Friday, January 27, 2012

The Lady's Snake

The Lady Eve Opening Credits by pezhammer

The delightful things about The Lady Eve are too numerous to count - it is one of cinema's most perfect films - and one of them comes at you straight away. Even in the days where credits came at the beginning of the film - yet were still only a couple of minutes long - it was still rare for filmmakers and studios to do much beyond an ornate border. The Lady Eve, though, employed Leon Schlesinger's studio, the masterminds behind the Looney Tunes cartoon, to craft this genius credit sequence starring the cheeriest snake you'll ever meet. Hell, the expressions on his face during this one and half minute bit make him a fully rounded character in himself - look at his pure joy in shaking that maraca, and his venomous indignity when he's hit on the head.
It's a superb example of the effort that makes the whole of The Lady Eve so magical - using even its credit sequence to play with the themes of duplicity and slippery feeling that play out across the film. And it sticks the grin on your face that will remain there for the whole hour and a half. Positively the same dame!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #1: Victim

Welcome, readers, to a new ten-part blog series! I've never undertaken anything like this before, but collaborations are always an exciting way to expand and challenge your own views on something. With that in mind, when my good friend James at Rants of a Diva suggested we try out a series, I jumped at the chance. What we've come up with is a ten-part series focusing on fifty years of films that focus on queer experience within Britain. For me, that's a dive into my own country's past, my adolescence, and current existence; for James, it's a look at what might be different, and what might be similar, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Our final destination is last year's lauded Weekend; our starting line, though, comes exactly fifty years before. It's 1961, and Dirk Bogarde, matinee idol, took a risk and starred as Melville Farr, a barrister with a secret life that blackmailers are keen to expose. The time was dark, and the film was Victim...

David: I think audiences need to watch Victim today with at least a sliver of context, because otherwise it is a bit of a fusty old drama, although I still reckon there's some value in it as a cinematic product in its own right. But first of all, anyway, some factual stuff. In 1961, homosexuality was illegal - straight up, a crime, go to jail, do not pass the local pub, do not collect your belongings. Victim might have been a mainstream kick up the arse of the law, but it was still six years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexuality for consenting males over the age of 21. (It wasn't lowered to 18 until 1994, and equivalency with heterosexuality - age 16 - didn't come until 2000. That's, like, yesterday.) Critical literature seems to agree that Victim was the first mainstream British film focusing on a contemporary homosexual character - Serious Charge, a couple of years prior, dealt with accusations of pederasty by a vicar, but it was, unlike Victim, a fraudulent blackmail, and was also released under an X certificate. (And also shows its lack of historical importance by now being famous for Cliff Richard's first screen outing. Intentional pun.)

James: Context is crucial to understanding and evaluating Victim's impact on not only the representation of gays in cinema but also the gay rights movement in general. It's certainly tamer in comparison to modern gay films like Brokeback..., Milk or even crap like Eating Out, but people must understand that without Victim, many films, even ones we are discussing later on in this series, wouldn't have been possible. Victim, as best as it could in 1961, brought homosexuality out into the open and tackled it head on.

D: So then, being born out of this background, Victim is a landmark, a revolutionary statement, than merely a film. It had to make a point, and it had to be very careful about how it made it. So I think, with that it mind, that it's very hard to criticise the film, but at the same time, very hard to really appreciate it. It's so decidedly a product of its time that I can't really stick it with the kind of formal criticism I usually apply to films. Of course it can't really show us any sexual or romantic interactions between these characters; of course they all have to go around making their jittering their defining feature. Of course it has to - twice! - put heavy emphasis on heterosexual smooches, although I did read that more as an implicit criticism of being able to show that to such passionate extremes while the men can barely touch each other. (But then the ending comes and I have to wonder if I'm being too kind.)

"He hasn't got what you and I've got, Sylvie"
J: Actually, I was surprised looking at it again at just how open Victim is with the characters' homosexuality. Sure, modern audiences will notice how the film shies away in the beginning from referring to any of the characters as gay, merely hinting at how they are different from the others. But I saw this as a necessary function to the mystery that lies at the center of the film. Victim's hesitation about its homosexuality has more to do with setting up and discovering why Barrett is running from the cops and why Farr refuses to be in contact with him than because the film is nervous about labeling anyone as gay. While it's no "we're here, we're queer, get used to it," the rest of the film is almost shockingly (for its time, I must emphasise) transparent. The characters may be hiding from the law, but they are not hiding within the film. There are no shadows, no chiaroscuro, no film noir lighting and no blending in the mise-en-scene. I am especially intrigued by the way Victim shows how homosexuals are in every stratum of society. They are everywhere, rich and poor, high and low class. Your barber, your local shopkeeper, even your lawyer could be one.

