Monday, June 23, 2014

Now Voyager (1942): The art of melodrama



















“THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
 Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”


-Walt Whitman, The Untold Want, Leaves of Grass (1900)

Novelist Olive Higgins Prouty chose the title for her popular novel ‘Now, Voyager’ from two lines of poetry by Walt Whitman. These words in the book and in the film are offered to a repressed spinster, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), the youngest daughter of a wealthy Boston matriarch (Gladys Cooper), by her psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) as the key to freedom, to her making her own way in the world.  Away from the oppressive hold her tyrannical mother has over her.

Now, Voyager while absolutely a ‘woman’s picture’, significantly and importantly transcends melodrama. Yes, ugly duckling Charlotte finds love and purpose in two romantic hours of movie magic from Hollywood’s golden years. There is more than romance though. There is romantic love and passion, but also compassion. A compassion that sublimates romantic love to a familial love that from nurture finds fulfilment and a kind of freedom.

After spending time in a sanatorium Charlotte does embark on a voyage. A long cruise to South America where she meets Jerry a gentle older man (Paul Henreid) who not only loves her, but in their falling into love, gives her the agency to overcome her inhibitions.  He reaches for the person she wants to be. She responds a flower blossoming in the warmth of his regard. But he is married with children and the affair must end, and they reconcile to life without each other.

Charlotte’s renaissance is almost complete. She is to be tested again when she returns to her cloistered home in Boston. Charlotte discovers she is not afraid – she will and does defy her mother’s tyranny.  She builds a new life and settles on the prospect of marriage with a man she may grow to love. The mother’s sudden death after arguing with Charlotte, when Charlotte breaks off with her suitor after a chance encounter with Jerry, throws her into a panic of guilt. She seeks refuge by returning to the sanatorium. There she meets a troubled young girl, and sees herself as she used to be. That the child is the daughter of Jerry is a convenient but eminently forgivable irony that comes with the genre territory. Charlotte finds meaning again when she befriends the child and makes it her mission to help her.  This innocent will bind the lovers, yet also constrain them. Their happiness will come from the care of  ‘their’ child, and their union must take second place. They don’t have the moon, but they have the stars.

But Now, Voyager is so much more. Above all else, we have the sublime Bette Davis as Charlotte, whose transfiguration has you captivated. It is all there, the vulnerability, the frustration, and the anger against the selfish and domineering mother who has held her emotionally captive and mentally shackled. Then the journey of self-discovery and emancipation. The psychological underpinnings are rudimentary and overplayed, but are not any less compelling for that. It is the sincerity of the portrayal that counts. There are no histrionics but felt emotion. You enter into Charlotte’s life. Through voice-over and flashback you are less a voyeur than a sympathetic friend.
There is the subtlety of Prouty’s story, the brilliance of the script and the literate dialog from the pen of Casey Robinson; the strength of the supporting cast; the elegance of the direction and of the editing; and there is the lush romantic grandeur of Max Steiner’s score. But it is Davis that commands your attention, your complicity, your admiration, and your love.

Paul Henreid as Jerry and Claude Rains as the psychiatrist Dr Jaquith deepen the sincerity. These two decent men who though they have different roles to play in Charlotte’s life, are motivated by compassion, the same desire to release Charlotte from her isolation, from her loneliness, and from her self-doubt. That same compassion Charlotte in turn bestows to her troubled lover, who laments to her the unfairness to her of him not being free. She tells him that she fell in love with her eyes wide open, and makes no judgment nor demands. The same compassion she will show to Jerry’s daughter. This final solicitude has a true pathos, and I am not ashamed to admit that it always brings tears to my eyes.

For catharsis is the dramatic essence of Now, Voyager. Our emotional involvement is not limited to a suspension of disbelief, but involves us binding to the life we are privileged to share.  While the lives portrayed have no existence beyond the celluloid passing through the projector, our own lives will be enriched by the memory. As Jerry tells Charlotte, after she tells him when they first have to part that she hates goodbyes, there is always the memory.

