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Needling

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2018 by dcairns

Probably good to not read anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD before seeing it.

After seeing it, read David Ehrenstein’s take-down. It’s a necessary argument to have. I can’t gainsay it. Nevertheless, with reservations, I enjoyed the film itself.

I think, if this is “straightwashing,” it’s a chickenshit thing to do. I think there’s a possible reading of the film where Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is NOT straight. I don’t really see the point of his “confirmed bachelor” line if he’s hetero. And given what his marriage turns out to involve, he’s definitely not vanilla. But Mr. Ehrenstein is the expert here, and if this doesn’t seem a possible reading to him, I suspect he’s right. I think his instinct, that the director and star don’t have the required insight into the minds of gay men obsessed with women. They can only do the latter part.

Let’s face it, the big secret about the Woodcock’s marital life revolves around a sort of fetish/ritual that I do not believe has ever been practiced by any couple, ever. And while one hesitates to rule any kink or twist of human behaviour beyond the bounds of possibility, this one seems like the auto smash fetish in the Cronenberg/Ballard CRASH — an imaginary syndrome that might one day come into being but isn’t here yet. Which is probably a good thing.

So, given that the movie raises the spectre of homosexuality and then chastely sweeps it under the carpet, and given that it devotes its considerable runtime to meticulously detailing the workings of a relationship ultimately revealed to be based on something ridiculous, why did I enjoy it? It’s that detailing. And the performances. And the loving recreation of time and place. And Jonny Greenwood’s music. And the acting, of course.

Is this a film about Hitchcock, in some way? A thin and angry Hitchcock? The name “Woodcock,” coupled with the name “Alma,” seem to suggest it. But then you’d expect a torturous makeover to be part of Reynolds’ relationship with Alma, which we don’t really get. But we do get a brace of shots brazenly quoting PSYCHO as Reynolds spyholes his own fashion show. So that seems like a nod. Alma really is Alma, not Tippi — she’s the woman who enables her husband’s life and art.

The third main character’s name, Cyril (Lesley Manville, all tight smiles but not entirely without warmth), is peculiar because it’s only ever a man’s name. This unmarried sister may well be coded gay. And Anderson may have thought of using the male-sounding but ambisexual name “Cecil,” but that wouldn’t do as that was Daniel Day-Lewis’ actual dad’s name (the poet laureate and author of The Smiler with a Knife).

I liked this film, really, because of scenes like the first post-coital (?) breakfast. I was crying with laughter. All the arguments are hilarious, especially the way Vicki Krieps resorts to just making contemptuous NOISES. PFF!

I first saw VK in the film PTA saw her in — THE CHAMBERMAID LYNN. It was submitted to Edinburgh International Film Festival, where I work as a submissions editor (I should be viewing screeners RIGHT NOW). In it, she plays a chambermaid who takes to hiding in guests’ rooms and watching what they get up to in “private.” She has one or two tippy-toe scenes in PT which reminded me strongly of this. I gave the odd film an A partly because of her astonishingly muted and natural performance. An A means the film gets passed up the food chain to somebody higher up… my memory was that it then got turned down, but I’m wrong — we screened it. I may have contributed something to the magnificent Fraulein Krieps’ career!

One of the things Krieps does, in her very first scene, is an apparently real, real-time facial blush. And apparently they kept her isolated from D-Day Lewis until it was time for this scene, so this was her actual first meeting with him. I can only think of two comparisons — (1) Lenny Montana, playing Luca Brassi, turns purple when he’s strangled in THE GODFATHER. They were thinking of getting Dick Smith to invent some kind of makeup trick for this, but the actor was a former wrestler with excellent breath control so he just DID IT. And (2) I’m told that Hume Cronyn could blush on command. “How did you do that?” “I just made myself blush.” A response that’s automatic in every other human being ever, was something that fine thespian could turn on and off at will.

Krieps doesn’t wear makeup most of the time in this film, and seems to flush  with ease. She’s a natural reddener.

As for D-Day himself, he’s excellent — more stylised than Krieps (who is practically playing Alma as a 21st-century woman gone astray in the 50s) but hitting wonderful and surprising notes all the time. Convincing in the moment even if his character adds up tp implausible contradictions and evasions. I guess he has to retire now before his hands get any hairier. Those are some very hairy hands.

The film may cop out of a truthful and frank portrayal of the real men (all gay) who were Britain’s top dressmakers, but it plays fair with its title: we get an actual phantom. It’s Reynolds’ dear old mum, standing with implacable solidity against a wall, visible to nobody but him. This is despite PTA and DDL being both father-obsessives — PTA named his company, Ghoulardi, after his horror-host pop, while DDL fled a West End production after seeing an apparition of his late father, the poet. That was HAMLET. This might be called OMELETTE. I wonder if Lewis advised on the correct appearance of spectral parents. She’s very compelling.

