Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Garden of Allah (1936)

“The Garden of Allah” is a run of the mill melodrama, which tells the love story between a devout French heiress and a runaway monk. As usual in such cases there is a third person in the relationship, God. The predictable ending arrives after around 80 minutes. I neither care for such stories nor can relate to these characters, being neither religious nor a believer in the afterlife. This would usually have killed my interest in the film very early on. However, this particular film is a peculiar piece. Although it’s dull and towards the end I couldn’t sustain it much longer, it had two marvellous things which kept me going: Marlene Dietrich and the cinematography.

Marlene in the thirties is a recent interest of mine. I always loved her trilogy of films for Hitchcock and Wilder and a couple of her later performances, but had little interest in her earlier work, except for “Angel” (Lubitsch, 1937). That changed a few months ago when I watched “Shanghai Express”. And in this film you can’t take your eyes out of her. She’s mesmerizing, so beautiful, so out of this world and a lot of it has to do with how she was shot – which takes me to the cinematography…

This was one of the first three strip Technicolor feature films, and the one that convinced Hollywood that it was not another silly fashion. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, even with some dodgy matte paintings here and there. And I think a lot of it has to do with the way it was lit – to me it was if it had been lit for black and white but shot in colour. Whatever they did made it into one of the most beautiful films ever shot, in my opinion.

As for the rest, Basil Rathbone and Joseph Schildkraut (as Batouch, the obviously gay guide) are quite good, but Charles Boyer really can’t act – or at least I haven’t seen any proof of that. And then there’s Max Steiner’s music… I love Max’s music, I really do, but here he allowed himself to get carried away – there’s simply too much loud music, often almost muting the dialogue. In short, these weak points and its religious themes and perspectives ware too much for me and despite the obvious beauty of the film (and Marlene), I doubt I shall watch this again any time soon, if ever.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

A Special Stamp

The Portuguese Post has created a world first – a stamp made out entirely of cork, of which Portugal is the world’s greatest producer. The picture is above.

Radio Dramas from 30's and 40's

Recently discovered (very recently, like two days ago) US radio dramas from the 30’s and 40’s with big Hollywood stars of the time and became a small fan. I knew they existed because some are used as extras in WB’s R1 DVDs but I had never bothered… until I listened to Myrna Loy in “Library Book” (from a radio show called “Suspense”)… and I loved it! It is a hilarious comedy mystery about a prim and proper librarian who discovers that a page is missing from a copy of “Gone with the wind” and that it was used to write a ransom note.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)

I always loved Deborah Kerr. Here's five reasons why:
  1. Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli, 1956)
  2. The Innocents (Clayton, 1961)
  3. Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)
  4. Heaven knows, Mr Allison (Huston, 1957)
  5. Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger, 1958)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

What I am reading...

sadly not very much... a few pages a day of "Le coté de chez Guermantes" (in a very good Portuguese translation) during my daily usage of the tube, meaning that it will take me forever to finish it (I am about half way through it) and "The Complete Peanuts 1965-1966" which is, with its immediate predecessor, far more interesting that the previous volumes.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Feras no Povoado (1947)

I recently finished a book that made me wonder if it wasn't better forgotten: “Feras no Povoado” (published 1947, something like “Beasts in the Village”) by portuguese writer Gomes Monteiro. I had neither heard of the author or the book until a few months ago when the publisher announced its release on their website. Try google it and all you get is a list of sites where you can buy the book. Nevertheless, I bought it because I like the publisher, because I know they are small and because they produce in the same series books that I treasure for their quality.

To be honest, these are the only arguments I can use to make anyone buy the book.

Mixing history and fiction, wanting desperately to be a serious historical novel but never really achieving being more than dull, the book tells the story of a man during one of the most violent and less talked about periods of Portuguese History, the civil war in the XIX century and political chaos that followed.

There are three main problems with the book in my opinion. One is that the story is never really that interesting, mostly because the characters are one-dimensional and sometimes disappear for long periods of time. The second, which bugged me a bit more were the long (very long) passages which are nothing but very subjective and highly arguable takes on the history of the period. Finally, he wants to be a famous writer. Not just any writer but Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890) one of the greatest figures of Portuguese literature of any century, and from whom he draws considerably.

