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Monday, 27 January 2014

How lost is this Academy-Award-winning film ?

This is a review of The Lost Weekend (1945)

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27 January (watched on DVD)


This is a review of The Lost Weekend (1945)

Probably, more of us will be familiar with the humane portrait of drinking, gluttonous and bawdy Sir John Falstaff than with the soberly (pun intended) unremitting world of Don Birnam in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945). Yet it won Academy Awards for Ray Milland (as Birnam, who is almost never off the screen), Wilder as director and co-writer (with Charles Brackett), and as best picture (as well as nominations for Miklós Rózsa's towering score (Rózsa only lost the award because of winning it himself for that of Spellbound (1945)), and for editing and cinematography).





Sir John is a comic character (although Orson Welles introduces or emphasizes light and shade in his Chimes at Midnight (1965)), Birnam is more complex, and we see his complexity in detail first when the duet with chorus Libiamo ne' lieti calici in a performance of La Traviata starts to get to him, but he is driven to the humorous situation of having to wait for the owner of a leopard-skin coat (Jane Wyman as Helen St. James), because their cloakroom tickets have become confused. As Sir John might, to get some sack from Mistress Quickly, he knows how to turn on the charm, having gracelessly thrown her umbrella at her feet when asked for it, but is torn between the bottle of rye whiskey in his pocket and her kind invitation to a cocktail party, until the former gets smashed (and it remains unclear whether she buys his alibi of having wanted to take it to a sick friend).

Helen's faith in Don, and why it lasts as long as it does (as does that of his curiously named brother Wick), almost certainly has to be a given, for it is not fleshed out, nor is some of the recent past. For some, there may be clues as to whether the New York setting is contemporary, but, if it is, one wonders how Wick and Don avoided the draft. In all honesty, though, Wick's job, how he manages to support Don and him, and where they are supposed to be headed for a long weekend are peripheral (as long as one realizes that 'the cider' talked of there is just apple juice, because US usage calls our cider 'hard cider'). The title, too, can remain ambiguous, whether meaning the weekend that Don does not participate in, his being lost, or how he 'loses' it - perhaps, even, that it is lost as seen from the future that the ending promises.

Don has tried to outsmart Wick at the outset, and, at the end, he tries to conceal his intentions from Helen, but both times his desire is thwarted by chance, that of, respectively, where Wick's tossed cigarette ends up, and the view afforded Helen in the mirror. In the middle part of the film (when he is on his own, with only Nat's professional company (brought to us by Howard Da Silva) to serve him), a reciprocal arrangement between pawnbrokers to close for Yom Kippur has him walking exhaustedly for blocks, checked off by the lamp-post road-markers, before finding out that there is a pattern.

In a way, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a mini re-run of the sort of degradation, despair and delinquency that Don is led into at the bottom until he meets a man calling himself Bim (Frank Faylen), and hears a few truths that, whatever has happened to Don before, he has been hiding from himself : Bim has seen it all before, is matter of fact, and dismisses Don's future, and that strikes home as clearly as if he had suddenly pictured himself in the downward path of Hogarth's 'Gin Lane'.

According to Wikipedia, Wilder had worked with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity (1944), which had sent Chandler back to drink, and Wilder had chosen to make the film to hold the mirror up to Chandler. In the film, at any rate, Bim holds a mirror up to Don, a message that eventually leads him to the film's two possible endings.

Wilder and Milland pull no punches in showing a man who will beg, demand and even steal for drink, with only the touches of charm to lighten him that seem to have kept his brother and girlfriend loyal to him. But the magic that they work, ably assisted by Rózsa's soundtrack, is to keep us loyal to him, because we have heard about how early success with writing, then over-confidence, then setbacks and the lure of a drink to steady the nerves have reeled him in : he knows all this, because he tells it to Nat as a story in the bar, but that does not help him know it in a way that offers a way out of it.

Then, and since, countless experts and other writers have given accounts of how to beat an addiction such as to alcohol (or gambling or smoking), and maybe they would have different views about what would work for Don to do it, but there is no denying that the image that we have of a man in thrall to whiskey is compelling, frightening and vividly alive, and the film merits its place in the US National Film Registry as an uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism, and to be described by The Library of Congress as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

Shortly after, and in the film adaptation with Albert Finney in 1984, we have Malcolm Lowry's uncompromising story of a man with a deeper debt to alcohol than Don, but, for this film, it ends as it does, with a share of ambivalence (seemingly more evident in Charles R. Jackson's original novel), and much relief. It must be open to put other meanings on the cravings that drive Don, and where they have come from, but one can also just take the film as it comes.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Time-travel and temptation

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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25 January (Burns' Night)

* Contains spoilers *

Following on from Stale old arguments about Scorsese, here is the main act...



The Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral may have had screenings in the nave before, but, if so, never like that of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). For one, one's admission is not usually greeted by someone, without explanation offered, handing out what appeared to be a blank slip of paper (usually, the giving or showing is the other way around). It was later found to be a piece of folded A5, but, when asked, the giver said that it was 'an alternative view' (and appeared to be a reprint of a 2* review for the film, as if its existence proved something). For another, the quality of the projection, brought from Festival Central :



There were three introductions to the film, by The Dean, by Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who is also Michael Powell's widow), and (on film) from Scorsese himself for this 25th-anniversary screening, from which we gathered that he had started training for the priesthood, but had not got the necessary grades (and dyslexia was mentioned). The impact of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel on Scorsese became clear, and also the fact that the novel, and the film based on it, is not meant to be a direct Gospel-based account of Jesus' life, but a work of fiction that asks questions. We, too, were invited to ask questions.

The concern about showing a Scorsese film here might have been justified, if it had been Taxi Driver (1976), or even the very immediate Life of Belfont in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - that would have been inappropriate (sacrilege ?), but there is no way on Earth that this film is blasphemous. It simply asks the question, based on Jesus being fully Man and fully God, what if temptation did not end with the forty days in the wilderness, but extended to the cross :

In essence, what if this Jesus of the film were tempted to believe that there is a parallel with Abraham not being required, having shown himself willing, to sacrifice Isaac, and that he, having abandoned wanting the comforts of a life with wife and children and been crucified, has done all that is needed of him, need not actually undergo death this way after all to save Man ? Scorsese imagines this temptation, which has been mentioned earlier, and shows us Satan peddle Jesus his lies that he is like Isaac, and another way has been found.



