Monday, 4 April 2016

Mulholland Drive, more Douglas Sirk and a Shakespearean swearathon - Reviews #231

I have been otherwise occupied of late, but now I am back, so here's the first of two medium-sized review updates, featuring Rock Hudson, David Lynch and a sub-par Vonnegut novel.


Douglas Sirk double-bill

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
- Douglas Sirk specialised in lush love stories about frustrated adults with awful children: films like All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow and his masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows. Written on the Wind is nothing like those films. Instead it’s about those children, grown-up though they might be: boozy, inadequate Robert Stack and his nymphomaniac sister (Dorothy Malone), tormented by their sex lives and so making life hell for the people around them. In the opening scene we see Stack overacting to the nth degree, speeding in his roadster, smashing his corn liquor bottle on the wall of his mansion, then going inside to shoot someone. In flashback, the story: how he married a strong but lovestruck ad exec (Lauren Bacall), breaking the heart of his best friend (Rock Hudson) before careering off the rails.

It’s a noisy, expertly-directed piece of trash: measured in places but massive when it needs to be, with big performances, big plot points and a cacophony of sounds and tricks whenever it wants to bash you over the head with debauchery (which is fairly often), from fast cutting to off-kilter angles, garish sets and breathless whip pans. Sirk brought Malone, Hudson and Stack back together the following year for a more literary, classy work, the brutal monochrome drama, The Tarnished Angels, and it’s interesting to compare their work here.

Hudson is Hudson – no great actor, but in the hands of someone who knows how to use his hulking frame, limited range and radiation of essential decency. Malone was convincingly conflicted there: unhappy, ravaged by life, sapped of her energy and basic self-worth; here she’s the opposite: powered by desire and malice: exuding avarice, her hurt channelled into barbed vengeance. It’s not subtle, but it’s exhilarating to watch and she plays, famously, the first person to ever limbo someone to death, a long way from the mousy, sheltered women she portrayed before a notorious but agreeable transformation into a peroxided sexpot.

Stack’s less successful: in The Tarnished Angels his sullen brooding and identikit line readings are enough to suggest rampaging demons – the script and his co-stars doing the rest; here he’s asked to act and the results are extremely silly. The only person who can handle Malone, in fact, is Bacall, whose beautifully restrained performance is the best I’ve ever seen her give, steeped in an emotional realism that lends the film more credibility and heart than it necessarily deserves. I’m not generally a big admirer of hers (aside from the way she looked), and I wasn’t expecting such an excellent, unshowy characterisation.

Especially in a film that ends with Malone stroking a giant wicker phallus.

Bacall's turn here is a rare instance of one performance fashioning a film's themes before your eyes: it's no longer just a wallow in unpleasantness, it's a film about choices, and the irrationality of love. But only occasionally.

All That Heaven Allows is a planet. A thing of wonder, perfectly formed, to which you’re irresistibly pulled; the summation of Sirk’s style, the last word on his themes. Written on the Wind isn't that. It's a piece of garbage flying past, but when the sun catches it at the right angle, it looks pretty damn good. (3.5)

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) - Douglas Sirk's most famous film is a splashy remake of a '30s melodrama in his usual sumptuous, fitfully hyperactive style. Lana Turner plays an actress who takes in a black maid (Juanita Moore) to look after her daughter; but when Moore's own, light-skinned offspring (Susan Kohner) grows up, she starts 'passing' (pretending to be white), visiting tragedy upon the household.

Though the Jewish-Italian Kohner is weirdly cast, she's very good (and hot) and her three key scenes - with her jock boyfriend, in a nightclub, and in a hotel room - are exquisitely directed. Unfortunately, the film is too shrill too often: going incredibly over-the-top with alarming regularity, and then going on forever. It's also saddled with terrible child actors, Sandra Dee striking a mawkish note as Turner's daughter, and a novelistic approach in which other story strands take the focus away from the single genuinely interesting one.

Having said that, Russell Metty's eye-popping cinematography is extraordinary, Moore makes a good fist of her part - steering the film largely away from 'Mammy' stereotypes with the help of the odd telling line ("You never asked") - and Turner is well used, if not at her best, as a somewhat blinkered matriarch, the actress returning to the screen after the Stompanato scandal. (3)

... and I also watched the original:

Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934) - The first version of this race relations melodrama - written by 12 people, including an uncredited Preston Sturges! - has an irritating paternalistic tone very much of its era, but is still a heartfelt treatment of an important subject rarely touched upon by Code-era Hollywood.

