Tag Archives: Films

Three great film openings

 

Favourite film openings? One obvious one, short but celebrated: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The cameras zooming through the familiar tourist sights of central Edinburgh to the drum-driven tune of “Lust for Life”, then onto the five-a-side football field and into the heroin users’ gathering place, accompanying the cynical but revealing narration of Ewan McGregor’s Renton (“Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…”). Until that time I had been familiar with the Iggy Pop/David Bowie track only through its reputation; afterwards, like many people, I could never again separate the music from those pictures. It was especially ironic that, a year or two after the film’s original release,  I heard the song re-employed as the “empowering”(!) soundtrack to my workplace’s corporate start of year presentation!

The second, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. Not the very first scene in the Mexican village, but the next in the American border town. No flashy camera work here, but just an engrossing narrative. A few minutes in the life of two men who have advanced skills in a very specialised area – shooting accurately to wound or kill – which they rarely need to use, and who are therefore continually searching for any challenge to relieve the boredom while covering their living costs. Yul Brynner’s cigar-smoking Chris explicitly drives the funeral cart to the cemetery simply because he has overheard a conversation and has nothing else to do; Steve McQueen’s Vin accompanies him perhaps also because he wants to display his skill and character to the one other man in the town who might understand and respect him. Like the onlookers, Horst Buchholz’s willing acolyte and the Mexican farmers who are searching for help, we are impressed by the casual way in which Vin waits for the shot from the upstairs window, reasonably confident that the gunman will miss and definitely confident that he, Vin, will not miss. A few minutes later, Chris shows equally astonishing gun skill by firing two shots instantaneously with no apparent time to aim, yet succeeding in wounding the two gunmen in front of him and allowing him immediately to gain control of the situation. Elmer Bernstein’s music cheers his cart back down the hill. The first challenge has been dealt with – but the two mystery men have not yet been pulled out of their comfort zone, and the tasks ahead may be more arduous.

Third, perhaps least obvious, the minutes before and during the opening credits of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. From the start of his career, Branagh has been keen to show that, although a product of the classical theatre, he can direct a full-length feature film with the same flair and flamboyance as any 1960s cinéaste or any 1990s music video maker. Branagh cast some big Hollywood names not previously associated with Shakespeare: Denzel Washington, already with one Oscar and two more nominations, Michael Keaton just out of Batman, Keanu Reeves just before Speed. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is one which you could categorise as being about older lovers in the way that Romeo and Juliet is about and for young couples, and Branagh’s version employs a number of eye-catching devices in the opening. First, the poetic lament “Sigh No More” about men’s inconstancy to women is moved from the middle of the play where it is spoken by a minor male character, to the very start, written onto a blank screen as it is spoken by a woman, Emma Thompson, over an light strings backing. When the visuals arrive, it turns out that Thomson’s character, Beatrice, has been reading the poem (in a comic faux-serious manner) to a large picnic gathering of Leonato’s family and household.

News comes of the arrival of the victorious soldiers of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. This is in line with Shakespeare’s text but depicted with far more spectacle and flourish. The prince’s small Spanish/Italian company is presented more like a US Seventh Cavalry patrol. Flags wave, horses pound, riders swagger. Patrick Doyle’s theme music is brilliantly rich and melodic and powered by full brass orchestration.

The household of Leonato is clearly thrilled to welcome these glamorous visitors. The camera zooms and cuts, picking out characters young and old, male and female; the music has become less bombastic but still urgent, with a background of girlish squeals. The real surprise is the frequent flashes of sensual nudity as both men and women prepare to meet their guests; the soldiers strip off outside and wash alfresco in a long stone water trough, the women do the same indoors. The activities are carried out communally, with gusto and without embarrassment. Editing is fast and flirtatious, contrasting white clothes and grey stone with running, bending, curving smiling flesh.

Now the music changes again as the preparation is almost over. Don Pedro, played by Denzel Washington, leads his soldiers in formation up the steps and into the courtyard of Leonato, played by Richard Briers, while the household arrives from the other direction, pointing from balconies and windows. An aerial shot makes a pleasing X shape of the principal characters together as the music comes to a stop. “Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble,” says Don Pedro. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace,” replies Leonato.

