Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Rauschenberg, Moonlight and Simon Pegg's epiphany – Reviews #260

Cultural excursions, 11 March to date. I also have this stupid thing called Choose Your Own Twadventure, which you can take part in here.

FILMS



CINEMA: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) – An intensely beautiful, compassionate film in three parts about a quiet, 'soft' African-American boy being battered by the inner-city experience as he tries to deal with his tortured sexual awakening.

Barry Jenkins' movie has something of Soderbergh's captivating coming-of-age film, King of the Hill, and the same poetic eye as Killer of Sheep and Half Nelson – a camera lapped by waves or jostled by a crowd of laughing boys, fingers spreading in the sand during orgasm – but it feels revelatory and revolutionary in its subject matter, its impeccable structural control and its innate sensitivity, which strips away the distancing, self-mythologising bravado of gang culture to find something vulnerable, human and humane.

Three generations of Chirons and Kevins lead a flawless cast, and from the breathless dash for the sanctuary of a junkie's den to that steadicam shot trailing Black as he heads to the climactic encounter, Moonlight is masterfully directed: an enveloping, once-in-a-lifetime film about the constancy, malleability and complexity of human nature, the pain and ecstasy of love, and the world's vicious but not quite unrelenting assault on the weak. (4)

***



CINEMA: Raising Arizona (Joel Coen, 1987) – This early Coens comedy is sometimes too cartoonish for my own dubious taste, but how do you criticise something that’s clearly exactly what the makers wanted it to be – and so damn good most of the time?

Simon Pegg presented Raising Arizona as part of the BFI’s Screen Epiphanies strand, explaining that it paved the way for Shaun of the Dead, opening his eyes to the fact that even cuts and camera angles could be comic, then took his seat in the auditorium, hooting with laughter throughout. The film has some of the best lines the Coens will ever write (“Do these balloons blow up into funny shapes?” “No... unless round is funny”), a lovely performance from Holly Hunter as a straight-shooting cop who wants a baby so badly that she crosses to the other side of the law, and a genuine sweetness too often absent from Joel and Ethan’s films, particularly in its beautiful closing sequence. It also has Trey Wilson as unpainted furniture tycoon, Nathan Arizona (catchphrase: "... or my name ain't Nathan Arizona").

But at times it’s too noisy, mannered and self-satisfied to get truly lost in, yelling its own subversiveness and invention in your face, or sometimes just yelling for no good reason. It’s possible to be madcap without just being annoying, as Carole Lombard can tell you, and there’s so much here that’s original, interesting and affecting that I wish the Coen Bros had wanted to make a slightly different film, one that I’d really like (I appreciate that this is a selfish, unrealistic proposition).

As a man immune to the self-mythologising post-modern joke that is Nicolas Cage, I’ve got to admit that at times he can be just great, and here (a year after his very worst performance, in Peggy Sue Got Married) he finds a truth in caricature, like Mike Leigh or the young Johnny Depp, that’s really impressive. There are great gags all over the place, showy shots – including that one over the car, up the ladder, through a window and into Florence Arizona’s mouth that the Coens put in as a challenge to Sam Raimi, who bettered it in Evil Dead 2 – and then there’s Holly Hunter singing Down in the Willow Garden. For that I can forgive, if not forget, John Goodman’s endless shouting or those moments when even the leads are asked to push it just a mite too far.

BONUS QUOTES:

“I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused.”

"Need a beer, Glen?"
"Does the Pope wear a funny hat?"

(3)

***



Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, 2010) – A standard Alex Gibney doc, this time about disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, with the usual questionable pacing and shambling structure, but also a typically fascinating subject and the filmmaker’s strong journalistic insights in his favoured areas of capitalism, corruption and moral capitulation.

Spitzer was a crusading DA known as ‘the sheriff of Wall Street’ who sought to curb the spectacular, immoral excesses of AIG, Merrill Lynch et al, only to be turfed out of office for using prostitutes. Starting, peculiarly, at the end of the story, and then sort of running in loads of different directions at once, Gibney examines who Spitzer was, what he stood for and why he threw it away, while underlining the hypocrisy and dubious practices of corporate America.

The subject, to give him credit, is fairly frank about his failings, and blames no-one else for his downfall, which feels like not just a betrayal of his family, but also a dereliction of duty as the sub-prime scandal set to blow. The flipside, of course, is that Spitzer bothered to go after these companies like no-one ever had before, so in political terms we're judging him by his own high standards.

There's the usual strong, confessional interview footage, full of Gibney's precise, probing questions, as well as some solid material, though the scuzzy direction doesn't always make for the most coherent storytelling, let alone alight on the most telling juxtapositions. There's a good story here, though, told without sensationalism or triviality, and with a gallery of interesting, colourful supporting characters, including giggly, morally bankrupt pimp, Cecil Suwal, and peroxided right-wing weirdo Roger Stone, who's a fantastic character and also a massive twat. (3)

See also: I wrote about Gibney's 2013 film, The Armstrong Lie, here.

BOOK



Anthem by Ayn Rand (1937)
– Rand’s short dystopian novel is a short, precise critique of totalitarianism, anticipating both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, and climaxing with the heavy-handed ‘anthem’ of the title: a two-chapter crystallisation of the philosophy that she would late name ‘objectivism’, in which the ego is king. Here the style is substance, the story written in the first person plural at irregular intervals, as Equality 7-2521 – working by candlelight, underground – attempts to understand their flaws and sins, borne of a latent individuality in the age of the masses. There are allusions to the hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism of Soviet Russia (a Russia that robbed the Rand family of everything it had), but it’s not the box-ticking revenge porn you might fear, setting its sights higher and broader than just Bolshevism, with allusions to the torchlight regressiveness of Nazi Germany, and a firm grasp of an alternative ideology, even when pitting it against her usual straw man.

Rand hadn’t fully mastered English when she first wrote the novel, so she returned to it in 1946, after the success of The Fountainhead (1943), cleaning up passages while retaining – as she was clear to stress in her foreword – the meaning of the book. Though the allegory here is cleaner than in The Fountainhead, it’s primarily because Anthem is more simplistic and mannered, lacking the colour, depth and scope of character of that daring, problematic odyssey, and with a climax that seems more like over-the-top wish-fulfilment than an inspiring call-to-arms. For all that, it’s a distinctive and memorable work that does what it’s trying to, highlighting the ideological failings of populist extremism (while extending them to anyone exhibiting basic empathy), with flashes of stark, brutal poetry as Equality 7-2521 learns to love and question and create. (3)

Next up: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I'm nearly done.

***

EXHIBITION



Rauschenberg (Tate Modern)
– Another trip to the Tate Modern, where I stand forever suspended (or rather furiously oscillating) between the opposing schools of ‘This is extraordinary’ and ‘This is pretentious bollocks that means nothing’. I always like it if there’s a good painting somewhere, for the assurance that the other forms of expression are an artistic choice and not a necessity born of basic talentlessness. Rauschenberg’s tactile, 3D works in constant motion are really strong and alive (a bubbling pit; stainless steel machinery reassembled, water running through it forever) and some of his transfers and screen prints are a striking, even overpowering synthesis of ancient themes and modern style, multimedia news and disposable pop culture ripped free and fused to depict a time of drowned hope, desperate sorrow and impotent rage.

