Saturday, June 30, 2012


There is a breezy simplicity to the 1944 Lean/Coward collaboration This Happy Breed that almost completely obscures the ambition of the piece. Based on Coward's original play, David Lean's team--including Ronald Neame on script and camera, as per usual--remove any staginess from the production and create a seamless history of one family's ups and downs from just after the end of World War I to the sketchy days just prior to World War II.

Robert Newton and Lean regular Celia Johnson star as Frank and Ethel Gibbons. Following Frank's discharge from the service, the Gibbons family--two daughters, a son, Ethel's mother, and Frank's sister--move into a home on High Street in London. Next door is one of Frank's army buddies, Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady [review]), and so this new homecoming is also like a reunion. Bob has one son, Billy (In Which We Serve's John Mills [review]), who wants to be a sailor, and he will eventually fall for Queenie Gibbons (Kay Walsh). The length of their relationship is one of This Happy Breed's many subplots.

The script moves swiftly, leapfrogging over the years, showing the changing times through the news, popular entertainment, and the advancement of technology, particularly the radio. The film examines just about everything: the influence of Communism and workers strife, increasing freedom for women, crackpot spirituality, and the encroaching winds of war. Parent and child disagree and then find common ground. Hotheaded youth succumbs to everyday life. Babies are born, family members die, and through it all, Frank and Ethel persevere, growing older and more gray. This Happy Breed is punctuated with two drinking binges by Frank and Bob--one midway through the picture on the night that Queenie disappears and the other near the end, when Neville Chamberlain woos England into believing that war is being averted. The men represent a generation that has seen much trouble in their time, and who are cautious about how easy it will be to avoid such trouble again.

This Happy Breed is phenomenally compact, and yet it doesn't sacrifice depth of story or character. It would have been rather easy to rely on cliché and stereotype, and in some ways, that happens--the other daughter, Vi (Eileen Erskine), falls for a rabblerousing Bolshevik (Guy Verney) who ultimately settles into the expected role of wage earner and social conservative--but the brilliance of Noël Coward's dialogue is how he uses average conversation to reveal so much about the people engaged in the talk. These are people really saying something, not just filling the time between opening and closing credits. One of the best scenes is when Frank gives his son, Reg (John Blythe), advice on the day of his wedding. Robert Newton nails the speech, covering his nerves with a stern, fatherly tone, and Coward's writing expertly dances around sensitive issues without resorting to trite euphemism. Frank says plenty about the birds and the bees both without ever mentioning either by name.

This Happy Breed doesn't build to a big crescendo. Rather, the story evolves to a natural place, and life's changes dictate how the Gibbons family will exit their cinematic excursion. In many ways, it reminds me of William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, even if it is on a completely different continent and on the opposite side of WWII. The drama is never overwrought, the sentimentality never mawkish, and the decisions never easy, holding up a compelling mirror to an audience who likely had no difficulty recognizing themselves in the faces in the glass.

Monday, June 25, 2012


All you need to know about the demeanor of 1942’s In Which We Serve comes from a scene three-quarters of the way through the nearly two-hour movie. A sailor of a lesser rank receives a letter that says his superior’s wife and mother have been killed in the blitz, and he has to go and tell the other man the bad news. They speak plainly, their voices maintaining a hushed reverence. It’s the epitome of the cliché of British reserve. Forget the upper lip, everything is stiff. And if you want to know just what kind of drama this propaganda production is, the scene ends with the younger man telling the older patriarchal figure that, though that fellow’s family is dead, his own wife survived and had a baby. One generation passes away, and another carries on.

The first collaboration between David Lean and Noël Coward had one specific purpose: to celebrate the troops and prepare a nation at war to handle the hard times ahead. There will be loss and heartbreak, but there will also be much to be proud of. The British Navy? Best there is!

In Which We Serve is a somber picture. It was instigated by Coward, who not only wrote, but he co-directed with a young David Lean and also starred in the movie as Captain “D.” Lean had worked on other movies, editing notable pictures like Anthony Asquith’s Pygmalion and the Archers’ own propaganda piece The 49th Parallel [review]; however, excepting some uncredited work directing sequences of Major Barbara [review], he had never worked behind the camera. Coward brought him on to aid in helming this dream project: a tribute to the Royal Navy that would attempt to portray true naval life. In this, In Which We Serve is successful. It’s one major recommending point to this day is its incredible footage of the naval ships being built and operated. It’s celluloid as essential to the historical record as any wartime documentary.

