Archive for Ragtime

The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

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Esther and the swing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2008 by dcairns

A fever-dream double feature.

St Joan

Channel 4, home of the cut-price movie matinee, has been showing afternoon films all week starring that AXIOM OF CINEMA, Joan Collins. Two of them had solid auteur credentials, if we can allow the use of the a-word, so I checked them out. That’s Shadowplay — faithfully watching Joan Collins movies, so you don’t have to.

ESTHER AND THE KING has the double-whammy of being directed (and produced, and co-written) by mighty eye-patch wearing wild man Raoul Walsh, and photographed by Mario Bava. I’d caught glimpses of this movie and I’m a sucker for Bava’s trademark Disneyland Blue, which is on display in nearly all this movie’s interiors. Word has it that Walsh liked Bava’swork so much he delegated most of of E&TK to him. It’s certainly a film that has more in common with Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER or HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD than it does with WHITE HEAT or GENTLEMAN JIM. Since Bava’s primary focus is the visual, when given his head as a cinematographer he can really subsume a film into his style, becoming its auteur by default (I still don’t like that word, but you know what I mean — the person with the unifying vision). And since energy was always a big part of the Walsh approach, and there’s far less of that in his later work, there is a void to be filled.

(Late-period Walsh is unlikely to win the consideration lately awarded to late Hawks, Ford or Lang. Persons hoping to admire Walsh in his Mature Phase are recommended to sit through THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW, a Western of Damaged Brain uniting Kenneth More [British cinema’s perennial “decent bloke”] with Jayne Mansfield [I.Q. of a genius but she kept it off the screen] and then give the whole thing up as a bad job.)

Dance Hall

Bava fills the void with mind-frazzling candy colours, seen to best advantage in the film’s numerous palace entertainments, starring dancing girls in revealing tunics, or unconvincingly miming Nubian singers — the voice is THAT WOMAN who does all the Ennio Morricone wailing. While it doesn’t quite slide into the autistic trance-state of Howard Hughes’ SON OF SINBAD, which stops the “plot” for a belly-dance every 3 frames (David Bordwell would break his clicker trying to keep score), giving new meaning to the phrase “navel-gazing”, this is still a film more interested in bringing on the next dance number than in sorting out Judeo-Persian politics — and who can blame it? Even in Channel 4’s lamentably cropped 16:9 version, these scenes have a wondrous lustre and pop, as fleshy Italian chorines writhe and stagger. 

Salome's Last Dance

A classic Bava shot: symmetrical framing, asymmetrical and unmotivated coloured lighting on the lions.

Of course, Bava wasn’t hugely interested in performance, and I know you’ll shudder in terror as you read this, but Joan Collins is the best actor in ESTHER AND THE KING. There, I’ve said it. Such a thing exists — a film where Joan stands supreme, talent-wise, if only because she’s surrounded by an unbeatable selection of human planks, lugs, stiffs and dolts. The camp harem commandant is the closest thing to a characterisation on offer (eunuch = homosexual in E&TK’s schema).

Joan’s scenes in the harem are among the most amusing. She starts the film in fine form, attempting random bursts of American accent and doing truly extraordinary things with her face while everybody around her is trying to act. In closeup she’s more subdued, having presumably been fed the Hedy Lamarr dictum on how to look beautiful: “Just stand still and look stupid.” This, Joan can do.

Pope Joan

The Persian shagging-palace is depicted herein as a less austere version of the famous Rank Charm School, where the real-life Joan, along with Barbara Steele and Julie Christie, was educated in deportment, enunciation and, well, charm. This fine institution is satirised in Lauder and Gilliat’s LADY GODIVA RIDES AGAIN, a film in which Joan has an uncredited cameo, along with half the British film industry (“Laughable term!” says Alistair Sim). The school’s graduates were trained in disguising any traces of a working class accent (the late Stratford Johns took great satisfaction in telling me how “common” the Collins sisters were back in the early ’50s), walking with a book balanced atop their heads, and getting out of cars without revealing their underwear to the photographers (not yet known as paparazzi) — would that today’s celebs boasted such a skill-set!

Swing High Swing Low

Gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe!

