Archive for Blonde

Good God

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2023 by dcairns

We finally caught up with BABYLON. A very hard artifact to account for.

“I’m not as angry as I thought I’d be,” Fiona began, after the three hours had gushed over us.

“‘I’m not angry, just disappointed,'” I finished for her.

We’d read some highly magnificent takedowns of Damien Chazelle’s film, so we can’t claim to have come to it unprejudiced. Still, I was rooting for it to be better than its reputation, and I was trying to make sense of the filmmaking decisions. But they defy sense. Here’s my best attempt at working out the thought processes and thoughtless processes that resulted in this misshapen specimen of cinematic teratology.

Firstly, I’ll admit that the cinematography is often breathtakingly beautiful, even by the high standards of this age, when digital colour correction has made an almost obnoxious degree of beauty attainable even by hacks. The music and sound design are also pretty great, and maybe Justin Hurwitz’ sort-of-anachronistic but catchy and pleasing score hints at some of the effects the film is aiming at and missing: it’s an invention rather than a recreation, it has little to do with 1920s and 30s music, but it transports us to another time and place — an imagined time and place rather than an actual one. Put it this way, it’s a more effective soundtrack than MANK’s.

It’s tempting to blame Baz Luhrmann, but maybe we should blame Fellini first? Chazelle may well be familiar with the maestro’s work, or he may merely have seen and misunderstood films influenced by it, but the ahistorical approach of SATYRICON, which must have been infuriating for classicists as BABYLON can be for most film buffs or scholars, provides a kind of mind map for BABYLON’s weird choices.

And SATYRICON begat GANGS OF NEW YORK, “a western set on Mars” just as Fellini had described his opus as “Flash Gordon set in the past.” If you throw out what normally constrains a period movie — the requirement to produce a commercially acceptable (for the period you’re actually shooting in) version of supposed historical accuracy, then you need some other creative guardrails so it’s not anything-goes masturbatory anarchy. Scorsese, making GANGS, no doubt had some kind of a vision, but he couldn’t achieve it as he was forced to make the film “about” a romantic couple he evidently had zero interest in. A bizarre case of history repeating itself: Scorsese struggled with the squaring the same circle that had defeated Julien Temple on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS — what interests you is just voyaging plotlessly through a world, but there’s a large and voluble productorial presence squatting on your shoulder barking instructions gleaned from Syd Field or Robert McKee.

MOULIN ROUGE! came out the year before GANGS, couldn’t have influenced it, but probably influenced BABYLON. Anything goes. Chazelle, to give him his due, is a bit better at organizing his mismatched materials than Luhrman, who at every stage of the creative process seems to be merely throwing shit at the wall. In a film called MOULIN ROUGE! our first entry, with our protagonist, into the titular and exclamatory venue, might seem to be a moment of some dramatic import, but Luhrman can’t wait the required three minutes for Ewan McGregor to get there, so he flashforwards to the joint purely in order to ruin the moment. Fiona likened the film’s affect to have glitter shot into your retinae for two hours, which is fair — the Cuisinart approach to montage is a big part of what’s so offensive — but the sheer ineptitude of the story certainly enhances the repulsiveness — are we actually meant to be on the edge of our seats worrying whether Nicole Kidman will be shot or die of consumption? I came to the conclusion that a bullet would be quicker, and would allow the villain to be punished, so it would be preferable all round.

What oddly enough isn’t a problem with MR! is the wild anachronism. Cinema can do that — you can justify pop songs and the fancy dress of two centuries if your big idea is simply to generate excitement, and your big insight is that the Moulin Rouge was an exciting place. You could actually take the costumes further into craziness if you wanted.

And so, in BABYLON, Margot Robbie (in full Harley Quinn mode) attends a movie premiere in a chorus girl costume rather than a gown, a peculiar choice which is likely to work only for audiences who have no idea of the film’s period. Her hair is a tangled mop of wrongness for most of the runtime. The maze of open-air sets is authentic for 1914, not for 1926.

A lot of the weird choices are not just ahistorical but illogical.

Brad Pitt’s character is supposedly a fake Latin lover, but he acts under the name Jack Conrad. A character decides to pay off the mob with Monopoly money. I think a lot of this illogic accounts for the way we felt nothing — the melodrama all fell flat. Because we couldn’t believe any of it. But then, the characters are mostly obnoxious — Robbie’s Frankensteinian assemblage of Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and others, is so obviously a nightmare when she first rocks up to the party that it’s incomprehensible that Diego Calva’s protag, Manny, wouldn’t slam the door in her face. Sure, she’s beautiful, but so is nearly everyone in this film, save the fat guys Chazelle keeps serving up for our mockery. (Fellini’s freakshow aesthetic had both an innocence and a measure of sympathy, at least by comparison.)