This stuff is fascinating, as is some of the battle footage. The filmmakers don’t overdue it in the combat scenes. The visual language for overly dramatic fight sequences was perhaps not yet developed, but there is something riveting about the unadorned nature of the skirmishes here. Shot from the ship’s deck, these scenes largely feature men taking coordinates, loading guns, and firing as the German ships circle back and forth, emptying ammo clips and dropping bombs. Sure, it’s a little dry, but the whole of In Which We Serve is dry. Even when it is melodramatic, it’s as dry as Noël Coward likely preferred his martinis.

The careful measurement of In Which We Serve’s narrative is both a fault and a virtue. While it likely served to rally the British people behind their armed services without hitting any regrettable racist caricatures or resorting to jingoist language, the lack of blood and guts ultimately drags. In Which We Serve is a long movie, easily too long. The upside is that Coward has invented a fantastic structural conceit for the film.

In Which We Serve begins out on the ocean as the HMS Torrin contends with a Nazi squadron. They end up beating the German’s ace pilot, but not before he delivers a crushing blow. A handful of men make it overboard, and they cling to a life raft, watching their ship sink and reminiscing about what got them there. The main focal points are the Captain (as played by Coward), and two men in his service, one an officer and one a lower-ranked enlisted man (the ones mentioned at the outset, and played by Bernard Miles and John Mills). We see the captain’s family, complete with wife (Celia Johnson) and kids, alongside the officer’s childless but loving marriage and the younger man’s new romance. He marries just before shipping out (his wife is Kay Walsh). The back-and-forth structure, including the captain’s own underwater reverie, dreaming of his beloved in anticipation of drowning, allows us to see how the camaraderie of warriors develops and also look at the consequences back home. How the battle affected the loved ones who were left behind must have been of utmost concern to the English populace.

All of the lead actors are very good, with Mills being the most memorable as the always-genial Shorty Blake. The most striking supporting performance, though, comes from a very young Richard Attenborough, stepping on screen a few years before his creepy star turn in Brighton Rock. Here he plays a disgraced soldier getting a second chance. Attenborough makes for a very convincing onscreen drunk.

Despite neither Lean nor Coward having directed before, and forgiving the overlong running time, they show an assured hand while dealing with an extremely ambitious, complicated production. Combat footage is never easy, and I would guess particularly not on the water. In Which We Serve never looks faked or chintzy. It’s a quality war picture, and even if it is totally dated, it serves its purpose.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

VANYA ON 42ND STREET (Blu-Ray) - #599

In 1981, Louis Malle teamed with theatre director André Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn to challenge the common perception of what belonged on a cinema screen. The film My Dinner with André [review] famously showed little more than two men on a night out, talking art, philosophy, and life over a meal. The result was surprisingly riveting. My Dinner with André remains a true cult hit amongst the art-house set.

More than a decade later, the three joined together again, with Malle filming Gregory's off-off-Broadway production of a David Mamet translation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. I say off-off-Broadway facetiously: the performance was not on a traditional stage, but within the space of a long disused theatre. In fact, the stage itself was unusable, having long ago given over to decay--a kind of fitting metaphor for Chekhov's drama, which itself has themes of age and obsolescence. In 1994, and even now, theatrical drama was facing its own increasing unimportance in the realm of popular entertainment. Home video, the internet, you name it--it's probably getting more traction than theatre.

Somewhat ironic, then, that cinema could be used as a tool to show how vital live drama really can be. Vanya on 42nd Street is a spartan, yet effective chronicle of one of Gregory's cast rehearsals. Indeed, Malle prepares a little dose of "reality" at the start. The director and his cast meet on the street and enter the space. As the play begins, we see Gregory and a few spectators watching from chairs just a few feet away from the players. At the act break, André calls for everyone to take a break. This is acting! It is theatre! It is not real, it is performance!


The trick here is that, as Vanya on 42nd Street goes on, Malle breaks the illusion less and less. We stop seeing André Gregory, we stop seeing the tagalongs, and as an audience, we stop being aware of the unconventional space. The performance is purely theatrical, but the filming and editing (by Nancy Baker, who also edited Harlan County USA), simplistic as they may be, are purely cinematic. What we thought we were getting--a detached recording of a live happening--is not what we get at all. Instead, as spectators, we lose ourselves in the lives being portrayed. Just as we would in any movie, and by extension, just as we would in any good theatrical production.

