Archive for The Artist

Harry Potter and the Gashlycrumb Tinies

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by dcairns

We went to see THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Fiona’s urging, because the book’s a modern spook classic, the Nigel Kneale TV version has one of the greatest scares ever (even if it otherwise borrows a bit too freely from THE INNOCENTS), because it’s from the revivified Hammer, and because advance word was good. Didn’t know it was from James Watkins, director of the acclaimed EDEN LAKE (which I haven’t seen because it sounded too nasty for my squeamish side) but that’s good too.

The film, in which Daniel Radcliffe is terrorised by some other small children, as well as by the titular funereally clad lady, is proper scary. Admittedly it gets by on powerful BOO! gotchas rather than dragging the suspense out for as long as it might, but fans of Slow Creeping Terror will nevertheless  find much to be freaked by here. One shock moment — “That’s the sort of window faces appear at!” to quote Mr Withnail — made me scream like a woman, while another caused our friend Mr Brown to practically shoot vertically from his chair. I felt sorry for our dates, who were relying on us for manly protection.

The Victoriana is terribly vague — when is this supposed to be happening, exactly — but serves its atmospheric purpose in the best Hammer manner. Lots of vine-covered mansion, rattling carriages, puffing locomotives. Since this is a ghost story rather than an out-and-out horror, we’re deprived of what Philip Larkin approvingly called “tit and fang”, but I expect Hammer, still in the early days of new management, are limbering up for that.

Jane Goldman, the go-to girl for genre entertainment in the UK today (KICK ASS, STARDUST) pads out the slim plot with borrowings from Mario Bava’s KILL BABY KILL, inventing a rule that each sighting of the dreaded Woman causes… well, I won’t say exactly. In fact, spoilers are hard to come by here, since the plot is so slight and one-track. In a way it’s refreshing that it avoids major twists and reversals of the “He’s not who you think!” variety — it’s more like J-horror, and indeed the vengeful ghost is pretty much out of THE GRUDGE — she’s not open to negotiation.She takes a Hard Line.

Weakest element, as you may have guessed, is the man Radcliffe, who is never less than, well, physically present, and assumes a suitably worried expression throughout, but one can’t help, afterwards, imaging what a more substantial actor might have brought to the role.

Those who have seen THE ARTIST will recall the BANG! intertitle which serves a neat double-purpose (the film’s cleverest touch), seeming to mean one thing but instantly recontextualized by the following shot. Here, at the ending, of which I plan to give away NOTHING, there’s a similar switcheroo, with an image rather than a word being the ambivalent junction between two Schrodinger’s cat style possible outcomes to a single event. One solid, unambiguous image somehow serves as a signal-change shifting us from one reality to another… hard to describe, but I think you’ll dig it when you see it.

Young Hopeful

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by dcairns

One cute thing about THE ARTIST is the bit with Berenice Bejo trying to break into pictures — we had just watched MAKE ME A STAR the night before, which deals with a similar subject and environment (a cheap production for Paramount, who could shoot most of it on their own lot). This is a version of Merton of the Movies, a George S Kaufman-Marc Connelly play filmed previously in 1924 and remade in 1947 with Red Skelton. It also shares much of its set-up with HEARTS OF THE WEST, the charming 1975 parody of 1930s filmmaking, which starred an impossibly young Jeff Bridges. And Bridges is the one actor in the lot who can make the naive doofus role appealing.

Stuart Erwin in MAKE ME A STAR takes a slightly different route from Bridges — a capable comedy relief supporting actor in Andy Devine type roles, here he’s the leading man and is going all out for pathos. This involves a peculiar, halting delivery of lines which makes Merton seem not just slow-witted but positively learning-impaired. Seeing such a defenseless character get put upon for the whole picture kind of robs it of any potential for comedy…

The early stretches, with Merton making a fool of himself around his hick hometown are painfully slow, with only the Paramount zoom lens (as used in LOVE ME TONIGHT) livening things up. “ZOOOOM!!!” we would cry, whenever it zeroed in on a salient detail. Though Merton’s correspondence course in screen acting, with its numbered photos of useful facial expressions, was a funny idea, much more could have been made of it. Instead, we got unfocused supporting performers (the script calls for several character to flip from supportive to hostile and back for no reason) and tiresome schtick.

