Sunday, September 25, 2016

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS - #835


There is a pargraph in Glenn Kenny’s essay in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s release of Valley of the Dolls where he posits that simple adjectives, either good or bad, don’t quite fit when talking about the 1967 phenomenon. An enduring cult classic, it embodies many things, and takes on its own image well before many in its continually renewing audience even get a chance to see it. It’s infamous, it’s campy, it’s scandalous--all things that are true, all things that don’t quite hit on what a strange little creature this film really is.


Adapted from a best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, whose name became synonymous with outrageous stories about ambitious, liberated women, Valley of the Dolls is a culmination of many story traditions and the evolution of the same. It updates the 1950s concept of the “women’s picture,” as well as the career girl movie. It’s essentially a showbiz version of The Best of Everything, but with an added frankness about the sex, booze, and drugs that previously only went on way behind the screen. And then there is that showbiz thing itself--Valley of the Dolls is also an update of the Tinsel Town and Broadway dramas, a bit A Star is Born, a bit All AboutEve. There is a touch of the musical, especially with Dory Previn’s off-kilter songs (written with her philandering husband Andre, and more than hinting at Dory’s own personal drama), as well as a smidgen of horror films (the asylum, the nightmarish empty streets in the final New York scenes). Director Mark Robson, who also helmed Peyton Place and edited the original Cat People, and screenwriters Helen Deutsch (Lili [review]) and Dorothy Kingsley (Kiss MeKate) combine their knowledge of all these genres and subjects with Susann’s narrative to create a fresh 1960s perspective. Thus we get former child star Patty Duke popping pills, and Sharon Tate seemingly commenting on her own blonde bombshell image, and pop-art redoes of the fashion shoots from Funny Face [review].


The plot of Valley of the Dolls is nothing new. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, a star on the PeytonPlace TV series), a privileged college girl from New England, travels to the big city in hopes of escaping the conventional married life laid out for her. She gets a job as a secretary for an entertainment lawyer, and on her first day, gets a quick lesson in backstage politics, when her own innocent comment to an aging theatre star (Susan Hayward, I Married a Witch [review]) gets the new ingénue in the show fired. Duke plays the young starlet, Neely O’Hara, and Tate plays chorus girl Jennifer North, who is on hand at the rehearsal to witness the injustice (and suffer her own, given that her body is a topic of discussion). The lives of these three women quickly become entwined, both socially and professionally, as each sees different career paths open for them.

In these criss-crossing stories, Dolls explores different notions of hard work and fate. Jennifer is lucky enough to be born blonde and bosomy, and so easily snags a husband (a nightclub singer played by Tony Scotti). She knows she has little talent, and the work she’ll eventually turn to in order to help pay the bills relies on her assets. (As is the nature of these kinds of stories, someone must have a fatal illness, and that ends up being her man.) In one of the more comical scenes--and also for the time, more progressively honest--the young Jennifer, chastised and shamed by her forever-unseen mother, starts her nightly breast exercises to keep them perky before saying forget it, let them droop.


I note that it’s the “young Jennifer” because Valley of the Dolls follows all of its characters over a course of a couple of years, so these women do age--though not necessarily physically, there is no notable old-age makeup, which only sharpens the biting commentary that comes ¾ of the way through. When her addiction to sleeping pills (nicknamed “dolls”) gets the better of her, Neely is told she’s been replaced by a new, younger actress, she’s looking too old. “I’m only 26!” she declares. It seems ageism is imprinted in Hollywood’s DNA. Neely’s on-set tantrums are modeled after Judy Garland, but they also have echoes of Marilyn Monroe, who was cut from her final, unfinished picture because she couldn’t make it to set in performance condition. Duke makes the most of her meaty role, easily the best in the movie, playing the lush life to the hilt. She also gets the movie’s most memorable and campiest scene, a final bathroom showdown with Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson, the diva who would have ruined her. (As in George Cukor’s TheWomen, much happens in the bathroom.)


That climactic clash between Duke and Hayward is actually indicative of the light touch Robson took to most of this. Sure, heavy things happen, but the movie itself rarely feels heavy in its telling, even when the women have to make tough choices. It’s also telling how little backstabbing the core trio does to one another. Outside of a third act boyfriend grab when Neely is heading for her ultimate downfall, these ladies aren’t vying for the same slices of pie. At the same time, the kindness they attempt to show one another is often rebuffed. Friendship buckles under selfishness.