Laura (Sylvia Syms) can't handle Farr's admissions
D: I did love the whip-crack of the line, "You know of course that he was a homosexual," spoken by the most senior policeman (John Barrie) - as you suggested, the film is surprisingly transparent, and this sudden exposure of the unspoken is very effective as an emotional rush. And Bogarde's admission of his sexual desire for Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems like an extreme the film didn't even need to go to, although of course I'm very glad it did. Victim doesn't suggest that homosexuality should be legalised and accepted by casting its gay characters as angelic, chaste people in love, but as humans who lust and desire just like heteros. Of course, it then turns around and places the sexless, platonic love between Bogarde and Sylvia Syms on a higher plane, but I really do sense the ending was a necessary evil, a measure that meant they could get away with actually speaking about actual homosex.

You say "no shadows, no chiaroscuro, no film noir lighting", but I think Victim definitely plays with these things, and it does so particularly strongly with Bogarde's character. He even seems to give himself dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in the climactic scene with Sylvia Syms, stepping nearer to the low lamps to cast shadows across his face, and as his temper builds, sweat combines with the lighting to bring out the stubble and dark recesses of his face. This plays out within the context of one particularly piqued scene, so it doesn't really apply to the grander depiction of repression across the whole film. But I would note a parallel visual play throughout - characters often seem to be framed as if they're trapped, caught, and this of course feeds back into the title. Whether within doorways, beneath ceilings or just closed onto by the frame of the camera itself - Bogarde is often captured in frozen, emotionally drawn close-ups - the gay characters aren't hiding because they keep getting found.

But we should definitely go into more detail with regards to Bogarde - I'd wager that his performance is the most successful aspect of the whole enterprise. Knowing how much of a fan you are, though, I'll let you take the floor...

Bogarde contorts his image
J: Not only its most successful, the most revolutionary aspect is the casting of Dirk Bogarde as the married barrister who risks his career and comfortable life by coming out of the closet and hunting down the blackmailers who drove his would-be lover to suicide. Although he would go on to become one of the most prominent English actors of the 60's, at that point in his career Dirk was merely a matinee idol known primarily for light comedies. Casting him as an admitted homosexual should have killed his career. Against all odds, however, it didn't and only adds to Victim's impact. Before this film, gay characters were always the limp-wristed fairies who bounced in and out of scenes with a thin moustache and a bitchy one-liner. But, in Victim, here comes this strong, attractive, heterosexual (or so we thought at the time) leading man playing a homosexual, shattering every stereotype and preconceived notion about gay men the movies had ever shown us. It was a bold move for both the film and Bogarde, and it pays off in aces for both. I make no mystery of my fondness for Mr. Bogarde, or Dirky as I affectionately refer to him, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I find him to be marvellous in Victim. It's not the bemused, smarmy Dirk we're used to in many of his best performances (The Servant, Darling, Our Mother's House). Instead, this is Dirk in full-on repression mode, scrambling to hide and push down every unwanted feeling and emotion that comes barrelling out of him. His voice and manner remain relatively steady throughout the film, but there are times when his face struggles to keep composure. I love the moments when you see the facade about to crack and his face twists and contorts itself to suppress any and every emotion spilling uncontrollably from him. It's like watching a sick person suppress the urge to vomit, or, even more uncomfortably, a drug addict resisting their drug of choice. Everything about this performance hints at what a great actor Dirky actually was, despite what his filmography to that point had suggested, and just how great he would become in the next couple decades.

There are two further points I am interested in discussing with you. First of all, what do you make of the title and its connotation with gay imagery in cinema up until that point (i.e. the gays as victims, whether of their own circumstance or as pariahs of society, and how, especially in American films, the gays must pay for their sins by dying)? Secondly, and you hinted at this before, what do you make of that final shot? It's an interesting way to end the film, particularly after Farr has supposedly "won" over the bad guys.

The final shot: memories of Barrett go up in flames
D: I think the title Victim is almost an early type of the linguistic reclamation that oppressed groups of society have undertaken in the years since. Obviously being a victim of any sort isn't a positive thing, but, with an immediate suggestion - even from the marquee outside the cinema - of gays as "victims", it can then set out a narrative for Bogarde's character that progresses from victim of blackmail and his private shame to a brazen declaration of his homosexual lust. The word "victim" doesn't only refer to their receipt of blackmail, or of the long arm of the law, but of their own shame as well - in Melville Farr, you have perhaps the first homosexual character in cinema who dared to risk everything and declare his sexuality. Obviously cases like Barrett's are tragic, but ultimately, what it took for homosexuality to be legalised was the courage of people like Farr to reject their inscribed status as victim.

It's interesting that you point out the tendency for gay characters to die "for their sins", because I wouldn't say Victim ever stoops to being that moralising - Barratt dies because he's terrified, but its at his own hands. The hairdresser's death isn't a tragic inevitability but a horrific abuse by a character who is villainized throughout. Victim actually seems to paint a society in which attitudes have already begun to change - the exchange between the police may be very blunt, but it also demonstrates a tolerance from within the legal system, years before the law itself followed suit. Perhaps that was a fantasy at the time, but I think the film could easily have been made with an unsympathetic policing force. Instead, Victim shows the way towards a better society from every side of the tracks.