When Merton gets to Hollywood there’s Ruth Donnelly and Joan Blondell to hold the eye, plus guest spots by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper, taking time out from DEVIL AND THE DEEP. And the pathos takes a turn into Von Trier torture-a-kitten territory which is weirdly diverting. Erwin’s delivery grows ever more faltering. Wangling his way onto the soundstage, he is promptly fired from an extra job for blowing his single line. In the most affecting — and universal — moment, he repeats the line perfectly after everyone is left, then hopelessly looks for approval from the empty sound stage.

Reluctant to leave the studio and find himself unable to get back in, Merton takes to hiding in the shadows, scraping scraps from abandoned box lunches, a studio derelict, a studio ghost. “Taking pity” on him, Blondell sells the resident Mack Sennett figure (Sam Hardy, drily amusing) on using Merton to spoof the great western star Buck Benson, whom Merton patterns himself on. “He’s like a blurred carbon copy of Buck Benson!” So the staff and players of “Loadstone” contrive a western parody with Ben Turpin, in which Merton is made more ridiculous by some technically unexplainable sound recording trick that makes his voice go falsetto while leaving everyone else unaffected. I wonder if this was based on the false rumour that Louis B Mayer sabotaged John Gilbert’s career in this fashion? At any rate, it’s a new addition to the play, which originated in silent movie days, and it doesn’t actually make anything funnier — it actually robs Erwin of the chance to be amusingly inept on his own.

Humiliated at the premier (stuffed with more Paramount guest stars: Oakie! Ruggles! Sylvia Sydney!) when he learns he’s been played for a chump, Erwin, face aflame, repairs to a coffee shop where he hears his idol complaining about being sent up. But Buck’s agent makes an impassioned and powerful speech about COMEDY and SINCERITY and THE PUBLIC’S LOVE. It’s quite a speech — even better than the one in THE ERRAND BOY.

Erwin goes to see Blondell, who’s ashamed at the trick she’s played, and the film collapses into an Event Horizon of conflicted response, as Erwin tries to explain that he’s not angry or upset, that he was in on the gag all the time, and that he knows he’s a great comedy star because he’s got LOVE and COMEDY and THE PUBLIC’S SINCERITY — it’s a garbled version of the speech in the previous scene, just like when Stan Laurel comes up with a good plan, but then can’t remember it when he comes to repeat it a second later. But the scene, ridiculous and strange, is still played for pathos, so it has a dizzying, nightmarish feeling — supplanted by the film’s only funny joke.

As Blondell takes Erwin in her arms, his head resting between what Jack Warner called “those bulbs”, he worries about the cab he has waiting outside.

“Do yuh have to pay taxicabs, just for waiting?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Oh. Well. It’s worth it.”

And he nestles back into paradise.

MAKE ME A STAR is kind of a bad film which turns out to be good almost by accident — it certainly doesn’t land on any of the accepted squares denoting quality or success, but it persistently winds up in strange, unfamiliar zones of discomfort, oddity, sadness or head-scratching peculiarity. I recommend it to the curious.

Yoyo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2012 by dcairns

A clip from YOYO (1965) by Pierre Etaix (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere). Comparisons with THE ARTIST may prove instructive. He even has a wee dog!

Etaix worked with Jacques Tati as AD on MON ONCLE, and with Bresson as an accomplice in PICKPOCKET, thus forging a link between two artists who are more closely related than one might think. He split with Tati (to the latter’s visible distress) and became a director-star in his own right. But then all his films fell into a copyright-dispute legal black hole and were unavailable for decades. To add to that, one of his major roles as an actor for another filmmaker is in Jerry Lewis’s still-unseen THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.

Etaix’ films only just emerged from their limbo and are available on DVD in France (buy them! not much French is required). Etaix has been jetting around the world to promote them, and seems to have a new lease of life. He’s been acting in more films, including Aki Kaurismaki’s LE HAVRE, and in 2010, at the age of 82, he directed a short.

Tati wanted to cast Etaix in THE ILLUSIONIST — the magician character was more of a seducer than in Chomet’s eventual animated version, and no way could Tati envisage himself in the role. Chomet, in making the magician a Tati-facsimile, had to de-sex the film. Whereas Etaix can do louche! Comparisons with Tati are inevitable, but misleading — Chaplin and Keaton inform the films, but the cinematic and narrative playfulness at times recalls Woody Allen. Really, he’s his own man.

I think you can also see Carriere’s influence, the kind of crazy jokes you get in ZAZIE DANS LE METRO and VIVA MARIA! — jokes which defy common sense, like the one with the footman’s arm holding the light (my favourite).

Criterion are soon to release a truly essential Eclipse collection of Etaix films, but for the French speakers, there’s already this: Intégrale Pierre Etaix – Coffret 5 DVD

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