Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Taste Of Honey (1961) Directed by Tony Richardson

Shelagh Delaney's A Taste Of Honey was a play I read on the school curriculum when I was entering my teenage years. In the 70's a lot of the themes of the play were still relevant, perhaps one could argue more so today. Teenage pregnancy, mixed race relationships, homosexuality, contraception, the creativity of the poor and the working classes  Because of my association of A Taste Of Honey with school, I always pulled back from the film. Interest in later life was fueled by Morrissey's love of Delaney (she adorned the cover of The Smiths compilation Louder Than Bombs).  Morrissey also drew inspiration from the film for one of my favorite Smiths songs, This Night Has Opened My Eyes.

So after all this association with A Taste Of Honey, how does it feel to return to the film now? The script is simple, yet effective. People might find the dialogue dated today. For me, it recalls a time and place. Richardson evokes the beauty of Salford with some amazing shots, yet still showing working class squalor and post-war decay.  Rita Tushingham (a dead ringer for Alex Turner) and Murray Melvin are excellent. Dora Bryan (famous as a variety performer in my youth), steals the film as the uncaring 'tart with a heart' mother.

So, this was/is a breakthrough picture. I enjoyed A Taste Of Honey so much this time. Geoffrey (Melvin), the gay textile student who befriends Jo (Tushingham), is one of my favorite screen turns. Morrissey was right all along. Sweet as.

It is important to wonder why a movie or a book or a poem or a song has the title that it carries. They matter. I am therefore embarrassed to admit that even after two days of thinking, I have no idea why this film was named A Taste of Honey. I love the title but it seems to be a description of everything that the film is not.

There is no sweetness at all. There is no softness and there is not really much hope in everything turning out well either. This is the most elegant and tragically beautiful way of telling the audience that life is in fact unfair and unromantic. Life is random and ugly with some haphazard beauty and pleasure here and there. I'm not sure if I want to believe this myself, but that is the poetry of A Taste of Honey.

There used to be a masterful way of seeing and capturing the mundane, poor surroundings of cities and their people in the English kitchen sink drama. The industrial docks, the yet not built lots, shabby estates and the rain, all look more beautiful and meaningful than anything captured today with brilliant focus lenses, lights and precision. I'm not sure if we have just lost the eye to see the present as aesthetically meaningful or if the good photographers have simply died.

I have returned to drinking my evening cup of tea with honey. I figured in case life really is mostly tragic, I have to add the honey myself.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scarface (1983) Directed by Brian De Palma

To be honest, I don't really have a clear idea of what has gone on with Cuba and the USA, but even though Scarface pretends to be political for its first five minutes don't be fooled. Hollywood doesn't care either, Cuba is just the backdrop for their favorite subject: cocaine.

Throughout this excruciatingly long rerun of Al Pacino's version number#100 of Richard III, I cannot shake my personal annoyance at the idealization of cocaine by the film and by people in general. I have the sense that the crew making this film were so high all the time that there is a glittering white dust of cold distance between me and the story. I'm sorry friends, cocaine trade is evil.

Scarface is essentially a movie about idiots in varying degrees. Usually we can learn something from watching these cruel, maniac psychokillers but in De Palma's direction there is no soft underbelly to the shining shield. There is just emptiness. In some Foucauldian sense this might be a genius revelation in the 1980's movie making, but I refuse to develop that thought.

The ending of the movie is an insult. Was I really not watching Rambo?
One good thing though: Steven Bauer as Manny. He epitomized the film: hunky but vacuous.


I was born with a birthmark above my lip.  When I was a child this caused some ridicule at school (kids can be so cruel).  But as I've got older, the birthmark has come to distinguish me from anyone else. I think people recognize me instantly. It's a sign of my difference. I've grown to respect my birthmark.  As I've got older, the birthmark has got bigger. I should have it removed. But will I lose my sense of identity?