Theologically, we are thrown back on that moment on the Mount of Olives when Jesus asks Peter, James and John to mount watch and pray whilst he goes off a little way to pray alone (which happens twice in gospel accounts, but once here) : he prays that the cup that he is offered may be taken from him, if it is possible, i.e. that he need not undergo crucifixion. (He has already broken bread and shared a cup of wine with his disciples, saying that they are his body and his blood). The film shows Peter, although Peter is asleep with the other two, present the cup to Jesus for him to drink from (echoing the earlier scene, and invoking transubstantiation), which Jesus takes as his answer that there is no other way.

In the Miltonic vision of the early Books of Paradise Lost, between the Fall of Lucifer / Satan and the Fall of Man, a council in heaven has Jesus volunteer to redeem mankind from the consequences of his as-yet unperformed disobedience - being omniscient, God knows beforehand what will happen, whereas, in John's Gospel, we have 'The Word' being God and with God before the creation of the world (1 : 1), and God sending his only son to give eternal life to believers (3 : 16). Scorsese / Kazantzakis gives us a picture of a Jesus whose certainty as to his mission and messiahship is not constant, who has had Judas close to him before and in his ministry (suggesting that Judas (Harvey Keitel, with orange hair), not John, is 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' ?) and hired by the zealots to kill him, and who has asked Judas to betray him to the officers of the High Priest, which turns out to be just after that moment of prayer*.

The Jesus of this film already knows Mary Magdalene and has called his disciples before he goes into the wilderness, and, as carpenter, has provided the Romans with crosses for crucifixions - all of these things stress that this is not the exact Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the fact that Peter seems to have no very special role (unlike that of Judas), and that we are shown Mary both as an active prostitute, and as 'the woman caught in adultery', with no invitation 'to cast the first stone', because stones have already been cast. All of this alienates us from mistaking Willem Dafoe for the Biblical Jesus, as does our familiarity with the actor - he is not another Robert Powell, this is not Pasolini.

It is a subtle effect, for we have the necessary distance on Jesus come the purging of The Temple, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the further defiance to how The Temple is being run with the claim to rebuild 'this temple' (traditionally, following Paul ?, taken to mean Jesus' own body) in three days. We have seen the raising of Lazarus as a real and frightening struggle with the forces of death, not a casual opening of the tomb (despite the warnings that a body has been in there three days, which becomes a stark reality in this film) and calling to Lazarus to come out.

On the Mount of Olives, then brought before Pilate (David Bowie, before whose scene there is none with Caiaphas or the like), this is a Jesus who has not found it easy to discern his mission, and whom Bowie dismisses as just another to add to the 3,000 skulls on Golgotha. There, Jesus who provided the means to crucify others (and with distorted motives), is nailed up in just the same way, but beforehand, with the way of the cross, Peter Gabriel's soundtrack breaks through into its own, evoking the hubbub, mockery and jeers that we see on the screen - it is almost deafening, and there is a long moment when time stands still and Jesus is forever carrying the cross, being jolted and mocked, and it almost does not let up until Jesus is presented with the title's last temptation.



When this Jesus believes that there is another way, filmically and theologically, several things happen at once : we know that the Gospel accounts and the Christian churches say that Jesus died on the cross, we know that this sweet girl who claims to be his guardian angel must be lying (and that this is the temptation), and we will Jesus to wake up from the deception, which means that we are asking him to die for us, to be The Crucified Saviour, we ask him to give up for us the things in life that are shown desirable to him.

How curious is that, that we should want him to defeat this temptation and die ! A Jesus who even confronts Paul (whom we saw earlier as Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), and whose account of the blinding on the road to Damascus we hear), telling him that he did not die and that Paul's and the other apostles' testimony is false - neither believes the other. If the comparison is not trite, we have a celestial Doctor Who story, certainly a dream sequence, where the deceived Doctor / dreamer cannot spot the clues that he has been tricked, that he did have to die on the cross, that he cannot have what this temptation offered him.

Inevitably, we are thrown back to the temptations manifested as cobra, lion and fire that Jesus experienced in his Richard-Long-like dust-circle in the wilderness, to the doubts and hesitations to which we elsewhere see Jesus subject. Through Scorsese's film, Kazantzakis poses to us the possibility that Jesus could have been tempted on the cross, and the moment is placed when Jesus cries out (in English) words from The Book of Isaiah, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?. Some theologies want to say that, at this moment, Jesus is cut off from contact with God, and that it is in this aweful separation that the act of saviourhood consists. This film places the moment when Jesus is most human, when he most wants and is offered what everyone else expects in life, at this time.

As a theological argument about what that postulated separation means, if one accords meaning to Jesus as fully God and Man, this would not make a film**. However, led into the place of temptation by Gabriel's sweetest music, and in purely cinematic terms, seeing Jesus live our life, meet and reject Paul, and be tempted as we are is compelling film-making. This is not blasphemy or a source of challenge to Christian believers, but a heartfelt and carefully thought-through meditation, as a film, on what can otherwise seem the sometimes tired and unconsidered question of what it cost Jesus to go to his death. At the very end, as we looked up above the screen, a faint light was on The Crucifixion, Jesus on the cross and those at the foot.


All at the Cathedral and Bath Film Festival are to be commended for their determination to show this film, despite objection


More here on what Scorsese has written about the film (in Scorsese on Scorsese)...


End-notes

* The accounts about Judas throwing the thirty coins of silver back at the officers of the High Priest, The Potter's Field being bought, or of Judas hanging himself have no place here.

** Surely, at its heart is Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (4 : 15), which says For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. The protesters (Wells Journal, 23 January) assert - baselessly, as far as I can see - that the film propounds that Jesus did marry Mary Magadelene (by citing The Christ Files), and seek to disprove the claim.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Miming in the choir*

This is a review of The Railway Man (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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22 January

This is a review of The Railway Man (2013)

* Contains spoilers *

I’m still at war, Eric Lomax comes to realize when he has gone to confront his persecutor, but, before he does so, there is the bulk of one tautly reined and powerful film, amongst whose many strengths are the conviction of the cast, the inventiveness and crispness of its cinematography, and how the highly effective score (by David Hirschfelder) employs instruments as varied as cello, oboe, gamelan and Japanese flute** in an integrated whole, which works with the film despite our consciousness of it.

As a young Lomax, Jeremy Irvine*** more than fulfils the potential that he showed in Now is Good (2012), even catching the rhythms and mannerisms of Colin Firth, his older self, and forming a tight triangle with Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman), the woman whom he loves (known as Patti). Only it will not work as a triangle****, and, despite fellow survivor Finlay’s (Stellan Skarsgård’s) initial dismissals of Wallace as a Florence Nightingale who wants to work on Lomax and who is underestimating what Lomax and he and others went through in captivity under the Japanese army, he agrees to help, acknowledging the happiness that she has brought Lomax.