No ordinary film could live up to this incongruously alluring opening, and Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t. So perhaps that means it is actually a poor opening and betrays a self-indulgence connected more to Branagh’s professional and personal confidence at that time, rather than a genuinely fresh and imaginative perspective on Shakespeare’s text?  Certainly I have watched the opening rather more often than the complete film. But actually that also applies to the other two, more famous, examples. That’s probably why they came to mind as Great Film Openings.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In no man’s land

 

The series of five Westerns which James Stewart acted in for director Anthony Mann in the 1950s are celebrated for how they allowed Stewart to play some more ambiguous, less obviously likeable characters. In contrast, Stewart’s life-long friend Henry Fonda only once acted in an Anthony Mann Western, The Tin Star. Generally regarded as weaker than Mann’s other films of the period, The Tin Star is still interesting for its similarity to the superior Warlock, also starring Fonda, directed shortly afterwards by Edward Dmytryk.

In both films Fonda’s character is a figure who occupies a murky “no man’s land” between legality and crime. In both he visits a town where a group of leading citizens have strong ambitions about how the town should develop commercially.

His character in The Tin Star is Morgan Hickman, a bounty hunter who brings the bad men in dead, in contrast to the legitimate lawmen, who keep them alive, to face trial. He says that he makes a living by “(working) inside the legal system for money” and in that way, he suggests wryly, he is no different from any other businessman or tradesman. However, he is presented as a generally sympathetic character, willing to advise and support the idealistic young sheriff Ben Owens and becoming attached to the young widow Nona Mayfield and her son.

In Warlock, he plays Clay Blaisdell, who has been employed on short-term lucrative contracts as a marshal by several towns, because of his reputation as a skilful gunman who can intimidate and kill troublemakers and criminals.

It is in Warlock that Fonda’s character shows an intensity similar to Stewart’s characters in the latter’s Mann films: a hard, tough face below his blackened coiffed hair and above his expensive clothes, slow and careful in his movements. Whereas Hickman explains that he is a former lawman who turned to bounty hunting to improve his income for his family, Blaisedell seems to have discovered a particular talent which he could best use in only one way. “I’m a simple man, good only with Colts,” he says to his younger girlfriend Jessie. This has led inexorably to his career as an admired and feared gunman who accepts work within the legal system as long as it pays well, and understands that it can come to an end suddenly and bloodily. On more than one occasion he comments bluntly about how he will shoot and kill one of the troublemakers – as long as he is not shot first.

In one scene we see Blaisedell practising shooting, saying to the admiring Jessie, “Just like you practise on the piano, I practise on the Colts; the stakes are a little different but the reason is the same”. In another scene, he is greasing the inside of his gun holster. These are the practical disciplines which help him to feel always prepared and confident. Another is following “the rules”. “I remember when I first killed a man,” he reminisces to the official town sheriff Johnny Gannon. “It was clear and had to be done – but I went home afterwards and puked my insides up… Afterwards nothing was ever clear again.” All that he can do to retain some personal integrity, he adds, is to keep strictly to “the rules” in any gunfight. While striving to stay alive yourself, you give the other (probably inferior) gunman as many chances as possible.

Blaisedell’s fine clothes are part of the evidence that he does not know for sure how long his life will last and it is one way in which he enjoys the material benefits of his violent risk-taking. In contrast, his partner Tom Morgan, club-footed and possibly homosexually attracted to Blaisedell, also appreciates furnishings and art. Despite the danger, Blaisedell does enjoy the status which comes with being a town’s lawman, and disparages alternative peaceful employment such as a shopkeeper, a farmer or a miner. He accepts that his chosen lifestyle is anachronistic and that “times are changing” but feels           “ there’ll be enough towns to last my lifetime”.

