Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Wind, Kurt Vonnegut and public shaming - Reviews #217

I also saw Bob Dylan twice.

FILMS:



CINEMA: The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928) - One of the high watermarks of silent cinema: a stunningly atmospheric drama ignited by a tour-de-force performance from the incomparable Lillian Gish, who plays a tormented, tortured waif driven to madness as she’s buffeted by a desert wind and by unfettered male sexual aggression (I don't think the film is intended as an allegory, but it certainly works as one).

I saw this old favourite at St John’s Church in Notting Hill, London, accompanied by a live organ score, and it was a magical experience. Former Leicester Square Odeon accompanist Donald MacKenzie’s improvised score drew memorably on old Western songs, while effectively resolving one of the film’s main two problems: the comic relief character, Sourdough (William Orlamond).

Rather than accentuating his bumbling idiocy, as the great Carl Davis did during a rare misstep in his Thames Silents series, MacKenzie underlined the pathos inherent in this perpetually unlucky character, changing his interludes from incongruous interruptions to almost complementary asides.

The other potential problem, as you may have heard, is the rather fanciful ending, which was not added by a nervous studio after test screenings, as Gish always claimed later, but which is rather abrupt, no matter how glorious her evocation of her character's new-found emotions.

Everything else about the film is close to perfect, from Sjöström's imaginative use of montage and symbolism (compensating for a somewhat static camera in the era of Murnau) to superb supporting performances from Lars Hanson and Dorothy Cumming, and Gish's near-mythic central turn.

Scalded, burned and almost blinded on the set by wind machines and sulphur pots, she reaches a sustained but subtly modulated melodramatic pitch unlike anything in her career after the legendary (though deeply flawed) Broken Blossoms, fashioning a character in the familiar Gish tradition - poor, pure, persecuted - and yet utterly new; unforgettably heightened but unremittingly real.

This troubling, difficult film was dumped on an unimpressed public by an uncaring MGM more than a year after it wrapped, and proved to be Gish's silent swansong. Bad decisions, bad timing and bad luck meant that she never became the sound-era actress that she might have. The Wind shows what the movies missed out on when it lost both her and its vow of silence, retaining its ability to shock, disgust and enthrall some 87 years later. (4)

***



The Girl of the Golden West (Robert Z. Leonard, 1938) - A charming, textbook Singing Sweethearts musical, this time set in the Old West, with tuneful saloon keeper Jeanette MacDonald unwittingly falling in love with faux-Mexican bandit Nelson Eddy.

It's not as powerful or as fresh as Naughty Marietta, but there are great musical moments, and the film hits all the right notes in terms of emotion, with some suitably moving revelations buried beneath the surface, ready to detonate and do damage to your tear ducts.

There are also pleasant supporting bits for Buddy Ebsen, Leo Carillo and the reliably excellent H. B. Warner, as well as an attempt to replicate the success of Fred and Ginger's 'announce a dance craze' shenanigans, in the shape of a lavishly mounted Mariache number.

Really it's all about the leads, though; it always was. MacDonald is in strong dramatic form - photographing far better than in the pair's garish Technicolor outings - while her chemistry with her mellifluous co-star is absolute.

There are few couples in movie history as simpatico as these two, and when their voices are intertwined, as on the standout Who Are We to Say, it's a simply extraordinary thing to behold. (3.5)

***



The Violent Men (Rudolph Maté, 1955) - An unusually thoughtful, well-scripted Western about nation-building, moral duty and, yes, violence, as Yankee veteran Glenn Ford tries to avoid being drawn into a range war with a crippled pioneer (Edward G. Robinson) and his avaricious wife (Barbara Stanwyck).

Written by Harry Kleiner, who scripted Sam Fuller’s classic House of Bamboo, the incoherent ‘60s cop drama Bullitt and the Arnie vehicle Red Heat (!), it has an offbeat approach to its subject matter that reminds me a little of Four Faces West – that ‘40s sleeper in which not a single shot is fired – dealing not in platitudes and cliches but in real characters, original ideas and unusual action set-pieces. While it leans initially on a stock genre trope, the peace-loving man who must pick up a gun in the name of right, it then has this supposed hero mastermind a cold-blooded ambush, while allowing Robinson to paint himself not unconvincingly as a defensible man of destiny, whose blood is in the very soil he treads.

