Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is short of a masterpiece but certainly great.  A visually stunning and fluidly cinematic film where the images tell the story.  But the editing is sometimes intrusive with some redundant jump cuts at the start.  The mythic elements are largely superfluous and a touch heavy-handed, as is the reliance on the albeit achingly beautiful musical scoring.  I wonder if limiting the scenario to the essential elements of the story would not have produced an elegiac masterpiece.  Somehow, Sean Penn seems miscast - his angst has an arrogance that undermines the modest filaments of a more simple reality found in the childhood years.  The scenes of thrusting towers of glass and steel are breathtaking but rather weak metaphors.

Yesterday before watching Malick's film I was re-reading Saul Bellow's masterful novel 'Herzog' and a particular passage struck me as very telling, and in retrospect particularly relevant to The Tree of Life.  Herzog is being visited by a fellow academic who is waxing lyrical before Herzog's attractive wife:  "Madeleine, "stuck away in the woods," was avid for scholarly conversation. Shapiro knew the literature of every field-he read all the publications; he had accounts with book dealers all over the world. When he found that Madeleine was not only a beauty but was preparing for her doctoral examination in Slavonic languages, he said, "How delightful!" And it was he himself who knew, betraying the knowledge by affectation, that for a Russian Jew from Chicago's West Side that "How delightful!" was inappropriate. A German Jew from Kenwood might have gotten away with it-old money, in the dry-goods business since 1880. But Shapiro's father had had no money, and peddled rotten apples from South Water Street in a wagon. There was more of the truth of life in those spotted, spoiled apples, and in old Shapiro, who smelled of the horse and of produce, than in all of these learned references."

Similarly, there is more truth in that Texas garden with the modest vegetable patch and scruffy lawn than in all those cosmic pyrotechnics.

Melancholia (Germany 2011)

Lars Von Trier's Melancholia is overall a banal bore, which only fires at the end. Without the drama of Wagner the sumptuous visuals framed by the planetary collision are empty of feeling and devoid of real meaning. It is one part too long. Part two can stand alone – it does not need the tedium and bourgeois antics that mark a thoroughly indulgent first half. Von Trier is pretty conceited for a depressive, pronouncing from a golf-cart that angst is truth and that mal-adjustment is a sort of bravery. Witness the contrived cowardice of the brother-in-law John. Depression if we wax poetic is a profound regret born of the unbearable awareness of impermanence, which comes from a deep compassion and paradoxically a dark anger at the pain such awareness brings. But depression is also a chemical imbalance in the brain. Rewire the brain or get zapped by the bio-chemists and it goes away. The ghost is in the machine not on the golf course or in the manicured gardens of the rich. Melancholia is a weakness not strength. Von Trier is a con-man spruiking art in a bottle. Cheers!

The Ides of March (2011)

I found George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides Of March, only so-so. Clooney should stick to the knitting. The two young leads were good, with Evan Rachel Wood really impressing, and the script would have worked better with her intern being the focus. Even before the dénouement Clooney playing the presidential candidate appears terribly phoney – come to think of it has there ever been one since Nixon who hasn’t been a phoney? Clooney the celebrity is always in the frame for me, and I can’t take him seriously as a liberal/left-winger because of his blatant hypocrisy. His heart must really bleed for the poor and disenfranchised when ensconced in his pallazzo on Lake Como, after laughing all the way to the bank.

Suzaki Paradise (Akashingo - Japan 1956)

Yuzo Kawashima's Suzaki Paradise is an excellent film bordering on greatness. Actress Yukiko Todoroki’s Osami is the moral anchor for the lives that intersect at her tiny bar, and her performance is affecting, but it is Michiyo Aratama as the shiftless Tsutae that is truly compelling in a nuanced and deeply convincing portrayal as the drifter whore burdened by a decency she seeks to escape but always returns to. Her love for a loser is at bottom and all at once a glorious redemption and a prison. She is the new wave – a lost soul of the burgeoning metropolis – a beat. Kawashima uses brothel jazz on the soundtrack to insinuate this, and places his camera at ground level to look up at his protagonists in a disturbing new way. Aratama has the best line in the film: “You have to live until you die.”

Night Nurse (1931)

The pre-coder Night Nurse has quite a cynical subtext that questions not only medical ethics but the 'good-time' moral apathy of big city life.

Medical and other ethics are discussed quite seriously in the first half in the banter between Barbara Stanwyck's Lora and the bootlegger when she patches him up and doesn't report the gun-shot wound.  In the second half Lora is the only one with principles strong enough to fight for the kid's in her care. Even Joan Blondell's nurse Maloney who shares the care of the kids is prepared to let things ride, as is Lora's doctor mentor, until pushed to become involved by Lora's insistence that something must be done. The dipsomaniac mother is not only a lush but morally bankrupt, and has quite a few gowned women and tuxedo-ed men cavorting with her in her nightly bacchanals.