Often you see a burgeoning new style develop across a single series of works: his 34 modern illustrations for Dante’s Inferno begin as bitty, exploratory and hard-to-follow; by 32, the painting is tying together the disparate borrowed visuals (transferred from newspapers using lighter fluid and pressure from an empty ballpoint pen) into something cohesive, immersive and provocative. At other times, context makes us at least contemplate the dynamic he is attempting: a wooden box parodying similar holders of religious artefacts but filled with dirt could be a comment on the irrelevance of faith, but seems here to be about the miracle of nature, Picasso’s “found objects” given an earthy, pastoral grandeur. Elsewhere he utterly lost me, with ‘sculptures’ that were just a couple of cardboard boxes – one complete, one disassembled – and ballet routines (captured on video) rendered stale by crass camerawork, the performers’ dated stylistics and choreography that seems turgid, limited and graceless.

As an overview, this exhibition is sumptuously put together, and (as a newcomer to this work) seems close to definitive, but Rauschenberg didn’t move me like Malevich, Matisse or much of the Abstract Expressionism I saw at the Royal Academy last year. It did, however, include the greatest artwork description in the history of the world:



(2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 17 March 2017

REVIEW: An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre

Wednesday 15 March, 2017



This explosive, intelligent stage version of MGM’s 1951 masterpiece, direct from Broadway, sags now and then in its book, but offers unmissable entertainment of a type rarely seen in the West End.

We began in the tumult of postwar Paris, less the escapist playground of the film and more a ravaged battleground where demobbed soldiers try to forget the war, women feel in perpetual danger and collaborators are being beaten and getting their heads shaved. Craig Lucas’s script offers a rejigged, re-ordered narrative that adds extra Gershwin songs (the film doesn’t have nearly enough), underscores the action with a battle fatigue that accentuates its more carefree moments, and leads to a putting-on-a-ballet climax that’s imaginatively conceived in narrative and artistic terms.



Its great masterstroke is turning the sardonic narrator from the grouchy, alienated middle-aged Adam played by Oscar Levant into David Seadon-Young’s war vet (above, left), an inspired innovation that lends a far greater heft to his sequences, if rather undermining the appeal of Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), one of three protagonists now in love with the same woman, the gamine ballerina, Lise (Leanne Cope, a worthy successor to Leslie Caron). Jerry is a painter who truly cares for Lise, but when you put this character into a more realistic, grounded world of Nazis, collaborators and the battle between duty and romance, his charming rom-com stalking comes off as a little thin, selfish and, y’know, sexist. The other romantic possibility for Lise is her fiancée, Henri Baurel (Hayden Oakley), a French aristocrat who dreams of being a musical-theatre star, and who here is a nervous, cautious man with a rather abrupt back story.



Fairchild and Cope (above) both originated their roles on Broadway, and they’re superb dancers, while transmitting the basic traits that make their characters appealing: Jerry’s ease in his skin, his irreverence and athleticism, Lise’s combination of the elfin and the erotic, a latent fire burning beneath an ethereality that – like Audrey Hepburn’s – seems dictated by the privations of war. Their characterisations can’t quite bridge the shortcomings of the script (Jerry’s quite selfish, Lise is something of a cipher), but their song-and-dance talents are unimpeachable. The moment that the climactic ballet explodes into sensual life is pure exhilaration, with shades of Bob Fosse’s revolutionary, finger-clicking goodness in Kiss Me Kate. In support, Zoe Rainey makes for a sparky, hugely appealing Milo (younger, and funnier, than Nina Foch), Oakley is pretty good balancing the inconsistencies of his character, and Seadon-Young is simply terrific as the lovelorn, limping war vet who channels his unhappiness and romantic impotence into his art.

The staging is similarly superb, making the most of the stage’s depth through some striking compositions, and mixing the irregular patterns and primary colours of ‘50s art with the more impressionistic style of the MGM film, and many of its most enchanting, striking and transportative effects achieved through brilliant projections and lighting. That sense of intelligent, contextualised innovation extends to the musical numbers, which are an absolute knockout. Beginner’s Luck is the epitome of vibrant, perfectly choreographed, 1950s-style showstopping magic, as Jerry crashes Lise’s workplace at the Galleries Lafayette perfume counter, turning the room into a riot of colour, extravagant hoofing and umbrellas.



When Henri makes his live debut, we get all the art deco razzmattaz of a ‘30s Warner musical, but framed in the realism of an awkward, halting first show that explodes into fantasy. It’s lovely too that its post-modern but idealistic escapism extends to Adam losing his limp and getting to share the spotlight (though it loses a fraction of a point for Oakley being unable to hit that climactic top note, instead going down an octave). I Got Rhythm too tinkers with the film’s formula, bringing all three love rivals together for the first time and incorporating an inspired, hushed, candlelit middle-eight with diegetic sound. Character-led, grounded numbers that still thump it out of the park are about the best thing that musicals can offer, and there are several here. And though we don’t get the breathtaking Seine-side dance to Our Love Is Here to Stay that’s one of the MGM movie’s great virtues, this stage version does incorporate several Gershwin songs from other shows, including his fondest, saddest, most romantic creation – Our Love Is Here to Stay – as well as The Man I Love and, erm, Fidgety Feet. The vocals are strong while retaining a fair amount of the subtlety and personality that can be lost in musical theatre, and the orchestra is fantastic: punchy and precise, like John Wilson at his considerable best.



The show climaxes with a ballet that’s still a hypnotic fantasy of love, but now coupled with a putting-on-a-ballet climax, as Lise makes her first public performance, but can only acquire the requisite passion by calling Jerry to mind. For a little while you wonder if they’ve botched it by junking the movie’s journey through different artistic styles – though Singin’ in the Rain is now the best-loved and most-respected of all MGM musicals, in the ‘50s it was An American in Paris, and particularly this sequence, that was regarded as the studio’s supreme achievement – but with Jerry’s entrance it becomes a powerful, extremely sexy and all together beguiling proposition: the bob-haired Cope draped across Fairchild, or swaggering, shoulders-back, towards us, as he pirouettes furiously, exuberantly around the perimeter of the stage.

It’s a stunning highlight of a show that’s less slick, seamless and smooth in the book than it needs to be – the jokes are patchy, and a laboured subplot about Henri’s parents isn’t helped by shallow sentimentality and broad playing – but knows its strengths, with some intelligent weighting towards the political context, fine acting, and musical moments that are everything they should be and more. And since I was lucky enough to land a ticket for the first night, I also got to see Leslie Caron come and take a bow. (3.5)


(Pic credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

***

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 10 March 2017

John Huston, Casque d'Or and Peckinpah's last Western – Reviews #259

That's it. There is nothing else.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)



I wrote a piece earlier this week about 10 things I'd learned from reading Paul Seydor's recent book on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but I fancied sharing some of my own thoughts on the movie, and what better way than by treating myself to a home viewing of the 1988 Turner Preview cut:

*A FEW SPOILERS*

When the world’s premier director of Westerns announced that he was making a movie about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it seemed the perfect marriage of artist and endeavour, but everything went wrong. Studio politics, an influenza epidemic and Peckinpah’s own self-destructive behaviour turned a dream project into a nightmare, and when a truncated version of this bleak, knackered Western about the dying of a world reached cinemas, it left critics fuming and audiences cold.

