Category: Comedies

Glasgow FF15 #7: Why Be Good? (US 1929)

Colleen Moore as the 'hot dancer' . . .

Colleen Moore as the ‘hot dancer’ . . .

I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.

A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.

Birdman (US 2014)

Two worlds – and underpants – collide in 'Birdman' 2014

Two worlds – and underpants – collide in ‘Birdman’ 2014

We often write through frames – such as national cinema, authorship or institutional context.  With Birdman, Mexican auteur, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has made that beautifully awkward.  Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton)  has been successful in a superhero franchise several years before but is now looking to relaunch and reinvent himself in the theatre.  He has adapted Raymond Carver’s short story, What do we talk about, when we talk about love into a play in which he will direct and star.  Mike (Edward Norton), a last minute replacement but a seasoned theatre actor states the obvious when he says: “that’s ambitious.”  The clash between theatre and film as different art mediums is centre stage and it’s given a voice through Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan exuding her own verbal dry ice), the highbrow, New York critic who can destroy someone’s play and who announces to Riggan that’s exactly what she is going to do to this work of the theatrical ingénue. What follows is Riggan’s slow unravelling in the face of opening night.  Whether there is an ultimate triumph will not be written here – not only for ‘no spoiler’ purposes but because it may also depend on how you read it.

That the film has several layers and is self-reflexive in being all about the film industry and film as a medium is visible early on.  Riggan’s dressing room mirror has the gnomic statement ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’ (apparently Susan Sontag’s) stuck to it in the motivational corner and it could be a statement about so many parts of the film itself.  This includes Riggan’s relationships, the play and his performance in it as well as the film itself.  Theatre and film critics are harshly treated in this story of artistic revival and courage; as in many films before this, they are unpleasant algae feeding of real matter.  Many reviews have certainly referred back to such creatures as Addison de Witt (George Sanders in All About Eve (1950)) and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)).

So, take ‘things’ for what they are, including this film, it suggests, frames and criticisms of all kinds are simply distractions.  Not least, it tells you to stop thinking about Iñárritu’s authorship.  This film has simply baffled all attempts to place it in his oeuvre.  Taken for what it is, it’s a very uncharacteristic and entertaining story of a rollercoaster ride towards opening night on Broadway for a once big Hollywood star, his cast and his family.  It’s a rollercoaster ride you are made part of because of the technical brilliance of the device of an apparent uninterrupted take for its entire length and the digital effects which take us flying with Riggan, sharing his moments of fantasy (perhaps?), over the New York cityscape.   Just like Riggan’s airborne escapes, critics such as Paul Julian Smith in Sight and Sound have embraced Iñárritu’s liberation from his previous body of work.  Smith refers to the “po-faced” Biutiful (2010).  If The Big Lebowski was the so-called  ‘fart in the face’ of the Academy after the Oscar-winning Fargo (by the Coen brothers) then there feels a far greater release of artistic tension – and seriousness – by Iñárritu, this time in the face of his own work.

However, it is not just focused on this one ‘thing’, but is a film deliberately functioning on several levels and on all the information we bring into the cinema with some witty, satirical points to make about the media context these artists function in.  If Iñárritu is expressing liberation he is also identifying the constraints of the media actors, directors and producers (Riggan is, after all, embodying all three) face in the modern digital film world and its context of social media.

Actually, the film feels satisfyingly old school in other ways. This is absolutely the messy, shambling backstage world where Bette Davis’ Margot Channing drags off her wig and moans at Thelma Ritter’s Birdie. Lindsay Duncan’s tense performance as the critic, Tabitha, recalls deWitt’s compulsive need for power (and actual power) as the key theatre critic of the day. In a newspaper article, writer Anthony Quinn traces the problems of the critic in general  in film fiction. Although in order to focus ultimately on his own book on English theatre, it covers some interesting territory. He refers to the fact that ‘Tabitha’ is a witch’s name (very different to the suggestion of ‘Addison deWitt’ with all its English, eighteenth-century, Alexander Pope ambience) as if a woman who would destroy the work of men can only be ‘witch-like.’  In fact, Duncan delivers – eloquently and more strongly than that suggests – exactly a DeWittian high culture disgust for all that popular culture represents and a cold, intellectual anger that ‘Birdman’ would intrude on their territory.