Even so, they are more emotionally mature than their male counterparts. The men in Valley of the Dolls are childish philanderers with fragile egos. Both of Neely’s husbands resent her success and her inability (unwillingness) to cater to their needs, while Jennifer’s spouse is the opposite, resenting having to be the breadwinner. Though, not even he is in control of his own destiny: besides his illness, his sister (Lee Grant, Mulholland Dr.) manages his floundering career, holding the purse strings and telling him what to do. The one guy doing for himself, Barbara’s on-again/off-again paramour (Paul Burke, TV’s Naked City), is no picnic either: he has commitment issues. Gone is the Sirkian man of the land, there is no Rock Hudson to swoop in and make things better. So absent is this figure in this newly liberated lifestyle, actually, that the end of Valley of the Dolls takes the back-to-nature element of Sirk’s All thatHeaven Allows and gives it to Barbara, who gets out of the rat race single, free, and whole.


Amongst the extras on the new Valley of the Dolls Blu-ray, for those who can’t quite get at why they like the movie, or what its strange machinations add up to, the wonderful film critic Kim Morgan provides a video essay in which she digs into the progressive subtext and the subversive genre tropes, embracing the criticism of the source material as “trash” and balancing it against the more “serious” but comparable literature of the day. Interesting to hear that Harlan Ellison removed himself from scripting duties when he felt the ending of Susann’s novel had been compromised. That Harlan, always with his shoulder against the grain.

Jacqueline Susann at a book signing.

Morgan tackles and makes a case for the more aspirational aspects of the story, and how the women take over the traditionally male roles and suffer for it, which also leads us to an interesting question to ponder: just why do we enjoy such tragic movie-star movies? Is there a self-loathing that runs through Hollywood, where they indulge in these cautionary tales about the price of stardom, or are they merely tapping into a mean streak that connects all moviegoers? We won’t ever be the next big crooner or the face of a national ad campaign, and so we like to watch our idols fail. If not us, then not them either, and none of it is what it’s cracked up to be anyway.


Comics fans also take note, the exclusive cover here is by Phil Noto. Those unfamiliar with Noto should check out his website. Or maybe his amazing run on Black Widow for Marvel Comics.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, September 19, 2016

SILENT OZU - THREE CRIME DRAMAS: DRAGNET GIRL - ECLIPSE SERIES 42


The most straightforward, and yet most complex, entry in the Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas set from Criterion’s Eclipse imprint is 1933’s Dragnet Girl, a dual drama about families and relationships and the effect the criminal lifestyle has on the ties that bind.

Joji Oka (No Blood Relation [review]) heads the cast as the charismatic gangster Joji. Formerly a boxer, Joji stepped out of the ring when he fell in love with Tokiko (Mizoguchi and Kinoshita mainstay Kinuya Tanaka, who also appeared in Ozu’s Equinox Flower [review]). Tokiko is a tough cookie in her own right, but she prefers a more domestic crime partnership that doesn’t involve her man getting pummeled on a regular basis. Though Joji has many would-be suitors, Tokiko chasea them all off, thus making it all the more surprising when a nice, quiet girl sneaks in and legit steals Joji’s heart.


Misako (Sumiko Mizukubo, Apart from You [review]) summons the thug to a corner rendezvous to ask him to encourage her little brother, Lefty (Hideo Mitsui), to return to school and give up trying to be a boxer and a crook. He looks up to Joji and would listen. Joji is taken with Misako’s purity and selflessness, and he starts spending his days in the music store where she works, listening to classical records. It’s a far more refined musical excursion than the rowdy nightclubs he usually attends with his gang. To many, Joji is becoming soft. Never mind he’s the guy we saw beat up three bruisers all on his own just a few days before. All it takes is one dame wanting you to settle down...


As the drama ramps up, Dragnet Girl crosses similar territory as Walk Cheerfully [review]. Misako’s positive presence inspires Joji to consider getting clean, and though she initially goes to the record shop with a gun to confront Misako, Tokiko is quickly smitten with her, as well. She thinks about ditching the bad-girl lifestyle modeling herself after her rival. The only one who can’t seem to get Misako’s message of peace is the one she wants to go straight, her little brother, who resists even after his hero threatens him.