Hollywood Western narratives reach their happy endings either by community effort or individual heroics, depending on producer, director, star actor or period. In Warlock, made in 1959, these different factors combine to deliver a complex conclusion. Official sheriff Gannon, injured and isolated, hopes that the townspeople will help him quell the rancher McQuown and his lawbreaking employees. Blaisedall says scornfully, “I wouldn’t bet on it” – but that is actually what happens. This shows that it is the community which will enforce legal progress in Warlock and that the era of the star gunman has passed. Arguments between Blaisedell and Morgan lead to the latter’s death at the hand of the former, which effects on Warlock are shown metaphorically by the saloon first being set on fire then extinguished by a thunderstorm. Gannon has been shown to be an inferior gunman to Blaisedell, but the latter has decided that his time in Warlock is over and leaves the town without a fight, tossing his bespoke gold-handled Colt revolvers into the sand.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A generation further on

 

In the 1990s, there were endless assessments of the century which was reaching its close. Three years ago, Leaf Collecting recalled one such, a season of the best sound films of the 20th century which BBC television screened during 1995.
Three years after that, in January 1998, BBC Radio 3 launched another grand project entitled Centurions, a two-year survey of 100 of the greatest non-music artistes of the century, one per week, focussing particularly on one of his/her key works.

BBC Genome now provides some supporting evidence for these sparse facts. As with the Cinema Century season, schedulers appeared anxious to control audience expectation and, therefore, the risk of boredom. Centurions was broadcast in the same time slot each week, on Sunday afternoons, but the 100 artistes were not covered in alphabetical order. Likewise, a companion series called The Year, providing musical highlights from a particular year of the century, did not observe exact chronological sequence.

I heard almost nothing of the series when it was broadcast, but, as with Cinema Century, I copied the list of those due to be featured, as part of (don’t laugh) my cultural education. It remains a stimulating list to review and re-assess.

Many of the 100 artistes are still familiar and celebrated. Auden, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Orwell, Miller, Owen, Plath, Steinbeck and Wells are all writers still widely in print and names whom modern art-lovers might still readily come across at school or at university.

In contrast, the long-term reduction in the opportunity to see the drama of the past (either live or on television or in the cinema) has surely meant a decline in the knowledge of Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Lorca, O’Neill, Pinter, Shaw and Stanislavski. Foreign language writers have always been a specialist taste, so I would also assume that Borges, Camus, Grass and Sartre are much less known.

Of the English-speaking practitioners in the cinema category, no surprise today to find Disney, Hitchcock or Welles in the list – but striking to remember how Keaton and the Marx Brothers have become so much less seen during the last one or two generations. Possibly the continuing growth in feature-length film animation has made redundant their distinctive styles of living, physical anarchy. And of course all of the previously famous foreign language film-makers have been largely forgotten, even when individual works like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are still occasionally watched.

21st century students and aficionados of visual art will surely still know and respect Dali, Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock, but how many people who think of themselves as arts lovers recognise the architects, sculptors, potters and dancers on the list? Surely very few.

Solzenitsyn was rated highly enough at one time to win the Nobel Prize, but surely that was a political accolade rather than a literary one, as it had been earlier for Winston Churchill. By the end of the century his celebrity, so powerful in the early 1970s, belonged firmly in the past. Damien Hirst looks now like a rather modish millennial name but the status of Charles Rennie Mackintosh has probably continued to grow. And J.R.R. Tolkien, chosen before the release of all those Hollywood blockbusters, is, rightly or wrongly, probably the single Centurion whom the most people of all ages in 2018 would recognise!

