Thursday, 31 August 2017

Out On Blue Six: Joe Dolan

Surely one of the most underappreciated ballads of the 1960s. Eat your collective hearts out Tom Jones, Tony Christie and Engelbert Humperdinck, it's Ireland's own Joe Dolan! (Be advised, this has a habit of staying in your head for days!)

End Transmission

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Spellbound (1945)

The central issue with Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound is one of expectations which are perhaps best summed up by Francois Truffaut. The French filmmaker, in his series of conversations which led to the acclaimed book Hitchcock Truffaut, argues that one expects a Hitchcock film about mental frailty and psychoanalysis to be 'wildly imaginative' and 'way out', in a similar vein to the later Vertigo. Though I haven't read it, I believe the novel on which Spellbound is based, The House of Dr Edwardes, is apparently very wild in its approach to the notion of 'the lunatic taking over the asylum', so - like Truffaut - you'd be forgiven for thinking Hitchcock would use such a melodramatic and offbeat approach. However, Hitchcock instead turned in a 'sensible picture', full of logic and a sympathetic, somewhat earnest approach to psychoanalysis since both the film's screenwriter Ben Hecht and the producer Davis O Selznick were keen proponents of the science. However it's fair to say that we've come a long way forward from our understanding of the subject since 1945. It's commendable I guess that a Hollywood production is tackling a psychiatry in such a respectful light, but I can't help but wish Hitchcock went against the grain of his colleagues and cocked a snook at all this Freudian talk, because what we have here is a very dull picture.

Something that staves off the dullness at times is Ingrid Bergman's performance, which I really liked. It's so refreshing to see her, a woman in the 1940s working in a male dominated environment, essentially running rings around her colleagues and swatting aside their attempts at flirtation and chauvinistic remarks. However, this notion of a strong and independent woman is somewhat lost the minute Gregory Peck arrives on the scene purporting to be the asylum's new chief doctor. One minute she was effortlessly undermining all the blokes sniffing round her and the next she's sighing wistfully at the thought of Peck's liverwurst sausage on an impromptu picnic, and I'm not sure if that's intentionally Freudian or not!

As for Peck himself, he's a little stiff and unconvincing here (Truffaut voiced his disappointment to Hitch, claiming the lack of expression in his eyes, combined with a shallowness, stopped him from being a comfortable or archetypal Hitchcockian actor) and, despite both he and Bergman being attractive leads, their is surprisingly lacking given they apparently hit it off romantically off screen. Still, Hitchcock knows how to shoot them at least; look at that moment where they kiss - the doors opening. Just sublime.

Indeed, what does pretty much save Spellbound in the main is the way Hitchcock enlivens so much of the plodding nature with his trademark visual audacity; those doors, the unique use of POV - firstly inside the glass of milk Peck is drinking and later of the gun pointed directly at Bergman - and the breakthrough moment that reveals Peck's childhood flashback in all its vivid horror as both he and Bergman are skiing towards a sheer drop. But perhaps most famous of all is the film's unique dream sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali in all his ommetaphobic glory. Hitchcock initially wanted to shoot this sequence outside with bright sunlight to break the tradition of dreams being presented in a hazy manner and to offer up something more sharp and hyper-real, but unfortunately the budget wouldn't stretch to it alas.

Whilst Spellbound is occasionally visually splendid, the same cannot be said for its aural nature. Miklós Rózsa's score is so overbearingly used, carpeting every scene and giving the action no opportunity to breathe at all. I suspect Hans Zimmer took notes from him here! Overall, this is a disappointing miss-fire from Hitch. The potential is there, but it doesn't come through to the end result. It's only because of the way he shoots the damn thing, that it bags itself three and a half stars. Under any other director, this would be easily forgettable.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

England Is Mine (2017)

"Stop being such a mardarse"

The fact that this is almost literally the first thing said in England Is Mine tells you that it is indeed a biopic of the early years of one Steven Patrick Morrissey. It's up to you whether you regard him as an infuriating miserabilist or genius. Or perhaps both.

I approached England Is Mine with some trepidation - not because it's 'unauthorised' (would we ever expect Morrissey to give his blessing?) but because it's had some pretty terrible reviews. To which I must say, where they watching the same film as me?