Fast forward 15 years to 1988 and Turner’s unveiling of a version hurriedly prepared for the first test screening, which ran 16 minutes longer and included several unseen or extended sequences, including the ‘Tuckerman’s Hotel’ chapter featuring Elisha Cook, Jr, an epilogue that revisits the prologue, creating a full framing device, and longer versions of the first scene in Fort Sumner, the prison escape and Peckinpah’s appearance as the coffin maker. Less auspiciously, the edit was missing the scenes between Garrett and his wife, Chisum (Barry Sullivan) and prostitute Ruthie Lee (the former cut in error), and wasn’t looped, fine cut or finished, slightly undermining the idea that it was somehow a definitive version of the film. As Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor has made clear in his fine book on the film: there is no definitive version.

In any edit, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a compromised, sometimes confused film that manages to both debunk and pay homage to the mythos of the Old West, as newly-elected sheriff Pat Garrett slowly circles his old friend Billy the Kid who is, in the words of Townes Van Zandt, “just waiting around to die”. Garrett, as realised by James Coburn, is implacable, instinctive and methodical, effortlessly in command in any scenario, for all the good it does him. He is a man who is never at peace, and whose only evident ethos is to do a job well. Billy (Kris Kristofferson) is a round-faced, carousing kid gone slightly to seed, whose much-heralded freedom seems simply to be the freedom to bum around whoring and shooting up places, his existence essentially meaningless and inert, as he threatens revenge or revelation, but only ever acts to reinstate a status quo.

This episodic movie alternates between the protagonists, and though some of the chapters are sluggish or lacking Peckinpah’s usual punch (the prostitutes montage is absolutely shit), there are several masterpieces: Charlie Bowdre’s death scene; the murders of Bell and Ollinger with a line torn from history (the pre-emptive: “And he’s killed me too”); the taut, hard-nosed suspense sequence and gun duel at Horrell’s trading post, featuring Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam); the pastoral but ominous, eerie raft scene (which plays perfectly without words, a late decision by Peckinpah); and the climactic passage, which floors and astounds me, no matter how many times I see it. Though the death of Slim Pickens’ Sheriff Brady by the river is my favourite scene in the picture, it plays so much better in the 2005 Special Edition, which simply added several missing scenes to the extant theatrical edit (as well as re-cutting the prologue), and so features Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ vocal here, as well as possessing a vibrancy in the colours that has been lost in the degrading stock of the Preview edit (only one copy of which ever existed).

Those passages of sustained brilliance, and the film’s general audacity of vision – entirely shorn of glamour and romance – are allied to a presentation of the West that I find both horrifying and seductive. Leonard Maltin complained in his review of the film that “there isn’t enough contrast in the two low-key performances”, but it’s that complexity of characterisation I find so fascinating. Peckinpah and screenwriter Wurlitzer show legality and wrongdoing as simply a matter of timing, deftly and superbly articulating the ease with which outlaws and lawmen swapped places.

Peckinpah never finished the film and never made another Western, but what he left here (quite literally, actually, quitting the film after the second preview) is a remarkable if uneven achievement. He only told Seydor that he regretted the film sinking from trace because it was “one of Jimmy Coburn’s best performances” and I’d go further – it’s simply his best. Nothing else he did approached the multi-faceted, morally labyrinthine Garrett, the character’s inner life laid bare across 122 minutes, and though Kristofferson can’t match him and Dylan can’t act (or at least can’t speak dialogue, his Chaplinesque presence is genuinely effective), the supporting cast is one for the ages, with fine work from Sullivan, Elam, Pickens, Cook, Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Paul Fix, Harry Dean Stanton and Gene Evans. The film can be shabby and shambling and silly, frustratingly imperfect and banteringly macho in the most tiresome way, but it’s also one of the most original, important and poetic Westerns ever made: the slow, circuitous slaughter of a man resigned to his fate by another trying to change his destiny and his duty. (4)

***



CINEMA: Casque d'Or (Jacques Becker, 1952) – Man, I love French films: their easy sensuality and heavy irony, their crushing cynicism and sparkling wit, and the apparently effortless technical fluidity that so often leaves their British counterparts trailing in the dirt. This one is from Jacques Becker, whose other best-known movie was the film noir Touchez pas au grisbi, and for a long time it's wonderful: a crime-flavoured turn-of-the-century rom-com based on a notorious tabloid scandal, and full of sex and danger and moustaches.

Simone Signoret is absolutely enchanting as Marie, a prostitute in the Paris of 1902 (her blonde hair the 'golden helmet' of the title), who ditches brutish pimp Raymond for carpenter Manda (Serge Reggiani), a man who really loves her. Their halting romance leads to tragedy, thanks in part to the machinations of local crime kingpin Leca (Claude Dauphin), a sadistic, manoeuvring misogynist so utterly vile he should be in Trump's cabinet.

It's a film full of surprises, of irony and of heady moods, each one effortlessly evoked by Becker's thoughtful direction and Signoret's intoxicating performance: she falls in love with us on a dancefloor (her eyes somehow trained unstintingly on us, and on Manda, even as she turns), surprises us in a blissful bucolic neverworld, and watches from the window of a cheap hotel as fatalism plunges her into the unthinkable.

It's such a superb performance, perhaps the best of hers that I've seen: playful, amusing and appealing, her Marie so ridiculously sexy and thoroughly decent, yet also largely credible as a powerless whore in a brutal, unforgiving man's world that may be stylistically sanitised for '50s cinema, but is just as emotionally uncompromising as it should be, Becker steadfastly refusing to sugarcoat or dress up the compromises she's forced to make, most strikingly in one particularly sickening moment in Dauphin's apartment. That it follows hot on the heels of that utterly beautiful sequence in the church (my favourite scene of the film) makes it even harder to take.

It's the story that lets Signoret down, the plotting starting to plod after a lo-fi prison escape attempt, as if someone nudged Becker and handed him a checklist of film noir clichés and weepie tropes, compounding the compromises of a slightly synthetic period atmosphere (despite a compressed, repressed intensity about Reggiani, in this distracting get-up it's hard to be immersed in his plight). There are still a couple of fine, wry touches in the closing reels, but the final third lacks the distinctiveness and novelty of what precedes it, and gives its star less to do − or at least less interesting things to do.

Tragedies, least of all conventional ones that force her to suffer, were never really Signoret's forte: she was too lively and saucy and tough-but-tender. When I say I love French films, that encompasses so many of hers, but I'll always love the acidic tang of Les Diaboliques, La Ronde's effortless panache, the weighty dynamism of Melville's Army of Shadows and this one's irresistible first hour more than, say, the formulaic functionality of Thérèse Raquin or Casque d'Or's over-familiar closing reels. (3)

***



CINEMA: Fat City (John Huston, 1972) – An unglamorous, unsentimental and uncompromising boxing flick, with John Huston trying on some New Hollywood togs and finding that they suit him just fine. For an hour, he bobs and weaves – playing much of the story for laughs – before whacking us repeatedly in the solar plexus, as his film finds both its rhythm and its raison d'être.

Stacy Keach is down-and-out ex-boxer, Billy Tully, his zigzag descent into manual labour, irreleverance and alcoholism contrasted with the similarly haphazard ascent of pretty-boy pugilist, Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). We never see Bridges win a fight, and we never see Keach lose one, but by the end of the film, one has the American Dream and the other is fagged out and fucked.

