Archive for Baz Luhrmann

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

Advertisements

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns

OUROWNMOVIEQUEEN

Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.

Frock Opera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by dcairns

It’s a really nice effect (I wonder where they stole it from?) — a dark stage, with figures wearing illuminated stripes, forming antic human hieroglyphs, striking poses — then the lights come up — and the clothes are horrible.*

The next stage beyond the “vanity project” is the “delusional narcissism project” — one thinks, with an inward wince, of Guy Ritchie and Madonna’s SWEPT AWAY, the subject of a hilarious Bad Film Night involving Fiona and regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove some time back. I should write about those evenings — in fact, I’m going to.

While Baz Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA was SO egregiously bad it could not actually be endured (a bad movie that intends to be FUN generally isn’t, whereas a bad movie that thinks it’s deep is likely to be a riot), necessitating the watching of THE MATCH KING to restore mental hygiene and belief in a few of cinema’s possibilities, MAHOGANY proved the Perfect Bad Film — maybe even better than THE OSCAR.

WHAT THIS THING IS —

This Thing is Diana Ross and partner/Svengali Berry Gordy’s folie a deux Delusional Narcissism Project, following one woman’s dream of being a fashion designer and how she eventually found herself as appendage to a male politician. It’s empowering! And anyway, the fashion industry is full of untrustworthy homosexuals, as the movie is shocked — SHOCKED! — to uncover.

It’s helpful for a truly bad film to have touches of quality, to illuminate its dankest depths more clearly — this one has David Watkin on photography, so it looks handsome. Watkin no doubt came along with regular collaborator Tony Richardson, who departed the film at some point in the process, at which point Berry Gordy suddenly discovered a fabulous talent for cinematic image-making, rather like how Diana Ross had already discovered a fabulous talent for designing clothes that stink.

Other good things — the song, which tormented the airwaves of my childhood for what seemed like several years, but which is actually quite nice — and this musical montage, apparently directed by the great Jack Cole (who did the musical numbers in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES), is quite something. This would seem to be Cole’s last gift to the world. And it features some proper clothes by actual designers (uncredited — but Issey Miyake seems like a possibility).

Diana herself is moderately effective in places, in an untutored kind of way… then she has some bizarre, horrible moments of would-be high drama, as when compelled to pose for snaps by psycho gay boyfriend Anthony Perkins while driving at 90mph along a deserted Italian overpass —

Yes, Perkins. In unwise tight jeans, he plays a former combat photographer who launches Diana upon the unsuspecting fashion world and gives her her trademark name: “What else is dark and shiny?” I’m naive enough to have thought his character’s impotence might be some combat-shock residue, but no mere post-traumatic stress could cause any red-blooded male to fail to get it up with Diana in the sack, not in her movie, so a more sinisterly aberrant explanation prevails. It’s all horribly homophobic… yet hysterical. If it were at all effective, it might have offended, but we were too busy crying with laughter. One wonders what Richardson and Watkin made of this side of the film, given their own natural proclivities. One could also wonder what Perkins was thinking, but some things are literally imponderable.

The real climax of the film is this fight, which David Wingrove called “the closetiest thing I’ve ever seen” — peculiar not so much for what it says about Perkins’ character, but what it seems to suggest about the all-man Billy Dee Williams…

Crumbs. Mind you, this is followed by Diana stripping at a crowded party and dripping candle wax over herself — very coyly filmed, but still an eye-opener conceptually. Just what was going on in the Ross-Berry relationship? I don’t want to wonder about that, but the film seems to require it of me.

*And it’s a given that all Hollywood films about fashion will have terrible clothes, even those made in periods when movie clothes were routinely chic and smashing — perhaps, as Hollywood versions of modern art are always faux Dali, and modern music is always faux Gershwin, modern fashions are always unwearable crap. An unwritten rule. So one shouldn’t blame Ross for merely following a time-honoured tradition.