Moreso than Walk Cheerfully Ozu toys with the notion of fate in Dragnet Girl. In the psychology of the script, which was written by Tadao Ikeda, the scribe behind Walk Cheerfully and The Only Son [review], working from a story by Ozu himself (hiding behind the pseudonym James Maki), we move closer to the inescapable doom of film noir. Neither Joji nor Tokiko find it easy to make a clean break, and in part because they don’t think they deserve it. Tokiko is offered an ideal marriage by her boss, but can’t see herself stepping into a housewife’s shoes; likewise, Joji must reject Misako in order to “get over her.” When it comes down to it, the only thing that this Japanese Bonnie and Clyde can count on is each other. Whatever their path to get to true love, at least they found it together, and they can get out of it together, too. Embracing a crime trope, Ozu positions them to pull one last heist with the intention of snatching some seed money and getting out of town. It’s a pretty ballsy robbery, with Tokiko leading the charge, and an even more hairy escape when the cops come knocking. Yet, Ozu avoids the expected final shootout, seeking a different solution for his lovers. Punishment offers redemption.


Dragnet Girl actually makes a pretty convincing case for sucking it up and taking your lumps. It doesn’t hurt that the impassioned argument for toughing it out is made by Tokiko. Kinuyo Tanaka has a solid screen presence, and her confident delivery, and the complex emotional swings that get her there, makes for the most convincing acting in the movie. As perfect and angelic as Sumiko Mizukubo is as Kazuko, Tanaka brings her character down to earth, so that she is both sympathetic and relatable. She’s really the only choice for the confused Joji, who frankly comes off as kind of weak-willed and not nearly as tough as he’s intended to be.

But then, Ozu’s women generally have been the ones who have had to carry the heaviest burdens, and who do so with a quiet strength unique to them. In that, Dragnet Girl is part of a long tradition of the filmmaker, even as he would soon leave its genre trappings behind.



Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

SILENT OZU - THREE CRIME DRAMAS: WALK CHEERFULLY - ECLIPSE SERIES 42

I may be a bad man, but I can still be sincere. I really do love you.”


Made well into the first phase of his career, Yasujiro Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully is a facile drama, of both the crime and melo- variety, proving the Japanese director could have easily plowed his way through the Hollywood studio system, but that his true calling was always the family stories that later became his raison d’être.

Released in 1930, this silent film follows a crook named Kenji (Minoru Takada), a dual personality, both a loyal friend and a deadly opponent, hence his nickname Ken the Knife. Walk Cheerfully opens with a fake-out, as Ken steps in to help when a pickpocket is being chased down by an angry mob. Seemingly an average citizen doing his civic duty, the truth is that the fleeing thief is Ken’s buddy Senko (Hisao Yoshitani). But appearances are important in Walk Cheerfully, be it the projection of a straight image or the trappings of a tough guy. In a nod to the American gangster movies he was emulating, Ozu casts the crooks in his movie as performers, complete with choreographed dance routines and Hollywood memorabilia. A carefully placed poster of Clara Bow with boxing gloves decorates their training area--an image to aspire to and also an object of desire.


Interestingly, this distinction of bad guys as poseurs serves to erase the lines distinguishing hoodlum and common man. Later in the film, Ken’s innocent love interest, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki, Ornamental Hairpin [review]), laments that all of her office co-workers, regardless of gender, operate no differently than the criminals that roam the streets. Ironic, then, that she fails to see the truth about Ken, and refuses to believe it until she sees his gangster tattoo. Yet, if being good or bad is matter of behavior and class, than even “the Knife” can turn things around. Ken has enough affection for Yasue that he goes legit, and gets a job washing windows--symbolically erasing the dirt and exposing the view to the clear skies beyond. It’s a task easier said than done when former associates come calling, looking to lure him into one last score, but then, what separates Ken from the rest is his ability to live as who he desires to be, and not just pretend. He can use performance for good, too, hence his comedic pantomime for Yasue and her little sister on their Sunday picnic.



