Archive for Lillian Gish

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

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The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

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Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

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Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

Riding to the Rescue

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Before you ask, yes, I have been as amused and entertained by Quentin Tarantino’s interview meltdown, and his branding of John Ford as a racist, as you have. Maybe even more so.

I don’t necessarily expect logic or coherence from Tarantino, though it strikes me that he has done a better job of explaining his work in the past — it’s kind of disappointing to see him sink to this level of petulance rather than actually engage in a discussion of interesting issues. The question of screen violence, I guess, maybe does get old if you’ve been asked about it over and over again for a couple of decades, and you can see how someone like Kathryn Bigelow will impatiently jump forward three questions when it’s raised, doing that politician’s trick of answering the question you wish had been asked, and politely shutting down the debate,  but the topic still seems to me kind of evergreen and inexhaustible.

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When I wrote my essay for Criterion’s edition of STAGECOACH, I seized on the idea of the film’s climax borrowing from BIRTH OF A NATION, mainly because not many commentators had remarked on the resemblance: specifically we have tension created by John Carradine being about to kill Louise Platt to save her from falling into the rapacious hands of the marauding Indians, which directly echoes a similar moment at the climax of BOAN. My ace editor, Liz Helfgott, reminded me to mention the fact that Ford’s use of this gimmick is somewhat different from, and more nuanced, than Griffith’s.

Which is true: specifically because Carradine’s character is not an out-and-out sympathetic guy like Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) in BOAN, whose proposed murder of his own daughter is thus depicted in salutary terms. Carradine is ambiguous and flawed, and also a Southerner in a film containing more viewpoints than his own, so we aren’t invited to approve wholeheartedly of his action. And in fact Platt is saved by two things (spoiler alert), an Indian arrow which takes Carradine off before he can save her from a Fate Worse than Death, and then the cavalry, who drive off the Indians. Had it just been the cavalry who saved her, as the klan do in BOAN, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would have probably been guilty of endorsing Carradine’s thinking.

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(By the time of the 70s, writer Alan Sharp could have a cavalry soldier actually shooting a white woman in the punchy Robert Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID, to save her from abduction and rape and maybe worse, and the meaning is different again, because it IS the 1970s and there’s a shared understanding that a shocking act can be show because it’s arguably truthful, without implying a judgement from the filmmakers about whether the act is justifiable or unjustifiable.)

The fact that Ford clearly saw nothing wrong in borrowing from BOAN, that he saw it as a cinematic mainspring that wasn’t so irrevocably tainted that you mustn’t go anywhere near it, speaks to the same impulse that made him if not proud at least quite happy to talk about having appeared in it as a klansman. In other words, he didn’t share our modern sensibility and didn’t judge the film as rigorously as we do, as a virulently racist piece of hate speech. I would find it hard to call Ford “a racist son-of-a-bitch” on that basis. I would call him racist only in the sense that everybody’s racist because nobody’e perfect, and everybody is  influenced by the discourse about race which surrounds us, despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, race is an illusion. But, as Einstein observed of time, it may be an illusion but it’s an extremely persistent one.

The subconscious effects of this illusion can perhaps be seen in the way QT segues from “I’m not your slave” to “I’m not your monkey” in that notorious interview.

Griffith, of course, is something else. I’m prepared to accept Lillian Gish at her word that he didn’t hate black people per se — I guess he quite liked them, in their place. As we all know from everyday life, our response to anything can be very different depending on where we find it: to take an example we’ve all probably encountered recently, a delicious juicy steak will provoke a different reaction on a dinner plate than it will draped over the pillow we lay our head on in bed. Griffith’s reaction to see black people anywhere outside of the zones to which he had been raised to think of them belonging, was one of violent instinctive revulsion, and he wasn’t in the least bit inclined to question this knee-jerk response. He was, as a result, a particularly violent and dangerous racist, and he allowed himself to put his feelings on film in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result is hateful, neurotic, and fortunately unique in all of cinema in its virulence, wrongheadedness and savagery. I do regard it as a valuable insight into the psychological processes of race hatred and of pathological hatred generally, whereby criminal acts everybody knows to have been perpetrated by white against blacks — rape, lynching, intimidation — are attributed to blacks in order to justify repression.

It certainly seems absurd to compare it to anything in Ford in terms of its attitude. Is there a bit of that going on with Ford’s depiction of the American Indian? Maybe, a bit, but not consistently, wholeheartedly, or viciously — and Ford is part of a whole problematic tradition here which predates cinema itself. It need hardly be argued that Ford’s portrayal of Indians is more nuanced and sympathetic than Griffith’s portrayal of black people — if one finds oneself arguing that, one might as well stop and say instead, “Just look at the films.”

Inspired somewhat by Glenn Kenny’s post on this subject, and David Ehrenstein’s.

The Birth of a Nation – Special Edition [Blu-ray]

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Bogart Lip

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2012 by dcairns

He seems to be smiling, but really he’s just pushing one side of his face up with his knuckles. It’s the manly version of Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS.

Among the many interesting things about Bogart, his paralysed upper lip may not feature highly, but it’s in there somewhere. According to various conflicting stories, Bogie suffered some kind of injury to his mouth while serving in the Navy — one version has him getting hit by shrapnel in a U-boat attack (but the dates don’t work — this was two weeks after the armistice!); the alternative has him being smashed in the face by a manacled prisoner he was transporting; the truth may well be less glamorous still  – and the result was the lishp and the stiff upper lip.

The lishp, fortunately, was of the Sean Connery variety rather than something more Karloffian, which might have hindered Bogart in hith tough guy roleth, but it was probably more hindrance than help anyway. The paralysed lip, however, may have been in some ways a boon.

Actor/director/inspirational demon Ken Campbell, in his studies of the art and science of ventriloquism, observed that certain South Seas islanders, when going to war, intimidate their enemies with displays of vocalization sans lip movement. So there’s something inherently threatening and dangerous about communicating verbally through a rigid mouth-slot. Which explains a lot of the feelings I always had about Shari Lewis.

Here’s a trailer for a new movie looking at Ken Campbell’s ventriloquial pupil and heir ~

Anyhow, what I’m saying is that possibly Bogart’s air of controlled menace was enhanced by his facial disability (I mean, the lip, I don’t mean his homely face, although that obviously helped too). There’s something more powerful about a character who exerts intimidation without seeming to try. It has to be inherent.

There was a TV show called In at the Deep End in which the presenters had to perform a new, unusual task each week, and one time the task was to play a movie villain. So he went to speak to Oliver Reed. Which was very interesting, because Ollie was sober, which wasn’t his usual style for interviews. And he was in tutelary mode, which was also a surprise — rarely can you find Ollie talking about his craft. Outside of this conversation, I can only recall one quote where he talked about the importance of growing real facial hair, “because it moves with your face,” rather than having a fake bushel spirit-gummed onto the old chin.

“I’m known as the sound man’s enemy,” said Reed, “Because I speak so softly. Dangerous men don’t shout, only loudmouths shout.”

Understatement again. It’s relatively easy for stage-trained actors to adjust their volume for the cinema, but adjusting facial movement takes a little longer — it’s possible that British actors trained to enunciate make less effective screen tough guys than American actors who often have less of a theatrical background, having come straight from Schwabs. Brits often get cast as villains, because they sound effete and intelligent to American ears, but they’re less likely to be manly heroes. But that might be changing — a new generation of British actors have started turning up in American film and TV with a mastery of dialect that seems not to have existed in the days of either James Mason or Bob Hoskins, and their ability to not only sound American but act American is impressive indeed. But will any of them make it to full movie stardom, or what passes for it today?

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