And this Vanya is indeed good. Wallace Shawn plays sad, broken Vanya, while Julianne Moore is Yelena, the woman he loves, and Brooke Smith is Sonya, the niece he adores. The narrative takes place during the visit of Sonya's father (George Gaynes), an out-of-touch professor who benefits from the work Vanya and Sonya do on the estate, which was left to Sonya by her late mother. Yelena is his second wife, and in addition to Vanya, she has attracted the attention of the local doctor (Larry Pine), despite Sonya's own interest in the man. Their existences become entangled, even as they become mired down in the old scholar's selfish demands and reckless plans.

I have never read the original Chekhov, nor have I seen Uncle Vanya on the stage, but I had previously seen two BBC productions made for television, including one just a couple of years before Vanya on 42nd Street. They were a part of The Anton Chekhov Collection, a boxed set I reviewed for DVD Talk. Here is what I had to say about those programs, and the play itself:

Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov's most famous plays and thus one that is produced the most often out of his library. In this set, we get two full productions on a double-sided disc, a 1970 film on Side A and a 1991 version on Side B. The play itself is an update of The Wood Demon, and that early effort has matured with Chekhov's skills. This remake is more sophisticated, with Chekhov trimming out a few characters and dropping some of the more strident, overwrought politics. The men in the play now feel the weariness of age, and as such, they no longer can subscribe to unbendable beliefs. They have felt the sting of failure, and they are aware of their own history. Alcohol also plays a more important role in their misery, much as it does in Platonov. 

The Vanya character now takes the place of Uncle George, and he is a middle-aged man with nothing to call his own, no mark of distinction, resentful of his dead sister's husband, in love with the old man's new wife. Vanya in the 1970 version is played with inebriated bitterness by Freddie Jones. It's a stagey performance, with the actor bellowing and gesticulating wildly at times, and at others dropping to an overtly poetic whisper. It's hard to tell if he's intentionally pretentious, playing Vanya as a sort of soulless poser. Jones certainly is no competition for Anthony Hopkins, who plays his friend, the doctor Astrov, the new version of the Wood Demon. He's still an environmentalist, as well as a  vegetarian, but he is now a drunk and far more aware of his own outsider status and not as convinced that he can change the minds of others. His cynicism has made him a realist. Hopkins shows greater restraint than Jones, his sadness more soulful, wearing it like a heavy shirt. There is a dichotomy created between the two, a gulf of real feeling that Jones ends up traversing due to his character's more ignominious end, his drama queen status made all the more tragic by his inability to do anything to stop his own suffering. 

The 1991 staging (for a series called "Performance"), interestingly enough, brings back Ian Holm as Astrov. The more mature actor taking on the more mature version of the role he played on DVD 2. The whole cast is slightly more "all-star," with Rebecca Pidgeon (known from countless David Mamet roles) playing the niece Sonya and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio (The Abyss) as her stepmother, Yelena. David Warner, perhaps best known as Billy Zane's ruthless right-hand man in Titanic, takes on Vanya. 

The shooting style for this much later production is essentially the same as on the others, though the picture quality is noticeably better. The biggest difference is that the histrionics have been toned down in this Vanya and the performances grounded in a more weary reality. Holm and Hopkins take similar approaches, though Holm plays the doctor as far less arrogant. Warner's Vanya is a vast improvement, much less soppy, more aware of his bitterness and all that he feels he has lost. He has as much anger as he does self-pity.

The latter production is much more in keeping with the tone of Malle and Gregory's version, though the sparseness of their set piece also lends an even greater sparseness to the acting. Wallace Shawn is remarkably reserved as Vanya, saving all his energy for one powerful outburst when it becomes clear that his world is close to tumbling down. Larry Pine also advances the doctor to a point where he is, essentially, at the end of his rope. For all the talk of Vanya's more drastic impulses, the doctor is the one who seems to really be taking his last shot at happiness and meaning. Vanya, in the end, will carry on; the doctor leaves to we know not where.