Farr stands anxious, trapped, but strong
J: I absolutely agree with everything you said regarding the connotation of Victim's title. In a way, by portraying Farr as a strong individual risking everything to, as Oprah would put it, stand in his truth, the film takes back any negative association between being gay and their subsequent victimization. The title is almost ironic because by the time the blackmailers are captured, Farr, having given up everything for this moment, refuses to be a victim anymore.

But then the ending comes along and suggests that although he's perhaps not victimized by his homosexuality, Farr isn't ready to completely start his life over. He needs something, anything familiar as he faces a bleak and unpredictable future. And this is why he turns to his wife: she turned a blind eye to his homosexuality once and he assumes that she will do it again. I agree that this ending is probably a "necessary evil" for the time and place it was made, but I don't believe it's as cut and dry as many would interpret it. The dialogue suggests otherwise, but notice how neither of them look or sound particularly enthused about getting back together; it's as if they believe that that's what is expected of them. "I need you," Farr tells her. "Need is different from love," his wife responds. Even though the final image is of Farr burning the picture of him and Barrett, effectively destroying any remaining memory of that relationship, she realizes that they cannot go back as they once were. There will be another Barrett, as much as she and Farr will both try to deny it. As you mentioned, attitudes were changing and eventually there will be no reason to go on with the charade. Quite a sad realization for what is normally taken as an inevitable ending.

Sylvia Syms is not ready for her close-up
D: I suppose Sylvia Syms is featured so prominently as a palliative measure, to strengthen the audience interest, but as you intimate, that does come from a genuinely sociological place; she might be misguided in thinking she can change him, but society forced gays into those kind of relationships and the feelings of the women who are left behind and unhappy both because of the neglect during the marriage and the abandonment that will come as a result of legal changes are no less valid or tragic just because she's a heterosexual. And as you say, the ending speaks of a lingering sadness - Victim is trying to provoke changes, and the ending is one last motivation to get the audience mobilised in that direction.

If we haven't gone on long enough already, I'm intrigued to know your thoughts on the interactions and community of the various gay characters, including how Bogarde's character is forced to engage with it.

J: I was surprised by how abrupt and almost condescending Farr was towards the other homosexuals in the film. When he meets the barber, he gets straight to the point, acting like a macho hetero who only needs this puny little gay to get a lead on the case. And, later on, when he realizes that the three homosexual men live together, he gives his trademarked bemused grin and a sarcastic, "I see." He's not particularly harsh towards them, but he doesn't exactly act like they are on his level. In a way, he's a bit like Hugh Grant's character in Maurice. The idea of homosexuality makes perfect sense to him. But applying it to real life and living with one like man and wife is completely out of the question. It's beneath him, something only a boy with no class, like Rupert Graves' character, would consider. Farr thinks of himself as above these "common" homosexuals because he can control his impulses. It's an interesting choice for a character who is supposed to be the hero of the story, but it's easy to see why it was made in 1961. Victim was already revolutionary enough; there was no reason to push it beyond the point (straight) audiences would stop listening.

D: Your comparisons to Maurice are very apt, and perhaps a good way to end this entry - it may be set much earlier than Victim, but Maurice, made in 1987, chooses to focus away from this kind of tortured existence and instead creates a idyll where homosexuality can function. I'm sure it'll come up again during this series!

Speak up, readers; don't be a victim! What do you make of Victim's revolutionary attitudes?

Next take: Sunday Bloody Sunday

Oscar Season: Playing the Genuine Nostalgia

Yesterday the background to my unimportant daily activities was a full listen to each of the newly Oscar-nominated scores. It was not as vast a journey as I expected. It's been said, many times, both by better and by worse men than I, that this year's nominations are dominated by nostalgia. So it shouldn't really be a surprise, then, that all of the nominees here come from films set in the past - the most recent being the 1970s gloom of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, while the remaining four, at best, cover a mere thirty year period from 1910 to 1939. (Tintin's setting is debatable, but would certainly seem to exist pre-WWII because of the clothing and technology on display.) Not only that, the settings of the films restricts the geographical trip to the most Western corner of Western Europe - the dank Britishness of Tinker, Tailor, leaping the channel within War Horse, stuck inside a Parisian train station for Hugo, and scurrying around with a Belgian in The Adventures of Tintin. Even The Artist takes as many cues from its native France as from the classic compositions of Hollywood's Golden Age.

The limited scope of these nominees - leaving aside questions of their quality for the moment - makes a far more critical suggestion of the Academy's blinkered taste than their selection of the films in the Best Picture category would seem to. Across the whole of a film, say The Artist, both nostalgia and prescience can be encompassed, with the finale allowing George Valentin a passage into a future as joyful as his past. But when we take these scores on their own - not necessarily the right approach towards lauding them, but stick with me - they seem to work solely as nostalgia pieces. There isn't a lack of joy in that - try listening to a piece like 'George Valentin' from Ludovico Bource's score to The Artist and not grin at the images of Dujardin and Uggie's slapstick routine that pop into your head - but, as an overview of a category, these accomplishments demonstrate exactly what the Academy has feared becoming: irrelevant.

