Archive for Aldous Huxley

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.

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In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…

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You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)

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Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.

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As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

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Quote of the Day: Attack of the Giant Faces

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2008 by dcairns

Aldous Huxley, in 1929, goes to the talkies ~

“[…] Nothing but disembodied entertainers, gesticulating flatly on the screen and making gramophone-like noises as they did so. Some sort of comedian was performing as we entered. But he soon vanished to give place to somebody’s celebrated jazz-band — not merely audible in all its loud vulgarity of brassy guffaw and caterwauling sentiment, but also visible in a series of apocalyptic close-ups of the individual performers. A benificent providence has dimmed my powers of sight, so that at a distance of more than four or five yards I am blissfully unaware of the full horror of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape. Magnified up to Brobdignagian proportions, the human countenance smiles its six-foot smiles, opens and shuts its thirty-two-inch eyes, registers soulfulness or grief, libido or whimsicality, with every square centimetre of its several roods of pallid mooniness. Nothing short of total blindness can preserve one from the spectacle. The jazz-players were forced upon me; I regarded them with a fascinated horror. It was the first time, I suddenly realised, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz-band. The spectacle was positively terrifying.”

Not his thing, I guess. Beautiful writing, though. Unfortunately, an unpleasant dose of anti-semitism then emerges ~

“The performers belonged to two contrasted races. There were the dark and polished young Hebrews, whose souls were in those mournfully sagging, sea-sickishly undulating melodies of mother-love and nostalgia and yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristically Jewish contributions to modern popular music. And there were the chubby young Nordics, with Aryan faces transformed by the strange plastic forces of the North American environment into the likenesses of very large uncooked muffins of the unveiled posteriors of babes.”

The writing is still kind of sumptious and evocative, and even touches on things we can recognise even if we don’t agree with Huxley’s distaste: I can almost hear the “sea-sickishly undulating melodies”, and the muffin-faced Nordics remind me irresistably of Martin Milner as the young jazz guitarist in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. But Huxley’s dislike of jazz (in itself, an allowable blind spot) is informed by a nasty racial prejudice that robs the piece of its intended humour. Huxley’s anti-semitism is not the most virulent: it comes with a belief that Jewish culture is vulgar and inferior (later, Huxley will state that Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is second-rate but at least stands in some relation to the glories of Italy, presumably in contrast to Irving Berlin), but as notorious bigot Kingsley Amis put it, “One wouldn’t want anybody to DO anything about it. One would be horrified by THAT.”

Such “mild” prejudices are weak things. Their owners should stamp them out.

I suppose one of the benefits of living in a post-Holocaust world is that such attitudes are rarer, and tolerated less. Huxley’s essay was written apparently without any thought of controversy. Today such an outpouring would rightly inspire outrage. We all have our likes and dislikes. It’s quite a good idea to test our boundaries and grow in the field of appreciating different kinds of art. It’s absolutely essential to do so in the field of appreciating different kinds of human being.

Quotes from Do What You Will by Aldous Huxley.

A Critical Mauling

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2008 by dcairns

This is Willy Rozier defending an actress’s honour by fighting a duel with the critic who gave her a bad review in his film, 56, RUE PIGALLE.

Flash-forward decades, and schlockmeister Uwe Boll challenges an array of critics to a boxing match, and proceeds to WHALE ON THEIR ASSES, delivering an animalistic, fist-based drubbing that knocks each and every one of them for six. It looks as painful as watching one of Boll’s movies.

Inbetweentimes, we have a notorious confrontation between director Ken Russell and Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker, on live T.V. (the clip appears not to have been preserved). Walker, slamming Russell’s THE DEVILS, had listed all the violent and obscene moments in the film, charging “we see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed.” “That must have been wishful thinking on his part,” says Russell, “because they certainly weren’t.”

Confess!