I was also quite impressed with the performances of the female leads. Brooke Smith is heartbreaking as the self-aware "plain" girl who can't inspire the men in her life to notice her as more than a reliable worker. For the role of Yelena, Julianne Moore shows the new wife as mysterious, not entirely remarkable, but alluring--embodying all that the doctor says about her in his final, bold attempt to steal her away. She's asked for none of this, and wishes no ill will on her stepdaughter. The weariness of the life forced upon her is palpable.

Vanya on 42nd Street comes to a quiet rest. There is no curtain, and no curtain call. Instead, the credits come on and the actors return to frame, as does André Gregory. Really, Louis Malle should have joined them. He is as much a part of this grand experiment as anyone--but then, that could be the one fundamental difference with cinema. Discounting our current information/hype-driven culture, the ones behind the camera never really take a bow. The lights merely come on, and we go home, far more disconnected than we realized, far less in touch than we would be if this were all occurring live.

It's also fitting that Vanya on 42nd Street was Louis Malle's final film. Though there is much left to be resolved for its cast of characters, the lack of resolution is its one finality. This is how life concludes: midway through whatever personal toil we have accepted as our lot (or, as it were, had foisted upon us). Whether it was intended to be his last film or not (he died a year later), it's the perfect punctuation for a mercurial career spent changing the boundaries of cinema, of experimenting with and expanding on the language of filmic storytelling. Uncle Vanya is a text full of meaning, and Vanya on 42nd Street is a potent and meaningful rendering of the same.

Friday, June 22, 2012


When I ran my review of Tiny Furniture on this blog, I added a coda dismissing Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls. Based on the pilot, it appeared we were in for just a retread of all the irksome traits of her full-length feature: self-important, entitled myopia magnified to a level of false importance. Worse, as the series sank in, it started to look like Girls was going to merely be a post-college Sex and the City [review]. There was the promiscuous blonde girl, the virginal brunette, the uptight responsible one, and the neurotic writer doing her best to fail at relationships. Yeah, I know, this is such a Charlotte thing for me to say, but I didn't like it.

The debate kept going elsewhere, however, and it got heated enough and was interesting enough that I felt compelled to give Girls a chance and follow my own three-installment rule. This rule says that any piece of art, particularly serialized art, deserves three chapters or episodes or issues to find its footing and let you know what it's all about. If a show or a comic book or whatever can't hook you in three, then you have every right to move on.

And sure enough, by episode three, a disarming vulnerability had crept into Girls. Dunham not only revealed a larger capacity for examination than she'd previously shown, but it also became evident that the earlier self-involvement had possibly been defensive and, in reality, she was becoming increasingly aware of her own place in the world. Better yet, she understood the people around her and could, indeed, dig into the lives of the characters she was bringing along with her for this endeavor. As the writer, director, and star, it would have been easy to make Girl rather than Girls, but over the coure of the first season, all the supporting cast got their due and grew into meaningful people.

By the finale, Dunham had done what she could not do in Tiny Furniture: bring her fictional persona to a point of new understanding that allows for a true emotional breakthrough. And not one just tacked on, but earned. Her character, Hannah, had gone from someone I rebuked as being terrible to someone I actually empathized with. She's still terrible--and in two different, powerful scenes in the last two episodes, other characters tell her not only how terrible she is, but exactly why--but yet, aren't we all?

I bring this up now because, in reviewing Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones' Lola Versus, I found myself not only thinking of Dunham's work, but also Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends with Kids [review]. The one thing all of these cinematic efforts have in common is that they portray the lives of (mostly) white people living comfortably in New York, walking a strange and achingly thin line between self-serious drama and satire, seemingly oblivious to how good they have it. In Lola Versus, do all those references to Kombucha and vegan food and the like amount to a critique of trend chasing or does all of these things fall into the characters (and, by default, their creators) being exactly what they pretend they aren't? (Expect this to come up again this summer when the Lee Toland Krieger-directed Celeste and Jesse Forever lands in theaters [review].) Striking a balance between emulation and exhumation is something Whit Stillman regularly pulls off (his recent Damsels in Distress is a very good example), managing a sort of erudite Fitzgeraldian tone of simultaneous adoration and amusement. It's also something I think Lena Dunham has now figured out. The jury is still out on the rest.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I was wrong about Girls. I take back what I said. Mea culpa, Lena Dunham.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.” - Paul

Romance is easy; breaking-up is what’s hard to do. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 masterpiece Contempt (Le Mepris) is my favorite of all his films. It is his most emotionally raw, a carefully composed examination of marital failure, ego, and hubris. Legend is that Godard hated making the film and the American producers who hired him hated what he gave them. Yet, there is so much about that history, about the contentious nature of the set, that informs what happens onscreen, better circumstances would have only harmed the art. It’s a movie that isn’t just about the death of love, but also about the implications of artistic compromise and how such decisions inform the personal lives of the artists. It’s a movie about making movies, rife with mythological allusions. Within its context, the gods are cinema itself, and everything else is man. All too fragile, brittle man.

