Archive for The Goddess

Custom Made

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2020 by dcairns

GUO FENG or GUOFENG or NATIONAL CUSTOMS (1934) is one of the tiny number of silent films still extant. The rarity of these films, and the resulting work they have to do in representing a whole culture’s cinema output, makes them a little tricky to assess. It’s right that festivals like Pordenone and the Hippodrome are showcasing these movies as they become available, and it’s understandable that their programme notes accentuate the positive — they want people to see them, after all, and people SHOULD see them.

This is still the one to watch.

All the Chinese silents I’ve seen — four of them, by my count, which is more than most of us, I reckon — are heavily flawed by unsubtle propaganda content. Even THE GODDESS, which is rated a masterpiece by many, has a fair bit of crude, disfiguring material which goes beyond the didactic into the finger-wagging. THE RED HEROINE is the film least guilty of this, but THE RED HEROINE is a largely ludicrous movie, though of definite interest. All the Chinese silents I’ve seen are made watchable by their visual invention.

GUOFENG, as Pordenone has decided to call it, consists of about 75% civics lesson/propaganda — a prolonged attack on western-style modernisation, women wearing makeup, men wearing ill-fitting suits — to 25% story. The film-making is extremely deft, but at the service of fairly dumb and rigid content.

The acting is of interest, because it avoids anything resembling the erroneous standard idea of silent movie performance, but falls into another trap: it’s extremely reminiscent of modern soap opera acting. The gestures and expressions used to telegraph “concern,” “anger” or “distress” are sort of subtle, in that they’re not HUGE, but they’re all from stock. Each character has only one characteristic, and none of them really develop. so the combination of one-dimensional figures repeating tired gestures in a simplistic storyline which makes the same point over and over is not exactly rich.

There are lots of snazzy transitions and smart storytelling devices. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right of festival director Jay Weissberg to praise the “fluidity” of the camerawork. What most people will notice is the clunkiness of all the movements. The filmmakers obviously didn’t have the benefit of a smooth dolly and a geared head for the camera. But they tried anyway — the praiseworthy quality here is not fluidity but ambition and creativity. The camera is a busy and active part of the narrative, indeed it’s by far the more appealing character.

I could be wrong about all of this — perhaps I’m applying the wrong standards to the films, acting like some fellow who has only seen, say, modern American cinema, and is suddenly confronted with RASHOMON or METROPOLIS and can’t cope with the differences of performance and technique. But I don’t THINK so. With so few Chinese silents in existence, it would be really staggering if what was left was all masterpieces. If you reduced Hollywood’s silent era down to a few titles, choosing at random, you’d be unlikely to end up with SEVENTH HEAVEN or SUNRISE on your list of survivors. So it’s impressive that China can give us FEN DOU, which displays the clear influence of Borzage’s stairwell shots in 7TH H.

There are so few Chinese films left, we can’t generalize and say propagandistic elements dominated the industry — maybe it’s these elements of social content that helped determine which films survived, or which are being made available? All we can say is that by our own standards of sophisticated storytelling, it’s arguable that the films we’ve seen so far tend to be lumbered with crude patriotic messages.

I’m not running a film festival so I can say what I like: GUOFENG is a terrible film. But fascinating, and worthy of study.

The Godless

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I sort-of disliked THE GODDESS, even though it’s maybe John Cromwell’s last major film — his last in Hollywood — and scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky.

(Cromwell directed two more movies, a mediocre B-thriller in Hong Kong & the Philippines, THE SCAVENGERS, and a drama in Sweden, A MATTER OF MORALS starring the versatile Patrick O’Neal and shot by the mighty Sven Nykvist — I have been unable to locate a copy.)

THE GODDESS is a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe and how she’s doomed by the loveless emptiness of her existence — made while Monroe was still alive and working.

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Apparently this movie was hacked down considerably in post — some character called George Justin gets a credit as “supervisor.” For all the talent involved, nothing seems in sync. Kim Stanley is the first problem — we have to believe her, in some way, as a teenager when we first see her (Patty Duke gives a beautiful, melancholic performance as the child version of “Emily Ann Faulkner”). She then ages to 31, Stanley’s true age during filming. It’s a cruel observation, but at no point does she suggest the allure of a screen goddess or the freshness of a newcomer.

There are two ways to go wrong with casting a Monroe-like part: you could cast someone gorgeous who can’t act, or cast a strong actor who does not evoke glamour and youth and gorgeousness. Based on THE GODDESS, the second may actually be the more serious mistake, since it throws off all the other actors, removes the motivation for most of the story.

Not to pick on Stanley too long — there’s something more interestingly amiss. Chayefsy was a writer who, justifiably, fought to get his words on the screen as written. Here’s Stanley on her way to the casting couch —

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As photographed by Arthur J. Ornitz, THE GODDESS is full of powerful, expressive wides. A real hallmark of Cromwell’s style, going back to the early thirties. We know exactly what is going to be suggested in these scene — the shot speaks so clearly of patriarchy, power, sleaze. It’s as explicit as fellatio. So the fact that the scene continues into closeups and dialogue is redundant, boring, depressing. Arguably it’s Cromwell’s fault for saying everything the scene needed to say in a single image. But the old cliché about a picture vs. a thousand words applies, doesn’t it?

Some strange line flubs from Stanley late in the show. This is when her character is supposed to be disintegrating, so somebody may have decided they would seem appropriate, excusable. But humans misspeaking sound different from actors, usually — they correct themselves, or fail to, in different ways. Only very rare actors can stumble on a line and make it seem like a natural mistake in casual speech. And Chayefsky’s stuff is so precise, and in a way non-naturalistic (all that monologuing!) it really doesn’t benefit from people tripping over their tongues.

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And oh my God the trailing hand. THAT one hasn’t been seen since Barrymore’s day, and HE was spoofing it in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Fiona has read more on Monroe than I have, and gave the film credit for acknowledging MM’s spiritual side, a real and overlooked aspect of her life. Chayefsky is the poet of emptiness, though, and religion in the end is another crutch, useless if it can’t forge a bond between the goddess and her distant mother (Monroe’s real mother, of course, suffered mental illness). Horrifyingly, Chayefsky diagnoses exactly where Monroe is going — more pictures, because it’s all she knows to do, with the likelihood of drink or pills or both getting her in the end. In an act not even as meaningful as suicide.

All your Christmases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 27, 2016 by dcairns

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MADE FOR EACH OTHER, John Cromwell, 1939.

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THE GODDESS, John Cromwell, 1957.