Twenty-five years before Douglas Sirk put his own spin on the material, Claudette Colbert plays the single mum (here a pancake impresario), Louise Beavers her maid and Fredi Washington the light-skinned daughter 'passing' for white.

Though Washington's character isn't given nearly enough of a voice, and a competing storyline about Colbert and her own daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falling in love with the same man (Warren William) is embarrassingly trite in comparison, she gives a terrific performance, while Beavers does what she can with a pretty patronising role.

The film is well-directed too and, while it drags on for too long, it's worth seeing as a snapshot of contemporary attitudes and a fairly grown-up mainstream Hollywood movie showcasing a pair of performers who would normally be neglected because of their race. Beavers also featured in the progressive, proto-feminist gangster movie, Bullets or Ballots, the following year, going into business with Joan Blondell.


Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

[Homer Simpson is watching Twin Peaks]
“Brilliant, ha ha ha. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

David Lynch’s spin on Sunset Blvd. is a Hollywood nightmare, a uniquely disconcerting experience that builds to a glorious, incomprehensible climax. Naomi Watts is Betsy, a sweet, ambitious actress who arrives in Los Angeles in search of stardom. Moving in to her aunt’s vacant apartment, she strikes up an intense relationship with a concussed, confused young woman (Laura Hanning) who’s recovering from a car smash. Meanwhile, a hitman of variable quality goes in search of a black book, odd things start to happen to director Justin Theroux, and a man tries to understand his dreams, out by the bins at Winkie’s restaurant.

There are scenes here of utter brilliance, of heart-stopping terror, raven black humour and intoxicating sensuality: a psychic neighbour babbling harrowing warnings, a botched hit, the punchline to the Winkie’s set-piece, and Watts’ mesmerising audition (as much nibbling, biting and heavy breathing as actually acting). Those stand-out, almost self-contained passages are trapped in an unfolding, enveloping head-fuck of a film that’s comfortably one of the three or four scariest I have ever seen. Someone looking for something, somewhere they shouldn’t be, is generally the most frightening thing I can imagine: here, those sequences are almost light relief.

Though the trick of playing it purposefully phony when it’s light or cheery, and sharp and dangerous when it’s dark, is a familiar one from Lynch – who employed it memorably in Blue Velvet – the left turns, the use of sound, Watts’ harrowing, wide-ranging performance and the air of complete disorientation are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. And it is an experience rather than just a movie. Usually I find it hard to suspend disbelief; not here. You can’t keep your distance from this film: it cuts off your escape routes, attacks your expectations and your preconceptions, walls you in. It is extraordinarily frightening and not in a transient, temporary way. I can’t get it out of my head, and I’m not sure that I want to. (4)


Riding the Rails (Lexy Lovell and Michael Ulys, 1997) - This acclaimed documentary about the teenagers who hopped freight trains during the Depression is somewhat jumbled in its themes, context and visual presentation (partly because of the dearth of film and photos of its protagonists as young people), but it's also full of great insights and fascinating characters, as it both embraces and debunks the enduring romance of hobo life. (3)


Le signe du lion (Eric Rohmer, 1962) - I spent £178 on a box-set of all Eric Rohmer's films, whilst drunk. I love his work but this - his debut - is fucking atrocious: interminable neorealism about a loser wandering around Paris. Great location photography helps, but not much. Thank goodness Rohmer discovered sex. (1)



The Thick of It (S3) - One of the best things ever shown on TV: the penultimate episode is positively Shakespearean, the rest just hysterically funny. (4)

Veep (S2 and S3) - About as good as TV comedy gets: this comedy set in the US Vice President's office is vile, vitriolic and vital, stuffed with bastards knifing one another in the back, front and side, 27-and-a-half-minutes at a time. When Alexander Mackendrick called satire "the snarl behind the grin", he could have been reviewing this show. (4)



Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)
- Probably the worst Vonnegut I've read: so carefully fatalistic that it becomes predictable, repetitive, restricted and rather joyless. That's a problem it shares with The Sirens of Titan - Kurt is best when he's in freewheeling form, not with his hands tied behind his back by the need to meticulously plot. There are truly great moments, though, including the lobster story and the fact it's narrated by the ghost of Kilgore Trout's son. (2.5)


Thanks for reading. Next time: five books, The Big Sleep on the big screen and Sherlock Holmes in New York.

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