I couldn’t LIKE any of these people: it can’t be coincidence that Manny gets the bosses’ attention first by devising a means of smuggling an overdose victim from a party, and then fires the titles writer to avoid a lesbian scandal (the fact that the silent era is over and titles-writers are no longer required would seem reason enough), and persuades the Black jazz musician to black up. Obviously the message is that moral compromise is the way of the business, selling out your principles is the way to get ahead. There’s some sense that we’re being told a story, one which could end with Manny going a step too far and losing his soul, or crossing a line and getting in trouble for it, or finally discovering there’s something he won’t do (like Sidney Falco in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, who’s also a louse but a more entertaining one). But the story isn’t paid off in any of those ways, it’s just truncated.

To the Fellini-Scorsese-Luhrman vortex, the film adds more than a splash of BOOGIE NIGHTS — network narrative structure, a lot of the same story beats — and then great splatters of Farrelly Bros gross-out comedy, which become an insistent refrain. I didn’t spot any ejaculate but all the other bodily fluids seem to be accounted for, to the point where the absence of emission becomes an odd omission. The purpose of the buckets of shit, gore and vomit seems to be mainly comedic, and the decision to create the comedy in this manner is presumably iconoclastic in intent: Hollywood was not the pantheon of celluloid gods and goddesses, but a Pantagruelian horrorshow of malfunctioning flesh.

Chazelle has Luc Besson’s giftless approach to comedy: force the audience to laugh by applying a comic rhythm to fundamentally unamusing material. He has considerably more varied means of modulating the rhythm, mostly with the skilled sound design, so it’s not just characters looking at the camera with quizzical expressions (a gag Besson lifted from Landis and dots throughout his “comedy” sequences with wearying repetition). But after you’ve been nudged into laughter a couple of times, you do notice that nothing funny is happening.

Enough of the comedy revolves around the deaths of minor characters that this, too, erodes one’s abilities to care about major ones. If a cameraman expiring horrible in a soundproofed booth is meant to be humorous, why should we feel a sentimental pang at Manny’s romantic yearning, which is objectively less important?

If Chazelle is copying PTA, Scorsese, Luhrmann and, at least indirectly, Fellini, without understanding how any of them get their effects (I suppose we have to credit Luhrmann with “effects,” though I consider them all deleterious), we still cannot absolve Kenneth Anger from all blame.

If Hollywood Babylon impressed some part of the world upon publication, it was probably because the world suspected all these stories might be true, and that even if they weren’t, equally vile, tragic or absurd things would be. Nowadays, to me, the book interests mainly for the insight it provides into Anger’s psyche — a great deal of unexamined misogyny and self-hating homophobia seems to be mixed into it.

Chazelle seems to have been thrilled by the gossip, then presumably disillusioned a bit when he read further and discovered most of it wasn’t true. And then confusion set in. In interviews, Chazelle is unable to really explain what relationship he wants his film to have with the truth. He cites Kevin Brownlow as a more reliable source than Anger, but then basically says “But who knows what really happened?” All bets are off.

It’s hard to draw the line once you take that attitude. Once you take the view that Hollywood debauchery exceeded all rumour, and that the rumours weren’t being hyped by the yellow press for their own commercial reasons, you’re into a fantasy. Fantasy is an acceptable genre, though it’s probably good to examine what each particular invention is based on. And you probably had better make the individual characters’ stories meaningful. Romanticising suicide, celebrating alcoholism, leering over orgies with hypocritical disgust, none of that is going to wash.

There is evidence here that Chazelle could make a scary and effective horror film — the descent into the subterranean club is pretty terrifying. There’s a whole lot of skill being blasted like fire extinguisher foam at a cardboard infrastructure that inevitably grows soggy and collapses.

Chazelle’s confusion explodes into the fireworks display of the closing montage, comprised of these-you-have-loved highlights of the preceding three hours, enormous chunks of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, blipvert subliminals of all film history, with special care given to neglecting the silent era. It’s one of the sequences, along with the protracted snakebite farce, where the film’s macro-confusion as to what on earth it’s about spills into the micro-business of an individual scene. What I mean is, usually you can tell why a scene is happening, even if it isn’t working. But sometimes the scenes become simply incoherent. Why does Brad Pitt drop a reference to GONE WITH THE WIND a decade before the source novel was published?

I was really sad when Edinburgh Filmhouse closed, and what made it sadder was that one of the last posters displayed was for Andrew Dominik’s BLONDE, a film I despised. Somebody somehow got in and changed it, I’m glad to say. But it created in my mind a confluence, BLONDE = DEATH OF CINEMA. BABYLON seems, in its closing minutes, to be not just attempting a muddled rip-off of CINEMA PARADISO, but to be mourning the demise of the medium. But the medium deserves a better epitaph.