Lomax’s other love is trains, and we all know the type, which gives a matter of factness that is part of Lomax’s charm and attractiveness. Kidman and Firth handle the scene wonderfully, with the clincher being what the accompanying sailors had been shouting when her older relatives watched Brief Encounter (1945), another triangle, and a promise from Kidman to behave better. Already, in the things that Lomax asks her, we know that he is revealing things about himself, and his view of life, with his suggestions for where she might travel on the Scottish West Coast. He only, though, confirms his feelings to himself by telling another, Finlay, of what happened.

It is a form of validation, and no wonder when we learn of what happened to him in the Second World War (with the worst revealed till last). Finlay only hints at what Lomax’s life was like before he met Wallace, and she only realizes what Lomax’s experiences are like when they have married, but is fiercely loyal to him : she says that she had twenty years in nursing, and she may well have known others who had been hurt by what happened to them.

The scene where we realize what dogs Lomax, with the world of the Burma railway stealing into his mind and obliging him to go back there, against his will and with physical force, is highly imaginative, mixing not so much memory and desire (T. S. Eliot’s verse from the opening of (‘The Waste Land’) as memory and despair. We do not need to be shown again what his inner life is at these times, but we see him struggle to resist change in his life with Wallace, and how the remnants of the past that she finds chill her, but embolden her wish to help her husband.

Nothing in this film feels gratuitous (and it is very graphic in places, which strike home), and things are not shown in the interests of reviving hatred for the perpetrators of these acts on prisoners of war. As the film develops, Lomax knows no more than we what we might do, and the exactness about him that we see in Irvine, when is trying to explain that he really likes trains, is there when he challenges the words that are being used to describe his friends’ and his treatment.

Be reminded that this is a film, and not Lomax’s book – until we get to the end of the film, it opens incomprehensibly, because that is the typical artifice of films, to sow a seed – and the reconciliation and friendship with Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) actually happened quite differently from how portrayed, but would not have made such a good film.

In his acting, Irvine has just the right qualities to be bright eyed, knowledgeable but not brash, in pain, selfless, proud : he is our guide to the older Lomax, and Firth and he mirror each other. To its credit, the film did have the services of a psychiatrist available to it, and it also does not seem improbable that a man who had experienced what Lomax did would have ended up as he does later on in life, though what the onset of that behaviour is unclear.

It seems that Firth and Kidman met Patti and Eric Lomax, and that, although he died before it could be seen, she has supported the film***** and said that Firth caught her late husband on camera. Factually, it telescopes and inverts the order of many things, but this does not seem to have bothered the Lomaxes, who, if so, must have appreciated that telling a story in a film is different from doing so in Lomax’s own writing.

If it encourages people to read The Railway Man (with Lomax's delirious poem), then all to the good, but it does stand complete in itself, and whilst more could be made of the input that Patti Lomax had to her husband’s regaining his equilibrium, doing so was not necessary, because, from the lead performers’ portrayals, we never doubt their love for each other, and that is the strength from which they built.


This film does what it needs to, by evoking bravery, self-sacrifice, and the very depths of love and friendship.



End-notes

* This is how Finlay, in his role of Uncle to his fellow prisoners when in captivity, describes to Patti his feelings of inadequacy to be a continuing support to them.

** That description may fit a typical East / West musical pastiche, but this is so much better, quite possibly one of the top scores for the last twelve months.

*** Whom it seems Colin Firth suggested for the part.

**** Because Lomax of 1980 is dragged back by the one of 1942 and his experiences from fully being with her. Somehow, the physical hurts then have to be healed in his mental life now, and Lomax is almost certainly subject to, at the very least, post-traumatic stress disorder. Significantly, unlike the Marnie (1964) type of film, she is not the one who (directly) finds him the healing.

***** According to IMDb, The real-life Patti Lomax attended the film's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. She received a standing ovation upon the screening of the film.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 24 January 2014

What does Rotten Tomatoes tell us about Wolf ?

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23 January


www.rottentomatoes.com is notorious for summarizing a critical review as 'fresh' tomatoes, a so-called glowing one as 'rotten' - one doubts that there is much human intervention in scanning the review, or at all beyond the star-rating and the closing words, and some would invoke what they have learnt to call an algorithm (even though all of computers and the Internet are algorithms at work).

That said, one can pretty quickly pick out some choice pieces of slating a film such as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or some pieces of enthusiastic endorsement that might be unsaid, if people had not embarrassingly already read them, and here are some quotations from the former category about this film :

By the way, the collector’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street, and if Scorsese gets wise the Director’s Version, will consist of just one scene. It is by far the best: it comes at the beginning and says everything crisply that doesn’t need to be shoutily repeated over and over. Matthew McConaughey, never better, has a shark-featured cameo as young Belfort’s first-day mentor. He is totally hilarious, a lean, airy-gestured, epigrammatic, mad-as-a-fox cynic and crypto-sociopath: just the man to ensure good order in Moneyville as the young striped shirts learn to get in formation with the striped coke lines.

Nigel Andrews, Financial Times



One can’t help but think the film’s early enemies were asking the wrong question. Scorsese and DiCaprio have argued that no approval of Belfort’s activities is implied. This is true enough. But both men are certainly experienced enough to understand cinema’s ability to allow decent people a little recreational paddling in vicarious immorality. Scorsese’s Goodfellas – whose grammar and rhythms Wolf apes – would not be nearly so entertaining if it concerned dishonest ice cream salesmen.

and

At times, the film seems almost Hobbitian in its inability to finish a scene that is already well past its natural lifespan. It’s not often one encounters a film that could, quite comfortably, lose an entire hour. But, clocking in at 180 minutes, Wolf is just that picture. It hardly needs to be said that it’s brilliantly edited and superbly acted – Jonah Hill is hilarious as Belfort’s slippery lieutenant – but the endless repetition would wear down even the most fervent Philip Glass fan.
Donald Clarke, The Irish Times ('fresh' for giving it three stars ?)



The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted from the autobiography by the disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, looks back adoringly at the sort of cavalier corruption that precipitated the recent economic crisis. There is something intriguingly contrary, even foolhardy, about asking audiences to marvel at the high jinks and profligacy that have reshaped their world for the worse.

and

Scorsese frames Belfort like a rock god, placing the camera behind him as he delivers sermons to the whooping stooges who fill an office floor that stretches towards infinity. If the film aspires ultimately to be an indictment, then it is one with tiny love hearts doodled in the margins, which is no kind of indictment at all.

and

Any oxygen in the film comes from the softly electrifying Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent trying to bring Belfort to book.

Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman





Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Skinner and Sanity

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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11 January


For Lucy Johnstone (@ClinpsychLucy) - written on a train into King's Cross

Some will be familiar with the idea of what is called (after the experimental psychologist of this name) a Skinner box, essentially a maze for rats, designed to test them (the rats) under different regimes and so make inferences about their psychological state, based on how they navigate the box.

Imagine such a box (or, rather, a series of them, say ten), on a relatively small scale, but designed to be resistant to the ingress of water. The experimental subject sees water (or a coloured liquid might be more effective) enter the system, and it is his or her job, each time, to direct it to a specified goal, either to the centre, or to one of a number of dead-ends, where there is a sink : the flow is such that, if the subject does not act reasonably quickly, the liquid will start to flow over the channels of the maze, which counts against him or her.

The subject directs the water by using baffles, i.e. insertable barriers that block the water from following any given route, and they represent means for closing off options that, once taken, cannot be undone. He or she is marked on criteria such as how quickly and effectively he or she directed the flow, whether the flow (and, if so, how much) ended up exiting from other sinks, and whether the flow ran over the channels. Say five times with each of ten target sinks, and this over ten boxes of different layout – no opportunity to run any one box successively, but in randomized order in which the five chances to tackle any given sink in any given box is allocated over the total runs, n = 500.

Analyse these data as one likes, say giving a weighting on which out of the five runs on this target in this box the results are for. Some statistically significant comparisons will result. Then imagine doing another 500 runs, and this just as training, but with the subject now told that he or she can operate freestyle, i.e. choosing the target sink, but, perhaps with penalty sinks (which might or might not be specified (beyond their existence and their number), which, if any liquid reaches first, stops the run and imposes a penalty, based on various criteria such as time elapsed, sinks blocked at that point, and a qualititative analysis of strategy. The subject would then be penalized, sometimes, for directing the water to a given sink, because it is an unstated penalty sink.

Now extrapolate all this to, say, human behaviour. X has been tested, for example, on the autistic spectrum, and been given a diagnosis. Does that mean, if the liquid is the flood of stimuli, inputs and other people’s behaviour, that we have done any more than establish that, over a thousand runs in life, X has adjusted to trying to deal with it in a number of symptomatic ways ? Maybe life has baffled X, and X has tried to understand or adjust to it, coming to find some strategies that are, if not better, than at least less bad than others for being effective, given the task specified – because of the flow, and the need to direct it, X was forced to block off some choices, and become more habituated to others.


Subject A has an experimental profile, over the two regimes of 500 runs apiece, which corresponds to what we might think of symptoms, and the tendency to exhibit or experience them, so does a similar Subject B. Otherwise, A and B may actually be more dissimilar than similar, seen in the round (outside these tests), but their test results bring them together into the same place on the spectrum – their humanity, interests, values, become valued less than what they happen to have in common :
A may resemble B, but also, otherwise, resemble C, but compare B and C and the match may not be statistically significant on a chi-squared analysis that compares their data. We could have an alphabet of subjects and more cases where the statistically significant comparisons do not predict the match with another who also matches one of the matching pair.

We could consider a tendency to depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia as other test-results, other matches or mismatches. Do they tend to persuade us that diagnosis is perhaps no more than picking and choosing between bundles of what we call symptoms, and inferring the existence of a diagnosable condition, when a rigid experimental testing such as imagined might throw us back on our common humanity, battling the flow of money, relationships, stress, etc., against time and other objectives ?




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Who is this film about ?

This is a misguided review of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


22 January

* Contains spoilers *

This is a misguided review of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Maybe it’s the season of empty films – they have content and length, but all that they tell you is that : humankind can survive adversity; given long enough someone can be suckered in a huge way; and people can believe that they have rights over another person and his or her life [and that is not only slavery] : they are virtually the plot of platitude.

When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), we think that Martin Scorsese might mix things up a bit and confuse, but he gives us Jordan Belfort (Leonardo diCaprio), a character whom, we might remember, we have no more reason to believe than when he tells us that, with the $5,000’s worth of stock that he is offering, we will kill ourselves that we did not buy more : we even have reality change before our eyes, as he tells us that his car was that model, but in white, not red, adjusting the pictures to what he says happened. (Yes, there is a tie to reality, because the credits tell us that the film is based on Belfort’s book, but that never means very much.)

If we skip that opening sequence, when Belfort is adjusting live action to accord with what he says happened, we are simply ‘buying’ what he tells us, occasionally by voice-over, but largely by people, things, events just being on the screen, and Scorese surely gives us a big clue that we should reserve judgement. If not, it is just Jordan’s way, all the way. Think about his first day at work : the film does not dwell on his being told that he is pond life, but instead on a man who can pull rank on the person using that description and, rather improbably, invite Belfort to a bizarre lunch on the strength of the fact that Belfort did something unusual to get noticed in his application. Is this objective reality, or the world of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man ! (1973)?

The time between then (and the advice given at lunch, including to have hookers, snort cocaine, and jerk off twice per day) and Belfort becoming a broker is passed over, but with the big thump of 1987’s Black Monday to bring him down, though not for long. And then there is the core of people with whom he surrounds himself, one (Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff) for little better reason as to whether he could sell parasols in Spain than that he provides Belfort with a really good high – yes, natural enough that Belfort should want to set up his own concern, but why with these people, foisted on us as his characters ?

Think back thirty years to Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – or earlier films about the world of organized crime – and that same coterie of those trusted with the innermost details. Scorsese does not just want us to watch what is happening and lap it all up – is that the approach that he intends with Taxi Driver (1976), just that we should go with what happens and think that the actions of Travis Bickle deserve to be celebrated ?

We have Belfort talk shaven pubic hair with his father (and the older man wish that he were younger, although he likes ‘the bush’), and we are suckered if we take him snorting cocaine off a girl’s rear as any more than a parody of possibility, of maybe what did happen all so often in the world of brokerage, but is not told us to prove that it could and did happen, but what it meant that it happened.

At the same time, Scorsese is playing with us, if we want to feel respect for Belfort for once giving a cheque for $25,000 to a woman now working for him who needed the money, if we want to be energized by Shakespeare’s Henry V, the speech that Kenneth Branagh lionized to stir and inspire his troops, or if we want to feel that there is humour in the scene where he learns that his phone is bugged (in fact, nothing comes of that) and, having ingested some arcane substance shared by Azoff and him (for reasons that are unclear), drives home to get Azoff off the phone.

