Archive for Metamorphosis

A Throat in his Frog

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by dcairns

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Chuck Jones (director) and Michael Maltese’ (writer) ONE FROGGY EVENING has one of the lamest titles ever stickered to the front end of a cartoon, but it’s an undying masterpiece just the same. Of its many striking qualities, its uniqueness is a major one — it isn’t like anything else Jones, or Warner Bros, ever attempted. Since I learned in school that you can’t have levels of uniqueness — something is either unique or it isn’t — the peculiar feel of this film must be attributed to its being unique in multiple ways, surely?

It’s wordless. While Hanna & Barbera at MGM were happy to go mute with their Tom & Jerries, but Warners cartoons enjoyed the verbal element, even if the scripts depended less on wit than on speech impediments and abrasive accents. But Jones also made FEED THE KITTY, in which both main animal characters are non-verbal, and the Roadrunner/Coyote series, wordless save for the infinite supply of labelled crates and instruction manuals from the Acme Corporation, and the equally infinite supply of hand-written placards, suited to every occasion, which Wile E. can produce from the limitless expanse behind his slender back, as required. So wordlessness can’t be part of OFE’s individual spark, can it?

But there is a particular quality to the silent-movie approach in this one. The frog sings — the humans make no sound. This inverts the pattern of FEED THE KITTY which, with unusual realism, featured a talking housewife and a bulldog and kitten without the gift of language. The fact that the many words heard in OFE are lyrics, sublimely irrelevant to whatever situation they’re sung in, adds a further absurdity.

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Jones began his cartooning career with an obsessive quest for cuteness and sweetness, which the raucous atmosphere of Termite Terrace eventually exorcised from him. He could still access it when appropriate, but it would now be leavened with more abrasive elements — FEED THE KITTY is very sweet-natured, on one level, but scores its biggest laughing sequence with the cruel jape that the big dog thinks his feline friend has been diced up and baked into cookies. It’s maybe the one film that can make me laugh and cry at the same time.

But OFE is set in a world without sweetness. A seemingly contented demolition worker discovers, sealed within the cornerstone of a building he’s razing, a singing frog. He’s convinced this will make his fortune. But the frog sings only to him. All his attempts to monetize the amphibian result in his gradual destruction — humiliation, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration. Finally he deposits the frog within a fresh cornerstone, all set to ruin some poor workman of the future.

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Like Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, OFE revolves around a central conceit which refuses to define itself. Neither symbol nor allegory, Michigan J. Frog, as he was eventually christened, remains his own man. It’s interesting to enumerate things he might represent, but his dumb, croaking face stares blankly at us (like Hypnotoad!) as if to dumbly insist that he’s just a frog. When he sings, a Jekyll/Hyde transformation overtakes him, and he is 100% singing! 100% dancing! No thought creases his green brow, the music just pours out of him. I Am A Singing Frog, is his statement during these transformations/performances. He is possessed by some slimy Muse. At other times, not.

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One explanation occurs to me and rather appeals: the frog as metaphor for Jones’ own talent. Perhaps he felt saddled with a gift which, though special and, to him, important, was not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, any society where men like Jones, Avery and Clampett are paid less than the president has got its priorities badly wrong. Cartooning was a somewhat low-status job at Warners, though Jones earned a living rather than being rendered destitute by it. But he may have had moments of wondering what good it was to have this talent, when the world may have seemed largely indifferent to it. The nameless demolition man is cursed by his gift as surely as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Bros film. Frog or albatross?

Of course, there’s the Freudian angle, and you know I’m going there. Michigan J. Frog as performance anxiety. The damn thing works fine when I’m alone, springing to its full height and putting on a show. As soon as I try to demonstrate it to an interested party, it crumples up. I manipulate it by hand, trying to show what I know it’s capable of, but it remains defiantly limp, hanging boneless and shrivelled. I think I’m correct in saying Freud would immediately have diagnosed such a nightmare as having something to do with a body part, perhaps the liver.

(The society of OFE is almost exclusively male, apart from some switchboard operators used as scenery in a theatrical agency, a starlet’s portrait on the wall, and a couple of matrons trudging indifferently past the theatre where Michigan is intended to debut. When the show starts, the audience is all beer-swilling men.)

