Archive for A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by dcairns

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“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.

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A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:

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I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.

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Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.

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Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)

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Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.

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“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.

Anger…and Other Deadly Sins

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2008 by dcairns

Shadowplay guest blogger and part-time benshi film describer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, reports on Kenneth Anger’s appearance — or should one say MANIFESTATION? — at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Read it up!

On a grey and rainy August afternoon (in Scotland, that is not a contradiction) two friends and I took a train to Dundee to meet Kenneth Anger. He is a…well, I could say ‘living legend’ but that hardly seems to do him justice.

David Wingrove on his way back from Dundee, photographed by Fiona, who had just managed to get her camera to work.
For 60 years or so, Anger has been the uncrowned king of gay/experimental/avant-garde/underground cinema. (Just watch Fireworks (1947) or Scorpio Rising (1963) and slot in whatever adjectives fit best.) He is the notorious author of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, still the most scabrous books of movie gossip. His long-promised Hollywood Babylon III lies buried under a heap of threatened lawsuits. An alleged Satanist and avowed disciple of Aleister Crowley, he was unwillingly linked (through his ex-boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil) to the grisly Charles Manson killings.

At four years of age, Anger played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still Hollywood’s most purely intoxicating blend of Art and Kitsch. He is one of several distinguished survivors from that film – others include Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland – and Warner Brothers’ failure to recruit one (if not all three) of them to do a commentary on last year’s DVD must count as a Crime Against Celluloid Memory. More than 70 years on, Rooney and Anger remain pals. Olivia may still be fuming at that snapshot of her in black lace lingerie (!) that Anger slipped into Hollywood Babylon II.

 

Either Dundee Contemporary Arts, or David Cairns Associates.

No wonder we felt a tad nervous, trudging through a downpour towards Dundee Contemporary Arts. (If the Great Beast didn’t come and get us, the wrath of Miss Melanie very well might.) So it’s a pleasure to say that, in person, Kenneth Anger is a joy. Gentle, soft-spoken, immaculately tanned, he looks a good two decades younger than his 78 years. In the bar after the show, he shared his enduring love of Shakespeare, commedia dell’arte and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. “Not long ago, I went to Paris for a showing. My God, have you seen the state of the print? It was so horrible I hid my eyes and ran out of the theatre.”

 

Kenneth Anger, in Dundee.

Judging from that night in Dundee, Anger’s own work has been strikingly well preserved. Lucifer Rising (1981) gave us Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, Mother of All the Demons – looking eerily beautiful with her face painted blue. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968) had a soundtrack by Lilith’s old flame, Mick Jagger. Cheekily, Anger cuts in a few near-subliminal shots of the Rolling Stones and their court, in between the all-male orgies and the Black Mass. Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with its lovelorn Pierrot lost in a moonlit wood, is an achingly gorgeous evocation of both Shakespeare and Carné. It has the wistful and fragile beauty of a Verlaine poem.

 

Mouse Heaven (1992) is Anger’s celebration of the original Mickey Mouse drawn by Ub Iwerks – a subversive, anarchic little imp – before Walt Disney turned him into an icon of all-American cuteness. One of the most purely joyous pieces of cinema I have seen, Mouse Heaven sparked a ferocious copyright row with Disney. The wounds, for Anger, are still raw. He confided his long-cherished ambition to blow up Disneyland. “If it really is ‘the happiest place on earth’ as the ads say, why do so many children come out looking disappointed? Just look at their faces! Kids know when they’ve been cheated.”

 

Anger’s more recent films, shot on digital video, bear witness to his enduring love of the male form. My Surfing Lucifer (2007) shows a gold-haired beach boy riding the sort of waves that, in Southern California parlance, are called ‘tubular’. Foreplay (2007) spies on a soccer-team as they stretch and limber up before a game. The sight is numbingly normal to the players themselves, yet richly homoerotic to Anger and his camera. Once the official programme was through, Anger invited the whole audience up to the gallery for a ‘private’ showing of I’ll Be Watching You (2007) – a piece of hardcore gay erotica. Two cute French boys make love atop a parked car, while a third cute boy watches on CCTV and…er, enjoys it too. This may be the sexiest film ever made by a man old enough to be your granddad.

 

But the highlight of the late work was the not-yet-officially-premiered Ich Will (2008). A chilling yet weirdly erotic montage of documentary footage of the Hitler Youth. (The title translates from German as “I want!”) Starting with idyllic Sound of Music-style gambolling amid the lakes and mountains of Bavaria, it builds up to a full-scale Nazi rally that evokes the nightmare world of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will. Its menace is underlined, brilliantly, by the ominous tones of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Invocation of my Demon Brother?

It’s not often one can go from Disney to Riefenstahl – from the Magic Kingdom to the Third Reich – with barely a hiccup in between. That is perhaps Anger’s unique gift. It was only on the dark, wet train ride back to Edinburgh that I got to pondering how similar these three artists really are. Walt Disney, Leni Riefenstahl, Kenneth Anger. All three create images that bypass our conscious mind and enter, direct and perhaps unbidden, into the depths of the id. We are aware, with other filmmakers, of a voice and a vision beyond our own. Disney, Riefenstahl, Anger…they speak from within.

 

The official premiere of Ich Will is set for the Imperial War Museum in London on 29 October. (All Souls Night, as Anger points out gleefully.) One shudders to think what the invited audience of elderly war veterans will make of it. Still, as Anger freely admits: “I’ve always enjoyed being a bit controversial.” That may or may not go down as the greatest understatement of the 21st century. But it will do very nicely for the first decade.

 

David Melville

 

Thanks to the Amazing Dr. Anger, to Yvonne Baginsky and Fiona Watson – who shared the experience – and to the fabulous staff at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Special thanks to David for being there and writing it down.

 

The Nude Bomb

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2008 by dcairns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“No one can say, now, when the nudity explosion will occur. But when it happens it will be bitter, noisy and exciting.”

~ Murray Schumach in The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, The story of movie and television censorship, 1964.

Schumach gets points for realising that nudity was inevitable. As early as 1964, breasts and buttocks were massed, quivering, on the Hollywood horizon, ready to engulf the town. That very year, Sidney Lumet struck a decisive blow for bareness by forcing female nudes upon the public in THE PAWNBROKER, a film so obviously creditable and worthy and impossible to enjoy, the censor was forced to give way and open the nipple floodgates. Although looking at it today it’s somewhat strange how well-fed the naked ladies of the Nazi concentration camp “joy division” are. But then, Rod Steiger looks pretty well-fed for a prisoner too, especially since presumably he’s NOT supposed to be screwing the guards for preferential treatment. Although you never know, I suppose.

Above we have Dame Nudie Dench, I think playing Titania, appropriately enough, in Peter Hall’s long-vanished film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Has anyone seen it? Is it dreadful?

For some reason the sentence “Nice rack, Dame Judi!” strikes me as deeply amusing, but I suppose I’ll grow out of it.