Belfort is not a (submerged) narrator who tells everything to his advantage (e.g. reversing the car with his young daughter in it into a post in an effort to get her away from his wife, who wants a divorce and the children), but the broad thrust of things is how we wants to tell them, such as (seemingly spontaneously) not doing a deal that will remove him for his company, but ending up doing those who work for it far more harm as a consequence so that he ends up with just thirty-six months’ incarceration – grand, impulsive gestures, but just because he can, out of some sense of freedom, of who he is.

Amidst the glitz, the sex, the drug-taking, the nudity, taking what one can when one can*, ripping someone off because one can talk them into what, with reflection, they would never do, does one seek for something else, or feel that one might as well have done the same, if everyone else was doing so ? So is it a film about Belfort’s character-type, or about all of us, if we could, if we dared, if we admitted that we wanted to ? If we have just watched it on the surface, the answer is there : we have dreamed and lived the life with Belfont, and what is the challenge to being implicated ?
Maybe the whole film is a plea in mitigation to the judge, saying how he had never heard such language before he started working on the trading-floor, and showing how his behaviour became provocative, coarse, abrasive?


Post-script

According to Matthew Toomey's review :

Brought to the screen by iconic director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed), The Wolf Of Wall Street has generated controversy. Detractors believe that the film glorifies Belfort’s actions given its many comedic scenes and its lack of a moralistic conclusion. That was certainly not Scorsese’s intention. He didn’t want audiences to leave the cinema feeling better and thinking that the problem has been solved. He “wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognising that this behaviour has been encouraged.” The film’s final scene is haunting in that regard.


See here what others reviews say...



End-notes

* And yet Belfort, until Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) unequivocally offers herself to him in sex that he pulls no punches in saying lasted only eleven seconds (until he had something in reserve), is on the verge of going home to his wife).




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Neither fish nor fowl

This is a review of American Hustle (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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16 January


This is a review of American Hustle (2013)

* Contains spoilers *



A Tarantino* could show us where this film starts and get us back there without it seeming the filmic equivalent of those 150 pages in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that are meant to be a night's reading and not interrupt anything : voice-overs at the opening from Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld [field of roses] (Christian Bale) seem like rare occasions when we hear what [they say that] they are thinking, and they jar with the rest of the film, since there is no reason, at this moment, for the characters to be confessional (it is not as if they are telling their story to the man who caught them).

It even feels like a false moment of insight, not least since the title (as well as what we have seen) tells us that these people are bunco artists (one thing that the early part of the film establishes is Prosser's quick wit, when she can work out where Rosenfeld's account of part of his business is going more quickly than he can tell her), so one doubts that either really has a love of Duke Ellington (Prosser knows a track, and he finds it, with a jaw-dropping view of his crotch as he listens to it), because the film then shuts us out from any such revelation. Nothing about how we brought back to where they started in the film feels original, or that it had to be shown / narrated that way (except that a distraught Rosenfeld goes into the interior of the rotary-hanging space where he had arbitrarily had a whirl with Prosser), and this seems an obvious place where the film could have been tighter.

When we get to the meat of the action, with a surprised Jeremy Renner (as Mayor Carmine Polito), who seems unsure whether he is related to Elvis, Liberace or both, it feels not so much as though Rosenfeld has been lucky to have managed to extricate the FBI agent, Richie diMaso (Bradley Cooper), but rather that there was never a coherent plan in the first place, beyond a swanky hotel suite and some cash in an attaché case. Beyond DiMaso manipulating his boss (one really feels sorry for Louis C. K. as Thorsen) and hiring the rooms, he seems nothing to do with this, and, when he makes things go wrong, Rosenfeld (maybe because he has done his homework) is able to build up a link with Polito based on shared upbringing : one supposes, not just for the plot, that the sting has to be brought back on track, although it reflects on DiMaso that it needs it.

In all this, and what happens for most of the film, what role, does Prosser have (in her British incarnation of Edith Greensley), other than engaging and distracting the subjects' attention with her variously displayed breasts (and draped legs) ? We do not see her setting up the mark, a job that is exclusively taken by Rosenfeld in guiding DiMaso. Other than getting the really big hit at the end, she seems there to defy one to believe how many of these outfits could really have been left at one of Rosenfeld’s dry-cleaning outlets, and how she can freak DiMaso out by revealing that she is not British (except that he is fixated with his own beliefs).

The dynamic is only made interesting by the fact that she has led DiMaso on and got him so that he is desperate to sleep with her at the time of the revelation – obviously, it does not have to be spelt out, but it does not seem, to judge from their comments, any part of Rosenfeld’s and her plan, although it can coincidentally be exploited.

The answer is that it could be an approach of divide and rule : whilst Rosenfeld is working alongside and rubbing up DiMaso on one level, she is sizing up his seemingly unpredictable character from close up, stimulating and frustrating him, so that he will feel that he trusts her judgement better (and, crucially, forget that she is a poacher turned gamekeeper under compulsion). If that really is there is a plot-line, it is really rather submerged**, if it takes days of nagging at how and where, beyond sex, she is being employed in the film to find it...




The maverick agent is played for more fun and greater laughs by Mark Wahlberg (2 Guns, though he also has a boss to be reckoned with), and Hustle really takes itself too seriously : DiMaso talking to himself, as he muses whether Prosser should have had a bed and water, or whether he had planned that she should not, is grotesque as a throw-away. Even when we have (uncredited) Robert De Niro playing a decrepit but menacing gang boss Tellegio against a fake sheikh from Mexico with just a few phrases to his name, the tension in the scene (from De Niro’s sheer presence, and notwithstanding all those jokey roles that he has played of late) weighs against the humour, or seeing it as another Argo (2012), dangerous but cunning : here, it just seems dangerous, and how on earth do the Mexican’s few utterances really extricate them from anything ?

Almost the best sequence in the film originates from Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn, having met a new mob boyfriend at the same do, and singing and dancing to ‘Live and Let Die’ whilst imagining his obliteration. The potential for conflict, particularly comedic, between Adams and Lawrence has largely been lost, and it is thrown back on the latter to play the part of revealing what she should not know and the others’ damage limitation. Rosenfeld may just have written her off as depressed and never leaving the house where he provides every comfort, and precious little keeps them together, but she shows no sign of a disposition to such a mood (for what it's worth, Wikidepia calls her 'his unstable wife Rosalyn', when DiMaso is far more unstable) when keen to go out and socialize with Polito and his wife.

If, for some, the film offers variety and a mix of moods, from another point it lacks cohesion, and, whilst some may not mind whether it inconsistently concerns itself with Prosser as Prosser, rather than as advancing the plot, it does not obviously show that there is a scheme behind the rather loose plot : planting a surprise when we have been lulled into a notion that all is just adrift is not exactly showmanship…


End-notes

* Much as it might want it, though, this film never has his deftness of touch, his boldness with structure and character.