I think where people have gone wrong is in expecting the film to be an out and out Morrissey biopic - and, to that end, a biopic of The Smiths; the amount of whispers I heard in the frankly deserted screening I attended that were along the lines of 'this is just gonna be about his life before The Smiths isn't it? - rather than a touching and heartfelt coming of age drama about life as a 'back bedroom casualty'. When watched in that context, it's obscene to think that England Is Mine has received so little praise, because I genuinely think it handles the concepts of loneliness, isolation and of struggling with mental health issues with an empathetic and deft touch. 

Much of this success comes from not only the strong characterisation found within the script written by director Mark Gill with co-writer William Thacker, but in a superlative central performance from Jack Lowden as the lad himself. Both the performance and the writing acknowledge that what we're actually witnessing here is a chrysalis moment: a series of transitional states that turns Steven Patrick Morrissey into Morrissey, arguably the most important frontman figure in British music in the last thirty years. The initial stages of the film are devoted to Morrissey as the gauche, square peg in a round hole. An ill at ease, awkward in his own body youth (two jeering teenage girls refer to him as 'Lurch' when he refuses to engage in their chat), this is someone who cannot accept his own self, let alone his place in the world. He has the innate sense that he is different, that he wants different things, but he hasn't the ability or confidence to bring this about for himself. It's only when, aided by the encouragement from his art student friend Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) and appalled by the notion that he's spend his days as a wage slave at the local Inland Revenue office, he finally finds the courage to use music as his outlet. This happiness is short-lived however when he realises the chance of stardom is not open to him, and the next persona of Morrissey we see is one he has no say in choosing for himself; Morrissey the youth in the midst of a breakdown. Finally, on coming out of his depression thanks to some sound advice from his doting mother (Simone Kirby) he starts the journey of becoming the Morrissey that we all know now (or at least think we know) and that fateful encounter with one Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston).

Built around this great central performance are some really solidly written, identifiable and well played supporting characters - three of which are enjoyable female. Katherine Pearce's Anjie Hardie (she who utter the immortal 'mardarse' comment at the top of this review) is wonderfully reminiscent of every socially shy, reticent boy's put-upon, long suffering and sarcastic girlfriend (and I know I had one myself). She's immensely protective of Morrissey - her radar for rough boys looking for kicks ensures he doesn't 'get twatted' on the way home from a club - and shares his morbid fascinations (picking up a book about The Moors Murders in Morrissey's bedroom she wonder aloud if he ever thinks that the fate that befell those poor children could have just as easily happened to them; an accurate reminder of just how much of a shadow was cast from those heinous acts over children of the northwest in the '60s and '70s - indeed, I once heard someone in a pub perhaps rightly claim that Manchester never had the swinging sixties because of Hindley and Brady) as well as his belief that he is something special, but she's frustrated by his inability to be proactive: "The world isn't gonna come to you" she complains after another example of her social wet nursing and hand holding falls flat because of his suffocating shyness.

More successful in terms of coaxing Morrissey out his shell is Linder Sterling who enters the story just when he needs her the most. The photomontage artist is portrayed by Jessica Brown Findlay, casting that I was initially wary of, not because I dislike Brown Findlay - I don't, I really like her - but because I feared she was too known from previous high profile performances for the role. Now I see that this wasn't a baggage but a blessing: It's only right that Linder has some star appeal as it not only helps to point out right from the off that this is someone destined to go places, but also imbues the role with the necessary quality to convince both as Morrissey's verbal sparring partner and a prime mover on the Manchester punk scene. 

Lastly, there's Jodie Comer as Christine, one of Morrissey's co-workers at the Inland Revenue (an accurate depiction of the drudgery of the civil service, that is blessed by a wonderfully comic caricature of a small-minded and ineffectual manager played by Graeme Hawley). Vacuous and attractive, Christine is a character that both repels and (to an extent) appeals to Morrissey. He's awkward from her attentions and despairing of her banal tastes and, by keeping her at arm's length, he will ultimately suffer at her hands, but her character is just as important as Linder or Anjie's - she's the archetypal 'heroine' of some of the many cutting and critical lyrics in the songs that Morrissey would go on to pen.