You're Here - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Perhaps awarding Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross the prize for their pulsating electronic work on The Social Network sated their contemporary needs for a couple of years. (You certainly imagine the three hour work the same pair did for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may have been just too long for even the most open-minded of voters, even if it is among the best of the year.) The problem is, Iglesias' insidious, evocative work aside, these scores are some of the most uninventive scores of the year, their supposed 'originality' tempered by the overwhelming number of cultural and historical reference points they embody, and, as such, they seem to reflect the laziest choices this branch could have made - and next to the widely criticised Original Song category (which this year offered up a paltry two nominees), the music branch isn't looking in the best of shapes. It seems to speak of an outdated conception of what film scores should 'be' - vast orchestral compositions with smooth traditional melodies. 2011 was a strong year for music at the movies, but, though these scores are not without their strengths, the Academy's selection seems to counter Wesley Britton's assertion that "original orchestral scores are no longer the norm".

The Chase - Howard Shore, Hugo

Howard Shore's work on Hugo lazily matches the film's contorted nostalgic impulses, shoving accordion and trumpet into many of the melodies without the winsome invention of Yann Tiersen's memorable score for Amelie. As it progresses, the mischievous, winsome string flurries become tiresomely repetitive. John Williams' The Adventures of Tintin isn't dissimilar, though its use of brass, harpsichord and looping woodwind provides a much wider palette of melodies, and Williams, ever the class act, has great fun weaving these into an appropriately lively and flourishing accompaniment to the film's mix of mystery and slapstick action. It certainly mines the jazzy milieu of its unspecified Belgian setting as much as Shore lazes in 1920s Paris, but Williams' music is lithe enough to have darted out of your critical grasp before you can moan.

The Adventures of Tintin - John Williams, The Adventures of Tintin

George Valentin - Ludovic Bource, The Artist

The Artist's score, by Ludovic Bource, is undoubtedly the most integral to its film's success - quickstepping its way in to compensate for the unfamiliar lack of diegetic sound - and its engaging, sprightly warmth is indeed so wrapped up with the images that a listen apart from the film is enormously evocative of the pleasure of my two viewings. Bource has said he took his inspiration from music across cinematic history - music that "everyone has inscribed in their memory". Kim Novak's accusations aside, there is enough wit, piquancy and love in Bource's original compositions that The Artist's nomination in this category seemed essential.

Bringing Joey Home, and Bonding - John Williams, War Horse

War Horse strikes me as the laziest of the nominations here, though its blooming, passionate twinning of the string section and light woodwind works in the same sort of fashion as the production design I discussed last week - it's so overwhelming and blatant in its emotionality that it hits its cues even as you realise you're being so baldly manipulated. But in that way, it feels as informed by classic Hollywood scores as The Artist does, and there's less wit and more seriousness in this one. Finally, while Alberto Iglesias' nomination for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy feels like the most unlikely nomination, its moody, insidious use of low brass and inconsistent piano melodies also betrays a nostalgia for the gloomy thrillers of the 1970s. Still, it strikes a dissonant note in this roster - one for the pessimists, if you will.

Guillam - Alberto Iglesias, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Nostalgia doesn't explain everything. Both Cliff Martinez's Drive and Hans Zimmer's Rango mine similar wells, the former with a menacing morbidity similar to Tinker, Tailor, while the latter matches the joyful invention of Tintin in its playful spin on Ennio Morricone's famous Western refrains. Dario Marianelli's lush, intricate score for Jane Eyre is whole other centuries ago, possibly an even finer distillation of 'classic film score' than the nominees, yet even it couldn't muscle into their narrow window.

Underground - Hans Zimmer, Rango

Waiting for Mr. Rochester - Dario Marianelli, Jane Eyre

And I've not even mentioned the more bracing modern scores like The Chemical Brothers' eerie accompaniment to Hanna, Nico Muhly's arresting strings for Margaret, or Basement Jaxx's punchy score for Attack the Block. Those seem a step too far, but the fact that their omission (not to mention that only Drive errs onto the idea of an "Adapted Song Score" that Joe Reid preached only today) isn't the complaint here demonstrates the alarmingly tight insularity of this year's choices. To quote someone the Academy did once nominate: wise up.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Go on then...

My first, and last, crack of the Oscar prognostication whip this season - the nominee announcement is always my favourite part of this whole process, while most of the winners already seem like a foregone conclusion. (I've noted my predictions for that with some stars. How glitz!) Where I am this season: most of the films in contention are okay, but just that. But I'm firmly behind the frontrunner, so now begins the worry that something is on its way to derail the train. Unless it's Anna Paquin looking for a cowboy hat, that will not be okay.

