Archive for Casablanca

Digital Blueface

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2022 by dcairns

For any people reading in the distant future, “digital blackface” was a term bandied about to criticise white folks who used gifs of Black people. It was a Twitter craze that blew over quickly because it was silly. Oh, do I have to explain Twitter now?

Slight spoilers ahead, nothing I would think would harm one’s enjoyment of the film, or “spoil” it.

Is it weird that James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow made a film called THE WEIGHT OF WATER and his new AVATAR film is called THE WAY OF WATER? Is it weird that water now has films about its shape, weight and way, but not its wetness?

Is it weird that this one climaxes on a sinking ship? I don’t want to be the one to say it, but, is it possible that James “King of the World” Cameron is — no, it couldn’t be! — running out of ideas? Of course he has a run-and-gun battle on this sinking ship, which it now becomes clear is what he’d have liked to do in TITANIC, and did, as much as he decently good (and then a little bit beyond decency, turning a heroic victim crewmember into a murderer).

Proof that I’ve been blogging too long: I have now written about two Cameron films on their initial release.

OK, right, the film. It’s long. MAAAAAAAAN I was hungry. Had the Vue Ocean Terminal laid on some snacks within easy distance of the screen they could have scammed even more money out of me that they did. Their website promises that every seat for every film is £6.99 but with 3D all rules are off, so they hit me for nearly twice that, after claiming that all the “cheap” (£11) seats were taken. By the time the film started the cinema was still 9/10ths empty — OK, it was a matinee, but during holiday time. The question for the future of this franchise must now be, how watertight is Cameron’s contract — is 20th Century handcuffed, like a Na’avi child, to a deal to produce further sequels, which have presumably already had a ton of money spent on them?

OK, right, the film. I said it was long, what else? It’s like TITANIC in that it’s quite boring and then there’s a huge action sequence which is exciting. Genuinely so. Cameron is still a good action director. He hasn’t worked out that a good dramatic dialogue scene can be shot like an action scene, or else he’s forgotten it. I can’t work out what’s going on with his dialogue coverage: it’s pretty well all mo-cap, which means you can decide on camera placement AFTERWARDS, you can put the camera anywhere. Cameron seems to have taken that literally, like it doesn’t matter where he puts it. Lots of random cutting from doubles to singles, it’s VERY cutty, it’s the opposite of a good 3D approach.

This, I would guess, is the final death knell for this phase of 3D, which has a certain pleasing symmetry about it, Cameron’s Smurfs bracketing the era. But I like 3D, which still hasn’t been properly tapped, so I’m sad about this. This movie mainly just lets it sit there, except for the underwater stuff to some extent (“More particles!” was my cry) and the fires (he’s seen HUGO, he knows that ash and cinders are WAFTING ENTERTAINMENT). I found myself getting *very excited* whenever we went inside one of the big helicopter gunships. It turns out that being inside a plexiglass chamber with moving scenery outside and moving people and camera inside is one of the best things 3D can do. And those scenes are NEVER more than ten seconds long. It turns out, in fact, that 3D is much better suited to vehicles than it is to exteriors. In a vehicle you have all kinds of movement and perspective and layers, whereas outdoors you often just have figures and a horizon. And this film is 99% outdoors.

Cameron hasn’t seen FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, apparently, so he hasn’t seen what can be done with trees and tracking shots in 3D. He’d need to have had some smaller trees to pull it off, but he could have justified that.

Mainly he seems to want the 3D to be unnoticeable and just make things more immersive — I was uncomfortable conscious of the few heads in front of me for the first hour, and sort of wondered why I was paying more for something I’m rarely aware of. But there were SOME nice stereographic effects. Some nice colour, too: this one’s less gaudy than its predecessor, going by memory (haven’t seen AVATAR since it came out). The fire scenes are not only distinguished by their floating particles, but by their variations on the old orange-and-teal cliche — they make it seem fresh. We’re not in the Bava or Shamroy zone, but it’s excitingly close.

It’s not TOTALLY boring until the big battles that liven up the last hour. The teenage battles, out of the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE playbook, are sort of diverting. I became borderline involved. So, better than TITANIC, which was excruciating until people started being in mild peril. It doesn’t help that the actors aren’t the world’s best and are all hampered by mo-cap, except poor Jack Champion, looking silly in loin cloth, dreads and perspex mask, failing to act in a greenscreen vacuum. I don’t blame him, he was probably great in the audition, but everything around him is conspiring to dehumanize his presence.

I was wondering what effect the addition of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to the writing team would have. They wrote RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which was pretty good, and emotional, and made the human race the baddies (individual humans were allowed to display virtue, so it wasn’t humanracist), which would seem to make them a good fit here. But would Cameron allow them to make any improvements?