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Pillow Talk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 3, 2016 by dcairns

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In movies, people talk in bed, but only afterwards. There’s zero conversation, generally, during sex scenes.

Of course, dialogue in a sex scenes could sound weird, or just pornographic. The writer/s would have more reason than usual to fear that their own experience, translated into fiction, won’t communicate to an audience, won’t chime with the viewers’ experiences, will seem freakish or off-putting. If the narrative provides a reason why the dialogue might actually be weird, that can serve as an alibi…

In the late Jacques Rivette’s L’HISTOIRE DE MARIE ET JULIEN, on the other hand, when a back-from-the-dead Emmanuelle Beart has steamy sex sessions with Jerzy Radziwilowicz, they spin an elaborate, sort-of sado-masochistic fantasy together which, brilliantly, is more fairy tale than Letter to Penthouse. The bloody imagery (Beart imagines herself torn by thorns) can be explained by her character’s specific supernatural nature as a revenant — she cannot bleed, or cry. Being a bloke, even though Radziwilowicz doesn’t know this, he doesn’t question the strange fantasy. After all, he’s having hot sex with Emmanuelle Beart — why ask questions?

Beart, Rivette’s muse in LA BELLE NOISEUSE, is a fascinating actor. She can seem incredibly ditzy — I saw her present a prize, clad in a floaty dress, at the Marrakech Film Festival, and she had to try three times before she could exit the stage — and, like most stages, this one had only two ways to exit, left and right. But her dramatic instincts are remarkable. She’s electrifying onscreen. It doesn’t matter that she’s had “work,” some of it arguably ill-advised, because everything she’s feeling photographs through her eyes as clearly as if they were windows on a toy theatre. She has cinematic intelligence of a rare kind, and she could Botox her head into an Easter Island sculpture and it wouldn’t stop her emoting.

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Rivette seems to have worked with her mainly by bamboozling her, throwing her off-guard, as she complains in the DVD extra interview (she clearly loves Rivette, but accepted that working with him was never going to be easy). He seems to have felt that anything she brought to a role in the way of a plan wouldn’t help, and that he should provide her with the wrong costume, disconcerting advice, and surprising choices to keep her improvising to the last. Renoir said, “There are undoubtedly some very intelligent actors, but it is not certain that they use their intelligence when they act,” or words to that effect. Rivette, I surmise, was determined to get Beart to act with her talent, not with her conscious intellect.

Back to the bedroom. 90% of sex scenes seem to be the first sexual encounter between protagonists, because that has an obvious (if redundant) plot function — establishing that the deed was done. The good sex scenes have more to do with character — DON’T LOOK NOW’s sheet-twisting contortions can be justified as the couple’s first intercourse since the death of their child, but the movie doesn’t trouble to establish that fact. An expository line, after all, would have been awful. Character predominates.

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When Cronenberg started CRASH with three sex scenes, he faced accusations that his film had no plot, just fucking. Why, he wondered, was it inconceivable that a film could have a plot told through a series of sex acts? The need for every scene to advance story is probably part of the reason there’s so much bad sex, and rape, and improbably-located sex in movies. Witness Game of Thrones and the leering craft of “sexposition”. Horrible sex can change a relationship, good sex generally just affirms it. Rivette manages to show a relationship developing — nothing “happens” in the repeated love scenes, but they are each building to a point where something will — which will be the end of the movie.

The Edinburgh Dialogues #1: Mark Cousins

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2011 by dcairns

I’ve been speaking to former directors of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, an event I’ve been attending since the early 80s. In the wake of this year’s event, which was, to focus on the negative aspects, underfunded, sparsely attended, and roundly (though not always fairly) criticised in the press, I wanted to provide space for a debate about the fest’s future, and reminisce about its past with people who know it from the inside and love it. Those who don’t know Edinburgh and have no particular stake in the festival will hopefully still be entertained by the stories of the unusual history of the world’s longest continuously running film festival.

I’ve been using e-mail, face-to-face meetings and Facebook, and will use whatever other means present themselves, not necessarily stopping short of the ouija board and Vatican time machine, to interrogate the men and women with insider knowledge and strange passions. Mark Cousins, film festival director, Moviedrome presenter, documentarist and interstellar bon viveur was first to get back to me —

DC: 1) What is your best memory (or memories) of running the EIFF? Films, people, events…

MC: I’ll never forget David Cronenberg suggesting, minutes before we went on stage to an audience of 800 people, that we pretend that the clips of his film CRASH that we were about to screen were directed by some unknown filmmaker.  He and I had to look at them and work out the personality of that filmmaker.  It was an improved Scene by Scene, and the audience played along, and it was great.