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When I first saw the film, I thrilled to its savagery — the relentless cruelty of the film’s one joke, directed at a character who may, it is true, have absconded with a musical animal which did not strictly belong to him, but who otherwise seems blameless (finders keepers being a well-established legal principle). The point seemed to me simply that the universe was hostile, and would reach out, for no reason, to crush an entirely insignificant man using insanely unnecessary force, for no reason. I felt Jones had stumbled upon a large and important and previously almost unrecognized truth. If there’s a slight flavour of Kafka here, that may be why. Finding a singing frog that, with inexplicable non-malice, destroys your life, is as likely and as irreversible as awakening as a giant cockroach: on the one hand, not likely at all. On the other, inescapable. It always happens and it always will happen. It has already happened to you and to me.

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Pardon Me But your Heels Are In My Back

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by dcairns

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“Eroticism is when you use a feather; perversion is when you use the whole chicken.” Joke told by Roman Polanski to Peter Coyote when offering him BITTER MOON.

I think everyone kind of groans a bit whenever Polanski makes something “sexy.” I was kind of glad to more was heard of his plan to make an animated movie of Milo Manara’s porno comics. Is a sexy film from a convicted sex felon (whatever his level of actual guilt) really an attractive proposition? But I can’t deny the prurient interest, at the same time.

There was an interesting BBC documentary about Polish author Jerzy Kosinski. The author’s sadomasochistic lifestyle was mentioned, and one of the interviewees was Kosinksi’s friend, fellow jetsetting Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, who casually remarked to his (female) interviewer, “That’s not what I’m into, so I can’t really comment on that. I can very easily tell you what I *am* into, if you like!” There was one of those pauses where time seems to  grind its brakes, and then she quickly moved on to another question. Can’t blame her — Polanski’s kinks would be too off-topic, and besides, he was obviously toying with her, as my cat toys with my hand before killing it. But one couldn’t help but swear a little, because it would be quite interesting to know what RP is into. You can’t take the legal evidence as any guide, other than that he likes ’em rather too young, because the testimony on that matter is fraught with implausibilities.

Polanski affects to dislike comparisons of his films to his private life, which I can understand (Mark Cousins had quite an argumentative interview with the Great Man where he kept harping on this troublesome point, with Polanski at one point resorting to a loud snoring noise as rebuttal), yet his films seem to tease us with deliberate self-portraits. The new one, LE VENUS A LA FOURRURE, has as hero a French theatre director with an Eastern European name, playing opposite Polanski’s own wife, Emmanuelle Seigneur, and it’s a disquisition on themes of sexual dominance.

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Firstly: it’s beautifully shot (by Pawel Edelman, RP’s DoP since THE PIANIST), with the theatre setting affording a more free and spacious feeling than previous chamber piece CARNAGE — it never feels remotely stifling. The dance of camera and actors is unobtrusively elegant. Nice bit where the actors mime the serving of coffee and the soundtrack obliges with faint clinks of spoon on cup, which put me in mind of Adrian Brody’s phantom piano, but also of Polanski’s previous mime experience, playing in Steven Berkoff’s play of Metamorphosis, which requires the star to impersonate a cockroach without the aid of makeup (no great stretch, RP’s haters would argue). And I really liked Alexandre Desplat’s score — filmed plays, like regular plays, seem to require special care in the use of music (I don’t think any of Altman’s theatrical adaptations got this right, though I love some of them).

The piece opens with a glide down a Parisian avenue, veering off to enter a theatre — all those CGI-assisted doors creaking open for our invisible presence recall THE NINTH GATE, Mr & Mrs Polanski’s last collaboration, but this may also be the POV of a goddess coming down to earth like Ava Gardner.

Mathieu Amalric and ES are great together, giving their dialogue a screwball ratatatat — the plot even borrows a popular comedy trope, providing Amalric with an offscreen fiancée who may be usurped by this mysterious newcomer. Seigneur as a fetish-friendly version of Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, here to shake things up? Polanski has, it may be admitted, allowed himself theatrical license in his casting: plays often cast actors obviously too old (or too fat, if it’s opera) for their roles, but movies are supposed to be “realistic.” Various lines make it clear that Amalric’s character is meant to be older than Seigneur’s, but the actors are close contemporaries. Ideal casting might have been the Polanskis as a couple twenty years ago, but I don’t see why it should matter too much. Hoist that disbelief on your shoulders and trudge on: Seigneur is certainly quite capable of embodying the icy bitch-goddess of legend, and if the bratty actress aspect of the role stretches plausibility, she’s still fun to watch.

