Archive for Michel Hazanavicius

Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.

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As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.

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By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.

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Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.

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I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…

The Sunday Intertitle: The Shock of the Old

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by dcairns

So, we finally got around to THE ARTIST, crowding into Cameo 2 with a bunch of other elderly people — I do think it’s nice when a movie attracts an audience that doesn’t normally venture into the dark. Immediately a commercial for Red Bull got a big laugh, so we knew we were surrounded by people who hadn’t seen a film at the cinema for at least a year.

NOBODY knows how to behave at the cinema — the old have forgotten and the young never knew, and things were complicated for this crowd by virtue of the movie being chiefly wordless. Audiences like to talk, but because they don’t want to be the centre of embarrassing attention, they usually time it to coincide with the speech of the actors. That’s not possible here, where dialogue is limited to one scene, song lyrics to another, and apart from that only a few sound effects occur in a dream sequence. When the music quietened, people really didn’t know what to do…

Ah, the polite laughter of the middle-class! The laughter that says, “I understood that, and I approve of the sentiment.” I don’t mean to be harsh: I value politeness, understanding and approval. I don’t think of them as a form of humour, though. THE ARTIST has some cute jokes, and some clever moments, but felt awfully thin to me.

Michel Hazanavicius may talk about CITY LIGHTS (which is also not a silent film) as an influence, but as David Ehrenstein points out, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a far greater influence than any 20s or 30s film, on the structure, the central performance and the whole perception of the subject. There’s also the ghost of A STAR IS BORN, and a conscious lifting from ANCHORMAN (arrogant successful man falls from grace — he has a dog so we’ll care), and that controversial VERTIGO borrowing (as incomprehensible to me now I’ve seen the film as it was when I heard about it).

I wasn’t moved (and I ought to be an absolute sucker for this story), I only laughed a little, and the much-vaunted “charm” was authentic but only got me so far. Leading man Jean Dujardin is handsome and appealing and funny, and it’s nice to see him and his director stretch themselves beyond the repeating set-up/joke structure of the jolly OSS:117 films, but long passages of up to twenty minutes seemed devoid of any real dramatic or cinematic ideas, a problem when your story is as simplistic and one-track as this. This is a shame since the ideas-rich bits are often very good. When the protag becomes his own writer, producer and director, a multi-exposure montage causes a circular camera part to overlap his face, forming a Von Stroheim monocle. Anyone who can come up with that ought to be able to dish up a few more dog gags. But he does do a good ambiguous BANG! (above) — the intertitular equivalent of THE APARTMENT’s false alarm Act III champagne cork.

The rest of the cast: Uggy is great (if outclassed by Skippy, the terrier who played Asta) and Berenice Bejo does well, despite not really looking like a 20s starlet. There’s not a lot of depth there, but I blame the script, not the actors or the constraints of pantomime. What’s weird is that James Cromwell and John Goodman, two very capable actors with strong physical characteristics, count for almost nothing — Goodman immediately peps up when he gets to speak, and shows signs of his skill in the scene where Bejo blackmails him, which again leads me to think that it’s the lack of business and lack of drama which hinder them. But maybe they’re just not silent actors. Imagining Doug Jones or Pierre Etaix in the Cromwell role immediately unlocks possibilities untapped here.

And thinking of Etaix leads one to YOYO, which did it all first and better —