I'm not an enormous fan of that first hour: it commences with back-to-back scenes soundtracked only by songs – while both sequences are fine in themselves, that quirk is without real artistic or dramatic value – and when the film does get going, its moments of everyday tragedy are somewhat lost in an episodic structure and a style that leans too much towards the glib and cartoonish.

It's not unusual for Huston to segue from comedy to pain (as I believe Tom Jones once sang): he did it in his two great late films, Wise Blood and The Dead, but there it was underscored by melancholia, rather than interrupting it. It doesn't help that several of the bit players can't really act.

In the final 40, though, the gloves come off, and the film's punches begin to really land. The virtues that have been obscured by padding and side-stepping become blindingly obvious: Keach's bruising, multi-layered performance, the bitter poetry of Leonard Gardner's dialogue, Susan Tyrell's fantastically annoying turn as the tragic, throaty, and self-pitying Ona, and Conrad L. Hall's sumptuous cinematography, which captures both the glory of a Californian summer and the horror of perhaps cinema's worst home-cooked meal.

These final reels hinge on a thrilling, gruelling and magnificently ugly fight, and the unceremonial slide to the bottom that follows it, closing with one of my favourite unresolved endings (or is it? From this one scene, perhaps we can plot these characters' next 10 years). But what heralds them is a scene every bit as remarkable, as Keach's manager turns up to drag him out of a bar, and the grey-faced, drink-sodden fighter lets it all hang out. "Ever since my wife left me, it's just been one thing after another," he says, and it's so raw I had to catch my breath. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Ten things I learned about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The latest in my semi-regular series.



I stumbled across Paul Seydor’s book, The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2015), while passing time between BFI screenings. Since it was 35 quid, I bided my time and purchased it from the morally reprehensible tax-avoiding online behemoth Amazon, which was selling it for just £16. The blurb promised an examination of Peckinpah’s final Western that would trace a line from verifiable fact through a deluge of fiction (beginning with Pat Garrett’s own ghostwritten book, published five years after he killed Billy the Kid) to the legendary, technically unfinished 1973 film.

It does that in a different way to how I expected – after a chapter on near-contemporary retellings, there’s little on treatments of the story besides the three which directly shaped Peckinpah’s movie – but Seydor methodically and often thrillingly examines the way that the project developed. Along the way, he sheds light on how metamorphosing Billys and Garretts play into different interpretations of philosophy, mythology and American history, offers a rare insight into the collaborative process that is moviemaking (through interviews and his own insights as a respected Hollywood film editor), and delivers a respectful but frank and unsentimental portrait of a master director who was also a tragic, tragically self-destructive alcoholic.



I embarked upon the book expecting a chronicle of how Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett have been portrayed in literature and cinema, culminating with a recreation of life on the set of the 1973 movie. Instead, I got a lesson in Peckinpah, movie editing and the endless evolution of a film that has never seemed greater – nor more flawed – than it does in Seydor’s telling. It’s more academicised than most of the film books I read, but it’s never pretentious, and if his chronicling of script revisions is only for diehard Sam fans and film nerds, those fans should find it invaluable, because of the way Seydor demonstrates that even small changes can disrupt a film’s balance or enrich its dualities. Regular readers may know that I was bored out of my wits by Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks biography, which managed to turn one of the most fascinating Hollywood careers into a dispassionate, insight-free collection of names and dates. Seydor’s prose style can get a trifle wearying (he loves a list of job titles), but at others it’s scintillating, and there’s no questioning his passion, intelligence and insight. The sections in which he responds to criticism on the internet are also delightful – he deals with criticism about as calmly and rationally as me (please don't get me, Paul, I liked your book).

Here are 10 things I learned:


1. Bloody well-educated Sam
I didn’t know much about Peckinpah’s background, and was surprised to learn that the hard-living, foul-mouthed, macho director studied drama at the University of Southern California, and began his career as a stage director, producing a well-received, hour-long version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie during his senior year, followed by the playwright’s Portrait of a Madonna for his master’s thesis. He was also a fan of foreign films – particularly Rashomon (above, Kurosawa), The Magician (Bergman), La Strada (Fellini), Red Desert (Antonioni) and Pather Panchali (Ray) – and, despite preconceptions to the contrary, a liberal Democrat.


2. Pat Garrett and Peckinpah the Kid
Peckinpah first approached the subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid when he was asked to adapt Charles Neider’s novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones – a barely-veiled treatment of the subject – in 1957. When Stanley Kubrick took over the project, he chucked out Sam’s screenplay, before leaving the project himself after clashes with his star, Marlon Brando. When the film eventually appeared in 1961 as One-Eyed Jacks, it had little of Neider and virtually nothing of Peckinpah. One of the few lines from Sam’s script to make the finished project was Brando’s “Answer me, you big tub of guts,” which is admittedly memorable but not representative of his remarkable and elegiac adaptation.


3. Blood and Gore
Arthur Penn helped usher in the New Hollywood era with the bloody Bonnie and Clyde, a new milestone in movie violence until Peckinpah far surpassed it with The Wild Bunch. Penn made his own Billy the Kid film in 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, which perpetuated one popular myth (William Bonney was right-handed, but the existing, mirrored portrait of him is rarely corrected) while offering more then-popular Freudianism than anyone can handle. Scriptwriter Gore Vidal brilliantly described it as "a film that only someone French could like".


4. Playing the Wurlitzer
Rudolph Wurtlizer’s script for Peckinpah was originally just called ‘Billy the Kid’, and detailed a man in decline, his shooting and his behaviour becoming similarly erratic as he slipped into alcoholic dissipation. As he had done with his Hendry Jones script, Peckinpah removed all scenes of Billy’s drunkenness – and in fact, all references to Billy drinking at all, bar two. Seydor argues convincingly that the director found the material too painful to deal with, being in 1957 a functioning alcoholic wracked by fears over his own self-destructiveness, and by 1972 fully aware of how his drinking was affecting his work and indeed his life.


5. 'Ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence'
Among the actors suggested for Billy were Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Don Johnson, though the two closest to getting the part were Jon Voight and Malcolm McDowell, whom Peckinpah had so much admired in if…. and A Clockwork Orange. Apparently he wasn't aware of how intense Peckinpah's interest was, as he prepared for and filmed O Lucky Man!. "I would have died to have worked with Peckinpah," he told Seydor. "He was a genius, one of the greatest directors who ever lived. It's a regret I will always have that it didn't happen." Marlon Brando, Jack Palance and particularly Rod Steiger were considered for Garrett, though Coburn was always the director's first choice.


6. Print the legend
There are many ludicrous myths about the film, from a lost four-hour cut that never existed, to the idea that MGM took the film out of Peckinpah's hands and re-cut it (actually it was recut by his own editors – more below – after he walked off the project), and the idea that it was a prototype Heaven’s Gate, going massively massively off schedule and over-budget. Production did run to 72 days, rather than the completely unrealistic 58 days imposed on Peckinpah and his crew, but 8-12 days involved Sam reshooting footage ruined by a faulty lens so the film could be properly finished, three were caused by a stoppage due to an influenza epidemic that killed a crew member, and several days were lost due to bad weather (under the idiotic, obnoxious James T. Aubrey, above, MGM had just removed the 5% budget overage intended to cater for inclement conditions). The extra $1.6m spent the production is about what it would cost for an extra 14 days of shooting. Editor Roger Spotiswoode sent a brilliant, pissed-off memo to production head Dan Melnick – reprinted in the book – which details a litany of impracticalities in the post-production schedule, ending with the hilariously wide-ranging and unequivocal: “Finally the schedule is totally unrealistic and impossible in all areas”.