I recall, too, Shohei Imamura shedding a tear on the stage of the Cameo cinema when he saw the audiences’ reaction to his masterpiece tale of the Southern Islands.

And I will not forget dragging up as Greta Garbo to be the date of the great Hungarian director Andre de Toth for the screening of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, only to discover that he had dated the real Garbo.

DC: 2) What was the worst part of the job? Assuming there was one.

MC: The worst bit was the routine, how locked my diary was – I had to be somewhere specific or do something specific each month.  I would have preferred the schedule to have been more creative than that.  It wasn’t the amount of work that was the problem, but its pattern.

DC: 3) Any regrets for things that couldn’t happen? (I recall the plan to turn Edinburgh Castle into Oz…)

MC: It would have been great to have realised the Emerald Castle idea, yes.  But we got SO much done, that I don’t really regret this one.

DC: 4) You threw the best parties of any festival I can recall. What’s the secret, asides from hefty sponsorship?

MC: Oscar Van heek and his team organised the parties.  For my part I made it clear that the idea of play should be central to the EIFF experience – this is the sort of thing that Pat Kane writes about.  The parties tried to create a mood, a sense of fun and, crucially, welcome which helped made the festival feel like an occasion.  We didn’t have big sponsorship for them.

DC: Recently, apart from producing a TV series based on his epic book The Story of Film, Mark has been involved with cinematic projects alongside Scottish movie phenomenon Tilda Swinton, notably The Cinema of Dreams, which can be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to set up a cinephile heaven on earth, for a limited run, in the town of Nairn in the Scottish highlands, and the 8 1/2 Foundation, aimed at bringing world cinema to schoolchildren. Another project was a flashmob in festival square, inducing hundreds of strangers to come together and do Laurel and Hardy’s dance from WAY OUT WEST.

DC: 5) Yourself and Tilda were invited to offer suggestions as to how to enliven the festival this year. Some of them came in for a lot of stick in the media, and only a couple seem to have been taken up. Any thoughts on this?

MC: Lynda Myles also suggested ideas.  Our suggestions were radical and tried to rethink what a festival is, especially in terms of form – there’s never much discussion of the form of film festivals.  It’s usually their content that is the issue.  We were proud of our ideas – we called them All That Heaven Allows – and most people in the film world who saw the document endorsed it very strongly.  I wasn’t at loads of the EIFF this year, as I am rushing to complete my film, but when I was there I saw none of our ideas on form realised.

Shane Meadows and team receive the Michael Powell Award from festival patron Sir Sean Connery.

DC: 6) One idea which was chosen was maybe my least favourite of your ideas: abolishing the Michael Powell Award (for best new British film). I can see that it was expensive to run, but would have preferred reducing the costs via a local jury rather than dropping it altogether, since awards help attract films, and what this year really needed was more strong films. Would you care to disagree?

MC: Our suggestion to cancel the Michael Powell Award was nothing to do with budget!  We neither saw the budget of the festival, nor asked to.  All our suggestions tried to be about renewal and innovation.  The Michael Powell Award was great – we said this clearly – but the EIFF needed and needs to keep ahead and replace previous approaches – even good ones – with exciting new ones.

DC: (An EIFF press release has just announced that the Michael Powell Award will return next year, with the surprising suggestion that the award was only put on hold for a year because it was the 65th anniversary of the fest. This seems like an attempt at a slightly Orwellian rewrite of our collective memories of what was originally said… One of the big problems this past year has been doubt about what’s going on, as the festival alternately reveals no information about its activities, or else backtracks and pretends it hasn’t said what it already said. A period of glasnost is called for.)

7) The move to June has been much criticised this year, which seems like a red herring to me as it worked fine in the first year. Hannah has already written defending the move, but if you’d like to say anything about this (since I believe you proposed it during your tenure) I’d welcome more.

MC: Yes, I was for a move when I worked at the EIFF in the mid 90s.  As I recall, I suggested that immediately after Venice would be a good time – and that a partnership with the London Film Fest would work.  I have never been convinced by the argument that the EIFF is not strong enough to stand outside August.  It isn’t a baby lamb with quivering legs.  I agree that the debate about June this year seemed like a non-sequitur.  It got caught up in the other issue, about artistic direction.

(The EIFF press release also says that the festival’s calendar slot is being reconsidered…)

DC: 8) How do you think the festival should go on from here to win better press and bigger audiences? Should it cater to the industry or the public first? What do you see as the biggest problems?

