Archive for Clockwork Orange

Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns


Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.


As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.


By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.


Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.


I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…

The Sunday Intertitle: Droogy Peggy

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by dcairns


CAPTAIN JANUARY (1924) stars Baby Peggy, already a veteran at five years old. I can’t recommend highly enough the documentary BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, in which this survivor of the silent screen tells us about her remarkable career, as clear a case of child exploitation (and endangerment!) as you could wish to hear. Heart-warmingly — and I use the word without irony — Peggy-Jean Montgomery is today quite at peace with her movie career, able to enjoy the interest of fans and her position as former movie star, while still being quite clear-headed about the wrongs that were done her.

CAPTAIN JANUARY is a decent Peggy vehicle, in the sense that there’s lots of cuteness for us to enjoy — BP was unbelievably cute, and she has a dog, Skipper, and a pelican, Hamlet, to boot. The bird’s name is explained by the reading material Cap’n Daddy, her guardian, has selected for her education ~

Unfortunately, though ably directed by Buster Keaton associate Eddie Cline, the movie severely lacks plot and jeopardy. A villain is introduced, then dispensed with, having achieved nothing, and the happy ending remains clearly in sight through all the darkest moments, as if through a diaphanous veil. Ideally, you want the third act to throw up some situation so horrible and inescapable that the audience, despite knowing you must surely have a Happy Ever After tucked up your sleeve, can’t conceive of how you’re going to produce it. But maybe, Peggy being so cute, the scenarists didn’t have the heart to push things that far.

Astonishingly, this was remade (not so astonishingly, with Shirley Temple) — I assume it wasn’t so much the narrative they wanted as an excuse to feature a small child in oilskins, admittedly an adorable sight.But it’s Peggy’s long-johns and bowler ensemble that steals the show, transforming her for a few brief seconds into a proto-mini-droog.


Being the adventures of a young girl whose principle interests are japes, lighthouse-keeping and Shakespeare.

Of course the inclusion in CLOCKWORK ORANGE of the novelty song “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper” is tacit acknowledgement that Kubrick had seen this and stolen the look.

Struck by Lightning

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on March 9, 2014 by dcairns


I’m late to the party again — Rudyard Kipling’s story Mrs Bathurst has attracted so much critical attention that it’s doubtful I can do anything to illuminate it further. The story is like life, which in turn is like Herve Villechaise — too short, and sometimes hard to understand.

This story starts off resembling a lot of Victorian short fiction — in a simple, undramatic situation, characters chat and this leads to the telling of a tale. While a ghost story of the era might take place in a gentleman’s club, Kipling makes his characters working class soldiers and they exchange a number of stories which lead them to the tale of a mutual acquaintance. In a variation on the usual approach, here two of the characters know part of the story — one knows the bulk of it — and a third can supply the ending, which ought to make for a satisfying account, allowing the people in the framing structure to partake of the same surprise and emotional reaction as the reader. But Kipling does something very strange: even with their information pooled, the characters lack vital parts of the story, and so the reader cannot make sense of it. Frustratingly, the characters in the story shrug this off, whereas the more the reader ponders the yarn, the more deeply mysterious it becomes.

This makes it a striking early example of a modernist text. But was this deliberate? Some have suggested that Kipling’s habit of pruning back his stories during re-writing may have gotten out of hand, and he shaved away too much exposition leaving us with an unsolvable conundrum. And apparently never realised it. Certainly, Kipling wasn’t infallible: in revising the story for republication, he inadvertently had one character refer to another by name before that name had been realistically introduced.

But the idea that Mrs B’s story got obfuscated by mistake is rendered implausible by the existence of a letter written by Kipling to a fan who had suggested their own explanation of the story. Kipling said that the explanation was ingenious, but that it was important to remember that a key conversation in his plot took place between two characters without witnesses, and only they knew of its contents. In other words, the story deliberately contains an element of the unknowable.

In the story’s key central section, a character nicknamed Click has a striking emotional response to the sight of a woman on the screen of a cinematograph. She is his ex-lover, and in the film she is apparently looking for him. Click’s companion, narrating the events, gives a description of the cinema that rivals Maxim Gorky’s famous “kingdom of shadows” letter (a favourite text around here).

We were in the front row, an’ “Home an’ Friends” came on early. Vickery touched me on the knee when the number went up. “If you see anything that strikes you,” he says, “drop me a hint”; then he went on clicking. We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’. I’d never seen it before. You ’eard a little dynamo like buzzin’, but the pictures were the real thing—alive an’ movin’.’

‘I’ve seen ’em,’ said Hooper. ‘Of course they are taken from the very thing itself—you see.’

‘Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic-lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an’ the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage just like life. Only—only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ’ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ’oo’d dropped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters—carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side—comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come forward—right forward—she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture—like—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ’eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: “Christ! there’s Mrs. B.!”’

It’s good stuff — best to read it in a Victor McLaglan voice, I find.

Just like Gorky, Kipling’s narrator is most struck by something so natural to us now that we barely notice it. Of course, the silence of the cinema image and the lack of colour is a striking difference from nature, despite the lifelike motion, but the FRAME is the weirdest thing of all. People walk closer towards us, but then vanish out of shot. This happens in real life too, but with our own vision, if something we are interested in threatens to pass out of view, we are able to turn our head to follow it. So we’re not generally conscious of losing sight of things out of the edge of our vision (but a certain meditative kind drunkenness can make us aware of it). The film camera gives us a paralysed view of life, like that seen by the protagonist of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Alex DeLarge’s experience in A Clockwork Orange of being strapped into a seat with his eyelids clamped open is just an extreme version of the normal cinematic experience.

It’s not a particularly original interpretation, but I do think that Kipling is using the cinema as a clue to his storytelling approach in Mrs Bathurst. She seems to advance towards us and become ever clearer, but abruptly she vanishes. That which the camera did not happen to aim at goes unrecorded, and we will never know what happened there.

As Mr. Scorsese is always saying, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not in the frame.

If you guys all read the story at the link up top, we can debate what the heck it’s all about.

Image via The Chiseler, where Phoebe Green previously drew attention to this tale.
Traffics and Discoveries


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