The story is largely a retread of the first film, with flourishes. Stephen Lang, who died in Film 1, is back as a Na’avi avatar himself, on a mission of vengeance — heavily funded, it seems, and so important (for no narrative reason) he can be allowed to jeopardize the quest for the new unobtanium, a chemical harvested from big alien whales’ brains.

Unobtanium was an engineering joke — I thought it was just evidence of Cameron being stupid and coming up with a lame name for something, but it’s a reference to a bit of physics humour AND evidence of Cameron being stupid etc. Ken Campbell warned against the perils of engineering jokes — jokes that are only funny to the in-group concerned. Cameron is a kind of two-fisted postmodernist, he may have actually read Eco’s bit on CASABLANCA, or the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell — which is more than George Lucas has read — he thinks his job is to bolt together memes (or cliches), compress recognizable moments borrowed from elsewhere into maximum density until he’s created a black hole of references from which nothing, not even the audience’s attention, can escape.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Stephen Lang, displaying Cameron’s touching faith that a reference to a 1939 movie will work in the far-flung future. It doesn’t work NOW — it will draw groans from those who get it and blank stares from most of the youngsters who don’t.

So the new writers haven’t helped the dialogue. The aliens, in the best Spock tradition, are unable to use contractions, which made me laugh out loud when one of them says “We are here,” meaning, “We’ve arrived” or “This is the spot.” It sounded like she was saying “You and I exist. We are in our relative positions.” My other big laugh was when it suddenly turned out that the big whale guy could talk, but needed subtitles, and his first rumble was subbed as “It’s too painful.” I can’t quite explain why that seemed hilarious.

I think there are some unwritten rules that Sully and his kids can use contractions and swear (It’s a shock when one of them suddenly says “Shit” halfway through the film, the first time that word has been startling in a while) but the pure Na’avi can’t, but I was never entirely sure who was permitted apostrophes. There are quite a few variants in the film: there are the blue Naa’avi, the new green, water-dwelling Na’avi (the Shell People, I call them), Sully’s technically all-Na’avi kids, and the de-aged, blued, alienized Sigourney Weaver, who seems to be the child of the original Sigourney’s comatose avatar and an unnamed human. The idea that humans and Na’avi can interbreed is preposterous and it’s creepily unexplained if she got knocked up while conscious or un. This will all be explained in the next sequel, coming not very soon to a comic store near you — I hope they have something that makes sense and isn’t repellant, but it seems an unpleasant mystery to dangle.

To describe the characters as one-note would be an insult to notes. The actors do their variable best with varying success. Sam Worthington has maybe improved with age, and at least doesn’t have to cry “I don’t know who I am!” this time in order to explain his plight. Zoe Saldana’s hysterical mom is REALLY annoying. Kate Winslet plays a pregnant chieftainess and you wouldn’t know it was her, or anyone good. Lang is the best actor here but his role is so devoid of nuance, he might as well be a cartoon character, and in fact IS. The story evokes American war crimes in Vietnam but doesn’t want to have him do anything TOO awful. Which, in a way, shows taste, but it also shows a reluctance to actually deal with what the film’s about, the destruction of the environment and the extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s tasteful but it’s calculated, and it’s running up against the problem of a light entertainment trying to say something about the environmental holocaust and genocide.

Sidebar: my problem with THE MISSION. I think Roland Joffe and Robert Bolt’s film is part of AVATAR’s DNA alongside DANCES WITH WOLVES and Ursula LeGuin’s xenoanthropological scifi classic The Word for World is Forest (she could have sued over the first film, as Harlan Ellison successfully did over THE TERMINATOR). THE MISSION’s best quality, its gorgeous Ennio Morricone score, is also its biggest problem (discounting Joffe’s lame script additions — “None of us wants to do this,” protests a guilt-stricken exterminator of natives). The movie deals with a conflict between pacifism and activism, and shows Jeremy Irons martyring himself and Robert DeNiro going down fighting. Irons makes it very clear in his dialogue that you can’t have it both ways, you have to choose. But the movie tries to have it both ways: solemn religious music for Irons’ sacrifice, upbeat native-inflected music for DeNiro’s guerrilla warfare. As if this was Errol Flynn swinging into action. Totally unacceptable.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got that off my chest. My more relevant point being, this doesn’t matter at all to Cameron’s movie. There’s some guff about the green guys never taking life (except for fish, you can eat those) but that’s soon abandoned and nobody has any irritating pangs of conscience once battle is joined. Human beings are used as projectiles: now, EVERYONE is Propeller Guy. It’s insanely gleeful, conscienceless and unconsciable. I was chortling over the mayhem. It’s cartoon stuff. The earthlings have had years to build arrow-proof cockpits, but they’ve chosen not to.

