Archive for Network

The Late Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2008 by dcairns

One Grave to Cairo 

Changing our Viennese directors in mid-stream, we watched Billy Wilder’s FEDORA (sadly an ancient pan-and-scanned VHS off-air recording), which prompts all sorts of thoughts about the phenomenon of the late film, especially as I was just pontificating on Otto Preminger’s last works. Older filmmakers’ output has a tendency to be neglected upon release, especially in Hollywood, where fashion is all. Wilder in particular suffered about twenty years of critical and commercial decline. After THE APARTMENT won him three Oscars in one night, Moss Hart is supposed to have said, “This is the moment to stop, Billy.” If that’s true, how those words must have rung in his ears as he released ONE, TWO, THREE and KISS ME STUPID and AVANTI! and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES to a largely indifferent or hostile public. And then, following the bloody train wreck that is BUDDY, BUDDY (don’t watch it, folks), another twenty years of enforced idleness.

That last movie is the only real disaster, for me — I find much to enjoy in the later films, though perhaps you have to be sympathetic to Wilder as a filmmaker first. Here’s Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester on the subject:

SS: Clearly around the late sixties his view of society or his take on society became… not interesting to an audience.

RL: He had a very oblique take on a very formal structure, and then that structure was taken away and there was an empty field there and he didn’t have to become oblique. You see, there is a parallel with me. If I don’t really know what we’re doing now, how can I have that oblique take on it? I think that may come from, as you say, the coccooning of physical and financial comfort. Then you don’t take buses and you don’t know what’s going on and I listen to Oasis and say, ‘But I absolutely heard all those chords before …’

Well, he’s dead right about Oasis. And he may well be right about Wilder. Certainly Wilder developed his skills within the constraints of the Hays Code and the studio system, and when it was forced to relax its stranglehold Wilder was handed his freedom and maybe didn’t know what to do with it. If your skill is in a kind of Lubitschian suggestiveness, suddenly being able to say or show anything you like must be daunting. Voluntarily working within the PG certificate might be a solution, but Wilder had always made films aimed at adults.

And although he was an enthusiastic consumer of literary pornography (it seems likely he read the first, anonymously published Henry Millers) his relationship to sex onscreen became uncomfortable. There are little, uncertain flourishes of nudity in the later films, but they feel oddly forced and unnatural. They violate the Wilder style.

Trilby

FEDORA, from a story by actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon, combines all the virtues and vices of late Wilder. The satire of ’70s Ho’wood is strained and inaccurate, although “The kids with beards have taken over,” is a great line. There is some awkward nudity, though by restraining the profanity to 1960s levels Wilder and IAL Diamond manage to avoid seeming like they’re either old-fashioned or jumping on a sweary bandwagon. For once in his career though, Wilder seems to have saddled himself with an ineffective structure — part one sets up a mystery: what’s with Garbo-like reclusive star of yesteryear Fedora (Marthe Keller)? And how has she remained so youthful? Fiona guessed the solution fifteen minutes in. Part two explains, in prolonged and unnecessary detail, how and why Fedora’s secret was maintained. But once the basic solution is revealed , the dramatic tension has dissipated and there’s only the mildest interest in learning the details. What’s left at this point is 45 minutes in the company of some nice actors in attractive locations, with a few excellent lines. And it’s testimony to the quality of William Holden’s performance and the sheer weirdness of Marthe Keller’s that this is very nearly enough.

It sounds like I’m down on the film, but I really enjoyed it. I was just conscious of what was wrong.

Holden plays washed-up producer Barry Detweiler (a transparent Wilder stand-in). When his voice-over starts up with exactly the same bitter tone as his V.O. in SUNSET BOULEVARD, I got goosebumps. Maybe that’s part of the trouble, the film borrows its resonance from earlier movies. Even Fedora’s breakdown reminded me of Robert Stephens’ suicide attempt during Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.