With the bootlegger's help the kid's are saved, but with disturbing irony, Lora is at the end happy to hook up with him despite her earlier insistence that he give up his 'career', and despite having a pretty good idea of the chauffeur's fate.  Indeed, we find out about the meting out of this rough justice in a final comic scene where the bootlegger steers his car one-armed - the other arm is wrapped around Lorna -  while Lorna shifts gear. Twice she jumps the car in reverse and hits the car behind played as slapstick.  But her moral backsliding is not so funny.

Director William Wellman has hoodwinked us into laughing at an irreverent amoral conspiracy.

Great cinema and an unflinching critique of the zeitgeist.

Gold-Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gone are my blues
and gone are my tears
I’ve got good news
to shout in your ears
The long lost dollar has come
back to the fold
With silver you can turn
your dreams to gold

We’re in the money
We’re in the money
We’ve got a lot of what it takes
to get along!
We’re in the money
The sky is sunny
Old man depression you are through
You done us wrong!

Ginger Rogers cute as a button hits the screen in medium close-up straight after the opening credits. She ain’t glamorous but she overflows with an effervescent charm that has you reeling as she bounces into ‘We’re In the Money’, one of the most ironic and catchy songs ever recorded on celluloid. The girl next door has rhythm!  After the camera moves away to a cheeky cavalcade of chorus girls greeting the audience in close-up, Ginger returns to set-off Busby Berkeley doing his thing abetted by the brilliant music of Al Dubin and Harry Warren. And what a thing! You just want to grab one of those bikini-ed babes and start dancing – big 1993 ‘coins’ simultaneously hide and focus attention on their ‘assets’.  The girls are rehearsing a number for a new Broadway show, but before they finish the Sheriff has raided the theater and confiscated all the girls’ accoutrements.  The producer has run out of dough and the girls are out of a job. Old man depression still has some life in him yet.

- It’s all about the Depression.
- We won’t have to rehearse that.

Ginger on the skids recedes into the background after we are introduced to three out of work chorines sharing an apartment and clothes, and forced to pilfering a neighbor’s milk for breakfast: two forced-by-circumstance gold-diggers and a third cute little damsel with eyes that melt your heart.  The exuberant wise-cracker Aline MacMahon, the hot and soulful Joan Blondell, and the all-singing and all-dancing ingénue Ruby Keeler. A trio of fresh dames that drive the narrative with comic delight and saucy innuendo.  As Maurice Chevalier warbled in another movie – “thank Heaven for little girls”. Ruby’s heart belongs to Dick Powell an aspiring song composer down the hall.  All the story needs now is dough and a producer for another show.  After a few scenes we are there. A show about the depression. Music and mysterious funding by Dick, and production by the irascible Ned Sparks.

The scenario established, we run headlong into a romantic comedy fueled by sex, romance, cute misunderstandings, and gold-digging, peppered with fantastic show numbers courtesy of Berkeley.   As stuffy suitors or marks – depending on who you’re talking to (wink, wink) – we have Warner Bros stalwarts Warren William as Dick’s older disapproving brother and Guy Kibbee as his lawyer, who in one rich scene is caught mugging in a hat-shop mirror with a pooch – mirror, mirror on the wall…

- Isn’t there going to be any comedy in the show?
- Oh, plenty! The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the depression! I’ll make ‘em laugh at you starving to death, honey. It’ll be the funniest thing you ever did.

As scenarios go we have been there before and we will go there again, but the glee is in the dialog, and here Aline MacMahon holds all the cards. Kibbee as her beau whom she dubs “Fanny” holds his end up, but his talent is his silly engaging demeanor. MacMahon is a talker and simply a joy:  wise-cracks delivered with perfect timing have you smiling if not laughing out loud. Her effervescence has you enthralled.  As John Fawell wrote in his 2008 book on the Hollywood studio era: “rapid-fire delivery, a lovely zippy rhythm… a cinema that has a buoyant energy and expresses that energy in a rapid, clever, excited use of language. There is a love of language here that seems to reflect a love of life”.[1] In the middle of her opening number Ginger Rogers sings a whole chorus in pig-Latin, nonsensical celebratory chatter full of mirth.  Apparently this was added to the script after director Mervyn LeRoy and Berkeley heard her fooling around the set aping the latest rage!