Scarface (1932) and other Pre-Codes

For a long time I ignored American cinema of the early thirties, the so-called Pre-Code films. There were a few exceptions: several Garbo films and Lubitsh's "Design for Living" come to mind. I don't think there was a reason for this other than limited availability and a few bad experiences, the most "memorable" being Katharine Hepburn's first Oscar winning performance in "Morning Glory" - the style of acting of those first sound years isn't always to my liking.

Recently I have became interested in these films. And the more I see of them, the strongly I feel that I missed some brilliant films for far too long. Yes, there were some flops, including some big titles, but also masterpieces like "The Public Enemy", "Baby Face", "Shanghai Express", and in particular "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". And "Scarface" (the Howard Hawks version, of course). Violent and sexually charged, it amazed me. It included heavy suggestions of incest, a maniac leading character and a ending has to be one of the greatest in film history (Gangster films always had such powerful endings).

Less achieved but still with many interesting aspects is "The Bitter Tea of General Yen". Two years later and it couldn't have been made: it contains an inter-racial love affair between a white woman and a chinese man, something that wasn't allowed by the Hays Code. At some stage in the film there's a dream sequence where Barbara Stanwyck reveals her most secret desires, and by any standards these are very explicit. For those who are in London and never had a chance to see it, the London film festival next month is showing a restored print. Otherwise there is an OK R2 DVD in a Barbara Stanwyck collection.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

I recently attempted to watch this film and couldn't endure it. I think I lasted a very brave 40 something minutes before my patience was completely exhausted. The film tells the story of a family with 12 children (11 when the film starts), but the emphasis is on the father more than any other characters. There isn't really a plot but rather episodes with lose connections, like "Meet me in St Louis" had a few years prior. However it has none of the charm of that film, although it must have been a success in 1950 as it had a sequel in 1952.

What were the problems with it? First and foremost, the script. No plot and annoying characters throughout get you nowhere. Clifton Webb as the father is irritating. His character is at best described rose tinted father in a bad sitcom. And he overacts. He's fine as a sophisticate in "Laura" or "The Razor's Edge" but he seemed to take no real interest here. Myrna Loy is pure background. Jeanne Crain, who seemed to have a larger part in the sections I fast forwarded is way too old for her character. She wanted to be Judy Garland, she's only dull.

The other major point which really annoyed me was the cinematography. This was the dullest Technicolor film I ever saw. The skin colours were way too pastel. Maybe it was just the print used in the DVD [UK R2] but it seemed to me that there was far too much blue and too little red (the Technicolor process divides light in blue, green and red). Technicolor 20th Century Fox films have a distinctive look, not as bright as those say MGM, but nothing like this - just look at the beautiful "Leave Her to Heaven".

Not often a remake is better than the original, but the 2003 version of this film is far more interesting.

The funniest fact about the film, was that I thought I recognised the street from the aforementioned "Meet me in St Louis" - and according to IMDb I was spot on.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Collect Plays of Somerset Maugham, Volume 2

Here is my second post about the plays of Somerset Maugham. A few years ago I got two different sets of his plays. The first, had nine plays spread over two volumes and was a recent edition by Methuen. It was one of my first buys after my arrival in the UK. The second was bought on ebay, a complete set of the three volumes of the “Collected Plays”, originally published in the fifties. This didn't make the first set redundant, because of the omission of “The Letter” in it. It was certainly one of my most inspired buys.

I have just finished reading/re-reading the whole second volume, which has some of his better known comedies and farces, including “Our Betters”, “The Constant Wife”, “The Circle” and a hilarious farce “Home and Beauty”. All of these I have read at one time or another. There are also two further plays, “The Unattainable” and “The Breadwinner”, which I read for the first time and both far more interesting in themes than they are in reality. The first, is a three act exposé of how we always want what we can’t have, and that when we can we don’t want it anymore. It was funny in several moments, but not successful enough. However, it seems it was a hit in 1917. The second is one of the last few plays he wrote. It’s about a man who decides to abandon his family (who find him an absolute bore) and career (he has just ruined himself) and go and Live, but despite an interesting ending, it has some very dull scenes, especially in the beginning, and the most irritating portrait of 18-year olds ever put on paper. Neither of them really recommended, unless you’re already a fan.