That’s about the only stand-out moment Eddie G has: though he and fellow studio-era heavyweight Stanwyck may appear the more obvious draws, Ford is by far the best thing on offer here, with a charisma, complexity and dynamism that arrests your attention at every turn, his conflicted ex-soldier losing a little of his humanity while never trading in the vicious deconstructionism later realised in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Clint’s Unforgiven.

The film is also very nicely, expansively shot: despite an ugly, artificial interior scene early on, it exists mostly in the open: the mountains and valleys of Lone Pine vividly photographed in Cinemascope for Columbia’s debut foray into the new widescreen format (oddly, though, the camera does sometimes create a weird ‘boxing’ effect that I haven’t seen before: flattening part of the image during pan shots). The overall effect is a cynical spin on George Stevens’ Shane that even a rose-tinted coda can’t take the edge off. (3.5)

***



Rosalie (W. S. Van Dyke II, 1937) - A jaw-droppingly opulent MGM musical - from the Dream Factory at the peak of its powers - boasting Nelson Eddy's vocals, Eleanor Powell's dancing and a clutch of new Cole Porter songs.

And for three-quarters of an hour, it's utterly charming - as soldier and football hero Eddy romances incognito princess Powell - then it falls off a cliff, consisting of little but gloomy back-biting and bloody awful comedy from Ray Bolger and the usually reliable Frank Morgan. It tanked at the box office and helped put pay to Powell's hopes of being a leading lady - a shame when you see how well she handles the battle-of-the-sexes stuff early on.

It's worth seeing the film once, though, for that spirited opening, and worth persisting with for two absolutely dazzling tap routines in the second half that shine like beacons amidst the fug of disappointment. The first, in which Powell hoofs atop a series of massive drums before ripping holes in cellophane circles as she spins like a dervish, is an absolute gem.

Not that the music accompanying her is terribly inspired. It sounds like Porter either had writer's block or wrote most of these songs in his lunch break. (2.5)

***



The Card (Ronald Neame, 1952) - What on paper promises to be a rather charming offering turns out to be simply a bad film, with no point, no purpose and no proper characterisation, just a handful of straining ciphers stumbling through a series of generally mirthless episodes.

The great, chameleonic Alec Guinness is ‘Denry’ Machin, a lazy, perma-smirking ideas-man who works his way up through the ranks of Edwardian society, whilst enjoying barely credible, barely coherent relationships with three very different women: a countess (Valerie Hobson), a lying, husky-voiced flirt (Glynis Johns, playing like a toneless, Welsh Jean Arthur) and a wet blanket who hasn’t been written properly (Petula Clark).

The first 15 minutes aren’t bad, the football section plays to my own particular interests and there’s a fun surprise cameo at the end, but I found the movie irritating in the extreme, with a good cast wasted on a weak, smug script. Incidentally, if you were wondering how it can be written by Cruel Sea author Eric Ambler and yet not be set on a boat, I can reassure you: there is a bit set on a boat.

Happily, Guinness and director Neame would re-team to glorious effect eight years later, on the bleak, fascinating movie, Tunes of Glory. (1.5)

***

BOOKS:



A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (2003) – Vonnegut’s final work is sad, familiar and essential for fans, a loose memoir dealing with his life, his work and the world in which he finds himself as an 82-year-old: George Bush’s America. Some passages are fascinating – did you know Marx’s line, “religion is the opium of the masses”, was alluding to painkillers, not addiction – others aren’t quite so convincing (surely not all Bush’s advisers are simply psychopaths) and several have appeared elsewhere in similar or identical forms, but this short, spare work is a vivid portrait of the author as an old man. Tragically, he claims to have lost not only his country but his famed sense of humour, beaten down by too many disappointments, too many deaths, but every so often that light shines through, and his blending of satire, sentiment, righteous rage and historical detail is invigorating and moving to read. (3.5)



Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut (1990) – Vonnegut’s last will and testament, at least until he decided he had a little more to say with 1997’s Timequake, is a state-of-the-nation polemic about education, law and order, and the flogging of America’s national assets, as a prisoner looks back on his life – a la 1969’s Mother Night – and tries to figure out how and why it all went wrong. It isn’t as good as Mother Night, that rollicking shot of pitch-black entertainment on the subject or mortality. Nor does it endure like his best two books, which dealt with war (Slaughterhouse-Five) and capitalism (God Bless You, Mr Rosewater), and seem more coherent, perhaps because they’re simply better-written or perhaps because they’re more universal and their lofty subjects remain unchanged, whereas this one has been somewhat left behind by history; I don’t doubt that it read superbly in 1990. It’s more akin then to Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, two much-lauded works from what's broadly regarded as Vonnegut's peak period; it too has a pungent, powerful and hilarious first half, wobbles in the second with excessive repetition and some thematically muddled diversions, then lands superbly. It’s a great time capsule, with several enduring arguments and inspired ideas – calling WWII “the Finale Rack” is a hint of the sporadic wonders within – even if its genius isn’t ultimately sustained. (3)



The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914) – Tony Benn’s favourite book, and one of the key socialist pop cultural touchstones, is a frustrating, stodgy, nasty, repetitious, anti-everything diatribe that plays like a tedious, English Grapes of Wrath (some 25 years before the fact), and never really reaches a dramatic peak of any sort. Where it does excel, is in painting such a complete picture of working class life, as it chronicles a year in the life of a group of builders beaten down by poverty, fear and a complete absence of self-worth. It also acts as the primer on socialism that Tressell intended, as a pinko within the group, Frank Owen, tries to educate his colleagues as to the realities of life – and the joys of left-wing politics – only for his ideas to be met with contempt, mockery and rage. Sadly its realism and value are both undermined by a hysterical approach that, while fired by fully justifiable anger, is a drain to read, hammering away endlessly at the same points, and resulting in caricatured, one-note villains who are simply beyond parody (like a boss who spends every scene crawling around houses, trying to catch people not working, so he can sack). Its arguments for socialism, too, are generally so tied to the industrial era that they’re hard to relate to the modern world, though the first part of the book – dealing with the way that immigrants and the poor are blamed for economic problems – remains timely, and the manner in which the media and the right ultimately seek to silence socialist argument is still startlingly and depressingly relevant. (2.5)



So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015) – A short, funny, clever, wise, far-reaching and deceptively important book that prizes incision over depth, as Ronson makes the case against public shaming on social media, by meeting the publicly shamed, the shameless, a group advocating complete honesty and a company that repairs damaged reputations online. A joy to read, but terrifying with it – and making a powerful polemical point. I loved it. (3.5)

***

THEATRE/COMEDY:



Farinelli and the King (Duke of York’s Theatre) is a sort of music therapy origins story which borrows heavily from The Madness of King George, as Madrid-based monarch Mark Rylance is awoken from his madness by a mellifluous castrato, and goes to live with him in a forest. Rylance is good, and the final scenes are genuinely moving, but they’re also rather without foundation, the play never laying the requisite groundwork, as we’re asked to be nostalgic about events that weren’t that good at the time. There’s also a problem that seems to arise with a lot of new work at the moment: the play gets most of its laughs by injecting modern, sweary colloquialisms into the dialogue, but these are cheap laughs, and their basic incongruity undermines the whole. It’s also staged in a curiously flat, inauspicious manner: the actors just stood in a line (recalling Joseph McBride’s vivid complaints about how Mervyn LeRoy directed Mister Roberts), the low-hanging chandeliers blocking their faces from the Upper Circle. I was a latecomer to the Rylance love-in – his performance in this year’s TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen – and while the material doesn’t fully exploit his mercurial gifts, his effete prowling and quicksilver mood shifts lend it a certain quality that isn’t there on the page. (2)



John Finnemore’s Souvenir Cabin (Shaw Theatre) – A shambling, good-humoured live show from one of the best comic writers in Britain, displaying a little of Finnemore’s signature genius – in a Famous Five sketch, a new Cabin Pressure monologue about bears, some delightfully absurd ad-libs and the deliriously odd Thank You, Captain Dinosaur closer – as well as the distinct impression that he was very nervous and his co-star Margaret Caborn-Smith hadn’t really done any rehearsal. (3)



Guardian Live: Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci in Conversation (Central Hall, Westminster) – It took a while to get going, but this spotty chat between two famed collaborators – a razor-sharp comic mastermind (Iannucci) and a more thoughtful, introspective character actor (Coogan) – was full of charm and insight, as well as a few stories Coogan has told at least once before. I found the Q&A session at the end genuinely mortifying (I usually do), an experience alternately compounded and alleviated by Iannucci’s delight in tormenting his interrogators. And obviously at the end some twat asked a question that was basically about themselves and gave Coogan a script. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

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