Ozu uses other visual cues--beyond dance and tattoos and clean windows--to bring his criminal underworld to life. When plotting and scheming, his characters are prone to nervous foot tapping. Gesture and slang are things you learn in your role as a tough guy. And when Kenji busts in on Yasue in a hotel room with her licentious boss (Takeshi Sakamoto, There Was a Father [review]; Every-night Dreams [review]), the appearance of impropriety is represented by the booze and smoking cigarette left on the table--and the discarded garment beneath it. Just moments before, Kenji shows anger at being  a potential cuckold by mashing a cigarette between his fingers, at once a gesture of his own impotence and the castration of his rival. Though known best for the emotion he keeps in reserve, the things not said, Ozu manages to find potent ways to express these more scandalous feelings without going overboard.


Walk Cheerfully offers a satisfying mix of typical cinematic moralizing and a more genuine third act, with both Kenji and Senko putting the effort into their rehabilitation. They aren’t transformed into saints over night, and even do their bid in jail. The movie also offers us a credible heroine in Yasue. She is not just a doting girlfriend, but a responsible and productive sister and daughter, working to earn for her family, and loyal to a fault. This saves Ozu from the sort of tacked-on messaging that his American contemporaries would suffer under the Production Code, even while still maintaining his usual optimism. Like the film noir to come, crime in Walk Cheerfully does not pay, but neither does it doom the criminal to an inescapable fate. On the contrary, we have here a movie that suggests once you’ve actually settled the bill, it’s quite possible to move on to a whole other kind of payoff.



Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife and Dragnet Girl.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM - #832


If there are two types of stories that tend to be full of big emotion and drama, it’s the coming-of-age tale and the backstage tell-all. Put the two together--adolescent angst and performer’s ego--and all bets are off.

Unless, of course, you’re watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though the script is full of melodramatic situations, including a Shakespearean split between father and son and a woman who sacrifices her health to see her husband achieve his greatest dream, Mizoguchi is determined to present it without histrionics, adopting a film style that is more observant than intimate, mimicking the experience of seeing the kabuki plays his characters perform in, shooting the entire story as if sitting in the middle seat inside the theater. No close-ups, no shouting, but heartbreaking all the same.


The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum follows Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of one of the greatest kabuki performers of their age (played by Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Young Kiku is not a very good actor, and he finds himself torn between false flattery and bitter sniping. When the family’s nanny, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), tells him the truth, the unselfishness of her feeling for him makes Kiku take notice. He becomes determined to improve his art and make his own name in the world. Such a declaration makes him look insubordinate, however, and when the family forbids his romance with Otoku, Kiku has had enough. He leaves to strut the boards in another town.

Otoku eventually joins him and they marry, but good fortune is not yet theirs. Kiku is still mediocre, and when his protective mentor dies, he is forced to trade his position at the theater for a spot in a traveling show--a much less respectable gig, but a gig nonetheless. It provides Kiku with the right experience, but little notice and little money. It will take an act of fate to reverse Kiku’s trajectory--fate engineered by Otoku, even though it may be too late for her to enjoy it.


The idea of needing to suffer for one’s art is not novel to Mizoguchi, but he certainly makes it seem the least romantic. Kiku isn’t a brooding Byron engineering his own disasters; rather, he is earnest and well meaning, and he doesn’t actually see that the misery he is enduring is informing his art. In fact, this may be exactly why he’s not so great on the stage: his inability to delve into his emotional life. The drive to be better is his only focus, and it only allows for selfishness, not self-reflection. Kiku’s perception is based on the public and critical reactions to each night’s play; luckily, he also has Otoku there to keep him motivated. She redirects his energies as necessary.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is equal parts A Story of Floating Weeds and Sawdust & Tinsel [review]. It is about family as much as theatre life, with the family of performers forming a secondary clan. In a way, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is unique in how the family rallies around the lesser amongst them, pooling their efforts to fix Kiku’s life. No man is left behind, as it were. Only in the final act does Kiku become the star of his own story. We finally see him on stage--something that Mizoguchi has mostly kept from us so far, perhaps assuming Kiku might lose our sympathy were we to see how bad he really was--showing us his comeback night, when he proves to his father’s contemporaries that he’s worthy of returning to Tokyo. For the first time, Mizoguchi really takes us onto the stage, and we get to see the man at work.