Trixie – Excuse me. Come here Fay, I have something I wan-ta show you.
Fay – what do you want?
Trixie – Do you see that?
Fay – See what?
Trixie – Can’t you read? Where it says ‘Exit’?
Fay – Exit?
Trixie – You said it, sister. You start walking and you keep walking, and if you ever come near him again I’ll break BOTH your legs, now scram!
Fay – I could easily resent that!
[As Fay walks away, Trixie kicks her in the bottom, making Fay squeal/shriek]
Fanny – Did little Fay cry out?
Trixie – No, that must have been the cornet you heard.

This is movie-making liberated by the coming of sound: great dialog, wonderful singing, and dance extravaganzas made magic by vibrant music.   A musical!  The irony of course is that the movie was made for depression audiences – the credible rationale being that audiences wanted an escape from the daily realities of unemployment, soup kitchens, deprivation, and austerity.  While no-one would be grateful for the Great Crash, thankfully this movie was made pre-Code.

We just love it
Pettin’ in the park

Bad boy!
Pettin’ in the dark
Bad girl!
Whatcha doin’, honey?

I feel so funny
I’m pettin’ in the park with you
Pettin’ in the park

After enforcement of the Production Code in late-1934 the ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ number would have ended up on the cutting-room floor, and one of the most deliciously outrageous musical numbers to hit the screen would have been lost.  Here we need to thank not only Heaven, but also Warner Bros studio head Jack Warner and production chief Darryl F. Zanuck who had the pluck to give Berkeley’s creative vision free reign.  The number oozes sex and is joyfully erotic, with Ruby Keeler adorably coy when she pouts “Bad boy!” and “I feel so funny”.

Just before the closing ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number, Berkeley stages a gorgeous extravaganza of dance and unmatched geometry for a Powell solo– ‘Shadow Waltz’.  The song is nice but it is Berkeley’s exposition of the mood and melody – featuring 60 neon-lit violins! – that has you agape.

You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted, “Hip, hooray!”
But look at him today!
Remember my forgotten man”

The expectation of a happy-ending is not compromised but a solemn musical coda places the fun and frivolity of the back-story into sombre relief.  The ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number is truly subversive.  A dark mood prevails with Joan Blondell as a b-girl forced into prostitution lamenting the fate of her forgotten man – glorified when he returned from war and then discarded by the hard economic times (and by extension by the failure of the incumbent GOP president Hoover to deal with the massive unemployment and social devastation it was wreaking).

Blondell’s rendition is more rap than singing, with the true pathos and bluesy feeling delivered by (shamefully uncredited) black singer Etta Moten in a poignant much too short chorus.  This dark expressionist finale with studio rain must have struck audiences at the time as totally out of left field. But it does redeem the cosmetic resolution of the narrative, which offers up a soppy romantic reconciliation where rich guys can be swell, and conspicuous consumption is just fine.

Delirious fun.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros 1933)
Directors: Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley (musical)
Writing credits
Erwin S. Gelsey & James Seymour (screenplay)
David Boehm & Ben Markson (dialogue)
Avery Hopwood (based on a play by)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly (gowns)
Al Dubin  & Harry Warren (music & lyrics)
Leo F. Forbstein (conductor – Vitaphone Orchestra)
Ray Heindorf (musical arrangements – uncredited)
Etta Moten (singer of Remember My Forgotten Man – uncredited)
Warren William – Lawrence
Joan Blondell – Carol
Aline MacMahon – Trixie
Ruby Keeler – Polly
Dick Powell – Brad
Guy Kibbee – Peabody
Ned Sparks – Barney
Ginger Rogers – Fay
Nominated for Best Sound 1934 Academy Awards
Selected for Registry by the National Film Preservation Board (2003)

[1]  John Fawell, THE HIDDEN ART OF HOLLYWOOD: In Defence of the Studio Era Film (Greenwood Publishing 2008) p. 169

Love Me Tonight (1932)

I’ve never met you, yet never doubt, dear;
I can’t forget you, I’ve thought you out, dear.
I know your profile and I know the way you kiss,
just the things I miss on a night like this.
If dreams are made of imagination
I’m not afraid of my own creation.
With all my heart, my heart is here for you to take.
Why should I quake? I’m not awake.
Isn’t it romantic?
Music in the night

Love Me Tonight, is an enchanting romantic musical comedy, which has you enthralled from the opening scenes of a Paris suburb greeting a bright new day where the syncopated sounds of a waking humanity build to a musical overture that encapsulates not only the charm of the story to follow, but also the antagonisms of city and country, of modest circumstances and fabulous wealth, and of social barriers conquered by love, to the insouciant finale where the girl on horse-back chases the departing lover who is on a train steaming out of her life.  Maurice Chevalier is in his element as a debonair tailor from Paris who falls in love with Jeanette McDonald a charming young princess. The jubilant musical score by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart features such memorable songs as the amorous “Isn’t It Romantic?” and the saucy serenade “Mimi.” Spontaneous musicality with a rare grace and joi-de-vivre, transport the audience to a higher place of movement and abandon.  On the way we are distracted by the risqué antics of Myrna Loy as a randy cousine, and the  endearing farce of older men up-staged by gorgeous young femmes.