The Artist*, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Alphabetically arranged, but the first five are nevertheless the films that'd be your five if the rules hadn't changed, twice, since 2008. So go ahead and try to do the maths to work out how many more we'll get - I'm counting on the overwhelming sentimentality of War Horse and a passionate fanbase behind The Tree of Life. Moneyball, as good as it is, doesn't seem like a #1 choice for many, and that's what these movies need to be.
In my dreams: Margaret argues her way into the headlines.

Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist)*, Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
Almost certainly idiotic, but wouldn't the Directors branch, being made up of, well, directors, be more likely to acknowledge such vivid stylistic grasps as Refn's and Malick's were this year? Perhaps because to the overwhelming dislike for The Descendants among the blogging community, I'm risking a hunch that the film won't score as well as expected, and this is the most obvious nomination that'd be yanked in that case.

Plus, that line-up just looks better, doesn't it?
In my dreams: I just put two of them up there, didn't I? If I get another: Lars von Trier.

George Clooney (The Descendents), Jean Dujardin (The Artist)*, Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
Taking yet more risks on quality over tradition. But those two spots (beyond Clooney, Dujardin and Pitt) are up for grabs, and they like Shannon. As for Oldman - Dujardin aside, those other performances seem so tailored to a US audience that there's surely a push for the British bloc to be making here.
In my dreams: A Separation's sublime anchor Peyman Mooadi makes the papers.

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help)*, Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)
The accepted line-up here. I just can't see this branch really pushing for any of the other contenders - Dunst is in too divisive a film, Theron's playing a bitch (no Thatcher jokes please), and Mara has hardly set the awards circuit alight. Saying that, she's the most likely to swoop if Albert Nobbs is just too rubbish to reward.
In my dreams: best of 2011 and 2005 Anna Paquin marches stridently into the fold.

Albert Brooks (Drive), Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life), Christopher Plummer (Beginners)*
Yet another acting category ripe for surprises beyond an agreed three. If they like Hugo - and even if they didn't - Kingsley seems like such an obvious nominee as soon as you see the film, and I was surprised he hasn't had more attention. And Pitt's another one for my surprising, probably misguided faith in the Academy's outre taste. (Hey, they are inviting more young faces into the fold.)
In my dreams: Tom Hardy's dark reveries from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy make an impact.

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Octavia Spencer (The Help)*
From what I hear, if you're going to nominate Close, you'll be jotting down McTeer's name at the same time. Woodley's the other woman in this race (barring a miracle for Carey Mulligan or Vanessa Redgrave), but I've already mentioned my hunch against The Descendants, although I imagine that'll be less virulent amongst the Actors. Still, she's on the edge. If Chastain somehow splits her vote and falls out, my wrath will be like nothing ever seen.
In my dreams: the haunting, scarred sister in Shame, Carey Mulligan, gets another moment in the spotlight.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)*, The Help (Tate Taylor), The Ides of March (George Clooney & Grant Heslov), Moneyball (Aaron Sorkin & Steven Zaillian), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Bridget O'Connor & Peter Strong)
Hugo just doesn't seem like a writers' film - the enterprise is too juvenile and the MacGuffin is so poorly constructed. So I've put the denser political "thriller" The Ides of March in its place. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seems informed as much by its cinematic predecessor as the source text, while War Horse might find an odd strength from being so episodic, but I imagine it's a film for the technicals. Those are your potential spoilers, though.
In my dreams: Hossein Amini gets his five minutes for shaping Drive into such a menacing thriller.

The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius), Bridesmaids (Annie Mumulo & Kristin Wiig), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)*, A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Young Adult (Diablo Cody)
A tough call, this category - a bunch of strong, distinctive contenders which are fighting out behind weaker but somehow locked-in leaders (Midnight in Paris, and, though I love it, The Artist). So, once again, I'm predicting a nice outcome - A Separation is masterfully constructed without ever subordinating character, while this is the most likely place for comedy to actually show up.
In my dreams: Andrew Haigh's political but intimate and witty script for Weekend puts its feet up as a nominee.

Action genre codes go Haywire

Vague spoilers may follow.

Haywire is not the first film to present us with a female action heroine. You know that. Where it is different from the likes of Tomb Raider and Kill Bill is in the fact that it does not centre around an established female film star. Gina Carano may have a different glow of fame about her to a certain subset of the audience, but cinematically, she is unknown. She's given a character name - Mallory - but what Carano essentially represents is her own persona, the reality of Gina Carano, mixed martial arts and kickboxing champion.

