Archive for Elizabeth McGovern

Louise Brooks’ History of the World Part I

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2021 by dcairns

Caught up with THE CHAPERONE, which glosses on the true tale of Louise Brooks’ first experiences in New York, accompanied by a Kansan hausfrau. A weirdly flat experience — sexless and lacking drama. This is weird because it has a teenage Louise Brooks in it, the narrative takes in child abuse, emotional neglect, adoption, all kinds of fraught stuff, but everybody is always making nice.

We’re dealing with Julian Fellowes, High Tory writer of GOSFORD PARK and Downton Abbey, adapting a book by Laura Moriarty, and with a director from Fellowes’ TV show. I never watched that thing. I liked GP a lot, but I think it benefitted from Altman’s wry disgust at the world being depicted, and from the actors’ improvisations. A BBC Scotland bod who had employed Fellowes on an earlier TV show remarked that they felt sure the best lines were made up on the set, but then that same person was reportedly unable to start work each morning until an assistant turned on their computer, so who knows?

What surprised me was that Fellowes would short-circuit every opportunity for drama by letting one character or another calm things down. I know we don’t want a David Mamet story populated entirely by ranting psychos, but as Alexander Mackendrick put it, “Sympathy is the enemy of drama.” The whole art seems to be to create a fictive world where sympathy can exist, but to always position it where it doesn’t defuse the excitement.

Nice to see Elizabeth McGovern in a leading role, the TV show having restored her to the limelight. Haley Lu Richardson has a near-impossible task, and the appearance of a flurry of clips of the real Brooks cruelly points up the contrast. I would settle for less physical resemblance (HLR is only passably similar in appearance) in favour of more edge — but the script is so lacking in spikiness and spiciness, the direction so anemic, the music such thin soup, ladled over everything, it’s hard to see how any real Brooksian quality could have survived. So without blaming the star we can say she was either wrongfully thrust into an unsuitable role or else undercut by everything around her.

I’m always happy to see McGovern and Campbell Scott, but again, probably not the actors who would set things on fire. Is it possible to die of niceness? At least Downton Abbey has Maggie Smith being catty.

The dialogue is poor, with “Horse feathers,” the sole bit of twenties idiom. Someone actually says, “This is 1922.” I guess the biographical distortions are a minor matter, but Brooks’ childhood sexual abuse is disgracefully softened, and her experience after the onscreen events summed up in a title card: “after some difficult times as a shopgirl in New York she reinvented herself as a writer…” Fellowes’ distaste for shopgirling is hilarious, and presumably his distaste for hooking is so great he can’t bring himself to mention it, and we’re trying to hone messy reality into a redemptive arc here…

The problem, probably, is that even if you got some energy going, this is a story mainly covering Brooks’ early studies as a dancer, and skips over everything she’s celebrated for. Plus she’s not even the main character. The solution to these problems is to not make the film.

THE CHAPERONE stars Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Claire Benoit; Saul Ausländer; Lady Macbeth; Robert Benchley; Martha Jefferson; Eowyn; Munkustrap; and Nervous Man.

Once Upon a Time in Dreamland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by dcairns


Last night I dreamed about Star Trek. There was a big alien who communicated by twiddling his fingers like the Rock does in SOUTHLAND TALES (okay, the Rock doesn’t actually communicate by twiddling but he does twiddle, prodigiously). I think in the end Captain Kirk or whoever shut the alien in a giant pressure cooker, baked him into a pie, and ate him. It was a very unusual episode.

But I still haven’t dreamed up a way of celebrating the one-year anniversary of this blog, which falls due on December first. Suggestions welcome. When the time comes I guess I’ll probably just drink some vodka and write something.

But I do have an idea for next year: the 110th anniversary of Hitchcock’s death. There are 52 surviving Hitchcock feature films (more or less). There are 52 weeks in the year. So I’m going to blog about each film, one a week, for the whole year.

Just putting this idea out in advance in case anyone else thinks of it (and is dumb enough to do it).