** According to Wikidepia, it is not : Richie believes Sydney is British but has proof that her claim of aristocracy is fraudulent. Sydney tells Irving she will manipulate Richie, distancing herself from Irving




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Match Point re-made with a Macbeth split in two

This is a review of Cassandra's Dream (2007)

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2 November (watched on DVD)

This is a review of Cassandra's Dream (2007)
* Contains spoilers *

It was highly commercially successful, but that fact provides me with no reason to have liked Match Point (2005), whose flaws outweighed the Dostoyevskyian tones that it brought to re-entering the territory of Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989).

By contrast, I believe that Cassandra's Dream (2007) is not merely leaps, but bounds, ahead, and cannot relate to the admittedly many critics who pan this later film, thinking it a falling-off of quality from what I do not detect in the earlier film : it is not merely that we are willing Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as the Raskolnikov-like Chris Wilton) to get caught, but - despite Allen's valiant attempt at a plot with a twist - he would have done, and he failed to command my attention in the way that Martin Landau does (as Judah Rosenthal) sixteen years earlier.

Dream gives me many more things to like - Sally Hawkins as the older (?) brother Terry's (Colin Farrell's) wife Kate, a convincing portrayal of mental ill-health and of addictive gambling, the allure of Angela (Hayley Atwell) as the other brother Ian's (Ewan McGregor's) girlfriend and his vaulting, reckless ambition, a soundtrack by Philip Glass, a creepy, self-obsessed Tom Wilkinson (as Uncle Howard)...

A perfect crime to do the generous Uncle Howard a favour (generous, but at whose cost ?), but, just as Wilton is under the pressure of denying the voices of his victims in the night, it is really all too much, and what one has steeled oneself to (and still nearly does not do) will not allow one to rest : the two parts of the Macbethean psyche are divided against each other, and one seeks survival at the other's expense.

What the brothers wanted and gambled for they find themselves having never valued very much when the time comes, and, just as they did not heed Cassandra at the outset, so they do not at the close. The words of Uncle Howard, differently meant, could almost be hovering on the air :

In the end, all you have in this life that you can count on is family




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

What if we read the book from 1853 ?

A rating and review of 12 Years A Slave (2013)


More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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15 January

A rating and review of 12 Years A Slave (2013)

77 = S : 11 / A : 13 / C : 11 / M : 10 / P : 12 / F : 10


S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)







If you think that, as films go, 12 Years A Slave (2013), despite its emotive content, is just an average piece of film-making, and patchy in places, you are almost damned before you open your mouth : people refuse to separate the content of a film, when it is such as this, from the worth of the film itself, even if it does function in large part as a medium for the story (or message).




Of course, what happens is objectionable (either crime, or people turning their eyes from it), but one cannot make out that slavery exclusively resides in the cotton-fields of Georgia, not, say, in tribes in Africa long subjugating each other's people by war or raiding, and with the well-known example of the people of Israel in captivity in Egypt. In the same way, The Roman Empire had freemen and slaves, and that goes back two thousand years, such that the New Testament is talking about slaves obeying their masters almost as a given (and which is a source for the preaching heard in the film).



The same director's (Steve McQueen's) film Hunger (2008) evokes The Maze Prison, but making a feature about the IRA hunger-strikers in the early 1980s was likely to make a modest gross at the box office (IMDb reports $154,084 at 5 June 2009 in the States, with $1,980 for the opening weekend (5 December 2008)), compared with the relative distance that one has on events 130 years earlier in Slave. As to a powerful piece of film-making, one may think that Slave does not pull any punches, but, compared with Hunger, it is all of these things - mainstream, stereotypical, and stylized in a very conventional way - and feels like a betrayal of that earlier aesthetic.

There are also scenes in the film (of which follow a few) in which McQueen seems to revel as moments, whether or not they work with the film, and so lose its direction and weight :

* For no very good reason (when he would not help her as asked), Northup, when he brings Patsey back to the drunk Epps as requested, tries to pretend that he has not whispered to her to make herself scarce (which he could have done at any point), and a ludicrous chase, in and out of the piggery, ensues - does it do any more than show Epps as gross, and that Northup is capable of a tactical misjudgement ?

* When Northup makes a request for a letter to be carried to his family, he certainly is - it is only by conceiving that he had worked out the lies of his cock-and-bull story beforehand, in case he was betrayed (but, then, he would not already have written the incriminating letter), and that he catches Epps at a good time, that it is credible that he escapes punishment or death by his excuses

* It is clever, but very foolish reasoning (as in any workplace), to contradict and show up your overseer in front of the owner, because, even if you demonstrate your cleverness by proving him wrong and that hardly justifies him finding fault to have an excuse to lynch you, you must know that he will not see it thus Your slick nigger ways

* A more subtle enemy might have got at Northup by breaking the violin that he has been given, and then showing it up as his ingratitude - that approach might have got Ford on his side and against Northup, where this one of finding fault to provoke a fight did not

* Patsey is almost definitely flogged out of deeper motives than whether she went to a neighbouring property for a bar of soap, and no one wants to flog or see another flogged, but can the irrational zeal of Epps (for once in tune with that of his wife against Patsey, whose urging renders him impotent to the task and makes him involve Northup) be yoked to the explicit reasoning of spelling out the doctrine that a man's 'property' is his to do with as he wishes (as Epps' wife would be, since she has no rights except through him, and so he early on chooses Patsey over her, if she wishes to exert herself) ?

* The uneasy moment when other men whom Northup finds on the way to the store are being strung up - maybe just scene-setting that lynching is a part of life (though that seems contrary to a film whose ethos is not to make everything normative), but a lost opportunity, with Ford's wife (who declared, when Northup and the fellow woman slave arrived, that the latter would soon forget her children) to set up some other resonance

What does not seem like a betrayal is simply lifted from someone else's vision (that of Terrence Malick) :



The vision was in the cinematographic ethos, for example the gorgeous close-up of the caterpillar that, although Epps (Michael Fassbender - also in Hunger as Bobby Sands) denies it, is causing the blight of his cotton-plants : it feeds into other moments of the film, but not in the absorbed way that the wide landscapes do of Days of Heaven, and so makes the downright ordinary photography seem gratingly poor and uninspired.

