintain a home befitting a middle-class pillar of the community, Mason must work part-time in a cab company, but he cannot admit to this, because the job itself is beneath his dignity. His illness is brought on by overwork.

Hospital bills then damage the family’s security even more, so that by the time Mason is discharged, under the influence of a miracle drug, he can no longer afford to be ill. This means that when the drug’s side effects start to cause psychosis, Barbara Rush, as Mason’s wife, tries her best to pretend nothing is wrong. Mason’s erratic behaviour at work cannot be excused by illness, because his employers mustn’t suspect he’s not fit to teach. Rush’s desire for the best of everything even emerges when she’s pleading for her son’s life: showing Mason a baby photograph, she reminds him of the “terrible second-hand buggy” they used to push Little Richie around in. It’s a touching, disturbing, and dreadfully funny moment.

All through the narrative financial concerns drive Rush to go along with Mason’s madness, while Mason’s first, and most consistent, symptom of insanity is an utter disregard for money. He buys new dresses for his wife, a bike for his son, quits his part-time job, and plans to go and live in a hotel, embarking on a lifelong educational project (“An entirely new kind of television programme”) that will be completely unpaid. He’ll even go to the hotel in a cab.

So, financial pressures make Mason ill, and madness allows him to escape financial pressures. The cause of these pressures is the family home, a spacious two-storey house with a TV and a boiler that constantly needs fixed. Ergo, the house is the villain of the piece, a sort of symbolic Amityville Horror home. When Mason is taken to hospital after collapsing, he has another attack at the threshold, causing him to clutch the door-jam and make the bell ring for seconds on end. I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m sure it means SOMETHING.

As the domestic conflict and insanity deepens and darkens, property damage mounts, with Rush ironically causing the first smash-up, when she slams the bathroom cabinet and breaks the mirror (uh-oh!). Mason causes further spillages through over-enthusiastic playing with his son, and then the final battle with Matthau produces an ecstasy of destruction — for once, nobody cares what the fixtures and fittings cost, everything can be sacrificed as long as the maniac Mason is subdued.

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“An entirely new kind of television programme…” Incredibly enough, it looks very much like little Christopher Olsen is standing in front of a set that’s showing a scene from THE TARNISHED ANGELS, a film in which he will appear two years later, trapped in the fairground ride we see and hear during this sequence. Weird.

Are you now or have you ever been a romantic?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2008 by dcairns

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THE RIVER.

One of my favourite books, or two of them, is Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – The Major Filmmakers, which has a nice piece on Borzage by Andrew Sarris, probably the first thing I ever read on F.B. I suspect I first turned to it after seeing those awesome clips from SEVENTH HEAVEN in A Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which blew my mind long before I was able to see MOONRISE.

Sarris quotes “David” (more usually Dave) Kehr as saying “MOONRISE [1948] is the last film Frank Borzage completed before the blacklist forced him into a ten-year period of inactivity.” (Borzage in fact directed some television in 1955 and 1956.) This remark, in the Spring 1973 issue of Focus! was apparently the first mention of Borzage in connection with blacklisting. It makes sense though, since Borzage was the embodiment of what HUAC called “premature anti-fascism”, having attacked the Nazi party in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?, THREE COMRADES and THE MORTAL STORM, an informal trilogy covering the history of Germany between the wars, and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, an innocent-seeming morale-booster features an appearance by some, apparently real, Russian soldiers who are celebrated (by Sam Jaffe) for having “exterminated” the Germans at Stalingrad. (An incredibly glamorous fighting woman grimly intones that should she face another German, “My hand will not tremble.”) This is certainly the kind of thing that could cause a filmmaker career problems further down the line.

Annoyingly, confirmation of Kehr’s claim is thin on the ground — even Sarris seems unsure how seriously to take it, and the Disgustingly Expensive Borzage Book seems to dismiss the idea. It’s been suggested that Borzage may have been banned from the studios because of his drinking problem rather than his political affiliations — more blackballed than blacklisted. There’s also the possibility that illness, particularly depression, stopped Borzage working, and the blacklisting was a figment of Kehr’s imagination or a glitch in his research.

I hoped to confirm Kehr’s remark, using the excellent documentary series THE RKO STORY — I clearly recalled Borzage’s name appearing on an actual blacklist. A black list. A list that is positively black. Legal proof, I thought. A frame grab of a DVD-R of a 16mm film of a document — what could be more legally binding?

Strangely though, when I scanned the show to find the name, it wasn’t there. A hallucination. A figment. Odd!

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Maybe somebody could ask Dave Kehr if he has further information?

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 30, 2008 by dcairns

Night Has a Thousand Eyes 

…which brings us back to Fritz Lang. Yes, our Waltz of the Eye Patches concludes with the monocled maestro himself, who suffered an eye injury as a cavalry officer in the Great War, necessitating the monocle which became a symbol of his dictatorial, “Prussian” style of directing in Hollywood. But in later life he suffered from progressive deterioration in the other eye, bringing on the eye-patch years — his bad eye became his good eye, and he now wore both monocle and patch — the belt-and-braces approach to being a crazy film director.

Get your stinking hands off me you damn dirty apes!

I do cherish Lotte Eisner’s story about trying to introduce Lang and Bunuel, but failing because Lang was to short-sighted to recognise Bunuel and Bunuel was too deaf to hear Eisner. Human frailty is a great subject for art and anecdote.

I also admire, in a strange way, the contrasting approaches to cigarette smoking shown in the archival interview clips of Lang and Nick Ray in A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN FILMS.

Lang, minus his usual long cigarette holder (possibly his lungs by now were too swampy to get the smoke up the tube) clutches his ciggie Alec Guinness-style between the second and third fingers of his flat hand, and sucks eagerly on it mid-phrase, as if unable to make it to the end of a clause without another wheezing puff of the life-giving cancer.

Ray lets his cigarette hang from his lip, paper grafted to dry skin, bobbing like a sprinter’s erection as he mumbles away, ignoring the clinging coffin nail and only managing to inhale what drifts his way through natural air circulation, passively smoking his own cigarette.

The Big Zapper

Ray, I forgot to mention earlier, is the only one of the five canonical patch-wearers to have suffered injury to the eyeball in the line of duty, apparently bursting a blood vessel due to the stress of making WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, his final film.

My only other eye-patch-related story concerns another Edinburgh Film Festival, the year of VELVET GOLDMINE as opening film. A perfect film to theme a party around, which may have more to do with opening and closing film selections than anything else, but nobody much minded this choice, especially with Todd Haynes in attendance. (Actually, it’s one of his lesser films, with a half-hearted engagement with narrative but a great deal of visual and aural pleasure to compensate.) Festival director Lizzie Francke wore an eye-patch through the entire two weeks, as a result of a tragic glitter accident during her party preparations. Still, it was another injury in the line of duty, and an eye-patch does in fact make an excellent glam rock accessory.

Eyes Wide Shut

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