Scarface, otherwise known as Tony Montana,  is played by Al Pacino. His scar only gets referred to a couple of times in the whole movie, but it is the sign by which others recognize him. It's his individual stamp. Scarface is Brian De Palma's over the top look at the 1980 Miami drug scene. De Palma's film follows Montana's rise and fall from Cuban immigrant street thug to cocaine snorting drug lord. There is no subtlety here. The script by Oliver Stone is crude and De Palma's direction shows little inventiveness. Set design, costume and Miami itself give the film what is now an iconic look. Giorgio Moroder supplies the cheesy disco score.

But Scarface is ultimately a winner because of Pacino. Yes, this is Pacino in cliched shouty mode. But his Montana is a monster filled with great abusive one liners, intentionally or not, Scarface is very funny. The bathroom scene and the  restaurant scene show Pacino deconstruct his earlier Michael Corleone gangster character from The Godfather with great humor. The ending, showing a coked-up Montana taking a hail of bullets has become iconic.  I think Astrid really hated this picture. I enjoyed this film lots, it's heaps of fun. It's the bling reference book. Just don't call me Scarface!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Graduate (1967) Directed by Mike Nichols

One's standing or stature is a strange thing. Personally, I really don't care about such distinctions. I rarely judge people on where they fit into the scheme of any given situation. Yet people's behavior is effected by success or a fall from grace, it's usually a signal to disengage. I have experienced this on a few occasions. It can leave you bruised and confused.

This dilemma faces Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate. He starts out as a very popular and successful student who's future seems bright. Loved by family and family friends, the expectations for Ben's future are high. Ben can't take the laurels, the pressure throwing him into anxiety. During the course of The Graduate Ben loses his stature and the respect of those closest to him. Ben goes from winner to loser to what exactly?

The standing of The Graduate as movie gold over the years is beyond question. The Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, the innovative editing, the picture of wealthy middle class suburban youth rebelling against their parents all introduced something new to the cinema. Ann Bancroft as Mrs Robinson, the family friend who Ben starts an affair with is excellent here.  But I've watched this 'perfect' picture many times and it still end's up feeling hollow. Implausible character and plot twists lessen the impact. Bored and cynical housewife Mrs Robinson turns into a monster. Elaine (Katherine Ross), Mrs Robinson's daughter, forgives Ben his extra marital affairs too easily. Ben falls in love with Elaine after two meetings.

The Graduate is entertaining, its role as iconic cinema beyond doubt. Its influence can be seen in the cinema of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and many others. But this film  has holes as big as Swiss cheese. Flawed.

The Graduate is undeniably good looking and stylistic cinema. The choice of making Simon & Garfunkel music so central to the atmosphere also serves to create a high-class continuity throughout the story. I feel like I'm watching an old 'how to' -guide for years to come.

This time around I was surprised by what actually creates the storyline for The Graduate. It is a psychological drama with the biggest shifts and changes happening inside the characters' minds (off-screen). The portrayal of emotions, the development of infatuation or hatred, or the internal conflict of the main character to begin with are all understated. This choice of distance runs through the film from style to the distanced acting. A numbness has set in. In my opinion the film suffers from a psychological condition.

Dissociation is the word I am looking for. The Graduate is dissociating on many levels: Dustin Hoffman's Ben is often found in states of blank staring, in various degrees of disconnectedness to his surroundings and people close to him. His response to his emotional impulses seems more compulsive than anything else.

I also claim that the whole story of the film dissociates because it chooses to tackle purely emotional content but then it remains so distanced from the causes and effects that everyone and everything seems to be covered by a bell jar.

In the end my biggest complaint is that I do not know why Ben fell for the daughter of the Robinsons and I have no explanation as to why she cared for him. The ending scene with the run-away bride is forever imprinted in my dreams though; when sleeping, I sometimes rerun it to feel the exhilarating sense of freedom on the back of the bus.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Long Goodbye (1973) Directed by Robert Altman

Elliott Gould
I don't really like the poster for this movie. It doesn't advertise the snotty grimy sophistication of 1970s LA. It cheapens the lush contradictions.