So many of the reviews for the film raise the fact that none of these songs put in an appearance as evidence that England Is Mine is a disappointment. But again, did they really expect to hear tracks by The Smiths in a story concerning the period before The Smiths? For me personally, I think England Is Mine tells the story it wants to tell in the best possible way it can and, barring a few scenes of Morrissey watching his beloved kitchen sink dramas or Coronation Street or rubbing shoulders with other budding Mancunian musicians who went on to become Joy Division etc, I really can't see how the film could be improved upon. It's a deeply evocative and atmospheric piece, more reminiscent (to me at least, at times) of Terence Davies trilogy than of Corbijn's Control. Slow, and low key yes, this is an origins story if you like.

A final aside; the screening I went to (just over a fortnight ago now) at Liverpool FACT's Picturehouse had just ten people in it including myself. Two of these were an elderly couple whose presence rather surprised me. They spent much of the film whispering, laughing and then finally - the man at least - snoring. I'm not sure whether Morrissey would disapprove or approve of that.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

It’s hard to put into words the surprise I first felt when, watching this in the ’80s as a family video rental, my child eyes took in arguably the first ever same-sex kiss I ever witnessed, but the muscle memory is still there and even now I can feel something of its shockwave with each rewatch as Johnny and Omar reveal to the audience their true feelings for one another. This was the 1980s remember, when depictions of homosexuality were still, in the main, of the Mr Humphreys, Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams variety. It is most emphatically here that My Beautiful Laundrette is at its most real: addressing something previously unspoken in society whilst simultaneously challenging cliche and stereotype in one fell swoop. Here, homosexuals aren’t camp comic relief or sad men in rainmacs doomed to a life alone, they can by the unprepared sight of  Daniel Day-Lewis’ donkey jacket clad streetwise tough too – someone who just so happens to like men. And what’s more, his like is for an Asian man in particular,  something which adds a whole new dimension to the character’s shameful past allegiance with the National Front and his ongoing friendship with the ragtag gang of bovver boys he continues to hang around with. 

Read my full review at The Geek Show

Monday, 21 August 2017

RIP Jerry Lewis

It's been a terrible weekend for entertainers, first we lose Bruce Forsyth and now we have lost Jerry Lewis at the age of 91.

Like Brucie, I have an awkward relationship with Jerry Lewis. As a kid who loved vintage comedy, I really enjoyed the comedy of Jerry Lewis. Being a fan of double acts like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and our own Morecambe and Wise, I  was specifically a fan of his work with Dean Martin. However, tastes change from childhood to adulthood and, even in my teenage years, I began to find Lewis' shtick a little too full-on and a bit embarrassing. In the past twenty years I can name just two Lewis films I've repeatedly returned too; Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones. Tellingly, these were straighter affairs which played on his legend rather than afforded him the opportunity to be the comic he was.

But there's a child in me who is deeply saddened by his loss and I want to thank him for all the good times and the laughter.

Of course, now he has gone the big discussion is will we finally be able to see the film he so conclusively banned - his ill advised 1972's holocaust movie The Day The Clown Cried?


Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow - Ieri, Oggi, Domani (1963)

I have to level with you. I am besotted with Sophia Loren. She has to be one of the ultimate, if not the ultimate, goddesses of the screen.  Frankly, in my eyes she is perfection. And whenever I watch a film with Sophia Loren I always find myself thinking: 'God, she's at her most beautiful here'. But then I'll watch another film later and say: 'No, she's at her most beautiful here'.

Despite playing three very different characters in Vittorio de Sica’s 1963 comic anthology Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, you have to admit that Loren looks her tiger eyes temptress best in each role; there’s Adelina, with the utterly natural, sultry and sensual beauty of a working class Neapolitan street trader, and Anna, the chic and elegant, Doir-clad wife of a rich industrialist, and lastly there’s Mara, a high-class Roman call girl whose sun kissed beauty ensures  she  easily captures the attention and hearts of all men, including her young neighbour who is training to be a priest! 

Be advised, if your watching this on your plasma screen…it may melt!

See my review at The Geek Show

Saturday, 19 August 2017

RIP Bruce Forsyth

The big, sad news yesterday was of course the death of veteran entertainer Bruce Forsyth at the age of 89.

