Archive for The Rules of the Game

Dyer Straits

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by dcairns

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I was very excited about Ray Cooney’s return to the cinema. The west end farceur made two films, or “films,” in the seventies, both based on his stage hits. I have shown several of them to friends. I don’t see most of those friends much now, strangely.

Those seventies classics are NOT NOW DARLING (1973) and NOT NOW COMRADE (1976) — just from those titles you can see that Mr. Cooney was empire-building, attempting to carve out a niche in the British comedy market somewhere between the CARRY ON films and the CONFESSIONS films. Just from the years of production and the fact that there’s only two of them, you can see that he didn’t succeed. I suppose nobody in those days realized that the saucy British comedy was on the way out, killed off by TV, which could replicate most of the same sauciness and be watched free of shame behind drawn curtains at home, and by the intrinsic rottenness of most of the films — those Robin Askwith movies are like one very long public service film promoting chemical castration.

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Cooney’s films don’t deserved to be considered with the very bleakest of the sex farces (along with the CONFESSIONS movies I’d include death-gasps like THE AMOROUS MILKMAN and I’M NOT FEELING MYSELF TONIGHT and of course the jaw-dropping, COME PLAY WITH ME, the release of which was equivalent to the British film industry taping a sign to its forehead reading SHOOT ME), films which I’m convinced were part of a government conspiracy to stop the working classes from breeding by depressing and disgusting them to the point of sterilisation, a scheme I have decided was almost certainly called Operation Prolewipe. But Cooney is still guilty of minor crimes against comedy, humanity, and cinema.

NOT NOW DARLING stars Leslie Phillips, who certainly has cinematic comedy chops, along with Cooney himself, who sadly doesn’t. Whatever abilities he brings to the stage as actor, writer and director simply don’t transmit to film — all his intended laughs are echoing endlessly in some twilight zone wormhole of mistimed punchlines and ill-conceived innuendo, where the translucent spectre of Arthur Askey holds illimitable dominion over all. Plot involves Phillips as a furrier trying to arrange a free fur coat for his girlfriend without his wife finding out. Julie Ege is the girlfriend, Moira Lister the wife, and a barely-clad Barbara Windsor is also included without fair warning or apology. As I recall, the film was shot multi-camera using some live vision-mixing system that saved time and money and made everything look a bit murky. So you get all the awkwardness of an under-rehearsed long take with all the awkward cutting of a live broadcast. And an insulting approach to the audience that panders by serving up nudity for inane non-reasons. “Here, you like tits, I’ve heard — let me shove this representative pair into your eyeballs.”

Cooney is apparently a nice man, but his films kind of make me want to hate him. I will resist the urge.

I don’t remember NOT NOW COMRADE so much, but it’s a “satirical” take on the cold war with defections and stripper’s pasties. Roy Kinnear is the token talented one, managing to wring just one laugh from the material, and there’s one moment of accidental genius when the cheap set is deserted by the cast, there’s an Ozu-like moment of emptiness, and then the dwarfish Don Estelle wanders myopically into frame in a loud check suit, hesitates a moment, and wanders off. Surreal and kind of beautiful, but entirely ruined when he turns up again later and turns out to have something to do with the plot.

These two movies are really among the worst things that have ever happened to British cinema, even if they’re not as ugly as the full-frontal Askwith stuff. So I was, as I said earlier, excited about RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and the film’s reception, taking £747 at the UK box office, led me to believe that Cooney had lost none of his power to appall and stultify.

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In fact, not only has age not withered him, it has in some respects enhanced his capabilities. The film, like the play, tells the sorry tale of a London cabby with two wives who don’t know about each other. Concussed when trying to stop a mugging (some superannuated youths trying to steal a handbag from a bag lady played by Judi Dench — the first of many astonishing cameos — but why do they think this homeless lady is worth robbing?) he loses track of his careful schedule which allows him to (somehow) juggle two households. With hilarious consequences.

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One can see why Cliff opted for a disguise, considering the company he’s in.

Stuffing the film with cameos, Cooney contrives to include cast members from several decades’ worth of stage productions of this inexplicable hit, making it a bit like Alain Resnais’s YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET!, released at around the same time to slightly more acclaim. Although I think Cooney was probably aiming for something more like LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, a dreamlike reiteration of all his artistic obsessions, in which dropped trousers and squashed cakes recur like leitmotifs.