The remaining four titles are altogether much better and I wonder why they aren’t staged more often in London. I guess they are perceived as too old fashioned, or perhaps the author has really gone out of fashion, or a bit of both. It’s really a pity – their themes of equality between women and men and society’s double standards, may not be as obvious as they were in the years after WWI but they still matter. Ok, divorce nowadays is easier to get, transforming the irony of the last act of “Home and Beauty” into just a silly scene, as most people won’t be fully aware how hard was to get a divorce in Britain in those days. But perhaps more important, is the fact that in these plays women misbehave as much as men. That was uncomfortable then and is uncomfortable now, despite the ninety years that have passed.

I had a chance of seeing two of them at their last West End incarnations – “The Constant Wife” with a wonderful Jenny Seagrove (who was the lead in the recent revival of “The Letter”) and “Home and Beauty” with a not so good Victoria Hamilton. I also saw and recommend George Cukor’s film version of “Our Betters” with a brilliant performance by Constance Bennett and which is quite high on my DVD wish list. I just hope that someone decides to bring it to London again. The same goes for “The Circle” which would be a great vehicle for Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Patricia Routledge or Penelope Keith.

Monday, 20 August 2007

"If I never knew you" (from Pocahontas)

I wish Disney would release the Mel Gibson/Judy Kuhn version of this song sometime soon. I would even double dip on the original soundtrack if they re-did it. It's a lovely song and the one Disney song that I don't own, want and can't have.

Still there might be hope as the OST CD is out of print - it may carry it in its next incarnation. I just hope is not in 2015 for the film's 20th anniversary.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Lady Frederick (1907)

This is the first of a couple of posts I intent to make on the subject of Somerset Maugham's plays that I am reading/re-reading after having abandoned a couple of books. I can' t say I have discovered new favourites, but "Lady Frederick" was a pleasant surprise. It was funny, clever, and kept me interested - something that its successor in volume one of the collected plays had not. A drawing-room comedy about money (or rather the lack of it) and a few marriages. Far less stylised than Oscar Wilde's, it keeps to the tradition and although less funny more is more real and interesting. To me, it's only drawback is the portrait of Captain Montgomerie, probably quite acceptable then but uncomfortably anti-semitic nowadays.

Originally performed in 1907, it catapulted the author to amazing heights - he became the first living playwright to have four plays simultaneously in the West End (Noël Coward would match that in the mid-twenties). Perhaps it remains known today only (and rather unjustly) because of the amazing scene in the beginning of the third act where Lady Frederick appears without make-up before a young man who is in love with her. Every actress of the day refused to play it because of it. Today I imagine that most actress would sink their teeth in it, but then again it might still be too raw.

I would love to get a chance to see this in London. Strangest things have happened, and as far as I know the recent revival of "The Letter" was fairly successful. Meanwhile, I would recommend it to anyone who has had an introduction to Mr Maugham.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Why I love the shinning DVD...

As TV stations stop screening old movies, or do it at times that no one who works can watch, and places like the NFT show less classics and less variety, the DVD has changed completely my access to films. I now have discs bought not only in the UK and Portugal (the two obvious starting places for me…) but also France, Spain, Germany, one from Belgium bought somewhere else and one from Italy (the wonderful “La Finestra di Fronte”) and plenty from the US – God bless the internet, I have to say…

The issues and rights of the films, and the release decisions of some of titles can be almost hilarious at times. For instance, why do I have to go to Germany to buy British films that aren’t available in the UK (“Bedrooms and Hallways”)? Why does Spain get the only official release of Mankiewicz’s “The Honey Pot” with a delightful Maggie Smith? Or why are countless Region 2 releases of WB available in some countries but not others, including the UK, despite the fact that they have already the correct subtitles and/or audio tracks - “Splendor in the Grass”, “The Champ” 1932 version, Fritz Lang’s “Moonfleet”, “Jezebel” are examples of films that are available in some European countries but not the UK.

Part of my problem is that I still prefer to support Region 2 releases, but since less and less is happening in the classics’ market, and when it happens usually carries inferior releases, why bother? Having a multi-region player and an eye on different countries can produce quite nice results… For instance a French release of “Dark Mirror” with Olivia de Havilland, I think unavailable anywhere else.