What Haywire presents to Carano, and to us, is the thrill of a woman kicking the hell out of some of Hollywood's most masculine bodies. Channing Tatum's star persona is one of the robust, perhaps slightly dim, but idealised hunk, one whose experiences as a soldier (G.I. Joe, Dear John, Stop-Loss) and brawler (Fighting) feed easily into his role as Carano's colleague here. Shame's narrative may work to undermine the posturing masculinity of Michael Fassbender, but in a pop culture sense, it's the film where he shows off his penis, and that frivolous discussion - the most dominant kind these days - has focused mostly on its size seems to giving Fassbender a shine of intimidating maleness. Even if Shame shows the darker side of masculinity, it still constructs Fassbender as a very male figure - the blackest level of his humiliation being a same-sex encounter - and this cinematic persona is bolstered by his brooding role in Jane Eyre and the turn to villainy in X-Men: First Class. Ewan McGregor, though reedier in stature, has a similarly naked history, uncomfortably coupled with his most famous Hollywood exposure as a Jedi knight in the Star Wars prequels. Ultimately, what these men (Carano does not engage in combat with Michael Douglas or Antonio Banderas, though arguments for them would not be too dissimilar) share is a confrontational level of masculinity, whether they've achieved this through action roles or corporeal exposure.

So to sit down in front of Haywire and see these men get badly beaten up (to say the least) might seem to subvert that image. It doesn't, because what Haywire doesn't do is emasculate its characters, even when there's a woman smashing their face in. That's to the film's credit - it equalises gender during its showcases of physical combat, even if the basic pitch of the film highlights Carano's status as female. What it does point towards, however, is a critical conceptual failure of the film. What might be its greatest strength is also what undoes it.

Haywire's action scenes - which comprise the majority of the film - are filmed with a bare level of realism that's even more immediate than the celebrated intimacy of the Bourne series. The kicks, punches, throws, slams and twists aren't accompanied by any sort of music, nor the sort of frenzied editing that's become de rigueur for action films. Director Steven Soderbergh presents these scenes with a docile camera, remaining mostly in long shots in order to capture the entire physical spectacle. What makes the scenes tense are the continual physical impacts on each character, both seen and crisply heard. When the film opts for a chase scene instead, Carano doesn't have the seamless luck of Jason Bourne racing across Moroccan rooftops - she's no less clear-headed as she navigates the Dublin skyline, but we witness her decisions and mistakes as she eludes the swat team. What Haywire has in its favour is this very tangible sense of physicality.

Yet this is also what ultimately works against it. As hinted, the reason behind this is the casting. I don't mean Carano's limitations as an actress (not particularly natural when she's speaking, but also not without a quiet charisma), but the extra-filmic baggage the rest of the cast brings with them. As I said earlier, what Haywire essentially offers is the chance to see a woman kick the shit out of a handful of famous male stars. But in a film with such tactile, raw physicality, Haywire sets up an unresolvable tension between the glamorous stardom of its male cast and the realistic tableaux in which they perform. They're given character names, but beyond that, none of the men here are constructed as anything more than opponents or allies to Carano (with some, inevitably, shifting, as Carano discovers the level of duplicity occurring). So we automatically fill in these personality chasms with what we know of the actors themselves. The fiction falls apart, leaving the audience lost between the vivid intensity of the action set pieces and the floating spectre of Hollywood stardom.

Haywire can't present a viable alternative to the Hollywood action kickers, despite its roster of stars, because it exists outside of the usual parameters of implicit genre codes and the style they inform. The choreography of the fights is undeniably impressive, but the constant tension between the invader (Carano) and the natives (the men) means they play out with a trenchant inevitability that can never coalesce, because this is a reality beating up on a fiction. Certainly this speaks less of Haywire's quality as a film than of how years of convention have shaped expectations and responses, but it cannot be denied that there are critical fractures between Soderbergh's conception of this endeavour and how the disparate elements cohere on-screen. Haywire doesn't work as what it wants to be, nor as what it actually turns out to be.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Not Over the Hiller

For an actress who was the pet of the densely linguistic George Bernard Shaw, Wendy Hiller was a remarkably physical actress. At least, that's what my notes are overflowing with - bullet points about how she holds herself, or moves, or doesn't. But this physicality is never at odds with Shaw's politically and socially pointed scripts, because Hiller's movements and vivid expressions are all in service of corroborating the words her character's speak, and how she delivers them. Throughout the highlights of Hiller's limited film career, this approach has its successes and it has its limitations. In the first two films that brought her Oscar nominations, separated by a clean twenty years, we can see a remarkable progression.

Pygmalion, the film that brought Hiller to global attention, casts her as Eliza Doolittle, a rather mangled posy seller who crouches on the streets and speaks out of the side of her mouth, missing out half of her letters. As becomes even clearer having watched the second Shaw-Hiller cinematic adaptation, Major Barbara, Hiller's natural mode is the creature Eliza is transformed into by Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard, whose brisk, emphatic style nails Higgins' scholarly fascination), rather than the bedraggled creature we meet initially. Indeed, the mode of Hiller's most famous characters is exactly this sort of poised but earthy character, one whose control is constantly poised, never quite a facade but certainly a conscious effort. When strong emotions really get to her, Hiller's change in body is always noticeable, even if her characters quickly gather themselves back to their smooth gait and implacable stare.