As with many tributes, I have to say that as a kid growing up watching TV in the '80s and the '90s, Bruce Forsyth was everywhere and, given that at this point his career had already dated back some thirty years to the '50s, it was a testament to his popularity and staying power that he continued to be at the top of his game. I well remember game shows like Play Your Cards Right, You Bet, The Price Is Right and even the largely forgotten Takeover Bid, but best of all was the successful '90s revival of his '70s game show The Generation Game. I even remember sitcoms like Slinger's Day and his chat show Bruce's Guest Night. Bruce Forsyth was as much a part of the public conscious and the framework of British popular society as he was showbusiness. You knew all the catchphrases, you knew at least one person who did a Brucie impersonation, you may even have done it yourself.

And then in the '00s, when most people would rest on their laurels and waltz off into a retirement consisting of more time on the golf course, Forsyth came back bigger than ever with the BBC's hit Saturday night show, Strictly Come Dancing which he presented for ten years from 2004 until 2014.

I have to put my cards on the table and confess that I never truly bought into the BBC's adoration of Bruce at this stage in his career or that he was the last of the variety entertainers and therefore the only man who could possibly present Strictly Come Dancing. There are other all round entertainers in showbusiness (Brian Conley immediately springs to mind) but the BBC wanted Bruce and, in doing so, they perpetuated the myth that he was the last of his kind. He was very good on Strictly, but he could also be very poor too. Those corny gags at the top of the show and the painful, prolonged bits of shtick between the dances, the fumbling could be pretty hard to watch at times if I'm being brutally honest. And yet there were moments of genuine stardom, moments were you realised this was a man born to entertain a live audience. When you saw Bruce at his best you saw every bit of his many years experience working a room to its fullest. Ironically, it was often the impromptu moments, the times when the show wasn't perhaps going to plan - those moments away from the puerile scripts - that Bruce thrived. In those moments (such as the ones included below) you were instantly transported back to The Generation Game, watching him come in between some hapless couple making a hash of things, and equally the years seemed to drop away from him too. This was an entertainer who instinctively knew how to read both a moment in time and the audience he was playing too - an entertainer not born for wireless earpieces and the auto-cue. 

In short he may in later years have been something of a man out of time but its to his credit that he continued to entertain so many millions of people, young and old, and picked up new fans and audiences too.


Thursday, 17 August 2017

Massacre In Rome (1973)

Based on screenwriter Robert Katz's own controversial 1967 bestseller, Death in Rome, the 1973 film Massacre In Rome is from journeyman director George Pan Cosmatos and tells the true story of the 1944 partisan roadside bombing that killed thirty-three members of the SS Police Regiment Bozen, and the subsequent Nazi reprisal, ordered by Hitler, that saw a staggering 335 Italians executed in what became known as the Ardeatine massacre. Katz's book achieved notoriety because it accused the then incumbent Pope, Pope Pius XII, of kowtowing to the Nazis and refusing to intervene in or condemn the slaughter of innocents. As a result Katz was sued by the Pope's heirs and was incarcerated in gaol.

The film plays fast and loose with history and perhaps the most major example of this is in the way it depicts SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the officer responsible for rounding up those to be executed. Kappler was a thirty-something Nazi zealout in reality, but in the film he is played by Richard Burton as a jaded, pragmatic and natural soldier; a character in the stereotypical tradition of 'the sympathetic Nazi'. It's a curious approach to seemingly sanitise a man who was still, at that time, serving a life sentence for war crimes (he would subsequently escape from prison some four years after this picture was released, via his wife's suitcase no less! At the time, Kappler was suffering from terminal cancer and weighed just 47kg - she simply carried him out!) but, given that so much of Katz and Cosmatos' screenplay is shown from the POV of the occupied forces it was perhaps necessary to depict a leading Nazi in some form of sympathetic light.

Starring opposite Burton is Marcello Mastroianni as a composite Vatican official, a character inspired by both Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (who would subsequently be portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 film The Scarlet and The Black) and Don Pietro Pappagallo (who was the inspiration for Aldo Fabrizi's Pietro Pellegrini in Roberto Rossellini's 1947 film Rome, Open City) The supporting cast is made up of Italian actors and several British character actors including Leo McKern, Anthony Steel and Peter Vaughan, as well as the British expat Italian star John Steiner whose urbanity, combined with his gaunt features and slicked back hair makes him the embodiment of Nazism. 