Mizoguchi fans will be drawn to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum for Otoku as much as they are Kiku’s fall and ascendance. Perhaps moreso. Her devotion and sacrifice illustrates one of the central themes of his work, as also shown in the films in the Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women boxed set [review], where they get to take center stage themselves. As Otoku, Kakuko Mori gives an appropriately quiet, often unassuming, but deeply felt performance. How much of the others’ willingness to try to elevate her husband is based on their sympathy for her more than their liking of Kiku? Probably most of it.


She is the best example of humanity amongst people whose job it is to reflect our own humanity back at us. Not that there is any lack of it amongst the other characters in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. What Mizoguchi has avoided is making the performers and stagehands seem alien; they aren’t grifters or fakes or exaggerated. Instead, they are warm and relatable, and as Kiku rises to his apex at film’s end, the filmmaker reminds us that regardless of this success, regardless of what we project on these performers, a star can also experience genuine pain.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT - #830


Like most of Orson Welles’ later films, Chimes atMidnight has probably been discussed more than it’s been seen. A lengthy, troubled production, followed by a dicey release, the 1966 Shakespearean adaptation has been mostly out of print, seen only at rare screenings and occasionally available on dodgy foreign DVDs. When you could get your hands on it, the copies were plagued with sound problems, the poetry of the original verse lost in hiss and garble. Picture quality was poor, editing choppy--you were lucky to see it, but you never felt like you were really seeing it.

Until last year when Janus Films sent a brand-new restoration out on tour, promising that the best efforts had been made to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; the result was nothing short of remarkable. I managed to catch Chimes at Midnight as a double-feature with Othello, another of the great director’s Shakespeare pictures, itself having gone through its own ordeals. I was astonished by how different the experience was. Finally, here was a Chimes at Midnight I could see and hear clearly and actually absorb.


And it’s that same Chimes that now ends up on Blu-ray/DVD. The image is sharp and rendered with care. The audio is still a bit unnatural sounding, but that’s the fault of Welles’ unorthodox methods. At least every word can now be discerned. And more than ever, Welles aficionados can play that game where they try to guess how many voices in a given scene were dubbed by the maestro himself. There’s a certain tone you can pick up on if you know to listen for it.

But why all the fuss? What is so special about Chimes at Midnight?

Well, besides being Welles’ final fully realized film--as good as it is, F For Fake [review] is more of an experimental lark than a true narrative feature--Chimes at Midnight is a fascinating work of heart and wit, combining bits of multiple Shakespeare plays to make a single, linear story about John Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most enduring characters, a tragic buffoon who steers the early life of Prince Harry, soon to be King Henry V, and has his heart broken when the crown lands on his young pupil’s head. (Fans of My Own Private Idaho will recognize this story as the one Gus Van Sant lifted for his picture.)


Welles himself takes the role of Falstaff, a boozer and a raconteur, a rapscallion and a cad, but also a friend when chips are down. And the butt of many jokes. Young Harry (Keith Foster) spends idle time traveling with Falstaff as a way of avoiding responsibility, sowing his wild oats far from the watchful eye of his father, King Henry IV (Sir John Gielgud, Richard III). When a temperamental rival, Sir Harry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway), makes a move against the throne, the errant prince must give up childish things and take his rightful position. It’s a job he’s suited for, even if there are a few stumbles still to be had.

In fashioning his script, Welles pulls out all the dualities, the disparity between Falstaff and the King and the similarities between the two Harrys, to create one tale of fathers and sons. The prince is trapped in an adolescent conundrum. He wants to be his own man, but he also wants his father to be proud of him, and so he lashes out in such a way that pretty much makes neither of those things possible. He’s a thoughtless boy who, by the end of the picture, must become a thoughtful man. His opposite, Hotspur, is an example of what happens when you feel too much--even if he is also the jockish all-American every dad supposedly wants. Both sons can’t succeed, but it’s even worse for the fathers: in order for their shared child to proceed, they must, in many senses of the word, die.