Wilder’s earlier writer-director gifts really only show in a scene where Holden searches Keller’s bedroom and one baffling discovery leads smartly to the next — empty film boxes, school jotters filled with the line “I am Fedora,” written over and over, a drawer full of white gloves, a hidden shrine to Michael York

The Shrine

Apart from Holden’s crusty, bitter presence, York’s appearance as himself adds a certain bizarre gaucherie— the one role York can’t possibly play is himself. I can’t quite say why, but the York performance style, which seems perfectly acceptable in other roles, becomes absolutely preposterous once it’s supposed to stand in for the actual person we’re looking at. In a role intended for Faye Dunaway (which would have made this a Holden-Dunaway NETWORK re-match) the normally naturalistic Marthe Heller, in white gloves and Jackie O shades, gives an expressionistic perf of terrifying eccentricity, like a strung-out elf, or a Michael Jackson puppet in drag. One could quibble, but why bother when she’s the most interesting thing onscreen?

Marthe My Dear

Fiona provides the epigram: “It’s a film about physical decrepitude that’s really about artistic decrepitude.” And consciously so — that’s exactly why Holden’s character is our guide through this curiously one-way labyrinth. Wilder is recasting the past, trying to bring it back, and yet the last exchange of dialogue puts a rueful postmodern spin on the inevitability of failure:

Countess: “I know you will keep this to yourself… for old time’s sake.”

Detweiler: “Too bad. Because this would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you.”

Countess: Yes… but who would you get to play it?”

(I found the above clip and Wilder’s grave at A. Gropius and Nana’s blog, “in dreams begin responsibility”. Only fair to link to them.)

Advertisements

Euphoria #17: It’s showtime, folks.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2008 by dcairns

Fiona’s got a nasty ‘flu’, so I’m attempting to restore her spirits with another of those movie scenes that infuses you with optimism, like steam inhalation for the soul. 

Pure frug-ing euphoria from Bob Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY, his remake of Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, book by Neil Simon. A modest floor-show in the Fellini, visible for just a few seconds, is here inflated into a gigantic number with Suzanne Charney (and Ben Vereen!) This is the second euphoric clip in two days where a woman makes remarkable shapes with her body. S.C. is utterly incredible. Women want to be her. Men want to be on her. 

Neil Simon and Bob Fosse were great friends and contemporaries: Fosse was only two days older than Simon. He used to say, “During those two days when I was on this earth and you weren’t… I had more girls than you will have in the entire rest of your life.”

Another writer friend was Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, ALTERED STATES). When Fosse was about to go in for open-heart surgery he asked Paddy to sign his will as a witness. Chayefksy asked to read it.

‘Well, that’s not really nec-‘

‘I don’t sign anything I don’t read,’ snapped Chayefsky.

He scanned the document, then: ‘Well, this all seems — I say “SEEMS”, mind you — to be in order. But I don’t see my name anywhere.’

‘Well, that’s true. I mean, you know I love you like a brother and everything, Paddy, but you’re not actually a beneficiary.’

Chayefsky throws the will back at his sick friend. ‘Screw you then — LIVE!’

Hospital hallucination, take 1

Fosse’s surgery is gorily recreated in ALL THAT JAZZ, his penultimate film. He gives himself the best lines in that one. To first wife: ‘If I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I did to you.’ To new girlfriend: ‘And if I DO make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m GONNA do to YOU.’

*

Style note: Fosse cuts rather a lot for a choreographer/director. His editing is very stylish and rhythmic, but sometimes it takes over from the dancers, makes it impossible for us to follow the WHOLE SCENE. True, it’s a cinematic effect instead of a theatrical one, but when the dancing is this good, sometimes simplicity might be better? My main reason for fretting over this is the horrible state of filmed dance in the mainstream media today.

In CHICAGO we get a modern director imitating Fosse’s approach, but with many more cuts, the MTV tradition. The dance becomes totally incoherent, and what people remember is the editing: “Wasn’t the editing great?” Well, no. It wasn’t.

Showtime

I still love Fosse though. Like a lot of theatre directors, he embraced the unique qualities of film with insane enthusiasm. His films are all about montage, juxtaposition, cross-cutting different kinds of fictional reality, performance and life clashing head-on.

If I ran a series of clips of Cinema That Makes You Want to Gnaw Your Own Brain Off, Fosse’s skin-crawling work with Eric Roberts in STAR 80 would have to be Clip One. Amazing stuff.

Footnote: just watched this again and don’t find it at all over-edited. Maybe there’s too much cutting in other sequences, but not here.