7. The check’s in the post
The main reason for the film’s artistic failings – and indeed its commercial ones – was the ridiculous deadline imposed by MGM for post-production. For The Wild Bunch he had had a year, and in 1973 (as now), 40 weeks was considered comfortable, 30 weeks do-able and 20 tight but possible. Pat Garrett was given 16, and by the time scheduling conflicts had been resolved and re-shoots completed, it was 13. The last dailies arrived back from Mexico a week after the first cut was supposed to have been completed. MGM needed profits from the movie to help pay for their new hotel in Las Vegas so, unwaveringly committed to the Memorial Day release date supposedly (but not actually) perfect for Westerns, Aubrey threw money and staff at the project, but what it needed was time. Roger Ebert famously mentioned in his damning review that the film credited six editors: actually only three worked creatively on the film, two were hired due to union rules and a sixth helped to implement changes late in the process.


8. The first cut is the deepest?
There is no definitive cut of the film. Aside from a TV edit dictated purely by a two-hour run-time and a ban on nudity and ultra-violence, three different versions exist. The theatrical version wasn’t “butchered”, as many contest, but was carefully completed by Peckinpah’s three editors, each of whom was committed to protecting his vision, while managing the studio’s demand to lose a half hour of the running time. In the end, they compromised at 20 minutes, bringing in a cut of 106m. Wikipedia suggests that Peckinpah regarded the 122m version screened at the first preview (aka the ‘1988 Turner Preview’, after its US TV air date) as definitive, but this is nonsense. He shared it on video with friends simply because it was the only longer version of the film he had access to after walking off the project. That version is missing the scene with Garrett’s wife (excised by mistake, then returned for the second preview), has a flabbiness born of the hectic editing schedule (Peckinpah had requested fine cuts which weren’t done), features an instrumental version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – sans Dylan’s vocals – over the greatest scene in the picture, and closes with an epilogue improvised in post-production, which (sort of) frames the movie as a flashback. In 2005, Seydor was asked by Warner Home Video to prepare a Special Edition, for free and with literally one hour at the controls (which just shows what contempt studios have for their audiences). He compiled a list of scenes which should be reinserted into the theatrical version to make it more complete, and recut the prologue so it was more clean, logical and thrilling, while turning the credit text yellow, as Peckinpah had wanted. None of the versions are finished, but it’s the 2005 one – which runs 115m – that I tend to watch, as it seems the closest to the director’s grand and complex vision (though who can really say).


9. 'Well there was this movie I seen one time/About a man riding 'cross the desert'
Bob Dylan, who contributes a sometimes majestic score and some of the worst line readings in movies, asked his friend Wurlitzer to get him on the project, as he was so interested in Billy the Kid. The decision was greenlit by producer Gordon Carroll, but wound up Peckinpah, who had his own pet rock star on set (Kris Kristofferson) and greeted Dylan by telling him that he was "big fan of Roger Miller". In fact, when Wurlitzer and Monte Hellman initially devised the film as a follow-up to their classic B-movie Two-Lane Blacktop, the idea was to tell a story of burnt-out rock stars using Garrett and The Kid as surrogates. Peckinpah's memos show that he thought Dylan's score needed "sweetening" (open to interpretation in a dozen ways), and on the advice of regular collaborator Jerry Fielding took the singer's vocals off the great death scene, because they were too on the nose. He later questioned the decision, but by then the vocals were back on the soundtrack, and he was off the film.


10. 'C’mon, you lazy bastard'
The book's most remarkable revelation is that when Charles Aubrey left MGM in November 1973, seven months after the film had disappeared from theatres amidst critical opprobrium, public disinterest and financial catastrophe, studio intermediary (and Peckinpah sympathiser) Dan Melnick offered Sam the chance to come back to the studio and create a definitive version. He let the chance slide, his collaborators suspecting that he knew there were unfixable problems with the film, and this way he had an easy out: he would have created another masterpiece, but the fucking studio wouldn't let him.

***



Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Peter Lorre, Sunset Song and an enrapturing trip to 1900s Brazil – Reviews #258

More erratic adventures in culture, including – but not limited to – Terence Davies's worst film, Peter Lorre on the big screen, and one of the most beautiful books I've read in years. I've just signed up for Goodreads too, I'm over here if you're interested, but the reviews will all end up on here eventually.

FILMS



Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
– I was lucky enough to interview Terence Davies in 2006, and even then – sidelined by the film industry and at a notably low ebb – he was talking about turning Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song into a movie. It took him nine years to realise that ambition, but I’m not sure why he bothered, or indeed what the point of this film is. I will always dearly love his early movies, and talking to Davies was one of the true highlights of my career as a journo (before I got tired of the stress and moved into creative writing and a job in the arts), but this film is not a highlight of anything, not even my weekend.

Agyness Deyn is Chris Guthrie, a rural Scottish lass who feels at one with the land, but not at one with her tyrannical father (Peter Mullan) – shades of Davies’s own childhood, so heartbreakingly rendered in his first film proper, Distant Voices, Still Lives. As everyday tragedy visits her family, she falls for sweet-natured neighbour, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), but this is 1914 and damn it if the drums of war aren’t pounding in the background.

The film begins promisingly, but becomes increasingly boring as it progresses, with virtually no dramatic impetus. It’s no coincidence that the good scenes here – a sumptuous opening shot, soundtracked by the wind swooshing over a field of grain, the beautiful musical sequence that ends with a congregation walking into a church – are, like the great scenes in Davies’s earlier work, wordless.

Think of the ‘Tammy’ set-piece in The Long Day Closes (the greatest three minutes in ‘90s British film), the death scene in The Neon Bible, the sequence set to Peggy Lee’s ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ in Of Time and the City, or the funerals in both Distant Voices (cut to Jessye Norman’s ‘There’s a Man Goin’ Round’) and his Trilogy (to Doris Day’s ‘It All Depends on You), and they are all just stately, beautifully composed shots set to music. Davies is a genuinely great and utterly distinctive director, but as he’s moved to more conventional narratives, his work has lost not only its brilliance, but also its coherence. He has little talent for filming drama and none for shooting sex scenes: the first half of Sunset Song builds to a night of passion which, as I’d been warned, begins with a close-up of a man’s hairy arse.

There are moments when the film gets to you. The compositions by Davies and Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough are at times breathtaking (the horses in the thunderstorm!), and you’d have to be extremely hard-hearted to find none of the plot developments affecting, but even when Guthrie is changed shockingly by the war, there’s a suddenness and silliness that prevents you from fully investing in the story. Likewise, though Deyn is mostly in fine form, she’s wearing more – and more artful – make-up than is surely realistic, and has at least one moment of farcical overacting that wrenches you out of the story. And though Mullan is pretty commanding as the cruel patriarch, and the scenes in which his rage is only enhanced by becoming a tubby, floppy invalid are genuinely scary, he’s… y’know… a bit much.