Cooney is joined in the director’s chair by one John Luton, presumably brought in to enhance the technical side of things, and bringing his experience cutting a Lindsay Shonteff James Bond rip-off to the table. Filming farce is notoriously difficult — let’s be fair, here — and one thing that film history seems to tell us is that the longer the takes can be, the better it works. The greatest cinematic farce on record is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (although it’s also much more than that), and it achieves some of its staggering effects by holding its shots even as the action seems to overflow them — we’re as breathless as the camera, which can’t seem to quite capture all the action. Cooney and Luton boldly jettison all this accumulated wisdom and set about chopping every scene into nuggets a couple of seconds long, so that nothing breathes and no honest interaction between players is ever captured.

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This might, however, be a mercy, as the actors on display include Danny Dyer (whose involvement is seemingly, somehow, enough to get any film made, whether it be repellent art film, repellent gangster film or repellent comedy); television presenter Denise Van Outen; pop singer (Girls Aloud) Sarah Harding… there are others with far more comedy experience hanging around to back them up, but by some strange bad movie alchemy, they’re even worse. Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair play homosexuals unconvincingly — I tend to blame the writing here — and Neil Morrissey is, from what one can discern through the blipvert cutting, terribly poor. Honorable mention to the two police inspectors, Nicholas le Prevost and especially Ben Cartwright, who manage not to make you either angry or embarrassed on their behalf.

It’s best, really, not to watch the film as a comedy, but as a kind of endurance test horror film, like FUNNY GAMES or SALO. The sets are retina-scouring in their vibrancy, and one”comic climax” involves a flood of red dye that transforms half the cast into bystanders from BRAIN DEAD. The gurning faces in close-up, the chocolate cake smeared on Neil Morrissey’s buttocks, the endless cameos by elderly and half-forgotten comics (making this not only the PARTING SHOTS of the twenty-first century, but the WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD)… There’s also the strange subplot about the breakdown of civilisation…

I should explain: since Cooney’s play was written decades ago, the plot, to work, must be protected from modern technology, which would ruin it. So mobile phones are mislaid, the internet is down, sat nav is absent, and lines of dialogue establishing this are dropped in here and there, giving the impression of a London beset by some terrible technological calamity. It’s like a version of LIFEFORCE where the space vampire apocalypse hasn’t been noticed because everybody’s trousers are falling down.

In fact, the late, lovely Richard Briers appeared in both this movie and COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES so close together that it’s not easy to be sure which was actually his final film. But my apocalyptic subtext reading of WIFE suggests that they’re actually the same movie anyway.

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Lionel Blair was in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Fact.

Kicking a film when it’s down is a critic’s favourite sport, of course. And there’s nothing really to be said in favour of such brutality. In this rare case, however, I would argue that my appraisal might actually make some people want to rent the film, as I did, to see how amazingly strange it could possibly be. Such fools will not be disappointed.

Chambermaid of Secrets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2013 by dcairns

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Burgess Meredith (above, left) must be the actor most associated with author Octave Mirbeau — he stars in the Amicus horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, which admittedly owes nothing but its title to Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices, but he also scripted and appears in Jean Renoir’s film of THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID.

Renoir and Meredith do right by Mirbeau’s unfilmable (but filmed several times: once by Bunuel) book, by making a film which one cannot conceive of as a Hollywood product. Paulette Goddard, who has turned hard-hearted after unspecified mistreatment by men and by the upper classes, enters her new position determined to find a rich husband and leave behind the world of manual toil. Immediately we sense trouble, as the mistress of the house is Judith Anderson. The master is kindly duffer Reginald Owen in a Boudou beard, playing a dreamy sort of Lord Emsworth dolt. Further eccentricity is provided by neighbour Burgess Meredith himself, who eats flowers and throws stones (but never the other way around — stones have no flavour).

Meredith seems like possible husband material, which shows how hard up Paulette is. He has money salted away, but when Paulette’s attentions over-excite him and he accidentally kills his beloved pet squirrel, she starts to suspect that being his fiancée might be fraught with peril.

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Does this sound like a Hollywood movie so far?

Then the young master comes home from his debauches, and he is Hurd Hatfield, which means that Paulette is sharing house with Dorian Gray, Mrs Danvers, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen played the latter three). With the Penguin living just across the way. Anderson/Danvers sets about pimping out the new maid to persuade her psycho son, who is the apple of her eye but who despises her fervently, to stick around the family pile.