And as my collection grows more and more, I for one am quite happy with these little discs which have allowed me to see many wonderful and not so wonderful films, but be familiar with the work of actors that I would not have known otherwise. The case in point is the films of Myrna Loy. Despite having a decent following in the US her films are practically unseen and unheard in Europe. If they are it’s because they were directed by William Wyler or have Cary Grant in the leading part. So I was pleasantly surprised with “The Thin Man”, “Libeled Lady” and “Mr Blandings builds his dream house”. And I want more… With the exception of “The Best Days of our Lives”, all the her films I ever saw were on disc…

DVDs also have allowed me to see films that for long eluded me on TV or screenings, such as “White Heat” and most Cagneys, “I am a fugitive from a chain gang”, “Old Acquaintance”, “Mildred Pierce” and gave me the possibility to watch “What’s Opera Doc?” whenever I want. Hurrah!

Insomnia with Judy

About twice a year London has nights that are too hot for me to sleep comfortably. It's rather strange for someone who is born and bred in Lisbon, where I have experienced around 30º at night in heatwaves, but I do hate this side of summer. If on top of that I have gone to bed late in the previous nights, I really can't sleep. Tonight is one of this nights... oh well...

So here am I, listening to Judy Garland MGM recordings and writing. Just heard her version of "Anything you can do". I think it's one of her best songs, full of energy and comedy, and makes me very sorry that the film ("Annie get your gun") was never made with her - and I think this is part of the reason why I haven't seen it yet. At least the recording survives, and it's quite high on my iPod's most played...

When I was a kid/pre-teen, I remember recording her songs with a tape recorder from my VHS versions (recorded from TV) of her most famous musicals. I had stumbled into one of her film completely by accident due to a review in the portuguese newspaper "Público". This was when portuguese TV still showed old films on a regular basis... I have to say I was completely unaware of all the symbolism she carries - to me she has always been part of my love of films. Recently I decided to invest in the Rhino editions of my favourites, as well as one of their "best of" and be slightly nostalgic. This is how I became acquainted with the "Annie get your gun" recordings.

My top five of her MGM recordings would definitively have to include this, "Get Happy", "Mr Monotony", "The boy next door" and cheating slightly "The man that got away" (it's a WB film, not MGM, and I prefer the version from the Carnegie Hall concert).

Plus, "The Pirate" DVD should be arriving from amazon soon...

Thursday, 2 August 2007

I want a complete Danae (Non Sequitur book)...

"Something silly this way comes", the first collection of Lucy and Danae strips from "Non Sequitur" was a) missing a few and b) didn't include anything before Lucy appeared, so I really really want a complete set - she's marvellous... but I would still be happy with volume 2...

Reading comics online is ok, but I still prefer them in book format.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Gaslight (Old Vic revival)

For the second time in less than a year I was fascinated by a stage performance by Rosamund Pike. First, in a magnificent but short lived revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke”, now in the Old Vic's revival of “Gaslight”… She was absolutely perfect as the wife almost driven to madness by her husband – can’t remember his name but it was the most sadistic performance of that part I ever seen, even beating Anton Walbrook in the 1940 film.

All in all, I have to say that with the exception of the performances by Angela Lansbury as the maid and Joseph Cotton as policeman in the ’44 version, this was the best I have ever seen “Gaslight” – I wonder if that it has something to do with being the original text…

And to the American girl that was in the first row talking to her friends, in the small chance that you may read this, the melodrama with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall is “Written in the wind” directed by Douglas Sirk.

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Sirk’s melodramas have gathered over the years quite a reputation, and one of the best has to be “All that heaven allows”. This is a story of a middle age widow (Jane Wyman) that falls in love with her gardener, but decides not to marry him because of pressure of her children and her peers.

But there is more to the film than that. It’s a very good portrayal of the influence that others may have on our life, and clearly says that in the end you have to follow your instincts and your feelings. Jane Wyman’s friends and children, in particular her son, are portrayed as heartless, selfish individuals, who place appearances before individual’s rights – it’s so easy to sacrifice other people’s life’s for them isn’t it? This could have probably done better, I believe, but it’s just on the right side of cliché – There is one scene where the colours actually suggested him to be something close to the devil.

The film also addresses the double standards of society towards men and women. It is socially acceptable for a middle age man to marry a young penniless woman, but the reverse is not, even if the young man may have his own business and seems not to suffer financial hardships (well, this is a 1950’s film after all). Quite liked how the point was made.