I haven’t seen A Quiet Passion yet or, indeed, Davies’ Terence Rattigan adaptation, The Deep Blue Sea. But of his others, this is the weakest, and I say that as no fan of The House of Mirth. It’s a beautiful-looking piece of nothing, depressing without being insightful, eventful without being dramatic, and slow without being a slow-burner. (2)

***



Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967) – Each of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials was made into a movie: The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 had been monochrome outings starring fading Hollywood star, Brian Donlevy, each following two years after the small-screen outing. This one took four times as long to bring to movie audiences, and though that was down to money troubles, by 1967 Hammer could afford colour film, while the financial necessity of incorporating an American star had apparently evaporated, leaving the producers to make a purely artistic choice in Andrew Keir. (Fans remain divided on Donlevy – he has so much of my goodwill from movies like The Glass Key that my judgement may be clouded, but I enjoyed his stolid doom-mongering.)

The film begins at (the fictional) Hobbs’ Lane tube station, where TFL engineers unwittingly uncover a human skull, then another, and then a huge, unexplained… thing. The discovery brings together rocket scientist Prof Bernard Quatermass, the tiresomely officious and closed-minded Col Breen (Julian Glover) and a palaeontologist (James Donald) and his assistant (Barbara Shelley), the group remaining divided as to whether the untorchable, untouchable object is a V-1 bomb, a black propaganda exercise or the key to all human existence.

It's somewhat garishly shot and Kneale himself described the special effects as “diabolical”, but with 50 years’ hindsight, I found the technical primitiveness rather charming, while the film is unquestionably full of fascinating ideas about extra-terrestrial life, the occult and the evolution of man. Despite its general tendency to be somewhat static and talky, it also has several knockout set-pieces, the odd jump scare nicely complementing the eerie atmosphere generated by Tristram Cary’s score, and the mix of folklore, mysticism and science in Kneale’s politely whacked-out, cerebral script.

It’s not quite a great film, I don’t think, but it’s unusually innovative and intelligent, with one of my all-time favourite titles: you can read it a dozen ways by the end, and they’re all valuable insights into the film. (3)

***



CINEMA: The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946) – Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) is a war hero turned bedraggled bum who gets a gig driving around absolute psycho Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). When Roman's wife (Michèle Morgan) tries to take a powder with the help of her chauffeur, we relocate to Havana, as Cummings flees for his life, with pop-eyed henchman Gino (Peter Lorre) on his tail.

This proto-Lynchian headfuck, based on a Cornell Woolrich story, starts promisingly, begins to flounder, explodes into life through a dazzling twist and then fails to adequately deliver on its vast promise and possibilities. It also has a little too much silliness to keep you truly immersed (special mention for the additional accelerator in the back of Cochran's car).

The Chase is an interesting and largely entertaining noir, though, with artful direction, some very effective flourishes in the script, and a decent cast – Lorre is absolutely sensational, yet again. His timing, his counter-intuition (funny when he could be frightening, moving as he chills the blood, menacing simply at will) and his ability to steal a scene using only a cigarette are the stuff of legend. (3)

***

BOOKS



Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson (published 2013) – A collection of many of Ronson's finest features for the likes of the Guardian and GQ, from a deeply upsetting, unsettling investigation into sub-prime loans – published two years before the financial crash, and inspired by the suicide of a family man deep in debt – to the aftermath of a planned school shooting in a Christmas-themed town. Other pieces are more light-hearted, like his adventures with real-life superheroes and Deal or No Deal contestants, but none are trivial, each revealing something about humanity or the world we inhabit, whether looking at bravery, open-mindedness or the rationalisations we make for being callous.

Ronson's writing is as it always is: perhaps a little formulaic in structure, but crisp and economical, righteously angry and hysterically funny, with rich veins of humanity and self-deprecation running parallel through each story. It's his wit, honesty, basic decency and genuine curiosity that makes these stories work, preventing them from reading like exploitation or sensationalism, even though he exists to document the extremes of human behaviour. At least four of these articles have been included in previous compilations, but there are a total of 26 in the second edition of Lost at Sea, and it's worth every penny.

In recent years, Ronson has had major success with full-length books (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test and So You've Been Publicly Shamed), but he does still write stand-alone stories, and his gift for getting to the heart of a story, and a person, over just a few pages remains utterly remarkable. (4)

***



Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (2001) – A beguilingly beautiful children’s novel about orphan Maia, who travels to Brazil in the early 1900s to stay with distant relatives. There, she’s tormented by her new-found family, but finds solace in her friendships with governess Miss Minton, a child actor named Clovis King, and a mysterious boy named Finn, while discovering escape in her exploration of the seductive, enrapturing world of the Brazilian jungle.

Ibbotson’s plotting is meticulous but effortless, her prose clean and economical, and her worldview exaltingly humane, without ever being cloying or naïve. She wrote the book when she was 76, but got the idea years before, entranced by the idea of the Manaus opera house, a home for the arts in the most chaotic and supposedly uncivilised of natural environments (the building was also the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s astonishing 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo.

I got hold of Journey to the River Sea to help me pitch my own kids’ book, and began reading with a sense of duty, but it knocked me absolutely sideways, and by the end I was choked to let it go. It’s timeless but modern, character-led but immaculately constructed, and paints a vivid and unforgettable portrait of early 20th century Brazil, while drawing much of its humour and conflict from the virtues and vices of Englishness. It’s unquestionably a great book, but perhaps more importantly it’s a good book: rich in human decency, and as deeply and desperately moving as anything I’ve read in years. A masterpiece. (4)

***

Now reading: The Authentic Death of Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, by Paul Seydor.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

And introducing... #1. John Ford

About five years ago, I used to write a regular series for the now defunct Eat Sleep Live Film, and since I want to run more features here alongside the usual reviews, I thought I'd revive it. It's called 'And introducing...', it shamelessly apes the Guardian's Pass Notes, and it's a beginner's guide to some of my favourite people in the movies.

#1. John Ford



Who?

The great American director. Asked which filmmaker had most influenced him, Orson Welles once replied: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Ford’s career – which sprawled across more than 50 years – produced more cast-iron masterpieces than any other, and covered almost every genre conceivable, though he remains best-known for his Westerns. As a person, he was a ludicrous caricature of the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, prone to acts of remarkable humanity – like filling a funeral with his own friends after the death of a lonely acquaintance, in order to comfort the widow – but in everyday terms was prickly, awkward and really liked to tell lies.

Lies? What like?
He claimed to have been born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna, in Ireland. Actually he was a second-generation immigrant, whose birth name was John Martin Feeney. Such myth-making was intrinsic to Ford’s persona and to his nostalgic films, which – if not the way things really were – were perhaps the way they should have been. Except for the bits where all the white guys shot all the Native Americans.



How can I spot a Ford film?
His movies are characterised by devastatingly effective sentiment, folksy humour, distinctive visual motifs – including extreme long shots, and photography that focuses on the eyes (but not in a stupid way, like Sergio Leone) – and an obsession with both the family unit and the outsider hero. There’s are motifs and rituals he returns to countless times from communal meals to poignant farewells, but the greatest is that of his protagonist talking to a lost loved one, while gazing at a painting or kneeling by a grave. The most exalted example is in Young Mr Lincoln, as a camera focused on the water segues from summer romance to brutal winter, and Henry Fonda’s Honest Abe is left alone on a frozen riverbank (above). It’s worth adding that if you’re watching a movie where everyone suddenly starts singing Shall We Gather at the River, then Ford almost certainly made it, and his films are also chock-full of boozing, brawling and bawling (like I said, his parents were Irish).