Apart from being a chance to catch up on all the early Hitchcocks I haven’t had the pleasure of, it’ll add some much-needed STRUCTURE to this place. Although some weeks my posting might be only tangentially related to the Hitchcock film du semaine. We shall see.

Dreams are also on my mind as I just finished a two-part class on Sergio Leone (it would have been one-part, but the first class was interrupted, DISCRETE CHARM-style, by the arrival of five hundred students demanding the use of the lecture theatre for another subject). And there’s a theory of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that sees the entire 1960s section as a dream: Noodles (Robert DeNiro) is lost in an opium haze, having betrayed his friends, and he fantasises a future where his best friend lived, the betrayal didn’t really happen, and everything turns out differently. This is the explanation for the film’s ending, in which Noodles is seen in the opium den again, this time grinning.


This interp kind of bugged me at first — I don’t usually like huge chunks of narrative turning out not to have happened: there’s a sense in which you can feel cheated. But the more I’ve considered it, the more it works for me, and it explains a number of oddities in the 1960s section of the movie.

1) Deborah doesn’t age. Elizabeth McGovern turns up, thirty years on, looking just as she did in the middle section of the film. I thought at first this was because the makeup artist must have thrown down his brushes in despair upon seeing McG’s perfect, smooth countenance. He couldn’t bear to disfigure her with latex wrinkles (Leone’s massive closeups expose the artifice of the prosthetics on Fat Moe in some shots), and the unlined expanse of face gave him nothing to work with anyway. “She looks like a beautiful balloon,” Fiona remarked. But maybe this is a dream, and Noodles simply couldn’t imagine his beloved transfigured by time. “Age cannot wither her.”


2) Forgive and forget. Deborah doesn’t mention the glaring fact that Noodles raped her, twice, at their last meeting. But then, she wouldn’t, because this is part of what Noodles is trying to forget. It would be thoughtless of her to raise the subject during his dream. Fiona gave up the film in anger at that scene, not because of the rape itself, but because DeNiro turns up at the railway station the following day to see her off. This, Fiona contested, was rather tactless of him. I have to admit she’s right. But at least we can see that the strange scene between Noodles and Deborah is how it is due to Leone’s artful evocation of dream-logic, and not because he’s a misogynist boor whose incapable of thinking his way into a female character’s head. Certainly not.

3) Plot nonsense. For DeNiro to be unaware that a friend has risen to high political office while he’s been hiding out “in the asshole of the world”, he would have had to have been quite literally hiding out “in the asshole of the world”. You can’t get a TV signal in there, you know. But this objection ceases to carry any force if we view the whole scenario as dream-hallucinations. Those things never make sense. I mean, Captain Kirk would never eat somebody.

So it’s definitely a way of looking at the film that reveals new possibilities, and so it’s a good tool to have when examining Leone’s vast and shallow epic. There is, however, as Columbo might say, one thing that still kind of bothers me…

If (as in the post-Viet Nam fantasy world of JACOB’S LADDER) the 1960s of OUATIA is a construct of the protagonist’s mind, it should not contain any references that would not be available to a character from that protagonist’s era, the ’30s. The political scandal DeNiro emerges into is explicable enough, since there was at least as much bribery and corruption in ’30s American life as in the ’60s.

Harder to explain is the frisbee that flies over DeNiro’s head at one point. I don’t think they had those in the ’30s, although the aerodynamic principles under which they operate were presumably already in force. Did Noodles, like Norville in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, invent this hand-held flying saucer before its time? How ironic that he should try to make his way in the world through the dangerous practice of bootlegging, when he could have made a fortune marketing his plastic disk to the children of the Great Depression!

Also, when DeNiro first arrives back in ’60s New York, he hears the Beatles song “Yesterday” playing as muzak. But, unlikely as it seems, there is a reasonable explanation for this. That song, as Paul McCartney has testified, came to him in a dream. So it’s not implausible that, floating around in the dream-stuff waiting to be discovered and jotted down by a receptive songwriter, the melody should insinuate its way into the opium-vision of a fugitive 1930s gangster.


Is it?