At the center of this family drama, nestled between Harry’s pranks and Falstaff’s boasts, Welles enacts a tremendous battle. The two armies meet on a muddy field, coming on horseback and on foot, swinging sword and axes, laying waste to one another with little sense of order or skill. Welles shows the dirty chaos of combat, juxtaposing the brutal consequences with the dark comic relief of Falstaff, stuffed into his heavy armor, getting in over his head. Falstaff brings chaos wherever he goes. War is no different. It’s just no longer can he pantomime his prowess or create the illusion of royal bearing; here, the effects are real and inescapable.

Welles makes Falstaff a well-rounded character. He is funny and laughable, yet also true. He feels deeply, and the excess of his activity matches those feelings. Though often as overbearing as his fictional avatar, Welles can also be a generous performer. His reactions while others speak can embolden their performances in a way only a good director likely knows how. He’s servicing the story and not himself. Watch, for instance, his interaction with Jeanne Moreau (The Lovers [review]), who plays the whore Doll Tearsheet, and how his love and concern for her makes her seem all the more real. Their romance aches. Thus, when Falstaff’s heart gets broken, ours breaks a little too. Even if we know he kind of deserves it after how he tried to embarrass Harry and take credit for his accomplishments in front of the Prince’s true father.



Welles’ agile style keeps Chimes at Midnight from being a stodgy retelling. He crafts a Shakespeare that moves. In many of the best scenes, he balances the opposing sides, placing the camera high or low based on who is in power. When Hotspur addresses his troops, they must look up, as if he towers over them. Likewise, during the coronation scene, Welles and his cameraman, Edmond Richmond (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review]), exaggerate the distance and height between the new King Henry V and his onetime mentor to show how low Falstaff has fallen, and how far apart the pair have swiftly become. There is also a great use of back and forth, particularly in the battle sequences, when we have two sides rushing from opposite ends, and Falstaff hilariously charging back and forth between. Welles understands the size of the screen, be it a wide survey of a battlefield or an extreme close-up in the most intimate of moments (death), he fills it with essential detail.



And for additional details on the production, the Criterion disc of Chimes at Midnight comes with new interviews, including chats with Keith Baxter (Prince Harry) and Orson’s daughter Beatrice, who appeared in the film as a child and worked on the reconstruction. Critical and scholarly features include two interviews with Welles biographers and a new audio commentary. The man himself shows up in a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show.

The return of Chimes at Midnight is another victory of the DVD age, another case of a film thought lost restored to its full power. Don’t take this for granted. Many have been waiting decades for just a glimpse of Orson Welles’ great masterwork, and now here it is at your fingertips. Grab a good drink, hit play, and enjoy.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A TASTE OF HONEY - #829



I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice....”

Morrissey or Shelagh Delaney?

As most fans of the Smiths know, it’s both. Though, those with a big nose who know, know that the lyricist ripped it from the playwright, just as Moz lifted much from Delaney’s texts and nodded to her often. The above lyric is from A Taste of Honey and was embedded in the early Smiths track “Reel Around the Fountain;”  another song from the same period, “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” not only borrows more lines from Honey, but the plot as well. Morrissey makes no secret of this. On the contrary, his sampling from Delaney, as well as putting her picture on album and singles covers (Louder than Bombs and “Girlfriend in a Coma”) helped drive many a dark youngster to her work. I read the original A Taste of Honey stageplay in high school, and finally found the film version many years later. The vocabulary theft made me predisposed to be a fan.


Shelagh Delaney on "Girlfriend in a Coma"


Rita Tushingham on the Sandie Shaw/Smiths EP

The movie adaptation of A Taste of Honey was released in 1961. Directed by Tony Richardson, it is considered part of Britain’s “kitchen sink” movement, so named not because the filmmakers in that school threw “everything but...” into their cinema, but rather they showed us how folks lived, kitchen sinks and all. Examining the working class citizens as they struggled to get by and potentially change their lives, Criterion fans can see the storytelling style in films as different as This Sporting Life [review], Billy Liar [review], and Victim [review], or even later, we can see how it influenced Ken Loach (Kes [review]) and Mike Leigh.


