Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Cocoanuts

I'd watched lots and lots of things before, but sometime in my early teens I fell hopelessly in love with The Marx Brothers and I think it was with them that I really joined the children of the light, and became a true follower of the Cinema. It occurred to me tonight, sitting in front of the computer screen with the whole internet to play with, that I'd never actually seen their first film (actually, pedantic 'don't I know a lot about them' note, virtually nobody saw their first first film, Humourisk, made in 1919 - they hated it and had it destroyed) but a few keystrokes later there it was snipped up into segments on YouTube. And I'd always meant to blog about a film in real time, as I watched it, so here we go, with the obvious warning that this is going to be a bit of a long ramble. If you want to play along The Cocoanuts on YouTube starts here.

The biggest problem with the opening is that there's so little of The Marx Brothers in it. I'm always quite happy with the romance plots that run through the supporting singers (they're clearly not actors) because the plots they string together allow the important bits of the film (everything else) to work out so well. The terrible problem here (which is resolved beautifully in their second film, Animal Crackers, and there is every chance that I'm going to blog about all of them) is that it takes so long for the Marxes to arrive - Groucho gets a bit of a speech on the stairs but it's slim stuff, frankly - he needs Margaret Dumont to flummox and he gets her eventually - and in fact the beginning is so off the point that it's a pleasure to then see him and Zeppo together (and is this Zeppo's big film? It's the only one I can think of where his role isn't to come on and tell everyone that Groucho will be there soon).

The moment that the older brothers arrive though is perfect (and I've seen that before and I hope you have too, it's the bit that Jill is watching in the bath at the beginning of Brazil - note to self, write about Brazil) and straight away we have anarchy and this is what they are all about. I love Groucho's wordplay and I love his moments to camera and so on but it's the Harpo and Chico led physical comedy that allows Groucho to really prosper. Even the plot bits start to pick up - frame the dumb boys for the robbery, perfect.

Chico knows how to deal with Harpo, just take him at face value 'What is it with you, you've always gotta to eat' as Harpo chews the telephone. They are so full of physical comedy, too - and they're not young men, Chico was 42 when this was made, Harpo 40.

Groucho's use of the Prince of Wales line makes me laugh out loud - the comedy of repetition. It's funny how bland he was in that very first little speech at the beginning, before the rest of them were there and they all had this absurd context to work with. The future of Groucho's and Margeret Dumont's relationship is laid out here beautifully - it's always the same after this, the wonder of the genre contract, just give us what we know we want but in slightly different clothes - 'You wouldn't love me if I was poor' - 'I might, but I'd keep my mouth shut about it'.

I wonder if one of the reasons Harpo's relentless harassing pursuit of women is never offensive is because his bland and innocent face in character develops into something just as innocent but somehow angelic and beautiful when he's playing the harp. They'd learned their trade the hard way, these boys, decades on the vaudeville circuit doing whatever it took to entertain, and the musical interludes just about always work really well for me - I like that these wonderfully funny people can suddenly show off this completely different talent. Of course it helps that most of their films are set amongst people so well to do that they leave harps lying around unattended...

And then amidst the slow plotty stuff Harpo swims across the floor and from out of nowhere spits a stream of seawater. Glorious. And their film prototype for another scene that comes back again and again as they chase around and about - they'd been doing this on stage for years (and yes, this is a very stagey film, but what can you do? it was a play!) but their timing is so perfect and it goes on for so wonderfully long, beyond the obvious joke and into the laugh's second wind.

As Chico to Harpo so Groucho to Chico - the way to deal with strange absurdity is to ignore it and carry on anyway, and see where it gets you - usually back to the beginning. Although actually this is also how Chico deals with Groucho, just knock it back up and see what he makes with it. It is rarely left to the boys to actually make the plot work, particularly in these early ones. Thalberg's idea, at MGM, was to tie them more closely into the plot, to embed their antics in narrative, and let them struggle to break free from it. I'm still not entirely sure which approach I prefer.

If you were there would you say 'I will buy all of the plots of land if she stops singing?' The other problem with these song and dance routines (which wasn't true of Harpo's bit) is that the screen just turns into a proscenium arch stage and everything becomes obviously a set. And this is especially so when all we're really waiting for is for Chico to foul up his role at the auction. And Chico surpasses himself (I know, but I've seen all the later ones, all right, he preceeds himself) but outbidding himself whilst nobody else is interested. And when Chico can't ruin things Harpo can always step in.

