Archive for Jacques Rivette

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

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.