One hallmark of the kitchen sink films was the appearance of the angry young man (Harris in This Sporting Life, McDowell in If.... [review]--both in films by Lindsay Anderson, whom Shelagh Delaney collaborated with on The White Bus [review]). This makes A Taste of Honey a bit of a stylistic revolutionary, as its protagonist is an angry young woman. Starring Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago, Girl with Green Eyes), A Taste of Honey tells the story of Jo, a teenager frustrated with her life of squalor and limited prospects. Jo lives alone with her mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), a woman with many lovers but never two shillings to rub together. This means the pair moves a lot, running out on one landlord after another. They also squabble constantly, tearing one another down, breaking up and making up because, begrudgingly, they are all they’ve really got.

This changes when Helen meets Peter (Robert Stephens) and decides to remarry. Though Jo is reluctant to finally let go of the apron strings, Peter is a much younger man than his new bride and not interested in having a grown daughter. So, Jo moves out on her own, getting a job in a shoe shop and a new roommate of her own. Also, she’s gotten pregnant by a sailor who has since left to sail the seas.


An unmarried teenager having a child all by her lonesome would have been social scandal enough, but Delaney--who co-wrote the screenplay with Richardson--was a progressive writer whose vision took in all aspects of life in urban Manchester. Jo’s lover, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), is a black man, and her roommate, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), is gay. These facts are both approached delicately. No one comments on Jimmy and Jo being together, but the color of his skin is a factor in Jo’s anxiety about the impending birth. For instance, should she even want to take Geoffrey up on his offer to marry, people will know he’s not the father when they see the child. That’s if the gossips and wags buy their relationship to begin with. Though no one but Jo ever confronts Geoffrey outright about his sexuality, everyone looks at him sideways. They all sense the truth.

Which is always fascinating to see in an older film, since anyone with parents and grandparents born in “the good old days” knows that some members of those generations often tend to pretend that gays and lesbians weren’t around until that demonic disco music magically spawned them. But that’s what art is for--and history books--to show us what many would rather we not see. There’s a reason A Taste of Honey opens with a censorship board certificate indicating it’s only suitable for viewers over the age of 16. Much of the dialogue is frank about things that just weren’t acceptable: sex out of wedlock, abortion, alcoholism. Yet, Delaney avoids pushing a message. She and Richardson just want to show life as they’ve witnessed it and let the audience empathize or reject on their own.


Though Tony Richardson’s generation of filmmakers is often referred to as the British New Wave, their early work has little of the experimentalism inherent in the movies of their French contemporaries laboring under the same name. Rather, the Brits had more in common with the Italians in that realism was more important than style. Hence the director and his cinematographer Walter Lassally (who went on to shoot many of James Ivory’s lesser pictures) filming in the streets of Manchester, inside real apartments, and walking the boardwalk by the seaside. This was an existence that could not be re-created in a studio without adding a touch of glitz, so better to go where it was actually happening. The excursions out into public have an air of documentary, including a trip to the country where the child-like Geoffrey and Jo frolic with elementary school-aged kids. The mountainside expanse emphasizes how small they really are in the grand scheme of the universe (“I’m not happy and I’m not sad”), and the company they keep exposes just how young they are, too. Neither is really in a place where they should be having kids of their own.


It’s a great sequence, actually, with Geoffrey trying to prove he can be the husband and father Jo needs by awkwardly kissing her. The “traditional” roles are reversed with these two. Geoffrey probably feels too much, while Jo doesn’t quite know how to access all that is going on in her head and her heart. Back at their flat, Geoffrey cooks and cleans, while Jo goes out and earns a wage. One assumes it will all go wrong for these two, that somehow tragedy awaits, but A Taste of Honey sidesteps our expectations. Sure, it ends on a down beat, and everything isn’t necessarily okay, but we do leave with the sense that it will be. Lessons are being learned, and these characters will all carry on and get along in some fashion. Some ties bind so tightly, they will never be broken.


Criterion’s new restoration is, I believe, the first time A Taste of Honey has been available on disc in the States. The image quality is remarkable: crisp and clear, with strong blacks and an excellent level of detail. Supplements include interviews old and new, including vintage clips with Richardson and Delaney, and new chats with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin.

