Sunday, 28 September 2008

Intolerance (1916)

A few weeks ago I received this "gentle reminder" (their words, not mine) from my DVD rental service:

One of the best things about XXXXX is the 'no late fees' promise, which gives you the freedom to watch what you want, when you want - you're in charge of your viewing.

That said, we've noticed that recently you've been holding on to 'Intolerance' for a while. We thought we'd give you a gentle reminder to send 'Intolerance' back, just in case you'd forgotten to watch it, put it under a pile of magazines or something like that! You may even have gone off the idea of watching it right now - why not send it back and add it to your rental list later?

Of course it's completely up to you, but we also don't want you to miss out on our other top titles.
Happy viewing,
The XXXXX Team
Lovely isn't it? Basically, it's no late fees, but we'll annoy till you return the film. Of course, in all fairness I had the film since February - I must say I am usually quite quick at turning over the DVDs. This was an exception. Why? Because I didn't feel brave enough for 3h of epic silent movie, especially not after Birth of a Nation. Perhaps this was the encouragement that I needed because through the last week and a bit I saw the film (in four installments, since my patience is limited).

“Intolerance” tells four stories in parallel, united by the common theme of, you guessed it, intolerance. The two main stories are set in contemporary America and the final days before the fall of Babylon. The smaller ones are the story of Christ (with a few gaps, making me wonder if it wasn’t partially cut) and one set in the time of St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in Paris. The “intolerance” here is not only a religious intolerance, but a social one as well, of those who need to be protected from themselves.

According to some internet reading, Griffith decided to move forward with this project as a response to the attacks he suffered from his controversial “Birth of a Nation” (thus, the conclusion should be one needs to tolerate other’s racists views?). But all in all is a much better film. Of course, it’s still anti-semitic (most of the villains seemed archetypal Jewish to me…), homophobic (the villainous brother to the King of France is described as “effeminate”) and to a degree misogynist (I can’t recall the comment on screen correctly but it goes something like women who can’t attract men turn to social reformation), but not much more than other works from the period.

The film itself is rather interesting, actually very good at times, especially in the beginning and the ending. The final sequences with the conclusions of the stories approaching their climax are very good indeed and just at the right pace. The film is certainly one of the landmarks in storytelling in motion pictures. I read somewhere that was the birth of film editing. If this isn’t true it’s a good imitation. Its influence can be seen today still in films like “Rendition” with its multiple stories that come together in the end. Moreover, it is also compelling storytelling, managing very well to tell four distinct stories at the same time, with a far more appealing subject matter than its predecessor (and I am sorry to keep going on with the comparisons here, but it is kind of inevitable).

Of course there are problems other than the ones I already mentioned – I am undecided to which of the two leading ladies was more annoying: Mae Marsh as “The Dear One” (the name alone makes me sick) in the modern story or Constance Talmadge in the Babylonian one. Neither can act, and I have grown to hate Mae Marsh after having to sit to her behaving like an idiot in “Birth of a Nation”.

Finally there was something rather curious in the film. Most films set prior to 1918 are period pieces. But here that’s not the case, and these people on the screen were wearing the same (almost victorian) clothes, as the people sitting in the stalls. And here, more than elsewhere was it visible that the 20th Century started with WWI.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

From one of my favourites, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Although I could have easily chosen Cat in a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which is even better.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Old Hollywood and the Cigarette Industry

The BBC has this on their website where they discuss that the stars of yesteryear received large payments to promote cigarettes. I don't smoke but I don't particularly care if people smoke on screen or on stage (on the other hand, very grateful for smoking ban in restaurants here in the UK). Personally don't think it's nice, sexy or agreable, but some of my best friends still smoke, so I try to live with it. However two thoughts came to me while reading this:

1. The amounts given are a rather interesting reminder that those who have some posterity are not always the most popular. I mean Fred MacMurray received more money than Henry Fonda, and Myrna Loy (who I absolutely adore) and Carole Lombard (who I often love) have been certainly forgotten by most of the population, despite the first been crowned Queen of Hollywood to Clark Gable's King of Hollywood and the second having been Mrs Gable and a huge star in her own right.