MC: I put my thoughts on these issues into the All That Heaven Allows document that Tilda and Lynda and I sent.  Everything in the culture world should be led by passion and ideas, I think.  The EIFF should be passionate and ideasy about films and festivals.  The question of how it caters for industry, etc is a second order one.  Important but not defining.  Whoever gets the job as artistic director must describe a bold, welcoming, exciting cinephile direction for the festival, and then the team must make it happen with enthusiasm and imagination.  The biggest problem I think is that the film festival world is overcrowded and many of the fests are samey.  See my attached short article on this.

A secondary challenge is the shrinking of arts pagination in, and the partial demoralisation of, the Scottish press.  Scotland’s festivals need great coverage – writers who see them in an international context.  We have this to a certain degree but not enough.

A third problem is the fact, that some of those who make the EIFF happen, from what I hear, are uncertain about how, or whether, the festival should change, and where they stand.  I think there’s a degree of pulling in different directions.  This lack of common cause has created dubiety and some rancour.  The collective spirit has to return, because festivals are made with such spirit.

MC: Here’s the initial proposal for All That Heaven Allows —

The ancient idea of the festive is lovely.  It’s a time in the year in which you live more fully.  A festival is a world that, like Brigadoon, comes alive for a while, burls your brain, heightens your senses, allows you to commune with your fellow citizens.

Edinburgh was, in 1947, one of the first places in the world to apply these ideas to the celebration of film.  Our Edinburgh International Film Festival helped invent the form of movie festivals.  It challenged snooty opinion that melodrama director Douglas Sirk was an empty populist.  It played the bagpipes when hard-boiled American director Sam Fuller arrived at Edinburgh Airport.  It rethought women in cinema.  It had its own sense of style and glam – messy, ludic.

In the 60s and 70s, more film fests joined the fray and by the 80s and early 90s a classic film festival form was set – red carpet premieres, competitions, juries, a retrospective, awards, VIP areas, industry events, panel discussions, etc.  

But since this standardisation, so much has happened.  There are now about 2000 films festivals in the world – a five fold increase since the 80s.  About 4000 films are made each year of which, at a guess, maybe 400 are great or exciting, so that’s 2000 fests chasing 400 films.  The digitisation of film, and the internet, has speeded film culture up and allowed instant connectivity between movie lovers and the film world.  And, most of all, money has gotten in on the film festival act.  Festivals these days are assessed for their economic impact and their attraction to tourists.  Sponsors ask for and get events that flatter them. In return for funding film festivals, the film industry requires them to be a kind of funky shop window for their wares.

In the light of all these changes, the standard form of film festivals needs updating.  As an early innovator, Edinburgh should lead the way.  Last year’s opening screening of The Illusionist, in which the film was encircled by a kind of circus, was a lovely move in that direction.  David Puttnam’s keynote address at the 2009 festival, was a fabulous look into the future of film. Scotland is at the top of the UK, the brain bit.  In a playful, enlightened way, the EIFF will in 2011, its 65th year, the year when it should be getting its pension, burl our brains, hoik its kilt, and shine a Stevenson lighthouse light into the crammed, gridlocked, moribund world of film festivals.  Lynda Myles, who was EIFF director during one of its boldest times, and Tilda Swinton and I have been asked to help that rethink happen.  We are honoured by the invitation. By the end of January we will have sketched what we think of as an outline treatment for a radically new, forward thinking EIFF. We’ll have invited some exciting guest curators. We hope our sketch will be a bit like a manifesto – campaigning, big-hearted, Scottish as hell in its subversive sense of humour, devotedly cinephile, open to the world.  We hope it’ll help to create new rituals, new forms of festival – festivals have form as much as content.

So, we’re just sketching the festival’s new form, under January skies – we aren’t its artistic directors or its overall guest curators, as has been reported, nor are we employed by the festival. Once we’ve done our bit, like all wise screenwriters, we’ll quietly retire and let the great staff interpret the script as they wish and put on the show.

Last year Tilda and I launched a wee foundation for children in cinema, and the idea is now being replicated around the world.  In a modest way, this shows that passionate, innovative ideas about film that originate in Scotland, can influence film culture around the world.  The EIFF, this splendid treasure, can do just that.  We are delighted to be part of its think tank.  Douglas Sirk directed a masterpiece about being what you want to be, All that Heaven Allows.  We’re naming the 65th EIFF’s transformation after it.

Mark Cousins

DC: Alas, those at the top entrusted with realizing this vision within a tight schedule and budget, with limited cinephiliac knowledge and a less ludic spirit, and further hampered by internal divisions, were able to produce only a shadow of the grand design. I was reminded of Douglas Sirk’s remarks about his own title, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS —

“The studio loved this title, they thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way around. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy.”

Buy Mark’s book — The Story of Film Soon to be a major TV series!