There is also a wonderful, subtle performance from Jane Wyman, and great support from Agnes Moorhead, as the other only sympathetic character in the film. The same cannot be said of Rock Hudson’s wooden performance, but then again, that didn’t surprise me in the least. His character failed to justify why Jane Wyman falls in love with him, other than his good looks, and his intransigence made him very unpleasant in the break-up scene.

And then there are the colours. Rich, vivid, beautiful colours, so fake and yet an integral part of the story telling process. One of the most fantastically shot films I have seen, it was impossible not to be drawn to it from the very start. I knew that Todd Haynes’ exquisite “Far from Heaven” had borrowed themes and visual from this film, but I had never realised the full extent.

It’s very hard not to compare this film with “Magnificent Obsession” another Sirk film with the same leads. “All that heaven allows” is the superior piece. And never was a television set so scary than in the Christmas scene.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Edge City (Comic strip)

I love comic strips – not the superhero type, but the Calvin & Hobbes, Disney and Franco-Belgian (Bande Dessinée) types. These are the ones I grew up with, due largely to my father’s extensive library of these titles. Uncle Scrooge, Asterix, Tintin, Spirou and many others were household names for me ever since I remember. That created one minor problem – what could I buy, that my father didn’t own already?

This was when I first discovered the Brazilian comic books of Mauricio de Sousa, which I only stop buying in my late teens – my large collection now lies in boxes somewhere in my parents’ garage due to lack of space. And then was “Calvin and Hobbes”. It was no accident. It was being published in one newspaper in Portugal, and my only experience with daily comic strips had been a pleasure – the Argentinean strip “Mafalda” by Quino, which lasted only 10 years from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies and is still my personal favourite. So I bought Calvin’s book when it came out in Portugal (circa 1992 I think). From then on, there have been some favourites (FoxTrot, Stone Soup, Baby Blues, Non Sequitur, Madam & Eve), one to which I have mixed feeling (Garfield), one that started very well and became increasingly uninteresting (Adam@home) and some that never went further than the one volume (Rose is Rose, Heart in the City, Zits, probably a few others).

All this because I bought the first volume of “Edge City” a comic strip by Terry and Patty Laban, about a Jewish family living in the American suburbs. Seemed a good idea – FoxTrot, which I love and adore and left a minor hole in my heart since it went Sunday-only in the beginning of the year, has a similar premise. Before I got the book, I tried to read some stuff on the web, and a bit of the book. There was a sense of promise… which was unfulfilled.

By the end of the book, I didn’t know much or cared for the family of four – the mother was irritating, manipulative and uninteresting; the father had some good moments but not enough; the son liked videogames and didn’t like religious school; the daughter remained a mystery. There were some moments where I smiled, especially in the Sunday strips, often with the supporting characters, but they weren’t memorable – I still remember the Danae strips in 2005 that made me into a Non Sequitur fan. I finished the book thinking I could have employed my time much better rereading something else.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Life can now resume...

After a few hours of interlude, around 18h today, life resumed - I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows... Quite satisfying, I must add.

On a silly note - I love the UK adult edition cover art. (I said it was silly)

Friday, 20 July 2007

Tex Avery cartoons

Last night, as I couldn’t sleep I decided to go through my Warner Bros DVDs and watch whatever cartoons were there. It happened that the first one I picked was the Katharine Hepburn collection, which had some Tex Avery MGM cartoons. Maybe because Tom and Jerry are so not for me (more of a Chuck Jones man myself - and yes, I am aware he directed T&J cartoons later on), I never paid much attention to these. I had a pleasant surprise. They were far more interesting and funny than I predicted (at least these ones), in particular two, a Droopy short called “Out Foxed” and “Swing Shift Cinderella”. I am definitely giving these a second chance.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Last night I saw Lubitsch’s “Heaven can wait” for the first time in a few years. I have to say my opinion of the film hasn’t changed that much: it is a minor Lubitsch. It has charm. The relation between Don Ameche and Gene Tierney is very well built. Some highlights are the library scene when Don Ameche and Gene Tierney are alone for the first time, Mrs Cooper Cooper (mostly by the remarks that other characters make about her), any scene with Charles Coburn and the scene between Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main.

