Archive for Louise Brooks

They are brothers.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2021 by dcairns

Hello everyone. Mrs Shadowplay here, with a review that should have come out four months ago when Edgar Wright’s THE SPARKS BROTHERS was first released in the UK. But then I kept procrastinating, and procrastinating and procrastinating until it was nearly Halloween. Best get on with it then.

Finally, in the year of our lord, 2021, during a heatwave, Sparks receive received their due after 50+ years of producing innovative, unique pop music. And it’s all due to director Edgar Wright’s fanboy enthusiasm. I can only congratulate him on his good taste. Reading this opening, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This is going to be an entirely biased review isn’t it?’ And I can only reply (telepathically) with a whole-hearted, ‘Yes it is.’

Ever since the Mael Brothers caused a playground sensation with their first mind-bending appearance, or should I say ‘manifestation’, on Top Of The Pops in 1974 with the extraordinary This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, I’ve been transfixed by their art pop antics. They may have reinvented themselves many times over but they are still essentially Sparks; uncompromising and eternal.

Just to prove that Sparks’ music really is imperishable, I showed this legendary televisual incarnation to a friend in his early twenties and his written response was, ‘Oh my, that track ROCKS!’

I think my young friend would have been shocked if I’d then gone on to tell him that they were kept off the No 1 slot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love. “I wonder where The Rubettes are now?” muses Russell ‘Cutie-Pie’ Mael. Don’t by fooled by their sweetly oddball demenour, these guys have teeth and claws. Ladies and Gentlemen, here are Sparks’ mortal enemy, The Rubettes. It was falsettos at dawn but ultimately history has proved our boys the winners. (Although maybe I woudn’t have minded so much if it was Mud’s Tiger Feet. I will now defenestrate myself out of shame)

So, who are they? “We are brothers,” they helpfully inform us. They say some more stuff but their mystique remains. “What use is a two hour twenty minute documentary on a band that doesn’t completely penetrate their appeal?” I hear you ask (I wish these entirely fictionalised voices asking me questions would leave me alone). Well, that’s kind of the point of Sparks and the reason that they’ve survived the vicissitudes of time.

“How the hell did THAT come out of the cornfields of Kansas?” said someone who’s name I can’t recall at the moment. He was refering to the unique, luminous Louise Brooks.

A random screengrab of Louise Brooks for you all to enjoy.

The same could be said of Sparks. How the hell did Ron and Russell Mael come out of the sand and surf of California? They seem so European in every way. It’s no surprise that’s where their main fan base has been, most significantly, the UK, where they were dubbed “the best British band ever to come out of America.”

What on earth were these, these…THINGS? They were more like cartoon characters than real people. It’s fitting that Wright frequently resorts to animation to tell the unfolding saga of ther lives. They’re also a bit like superheroes. Ron has the power to stare down the barrel of a lense with such focused intensity that he can levitate objects located on the other side of the screen, and Russell has the supernatural facility to mess with the molecular structure of the human body with the spooky range of his voice. In other words, Sparks can make you float in the air while changing you into a werewolf…If that’s your idea of a good time.

The hyperactive visual style of Wright fits them like a glove. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I can’t think of a better director to wrestle them into a documentary format. The film’s been criticised by some for being too long, but how on earth are you going to do a whistle-stop tour of the life and times of the Mael brothers and not have it run at nearly two and half hours? Yes, it does sometimes feel like a ticking-off of each album in their discography. Yes, you do wonder why Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt are talking heads in it just because they’re fans, but these are such minor quibbles they’re barely worth thinking about.

One slower section really made me sit up, take notice, and unexpectedly moved me. Christi Haydon, a talented designer and performer, who had worked with Sparks in the mid 1990s, bursts into tears when talking about their wilderness years after their film project, Mai The Psychic Girl folded. They were suddenly faced with possible extinction. I use the word ‘extinction’ because Sparks really are like a living, breathing, singing being unto death. Haydon’s response seems entirely genuine and it’s a shocking counterpoint to the joyride that’s gone before.

But Sparks are unstoppable. They were back in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins. Many people believed them to be a brand new band, and they were placed in the unusual position of being accused of ripping off the very groups they helped inspire in the first place. I’d be looking at The Pet Shop Boys, then swiftly looking away again and going on my merry way. I’d stop and have a long, friendly chat with Erasure because Vince Clarke and Andy Bell are more than happy to acknowledge Sparks’ influence on them.

This video, directed by Sophie Muller, showcases their interest in film (they each took separate film courses at UCLA). Their music often has bombast and cinematic scope.

