Tag Archives: Film

Gangsters and their molls in New York and Havana

 

Happy New 2017!

As a theatre lover I recognise that Broadway musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s such as Oklahoma and Carousel are as important pieces in their own way as the work of Brecht and Beckett, but I’ve never really been a fan. Probably to do with the fact that the actors in screen musicals like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae always seemed a lighter thinner breed in comparison to Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda. Possibly also to do with the fact that my teenage pop listening days also included that bizarre later era of musicals when every established dramatic genre was twisted and turned into a musical like Paint Your Wagon or Camelot or Scrooge or Man of La Mancha. 

However, despite not being a fan of most musicals, I am a fan of Guys and Dolls.

This emerged from my great interest in the National Theatre in its early years at its home on London’s South Bank. That interest was spurred by their practice of touring productions to Glasgow plus the fact that one of their three auditoria, the Cottesloe, had a company for many years led by director Bill Bryden from my home town of Greenock. Guys and Dolls, by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, was staged at the NT in 1982, directed by Richard Eyre. He discussed it on Desert Island Discs in 1985 in an interview which is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 archive.

One interesting snippet from the interview is that Laurence Olivier originally planned to produce Guys and Dolls during his own stint at the National Theatre.  I love Eyre’s anecdote about Olivier’s criticism of his production’s New York accents being “a bit of a melange” and his view that Olivier’s vocal performance, in contrast, “would have been placed exactly to the right street corner”!

 

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The southern half of Manhattan, as seen from the top of the Empire State Building in 2003.

 

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Near Times Square in New York – definitely “Guys and Dolls” territory.

 

The NT was sometimes criticised in its early years for being too dependent on star actors and the cast of Guys and Dolls certainly had some of my own favourites of that time. Bob Hoskins of Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday was Nathan Detroit (perhaps this led to his American characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids), Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire was Sky Masterson, Julie Covington of Rock Follies was Sister Sarah Brown. Among the supporting players was Bill Paterson as Harry the Horse.  

This cast did not come to Glasgow but I did see in Edinburgh a touring production in 1985, which Eyre refers to in the radio programme.  I was always struck by that show’s slightly unbalanced casting. The main star billing went to Lulu, then finding her new route between two periods of pop music fame, who was Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit was played by long-established TV face Norman Rossington (similar to Bob Hoskins in his earthy persona I suppose, but perhaps then less fashionable). Sky Masterson was the black US actor, then unknown but later more familiar, Clarke Peters. I enjoyed the production although I felt it displayed more of the elements of an old traditional performance rather than a cooler new one. (I think this cast did, however, transfer to London for a time). “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnston is traditionally regarded as the show-stopper song and David Healy had been retained from the original cast, but I definitely recall finding this section technically impressive (with its two encores which appeared to have become standard) rather more than emotionally or artistically.

Soon after I enjoyed the film version, directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz, who was similar to Richard Eyre in being unused to directing musicals.  Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were paired in the two leading male roles. Sinatra would possibly have been seen as a safe piece of casting as Nathan Detroit being an established performer in screen musicals alongside the fashionable but provocative young dramatic actor Brando, but it’s easy to forget that in 1955 he was still younger than 40 and only two years into the new career which had been launched by From Here to Eternity and its attendant Oscar.

 

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Some old American cars in Havana, Cuba, in 2014. Part of “Guys and Dolls” takes place in Havana, a glamorous spot for American gangsters in pre-Castro times.

 

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The Bacardi building in Havana, built in 1930.

 

As with many folk of my age, my ideas and tastes in theatre were influenced by the writings of Kenneth Tynan, and Tynan’s review of the London premiere of Guys and Dolls still reads well: not just for his confident assessment of the show’s quality – “not only a young masterpiece, but the Beggars’ Opera of Broadway”, but his adoption of the language of its Damon Runyon characters: “Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty who is sored up…”; “…being short of ready scratch, Nathan places a bet…”; “I will give you plenty of eleven to five that it is the first fugue that many patrons…ever hear”…;  “I found myself laughing ha-ha… more than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to”.      

This is probably the most famous work of its songwriter Frank Loesser. Songs as strong as any by more famous musical craftsmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fruity, quirky Damon Runyon dialogue and its exaggerated delivery by the flashily dressed small-time criminals; the New York setting – all combine to keep Guys and Dolls fresh in my affections.

 

Reference:   Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen

 

 

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Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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The Spanish subversion of Buñuel

 

Last June, Leaf Collecting added a post about the poet Lorca. Today, by coincidence almost exactly a year later, we give some attention to one of his Spanish contemporaries, the film director, Luis Buñuel.

How British television’s treatment of cinema has changed is shown in clear relief when you consider how the programmers reacted differently to the deaths of two equally famous foreign language  directors, Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman.  When Buñuel died in 1983, BBC2 showed a commemorative season of his films in a prime slot, the middle of Friday evenings, around 8 pm.  At the time of Bergman’s death in 2007, he merited only a few late-night screenings on minority channels BBC4 and Film4. Such was the change in the status and popularity in foreign language cinema within a generation.