Joan gets sent to finishing school all over again in THE GIRL ON THE RED VELVET SWING, a true-crime story directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer did a stupendous job with (working backwards) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (the Christie murders, very accurate), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (heavily fictionalised) and a very decent job on COMPULSION (Leopold & Loeb, quasi-accurate as far as it goes). This movie climaxes act 2 with a scandalous homicide, but it isn’t primarily a crime film, more of a woman’s picture (red drapes behind the credit sequence) and Joan is the woman whose picture it is.

Ray Milland is Stanford White, America’s greatest architect of the gilded age. Farley Granger is the spoiled and possibly psychotic Harry Thaw. Joan is Floradora Girl Evelyn Nesbitt, who throws herself at the married Milland (“She’s a stupid slut,” pronounced Fiona, and I believe there was a hint of disapproval in her tone) before allowing herself to be wooed by Granger.

Things the movie omits to tell us: White was carrying on with lots of other chorus girls too; he may have drugged their champagne in order to date-rape them; Thaw was a coke fiend; he had a fondness for beating women with a dog whip; Nesbitt became impregnated by John Barrymore; her abortion was procured at a finishing school run by the mother of Cecil B DeMille.

Fever Dream aborion nervous breakdown

On The Bitch

In the movie, Joan’s abortion is instead a nervous breakdown (I guess the logic is, “We need something shameful but not sexual”), presented in a series of lap dissolves as she tosses in her delirium: montage=mental illness. Producer and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett (working with Walter Reisch, previously his collaborator on NINOTCHKA) struggles to get any dramatic fire going. Joan is remarkably good-ish in this — she must have devolved a bit between GIRL and ESTHER. 20th Century Fox had planned to cast Marilyn Monroe, but she was on suspension. Ray Milland is always reliable, but can’t really be outstanding in the part as written. Granger has the flashiest role but he can’t quite make a show-stopper out of it, he’s not really that kind of actor. Brad Dourif had the role in RAGTIME, and he’s a much better idea.

At the film’s “climax”, Joan must sway a jury single-handedly, with a testimony so powerful that they are forced to acquit a man arrested for publicly shooting an old guy in the face, in the crowded theatre of Madison Square Garden, while shouting “He ruined my wife!” (In the real-life case, nobody could say for sure whether it was “wife” or “life”. A minor point — the guy was still dead.)

DIGRESSION: Now, I’ve seen Joan in the witness box FOR REAL, and I have to say, she wasn’t thatcompelling. This was when she attempted to follow her sister Jacqui into the world of best-selling bonkbuster novels, and was sued by her publisher for the return of her six-figure advance after she failed to provide them with sufficiently publishable dross (a sample:“‘Don’t call me your little cabbage,’ she said savagely. ‘I’m nobody’s cabbage.'”). Joan, her head inserted into wig styled like freshly whipped soufflé, made a poor witness, mainly because she seemed too profoundly THICK to understand when she was being asked a question, of that she was expected to answer. But in fairness to her, this may have been a deliberate strategy — her best chance of winning the case (she won) was in proving that the publishers got exactly what they deserved when they asked her to knock up a couple of novels. Skeptics may wonder whether Joan is a good enough actress to fool an entire courtroom, but I remind you: she was playing the part of a dumb actress. “Stand still and look stupid” may be equally good advice for the witness box.

DIGRESSION ON DIGRESSION: The best movie star courtroom scene played for real was that of Lana Turner, defending her daughter for knifing well-endowed gangster Johnny Stompanato to death. She gave a real Lana Turner performance, completely artificial from beginning to end and completely convincing to everybody concerned.

The Window

...and KICK!

Schwing!

END OF DIGRESSIONS: Fleischer’s direction only takes off during the scene when Millandfinally gets Collins on his swing. With dizzying, nauseating POV shots, Fleischer shows her ascending to the ceiling and attempting to kick holes in the skylight. We get a glimpse of the campy wallow in bad taste this film could have been if Fleischer had been allowed to report the true story and play to Joan’s strengths. The Fleischer of MANDINGO could have had a ball with that.

Halloween

The movie needs more SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, like the skulls, screen right.