Hatfield is a surly invalid who reads the grimmer bits of Shakespeare (“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…”), clearly meant to suggest Sade. To Paulette, he seems a potential mark, but his mood swings and unhealthy relationship with mother tend to rule him out. Then a new prospect emerges from an unlikely quarter. Valet Francis Lederer (from CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and PANDORA’S BOX) proposes buying a bar with loot raised by stealing the silverware, and Paulette is amenable.

The film’s only turn towards conventional Hollywood morality is Paulette’s last-minute conversion to righteousness after Lederer stoops to murder. Even then, the conventional romantic solution is undercut by an earlier, throwaway moment when Owen, reading the Paris newspaper, remarks upon the latest case of murder — WOMAN MUTILATED! — and we ask herself, who has been in Paris? Why has the line been placed there? What are you implying, Jean Renoir? As the happy couple head off into the sunset, we recall that both of them had been in Paris not long before…

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Bottom-scraping indie Benedict Bogeaus produced, and the film has a cheap feel — Eugene Lourie’s sets don’t convince, nor do they create a particularly alluring sense of fakery, and to be honest Renoir doesn’t do the best job of concealing the threadbare cyclorama. But he does whirl the camera about with some brio at the violent climax, and this may be the one US film on his CV that hits the notes of unsettling, tone-clashing weirdness that we find in some of his French films (the Lourie-designed RULES OF THE GAME, for one). Hurd Hatfield believed that Paulette was all wrong for the movie due to her “cheap-sounding” American accent, but in a movie where Lederer’s German and Owen’s English accents both represent French characters, where should one look for a barometer of linguistic authenticity? As with CLUNY BROWN (Owen’s second role as lord of the manor that year), Brits above stairs and Yanks below makes a feasible and not too distracting scheme.

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Francis L has a special spike for slowly murdering geese. Because that’s how he rolls.

We rather loved it. We watched SWAMP WATER the following night, and that one is a proper terrific film, but DOAC is bananas, the kind of thing where you can’t figure out why it exists but you’re glad it does. Fiona and I recognized it as a kindred spirit.

FC3: A new definition of the word “accident”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by dcairns

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I wonder if these pieces are just going to keep getting shorter? It seems like a good way to get a conversation, with a brief set of musings rather than any attempt at thoroughness.

In any case, it would be hard for me to write more on this movie, since I’ve just seen it twice, once five years ago and once just now, which has sort of refreshed my memory of it and revitalized the questions that buzzed in my mind the first time I saw it. Without answering them.

“If France were destroyed tomorrow and nothing remained but this film, the whole country and its civilization could be reconstructed from it.” ~ Richard Roud.

I’m not even sure how to describe this one. Renoir said his intention was to make to make “an agreeable film” which would nevertheless serve as a critique of a society he considered absolutely rotten. The fact that the film was made in 1939, and was roundly detested by critics and audiences at the time, suggests all kinds of resonances. And I think looking for them is one of the mistakes I made in my viewing, because on first sight the film isn’t obviously allegorical and the moments of critique appear scattered thinly. It is important to situate the film in the context of pre-war France, but you can put that aside until the conclusion, where it unavoidably washes in. The movie’s thematic purpose really all kicks in at the end, when you can look back and see a bit more clearly what the film is doing in this regard. But I suspect a first viewing (and I’ve really had two first viewings, since there was such a long gap between them) should concentrate more on the surface.

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On the surface, then, what we have is a country house comedy with an odd tone — the wildlife holocaust in the middle, where Renoir’s camera pauses to observe the death throes of a rabbit in minute detail, certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing. Real death is always a tricky thing on screen. I don’t generally like it, unless the camera has captured a specific death that would have happened anyway, as in LE SANG DES BETES. But I would willingly eat any of the animals slaughtered in Renoir’s film, so I don’t think I have any moral ground to stand on. I do worry about Renoir using this scene as an indictment of the upper classes, when it’s all been staged at his command. But I guess the intention is different. So this is one thing I’d like to hear about.

The other big one is — does anyone find this film funny? It follows the structure of a country house comedy, with Renoir citing Moliere and Mozart as influences (“if you’re picking a master, choose a plump one”), and delivers this bitter aftertaste and social critique, but could one argue that critics and audiences were right to turn away in the sense that the results should contain a few good laughs along the way? Maybe it’s just me.

But having watched the whole thing, this objection does seem to lose all force: Renoir is using farce structure and comic stylisation to tell a tragic story in a different way. The fact that there are only a few barely audible smiles along the way doesn’t really matter. It could be argued that the comic style serves as a metaphor for the frivolous way the characters see their existence, and for us to laugh would be to miss the point.