The real story requires something more than this plodding Euro pudding and, weirdly, Cosmatos seems to struggle with the suspension required for the film's setpieces. Nevertheless, where the film's sluggish pace rather curiously excels is in the sobering logistics of just such a massacre and the cold, unfeeling emotion such an action requires; scenes of Burton painstakingly writing out by lamplight the death warrants of the hundreds handpicked for execution, or condemning Jews with little compunction, are especially striking and thought provoking, putting me in mind of that infamous 'banality of evil' quote concerning another Nazi steeped in blood, Adolf Eichmann.

The events of 1944 still cast a long shadow; in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared Pius XII 'venerable', the first step towards canonization, ie Sainthood. It was a move that created significant protest across the world both in light of his inaction during the Ardeatine massacre and from Jewish groups who cite Pius XII as not doing enough in the face of the Holocaust.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Sebastiane (1976)

I felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with a Red Triangle in the top left corner of the screen. (Though that Wiki article appears to have blown what I presume is a popular misconception then, as Sebastiane doesn't seem to have been broadcast for that strand) Even in just the opening minutes alone we're treated to a Lindsay Kemp dance routine which ends with him sprawled on the floor having fake ejaculate sprayed all over his face bukkake style from the large fake phalli of several lithe young men, and punk goddess Jordan shows the world her muff at a party that would make Elton John blush. And all that's before we reach the serious homoerotic subject matter.

Jarman's first film is an astoundingly good piece of work and shows how he clearly started as he meant to go on. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a film solely for a homosexual audience, that it is some kind of arthouse (and therefore respectable) gay porn, because Sebastiane is a serious film that works on several levels and should appeal to all kinds of audiences.

The story is based on the life of Saint Sebastian who was martyred during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. Jarman's film draws on the subtext found in the Renaissance depictions of his martyrdom to argue the case that he is a homosexual icon. Naturally, Jarman's film departs from the perceived wisdom of the saint's life and instead depicts Sebastiane's fall from grace as Diocletian's favoured Captain when he pleads mercy for the life of a young catamite; an action which results in him being reduced in rank and exiled to a remote Roman garrison on a breathtaking Mediterranean island with a group of bawdy fellow soldiers. 

With an authentic location in the white, sandy beaches and jutting rocky outcrops of Sardinia, Sebastiane gains further credibility in the cinéma vérité style it employs to record the life of the nine Roman soldiers posted there. For a start the film is spoken entirely in Latin, and this ancient tongue delivering obvious banter between the troop helps to capture a flavour of the life of a working Roman soldier in some distant  outpost of the Empire. Boredom clearly prevails and the needs of red blooded males are a pressing concern. Almost inevitably, these roughhousing soldiers, with no feminine outlet available to them, start to indulge in homosexual acts. Refreshingly, little is actually made of this; Jarman makes it clear that, unlike the so-called modern society, this ancient society saw little unusual and certainly nothing repulsive in a man being attracted to another man, it was simply the accepted norm. One key character, the bullish and unpretentious Max who wears a black pouch upon his nose to hide its syphilitic decay and is played by Neil Kennedy (who would go on to play a former soldier of the same name in Jarman's second film Jubilee) makes it clear that he is heterosexual, but that he will accept a man at a push. The ensuing scenes of homoeroticism are dealt with tenderly and beautifully, in marked contrast to the pantomimic display on offer with Kemp's troupe at the party thrown by Diocletian in the film's opening scene. 

Unsurprisingly Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio, a quiet, nuanced performance) is something of an odd one out in this group. His Christian faith, along with his refusal to train and fight and his disinterest in homoerotic horseplay and practical jokes around the camp, is something that is initially met with amusement by his fellow soldiers. However, when the centurion officer Severus (Barney James, a great and complex turn) starts to become sexually interested in him, only to find his advances repeatedly rejected, the mood in the camp starts to change and Sebastiane is increasingly viewed with suspicion and contempt by all except the kindly natured Justin (Richard Warwick). It isn't long before Sebastiane, immune to the repeated punishments laid out by Severus for spurning his affections, is considered a dangerous cancer within the group and, like all cancers, he must be dealt with swiftly and surely.