Director Irving Rapper in his first major directorial assignment has the camera fluid and mobile, framing scenes and shots with a seamless élan, with the protagonists always front and centre. He uses close-ups sparingly and only for dramatic effect, including cinematic flourishes that give visual cues to emotions and motivation. He uses recurrent motifs to convey changes of mood and intimacy, and particularly character development. When Charlotte first appears we see only her legs below the knee as she hesitantly walks down the stairs of her mother’s mansion in the sensible stridently unfeminine shoes her mother insists she wear. We do not see her fully until the next scene in another room as a dowdy woman past the first blush of youth. Later a similar shot has Charlotte stepping down the gangplank of her cruise liner to join an excursion ashore. This time she is wearing stylish shoes, and the camera does not stop there. It moves up and reveals a new women – elegant and a little mysterious. Charlotte is still hesitant in her new incarnation though, and while she wears a chic hat, a soft wide brim hides her timid eyes.  Later at the end of  the cruise when she disembarks in New York she is even more elegant, vibrant and assured, walking down to the wharf accompanied by gentlemen admirers, and in a stiff-brimmed hat revealing sparkling confident eyes.

Of course there are the famous cigarette scenes between the lovers, which are consciously phallic, and suggest there has been a consummation of their love. In an earlier scene in a mountain hut after a mishap on an onshore excursion has them spend a night alone together, the camera pans away from the lovers as they lay together to a bright log fire, which by morning in the next scene is reduced to glowing embers. In the movie’s final scene, when Charlotte takes the cigarette lit by Jerry holding it in his lips with his own, the metaphor is re-imagined as a sublimation of their sexual union. An incomplete reconciling, and perhaps a cutting loose. The late British critic Andrew Britton in an essay on the film writes of the “erasure of the phallus”, and goes as far as to say that Charlotte does not need Jerry, or any man, any more. Charlotte has achieved fulfilment outside the bourgeois expectation that a woman may find it only in the love of a man consummated by marriage and domesticity. While plausible, this radical interpretation is perhaps to a degree imposed. While Charlotte can and will find a kind of fulfilment outside marriage, this does not necessarily mean she prefers to be alone.

I have only scratched the surface of this gem of a film.  There is an intelligence and richness that deserves greater recognition. It is a romance and more. It is also a feminist polemic that only an actress of  Bette Davis’ stature could innately comprehend and express. We all want and need love, but as Charlotte says to Jerry, in the taking we also give.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty Italy 2013)


A wit I can't recall lamented in blunt irony that the rich are always with us. Fifty years after Fellini invited us to vicariously savour la dolce vita, another film-maker offers another glimpse into the demimonde, in a richly baroque, loving embrace of a Rome where ancient artefacts host the bunga-bunga vapidity of the latest incarnation of Roman excess. Luscious young women gyrate to pulsating dance music and bored rich people luxuriate in their ennui and self-absorption. Our guide is Jep Gambardella, a journalist on the cusp of old age. He once wrote a novel, something of which we are reminded rather too often, and loved a girl in his lost youth. Surprise, surprise, he finds his life wanting. A spiritual emptiness not so much a problem but a conceit. Much like his designer clothes and acid wit. For him, a funeral is a performance.

Jep, more with languor than urgency, between cigarettes and while staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, ponders the big questions in a small way. Is director Paolo Sorrenti playing a rather elaborate joke on the glitterati of film who like moths to the flame frenetically flutter in their ecstatic worship of this film? Is it all "blah, blah" as Jep muses in one of his rare lucid moments. Perhaps. Or maybe he actually is serious that we should care about Jep our guide.

Like the limping man with the mysterious suitcase, Jep has all the keys to the beauty of Rome. Yet he has never found its soul. Why? Not for want of trying. He most likely has looked in all the wrong places. Where are the right places? Sorrentini doesn't show us. Indeed does he even know? His Rome is a place beyond normal lives. Every frame is immaculately composed, but with all spontaneity excluded. A dead beauty where the mess of real lives is kept at an ethereal distance, lest it contaminate those perfect compositions.

Thankfully Sorrentini stumbles at the end. Enter a desiccated 104 year old toothless nun - a gratuitously banal caricature of Mother Teresa - and an ambitious cardinal. Her aphorisms are empty, and the cardinal, the bishop most likely to be the next Pope, who would rather talk about food than matters spiritual, has "no answers". He leaves the scene behind the gliding curtain of his glimmering limousine after insincerely blessing our lost hero. In these pitfalls Sorrentini exposes the inadequacy of his own answers. Jep will now write another novel about "the great beauty" beneath the "blah, blah". Just who is supposed to care?