Contempt opens with two disparate sequences, each laying out specific elements of Godard’s mis-en-scene. First, a “behind-the-scenes” shot of cinematographer Raoul Coutard at work, filming a woman walking (the script girl played by Georgia Moll), following her with his camera, riding a track toward the viewer while Godard reads the opening credits aloud.

The second bit is a cataloguing of star Brigitte Bardot’s many attributes. She lies on a bed naked, in character as Camille, with her onscreen husband Paul (Michel Piccoli). She is vulnerable and insecure about her body, in direct opposition to our perception of the sexbomb and her reputation. In truth, the scene was Godard’s capitulation to the producers, who wanted a little sizzle to help them sell the feature. It is itself an artistic compromise, much like the ones Paul will give in to as the film progresses. The changing colors and the static filming of the scene will later be echoed in the images we see of Greek statuary. Bardot is our movie goddess. She is so revered, that merely half an hour into the film, Godard creates a montage of flashbacks reviewing everything she’s done in the previous 30 minutes. Just in case you needed reminding.

The “plot” of Contempt is rather bare. Paul is a writer who is hired by an American movie producer to rewrite an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) is an uncultured schlock peddler. Fritz Lang appears as himself, playing the director whom Jeremiah (or Jerry) has hired and who is now proving too artistically difficult. Jerry wants more sex and death, Lang wants to deal with the grand themes of humanity.

The story of these characters begins to parallel that of Odysseus and Penelope and the rest in a small, confined way. When Jerry meets Camille, he immediately sets his sights on her. His view of women is about as low as his respect for classic literature. His theory about The Odyssey is that Penelope cheated on Odysseus while he was away. Jerry keenly perceives that despite being there physically, Paul checked out a long time ago; thus, Camille is the Penelope waiting to be taken. As the script development progresses, Paul reveals himself in how he alters Jerry’s theory: Odysseus left for war and doesn’t rush home because he was sick of his wife. If she was unfaithful, all the better, it only proves him right. When Odysseus returns and kills his rivals, it’s really just a matter of protecting his territory and asserting his masculine rights (those terms should likely be in quotes).

For as negative a view of womanhood as this presents, I think there is a real case to be made for Contempt as a feminist movie. If we are to take Lang as the voice of reason, as well as the mouthpiece for the director, he is the only one to stand up for Penelope, and he is also kindest to Camille. In truth, Godard’s portrayal of the wife is entirely sympathetic to her problems, even if he does frame her predicament in somewhat old-fashioned terms. She is neglected and rebuked by her husband, whom she wishes would take a more traditional, masculine role in their relationship. Throughout Contempt, she is pushing him to make a decision, any decision. The worst of these times comes right after she first meets Jerry and the American contrives to separate her from Paul. She practically begs her husband not to send her off alone with him. She wants him to man up and show her that she is valuable and desired; he dismisses her instead, and when they are reunited, she appears shamed and disappointed. I know many might debate the quality of Brigitte Bardot’s acting ability, but her performance in Contempt is subtle, emotional, and mostly interior. She never really owns up to her infidelity, but she never has to: we see what she has done and gone through entirely in how she looks at her spouse.

Piccoli’s performance is just as tricky. We are never sure how much he knows or even suspects. When he arrives at Jerry’s, his story of the taxicab collision that delayed his arrival seems strangely apropos. The detailing of the car crash, in both word and gesture, is strikingly suggestive. It actually wraps Jerry’s preoccupation with sex and death into one convenient symbol, particularly when you consider what the anecdote is actually foreshadowing.