The full list of the 100 Centurions is:
Chinua Achebe – novelist – Anthills of the Savannah.
Guillaume Apollinaire – poet.
Anna Akhamatova – poet – Requiem.
W.H. Auden – poet – “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”.
Francis Bacon – artist – Innocent Screams.
James Baldwin – novelist – Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Samuel Beckett – dramatist – Waiting for Godot.
Saul Bellow – novelist – Herzog.
Ingmar Bergman – film-maker – The Seventh Seal.
Elizabeth Bishop – poet – North and South.
Jorge Luis Borges – novelist – Fictions.
Bertolt Brecht – dramatist – The Good Woman of Szechuan.
Luis Buñuel – film-maker – Belle de Jour.
Albert Camus – novelist – The Outsider.
Henri Cartier Bresson – photographer – The Decisive Moment.
Constantine Cavafy – dramatist – Waiting for the Barbarians.
Raymond Chandler – novelist – The Big Sleep.
Anton Chekhov – playwright – The Cherry Orchard.
Joseph Conrad – novelist – Heart of Darkness.
Salvador Dali – artist – Burning Giraffes.
Walt Disney – film-maker – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marcel Duchamp – artist – Fountain.
Sergei Eisenstein – film-maker – Alexander Nevsky.
T.S.Eliot – poet – The Waste Land.
Wiliam Faulkner – novelist – The Sound and the Fury.
Federico Fellini – film-maker – La Dolce Vita.
Scott Fitzgerald – novelist – The Great Gatsby.
André Gide – dramatist.
Jean Genet – dramatist – The Balcony.
Jean-Luc Godard – film-maker – À Bout de Souffle.
Le Corbusier – architect – Unité d’Habitation.
Martha Graham – choreographer – Letter to the World.
Gunther Grass – novelist – The Tin Drum.
Graham Greene – novelist – Brighton Rock.
Walter Gropius – architect – The Bauhaus.
Seamus Heaney – poet – North.
Ernest Hemingway – novelist – For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Barbara Hepworth – sculptor – Sculpture Garden St Ives.
Damen Hirst – artist – Sharks.
Alfred Hitchcock – film-maker – Rear Window.
James Joyce – novelist – Ulysses.
Franz Kafka – novelist – Metamorphosis.
Vassily Kandinsky – artist – Composition IV.
Buster Keaton – film-maker – The General.
André Kertész – photographer – A Red Hussar Going to War 1919.
Akira Kurosawa – film-maker – Seven Samurai.
D.H. Lawrence – novelist – The Rainbow.
Bernard Leach – potter.
Doris Lessing – novelist – The Golden Notebook.
Federico Garcia Lorca – poet – Poet in New York.
Robert Lowell – poet – “For the Union Dead”.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – architect – Glasgow School of Art.
Naguib Mahfouz – novelist – The Cairo Trilogy.
Thomas Mann – novelist – The Magic Mountain.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – novelist – One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Marx Brothers – comedians – Duck Soup.
Henri Matisse – artist – Music and Dance.
Arthur Miller – dramatist – The Crucible.
Yukio Mishima – novelist – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Piet Mondrian – artist – Composition in Grey, Blue and Pink.
Henry Moore – sculptor – Atom Piece.
Toni Morrison – novelist – Beloved.
Iris Murdoch – novelist – Under the Net.
Vladimir Nabokov – novelist – Lolita.
Vaslav Nijinksky – dancer – Rite of Spring.
Eugene O’Neill – dramatist – A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Laurence Olivier – actor/film-maker – Henry V.
George Orwell – novelist – 1984.
Wilfred Owen – poet – “Strange Meeting”.
Yasujiro Ozu – film-maker – Tokyo Story.
Pablo Picasso – artist – Woman in Blue.
Harold Pinter – dramatist – The Caretaker.
Sylvia Plath – poet – Ariel.
Jackson Pollock – artist – Autumn Rhythm.
Ezra Pound – poet – The Cantos.
Marcel Proust – novelist – A La Recherche du Temps Perdus.
Satyajit Ray – film-maker – Pather Panchali.
Jean Renoir – film-maker – La Grande Illusion.
Lucy Rie – potter.
Rainer Maria Rilke – poet – Duino Elegies.
Richard Rogers – architect – Pompidou Centre.
Mark Rothko – artist – Light Red Over Black.
Jean Paul Sartre – novelist – La Nausée.
George Bernard Shaw – dramatist – Pygmalion and St Joan.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – novelist – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Konstantin Stanislavski – actor – A Month in the Country.
John Steinbeck – novelist – The Grapes of Wrath.
J.M. Synge – dramatist – The Playboy of the Western World.
Wallace Stevens – poet – “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”.
Rabindranath Tagore – poet.
Dylan Thomas – poet – Under Milk Wood.
J.R.R. Tolkien – novelist – The Lord of the Rings.
John Updike – novelist – Couples.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – architect.
Andy Warhol – artist – Campbell Soup Can.
Orson Welles – film-maker – Citizen Kane.
H.G. Wells – novelist – The War of the Worlds.
Virginia Woolf – novelist – The Waves.
Frank Lloyd Wright – architect – Fallingwater.
W.B. Yeats – poet – “Sailing to Byzantium”.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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”!