There is a certain irony in seeing this film over 6 months after it's release. There is now a new Bishop Of Rome. He does not drive around in a shiny limousine and he doesn't live in a gilded palace. He picks up the phone and talks to people who have written to him with their problems. People in that world beyond the magnificent terraces of the rich.



Saturday, November 30, 2013

High Noon (1952)


Growing up in an inner-city suburb of Sydney in the 50s and before my Dad bought us a b&w television, every Saturday he would take my younger brother and me to the local cinema for the matinee, which most days featured a Western. So by the age of 7 or 8 I had pretty well absorbed all the conventions of the genre and my hero was the cowboy. Around that time after a spell in hospital my parents gave me a special gift. A cow hide cowboy outfit. The full kit. Hat, chaps, vest, tin spurs, and double-holster six-guns. I was over the moon. And the coolest thing was that riveted on to the jacket was a tin star. That meant I was the good guy.

A tin star. With it went power but even more an obligation. Adherence to a creed that required courage and perhaps sacrifice for a greater good. Those worthy of that tin star were decent and courageous men. The selfish concerns of family, comfort and material well-being trumped by allegiance to a higher more demanding code.

In High Noon, set in a small frontier town, Marshall Will Kane, needs to get up a posse of deputies fast. A convicted killer, Frank Miller, is heading into town on the noon train, and he will in all likelihood, in cahoots with three hombres waiting at the station, be gunning for Kane, the man who arrested him five years before, only to be saved from the gallows, imprisoned for five years, and then pardoned by abolitionists up North. Kane is bitter at this leniency yet allows that “sometimes prison changes a man”. But can he rely on this unlikely possibility?

This classic scenario is played out in real time over 85 minutes in a taut progression of scenes that are marked by cuts to ticking clocks pointing to the impending confrontation. Kane has to face the threat alone. Those who he would rely on, either from cowardice, ambition or selfishness, desert him. There are even those who welcome the bad guys because they are good for business: the saloon keeper, a barber cum coffin-maker, the hotel clerk, and an ambitious but callow deputy who turns in his badge.

Kane is not young, and maybe a little tired. When the news of Miller’s impending arrival hits town, an aging still handsome Gary Cooper, always an actor with a quiet gentleness, has just married a young Quaker woman played by Grace Kelly. They are leaving town to start a new life. A new Marshall will arrive the next day.

Kane hesitates feeling he must delay his departure to face the threat.  Kane’s new wife abhors violence and wants him to remove his Marshall’s badge and leave town as planned. Kane reluctantly agrees but not long out of town – to her consternation – he turns back. He won’t run. He puts his badge back on, while she heads for the train ticket office.  Later though, back in town to wait for the noon train at the local hotel, she confront her fears and, after meeting a Mexican business woman from Kane’s past (Katy Jurado), finally accepts the imperative of standing by her man.

In Kane’s fruitless search for deputies he is revealed as a taciturn man, polite, self-effacing, with his doubts, and fearful, even wavering, but in the end ready to face fate and his obligation as best he can.
Director Fred Zinnermann and his team have respected Carl Foreman’s no-nonsense script by not intruding and letting the wonderful Cooper by his signature decency tell the story.  An elemental story told simply and with economy. Those who make long speeches are cowards or pleading self-interest. Kane is a man of few words.  His responses are direct and honest.  The film-makers give their protagonist distance and approach their task with the same economy of plain-speaking and simple evocation. Tight clean shots, cut editing, and the melancholy and plaintiff theme song gently interspersed with the silent moments where the visuals do the talking. This is why that magnificent soaring crane shot when noon strikes is so powerful.

The crisp monochrome photography of cinematographer Floyd Crosby against a flat sky fosters a confining atmosphere that only really breaks loose when we hear the whistle of the noon train as it approaches town. The consummate editing by Elmo Williams sustains the tension even while we see Kane go about his almost laconic search for support. Particularly effective are frequent repetitions of the same static shot of the empty rails at the edge of town. The threat posed by the men already assembled is deftly evoked by menacing tight close-ups of their faces. We actually feel anxiety and frustration as precious minutes tick by. Another reviewer has called Dimitri Tiomkin’s score as ‘fretful’, a canny description of Tiomkin’s pitch perfect contribution.