At the time when I was gaining my first knowledge and interest in world cinema in the early 1970s, Buñuel’s reputation was probably the highest it had ever been.  This was one of those times when cinema was politically, socially and morally provocative while still holding and building mainstream popularity.  Buñuel had been making films since the silent era, yet his latest work was attracting attention in the manner of a director half his age, starring the established European stars of the day like Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel  and Michel Lonsdale.

 

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The Prado art gallery in Madrid. Buñuel went to university in Madrid and met Lorca around that time.

 

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The statue of Lorca in Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid.

 

With Lorca, the young Buñuel had been part of a Madrid group of avant-garde artists known as Generación del 27.  His ideas and values were clearly formed by the political and social upheaval in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, when the country was divided between the monarchy, the church, the upper classes and the nationalists on one side and the working classes, the peasants and the republicans on the other. Even as a Christian, I can’t resist the anti-clerical attitude of his films, which seems such an integral part of his classical Marxism. It clearly springs from a different and more exotic time and place, when the modern social order and its materialist values were not yet so deeply ingrained.

 

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A colourful exterior in Plaza de Santa Ana.

 

Buñuel’s early surrealist classics Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or  contain many scenes which can still shock. The former has the razor blade slicing a woman’s eye. The latter includes some fully-robed bishops decaying into skeletons, the couple whose loud attempts at sexual coupling in the mud disturb a formal civic ceremony, the gamekeeper who shoots his own son for a minor misdeed, and the debauched nobleman who looks eerily like Jesus Christ.

Lack of commercial support blunted the edge of Buñuel’s individual vision in the subsequent decades and what films he made, often outside Europe, were of different styles and genres. It was later, when he was, amazingly, in his 60s and 70s, that his work consistently regained that original bite.

 

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Buñuel knew Toledo well, and shot his film “Tristana” there.

 

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A medieval door in Toledo.

 

In Viridiana, the title character is a former nun who practises the Franciscan ideals of charity towards a group of beggars.  Yet, they respond shabbily to her kindness. They take over the best part of the house for their evening meal one day when Viridiana and her cousin Jorge are out. At the end of the meal they pose together for a photograph in an irreverent spoof of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and dance to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When Viridiana and Jorge return earlier than expected, he is knocked unconscious and tied up while she is assaulted.

Two scenes at the end emphasise Viridiana’s rejection of her previous religious life. The crown of thorns which she kept as a novice is finally burned, and she is shown playing cards with Jorge and his new lover to the accompaniment of jaunty popular music, in contrast to the religious music which accompanied the opening credits.

In  The Exterminating Angel, the Catholic Church is targeted less fiercely than the rich and selfish middle-classes. Servants leave a dinner party prematurely, and, as if in consequence, the guests are not able to leave the house when the evening is over. Nobody outside can get in, even the civic authorities and the army, although there is clearly no physical impediment. Food runs out, deteriorating hygiene is complained about, a pipe in the wall is broken to provide drinking water.  One of the guests collapses and dies, one engaged couple commit suicide. Finally the servants return outside, and the guests are able to regain the will and energy to leave.  They attend Mass to give thanks for their release but now the priest and the congregation fall prey to the same inertia, even while outside  the army are quelling a disorder by gunfire.

In  The Phantom of Liberty, a collection of loosely connected scenes mock the civic and religious authorities and the professional middle-classes in their expensive homes and clothes. A group of monks lead prayers for a young women’s ill father and then play cards with her using religious medals as chips while carrying on an irreverent discussion about the church’s attitude to sainthood. Some trainee police officers behave like school pupils in front of their lecturer, scrawling graffiti on the board before he comes in and pinning a paper figure to the back of his jacket. Party guests openly sit on toilets and talk about excrement and defecation but are coy about discussing food.  A child is reported as missing and becomes the subject of an official police investigation although she is still in the room.  A man arbitrarily shoots passers-by from the top of a city tower block, and then in court, when he is convicted and sentenced to death, he and everyone around him react as if he has been acquitted by congratulating him, chatting amiably and requesting his autograph. A police commissioner excuses himself from the police station for an important appointment which turns out instead to be a game of dominoes in a bar, and he is later arrested for breaking into a mausoleum and for desecrating a grave.

Buñuel’s critical acclaim was boosted by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972. He enjoyed the highest production standards for his later films, despite their illogical narratives and challenging perspectives on human behaviour. Today, in contrast, it is annoyingly hard to see many of his films. Long ago, BBC2 did screen Belle De Jour, the story of a married woman’s sexual peccadilloes and fantasies which influenced a later internet and TV project, but it is long overdue rescreening. Nor have I ever seen either that aforementioned Oscar-winner or the final That Obscure Object of Desire. The Milky Way, about two tramps journeying symbolically to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, sounds enticing, too. 

The nearest equivalent of  Buñuel in today’s cinema is possibly his Spanish compatriot  Pedro Almadóvar. It’s certainly not an exact match: Almadóvar rarely shows  Buñuel’s scabrous ferocity. As we were saying at the start, times have changed.

 

 

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