For a film that is about the theatre, the form of it is crucial.  And in a film that is about the clash of film and theatre so directly, there is a brilliant simplicity in deciding to use a stylistic device – most famously rendered in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – to portray the developing tension between Riggan and his situation, his struggling daughter, his fellow actors, their relationships to each other, the problems of the producer, the interaction between ‘Birdman’ and his fans and, not forgetting, the increasing breakdown between the reality of Riggan and Birdman inside one or other of their heads. It is this device, alongside the tense drum score by Antonio Sanchez, which ensures we are inside the thing itself (a score not eligible for awards due to the presence of other, non-original music).

The film is founded on digital effects – just as much as any superhero film – but they are done in order to bring forward a very actor-centred and talkative script.  High tech is employed for low tech purposes for much of the time. Riggan is searching for authenticity in returning to the stage – everything about this film suggests a real delight in artifice.

Iñárritu paints a clash of old and new – Riggan dismisses new media but finds himself ‘trending’ when caught outside in his underpants. Returning to theatre does not mean escape from the modern world, but something essential that’s present in the best of that old-style Hollywood filmmaking whilst utilising very modern techniques of digital cinematography to accomplish it. The use of the close-up on Keaton, the praise he has earned for exposing his (ageing) face, is one of the ways we experience his collapsing inner world. It’s the most powerful device still in cinema. Roland Barthes wrote about Greta Garbo, that her face on the screen “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre.” (‘The Face of Garbo’, Roland Barthes, Mythologies). Keaton’s face in this is certainly the antidote to the old-style Hollywood close-up, but it still allowed for getting lost – this time in a face written over with its life and experience. I’ll mention I went back to Sunset Boulevard (1950) after seeing Birdman, and I think there’s something of the Norma Desmond as well as the Margot Channing about Riggan. And just as with the surprising effect (on an audience) of Norma’s or Margot’s warped egotism, it’s Riggan’s flaws and failures and insecurity  that, for all its cleverness and artifice, means this film could be intensely moving and, not least, because we see him close-up as he abandons ego and faces up to himself. Emma Stone’s brilliantly delivered speech as his daughter is crucial here – that nothing and no-one finally matters. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008) does resonate at several points (not least in the break down of fiction and reality) but that film takes the dark, novelistic rather than the lighter, comic and cinematic path that Birdman chooses. Iñárritu  and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer)’s ‘seamless’ take allows cinema to provide another kind of literal ‘losing of oneself’ in this film.  For all the digital effects and flights of the superhero film (neatly satirised here) it’s still human story at the centre – and a crucial part of why it’s laugh out loud funny. This old lady sat amongst the students at Tyneside Cinema and we both laughed, often together. Not always, of course, since they lack the comic advantage of a midlife crisis.

And finally about framing the discussion. Gravity (2013) showed the triumph of cinematography and individual performance (Sandra Bullock) over a weak plot and script and its ability author a story mainly through the visceral experience of the inky-black 3D. Perhaps it’s time to shift authorship further (something Kaufman managed as a writer) and refuse the cinematographers cry that their art should always only be in the service of the film. Perhaps I’m going to start making an appointment with Emmanuel Lubezki’s immersive cinematographic authorship.

Paddington (UK-France 2014)

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France  – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.

I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)

As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s  blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.

There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.

The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.

The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised  him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.

Damon Albarn's re-release of Lord Kitchener's calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

Damon Albarn’s re-release of Lord Kitchener’s calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it?Just a thought.

The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.

LIFF 28 #8: The Trouble With Money (Komedie om Geld, Netherlands 1936)

The 'Master of Ceremonies' who directs the narrative (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

The ‘Master of Ceremonies’ who directs the narrative (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).

The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.

Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.

One of the elaborate studio sets. (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

One of the elaborate studio sets. (Source: Deutsche Kinemathek/Foto Merkelbach)

Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).

I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.