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The most intriguing echo of Polanski’s past work comes when the character trade roles, with Seigneur applying lipstick to Amalric just as Francoise Dorleac does to Donald Pleasence in CUL-DE-SAC, echoing also Polanski’s distressing cross-dressing in THE TENANT. This recurring image could suggest new avenues of intrusive film criticism, which would at least make a change from interpreting each Polanski film as a response to his second wife’s death or as evidence for his interest in little girls. Polanski tends to hide behind his source material, claiming for instance that he chose MACBETH because he thought the violence would be attributed to the famously bloody play, not to him (he couldn’t have anticipated the crazy, awful review that compared him to Charles Manson for having made a movie). The battle of the sexes informs a lot of Polanski movies, notably BITTER MOON, and abused and often raped underdog women have featured a lot (REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, CHINATOWN, TESS), nearly always as sympathetic characters whose POV the director takes. If one knew nothing of Polanski himself one might easily take these as feminist texts, yet he seems to be an unreconstructed male supremacist.

Mr. Polanski, what  are you into?

Attendant Woes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Cinema will learn to talk soon, I promise, but for now I’m still mulling over films seen at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

THE LAST LAUGH is one I’d seen a few times but probably not, in its entirety, as often as I should’ve. It’s the kind of film which wouldn’t necessarily compel me to make the trip (which is rather difficult, the bus service being singularly erratic) by itself, but in combination with a bunch of other films I fancied, it made for a delightful extra, if delightful is really the word for F.W. Murnau’s desperate vision.

One smart person with a beard suggested that the film, in which hotel doorman Emil Jannings is robbed of his uniform and its concomitant status when he gets too old to lug suitcases without breaking his wind, could be read as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war enforced demilitarisation*, but I’m afraid my mind was on other things, such as Jannings’ putty forehead, which looks quite real on home video (though the shading in his cheekbones is recognizably kohl, not natural hollows) and becomes a big part of his performance.

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Also, I located the movie in the supernatural tradition of German film (NOSFERATU was just two years before) — when Jannings turns up to work and finds another man wearing his uniform, we seem to be in the doppelganger genre first seen in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Seeing one’s double is meant to be a portent of death, and in this case it’s the death of Jannings’ hopes, career, dignity. It’s perfect that he sees the younger version as they both pass through the Atlantic Hotel’s revolving door, so that the new guy seems like a reflection of the old.

When Jannings’ family face him knowing that he’s now a lowly toilet attendant, they react not with pity but horror, and I was reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Samsa’s transfiguration provokes only the faintest hint of sympathy from his loved ones, who are more concerned with the practical problems entailed. Jannings doesn’t actually get an apple stuck in his back, but it’s a close thing. (Given his love of wallowing in humiliating scenarios, I’m posi-sure that if Murnau had produced a golden delicious and proposed ramming it under his shoulder-blade, Jannings would’ve shrugged off his undershirt and gotten down on bended knee in a twinkling.)

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The film seems, on the face of it, bracingly anti-capitalist, with Russian-style dialectical montage contrasting the rich patrons slurping down oysters while poor old Emil eats his toilet soup in the men’s room. It’s not even HOT toilet soup, as Murnau mercilessly photographs the steam escaping as Jannings is forced to attend to an untimely urinator who arrives during his break.

This is undercut in some ways by the conclusion, a bit of proto-Bokononism in which the film debunks its own happy ending. Jannings inherits a fortune from an eccentric American who expires, offscreen, in his arms, in the loo (the Atlantic takes away but it also gives). With his new-found wealth, Jannings becomes a guest himself, gorging himself suicidally and treating his friend, the sympathetic night watchman (whose kindness has hitherto only made the world seem bleaker) to an equally painful looking repast. Ignoring his disappointing family, Jannings heads off into the city with the watchman. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of social inequality, exactly. On the other hand, we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this ending is not the kind we get in real life (the Atlantic gives but it also takes away).

The BFI’s rather wash-out print was compensated for magnificently by a new arrangement of the original score, performed by Sabrina Zimmerman on violin and doorman’s whistle and Mark Pogolski on piano, who created between them a very rich soundscape, one of those accompaniments that really helps you climb inside the film and smell its pungent air.

*The film’s opening title card (absent from the BFI print) gives some support to this theory. “Today you are the first, respected by everyone, a minister, a general, maybe even a prince — Do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?”