 

img090

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

 

img088

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.

 

carsatmalecon9

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.

 

edificiobacardi2

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

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Frank Loesser, Uncategorized

Our changing perspective of World War One

 

img079

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.  

 

ww1photo

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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 Inthe 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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The later Counts of Monte Cristo

 

Two films of similar genre released within a couple of years of each other in the mid 1990s were The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, and Sleepers, directed by Barry Levinson. Both are now regular fixtures on UK television and the former has been for some time the number one film in the IMDB 250.

That these films are heavily influenced by the works of older Hollywood is admitted almost explicitly by their producers through their choices of when the narratives are set. The events of The Shawshank Redemption, based on a story by Stephen King, start in 1947 and last until 1966-1967. This mid-1960s period is coincidentally the setting of the first section of Lorenzo Carccatera’s novel Sleepers, whose second part takes place in 1981. Both films have similar plots where the lead characters endure imprisonment and further physical suffering just as does, for instance, the James Cagney character in Each Dawn I Die in 1939. Among other echoes from the past are that most of the faces in both films are white and that Sleepers is set among New York’s Italian and Irish communities with a Catholic priest playing a key role. One significant difference (unsurprisingly) is that both stories take about half an hour longer to tell than their 1930s-1940s equivalents.

Often in such dramas, the leading characters are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and therefore their escape and revenge appear perfectly just. However, Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption come from a time when film makers are willing to be more morally ambiguous. The teenage leading characters in the former film are associated with the local mafia boss and are definitely guilty of the killing for which they are sent to reform school. The Shawshank Redemption spends most of its length ignoring the crimes for which all of its prisoners have been jailed, and only half way through does it raise the possibility that hero Andy Dufresne may have been convicted unfairly of the murder for which he was tried.

The explicit literary antecedent of both films is The Count of Monte Cristo. In Sleepers, Dumas’ novel is a favourite of the young narrator, “Shakes”, and later the grown-up Michael adopts Edmund, the first name of its hero, as a code word within his revenge plan. The novel is also mentioned as a notable volume in the prison library at Shawshank which Andy sets up. The novel was filmed at least once during Hollywood’s “golden age” as was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which has a similar plot of suffering and endurance. However, the popularity of Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption may also be connected to that of Nelson Mandela, the most esteemed ex-prisoner of the 1990s, who was widely and deeply admired even by people who would normally disapprove of violence used for political ends.

One modern element of both films is the overt reference to how new arrivals in prison face the risk of sexual abuse as well as physical brutality. Andy in Shawshank is able to defend himself against this, but the young boys in Sleepers are not, and their suffering at the hands of prison guards provokes the revenge depicted in the second half of the film. The scenes are not shown graphically, but the indirect references are chilling enough.

Stories of suffering and endurance usually require some suspension of disbelief from their audiences, but for me each of these films is imbalanced by the implausible ways in which the leading characters develop. While it is certainly believable that a child’s torture in prison might lead to an adult life of crime or addiction, it is not for me believable that the four young boys of Sleepers would remain close friends into adulthood when two have become violent criminals with addictions to alcohol and drugs while the other two are respectable law abiding college graduates, with one actually a district attourney who prosecutes criminals. This inconsistency makes the final scene of a comradely meal of triumph highly fanciful, where social worker friend Carol can even make a joke about whether the two criminal buddies will soon “go and shoot somebody”. The weakness in Shawshank is that the main evidence we are given of how the intelligent and successful young professional Andy changes during 20 years in prison is through regular large-scale (never small or personal!) acts of altruism, despite experience of solitary confinement, brutality by guards and fellow prisoners and routine accommodation in primitively bare and cramped conditions. We see him negotiating beers for one group of prison comrades, helping in the schooling of others, stocking the prison library single-handed, broadcasting Mozart music around the whole prison, and, although his skills are also used in large-scale financial corruption, he is always presented as a figure of nobility, almost of saintliness.