The plot plays us another visit as Margaret Dumont's necklace is stolen and Harpo makes the best screen exit I can remember from any of their films ever. It's been said that later on Harpo stops being somebody who won't talk and instead starts to be somebody who can't talk - and so he finds ways to communicate with mime and sound and part of the mischievous demon in his soul departs. Early on though, and certainly here, Harpo is petulant and determined rather than mute, and all the better for it.

More Harpo and Chico nonsense, and Harpo's perfect physicality - sometimes these things are just ludicrous, like hiding behind somebody here (although he is So Tall! maybe he just can't see them down there) but the theft of the key is perfect, real 'why didn't I think of that' stuff. Although obviously we learn a few minutes later than Harpo already has a whole bunch of keys, and can break the bars of the jail if he chooses (and look extraordinarily pleased about it).

It's easy to think that, as the first film, this is the template for all of these visual gags and for many of the verbal gags too, even for the initial development of the characters, but this is just what they'd been doing on stage for years. This is why you also keep getting things like the musical section that follows the jail scene, because it would have been part of a variety show on the stage.

And Groucho gets a speech (and Chico catches up with himself wonderfully) and again it's an example of these things that become stock scenes not quite working - the Gene O'Neill stuff is much more effective in Animal Crackers when Groucho just breaks out and stares through the screen...

Pantomime time... for a while when I was about 16 I wanted to be Harpo - Groucho gets to be confrontational but it's almost an obligation for him, Chico gets to be the strangely irresponsible happy daft, but Harpo can do anything he wants, anytime...

Chico's piano pieces don't usually please me as much as Harpo's harp pieces but he's a great comedy pianist, he makes everything look pretty effortless and cool. It's interesting that a lot of the response he gets from his scenes comes from quite close work with his hands - it needs to be cinema for you to see the strange ways he plays, it would never have worked on the stage in the same way.

If there is one thing about all of their films it's that they tend to end very suddenly - there's often a major set piece to set up the conclusion but the end when it comes is often now you see them now you don't. And so it is here - the hotel is strangely saved, the development is all systems go, the bad guys are caught, the new happy couple are getting married - and it betrays its stage heritage as they all take a bow.

So, the first thing they did that's lasted and you can see the structures that will serve them well for a lot of the films to follow. Not the most wonderful thing in the world but Harpo is particularly fine and Margeret Dumont is strangely young. Animal Crackers is next....

Monday, 9 March 2009


Until the last twenty minutes or so, I really liked this, despite all of the losses from the book. I take the point entirely about Terry Gilliam when he was once upon a time in charge asking Alan Moore 'how would you do the film' and Moore (back before he routinely and openly wanted nothing to do with cinema adaptations of his work) said 'I wouldn't', and I think it's a shame that the film loses whole layers of narrative - some of them, like the newstand man and boy, which are central to the tone of the overall work, are briefly referenced and then given a central image in the conclusion that must make no sense at all to anyone who doesn't know the book, others, like the psychiatrist's story outside of the prison, are removed even though he stays, and others, like the image of knots, disappear completely (which is a real shame for a visual medium, I mean, a nice few knots around in a narrative like this somehow help to tie the narrative down (I give you The Usual Suspects, and not only as a reference to the obvious and clumsy previous phrase). I noticed after about an hour that we were at the end of Issue #2 of 12, and I didn't think that was a good sign for what was to come. So, pirates and knots sorely missed.

I liked the way the opening titles dealt with so much backstory, and I liked so much of the dialogue being lifted straight out of the book so I could talk along with it (something I usually only manage on third or fourth viewing) although I thought as soon as the dialogue left the book it got terribly cheesey. I liked the number of nods that there were to the endpiece music references from the individual issues although it was a shame that, in a piece of writing that provides you with a fairly comprehensive soundtrack, they didn't stick with that more comprehensively. Maybe there were 'issues', although it seems strange that they couldn't be navigated with huge sums of money.

I thought the book was far more effective than the film in being unpleasant, by the usual effective method of leaving it up to you to fill in the details instead of providing them in gory colour as the film did and I agree with several reviews which have described the violence in the film as gratuitous. The film takes something psychologically very unsettling but (or therefore) deeply engaging, like the kidnap story, and makes it gross and offputting, which is a serious failing. Following on with a number of recent classroom discussions, I think Snyder says he wants the film to use realistic violence and ends up instead with entertaining violence, consequential only in a non-realistic comicbook way, which is always problematic, even when you're adapting a comicbook.

I thought the end was wrong in all sorts of ways. It works perfectly in the book - Veidt goes from being pretty much a fringe player to suddenly revealing the level of his arrogance and the conclusion of the book is... well, I think it justifies the narrative layers of the rest of the book, it is thoroughly unexpected and strange and unusual, and it allows Veidt's character to suddenly flesh out in a really satisfying way. In the film Veidt is a little more central to events (in part due to the generally reduced cast of characters and breadth and depth of narrative) and his arrogance is made clear from his earliest appearances - but more than that, the end just doesn't make sense, and the 'agent' of doom at the end is somehow accepted as acting wholly and completely out of character, it simply makes no sense at all, not with the information you have from the film nor with the backstory or breadth you might have from the book, and it meant I left feeling cheated by it all. I understand that closing up a narrative with a devestating attack on New York raises connotations now that weren't there when it was written but Snyder just fudged the issue by spreading the attack around a little and by completely changing what it was and what it meant. There's a line that comes out in cultural studies readings of modern history - 'the holocaust is not a text' - and it's not, but an attack on New York is a narrative device (if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck...) so why pretend and dissipate with a flash on other targets that are never mentioned again? It's a strangely cowardly approach to the material.

So how do you adapt Watchmen? Maybe you don't. With the range of material in the book, adverts, marketing plans, journals and memoirs, TV specials and theme music, the whole thing would be a good electronic text, web based or CD/DVD-Rom stylee. Gilliam wanted to make it as a TV mini-series and that would have been more effective than a film. It is always an issue with adaptations - Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is about 80 pages long but the film never feels like it drags in its three hours or so. Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are even shorter stories that translate into fast paced and action packed films. Maybe film is fundamentally a short story medium. Discuss?

But I did like it, much much more than I expected to - if you'd asked me before the end, around the time the two riders arrived at Karnak, I'd have been very enthusiastic, despite everything that had been necessarily lost in translation. Shame, then.

Monday, 19 May 2008

'The Singer' and Why I no longer love French Cinema

I have heard many times from many people that you will always remember your first love with wistful affection and I suppose I did for a while...

I first fell in love with French Cinema while studying for my A levels. There was a Louis Malle season on Channel 4 in the late 80s (when Channel 4 used to be good) and as a misfit, working class girl from the depths of Tipton I was utterly captivated by the beauty of the photography, the beauty of Moreau and the beauty of stillness. It was like manna for my soul. French cinema and it's heroines also had a certain je ne sais quoi which I attempted to encapsulate in my first year at Sheffield University, probably without much luck for I was born in Tipton, but not in a barn, (for those of you who remember Viz).

For a while, I gorged on French cinema. Lots of days were spent with my uni cinema-loving honcho shut away in a curtained room on a bright sunny summer's day watching Truffeau films. 'Shoot the Piano Player' astonished me and made me laugh. 'Four Hundred Blows' made me cry and reminded me why I was glad I was no longer a child. There was a thoughtful intelligence behind the French Cinema I indulged in then, even in Chabrol's murderous 'Le Boucher'. Could anybody have done it better?

I left university, got my degree and began work for the Ministry of Agriculture in Leicester. Understandably, my disassociation with life around me continued. And it was perfectly captured by a French film I saw three times in one week - 'Un Coeur en Hiver' by Claude Sautet. This produced a couple of French actors for me to follow for a while, namely Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart. I fancied him and wanted to be her, not only because she was amazingly good looking and mad, but because she was married to him! I still find it quite a difficult film to watch today because the main focus is on the Auteuil's character's inability to be nothing more than a cynical observer of relationships and I felt like that for such a long time.

And so I continued for a few years watching what I could until I began to feel ever so slightly disappointed and unfulfilled. I wasn't mad keen on Jeunet and Luc Bresson didn't turn me on at all. So, I suppose as with most love affairs, they so often come to an end. And like most love affairs it happens over a period of years rather than an abrupt closing of the door. In search of that earlier fulfillment experienced in my youth, I would borrow any old French film from friends, or Blockbusters, of the latest French offering, in the desperate hope that the earlier magic could be rekindled. But I increasingly felt like I was wasting my time. After 'Nathalie' I realised Emmanuelle Beart had completely lost it and on Saturday I watched 'The Singer' with Gerard Depardieu with some typical mad totty and realised that French cinema had completely lost it. It had become a sad pastiche of itself. Or am I just getting old? I cannot lose myself in the idea of a beautiful young woman falling for a sad, fat, old, failing git, no matter how positive he may be about life.

Along with Woody Allen films, I have decided that I can no longer submit myself to the latest offerings just because of earlier glories. It is time to say goodbye.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

A family is like a gun, you point it in the wrong direction you're gonna kill someone...

Maria: Did you mean it? Would you marry me?
Matthew: Yes.
Maria: Why?
Matthew: Because I want to.
Maria: Not because you love me or anything like that, huh?
Matthew: I respect and admire you.
Maria: Isn't that love?
Matthew: No, that's respect and admiration. I think that's better than love.
Maria: How?
Matthew: When people are in love they do all sorts of crazy things. They get jealous, they lie, they cheat. They kill themselves. They kill each other.
Maria: It doesn't have to be that way.
Matthew: Maybe.
Maria: You'd be the father of a child you know isn't yours.
Matthew: Kids are kids, what does it matter?
Maria: Do you trust me?
Matthew: Do you trust me first?
Maria: I trust you.
Matthew: You sure?
Maria: Yes.
Matthew: Then marry me.
Maria: I'll marry you if you admit that respect, admiration, and trust equals love.
Matthew: OK. They equal love.
Hal Hartley has made some pretty great films and I love all of them, even the more 'experimental' shorts. But this film is one of his best. Released in 1990, 'Trust' was his second feature, made quickly after the relative success of 'The Unbelievable Truth' the year before. The film works largely because of a fairly stylized but utterly flawless script (as witnessed above) and the sheer chemistry and poetry between Maria (the late Adrienne Shelly) and Matthew (Martin Donovan). Not a word is wasted between characters and where words are redundant, pauses are required here, the camera tells us what we need to know. The skilled use of images, music and words are as natural as breathing for Hartley, he just makes it seem so effortless. Themes occur and repeat in his work, as do the names of the actors he works with. Family dysfunction, suburban alienation, simmering rebellion, strangers bonding in the most awkward and bizarre of circumstances. For in Maria, Matthew can see an anchor to some kind of reality, a potential route to escape his demons, both inner (he is literally a hand grenade of anti-emotion) and external (his controlling, abusive father) whilst in Matthew, Maria can see someone she can learn from, someone who will respect and admire her... and trust will be mutual, perhaps. The music score, by Phil Reed alongside Hal Hartley himself, is also important to making this film work, giving space and movement to the parts where words don't seem to matter. Likewise, in cinematographer Michael Spiller (a long-term collaborator with Hartley) each frame is captured to look like a 50s picture postcard, a moment in time preserved before the actors enter the scene of their angst-filled crimes. This film matters because you want to believe, in the face of everything saying otherwise, that there is a happy-ever-after for Maria and Matthew. Though arrested and abandoned, you want to believe they make it. They have respect, admiration and trust, and that's as close to love as you can sometimes get, even though we all know - contrary to what Matthew agrees to - that it does not equal love. Or does it?
Hal Hartley & Justin Kawashima - 'Trust' (end credits) MP3 (3.00)
Trust / Buy / Possible Films

Monday, 11 February 2008

Something Unseen: Ringu

Cinema is about experience. Films are designed to be seen on towering cinema screens, surrounded by living, physical sound. The images are meant to saturate your vision, fill your vision until you are part of the image, and the image is everything. It's fair to assume then that I don't own many Film DVD's, I'd rather watch episodes of TV shows on DVD as that is the medium they were designed for, Seinfeld, The Wire, NYPD Blue, Buffy-all great small screen entertainment.....but rules are made to be broken and "Ringu" is designed for the small screen.
Now for some scene setting....I used to live in an isolated school house in the middle of nowhere, and one cold frost stricken february weekend our central heating packed in, so hiring a handful of DVD's we took fully dressed to bed as our breath kicked out little patterns in the air. In this dark, cold night I first experienced "Ringu". As my face reddened with a creeping chill the tale of a cursed video tape unfolded, now without getting all "meta" on you what first struck me is by watching it on DVD/Video you almost feel complicit/cursed with our heroes, as they watch the grey grainy images you do too. The film is like a jigsaw, it gives you bits of information but you're unsure about how they fit together-an outcast woman in an isolated community, suggestions of the supernatural but nothing is an explanation, just shadowy shapes in the mist. Nothing is concrete, nothing is explained. American films can't do this, there has to be an explanation. Ringu does explain, but only as far as saying "Goblins", there's an acceptance that the supernatural is an explanation in itself. Now I saw Cloverfield recently and for a while it did attempt to maintain a tension, a kind of "instinctive terror" of the unknown, but it felt the need to reveal far to early. Ringu never succumbs, it builds tension upon tension, building the rising instinctive terror whilst hinting at older folkloric, eldritch terrors and as the cold, snow bitten wind slid through the trees in my garden I understood exactly the terror of the characters. When there is a final reveal of the true nature of the curse (and I've kept it vague deliberately, the power of this film is the power of the unknown, the unseen) it's a release, the tension that has been tightened throughout the film finally overcomes you and escapes in fear, terror, panic: This is no American happy ending, it's like opening the door to find out what the strange sound is and finding something terrifying and unwordly there-No explanations, no heroes just 6000 years of human fear of the unknown in no more than 30 seconds of film. As the film ended it felt like the temperature had dropped even further, that the cold creeping terror of the characters had saturated the room, and as our breath crystallised in the air, we watched the TV break into snow, a cold fearsome presence in the corner of the room. Film has to be an experience, Ringu is an experience you will never forget.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

No Country For Old Men (Or How I Learned To Stop Reading Internet Forum Opinions)

I went to see 'No Country For Old Men', last night, and I first offer an apology to those Coen afficienados amongst you: I have never really watched many of their more highly - regarded films. My limited contact with their work comes through 'Ladykillers' and 'Intolerable Cruelty', although I have seen 'Fargo'. Maybe the advantage is that I brought to the experience less baggage than the average fanatical Coen fan, who seem (in my limited opinion - of which more shortly) to live their lives in the grip of wild mood swings.

My (short) tale begins yesterday afternoon, when I was trying to decide whether the film would make appropriate 'date' viewing material for my beloved and I. I thought I would briefly venture into the 'Comments' section of the film's imdb.com entry to see whether it contained all of the elements that would lead to a cheerful Saturday night out. "Brutal violence". Check. "Unconvential narrative structure". Check. "Psychotic killer". Check. "No real ending". Check. So, I was catered for, but what about her? Deciding to play down to some of these more disturbing elements, I mumbled something about the main character's wife being Colin Firth's love interest in 'Nanny McPhee'. Looking suitably unconvinced, she acquiesed.

The point of the parenthesised portion of my title? Well, this disturbing descent into the Coen Internet community provided me with a cautionary tale about reading too much about a film before going to see it. The opinions on the website differed wildly, with the Coens being ordained and castrated from post to post, and many of the same features of the film being lambasted and praised in equal measure by members of the dissenting factions. It all added up to a rather confusing experience, and one that I fear may have coloured my reaction to the film before I entered the cinema. What I think I am trying to say is that I will endeavour to approach films with as clean a slate as possible in the future. Lesson learned.

On to the film, which I will not ruin for those of you who still want to see it.

Javier Bardem was great. Believe the hype.
Tommy Lee Jones was a relatively effective 'wise old hand' narrator. Two good monologues bookend the film.
James Brolin was an everyman that you could identify with, at times.
Woody Harrelson was slightly misplaced.

I really enjoyed the film, despite the odd nature of its close. Some of the film's detractors pointed to the lack of a final, on-camera confrontation between the two main antagonists as a weakness (even a "travesty"), but it didn't lessen the impact for me. The first half is definitely better than the second, with the peak (for me) arriving with a particularly nail - biting encounter between Bardem and Brolin in and around a hotel room. It is MASSIVELY tense, and there is one good reason for this, which is the one thing that I will always remember about the film, even after the plot and performances have faded from memory.

The most striking feature of the film is the total lack of music, at any stage, including even the end credits. As if the cat and mouse chase between Bardem's convincing killer and Brolin's fish-out-of-water welder was not arresting enough, the Coens' decision to do without any aural accompaniment allows them to keep your nerves jangling throughout, with Bardem sliding slowly and silently into range of his victims almost imperceptibly. It took about 20 minutes for me to decide what was missing, and the realisation created a suitably claustrophobic feeling, as the sonic indicators from which our reactions often take their lead were absent. I can honestly say that I have never seen a film that has used silence more effectively, with one gorgeous early moment showing us an extreme close - up shot of an unfurling, crackling chocolate bar wrapper while Bardem deliberates over whether to dispense with an innocent gas station clerk.

I heartily recommend going to see it, if only for this alone. The ending is a little anti - climatic, but the potency of the cinematography festers, or at least it is for me. Go and make your own mind up, and don't listen to what other people are thinking. Although for the people I know that read and post here, I doubt there'll be an issue there.

F-Master out.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Forrest Gump

Someone recently said to me that it’s OK to like anything as long as you can justify why you like it – let’s hope this fits the bill.

Someone also once said to me that they could think of one hundred films that were better than Forrest Gump, in fact he actually went to the trouble of compiling a list, and whilst that maybe so I will always feel compelled to defend it.

I defy you not to enjoy it on some level. You are sure to laugh at the, often not-so subtle, ironies that punctuate the movie as it sprints through 30 years of American history; you simply have to appreciate the stunning performances of Hanks and Wright-Penn, not-to-mention Sally Field as the stoic ‘mamma’, but above all you have got to love our eponymous hero - he who possesses an innate freedom that I think we would all secretly love to be privy to – who wouldn’t want, just for one day, to be free of the intricacies of the mind? To be free from some of the everyday woes that trouble us, influence our decisions, define our moods and affect our relationships? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to not have to worry about editing what we say or apologising for our opinions and justifying our decisions, all for the benefit of people we often don’t respect or even care about? Oh to be Forrest Gump! To concentrate simply on the good things in life, to say the exact thing we feel at the exact moment we feel it, toconcentrate purely on those we love and to live in every moment would surely be a joy for any soul, wouldn’t it?

Settings such as war-torn Vietnam, the peace protests in Washington DC and the seedy world of experience, starkly presented through the characters of Jenny and Lieutenant Dan, provide a contrast to the beauty of Gump’s hometown of Greenbough, Alabama and are representative of the difference between the central character and the world that surrounds him. Like Greenbough, Forrest seems oblivious to any political issues or controversies and the social etiquettes and concerns that surround him, presenting an unchanging simplicity that is truly fascinating; the scene where Forrest and his son are sitting at the edge of the lake sums up the peace and harmony of the landscape and encapsulates the appeal of our central character.

As I watch, I am reminded of ‘The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind’ in that here, we are given an insight into what life could be like if we left behind some of those suffocating, all-consuming ‘issues’ that really don’t mean anything and yet take up so much of our time. Who doesn’t dream of living without guilt and social obligation? Forrest’s experiences are comical, tragic, occasionally cringe inducing and often far-fetched, but the point is that through him we are presented with an air of tranquillity that is completely alluring, even beautiful. Once the layers of responsibility, guilt, conscience and consequence are stripped away, we are left with the one thing that truly matters to every single person on the planet – love. Now I know some people will read this and think that my response is emotional, sickly, stereotypical, even slightly sycophantic but a) so what if it is?! and b) no, no and no! All of us have a ‘mamma who always said’, all of us have a ‘best good friend’ with whom we’ve been like peas and carrots, all of us will have met or will meet at some point (I hope) the someone who is ‘just about the most beautiful thang we ever saw’ and all of us have endured the pain of loss; it is this that makes Forrest Gump so wonderful. It’s human, we’re human and there you have it - love it or hate it, this film shows us that life really is “like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get”, so we need to make sure we make the most of it and live for our loves not for our loathes.
…And that is why I like it!!!