Talk us through Ford’s career, Troy McClure-style.
A pleasure. You may remember him from such Westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and his masterpiece, The Searchers, a staggering odyssey of revenge and redemption that marked the high-point of his many collaborations with John Wayne.

Mates with John Wayne, eh? Was he also a right wing tub-thumper and massive racist?
No. Towards the end Ford veered rather to the right, becoming friends with Richard Nixon, but in the ‘30s he described himself as a “socialist democrat... always left”, and he made the most radical movie ever to come out of Old Hollywood, The Grapes of Wrath, ably assisted by the brilliant, union-bashing producer Daryll F. Zanuck. One of Ford’s last – and worst – films, Cheyenne Autumn, was ironically a noble but boring attempt to right the wrongs of his “manifest destiny” Westerns, by sympathetically depicting the Native American experience, while The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge – though each complex and contradictory – argue that the people of the West can only be free when they let go of their racism. Even The Prisoner of Shark Island, which houses perhaps the most troubling views of any Ford film (anti-slavery campaigners are the bigots, apparently), focuses on the growing respect between hero Warner Baxter and his former slave (Ernest Whitman). After the pair return home, following years away, Ford saves the last shot of the picture for the reunion of the African-American family: a gesture you’re unlikely to find in many American films of the 1930s.



“Not a racist.” I’m nearly convinced. Anything else?
Biographer Joseph McBride argues that Ford purposefully cast friend, red-hunter and all-round objectionable bigot Ward Bond in aggressively progressive roles, as a punishment for his more unpleasant behaviour.

That should do it. Sorry, I seemed to touch a nerve there.
Well, Ford being a right-winger is a common misconception, and one still perpetuated by superb film director and absolutely terrible historian, Quentin Tarantino. I’ll admit that Ford did play, erm, one of the ‘heroic’ Klansmen in the most racist film ever made, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie that almost single-handedly revived the KKK (he's on the right of frame, below). But which of us can honestly say we haven’t done that?



I have rarely, if ever, appeared in a racist D. W. Griffith film, but let’s move on. Aside from Wayne and Bond, who else did Ford hang out with?
The John Ford Stock Company comprised more than a dozen performers, who turned up time and again in his films, from Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr to Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh and Ford’s brother Francis. In terms of leading men, Ford first worked with Harry Carey, Sr, then Will Rogers, and later enjoyed a remarkable, oft-overlooked collaboration with Henry Fonda, before his shifting priorities saw him forge a remarkable working relationship with Wayne. Ford himself claimed that it took seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Red River to realise that the “big son-of-a-bitch” could actually act.

Some would disagree.
And they would be wrong. Watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon if you’d like your eyes comprehensively opened. Ford was fascinated by the idea of toying around with Wayne’s screen image, casting him variously as a Swedish sailor, a tormented divorcee, and a tormented, lovelorn ex-soldier corrupted by racism. Compare that with regular Wayne screenwriter James Edward Grant’s memorable formula for creating the actor’s vehicles: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes. In between, you fill with gags, flags, and chases. That’s all you need. His fans eat it up!” Grant was only allowed to write one John Ford film, Donovan’s Reef, and that was comprehensively re-written by the director, who preferred to work with either Frank Nugent – the brilliant, left-leaning former journalist – or the notorious but talented James Warner Bellah, a man described by his own son as “a fascist, a racist and a world-class bigot”.



I place unnecessary weight on gold statuettes. I don’t suppose John Ford ever won any of those?
Yes. Four Best Director Oscars for starters. And none of them for Westerns.

Any of them for sentimental dramas about Welsh coal miners, released the same year as Citizen Kane?
Well, it’s funny you should mention it… People make a big fuss about How Green Was Valley landing Best Director and Best Picture the year that Citizen Kane was up for both, but it’s a matchlessly poetic movie, albeit one that doesn’t seem to know much about Wales. Still, without Ford, Kane wouldn’t exist. Welles recruited the same cinematographer as Ford’s The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland), while his preparation for making The Greatest Film Ever Made™ had been to watch Ford’s earthshaking anti-isolationist masterpiece, Stagecoach. Fifty times. Stagecoach notably popularised deep focus photography, and ceilinged sets, which gave filmmakers carte blanche to devise avant garde camera angles that would augment a scene’s atmosphere, like so:



I see. So he devised putting a ceiling on some walls. He doesn’t sound as good as my favourite director of Westerns, Sergio Leone.
Compared to John Ford, Sergio Leone was a derivative, adolescent hack, and I’m not entirely sure that he wasn’t one even when not compared to John Ford, who effectively invented the epic Western with The Iron Horse, retooled the entire genre with Stagecoach and then endlessly interrogated its priorities, preoccupations and prejudices across 25 years. His Cavalry trilogy (1947-50) remains one of the outstanding, unsung achievements in American film, and from gentle, lyrical screen poems (Wagon Master) to race relations Westerns (Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn) and the richly nostalgic but clear-sighted genre deconstruction that was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he turned the oater into an artform. Whereas Leone turned it into a badly-dubbed parade of clichés lit by occasional moments of visceral excitement and lent an air of artistry by Ennio Morricone’s sumptuous scores.

I think you were telling me about Oscars, weren’t you? Before you got distracted. What were his other gongs for?
Arty IRA flick The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and that supreme slice of blarney, The Quiet Man. He also landed a further two documentary Oscars – and a Purple Heart – for his World War Two escapades.

What did he do?
Ford headed up a photography unit making propaganda films, and was wounded whilst pointing his camera at the Battle of Midway.



What are his best movies?
How long have you got? Ford’s pre-war filmography alone takes in silent epics 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse, exalting, legal-minded Americana like Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach (above), three groundbreaking collaborations with the legendary Gregg Toland (The Informer, The Grapes of Wrarth and The Long Voyage Home), and neglected gems like The Prisoner of Shark Island and Steamboat Round the Bend, the latter a rich slice of southern fried escapism. He made one of the great WWII movies, They Were Expendable, then focused mainly on the Western for the final 20 years of his career, with the spectacular results I mentioned before. He also popped off to Ireland in the middle of all that to shoot The Quiet Man, which it would be fair to say continues to polarise audiences.

Why? Not Irish enough?
Actually, the opposite appears to be true.



That big list of films sounds tiring – where do I start?
Not as tiring as this list. But start with Stagecoach: a subversive skewering of American hypocrisy, dressed up as a slam-bang Western, and featuring some of the coolest stuntwork you’ll ever see. Then try Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The best of the best is The Searchers, which for some reason I wrote 4,000 words about here. It's not the best place to begin, but it is among the most beguilingly beautiful films ever made, its sumptuous Winton C. Hoch cinematography and latent humanism offset by moments of chilling brutality.

Was that his personal favourite?
Probably, but he was such a committed contrarian that he told Peter Bogdanovich that the most cherished of his films was the forgotten medical drama Arrowsmith, and once claimed that the only movie which turned out how he wanted it to was the botched Graham Greene adaptation, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), a film notable only for its breathtaking chiaroscuro photography. Ford’s fondness for The Sun Shines Bright, a remake of Judge Priest for the cheapo studio Republic, was genuine, and gave him the chance to realise passages excised from the earlier film by the censors, including a beautiful sequence set around a prostitute’s funeral (below).