We also get a 1956 short film collaboration between Richardson and Lassally, co-directed by Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Made as part of the Free Cinema Collective that Richardson and Reisz formed with Lindsay Anderson, Mama Don’t Allow is a 22-minute documentary that displays the realist roots that Richardson and Co. grew from. Set inside and outside a jazz bar, with cutaways to some of the attendees preparing for an evening on the town, it’s a simple portrait of a particular nightlife. With a live soundtrack by the Chris Barber Jazz Band, including Lonnie Donegan, a.k.a. the King of Skiffle, a successful British rock musician that influenced the Beatles, Mama Don’t Allow is a winning snapshot of a specific scene, giving us a look at music and youth culture before the advent of rock ’n’ roll.


The screengrabs here are from an earlier DVD given away free with the Sunday Telegraph fifteen years ago and not from the Criterion Blu-ray.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Friday, August 12, 2016

INGRID BERGMAN: IN HER OWN WORDS - #828


Late in Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, when director Stig Björkman is highlighting one of the actress' final films, Autumn Sonata [review], he holds on a silent close-up from the movie. It’s a scene where Ingrid Bergman stares directly into the camera, letting an emotional beat wash over her, engaging with the audience in a way that lets us see exactly what she is feeling. It's a great moment of punctuation for the documentary, because throughout Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, the performer's children have noted that her lifelong relationship with cameras, both as the subject and the operator, stemmed from the fact that her father--who died when the Swedish-born star was very young, leaving her an orphan--was a professional photographer. She learned to live by looking at a camera, and she learned to love by the way it looked at her.


Stitching together news and interview footage with film clips, personal photos, and home movies, Björkman has crafted an intimate portrait of an enduring personality, getting beyond the superficial press image or even the standard tribute. Granted access to an extensive collection of artifacts left behind by Bergman, and with the aid of her four children, all of whom share their own memories of their mother, Björkman shows us the star from earliest childhood, tracking her moves from Swedish cinema to Hollywood, and through scandal and triumph. Narrated by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who reads from Bergman's diaries and letters to three of her closest friends, the images are enhanced by the subject's own private thoughts. It's the things she maybe wouldn't have shared with interviewers or her family that prove most revealing. For those who have seen Bergman's onscreen work, be it her romantic roles in movies like Casablanca and Notorious [review] or her more artful, emotional work with second husband Roberto Rossellini, the secret to Ingrid Bergman’s craft is made clear: even if she often gave more to cinema than she did her day-to-day existence, she was as thoughtful and tender in here real life as she was in her invented ones.

Bergman also possessed an incredible strength, as evinced by her weathering the public scorn following her leaving her first husband for Rossellini. It seems inconceivable that a private individual would be denounced on the floor of Congress as a bad example of morality, but that's just what happened. Through it all, Bergman was resilient, her characteristic charm never wavering. Perhaps her long fascination and association with Joan of Arc gave her some insight into martyrdom. Whatever gave her purpose, Bergman offered no apologies.


Then again, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is careful not to draw obvious connections between movie roles and true events, the way a director might otherwise if this were a dramatic biopic--though Bergman's loves and travels would definitely make for a solid narrative, were someone willing to try. No inference is drawn, for instance, from her choice to star in a light comedy about infidelity like Stanley Donen's Indiscreet [review], despite it being very easy to make a claim that it served as a defiant middle finger to her critics. Rather, Björkman lets the work exist on its own. He's more concerned with his subject’s wandering spirit and how her choices affected those around her. Having been given the appropriate time to deal with things, her children are surprisingly generous, admitting they were as enchanted with her as much as the moviegoing public. Which may be the greatest revelation of all: Ingrid Bergman was no manufactured icon, the woman we fell in love with in the movies was who Ingrid Bergman really was. At times aloof and unknowable, but always seductive, always interesting to watch, and always leading with her heart.


Bonus materials on the Criterion Blu-ray of Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words give us extra glimpses into her life and artistry. Deleted scenes and further excerpts from Bergman’s own home movies, shot by the Ingrid herself on 8mm, add to our knowledge of the star’s life. Perhaps more illuminating for film fans are the two bits from early Swedish films. The outtakes from her 1936 romance On the Sunny Side show her natural charisma. Even more telling, though, is her brief appearance as an extra in the 1932 movie Landskamp, her screen debut. Even as a silent background player, Ingrid Bergman stands out, her eyes finding the camera, and engaging with her public. She’s the only one in the group that you’d ever think would end up being a star, and probably the only one there that even dared to dream it.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purpose of review.