The film contains four main moments of extended dialogue, first with the weeping woman who has been separated from her children (when sold with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor)), then when Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) makes a request of him, then when he makes a request of a white former overseer with whom he is working, and finally when he makes the same request of Bass (Brad Pitt). Certainly, the first two (whether or not the conversation is written out in full by Solomon Northup's memoir Twelve Years A Slave (in which he was assisted by a local writer, David Wilson)) sounded very stagey, trying too much to imitate the manners, language and diction of the age to be more than artificial - even if people ever did talk to each other in that way, it sounded more Shakespearean than from the mid-nineteenth century, and one felt that one was being told that these were Important Words to Heed : for example, How came you there ? How is this ? Tell me all. (I doubt it, but maybe some sort of attempt at Brechtian alienation, as when Northup arrives home and says I have had a difficult time these several years ?)

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack sought by means of rumbling, low-frequency percussive sounds, which would not have been out of place in Peter Gabriel's Millennium Show Ovo (e.g. the machine music of the track 'The Tower That Ate People'), or even The Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999), to impart a sense of menace or the like, but it lacked subtlety for a composer who had scored Inception (2010), and sounded derivative :



If this film is remarkable, and breaks ground, it would be good to know in what way, and how one's understanding is advanced beyond that of Alex Haley's t.v. series Roots in 1977, or even the t.v. film Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984) and the slavery strand in Cloud Atlas (2012).




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Who fêtes Gravity, not this masterpiece ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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12 January

A rating and review of All is Lost (2013)

99 = S : 16 / A : 17 / C : 16 / M : 16 / P : 16 / F : 17


S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

Less Homer than Beckettt, more Job than Ulysses



We may not formally know until before the closing credits, but Robert Redford in All is Lost (2013) is Our Man : in this, the film is deliberately not specific, because we know more the name of the yacht, the Virginia Jane, than that of its captain.

We see him as a resourceful man, but only after, and from eight days before, the note whose text we hear him read* – otherwise, he is a man of few words (and there is anyway no one to talk to, when his Mayday calls come to an abrupt end< because he is not the sort of person who verbalizes the solution that he is seeking to each of his problems. The consequence is that we have to watch him quite closely, because all in what he is doing may be a clue to his reasoning, whereas, if we do not concentrate in that way (and it isdemanding), all may be lost for construing the film – why is he fashioning that piece of wood, or deploying the life-raft ?

Contrast this with the parallel* drama of Gravity (2013), and space, unlike the ocean, scarcely seems silent at all, with Bullock who, when not trying to copy Houston in, is narrating her situation and despair, or even acting under the remote instruction of Clooney. Some want (rather pointlessly, as this is fiction, and may even be parable) to say that Redford should never have been there or not so ill equipped – maybe Redford is too silent and strong, but, in relief, she just seems even more unengagingly neurotic to have been let into space. (People want to read beyond the ikon and the other religious symbols displayed and infer some meta-narrative of heaven and earth, rebirth, or God knows what, but it is will hidden.)



Redford is where he is (although he geographically is not, and the quality of the light seemed to give this away), and that is just a given – why, when in this modern era, or for what reason, are at best alluded to in his note (whose text we cannot refer to). Compared with the technical failures of depiction that can be levelled at Gravity, I believe that those of All is Lost are slight unless one is of a sea-going disposition, and have scant bearing : Our Man could have been lowered onto the vessel by angels mid-ocean for all that I care whether he should be where and how he is.



I say this, because I am happy (‘happy’ is not the right word – I am actively engaged in wishing) to see what I am shown and not seek explanation as to why it is foolhardy or unlikely, because it is what it is. For it is not as if Redford’s character is the last one on earth who should not be where he is, or there how he is, as rescuers the world over will testify, whereas Gravity just sidesteps the question of whether Bullock’s character could not have been better trained and / or have better absorbed the right training and attitude in adversity, rookie or no – would someone who panicks so much ever be taken on by NASA as an astronaut?

Continuing the contrast, the same test of plausibility must be levelled at each situation and character : even if Our Man should not be where he is and how he is, he could have chosen his own destiny and simply set out, whereas Ryan Stone (Bullock) had to satisfy others that she had the right skills and the nerve to fly a mission. In my view, there is no chance that she would not have been weeded out an early stage.

She subsists on the level of standing for all of us, a sort of Everyperson. However, this is not an Assumption of The Blessed Virgin, so that she can intercede for all of us, but a bumbling person with a neurotic core, and the plot-line depends on the presence of weaknesses that would not be there. All is Lost shows a man reasoning his way through what faces him, and not without being disheartened unto death : no one else appears to be to blame for where we find him, though we all find ourselves in life somewhere from which prior circumstances and decisions (ours and / or those of others) brought us there…

Our Man may or may not represent us, but we identify with him (unless we are aggrieved seafarers who berate him as suggested), and it is the inhuman dumping / falling of a container, just as we duly see these behemoths not notice him, that, if not exactly creating his problems, compounds them. Is he a righteous man like Job and what happens him being given over to be tested ? Maybe, but we do not feel that he is a special man, given over to ill to see whether he curses God.

What befalls him also evokes Homer’s Odyssey (and in one of the themes of Alex Ebert’s music we have The Sirens brought to life, when he thinks of giving into alcohol and before he seems to become beset by them proper), but I think that the closer parallel is with Beckettt’s Job-like figure in his mime Act Without Words I, who is temptingly offered water that he cannot drink, shade that is withdrawn (Jonah 4 : 6 – 8 ?), and the like.

Finally, the male figure, despite being prodded to continue with further temptations with the game, just withdraws. Famously, Beckettt’s trilogy of novels** almost has as its motto the closing words of the third, You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, and the spirit of perseverance, though it ebbs and flows, is there in the resilience of Our Man’s responses to his situation. Towards the end, it is as if there is the same desire, which is somewhere in Kafka’s writing****, just to lie down in the snow, regardless of the risk and fall asleep.

As to Redford, it is only the white sideburns that discredit the idea that he is younger than 77, and all power to him, if he is rightly reported as being seen doing himself what his character did – the intense close-ups show him lined, but he is still every inch a star, and with commanding presence and conviction in his work. The arc of Our Man’s experience has those qualities brought to it, so that we cannot rest, scarcely drawing breath, whilst what faces him remains in the balance : No film, for me, has been (no real pun intended) as immersive as this one since Cell 211 (2009) at Cambridge Film Festival in 2010.


End-notes

* Spoiler alert - from IMDb, this is the text of the note :

13th of July, 4:50 pm. I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here... except for soul and body... that is, what's left of them... and a half-day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure... but it did. I fought 'til the end, I'm not sure what this worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all... I will miss you. I'm sorry.