The technological achievement here is incredible: everything looks convincing, or convincing enough. I think the smooth crash zooms on aircraft and spacecraft, pioneered by the Battlestar Galactica reboot, here tend to make the vehicles look like models, somehow, but that’s quibbling. Considering that even TITANIC with its hundreds of millions didn’t have enough quality control to make everything look believable, vast progress has been made. But I find myself not really caring about all that. Cameron does. He’s become, like Zemeckis was for a while, a tech-led filmmaker, more interested in what he can do that hasn’t been done before than in why it should be worth doing. (Zemeckis is now just merely a maker of bad films.)

But — see it: it’s entertaining in stretches and it may be the last worthwhile in any sense 3D movie you’ll be offered on a big screen for some time. The ANT-MAN sequel and the other thing, whatever it was, that they had trailers for looked even further from having a useful aesthetic for the third dimension (characters greenscreened against horizons) than this one.

I think I should write NOTES TOWARDS A 3D AESTHETIC. It’s too late for it to be useful — I always like to be behind the curve.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS: Kiss of the Super Woman

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2022 by dcairns

At last! The return of David Melville Wingrove’s Forbidden Divas.

“I will do the impossible – and God will help me!”

  • Libertad Lamarque, End of the Night

In the classic Manuel Puig novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, a gay Argentine prisoner named Molina is obsessed with a fictitious Nazi musical set in Occupied Paris. Her Real Glory tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Leni Lamaison who falls in love with a dashing SS officer, flees the nefarious clutches of the French Resistance and dies heroically for the cause of the Master Race. So intense is Molina’s fixation on this movie that Puig includes page upon page of production notes – in bold defiance of the fact that no such film ever existed.

Of all the book’s multiple movie narratives, only Her Real Glory found its way into the 1985 film of Kiss of the Spider Woman. This film-within-a-film is floridly and flamboyantly over the top, but still several shades more believable than the po-faced political drama that surrounds it. An audience can leave the cinema not even knowing that people actually did make movies like this once upon a time – and not such a long time ago either. An Argentine musical melodrama from 1944, End of the Night is essentially the same movie as the one so vividly imagined by Puig. The main difference is that it is propaganda on the side of the angels.

Completed in 1943, End of the Night was initially banned by Argentina’s neutral but right-wing government – who feared offending their (unofficial) Nazi allies. Set in Occupied Paris, it tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Lola Morel who falls in love with a dashing Resistance leader, flees the nefarious clutches of the Nazi secret police and dies heroically in the cause of freedom. Its cast and crew include a number of high-profile refugees, with a score by the French Jewish composer Paul Misraki and a juicy supporting role for Florence Marly, a Czech actress who fled the Occupation with her Jewish husband Pierre Chenal. It was not released until late in 1944, once it was clear that Hitler’s Germany was losing the war in any case.

End of the Night opens with hordes of jack-booted Nazi soldiers stomping through the darkened streets of a lovingly studio-built Paris. Shutters close, doors lock, records playing French chansons are turned off in mid-play. Careworn elderly ladies cross themselves in sorrow; from a balcony, a patriotic youth lobs a grenade at the invaders. As his comrades make a last hopeless stand, a pitched battle breaks out in the street. A dark and broodingly handsome Resistance fighter (Juan José Miguez) suffers a flesh wound and staggers through the film noir-inflected shadows to the safety of the nearest house.

It turns out this is the home of Lola (Libertad Lamarque) a South American singer trapped in war-torn Europe with her small daughter. Like any halfway responsible parent, she wants only to flee the horrors of war to the neutral safety of her homeland. But that is harder than it sounds. Her daughter Jeanette was born to a French father and holds a French passport. She can leave France only with an exit visa issued by the occupying Germans. An odious Nazi agent named Herr Kleist (Alberto Bello) has offered to be helpful in this regard. But any fool can see that his offer comes with strings attached.

The last thing Lola wants (or needs) is a wounded Resistance hero hiding out in her basement. But she does the decent thing and gives him shelter anyway. Opening up his shirt to inspect his wound, she offers us a glimpse of his exquisitely sculpted neck muscles. This is not to say she wouldn’t risk her life for a man who was just plain ugly…but it does help to look like a hero if you are going to play one. The two fall in love, which makes things rather awkward when Lola gets sent on a secret mission by the Nazis in exchange for that elusive exit visa she needs to get her daughter out of France. Would you believe the man she adores is the top secret Resistance leader it becomes her job to betray?