Despite all this I didn’t engage with it as I do with most of his other of his later films (I don’t know most his earlier work). I think part of my problem with it is how slow paced and melancholic it is. Lubitsch wasn’t very healthy and probably thought this was going to be his last film, and that transpires.

It wouldn’t be my suggestion to an introduction to Lubitsch ("Ninotchka", "Design for Living" or "Bluebeard’s Eight Wife" are much better), but it’s definitely worth some time.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Still over a week for Harry Potter

I just finished rereading the sixth Harry Potter and there's still more than one week to go. Considering that patience is not one of my virtues, this is going to be one very long week.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933)

“I’m a fugitive from a Chain Gang” is the story of a war veteran (WWI) down on his luck that accidentally is caught in the middle of a robbery, and thought to be an accomplice. He is condemned to ten years hard labour in a chain gang. Managing to escape, he reinvents himself as a successful engineer but is found out and blackmailed into marriage by an unscrupulous woman. The ending is one of the darkest, most depressing, most original and most powerful ever to come out of Hollywood.

The film blew my mind away. I watched it in a permanent state of uneasiness, literally on the edge of my seat. One of the key factors was certainly Paul Muni’s flawless Oscar nominated performance. It is the first film of his I ever saw, and he has definitely make an impression on me. His portrayal of the fall, rise, second fall and subsequent alienation of the character is undoubtedly one of the great screen performances of all time. Amazingly, he lost the Oscar for Charles Laughton in “The Private Life of Henry VIII”… Oh well, then and now…

But a not-so-small part of the film’s success is an amazing, unsentimental script, yet capable of moving and disturbing, and a strong director at the helm. The film was so shocking at the time, in the way that it portrait the dehumanization of the character, that started a reform of the American penal system. This is 1930’s Hollywood cinema at its best.

If you believe that a film can be more than just mere entertainment, then I strongly recommend this film if you can catch it, either on screen or on DVD. There’s a Region 1 release and in Region 2 is released at least in France.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

I have recently watched “Birth of a Nation” (1915), D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous three-hour long opus. I knew a bit of the film’s reputation, both as a landmark in cinema making and aware that it was considered by many as a very racist film. However nothing could have prepared me for its extent.

During the first half, focused on the pre-Civil War South and the war itself, most of what appeared on the screen was not far from what I expected: black faced actors, happy slaves, etc. But the moment the war ends, and the main plot starts, so did my discomfort and later horror. Roughly, the plot follows the honoured and honourable southerners being imposed a government that made them poor victims of the evil black people that came from the North and upset the good blacks from the South, the ones that knew their proper place. Nothing during the first half the film was bad as the horrid stereotypes that now continuously poured from the screen. It was also quite hard to swallow the Ku Klux Klan as a good thing – yes, they are the “heroes” of the film – and the preserve of the honour of the Old South. (Oh, by the way… the sheets are only meant to scare the silly and childish blacks) At least I was slightly comforted by the fact that even in 1915 the film was criticised by some – albeit a fantastic box-office success.

Why I am then talking of this film? Because I think people should be aware of it. It is, sadly, one of the most important landmarks in the history of cinema. Techniques that we are well familiar with were pioneered here or in other Griffith movies. It also opened the door to longer films (films tended to be much shorter, just one or two reels). Cinema would not have been the same without him and without this film. But I wish that the DVD edition I watched had a proper documentary and a good commentary that could contextualised it. Otherwise, it is just another film.

Griffith stopped making films with the advent of sound, in the late twenties. Despite his immense contributions to cinema, this is not something that saddens me. I would like to think that his political views may have had something to do with it.

Cidade Proibida (2007)

Recently read two works of fiction by Portuguese author Eduardo Pitta, his recent novel “Cidade Proibida” and “Persona”, the later in the recent revised second edition. Neither impressed much and won’t last longer in my memory. I wasn’t impressed by either… but here’re my thoughts on the first.

“Cidade Proibida” (“Forbidden City”) is a short novel, with a plot that centres on the relationship between a british working-class professor in Lisbon and his upper class “native” boyfriend, and the people surrounding them. Somehow, I feel that its length was its greatest asset. I took me about four hours of reading spread over three days, in a few tube rides from home to work and back. I also liked the title, which refers not to any homosexual context (as one would have thought from the subject matter) but to the rarefied upper classes of Portuguese society.