We were only as far in as the titles of The Long Goodbye when I needed to ask Nick:
–Is this the kind of man that you somewhat relate to? Elliott Gould, (or Jean-Paul Belmondo); the suspicious detective or an incompetent petty criminal always in a suit. Always in the same suit.
I think the answer was a Yes. Obviously, that is why we have spent the last couple of years getting more and more obsessive about  the 1970s Hollywood. Together, I must admit.

Watching The Long Goodbye for the second time (the first time I did not make much of it) I focused on the portrayal of Philip Marlowe. I attempted to see him through the eyes of my boyfriend.

First of all, this is a legendary private eye known in literature and cinema and epitomized by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (see also the main picture in this blog). I say this, because I claim him to be a silent constructing vision in my boyfriend's imagery of the ideal male. (only speculation of course)

In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe has updated himself for the decade. He is still chain-smoking, drinking, driving and mumbling and wearing his suit, but he carries himself with a certain hipness. He has a rock'n'roll edge. Yet, Gould's Marlowe is not overtly sexual, passionate or crazy. He is slow, endlessly sarcastic, superficial and right-on (permanently stoned?).

I'm not sure I cracked the code of my boyfriend's masculine identity right here, but I sure prefer these guys to Lemmy.


Philip Marlowe: "It's okay with me".
Cats, of the furry kind or cool cats, Elliot Gould's chain-smoking take on Raymond Chandler's  Philip Marlowe is one of cinema's wisecracking top draws. As I watch this film for the umpteenth time, Astrid asks me if I relate to Gould's Marlowe. I'd like to say now: I wish I was as rubber-faced, as able to let the cigarette dangle so tantalizingly from my lips, so smart at solving cases and could drive as cool a car.

As an ideal, we may dream of being a Marlowe, or a Gould. The reality is far more mundane. That's why even this kind of dry cinema thrills. It's an escape. But before drugs and booze took their toll, there was never anyone as droll or cool as Gould in American cinema. He could have been the US version of J-P Belmondo, or maybe he was.

So, let's clear this up. The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite films ever. I also love Raymond Chandler's source novels. Of course, Altman's take on Marlowe is infused with his usual dry take on LA laziness, everyone conceivably in this picture is stoned or drunk. But it's also a different kind of Altman picture, not so focused on the group, this is more individualistic fare. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography is stand out and enough reason to fall in love.

As ever with Chandler and Marlowe, it's not so much about the case he's trying to solve but about Marlowe himself, the character and what we learn from him. This Marlowe has the same principles as say a Humphrey Bogart variety, but the world he inhabits is the 70's and not the 40's, so attitudes have changed. It's all roundabout routes, taking the long road round to solving, rarely being direct, observations are essential. So yes, The Long Goodbye, It's OK with me. This film represents a certain aesthetic that in my mind is key.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

À Bout de Souffle (1959) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Definition of a sacred cow when used as a noun:
"an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning." 
I think it's fair to say that the cinema of Godard and especially À Bout de Souffle (aka Breathless) have both passed into the realms of being beyond criticism.  I'm a huge fan of some Godard movies, Pierrot La Fou,  Le Mépris, Week End and Une Femme est une femme' especially. But like a lot of Godard's films À Bout de Souffle falls into the category of overrated for me. 

There has been a lot of focus on the picture this year as it celebrates 50 years, and its influence on modern cinema is without doubt. The first 20 minutes which captures Jean-Paul Belmondo's petty hood Michel raging against the world in a fast car are as good as any movies get. After that, a very boring film opens up, as Michel delays his escape from the police to bed his American girlfriend, the stunning Patricia (Jean Seberg).