So that’s two major talking point. I’ll add a third: Marcel Dalio’s eyebrows.

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And a fourth: the blocking and camera direction, which I could really appreciate even on these isolated viewings. Farce is notoriously hard to do onscreen, as Richard Lester has observed — the laugh depends on a character going in one door and coming out another, so the minute the director cuts or moves the camera, the audience forgets which door is which and the laugh is gone. The spacial unity of the stage is normally a prerequisite. Renoir makes a virtue out of confusion, and even a theme out of it: his camera is constantly saying to us, with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “But there is too much going on.”

We might be focused on one grouping, and another set of characters will dash through the frame, engrossed in their own plotline. Or we will swish-pan off one confrontation onto another, sometimes arriving a second before the frame is filled with bustling action, sometimes alighting on a subplot in media res. In the Danse Macabre sequence this reaches a dizzying zenith of choreographic excellence achieving Pure Cinema in the midst of the theatrical.

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This kind of thing benefits enormously from actors who can move, and here the standouts for me were Dalio and his majordome Corneille, played by Eddy Debray, who barely registers as a character because he’s so devoted to the task at hand, but is extremely nimble and elegant, packing his entire characterisation into a few clipped gestures. The way he snaps his fingers for help when young Jackie faints, before her body has even hit the floor… suave.

Editing by Mme Huguet and “Marguerite.” That’s Marguerite Renoir.

Production design by Max Douy and Eugene Lourie, whose participation makes Renoir a single handshake away from GORGO.

Assistant director, Henri-Cartier Bresson. I think you might be wasting this man’s talents, Jean. Ever consider giving him a camera?

Cinematography by whoever was around. Including the brother, but hey, it’s a talented family. How Papa Jean attained such a unified look and such dynamic results with such a disparate pack of cameramen I can’t figure.

Costumes by Coco Chanel — OK, Fiona will definitely want to watch this.

STOP PRESS — I show the film to Fiona, who enjoys it greatly, more than I did first time, and this time I get a lot more from it. I also find it pretty funny. Without attempting to be exhaustive (impossible), I can now say a bit more. Second time through, you gain the ability to admire the construction as it plays out, magnificently. I’m more and more impressed with Paulette Dubost as Lisette, the maid (Blimey! She’s still alive!)

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Fiona becomes curious about pre-war Chanel, which is not her area of expertise. We agree though that Mila Parély has the best outfits in this. Fiona reckons that Coco would have enjoyed all that hunting garb since she always liked adapting men’s tailoring to women’s outfits.

I haven’t even talked about Renoir himself, as actor. The epitome of the elegant fat man, but with more punch and vigour than you’d expect, and more than ought to be compatible with grace and sensitivity, but it’s all there, and all turned up to eleven. Why on Earth didn’t he act more, in other people’s films if not his own? Perhaos as a result of the failure of this one. He obviously liked getting in front of the cameras though, since he squeezed himself into things like LE TESTAMENT DU DR CORDELIER, and filmed intros to several of his ’30s films.

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And Julien Carette as Marceau the poacher is an interesting figure — the most confident, socially mobile and knowingly amoral character in the film. I’m fascinated by his easy relationship with Dalio — which counts for nothing in the end, he’s no more than an amusement to his master. Carette is very appealing under most circumstances, but utterly revolting whenever he flirts. The sleazy simper technique: what woman could resist? It doesn’t wholly surprise me to learn that Carette was burned to death by his own nylon shirt.

Fiona mentions GOSFORD PARK, and it’s an interesting comparison. Altman often made himself unpopular with audiences by pushing tragedy and comedy into uncomfortable proximity, which is exactly what LA REGLE does. Of course, this film is incredibly tight and pre-planned, although Renoir was clearly very smart about incorporating chance and improvisation into his machinations. Altman’s successful films tend to start with a tight structure that no amount of furious demolition can shake, then he lets the players pull in every direction at once while he cocks his head and listens to the music of the narrative popping its rivets. A WEDDING is another obvious comparison here, but that one’s purer comedy.

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And I’m totally convinced that the last shot, shadows passing along a wall, the figures hidden by a balustrade, is evoking Plato’s shadows in the allegory of the cave. Anybody confirm this? Something about mistaking shadows for reality could be a theme here, and at any rate it’s a good Shadowplay note to finish on.

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