Jarman, along with co-writer/director Paul Humfress, delivers a film that is a beautiful, lyrical composition that dreamily luxuriates in the sunkissed beauty on offer - both in the musculature of the male form and the Sardinian scenery - and boasts some truly exceptional slo-mo setpieces and a sublime finale. The cinematography by Peter Middleton is exquisite and atmospheric, whilst Eno's minimalist electronic score is like a mercifully restrained Vangelis.

I mentioned at the start of this review that it felt like I should be watching Sebastiane with the Red Triangle familiar to Channel 4 viewers in the 1980s. However, as a straight man in 2017, I cannot imagine how utterly gratifying it must have been for a gay audience in the '70s and '80s to have watched Sebastiane, with its presentation of same-sex relationships, homosexual impulses and feelings delivered so matter of fact as to be accepted as a complete non-issue. Even now, I think Sebastiane must still rank as special in that regard. And that's Jarman's first film in a nutshell; special.

Daisy Miller (1974)

Largely considered to be Bogdanovich's folly and a film made simply to showcase his then lover Cybill Shepherd in a starring role ("Peter was pussy-struck," William Friedkin, his partner in the Directors Company rather bluntly put it "He could not see that Cybill was not a great actress") Daisy Miller's reputation is that of a critical and commercial dud, with the head of Paramount remarking after a screening that Bogdanovich was Babe Ruth, "and you just bunted". 

Who was to blame? Well, we could say it's Timothy Bottoms' fault, for it was he who - on the set of The Last Picture Show and crushing hard on Shepherd but losing out to their director - gave the actress a copy of the novella by Henry James as a gift. Whether he intended the irony or not isn't clear. What is clear is that Shepherd fell in love with it, and in the midst of falling in love with Shepherd, Bogdanovich fell in love with the book too. He became determined to make a movie of it with Shepherd in the starring role.

Charles Bludhorn, chairman of Gulf and Western and the owner of Paramount tells a slightly different story though, involving Bogdanovich sitting at the feet of the great Orson Welles who mentioned Daisy Miller as a book recommendation. Eager to impress his hero, Bogdanovich misinterpreted Welles' intentions and immediately brought an adaptation into production, hoping to persuade Welles to return to direct both Shepherd and himself as the leads. When Welles declined, Bogdanovich took the helm and cast Barry Brown alongside his beloved instead, but there was no denying this was considered a vanity project in the industry.

However it's not strictly true that Daisy Miller tanked. Yes, it brought about the first truly bad notices for Bogdanovich but Vincent Canby of the New York Times praised it to the hilt and named it one of the eleven best films of 1974 (The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made published in 1999 included it, but the review was subsequently removed in the 2004 reprint, rewriting history to catch up with popular opinion that Daisy Miller was a dud just thirty years later) whilst Time Out found much to enjoy in Bogdanovich's translation of Henry James novella to" the brusquer world of Howard Hawks"

It's that Hawksian scattergun approach to the dialogue that still leaves me sitting on the fence with Daisy Miller. I read the novella several years ago before I first saw the film and I didn't find Bogdanovich's vision to chime with how I personally interpreted James' work. The screenplay by The Glittering Prizes novelist Frederic Raphael (though Bogdanovich disputes how much of Raphael's screenplay was used, arguing that the dialogue is lifted from James' novella and that it was Bogdanovich alone who wrote the only original scene in the movie) takes what James describes as Daisy's "sweetest, brightest audibleness" and her ability to "chatter as freshly and freely with two gentlemen as one" with conversation that was an "odd mixture of audacity and puerility" and showcases it as a constant chatterbox and cross-talker. It's an unexpected style for a nineteenth century period drama but, as Bogdanovich remarked, the dialogue is truthful to what is there on the page, it's just the interpretation that is somewhat different. I have to say that, on this watch, I have found myself more acclimatised to it, but coming straight off the novel first time around it was something of a culture shock.