All the themes that would obsess Godard in the 60's are here, as are the cinema references that litter his later films. His fellow New Wave compatriot François Truffaut delivered the script, and it's here that the picture loses some of its initial appeal. Belmondo is good value as always. The film looks great and has an effortless cool.

As a gateway into Godard's later movies, À Bout de Souffle is essential, the original grain and spark of so many good movies that follow this is here. It's just when ever I watch the film I always feel disappointed. 

OK, I'm back and so are the romantic comedies, candles, roses, kitchen cloths and vacuum cleaners – romance in life more over. I am a late-bloomer in appreciating the beauty of men. As I have mentioned before, I used to be oblivious to beautiful men. Blind. But my eyes have opened and I can see. Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Breathless appears to be an exercise of many aspects, which Godard becomes a master at later in his career. The dream-like narrative turns, fantastical reality, cultural in-jokes, style; everything is here but still budding instead of blooming. I love Anna Karina and she is not here. I love color and this film is still black and white.

Yet, Breathless more than other Godard's movies starring Belmondo, is a loveletter to his youthful, symmetrical, arrogant and playful masculinity (the kind that was becoming dubious and questionable in the 1960s). It is a lesson to wearing suits, putting on shirts, lighting cigarettes, hiding behind shades. It is a celebration of the boy that remains in a man. The power and domination which may be unfair and threatening in reality appear endearing in this film.

Belmondo is not about to grab my ass in real life. And would I really mind if he did?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Platoon (1986) Directed by Oliver Stone

I have not watched a movie for over a week. I needed a break. Other things on my mind. But then, I had this completely random thought about Willem Dafoe. It was about his cock. Has a Hollywood actor been so exposed on the popular screen? Hang in there on this one, I'm maybe trying to justify another men on a mission film on this blog! Dafoe's dignity was not spared in the overly serious The Last Temptation of Christ, his libido was overworked in the dire Body Of Evidence and his nether regions were brutalized in the sadistic Antichrist.  He's the guy that goes the extra yard, he's not afraid to bare his all, emotionally and literally. Dafoe has retained credibility despite being in a Mr Bean movie or a bunch of straight to video fair, the roll call of great to good films is impressive:  Light Sleeper, Wild At Heart, Mississippi Burning, The English Patient, Affliction, Auto Focus,The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The random cock thoughts gave me license to go back to Platoon, the film that established Dafoe as such a unique and risk taking actor.

Dafoe plays the Christ like Sgt Elias, the good soldier who pits his wits against the evil macho of Tom Berenger's Sgt Barnes. This conflict plays against the backdrop of Oliver Stone's autobiographical Vietnam story. Of course, this being Stone nothing is subtle, heavy symbolism is to the fore. There's also very little originality here, the film owes a lot to The Deer Hunter and mostly to the king of Hollywood Vietnam pictures, Apocalypse Now. As if to acknowledge Platoon's debt, stone casts Charlie Sheen (son of  Apocalypse Now's Martin) as his on screen alter ego Chris, who, in Apocalypse Now fashion, supplies the voice over for this violent writes of passage picture.

I'm not saying Platoon is bad, re-visiting it after many years the films' own power stands up with an ability to be disturbing and moving. Stone injects his won political view on the futility of this war, depicting the casual unjustified genocide of an enemy we never really see. The use of Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings, although now a classical cliche, does work in this context, adding extra pathos to many scenes. There's also a heavy suggestion that Elias and Chris are lovers. This homoerotic aspect of the picture could have been explored further. If Platoon has a fault it's that it descends to easily into revenge picture in the final third, so Platoon loses a bit of it's focus.

As well as bringing Dafoe and Sheen into the spotlight, Platoon established Stone as a directorial heavyweight, winning Oscars and becoming hugely successful. Stone also introduced a bunch of young actors to the screen in this picture, Johnny Depp, Keith David,  Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon and the creepy John C McGinley. But Dafoe casts a spell over this picture, his Elias is a fine creation. What a face, what sexual energy. Man Love.