Film With Sleep

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2022 by dcairns

Roy (Ward) Baker’s NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP opens with Gary Merrill waking from a nightmare, so I immediately felt cheated. Firstly, the character has been asleep, secondly, he’s Gary Merrill. I decided to watch the movie for Linda Darnell, and instead we have GM, seemingly quite good guy, but adequate to hold one’s attention onscreen only in ALL ABOUT EVE, where he’s supported by more interesting players on all sides. He serves, I guess, as a kind of anchor. He has what Ken Campbell called “the legendary minus factor,” — you can inject him into a scene if it’s in danger of getting too exciting. He’s like Hugh Beamont’s less exuberant brother.

NWS casts GM as a neurotic alcoholic songwriter whose problems with his stage mother have left him incapable of forging relationships. He’s married a rich woman, has an exotic mistress, and grasps at a last-chance “redemptive” fling with starlet Darnell, a looong way into this film. We seem to be supposed to be on his side, but it’s pretty hard to sympathise, and the potential “solution” to his worries, another mistress, doesn’t convince — isn’t he just making the same mistakes over again?

My copy of the film is grungy, which doesn’t help. Impossible to really judge the emotional effect of the film when everything looks like it’s been shot through translucent black soup.

Had NWS starred Richard Widmark, it might have stood a chance — an actor whose dynamism and nerviness could often compensate for really unsympathetic character traits. Merrill can only play for pathos by being a sad-sack. The grimy transfer makes him seem older, a disconsolate empty scrotum with a hairstyle that looks like it landed on him from above like a pancake.

The women around him are a mixed bunch — June Vincent avoids making her mothering wife an appalling character, a noble choice, but maybe that would have been more interesting to watch? Hildegarde Knef’s vocal delivery is quite Schwartzeneggerian, which is distracting. Darnell makes everything brighter and better, before she’s called upon to perform a peculiar roleplay, which goes on for a long time and is embarrassing to watch, the more so as she’s built up some warm feeling.

There’s a final plot twist which isn’t. An episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour with Tony Randall did the alcoholic blackout thing far better (and Randall is astonishing in it). The script seems to have been intended to float a series of possible twists, each of which is then disproven, but it SO doesn’t pull this off.

The most interesting aspect, for me, was that the movie, a product of Baker’s brief stint in Hollywood at Fox, has several of the same qualities as his better-known DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, recently recalled to memory by its featuring in BLONDE (although we never meet an English director in that movie’s “reconstructions”). Both films feature cod psychology (dollar-book Freud, as Welles called it) and make their leading ladies seem awkward with almost unplayable scenes, where Baker seems unable to help them, or not enough anyhow.

(I don’t remember INFERNO well enough to say if it follows these trends.)

But this movie makes DBTK look like The Mahabharata.

What’s surprising and disappointing is that RWB, who was capable of striking effects in terrific films, doesn’t seize upon the resources of Hollywood to do anything interesting or expressive or different, despite the psychological bent of the films he was assigned. This one has a flashback within a flashback, flashbacks which then turn out to be possibly false, but then again turn out to be true after all, but none of it encourages him to any formal experimentation at all. It’s like he was intimidated by the studio apparatus rather than inspired by it. Which would seem strange, as he was known in the UK as quite a formidable tough guy who wouldn’t hesitate to tear a strip out of a crewmember who displeased him.

I have other questions about Baker. More soon.

The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by the Idiot Andrew Dominik

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2022 by dcairns

You’ll gather we didn’t care for BLONDE. Actually, to be studiously fair, I thought it was magnificently photographed (by Chayse Irvine) — except for the last scene, which inexplicably falls apart, looking like the worst kind of cheap student film. For all the awful choices — cervical POV shots, talking foetuses — I can give director Andrew Dominik some credit because for every three stupid decisions he’ll make at least one good, bold one. The period recreation, from a visual standpoint, is terrific, and AD has a better sense of how to do that kind of thing than David Fincher evinced in MANK. And composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, by eschewing any kind of 50s-60s sound, maybe dilute the air of authenticity but they don’t fall into the clumsy and inappropriate pastiche effects that crippled Trent Reznor’s score for that other Netflix biopic. (This duo have also scored Dahmer, and did a spectacular job.)

(By the way, I take the view that the correct pronunciation of that compound word is bi-o-pic, not bi-op-ic, rhyming with myopic, as one increasingly hears it said.)