To make this dilemma even faintly credible takes some high-wattage emoting indeed. But at this Libertad Lamarque is one of the all-time Olympic champions. An angular and rather gawky woman with a pronounced squint, Lamarque was nobody’s idea of a conventional screen beauty. But she sang tangos in a voice of near-operatic intensity and emoted with a melodramatic fervour that made Bette Davis and Joan Crawford look distinctly half-hearted. She would leave Argentina a year or so after End of the Night following a very public spat with Eva Peròn, an ambitious would-be actress whose husband had just become the dictator. She fled to Mexico and remained a huge star until her death in 2000.

It is no surprise that the action in End of the Night comes to a halt every twenty minutes or so to allow Libertad to sing. It happens first in Paris, when a patriotic French girl refuses to sing for a hall full of Nazis in uniform. Libertad goes on in her place and wows ’em. That is what gives the villainous Herr Kleist the idea of sending her on that secret mission. Her job is to infiltrate the Resistance by posing as a singer in the Unoccupied Zone. Her cover is nearly blown when an ex-boyfriend spots her and calls her by her real name. It does not help that the girl she is impersonating (Marly) is shadowing her incognito and plotting to expose her. One marvels that this should even be necessary; it is hard to think of two women who look less alike.

But it goes without saying that True Love and the collective fight for freedom will triumph in the end. End of the Night is as blatant a work of propaganda as Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. But given the historical moment, it is hard to fault a movie for that. The political climate of Argentina in the early 40s makes it an act of considerable heroism by all concerned. Puig in Kiss of the Spider Woman was keen to show how the kitsch magic of movies can coexist all too easily with the vilest of right-wing ideology. End of the Night is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way. It shows us that good guys can do kitsch with the best of them.

David Melville

The Image of Fred

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2022 by dcairns

‘And that is the problem with other claims that all thoughts are images. Suppose I try to represent the concept “man” by an image of a prototypical man — say, Fred MacMurray. The problem is, what makes the image serve as the concept “man” as opposed to, say, the concept “Fred MacMurray”? Or the concept “tall man,” “adult,” “human,” “American,” or “actor who played an insurance salesman seduced into murder by Barbara Stanwyck”? You have no trouble distinguishing between a particular man, men in general, Americans in general, vamp-victims in general, and so on, so you must have more than a picture of a prototypical man in your head.’

From How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, published in 1997. I admit to being charmed by the author seizing upon Fred MacMurray as, not an example of man, but as an example of a possible example of man, in 1997, six years after FM’s death, nineteen years after his last film. Pinker must obviously just really like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and I don’t blame him.

I don’t think I’m going to sample page seventeens any more. This comes from page 297 of my copy of HTMW, but I’m not going to sample page 297s either. Just whatever page seems interesting — particularly filmy bits in non-filmy books, like this one.

The other thing I could add about MacMurray — mainly remembered today for two films he didn’t want to do, the above-mentioned DOUBLE INDEMNITY (already turned down by George Raft, Hollywood’s greatest turner-downer, a man with the unfailing instincts of a homing pigeon raised in total obscurity) and the above-unmentioned THE APARTMENT, in which he plays another insurance man NOT seduced into murder by Barbara Stanwyck — is that Jean-Pierre Melville credited him with inventing underplaying. Melville, a man of fervently-held and idiosyncratic opinions, claimed that before DOUBLE INDEMNITY, even Humphrey Bogart hadn’t begun underacting.

I have pondered this dictum long and not particularly hard, and have concluded that it is not so much true or false as unprovable, since “underplaying” is a somewhat subjective judgement. We all feel that there’s a contrast between pre-stardom Bogie and the figure who appears in THE MALTESE FALCON and then keeps appearing, but I think what mainly happens is that Bogart looks slightly uncomfortable when he’s not the centre of attention, then becomes it and thus becomes comfortable, all his odd qualities suddenly justified by the fact that he’s the star. By 1944, when Bogart could have seen DOUBLE INDEMNITY and decided to copy MacMurray’s casual, unassuming approach, he’d already done not only THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA. Is he really not underacting in those?

The other thing that happens in 1944 is that Bogart starts working with Howard Hawks, which might well be significant. Hawks talked about getting Bogart to reduce his harshness, his tough-guy act, though when Hawks talks, the one thing you can rely on is his coming out of the story looking good.

As for MacMurray, his discomfort at playing ignoble characters seems to have helped decide him to do as little as possible. Also, he was a sax player, and thought of himself as such. Not as an actor. He was always most comfortable letting the woman have the spotlight. James Cagney may have called Bogart “the world’s luckiest white man,” but MacMurray seems to have really considered himself as such, and had the grace to act accordingly.