And they kept on, writing the opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009), in which the Swedish auteur is corrupted by Hollywood, based on their own abortive film experience with Mai The Psychic Girl, until chance encounters led to collaborations with Franz Ferdinand in 2015 (collaboration being something which allegedly doesn’t work) —

and Leos Carax in 2021.

ANNETTE is an opera about a deeply flawed, probably insane male stand-up comic and his strange, singing prodigy of a daughter. This time the Maels are on screenwriting duty (shared with Carax). One of my favourite lines, said just before a huge stadium event involving said prodigy, goes, “Nerves are to be expected. She is, of course, a baby.”

This gives me satisfying David Lynch vibes but is also typically Sparksian, with its elements of absurdist humour and revealing psychological insight. In fact there are many commonalities between The Sparks Brothers and Lynch. Both are American Avant-Garde artists whose roots are firmly planted in Europe. Both, despite being passionately non-conformist, have attained popular acclaim.

Another thing in Sparks’ favour is that they knew how to hit back against mediocrity, with cutting wit, at silly, short sighted decisions by programmers and recording companies. Remember how I told you they had teeth and claws, back in the mists of time of this article? Well, here are some examples of Sparks sharpening them:

During the late 80s, Sparks released a single, but the record company wouldn’t shell out for a video to promote it, so when appearing on a breakfast tv show, Sparks leaped into action with their own form of civil disobedience. This involved them fashioning a tv set out of cardboard and putting Russell’s head inside it to sing the song. This is highly reminiscent of Frank Thornton as The BBC in Richard Lester’s bleakly surreal masterpiece, THE BED SITTING ROOM.

Sparks briefly owned The BBC in 1994.

Luckily, they had allies: Jonathan Ross had Sparks on his show to perform Dick Around after the BBC had banned it from radio air play. The letter of complaint they wrote utilising the phrase ‘dick around’ as many times as humanly possible is wickedly clever and funny. Then again, I may have imagined this response. When I went looking for it online I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I DID find were perfectly reasonable grievances about the Beeb Beeb Ceeb’s decision. Has Ron been using his super powers to implant false memories into my brain? *looks around uneasily*

Again in the 80’s, their record company were at a loss as to what to do with them. They suggested they write “music that you can dance to.” This was the result.

I could hug them. I really could. But I’m afraid of Ron’s uncanny brain powers.

What’s been particularly enlightening and pleasing is reading reviews of this documentary by younger people (I’m 55 so shoot me!). The word ‘inspiration’ keeps coming up over and over again. Sparks never gave up. They never compromised. They were always completely themselves. They evolved but still retained their essential ‘Sparksness.’ They’re a perpetual motion machine animated by music and we should all be very, very grateful.

Gentleman (Edgar Wright), and Lady (Nira Parks), I thank you. It’s been a long time coming. I was grinning like an idiot behind my mask the whole time.

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.

The Father’s Day Intertitle: Fire!

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on June 17, 2018 by dcairns

To the Filmhouse for PANDORA’S BOX! A film I hadn’t seen all the way through in so long, maybe I’d never seen it all the way through! And never is a very long time.

I couldn’t get on with the music — recorded, rather than live. The Weill/cabaret style was appropriate, I just disagreed viscerally with the composer about which scenes were meant to have a grotesque comic edge, and which were “straight” (surely SOME of them). As music, it was fine, I just didn’t like it for this film.

So it took me a very long time to get into the movie, even though it was all unfolding as if new, and looked incredible. By the time of the wedding I was into it, and by the time of the gambling ship — where it becomes clear that this story is going to hell and nothing can stop it and total disaster can be expected for every character — I was riveted.

Louise Brooks is the kind of natural almost unique to silent cinema. Surrounded by expressionists, she just exists.

I really shouldn’t use this movie for father’s Day, though — Lulu’s dad, Schigolch, is pretty much the cause of everything that goes wrong in this movie. He’s awful! And he gets the only happy ending, though it’s but a fleeting moment.

From Pamela Hutchinson’s BFI Film Classics study of the movie: “Brooks identified Schigolch as the ‘hero of the story … he knows what he is, what he wants, and he perseveres in getting it,’ but he is really its greatest villain.” Villains ARE often the most ambitious and certain characters in stories, aren’t they? And in life.

Of course, PANDORA’S BOX is really a Christmas movie, perhaps the bleakest ever.

STOP PRESS: this movie is playing next Sunday at the Bo’ness Hippodrome with live accompaniment by Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. Unfortunately I can’t be there as I’ll be in Bologna. But maybe YOU can…?