Archive for Sunset Boulevard

The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2021 by dcairns

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.

Gone Gone

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , on June 16, 2020 by dcairns

I’m anti-censorship, but the moment the American president namedropped GONE WITH THE WIND in a speech as a dog whistle to his base, the writing was probably on the wall.

I’m broadly in favour of putting warnings and disclaimers in front of films — I’m in favour of introductions generally, opportunities to add context and educational value. And I’m struck by the mindset of those who find them ridiculous, offensive, unnecessary. I know the good people who run the unofficial Talking Pictures TV Facebook page, and there’s been a lot of discussion there on this subject. TPTV have had occasional complaints upheld for showing material without warnings, so they tend to play it safe and put advisory notices in front of anything that could conceivably offend anybody, to the purple-faced apoplexy of some viewers.

An advisory notice isn’t much of an issue for most of us: it’s quickly over, and then you can enjoy the film, uncensored. I have a hunch about why people get so annoyed.

For a percentage of audiences — I don’t really know how large or small a percentage — old movies are not just nostalgic because they offer a (tinted) window on the past, but they offer a chance to wallow in outdated social attitudes and pretend they’re not outdated. The crowd cheering Fuckface Von Clownstick were largely indifferent to William Cameron Menzies’ skill or Vivian Leigh’s charisma, they were really cheering (a) a time when American cinema could celebrate the Confederacy and (b) the Confederacy. When he went on to mention SUNSET BOULEVARD, they went silent and blank.

Since the pleasure for this brand of time-traveler is projecting themself into the past and enjoying the racist jokes and stereotyping and celebration of white privilege and telling themself that this is the way it ought to be, the appearance of a statement at the start saying, in effect, “These were the bad old days,” must be incredibly irritating and stressful. A tub of vaseline that’s nine parts sand.

Of course, some members of such audiences may well be also enjoying the artistry and beauty and certainly the entertainment value of the films. There’s some overlap. But for my kind of movie-lover, dubious racial or sexual politics or an insulting role for Snowflake or Willie Fung are groan-inducing or discomfiting but useful reminders of bygone attitudes. But it’s quite possible to love the films, but not love certain aspects of them.

Of course, HBO removing GONE WITH THE WIND achieves very little. But I can understand any corporation wanting to be able to say, unambiguously, “We’re not endorsing this film’s nostalgic view of a slave-based economy.” They’re just protecting themselves.

I do want old movies to be available, and ones that people may have heard of are useful gateway drugs to movie appreciation. But I share HBO’s discomfort at the idea of people uncritically consuming racist movies to coddle their own worst leanings. To hell with those people.

Stick a warning in front of it.

HBO, of course, could quietly have stuck a warning in front of GWTW without taking the film down or making any announcements — how long does it take to craft such a thing? –clearly, they wanted to perform an act of public disavowal. It’s a little cynical, in fact. But, so long as there are racists, any public gesture that reminds those people that their views are beyond the pale, unacceptable, obscene, is a little bit of a public service all the same.

Leftward, ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by dcairns
The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.