Viewing the film attentively, it is clear what actually goes down: Reed has his legs placed between slats and crushed by Michael Gothard, who drives wedges in between the slats with a big hammer. I’m sure Walker would have found that pretty offensive too, but it IS based on solid historical fact, and we never see the hammer connect. Also, Aldous Huxley’s description of the scene in his source book, The Devils of Loudun, is explicit, matter-of-fact, and just as appalling. The censor had actually made Russell cut the hammer blows down to ONE blow, then said, “Oh no, that makes it WORSE,” and made him put some back.

Oliver red

Russell raised the inaccuracy of the review in the television discussion, but Walker didn’t acknowledge any error. Understandably frustrated, Mad Ken proceeded to swear violently and strike Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own review. “Should have had an iron bar inside it, but I didn’t have one to hand.”

Alexander Walker, curiously smackable

It’s pretty clear that the critics have invective sewn up. Artists can’t respond to criticism verbally without looking like buffoons. They stifle their hurt and grow ulcers. When James Cameron suggested that critic Kenneth Turan should be fired for not liking TITANIC — since this proved Turan was out of step with public opinion — he just looked like an arse.

But violence ALWAYS works! If Cameron had struck Turan in the face with a pie, like the Belgian “pastry terrorists” who creamed Godard and Bill Gates some years ago, a lot more people would have sympathised (though we knew in our hearts even then that TITANIC was basically manipulative piffle). This kind of thing satisfies our inner sensation-seeker, and makes us feel that a worm has turned, an underdog has had their day. A filmmaker writing to the papers feels like a worrying reversal of the natural order. A filmmaker throwing a ridiculous strop and shoving a dignified older gentleman into a fountain just seems right and proper.* Tony Richardson, once a critic himself, said that his former colleagues in that profession were “acidulated intellectual eunuchs hugging their prejudices like feather boas,” and certainly in these bracing physical encounters it’s the critics who tend to come out of it worst.

But it can’t be right, all this FIGHTING. Isn’t there an alternative?

The movie THEATRE OF BLOOD suggests one possibility. It’s a whimsical fantasy in which a ham actor (Vincent Price, arguably typecast) murders his way through the critics’ circle, appropriating his choice of weapons and methodology from the plays of Wm. Shakespeare. Much better to revel in IMAGINARY violence, which is, after all, what most filmmakers are used to doing. When director Quentin Tarantino and NATURAL BORN KILLERS producer Don Murphy got into a fight in a Hollywood restaurant, both claimed to have given the other a thorough thrashing, but a waiter who witnessed the scuffle observed, “It was obvious neither of these guys knew how to fight.” One pictures a hysterical BRIDGET JONES-style slappy fight, unbecoming of such maestros of cinematic mayhem.

THEATRE OF BLOOD upset me as a kid, when I saw it one Hogmanay night. It was a shock to see sitcom star Arthur Lowe getting his head sawn off in bed (and being murdered IN BED was particularly upsetting to a child). I’m still not even sure which Shakespeare play that was meant to be. A loose reading of Macbeth? Robert Morley being force-fed his own poodles in a pie, a reworking of Titus Andronicus, put one acquaintance off chicken pie for life. The appalling sadism savagery was inexplicable to a child, even one such as I who had been weaned on a diet of Hammer horror. Only with an adult’s experienced eye can we appreciate the satisfaction of slaying critics. It then becomes clear how the film was able to attract such an all-star cast: great names of British film, theatre and television were queuing up to be slaughtered wearing cravats: Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, with Diana Dors and Coral Browne providing female victims (Price seems to particularly relish electrcuting his real-life wife).

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As someone who both sits in the director’s chair, when asked, and sits in judgement, in this blog, I have divided loyalties on this issue, and naturally I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. I would be doubly at risk. So the idea of slaughtering critics through the medium of film strikes me as the most civilized and balanced option. Reviewers can continue to vivisect film-makers on the page, as long as the movie people can retaliate by hacking up the hacks on the screen. The public, who have always loved a Roman circus, are likely to be the winners.

*Nobody has actually done this to a critic yet but I’m hoping for a copycat crime to boost my circulation.