Any weird ones in his back catalogue?
A few. In 1928, he tried to emulate then mentor F.W. Murnau by stuffing his sentimental WWI film, Four Sons, full of technical innovations, and keeping his camera in almost perpetual flight. It isn’t very good. Then in 1937, he made two films: a South Seas disaster movie called The Hurricane, and an adaptation of Wee Willie Winkie, starring Shirley Temple. Neither are what you’d expect from him, but both bear his unmistakable stamp, and both are fantastic. The Edna Ferber-like family saga, The World Moves On is another curio – stuffed with contrivance, bad dialogue and several of the most potent, heightened romantic scenes in cinematic history – while Tobacco Road, from 1941, is half transcendent Americana and half baffling, misanthropic filth, but it’s kind of fascinating. McBride calls it The Grapes of Wrath’s “evil twin”. Ford also shot an Army information film entitled Sex Hygiene. I haven’t seen that one.

Which ones should I avoid like gonnorhea?
The Black Watch, an early talkie released in 1929, which is notable for some of the most uncomfortable, unwatchable sound sequences in cinema history (many featuring future romantic comedy icon Myrna Loy), though it picks up every now and again. Mary of Scotland is essentially just a series of lingering close-ups of star Katharine Hepburn, who was Ford’s girlfriend at the time. The Long Gray Line and Cheyennne Autumn just aren’t very interesting.

Tell me one other brilliant factoid with which I can impress all of my mates down the pub. Certainly. The only on-screen pairing of future legends Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart was in Ford's 1930 film, Up the River, Tracy's first film and Bogart's second.

That’s all very well, but what does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, think about John Ford?
By a remarkable coincidence, he loves him. Pickles chose Ford on Radio 4’s Great Lives back in 2012. To his credit, he showed an impressive knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. To his discredit, he’s still Eric Pickles.



What to say: “John Ford invented the modern Western.”

What not to say: “Wasn’t he a racist?”

***

Thanks for reading. Subjects of future beginner's guides are up for grabs, so tweet me any you'd like to see, or comment below. I'm not doing Mel Brooks.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Ten things I learned about The Crying Game

*Warning: plenty of spoilers in this one, please see the film first*



Last night I was privileged enough to attend the BFI's very special cast and crew reunion celebrating 25 years since the release of The Crying Game, the seminal Irish film from Neil Jordan. It's a movie so good that Jordan, who finds it almost impossible to watch his own work, managed to sit through the whole film. Star Stephen Rea said that back in 1992 he thought it was a good little film, but it's only now that he can appreciate it as a masterpiece.

I've already said everything that I want to about this genre-hopping, gender-warping classic, one of the greatest movies ever made about love, but the Q&A was extremely enlightening, so I thought I'd share its greatest insights here. The greatest thrill was an unexpected appearance from Jaye Davidson, who walked away from a film career two years after receiving an Oscar nomination for the film, and who has largely avoided being in the public eye ever since.

This is an occasional series I do on the blog. Previous instalments are on Michael Winterbottom, Woody Allen, Sense and Sensibility, Warren William, Peter Lorre, Alfred Hitchcock and Lillian Gish (she got two obviously, here and here).


1. Behan inspired
Jordan explained that he was initially − if unwittingly − inspired by Frank O'Connor's short story, Guests of the Nation, and the Brendan Behan play that grew from it, The Hostage, which both dealt with the relationship between a British soldier and the IRA operative who's taken him hostage. In his initial drafts, the IRA operative met up with the soldier's widow (a hairdresser, as in the finished film), but that character wasn't a male transvestite. The change was inspired, he thinks, by seeing the Pulitzer-nominated M. Butterfly on stage. "We're often inspired by things and don't even realise it, that's not uncommon," he said. Another influence were those post-war American crime films. "When Miranda turns up in London, it turns into a noir," Jordan said. "There are shadows everywhere, and she's wearing that Joan Crawford jacket with the shoulders," added Rea. He had been Jordan's number one choice for the role of Fergus since the off. Woolley recalled constant calls from the actor's agent asking if the project was finally going to happen, because he'd been offered another play or film. "I'd say 'yes'," and before I could say, "but it's not going to be for a while", she'd have hung up.

2. A Dil pickle
Jaye Davidson was part of punky arthouse filmmaker Derek Jarman's coterie, and was spotted by Jordan at the wrap party for Edward II. When Jordan invited dozens of transsexuals to a casting call, Davidson "knew every one of them". The casting of a black transvestite as the love interest confounded potential financiers. Several studios, including one of Britain's biggest, agreed to back the film if they would swap Davidson out for an actress, who would wear a prosthetic in the movie's grand unveiling. Jordan refused. Stephen Rea shared a story about how a 'red-blooded Irish male' in one early screening said he fancied Dil and that Davidson was clearly a man, pointing to the mention of 'prosthetics' in the end credits to back his case. Due to the problems with finding backers, the film was made on a tiny budget, with producer Stephen Woolley giving costume designer Sandy Powell cash in hand to buy the movie's quietly iconic outfits.


3. Can't see the Forest for the trees
Jordan was criticised by the press for giving an American, Forest Whitaker, a role that a British actor could have played. Miranda Richardson chipped in to say that she was criticised for playing a role that an Irish actress could have played. And Stephen Rea recalled that Irish audiences and critics complained that the men were too feminised and the women too masculine.

4. All's fair in love and war
The opening fairground sequence was shot in three days in November, "and somehow we got the sunshine we needed," Woolley recalled.

5. Dudley and more
Composer and Anne Dudley worked on her song routine together in Islington, though nobody can remember who sang the vocal that he mimes to. Lots of the background music during the film is unreleased offcuts supplied by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who also produced Boy George's cover of the title song, which plays over the end credits.

6. Giving films a bad name
The working title was 'The Soldier's Wife' (which is clear from the closing credits, which contain the words at least a half-dozen times!). Stephen Woolley (producer): "Neil thought that we should change it because people would expect a war film." Neil Jordan: "No, I wanted The Crying Game because that's its name."


7. Bombing in Britain
The film got mixed reviews in Britain and only found an audience after it exploded in America. Jordan says it was seen in the States as a story about gender and love. In a Britain still living in the shadow of the Birmingham bombing, the threat from the IRA was real, so audiences found it difficult to accept Stephen Rea's Fergus as someone human. Davidson said that a similar film today could succeed in Trump's America, because there are still "intelligent and interesting" people in every society. He added, though, that when visiting and later moving to America, he was struck by the lack of integration between different races, even when just walking into a bar. Jordan wasn't surprised by the film's success, because he believed everyone in the world would watch it, "or what's the point of making it", though Jaye only signed up for the project because he thought no-one would see it.

8. Gene therapy
Richardson remembered that Gene Hackman was incredibly taken with Jaye at the Oscars ceremony. "He was very sweet," said Davidson with a smile.

9. Jaye rights
I've always been interested in Davidson's decision to walk away from the career he could have had, so I asked him about that, and how he looked back on his time in the movies now. "There were few roles for black men and even fewer for gay black men," he said. "I don't think there was a career for me, and I didn't want to scrub around for a few weak roles, so I got out. To me it was a long time ago, and I don't regret it, because I'm happy with my life now."


10. Rea of sunlight
Did Fergus love Dil? "I still do," said Stephen Rea.

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