If you love me, just be quiet.” - Camille

The centerpiece of the film immediately follows the indiscreet incident. It’s a long argument back at the couple’s apartment. The conversation lasts more than half an hour and consists entirely of the pair sniping back and forth, raising suspicions, dancing around truths, and exposing cruelties. Narratively, Godard frames much of this in film noir conventions, largely to cater to the image that Paul wants to create for himself. As we will discover, he is an intellectual bully playing at being a tough guy, and it’s telling that the one moment of true expressive honesty he has in the argument is when he strikes Camille. It’s an old-fashioned movie moment, the gangster slapping his moll. To fit in with Paul’s fantasies and also to change herself, Camille puts on a black wig and tries to be his femme fatale, but Paul rejects her; in turn, she dismantles his pose. His fedora and cigar are meant to mimic Dean Martin in Some Came Running, but she sees that it’s a costume only. He is a compromised man: he used to be a crime novelist, but now he writes movies, except when he decides he is too good for movies, Paul pretends that he has a more erudite career as a playwright. (Ironically, we can see Camille as being the more successful movie mimic: her black wig causes her to resemble Godard’s then wife Anna Karina, particularly as the fallen woman in Vivre sa vie [review].)

The argument ends with a particularly devastating exchange. In answer to Paul’s suggestion that they “make love,” Camille strips and throws herself down on their couch. She tells him to take her, but to make it quick. In the time between her begrudged offer and his refusal, Godard shows us another montage: a capsule of their whole marriage and confirmation that it is indeed falling apart. It’s a brilliant trick of time. The fight is drawn out and long, presented without break; it eclipses the whole of the rest of their union. It’s also a trick that is almost purely visual, marrying disembodied voices to structurally abstract visuals. A lot can be divined from the Coutard and Godard’s framing throughout the film. Watch how the characters come together and move apart, how physical objects divide them, or how the camera swings from one lover to the other--there is something indecisive about a lot of it, like maybe if they would just sit still, they could fix this.

It’s this argument scene that keeps bringing me back to Contempt, and why, again, it is my favorite of Godard’s films. The way the dialogue flows here is so natural, so lacking in pretension or contrivance, it never loses its rawness, no matter how many times you see it. I took on this particular viewing as research for a novel I am working on, as I am wrestling with similar themes of self-compromise and the damage lovers inflict on one another. What most impressed me about the movie this time around was not just the honesty of the writing, but how Godard lays the larger tapestry of myth and storytelling over the top of it, while also weaving the threat of violence throughout.

Death is no resolution.” - Fritz Lang

Godard teases us with a gun early in the film. A pistol appears at Paul and Camille’s apartment, and it shows up again later in the back half of the story when the couple travels with the film production to Capri. Knowing as we do that Paul believes Odysseus asserted himself by killing Penelope’s suitors, what then can we infer that he will do to the man that made him a cuckold? In truth, Godard is subverting the old Chekhov rule about what happens when a gun appears in the first act of a drama. In what may be the cruelest cut of all, Camille takes the bullets out of the revolver before she leaves Paul, rendering him impotent. After his second abandoning of her, she leaves him with no third option.

Here, too, Fritz Lang remains the voice of clarity. He believes there is no possible good outcome from a crime of passion, and he sees altering the purity of Homer’s story as akin to messing with the shared values and principles that define us as something other than animal. As the resolution of Contempt bears out, reckless decisions bring destruction. Fate can’t be averted.

It’s funny, but when I worked at a video store from 2004 to 2007, Godard was often a topic of discussion. It was a small, privately owned store and it had sections for specific directors, so we had a clientele with tastes slightly more adventurous than what was just new or popular. Naturally, opinions about Godard were all over the place, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to tell me that they thought Contempt was boring. I find this ironic, because on the face of it, it’s one of Godard’s most accessible movies. Its narrative is the most simplistic, there is an obvious three-act structure, and its situations are easily relatable. Perhaps without the varnish of the usual Godard technique, without his playfulness and pranksterism, the presentation was too naked, the heft of the assault too much to carry. Belmondo in Breathless [review] can play at being Bogart and get shot down in the street, and we never forget it’s a movie; in Contempt, no shot is ever fired, not from Piccoli’s gun or at him, and so there is nothing to break the illusion that this is real pain and real life.

Like Brigitte Bardot 
In Godard's Le Mepris 
I can't love you enough 
To make you complete 
You appear in my dreams 
With some new courtier 
You need me there to see 
What you need to convey

 - Pete Townshend, “It’s Not Enough” (recorded by the Who, 2006)

My collaborator and friend Joëlle Jones did the above drawing for a collector. He specifically requested Brigitte Bardot from Contempt. I think it turned out pretty awesome. You should check Joëlle's work out over at her blog.

* Other possible entries in this particularly happy-go-lucky film festival are Mike Nichols’ Closer, Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road [review].

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Released the same year as Brief Encounter [review], David Lean’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s hit comedy Blithe Spirit couldn’t be further in tone from what would become the duo’s unassailable masterpiece, and yet thematically, they are actually pretty close in terms of their deeper narrative concerns. At the heart of Blithe Spirit beats questions of conjugal love, infidelity, and a cast of characters who soldier on together even when the soldiering gets rough.

Rex Harrison leads the cast of Blithe Spirit as Charles Condomine, an upper-class author content with his posh lifestyle, so much so that there is even some suggestion that his writing isn’t as good as it once was. Charles is married to Ruth (Constance Cummings), who is his second wife. She seems an able companion for him. Their senses of humor are in line with one another, and she goes along with his mad ideas. The current one is to have a medium come to their home for a séance. Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, also in Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest) is the village joke, but she’s exactly the punchline Charles is waiting on: he is hoping to learn the art of the spiritual charlatan for the latest mystery he is penning.

Naturally, since this is a light comedy, that floating table holding the crystal ball is going to turn, and Charles is going to get what is coming to him. His first wife, the late Elvira (a saucy Kay Hammond), has been a presence in his house since her passing seven years ago, even if only as a topic of discussion between Charles and Ruth. Arcati’s shenanigans make that presence far more real: Elvira has returned as a ghost, one that only Charles can see and hear. His panic and the seemingly one-sided conversations he has with the ghost cause a rift with the understandably irritated second wife--but that’s only the beginning of Charles’ supernatural woes.

Blithe Spirit is, at a surface glance, charmingly toothless. The comedy is light and airless, playing rather innocently with the notion of a restless afterlife. In other words, it’s as far from spooky as you’re likely to get. Watching it actually reminded me of what a big fan of the Topper films I was as a child. I very much liked the idea of having spectral friends that only I could see, standing by my side, helping me out of scrapes. (Naturally, I was also on Jimmy Stewart’s team any time I watched
Harvey.) Blithe Spirit made me want to revisit Topper to see if it’s as harmless as I remember.

Because, of course, being a Noël Coward script, Blithe Spirit’s frothy appearance masks some darker, more mature undertones. There is much one can infer from the coded barbs that were the author’s trademark. (Such as, the suggestion that the previous maid got a sudden case of the marrieds because she was pregnant; it was only 1945, after all, and censorship being what it was....) Ruth’s jealousy of the unimpeachable, crystallized image of her predecessor gives way to a truer picture of Elvira when the dead woman returns and we see how she icily bullied her husband as a matter of foreplay. Presumably since they no longer have to get along by way of corporeal cohabitation, the veil between Charles’ romanticized feelings for Elvira and the side effects of her acidic promiscuity start to become more clear.

The ensemble cast is perfectly gung-ho and able-bodied. They stay committed to Blithe Spirit even when some of the slapstick gets clunky. (Lean’s direction seems to grow more wooden in direct proportion to how silly the story gets.) Rex Harrison adheres pretty closely to the Rex Harrison brand, so he is good, but offers few surprises here (none of that nastiness that makes his turn as Henry Higgins stand out amongst his filmography). Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond are both excellent as the wives: one steadfast and plucky, the other sexy and devious. Even better though, is Margaret Rutherford’s performance as the spiritualist. She is an exceptional character actress, and she creates a busy-bodied, addle-brained persona for the old woman. Rutherford’s performance is both physical and verbal, and despite the obvious craft put into it, surprisingly natural.

Perhaps more impressive, though, is how Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame (who also contributed the script) handle Blithe Spirit’s special effects. There is less cinematic trickery here than there are tried-and-true stage techniques. Phosphorescent make-up and matching, flowing robes give Elvira her ghostly pallor. Only the woman’s lips have maintained a lively hue: red, passionate, alluring. Symbolically, the lady has yet to give up her last breath.

Those who have seen Blithe Spirit will know I am being coy in how I doled out that last compliment. There are some surprises to be had in the story’s later acts that, while not necessarily mind-blowing, add to the fun. The pace of the film increases as the situation becomes more desperate and Charles seeks to free himself from being haunted. The final scenes add further weight to the relationships, with us learning that Charles himself was not quite the gentleman he maybe pretended to be. Yet, there is also some validation of these relationships. Coward’s script may not necessarily seem to get behind the sanctity of marriage, but it does land firmly on the side of lifelong companionship--no matter how maddening or begrudging it might become. Some people are just meant to be stuck together.

This poster makes me laugh, since it looks nothing like the movie. Compare this lovely still of Kay Hammond below to the paperback novel painting above just to see how different they are.

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

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Still working to get my groove back, but things are getting more focused, batteries are charging. I am keeping track of every week missed, still, so hopefully there will be a flurry of activity this summer.

In the meantime, I did see a couple of movies this past month and I ended up writing about them...


Bernie, Richard Linklater reteams with Jack Black for a semi-successful comedic take on the true crime genre.

The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest is big on laughs and small on story, but if you like his stuff, the giggles win.

Men in Black III. What does that make? At least two times too many? Josh Brolin is pretty great, though.

Snow White and the Huntsmen. No glib line here. I actually like a review I wrote for once. I tried something different. Please read it.

* I also covered Portland's sixth-annual Queer Documentary Film Festival with a round-up of the event for the Mercury. I am hoping Jobriath A.D. gets out there and is seen by many, many people.


Fat City, an excellent boxing drama from John Huston, starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges.

Spin a Dark Web, a 1956 British crime thriller, short on thrills but tall on Britishness. The photography stands out more than anything else.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


"I like telling the story of life better than living it." - Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray left this Earth in January of 2004, after struggling for several years following a horrific car accident in Ireland. We see the effects of that accident at the tail end of And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh's documentary tribute to the actor and writer. He is clearly in pain, and he no longer looks himself. It's a sad finish for a man who otherwise pulled wit and wisdom out of what he termed the great accident of life.

Gray was a struggling actor until his one-man monologues started getting notice in the 1980s. His watershed moment was Swimming to Cambodia, a stage show based on his experience filming The Killing Fields. Gray developed his own kind of theatre--just himself and a desk and a microphone, talking about his life. Several films were shot of these different monologue programs, including 1996's Gray's Anatomy, also directed by Soderbergh. It's often said that the performer's only subject was himself, but as Everything is Going Fine demonstrates, his real subject was the world and the people whose paths he crossed. He even hosted nights where he would sit on stage and interview audience members, as curious about their story as they were about his.

Soderbergh assembles And Everything is Going Fine from various taped performances and interviews, using Gray's own words to fashion a new monologue in order to come to a deeper understanding about the man and share it with a new audience. There is no linear time continuum to how Soderbergh uses the footage, he jumps from one year to the next and back again without any concern for how Gray's physical appearance or the condition of the tape might cut together. What's important in And Everything is Going Fine is the words. The splices create a narrative that takes us from Gray's early childhood and the peculiar fears and philosophies passed on to him by his mother, to how he caught the acting bug and eventually developed his art. We also hear how the restless neurotic eventually found grounding in family after the birth of the first of two sons. That son, Forrest, even contributes music to this movie about his father.

Taking a cue from his subject, Soderbergh searches out the coincidences in Gray's life, and he finds the echoes of events that haunted the great thinker as he trundled forward. An ongoing concern with his mother's madness and own suicide have unsettling reverberations when you know how Spalding Gray eventually died, as do regular references to water. In describing Ireland after the accident, he noted that he could find no bodies of water when he arrived at the Irish countryside. He oriented himself wherever he traveled by the lakes, rivers, and streams. Clearly he had to know what kind of synergy he was creating in his final act. Not that Soderbergh goes there. How could he? There was no way for the monologist to provide commentary about his own suicide.

The concept of And Everything is Going Fine is so simple, there's not much more to describe about it. The documentary is a scant 90 minutes, the average length of Gray's shows, and it manages to never appear hurried but it also never fails to be interesting. I know the impulse to reject such a thing, I passed up seeing Gray's Anatomy in its theatrical run because I didn't understand why anyone would care to see one person talk about himself for an hour and a half. Reject that impulse instead of refusing the movie. And Everything is Going Fine is wonderful viewing. There is much you will pull out of what Spalding Gray has to say, much to carry with you when the movie is over, and despite the tragedy that befell the man, he still manages to make all of us feel like it really will be fine in the end.

"One day life just wins." - James, "Blue Pastures"