Film writer Mark Cousins chose the following words from Arthur Koestler to preface his book ‘The Story of Film’: “The measure of an artist’s originality, put in its simplest terms, is the extent to which his selective emphasis deviates from the conventional norm and establishes new standards of relevance. All great innovations which inaugurate a new era, movement or school, consist in sudden shifts of a previously neglected aspect of experience, some blacked out range of the existential spectrum. The decisive turning points in the history of every art form… uncover what has already been there; they are ‘revolutionary’, that is destructive and constructive, they compel us to revalue our values and impose new sets of rules on the eternal game.” [1]

Why repeat these thoughts in a review of Rouben Mamoulian’s musical film Love Me Tonight?  Two reasons. Firstly, Koestler while not addressing cinema directly, in crystallizing the essence of artistic creativity, brings into focus the nature of film as art: isolating an aspect of experience within the cinematic frame. Secondly, because Mamoulian’s achievement in this early talkie establishes a new standard of relevance.  The British film critic Geoff Andrew in a capsule review of Love Me Tonight describes the ‘Mamoulian touch’ as an: “unforced sense of sophisticated fun co-existing with real cinematic invention” [2].

David Parkinson in his book ‘The Rough Guide To Film Musicals’ in the entry for Love Me Tonight writes:

“Mamoulian insisted that each of the nine distinctively staged musical numbers should be factored into the screenplay, so that they not only advanced the plot and developed the characters, but also subverted musical convention by forming bridges between the dialogue and the lyrics that were as subtly rhythmic as the cutting and the movement of the cast and camera. The scale of Mamoulian’s achievement is evident from the first sixteen minutes, which effortlessly establish the key themes of town/country, night/day, rich/poor, old/new and two hearts becoming one. The director drew on his 1927 stage production of Porgy And Bess for the opening ‘symphony of noises’ sequence, in which the sounds of pavement-sweeping, boot-making, cobblestone-tapping and bell-ringing create an audio equivalent of the “city symphony” montages pioneered by the likes of Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov…  He also played mischievous games with the film speed and the sound effects, and reveled in the risqué dialogue, much of it involving Myrna Loy’s man-eating Countess Valentine. However, the music remains the animating force, whether it’s Jeanette singing “Lover” to her horse, Maurice serenading her with “Mimi” or the titular duet which ends with a saucy split-screen shot of Maurice and Jeanette’s heads on neighboring pillows. Moreover, in deference to the duality that dominates Hollywood musicals, Mamoulian used mirror songs to unify the action, with “Maurice Enters The Castle” reprising “How Are You?” and his disguise as a baron being exposed in the passed-along tune, “The Son Of A Gun Is Nothing But A Tailor”, which culminates in a top shot that anticipated Busby Berkeley’s famous camera angle, as the footmen scurry off in star formation to spread the gossip.  The picture’s happy ending confounds expectations, with Mamoulian even out-montaging Sergei Eisenstein as Jeanette reverses the romantic roles by charging after the departing Maurice’s train on her trusty steed… and although it did only moderate business at the box office and was overlooked by the Academy, it has since been acknowledged as a musical masterclass.”

 Mamoulian’s particular innovation in Love Me Tonight, achieved despite stubborn resistance from technical experts, was to use pre-recorded musical accompaniment played to the actors during the recording of certain scenes, elevating the action to rhythmic movement.  There is a wonderful scene where Maurice Chevalier is searching for his love in her large mansion, with each bodily movement a delirious delight as he bounds up and down stairs, and opens massive observatory doors to take peeks at the rooms within.

It is Mamoulian’s picture, but it is the charm and sexy elegance of Jeannette McDonald that melts the heart.  Her presence in a scene brightens proceedings like the sun warming the soul on a spring morning.

Love Me Tonight (Paramount Pictures 1932)
Director:  Rouben Mamoulian
Maurice Chevalier (Maurice Courtelin)
Jeanette MacDonald (Princess Jeanette)
Charlie Ruggles (Vicomte Gilbert de Vareze)
Charles Butterworth (Count de Savignac)
Myrna Loy (Countess Valentine)
C. Aubrey Smith (The Duke)
Selected for Registry by the National Film Preservation Board (1990)

[1] Arthur Koestler, ‘The Act of Creation’, London Hutchinson 1964
[2] Steven J. Schneider, ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’, New Burlington Books, London, 2005, p. 100