Much of the criticism, both from the critics and from those closest to Bogdanovich (see that Friedkin comment), was that Shepherd was miscast and didn't possess the talent to depict the titular heroine for whom society, and her bewitched would-be suitor Winterbourne in particular, is left to wonder whether she's an innocent or a reckless flirt. But, as we later went on to see in Moonlighting, Shepherd was born to be a Hawks-style heroine, and she makes what could easily be seen as a spoilt and thoughtless madam into a likeable character who clearly bears no ill will and pinpoints the hypocrisies of nineteenth century society and Victorian values. It's also worth hearing out Bogdanovich's argument that, if he simply wanted to make a vanity project for his girlfriend, surely he'd have picked something less challenging? Unfortunately the reputation that comes with Shepherd is already stacked against the film, which means the parts of her performance that she truly excels with are all too often overlooked and given little credit. I may be biased though, as a five year old I used to have a photo of Shepherd on my bedroom wall, thanks to her role in Moonlighting. Whatever, I don't necessarily think she's helped all that much by her co-star Barry Brown who doesn't bring any likeability to a character who is essentially our guide for the story. As such, it's hard to grasp the way Winterbourne is forced to wrestle not only with the complexities he believes to be inherent in Daisy's character, but also the society and morality around him. Far better are the supporting cast, which includes Cloris Leachman, Mildred Natwick and, best of all, Eileen Brennan as an unforgiving Mrs Walker.

In conclusion, Daisy Miller isn't the unmitigated flop that many would have it, but something clearly got lost in translation from script to screen which is all the more odd when you consider how faithful an adaptation it is. Something's off here and it's hard to put your finger on just what. Many will cite the talent in front of the camera, but actually I'm left to wonder whether it was Bogdanovich who just wasn't cut out to helm such material that is just as responsible. As for the director himself he remains unrepentant and believes that Daisy Miller was simply ahead of its time. Had it been made a decade later at the time of Merchant Ivory, he feels it would have been a different story. There could be something in such an argument but let's not kid ourselves that this could ever have held its head high alongside the similarly themed A Room With a View.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Interiors (1978)

Coming as it does between Annie Hall and Manhattan, Interiors is Woody Allen at the height of his creative powers. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Interiors is a film about creativity. What is surprising is that it is a straight drama - something his audience simply wasn't ready for at the time.

Borrowing from his beloved Bergman and Chekhov (Three Sisters springs to mind) Interiors is a glacial, distinctly European-style exploration of familial angst that is ignited when the marriage of the parents of the three women Arthur (EG Marshall) and Eve (Geraldine Page) breaks down. The theme of creativity is especially apparent in the careers and frustrations of the sisters.

Diane Keaton's Renata is an established and acclaimed poet whose undiagnosed anxieties surrounding mortality (she seems to be presenting with panic attacks throughout the film and talks of an understanding and fear of death) have impacted on her writing process leaving her, in her own words, impotent. The only daughter to provide her parents with a grandchild, Renata has literally created, but doesn't have the emotional attachment to raise or develop her offspring. 

Equally creatively successful is Flyn (Kristen Griffith), an actress whose beauty ensures she is seldom out of work. However, Flyn is practical enough to know that her career is not a secure one and that the looks that keep her in such demand will not last forever. Equally she is concerned by the notion that her art lacks the substance that Renata's possesses and, when Renata's partner Frederick (Richard Jordan), a frustrated and unappreciated writer who feels creatively inferior to Renata and therefore unworthy of her love, attempts to physically seduce her sister, his stinging criticism that 'You only exist when you are being looked at' really hits home with Flyn. 

Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is ostensibly the film's lead, a sibling whom Renata describes as possessing 'all the anguish and anxiety of a creative soul with none of the talent'. An artist without talent, or at least a field to work within (Renata's damning criticism comes from Joey's unsuccessful attempts at photography), Joey is troubled by her inability to effectively express what is inside her and, of all the siblings, she seems to exist specifically in her mother's shadow. She feels like she is the one who bears the brunt of Eve's neuroses and is afraid of turning into her at the same time. She treats her lover Mike (an impossibly young Sam Waterston) poorly and confesses to not understanding why he doesn't just leave her, given the grief she gives him. When she discovers that she is pregnant, her immediate reaction is to abort, again perhaps because she is fearful of becoming Eve. 

