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.