His friends tell Kane to leave town. This is no longer his fight. He can’t and he won’t. The old Marshall whose hands are crippled by arthritis can’t help him and joins the chorus. He speaks from bitter experience: in the end it’s “all for nothing”. Is that why the tin star is finally thrown down into the dirt? You must come to your own view about that. An ambivalent action bitter with disillusion, and for Kane final. (The original story by John W. Cunningham which Foreman adapted for the screenplay was titled The Tin Star.)

A lot has been said and written about High Noon. Contemporary American audiences were ill at ease with the final repudiation. (The same audiences were equally unhappy with the vinegar served by Billy Wilder the year before with Ace in The Hole.) The history of the great Westerns has been ever thus. The form’s conventions periodically used to present new arguments, reflect a changed zeitgeist, or as a commentary on contemporary events. High Noon does all this and more without breaking the conventions and at a level of reality that forestalls the pretensions of those who would critique the aesthetics, while ignoring the strength of the allegory and the respect for genre imperatives. Still there were contemporaries in Hollywood whose hubris saw the film as a betrayal of the genre. No betrayal though. More a maturation that chafed against the yoke of machismo and facile patriotism.

High Noon is that rare combination: a great Western and a great movie.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Hunt (Denmark 2012) aka"Jagten": Fate is a hunter


Directed by Thomas Vinterberg and not to be confused with the William Dafoe vehicle The Hunter of the same year.

A middle-aged man working in a pre-school in rural Denmark is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse.

The Hunt is definitely a well-made film with strong performances, but the screenplay is psychologically suspect.

Certain behaviour of a pre-schooler doesn't ring true, depicting a child at a very young age with a mindset that pushes her into lies, and the accused despite having a clear affinity with kids handles a delicate event with blundering insensitivity, oddly contrary to the sensitivity he displays with the child in the film's opening scenes. A scene involving the girl's teenaged older brother, which is supposed to provide fodder for an innocent fabrication is so shocking and unreal as to be contrived, and out of character for the brother, who later is shown to have a finer sensibility. The brutal reaction of friends and community is predictable.

Cinematically, there is little to distinguish the effort, apart from idyllic rural tableaux as a counterpoint to the trauma being played out. But again, nothing new.

Vinterberg I think to a certain extent sets up a straw man that makes it easier for our blood to boil more ferociously in response to the treatment meted out to the accused by his friends and the local tight-knit community. Consider that if the innocence of the accused had been revealed only at the end (or not at all), and the audience was placed in the same shoes as friends and community. Perhaps our emotional response would be more problematic and, dare I say, more genuine?

There is something deeper going on, but most won't see it, basically a noir motif - shit happens yes - but there is a sense that fate here is not just capricious but avenging. The killing of a stag by the accused in a hunting trip is essentially - like all hunting for recreation - a vile act against nature and the soul, a grave sin. That just like the stag, fate can single the hunter out - fairly or unfairly. His dead dog killed in response to the charges is shown in the same deathly repose as the stag, with its tongue hanging out of it snout.

Gripping but flawed.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Blind Venus (1941) “Vénus aveugle”: Vive la Romance! Vive la France!

The very rare Abel Gance film Blind Venus (1941) “Venus  aveugle” (original title) is a truly magnificent movie.

A masterpiece. A master film-maker fashions from a melodrama a picture of epic emotional sweep with a heroine to die for played with true pathos by the luminous Viviane Romance. Set in a French port town, the moods of the sea in calm and in storm are harnessed through sublime montage and expressionist abstraction to enthral your senses and seduce your sensibilities.

Clarisse a vivacious young woman is diagnosed with an inoperable eye disorder which will cost her sight in a year or two.  Her amour fou with a seaman demands that she break with him and hide her coming affliction.  The stage is set for a passionate and almost unbounded melodrama.  Yet the film soars beyond the melodrama to a sublime comédie humaine.  Made during the German occupation the film is also an allegory. Through human decency and solidarity the unachievable comes within reach.

There are no miracles, but there is redemption and acceptance. The heroine's unaffected voice of reconciliation reflects the visual poetry that has borne her through wild seas to a safe harbour:

I'm no more in the night.
I'm in the snow.
I see enough to make out
the white shadows of people,

and the smoke of things...


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Recently Seen...