The clean structural arc familiar both in Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady, exposes Hiller's approach so thoroughly and openly that, to some extent, it gave away too much. Her Eliza Doolittle is a very accomplished technical accomplishment, carefully charting the physical education that less prolifically accompanies Higgins' vocal teachings. She progresses from a duckish walk and an unbecoming thrust forward when she speaks to a poised, straight posture and cleanly rounded vowels, taking in along the way a deliciously exaggerated sequence where Higgins takes her to tea with his mother. She performs her learning with robotic, stilted speech, sucking in her cheeks so the words seem to pop out of her mouth.

But Hiller rarely seems able to anchor this technique into a vibrant emotional experience of Eliza's journey (something Audrey Hepburn also suffered from years later), almost always seeming conscious of technique first and feeling second. To a certain extent, this makes narrative sense, reflecting Eliza's focus and dedication on improving herself. There is marvel in the scene where Eliza rails against Henry and comes to the realisation that her mode of expression has irrevocably changed - her "No! No. Thank you.", in one brief moment, charts this epiphany, a sharp rejection giving way to a sad, muted nicety, the choked sound of her "no"s one of the most peculiarly heartbreaking moments I've ever seen.

More often, sadly, Hiller gets trapped in theatric precision, the flight of any emotions betraying a long-limbed bodiliness that makes sense for neither cockney Eliza nor the newly cultured one, and her face restrained to a limited amount of expression that seem mostly to involve the shape of her eyebrows. These features hamper Major Barbara more (at least when her titular character is allowed control of the narrative, which wanders all over), where she's stuck in business mode, only occasionally pricking her smooth voicework despite different attitudes to the diverse characters around her, hitting emotional notes with completely inexplicable reactions, and seeming to forget to act at all when the camera isn't focusing on her.

Fastforward to 1958 and Hiller's victory in AMPAS' Best Supporting Actress category for her work as Bournemouth hotel owner Pat Cooper in Separate Tables. Though the film's split focus on a a sour David Niven being lusted after by a jittering Deborah Kerr, and a taunting Rita Hayworth bothering Burt Lancaster pays very few dividends, Hiller quietly brushes through the crowd to a worthy performance. Pat has Hiller's familiar smooth walk - carefully closing swinging doors behind her - and implacable orderliness, but it cracks sooner, and so Hiller can't try to build Pat through the same bag of techniques. And how, when it cracks! Taking aside John (Lancaster), it quickly becomes apparent that he and Pat are involved in a relationship, because Hiller suddenly gets to play sexy, and suddenly her sharp face softens in coy, cowed lust, her body undulating as she uncrosses her arms and leans towards him.

The mark of twenty years is remarkable - Hiller has moved forward with the shifting acting styles of the time, and none of her physicality is exaggerated as it once was. Pat's horniness burns off the screen, but rather than forced by sharp gestures, it exudes from Hiller's small adjustments - breasts sticking forward just a little, eyes fixed but slightly drawn back. The sex folds back into her as Pat recognises the boundaries of propriety, but Hiller makes it clear that Pat's reticence isn't due to any shame, but self-respect. Pat shifts from a surprisingly desperate plea to John into ordinary hotel business with natural ease, because Pat, and Hiller too, are experienced enough at this stage of their lives to understand the shape of their emotions. Her physicality separates the different parts of her life while seeming unconscious - her more controlled body while around the hotel guests speaks more of her general disinterest in them, not allowing them views of sadness that her body betrays when alone. You finally understand how she is the centre of a misshapen bunch of people when she gives a little worldly smile at Niven's dramatic suggestion of suicide - Pat's assessment of his situation takes on a kind, non-judgemental mood in Hiller's imploring reading. She convinces as caretaker and as woman without ever denigrating the other side of her character.

A third and final Oscar nomination followed for Hiller in 1966, with a supporting role as Thomas More's wife Alice in A Man For All Seasons - the period film a more traditional source of awards attention for British cinema than the contemporary films Hiller made her rare camera excursions for. Her tendency towards emotional compartmentalisation perhaps more sense in a historical context, and you certainly can't imagine Hiller being greatly successful in today's landscape, and not merely because roles relying so heavily on the face are so few and far between. But her linguistic alertness and her angular features make Hiller's legacy bigger than merely the first Elisa Doolittle of the silver screen. If nothing else, that surprising but deserved Oscar win will keep her as a stop on any obsessive's tour of the past, and maybe, like me, they'll stay longer than expected.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Oscar Season: The Visible Edges of Hollywood Reflexivity

There is something disturbing about War Horse. Unsurprisingly, I find I was not the first to note the direct influence of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley; early on in the film, the village setting for an auction scene appears to be that monochrome Welsh mining town resurrected. The family home, meanwhile, seems to have reclaimed the hill Scarlett O'Hara was so fond of wandering over. Much of War Horse was filmed on location, and although I've no idea which locations are pre-existent and which studio, there's not really any excuse for the way the actors appear to pop off the backgrounds like cardboard cutouts. None of the locations in War Horse seem particularly real, and while this rankled with me in the early stages, by the end, having choked back some tears so ashamedly I ended up audibly gasping for emotionless air, I came to realise it didn't matter. Or I didn't care.