The music, like everything else, falls apart at the ending — your temp track is showing! — it just turns into an Angelo Badalamenti knock-off, while the film itself turns into a Lynch knock-off, FIRE WALK WITH ME plus the last scene of THE ELEPHANT MAN. And, instead of being devastatingly emotional, as the original was, it’s just a transplanted hunk of dead tissue.

(I’ve heard people say the film is a horror movie, but I didn’t feel that dread Lynch always manages to foster. I felt, “Oh, that would be disturbing.” In fairness, I’ve also heard people say “You need to see it on the big screen.” But we’re paying for Netflix so we watched it on Netflix.)

Fiona remarked that the thing she was unprepared for was how little she’d feel. She claims she felt NOTHING. I had some emotional response to the early stuff with little Norma Jeane, powerfully played by little Lily Fisher. The opening firestorm is magnificent. If the nocturnal cityscapes sometimes feel two-dimensional, assemblages of flats, the effect is pleasing and maybe somehow appropriate.

It’s cinematic, one would have to say, but that need not mean GOOD. This desire to attain FILMIC ARTISTRY may be why Dominik limits his use of internal monologue, but the one scene where he lets Ana de Armas, who deserves a better film and director, occupy the soundtrack with her thoughts, is the point where we finally have access to the character, past the adeptly-mimicked vocal mannerisms and facial expressions. It’s an APPALLING scene, a fictionalized JFK blow-job with EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS anachronistically playing on TV, all erectile missiles and detumescing Washington Monument. Oh, so we’ve suddenly decided to have a sense of humour? And a Ken Russell sense of humour at that? Appalling, but oddly welcome as we get a chance to experience our main character from the inside, without the aid of a speculum (Dominik likes his prosthetic labia so much he cranks them open TWICE).

I mean, at times it feels like Dominik hates both Monroe and De Armas. Any sense of this being a feminist take on the story is trashed when a filmmaker leers “Would you look at the ass on that little girl?” (originally said by John Huston, according to later accounts, but here handed to a non-Huston type) and, instead of showing us a leering male, Dominik shows us the ass in question, inviting us to agree or disagree, not to critique the decency of the statement.

It is, I admit, hard not to hold Dominik’s Sight and Sound interview against him. He comes across as cloddish, no cinephile, and while his presumptuousness — he somehow knows Monroe intentionally killed herself — is weird and foolish, it wouldn’t necessarily stop him making a good film: you’ve got to take a view of your subject, after all, and even if your supposed “insight” is spurious, playing it to the hilt should result in drama. I’m fascinated by Dominik’s line “She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love. And she killed herself. So what does that mean?” See BLONDE, the film that fails to answer, or pose, that question.

I do kind of like the fact that the film is convincingly taking place in an insensitive, pre-feminist era. Even Arthur Miller is kind of a clod, although as played by Adrien Brody he has appealing traits too. When I watched the first episode of Mad Men I thought they missed a trick by having Jon Hamm (I think it was) intervene when a male colleague is being creepy. What makes the period different to us is precisely the fact that such a confrontation would be unlikely to occur. A friend’s mother told me, “Men weren’t very nice.”

The disjointed narrative (though surprisingly chronological — childhood, then adulthood, then death) uses lots of weirdly fantastical devices — Monroe seeing her mother in places where she couldn’t be, for instance. Tricky stuff to pull off if you’re not arguing that she was psychotic. And, oh yes, I’m calling her Marilyn Monroe. Joyce Carol Oates, in her novel, has a level of plausible deniability — it’s a fictional account of someone with most of Monroe’s attributes and biographical details. In a movie, you’re reminded in about every shot that this is someone based very precisely on the historic Marilyn, and the movie goes to all kinds of impressive effort to restage famous photographs and movie scenes (though casting Chris Lemmon as Jack Lemmon is bizarre, given that Lemmon pere was 35 in SOME LIKE IT HOT and Lemmon fils is 68 — it’s an adept impersonation, the little we see of it, but what stands out are the differences). So it’s a film about Marilyn Monroe. Does that mean we require it to be accurate? I admire a good many “true stories” that take dramatic liberties, but it has to be at the service of something. The invented stuff with Eddy Robinson Jr. and, especially, Charles Chaplin Jr. is… hard to justify. It’s dramatic, but what point does it make? I mean, I’d be happy to hear a theory.

De Armas says she went to Monroe’s grave to ask her permission to make the movie, and left a card signed by the crew. But Monroe is dead, so she couldn’t tell them all to get stuffed. We’re also told of weird poltergeistic activities on set when “Marilyn wasn’t happy with something.” We’re not told what prompted the acts of telekinetic criticism, nor if script changes were made to placate the restless visitor.