Quick capsules for some Hollywood movies I recently watched:  Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Moonrise Kingdom, and an old charmer, Simone Simon’s first Hollywood feature, Girls’ Dormitory (1936).

I can’t understand the hype surrounding Argo. A middling thriller where the politics is superficial and the triumphant Americanism predictable. More mumbling for dialog and the picture is half-over by the time you figure out who’s who. Fancy camera work, and taught editing make for a gripping climax, but nothing more. No real intelligence and the bathos of the superhero figurines coda is risible.

Stripping Zero Dark Thirty of its wider dimensions I found it overlong and disjointed. Politically it is propaganda and seems to have no sense of how fine is the line separating terrorism from the barbarism of torture, which is taken as a given and never held up to scrutiny. I found I had a lot of sympathy with the views expressed here Enlightened Barbarism: On Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate. Technically, the attack on the compound is impressive, but again the slaughter of unarmed people woken from their sleep does not seem to warrant Bigelow’s interest.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook are both forgettable, the same old rehash of familiar themes, and far from any semblance of reality. Any poor bastard with a mental illness or a shy teenager would be plunged even further into despair when returning to the reality of their own lives after seeing this pap.

Moonrise Kingdom was surprisingly charming, and its nostalgic quirkiness embraces your heart. Great cameos. The girl Suzzy is a brilliant deadpan, nicely capturing the 60s vibe perfectly. Brilliant idea to have Francoise Hardy as her favorite singer. Great camera work and melding of Benjamin's Britten’s music.

Girl’s Dormitory (1936) has the old Hollywood magic. So elegantly made, and Simone Simon is lovely and utterly beguiling as a schoolgirl in a finishing school in the Austrian alps on the cusp of womanhood, and with a crush on her teacher, Herbert Marshall, who fits his role like a glove. Director Cumming & DP Gerstad do a great job, and deliver a brave ending for the period with on an screen kiss – but after graduation.

The Politician's Husband (UK TV Mini-series 2013)


The Politician’s Husband is an interesting study of the rivalry between a political couple, which confirms all our worst fears on the mendacity and moral depravity of politicians, where even family and friends are no strangers to treachery.
 
Great acting but pedestrian plotting and direction just hold it together over four episodes. A strength is the brutal portrayal of the politics of marriage and how vengeful misogyny can be found in ‘normal’ relationships, where sex can be just as much a weapon of vengeance as an expression of intimacy.
 
Recommended.
 
 

Broadchurch (UK TV Mini-Series 2103 ): Exceptional

Broadchurch which had a massive following in the UK over 8 weeks earlier this year, is about the investigation of the murder of a young boy in a small prosperous seaside town in Dorset. The performances from a stellar cast are top notch, and the high production values demonstrate the real strength of British TV, and the willingness to delve into life as it is lived by most of us, using actors who actually look and behave like real people.
 
At first I was reluctant to go to such a dark place, and then was compelled to continue watching as it drew me into a maelstrom of emotions driven by the need not only to find the killer but to comprehend the how and why of it all. The writing, the cinematography, and the direction are exceptional. The landscape is intimately involved and rendered in rich tones of aching beauty. A must-see.
 
 

To The Wonder (2012): Indulgent


Terrence Malick’s  latest film To The Wonder is disappointing. Flimsy and pretentious, with the masterful cinematography and elegant mis-en-scene largely wasted on the mannered antics of a clutch of shallow bourgeois mouthing banal verse over too many scenes of egotistical ardour, and of impossibly beautiful women if not endlessly dancing around like 10 year olds, moping about empty backyards, or running nymph-like through fields of high grass.
 
Indulgent film-making that mistakes talking about love over pretty pictures for profundity. The priest is the only interesting character, and we see too little of him. Are we supposed to care about the Affleck character because he is some kind of environmentalist? Most of the time he looks like the Incredible Hulk fitted-out by Ralph Lauren.
 
 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Master (2012)


The Master is an ultimately empty film. Great period setting and cinematography, with strong performances, but the scenario is indulgent and meandering. All those long takes and mobile camera movements are elegant but have surface only.  I get that Freddy Quell is a mumbler, autistic perhaps, but being able to follow only snatches of what he is saying, makes you painfully aware that you are watching a movie.  Like observing someone else's dream and on the cusp of totally boring. The last hour goes literally nowhere. Deeply flawed.