2. The article doesn't mention the amount given to Bette Davis. Whatever much it was, it wasn't enough... and probably wouldn't cover more than a couple years of her cigarette bill... She was, is, and will probably always be the first name I think when someone mentions smoking and film in the same sentece. As she herself said, "If I didn't lit a cigarette, they wouldn't know who I was".

Pearls Before Swine (Comic Strip)

For the past week I have been reading one of the collections of the American comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis. I knew of its existence for a while – it has been published in Portugal (but not in the UK) which helped. But browsing one of the earlier books a few years ago didn’t draw me into it. Also, it isn’t syndicated by the comics’ page I subscribe. Then about two years ago I came across the parody Stephen Pastis made of Bill Amend’s semi-retirement from my favourite “Foxtrot” and found it quite funny. Yet, it took me quite a while before I bought a book.

The strip is quite unusual – it often breaks the fourth wall (its creator is occasional a character), the drawing is extremely poor (working better for some characters than others) and it has a VERY peculiar sense of humour. The drawing style in particular was the big turn-off for me, as the characters seem to have hardly any expression. Yet, I would say its style of humour is what makes or break it, since according to the comments in the collection I have, it seems to gather frequent complaints from newspaper readers in the US (when first published) which is probably a good thing.

All of the strip’s main characters are animals – there is Rat, Pig (which is a bit naïve and often scorned by Rat, hence the title of the strip), Goat, Zebra, and some hilarious crocodiles. Whilst the first two are in fact the leading characters, when they are together they also produce what I found to be the least funny strips. My favourites by a mile (or two, or three…) are the crocs and their plans to kill and eat Zebra. And I don’t think I am alone here. Stupid, frustrated, idiotic, unable to catch Zebra (who outsmarts them without effort) and with a tendency to turn against each other quickly, they are the strip to me. They simply steal the show.

I am not sure if the best thing to do with this strip is to recommend it to someone. It needs to be found, because what makes it work for me is surely not the same that will make it work for someone else. I ordered a second collection (mine covered the years 2005/6, this one should 2003/4) so I’ve been caught.

You can read one month's worth of strips here.

For the record, the image is from another book - I just liked it better. This is the one I read.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

It's interesting how much likes and dislikes of things that require an emotional response are more often than not, a product of the moment you are exposed to them. Books, films, music, art - a simple experience, a small connection of something you have recently been through. I saw The Bridges of Madison County in 1995, aged 17, when it first came out. I liked it very much, but with the years all that subside in my memory was the ending, that fantastic scene where all of Meryl Streep's energy is channelised to her hand. When I saw it again on friday, it was almost like seen it again for the first time. And I was mesmerised. It was exquisite. Brief Encounter of the 1990s but better, oh so much better. I connected to it in a way that I haven't of lately - it is possible that I was in need of an adult love story that had something other than a fairytale happy ending, but even so, I loved it.

And yet, the story couldn't be simpler. A bored housewife (Meryl Streep) embarcs on a four day affair with a photographer (played by Clint Eastwood) while her husband is away with their kids.

So what makes it exceptional? Well, it is a grasping story. It's a meeting of soul mates in adverse conditions. But it's above all, two of the best performances ever. Meryl Streep in particular gives what is arguably her best best performance of the last 20 years. Everything she does seems so natural, so instinctive. The way she touches her arms and chest, the way she trembles when he touches her, the odd mistakes she makes when speaking. I absolutely loved it. And hopefully next time, even if it takes me some other 13 years, I'll love it even more.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Little things I hate

1) That after a week of playing around with Christmas flights, when I finally decide on dates and times, the stupid website is down...

2) That Ugly Betty has restarted last week (after an hiatus of nine months) on C4 and no one told me! Update: it seems C4 lets me catch up for free. Yay!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Yesterday, I revisited Norma Desmond. The BFI showed a print from the 2002 restoration (that's the one available on the fantastic DVD that Paramount released a few years ago) which despite the few scratches that it has earned still looks magnificent.

I can tell more or less when I saw it for the first time. It was around 1993, and in those days the newspaper my father bought had a TV guide where you could find decent reviews about one or two of the films that they'd show during the week. It was at that time that my curiosity about old films was becoming systematic, so I watched and recorded it off TV. I lost count how many times that tape was seen since, and afterwards the DVD. To say it is one of my favourite films is both a cliché and an understatement.