But that’s were the good things stopped. It’s not a bad read, at worst it’s snobbish and pedantic, and at best I felt indifferent. While it describes the Lisbon environment fairly well, with its rules and codes, when the action changes to London, I couldn’t help not believing in it because I live here. It seemed too much stuck in the memories and places from the past and not at all real. The most (unintentional) hilarious moment of the book, which I shared with friends, is when Rupert, raised in London, says he can’t believe how expensive Portuguese houses are. It should be noted that a studio flat within a decent distance from the centre of London will probably buy a two bedroom flats in a nice area of Lisbon.

Often the book is simply a catalogue of unpleasant characters. In the first chapter we are introduced to Nora, Martim’s mother, and immediately, from the way she tells the maid off, and fires her on the spot, I disliked her. As the book progressed I realised neither of the leading men were much better. Rupert’s letter towards the end of the book kills whatever empathy we may have had for him that wasn’t killed from the events set in London. And a similar point could have been made for Martim, Guida, and all the others whose stories we are introduced despite their presence in the main events be little more than a glance.

There’s another issue, which I admit is due to personal taste. In an interview the author mentioned that his characters are not “sexless angels”, but I wonder if the explicitness of some of them is really necessary. I admit that I dislike sex scenes in books. They usually are uncomfortable readings, and the ones in the books are no exception. You require real talent to pull them off rather than just good writing skills. That does not mean that the characters must choose celibacy – but you can imply rather than describe, because in most cases details are unnecessary.

Ultimately books are a matter of taste. And this one isn’t for mine. But I might recommend it to someone who I think will enjoy it.

Lady Audley's Secret (1862)

Literature is full of good ideas that turn into bad books. My most recent experience in this category has to be “Lady Audley’s Secret” (1861 - 62) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. To me this was one of the most frustrating books I have read recently, since despite a very good plot line, the main characters are at best uninteresting, and at worst completely dull.

Briefly the story is this: George Talboys returns from Australia, after having made a fortune, to find out that the wife he abandoned has recently died. Overwhelmed by grief he is taken by his friend Robert Audley for a tour of Europe and then a time at Audley Court. Here they meet Lord Audley’s (Robert’s uncle) new wife, the young Lucy Graham, now Lady Audley. Then George Talboys disappears – and Robert suspects Lucy might have had something to do with it. What follows (i.e. most of the book) is Robert’s obsession with finding out the truth.

But why did I find it so frustrating? Firstly, because never George Talboys is considered something other than a victim, despite the fact that he abandoned his wife without any money and with a child to raise. Surely not even in Victorian Literature this is a good thing. Lucy is the baddy, and so she must be, but the book’s point of view raises George to virtuous heights (more about this later). The book was written by woman, which as far I recall from the introduction was raised by a single mother. Unless the book is to be taken ironically – which I have to consider as a possibility – its values are too far away from mine to fully engage in it.

Secondly, because as detectives go, Robert Audley is the one of the silliest – He insists in behaving as a gentleman towards Lucy and therefore tells at every step what evidence has he just collected against her – in some cases prompting her to rush to destroy them (as happens at end of Part I).

Then there is the reasoning behind Robert’s obsession with George’s disappearance. My theory is that unless you consider that Robert is attracted to his friend – which is certainly not as preposterous as it may seem, at least to a modern reader – his obsession, and the vision of George as a true model of a man, makes no sense at all. I have to admit that the idea was placed on my mind after skimming through the introduction to my edition (Penguin Classics), but Robert’s characterisation made it flourish.

And finally, there’s the final twist. Until then in the book, it was easy to predict what was happening next. This caught me unaware and is probably one of the cleverest things in the plot (and I’m not revealing it in case anyone wants to read it, otherwise it can be found in cyberspace), but that leaves me wondering if Lady Audley is only being punished because she married above her class, at least in the eyes of her authoress.

If only Lucy was a cleverer woman, similar to Wilkie Collins’ Lydia Gwilt (the main character in “Amardale”) and acted accordingly, then this could have been so much better. Also it would have helped if poor Robert admitted that he might have had a crush on George – my suggestion would have been they met at school and George was the most popular boy.