There often seems to be a critical tendency towards valuing realism in modern cinema above everything else. I would certainly admit that it's something I personally tend towards, although mainly because it's the most straightforward route towards delivering emotional truth (though the best two films from last year, Margaret and Melancholia, take diversely unreal structural and conceptual approaches towards a much greater clarity of emotional truth). At absolutely no point did I find realism or even emotional truth in War Horse, because it isn't there. By being so deliberately - and, though the mounting of it can be a bit shaky, I think it is deliberate - fantastical, War Horse delivers a different kind of cinematic emotionality, one hardly ever projected or indeed aimed at since Hollywood's Golden Age faded over half a century ago. The film gallops past even the most nostalgic of Spielberg's previous films, never achieving the warmth or upholstered buoyancy of his best work, but rolling in the green green grass of Hollywood's fetish for fake English hills and getting a bit of mud in my eye.
Joey (unconfirmed number of horses) races through No Man's Land
There's safety in those very visible edges to a world. It's a quality so obvious in the classics that its reemergence in War Horse is difficult to re-acclimatize yourself to, but the consistency in the empty or merely unseen boundaries of nearly every scene eventually catches the eye, so to contradict. The painted fakery of something like How Green Was My Valley is a past foible, but War Horse hermetically seals you off all the same, following the fabled journey of Joey through a variety of pastoral or desolate landscapes. In this, despite the obviousness of a cinematic inflection to such a large story, we can see the after-effects of War Horse's success as a play. Locations such as Niels Arestrup's farm play as disconnected locales, where invasions of army regiments suddenly wave through, and the war exists as sound not heard, but discussed. Even the wider, starker design of No Man's Land, which we travel through twice in very different moods, seem lost in a stagy mist beneath a black ceiling, reminiscent not of the startling realism of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, but the battlefield which the heroes of Blackadder memorably charged onto.

It never plays as particularly stagy - the camera gets too close, and the shifting connection to the horse as a character gives the whole thing an odd elasticity - and so instead this visible falseness feels antiquated even before Janusz Kaminski floods the final scene in vivid sunset orange. War Horse does explore the darkness of war, using the pressure of the unreal locations to bolster the emotions of particular scenes to the same kind of dramatic pitch of Hollywood's Golden Age - the acting style is larger, more direct (although it could have done without the alarming shots of Joey's bloodshot eye), and the narrative constructs itself in fragments that build up to a variety of dramatic climaxes, each of which sustain piquant emotional pitches.

Two stronger contenders this awards season appropriate similar styles. Hugo, Martin Scorsese's love letter to silent cinema, is compiled in a similar set of climaxing vignettes, although its clockwork MacGuffin and caricatured secondary characters are less supportable in terms of their contribution to any overall narrative thrust or emotional clarity. Like War Horse, Hugo's production design creates a sealed off world, though the snowy enchantment of the edges of this one are less John Ford than Robert Zemeckis. Hugo has to manifest the dreams of its titular character, as well as its farcical chases, inside this world, and combined with the 3D, it sets a flexibility to a world where the narrative is suggesting the problems of restriction for Hugo. Better, in every sense, are the scenes where we flashback to George Melies' studio - shot with less glow and mist, their isolated existence - nothing in the skylines beyond - quietly evokes the magic revolution going on inside the glass walls, without having to visibly romanticise them.

The Artist's Kinograph production studios are similarly shot - no industrialised skyscrapers surrounding the stage hangers and dressing rooms - and its public locales, like the cinemas and residential streets, echo the kind of recreations made for Singin' in the Rain. The most interesting scene from a production design standpoint, though, is the pivotal scene where Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) physically enact the narrative trajectory of their characters - Peppy going upwards, George down. Most of this scene is shot in romantic mid-shot, but, after they part ways, director Michel Hazanavicius cuts to a square long shot of the entire staircase. It looks like an opened dollhouse, with such minute historical detail recreated for this one moment in order to visualise the largess of the movie business and the shifting power within it.

It seems, in a general sense, to be a year of looking back. The Help resurrects and somewhat updates the social issues pictures that were all the rage in the late 1950s and 1960s, while Midnight in Paris is besotted with the liberté and decadence of the Parisian past. War Horse seems to be less en vogue than these similarly nostalgic films because its animal hero is inconsistently characterised, the human surrogates are (excepting Jeremy Irvine, who induced my misty eyes) summarily dismissed with little feeling, and it never digs too deeply into anything. But, finally, I think that's what worked for me. What Spielberg gets right, and what perhaps awards voters want to firmly leave behind, is the rosy pastoral warmth of Hollywood's Golden Age. The free expression of the silent era mined by The Artist and Hugo, a skim away from the sexual liberté of 1920s Paris, mixes nostalgia with the modern relevance we suspect the Academy so desperately desires. War Horse brushes itself down to deliver a certain inescapable emotional claustrophobia, but the dust still lingers on the chisels and hammers the crew left behind, and I'm not sure dirt is in this season. (Except maybe Minny's.)