The film is the story of Joe Gillis, a out of job screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into a palazzo in Sunset Blvd. (Oh, and being very pedantic, the title of the film is "Sunset Blvd." not "Sunset Boulevard"). In it he finds Norma Desmond, a movie star from the silent era (which was then only 20 years away) who is planning her return to the screen through her own version of Salomé to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He is hired to revised the script, and if I say anything else I might spoil it for those out there who haven't seen it - and yesterday went with a friend who hadn't seen it and loved it (or so he said...)
This was the last script that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett worked together (and they got an Oscar for the story) and I can only say, what a way to go! - and this from the people wrote among others "Ninotchka", the Oscar-winning "The Lost Weekend" and two of my Wilder favourites' "The Major and the Minor" and "A Foreign Affair", so they had to really top themselves. The story is so tight and so good, the ending so inevitable and yet surprising, that leaves me wishing for more screenwritting of this calibre.

But it's not only the story which is good. Everything that no-one ever notices is magnificent; the sets (Oscar winning, and I could spend hours in that house/set admiring every single detail, from the ever present face of Norma Desmond to the ceiling that came from Portugal), the costumes, the lighting, the camera work and shots, and Franz Waxman's haunting score (the film's third Oscar) come to mind as well.

And then there are the performances... That all four main actors got Oscar nominations is just a fact. You actually need to see how good they are. Erich von Stroheim as Max is never anything but chilling, and yet as the film develops you realise how touching his character really is. William Holden made a whole career out of this part, playing cynics forever, and yet, this is the best of them all. As his character progresses he simply gives one of the best performances I have ever seen, layered, complex, a man divided and slowly walking to the swimming pool where we meet him in the opening sequence, despaired and self-loathing, kind, trying to survive and finally recovering himself from the gutter where Wilder had placed him. And then there's Norma, or rather Gloria Swanson, herself a forgotten movie star from the silent era, as big or bigger Norma ever was. She is never anything less than mesmerising, capturing the silent era melodrama her character still emulates. And for this, if nothing else, she got the imortality that perhaps eluded Norma. It is one of the great injustices of the Oscars that two of the best performances by an actress competed against each other for an award (Norma and Bette Davis' Margo Channing). It's even a greater injustice that neither won, and that the winner was Judy Holiday for "Born Yesterday"...

Maybe it's the fact that Wilder's very dark humour and cinicism hit the right keys with me, but having seen most of his films bar four ("The Spirit of St Louis" and the last three) they make a considerable share of my all time favourites. This most certainly one of them...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Citizen Kane (1941)

What can I write here that has already been said somewhere else about Citizen Kane? Probably nothing, so I am not even trying. I watched it last night for the first time in a while and for the first time in the big screen. I had forgotten how good it was, and it felt much warmer and human than I remembered. I also could see some little clues that are only obvious after the first viewing (and after you find out what "Rosebud" stands for) and that were hidden by the smallness of the TV screen - one being the snow globe that is in the mantlepiece of Susan's house when Kane first visits.

More and more, I want to see films on the big screen. DVDs are wonderful and I love them, and they are convinient and allow me to access to a lot of films that I can't see otherwise. But these movies were made for huge screens, in a time before television really took over, and the amount of detail lost is so amazing. There's a quote about either Garbo or Bette Davis that they knew that less was more (mmm... probably Garbo) and that a simple raise of an eyebrow would be massive when projected. Nevertheless I should finally watch sometime soon the DVD which I own for a good 5 years now (maybe even a bit more) and is gathering dust with so many other titles in my ever growing collection.

One of the things it did surprise me, and that I had partly forgotten or never fully realised, is how much Lubitsch had influenced (in economy and style) the breakfast sequence that illustrates the rise and fall of Kane's first marriage. It is in turns touching, hillarious, sad and brilliant. I think this is one of the great virtues of the film; how it picked influences or techniques from others (German Expressionism and John Ford's Stagecoach, which I never seen, are often mentioned) but were put to use in such an original way.