** It is far lesser, despite its 11 nomination for BAFTA awards to this film’s one (for Sound)… - told this, a friend pithily opined Then they are shitheads.



*** Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable.

**** Also suggested in the texts of Müller that Schubert set for Winterreise (which has been badly translated as A Winter’s Journey) : with Winterreise, as with this film, one has the feeling that the degradations of the physical journey are parallel manifestations of a disintegration of the soul or psyche.





Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Towards a critique of the Klee show at Tate

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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11 January


















Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 10 January 2014

Power in his clenched-up fist, held aloft

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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9 January

This review of The Phantom of The Opera (originally 1925, but revised in 1929) was of a special screening, with a world premiere solo harp score written and played by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, at the Pathology Museum at St Bart’s Hospital on Wednesday 8 January 2014, the first of four such screenings put on there through Silent London (@silentlondon) (with a complimentary portion of freshly popped popcorn, and a Hendrick's gin (with tonic, if required)


Declaration of interest : Trust me that I am being impartial, though Elizabeth-Jane and I are friends (as a consequence of having met at Bath Film Festival). However, this means that I cannot – because it does not sound right – adopt my usual approach and call her Baldry…


To-night’s introduction to the film, by Pamela Hutchinson from Silent London, made clear that it had had a chequered history, not liked by the first audience that saw it, re-made by adding some comic elements (and still not liked), before getting to what we have now, with a grand scene at the Paris Opéra, which pays homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (in fact, with an empty threat), in what we were told was an early type of two-part Technicolor. Predicting it where it was going was not easy, with films such as The Third Man (1946) having given certain expectations of underground chases with water, whereas, as referred, the Poe mention suggested a false trail.

What it does meditate on approaches, but veers away from, the subject of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946), whether love can redeem all and make physical disfigurement beautiful (with the singer Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) as a healing Christ-figure), for then an index-card pins down exactly who The Phantom (Lon Chaney) is : something that only the force and energy of the mob (not exactly storming La Bastille, but almost), not the not-so-organized official means (which the very end of the film quite forgets about), can address. Roughnesses such as these may owe their existence to that troubled production history (and, doubtless, many have written much about its genesis), as, for example, this issue of continuity : when The Phantom goes off with one of his displayed pair of schnorkels (the need for two seems fanciful), then returns, deed done, and dons a hat, he is not wearing his mask, but, when, hat on, he is at the organ, he is wearing it.

The jauntiness of a man in full evening dress walking into water, over his head, and casually subverting a plot to find him. The sphinx-like fingers that had, by rising and falling, acted as some sort of unexplained early warning system. These elements and more were literally marvellous for their free invention – they almost floated free of wider considerations of plot or even character, and subsisted for their own pleasure.

Not really a story, either, of the vaulting ambition of Faust (it is presumably the Gounod version of which we see extracts on stage, but it could be that of Berlioz : the familiar motif of Gretchen am Spinnrad, in any case), despite Christine's being keen on being a star* and having The Phantom as her Master until, like Pandora (or Eve), she disobeys and sees who he is. There the parallel with the Cocteau story runs out, since she looks to Raoul to save her, and, for her, it is not going to be loving this creature in order to have a career.

So the index-card (perhaps where the story was re-worked) does all the work for us, and takes away the initial intrigue or ambiguity of The Phantom, when the pretty young dancers are busy being startled in their tutus, and where it could easily be a story from an episode of Scooby-Doo : Which way did he go ? Didya see him, Scoob ?, with the wicked Old Owners (with one of them in disguise as The Phantom) frightening the New Owners with a story, so that the latter, to be rid of it, will sell it back again for nothing. (Later, there is casual talk of 'another strangling.)

The story simply is not going to cohere and be any one thing, and why should it, when it is was hardly unusual for a film to be written as it went along (cinema has always been a wasteful business : just think, now, of all the feature-length films made, and how few get distributed) ? Whether the lengths to which those working on the film went were unusual, others would know better than I, but IMDb credits the characters of Carlotta and Raoul’s brother as only existing since the 1929 version).

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s accompaniment for solo harp does allow the film to cohere, and it is clear that she had thought carefully about times whether her part was to be more evocative, or more imitative, and there were important moments that she had to address in some way, such as when the man in the box is first seen by the new owners, and when, girding their courage, they return to find him somehow gone. The mirror into The Phantom’s realm was especially rich, when she had two types of material, one for the slightly dreamy Christine going through to him, the other for Raoul, shut out when the mirror has swung back** (and how fitting that the universal symbol of vanity should conceal from her the origins of her success, as the law from Pip how he comes to be a gentleman) : the alternation made clear that, however penetrable the barrier, Christine was in another world.

For a film of 93 minutes, the score is bound to use whatever one calls them of themes or leitmotifs, and the effect is as in sonata form, that one hears what one heard before, but, in between, one has heard other material, and the effect (even if the repetition were scored and played note for note the same) is that one pays attention to it in a different way. Elizabeth-Jane’s structure of themes led one unshowily through the film, though not to say, as many will know the harp from effects such as the glissando and from virtuouso concert-playing, that the accompaniment was not without its appropriate drama and grandeur (that Technicolor scene on the steps, or the seemingly playful folly of Christine removing the mask).

Using the physical architecture of the instrument, tapping and strumming on the case, and running and sliding her fingers along it, Elizabeth-Jane in no way limited herself to the traditional way in which a pedal harp would be employed, and she is no doubt influenced in her choice both by work as a recitalist and composer, and by playing works by other composers such as Graham Fitkin (who wife Ruth Wall plays his work in her repertoire). The music and its playing were daring and inventive, and the great round of applause that she received at the end of the work, and again when reintroduced, are testament to how much Elizabeth-Jane had enhanced people’s enjoyment of this silent master, with her varied layers of interpretation, and her witty and inventive performance.


End-notes

* Philbin showed herself, if not coquettish, then easily bought by flattery in her visual responses to what she hears her Master promise her : one momentarily thinks that she is not going to be taken in by it, and she then falls head over heels in love with her stardom and adoration.
** One finds it a little hard to stir much for Raoul [de Chagny] (Norman Kerry). Here, he knows that Christine has gone out of sight, behind the mirror, but, other than huff and puff a little, he does nothing, and seems to make nothing of trying to follow it up. A mere man might do no more, but it turns him into something of an anti-hero, and The Phantom, who is willing to fight for Christine’s love and capable of doing so, seem more appealing, which is all to the good of the dynamics.

And then there is when Leydoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and he, after the farcical holding of their hand in the air against the strangler’s snare, find themselves at The Phantom’s mercy, as the room of mirrors burns them and they strip off :






Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)