The real creative force in Interiors however is Eve, and it is a distinctly negative creative force that she possesses and uses that permeates across the family. A meticulous, mentally fragile interior designer, the matriarch treats her immediate family like objects to be appreciated and controlled, co-ordinated to her tastes accurately and effectively in the family home and her existence. She even designs Joey and Mike's home to her own taste, once again proving that Joey is submitting to her mother at all times. The family home, which she has fashioned in complimentary subdued tones of greys and creams feels not unlike a doll's house and especially so in the way Allen frames the flashback sequences of the sisters' childhood. The house overlooks the sea, whose untameable nature serves as a potent metaphor both in contrast to Eve's controlled tastes and in how Allen purposefully shoots Renata, Joey and Flyn looking out of the windows upon the sea - effectively trapped in their own interiors.  Played effectively by Geraldine Page, Eve is a character whose fragility initially evokes feelings of sympathy in the audience and indeed, for all her negative influence on those closest to her, the family remain protective and concerned for her no matter what. It is a peculiar but all too believable passive aggressive relationship in which Eve's manipulative actions are repeatedly excused. Only the political Mike - mindful of history repeating itself perhaps - has the outspoken ability to protest and acknowledge her behaviour, revolts against the stifling hold that masquerades as Eve's artistic vision by moving the vase she specifically selected for his and Joey's bedroom into the living room.  For Allen, writing from a women's POV for the first time, it is important to view Eve as the first in what becomes a recurring character type in his films; the dominant mother. At a time when British comedy was preoccupied with mother-in-law jokes, Allen was subverting the trend, creating the Eve character from his experience of just such a relationship with his first wife Louise Lasser's mother. 

Eve's greatest creation is her husband, Arthur (we know she views her husband as coldly as such because it is referenced how she personally footed the bill to put him through law school) and so when he announces his desire for a trial separation and ultimately requests a divorce because he has met someone else, his actions are viewed as the ultimate betrayal which causes a relapse of Eve's suicidal depression (though it could be argued Eve's initial suicide attempt is a manipulative action intended to bring him back to the marriage). Arthur's 'other woman' is Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), an unmistakeably transformative character dismissed as a 'vulgarian' by Joey (speaking her mother's thoughts?) because she does not comprehend the arts as they do, has simple tastes, and dances wildly and alone at her own wedding reception, accidentally smashing one of her mother's vases as a result. Arthur appreciates Pearl because she makes him feel both alive and relaxed, things he could never be with Eve. Pearl's lively, ebullient character is best depicted by her warmer colours; she is a redhead, who wears red dresses and warming red furs. She brings new colour into the austere lives of our protagonists and is the one to attempt to breathe life into Eve following that stunningly shot climax in a manner not too dissimilar to the new life she has breathed into Arthur. 

This is Allen at his most visually creative and there are many stunningly framed shots and setpieces here to recommend Interiors. I especially love his use of tracking shots here, as well as his use of sound; he offsets his traditional naturalistic sound design with harsh, brutal explosions of noise - the crashing waves in the almost soundless climax, the sweeping of candles and the vase to the floor, the harsh sound of the tape as it seals the windows during Eve's attempt to gas herself - that really make you sit up.

If this were any other filmmaker, Interiors would be hailed as a landmark film in the new age of Hollywood of the 1970s. However, because it is Woody Allen, it came with far too many expectations. His first straight drama, it confounded audiences and critics alike and, even today, you'll see online people expressing how they were 'looking for the jokes' in a way which they simply do not do with his later dramas such as Crimes and Misdemeanours or Match Point. That said, there are some funny moments in Interiors, most notably from Stapleton's culture clash with her new family around the dinner table. That she genuinely considers her son to be running an art gallery in the lobby of a Vegas hotel and that she fails to understand the emotional depth in a play they're discussing raises a chuckle, but it also points perhaps an accusing finger to our own bourgeois tastes and the elitist belief that one type of art is superior to another, but that there is such a thing as a correct and incorrect personal relationship with art itself.

I'd waited a long time to see Interiors, it's an Allen film that never gets shown on TV, and now I'm kicking myself that I didn't just buy the DVD sooner than this week. Then again, if I had bought and seen it years ago when I first wanted to, perhaps - like the audiences of the day - I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I do now? I'm just glad I've finally seen it, and I feel sure that it will only grow in my already high esteem on repeated viewing.