Archive for Gosford Park

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by dcairns

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:

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and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.

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At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.

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An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.

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There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.

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Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.

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I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.

FC3: A new definition of the word “accident”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by dcairns

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I wonder if these pieces are just going to keep getting shorter? It seems like a good way to get a conversation, with a brief set of musings rather than any attempt at thoroughness.

In any case, it would be hard for me to write more on this movie, since I’ve just seen it twice, once five years ago and once just now, which has sort of refreshed my memory of it and revitalized the questions that buzzed in my mind the first time I saw it. Without answering them.

“If France were destroyed tomorrow and nothing remained but this film, the whole country and its civilization could be reconstructed from it.” ~ Richard Roud.

I’m not even sure how to describe this one. Renoir said his intention was to make to make “an agreeable film” which would nevertheless serve as a critique of a society he considered absolutely rotten. The fact that the film was made in 1939, and was roundly detested by critics and audiences at the time, suggests all kinds of resonances. And I think looking for them is one of the mistakes I made in my viewing, because on first sight the film isn’t obviously allegorical and the moments of critique appear scattered thinly. It is important to situate the film in the context of pre-war France, but you can put that aside until the conclusion, where it unavoidably washes in. The movie’s thematic purpose really all kicks in at the end, when you can look back and see a bit more clearly what the film is doing in this regard. But I suspect a first viewing (and I’ve really had two first viewings, since there was such a long gap between them) should concentrate more on the surface.

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On the surface, then, what we have is a country house comedy with an odd tone — the wildlife holocaust in the middle, where Renoir’s camera pauses to observe the death throes of a rabbit in minute detail, certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing. Real death is always a tricky thing on screen. I don’t generally like it, unless the camera has captured a specific death that would have happened anyway, as in LE SANG DES BETES. But I would willingly eat any of the animals slaughtered in Renoir’s film, so I don’t think I have any moral ground to stand on. I do worry about Renoir using this scene as an indictment of the upper classes, when it’s all been staged at his command. But I guess the intention is different. So this is one thing I’d like to hear about.

The other big one is — does anyone find this film funny? It follows the structure of a country house comedy, with Renoir citing Moliere and Mozart as influences (“if you’re picking a master, choose a plump one”), and delivers this bitter aftertaste and social critique, but could one argue that critics and audiences were right to turn away in the sense that the results should contain a few good laughs along the way? Maybe it’s just me.

But having watched the whole thing, this objection does seem to lose all force: Renoir is using farce structure and comic stylisation to tell a tragic story in a different way. The fact that there are only a few barely audible smiles along the way doesn’t really matter. It could be argued that the comic style serves as a metaphor for the frivolous way the characters see their existence, and for us to laugh would be to miss the point.

So that’s two major talking point. I’ll add a third: Marcel Dalio’s eyebrows.

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And a fourth: the blocking and camera direction, which I could really appreciate even on these isolated viewings. Farce is notoriously hard to do onscreen, as Richard Lester has observed — the laugh depends on a character going in one door and coming out another, so the minute the director cuts or moves the camera, the audience forgets which door is which and the laugh is gone. The spacial unity of the stage is normally a prerequisite. Renoir makes a virtue out of confusion, and even a theme out of it: his camera is constantly saying to us, with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “But there is too much going on.”

We might be focused on one grouping, and another set of characters will dash through the frame, engrossed in their own plotline. Or we will swish-pan off one confrontation onto another, sometimes arriving a second before the frame is filled with bustling action, sometimes alighting on a subplot in media res. In the Danse Macabre sequence this reaches a dizzying zenith of choreographic excellence achieving Pure Cinema in the midst of the theatrical.

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This kind of thing benefits enormously from actors who can move, and here the standouts for me were Dalio and his majordome Corneille, played by Eddy Debray, who barely registers as a character because he’s so devoted to the task at hand, but is extremely nimble and elegant, packing his entire characterisation into a few clipped gestures. The way he snaps his fingers for help when young Jackie faints, before her body has even hit the floor… suave.

Editing by Mme Huguet and “Marguerite.” That’s Marguerite Renoir.

Production design by Max Douy and Eugene Lourie, whose participation makes Renoir a single handshake away from GORGO.

Assistant director, Henri-Cartier Bresson. I think you might be wasting this man’s talents, Jean. Ever consider giving him a camera?

Cinematography by whoever was around. Including the brother, but hey, it’s a talented family. How Papa Jean attained such a unified look and such dynamic results with such a disparate pack of cameramen I can’t figure.

Costumes by Coco Chanel — OK, Fiona will definitely want to watch this.

STOP PRESS — I show the film to Fiona, who enjoys it greatly, more than I did first time, and this time I get a lot more from it. I also find it pretty funny. Without attempting to be exhaustive (impossible), I can now say a bit more. Second time through, you gain the ability to admire the construction as it plays out, magnificently. I’m more and more impressed with Paulette Dubost as Lisette, the maid (Blimey! She’s still alive!)

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Fiona becomes curious about pre-war Chanel, which is not her area of expertise. We agree though that Mila Parély has the best outfits in this. Fiona reckons that Coco would have enjoyed all that hunting garb since she always liked adapting men’s tailoring to women’s outfits.

I haven’t even talked about Renoir himself, as actor. The epitome of the elegant fat man, but with more punch and vigour than you’d expect, and more than ought to be compatible with grace and sensitivity, but it’s all there, and all turned up to eleven. Why on Earth didn’t he act more, in other people’s films if not his own? Perhaos as a result of the failure of this one. He obviously liked getting in front of the cameras though, since he squeezed himself into things like LE TESTAMENT DU DR CORDELIER, and filmed intros to several of his ’30s films.

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And Julien Carette as Marceau the poacher is an interesting figure — the most confident, socially mobile and knowingly amoral character in the film. I’m fascinated by his easy relationship with Dalio — which counts for nothing in the end, he’s no more than an amusement to his master. Carette is very appealing under most circumstances, but utterly revolting whenever he flirts. The sleazy simper technique: what woman could resist? It doesn’t wholly surprise me to learn that Carette was burned to death by his own nylon shirt.

Fiona mentions GOSFORD PARK, and it’s an interesting comparison. Altman often made himself unpopular with audiences by pushing tragedy and comedy into uncomfortable proximity, which is exactly what LA REGLE does. Of course, this film is incredibly tight and pre-planned, although Renoir was clearly very smart about incorporating chance and improvisation into his machinations. Altman’s successful films tend to start with a tight structure that no amount of furious demolition can shake, then he lets the players pull in every direction at once while he cocks his head and listens to the music of the narrative popping its rivets. A WEDDING is another obvious comparison here, but that one’s purer comedy.

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And I’m totally convinced that the last shot, shadows passing along a wall, the figures hidden by a balustrade, is evoking Plato’s shadows in the allegory of the cave. Anybody confirm this? Something about mistaking shadows for reality could be a theme here, and at any rate it’s a good Shadowplay note to finish on.