I once read Catherine Cookson say that that she had to set her stories in the past because the reader knew that in the present there were government social services to help people who suffer poverty and unemployment whereas she wanted her characters to succeed through individual effort and courage or through good fortune or the benevolence of others. Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption will have retained their popularity because they are archetypal stories of endurance, resilience and reward, with only a few knowing modern touches, and audiences find such stories inspiring. You do still hope, though, that modern viewers will discover the older cinema prototypes which were made at the same time as these were set.

Few films are without some saving graces. For me, those of Sleepers are its convincing if idealised portrait of Manhattan at a time when it was home to working-class families rather more than corporations, millionaires and tourists, and the performance of Robert De Niro in the old-fashioned role of the Catholic priest, pillar of his community, one of his last before his film characterisations became more often broad or caricatured. In Shawshank Morgan Freeman’s role as the narrator/friend of Andy Dufresne is probably the one which established his status as the Spencer Tracy of his generation, a man of warm and authentic if hard-won gravitas and authority, which would lead coincidentally to the role of the aforementioned Nelson Mandela.

Present-day Hollywood producers are guilty of typecasting actors just as much as their predecessors from decades past. Some years after The Shawshank Redemption and Sleepers, Tim Robbins from the former film and Kevin Bacon from the latter were among the lead actors in Mystic River, whose plot bore notable similarity to that of Sleepers: an incident of violent abuse which involved a group of childhood friends and also affected their lives as adults.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A former Mr Cool

 

So many Hollywood actors from past decades whom you used to see regularly on television are now far rarer – presumably because many of their films have not been digitised.  A striking example is Humphrey Bogart.

His films seemed omnipresent on TV in my youth in the 1970s and a check on the BBC Genome website provided some evidence to support this impression. Films on BBC in this era were frequently screened in thematic seasons based on genre or starring actor. One series I clearly remember was “All-Time Greats” on Sunday nights, because, as recently posted, it gave me my first view of Citizen Kane. This group of 30 films on BBC1 over the winter and spring of 1972-73 featured four which starred Bogart, more in that series than with any other leading actor: The Caine Mutiny, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then, immediately after “All-Time Greats” ended in the June, five further Bogart films were screened on subsequent Sundays.

I don’t remember any particular reasons offered for Bogart’s resurgence in the 1970s, over a decade after his death, but here are some possible factors. There were now many older actors such as David Niven who could eulogise on TV about Hollywood’s “golden age” and its many personalities. Bogart’s own widow, Lauren Bacall, still fairly young and glamorous, was also a regular on the talk show circuit. Woody Allen had written a successful play and film Play it Again Sam, where the main romantic loser character seeks guidance from the ghost of Bogart. Some US musicians of the period adopted Bogart’s name as a verb, as in “don’t bogart that joint”, thus suggesting that Bogart was still a model of cool to be copied. Perhaps most significantly, modern versions of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-style private eye which Bogart had played earlier were appearing in the Robert Altman version of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and TV’s The Rockford Files.

The Bogart persona – a man who is tough, free-thinking, experienced, resilient, able to defend himself by violence if necessary but still on the right side, good at cracking jokes, respected by other men but attractive to women, still ready to love and be loved – was appealing especially to young men trying still to forge their independent identities – and perhaps still is.

The IMDB website credits Bogart with 86 films, but most are now forgotten. That Mr Cool reputation probably always rested on a handful of performances, many of which were originally planned for other actors: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, In a Lonely Place, and perhaps also the more masculine, less romantic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Bogart’s powerful impact in these films owes a lot to his co-stars and skilled directors like Howard Hawks and John Huston. He was certainly an actor of limited range. Like many in that hugely productive and successful era of Hollywood, he seems to have preferred more often to enjoy the material benefits of his acting work rather than stretch himself creatively.

The Bogart film which is most popular today, judging by TV screenings and the IMDB 250, is certainly Casablanca, perhaps because its story of wartime romance is still easy to appreciate and because of its wide range of rich supporting characters, such as Claude Rains’ chief of police, Paul Heinreid’s resistance leader and Dooley Wilson’s club pianist.

While I share the enthusiasm for Casablanca, my own preference is for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’ version of the Raymond Chandler novel, if only for the comic turn where Bogart’s Philip Marlowe pretends to be an effeminate book buyer and the tantalising exchange of horse race innuendo between Marlowe and Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized