I Know Where I'm Going

Film snippets, pt. 2

 

 

From yesterday’s glorious black and white to today’s delirious technicolor. Dizzying levels of narrative complexity, and bizarre excesses of artificial decor and saturated color characterize the Michael Powell – Emeric Pressburger masterpiece The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). It is unlike any other film – and, possibly, unlike the medium itself. An opera/ballet within a ballet within an opera within a film (and that’s not counting the puppet scenes within the opera/ballet), it has rightly been called hallucinatory. Its famous admirers include Martin Scorsese (who offers the audio commentary in the Criterion edition) and George Romero – but I suspect Christopher Nolan must be green with envy over this. There is a scene involving eyes, mirrors and illusions, that should be right up his alley. And as if the film itself wasn’t enough, the end credits include a surreal “meeting” between the opera singer and the ballet dancer that jointly interpret each character. Delicious!

[watched on February 12, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Film snippets, pt. 1

 

 

Such heights and depths of depravity, cynicism and perversion have rarely been captured on film. A dark, vicious masterpiece, shot exquisitely in black and white by James Wong Howe, directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick, scored superbly by Elmer Bernstein and with crisp, unforgettable dialogues by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; it is the kind of film that not only lives up to its hype, but manages to surpass it. It was well worth the anticipation of several years to finally be able to catch it on the big screen. The night imagery of New York is stunning – and the performances of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis unsettling to a remarkable degree. The kind of film that alone would suffice to immortalize all its contributors.

[Sweet Smell of Success (1957), watched on February 11, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 1

 

Recently, due to poor eyesight, I discovered the pleasure (and relief) of audiobooks. As someone who reads (and reads and reads), it was so distressing not to be able to. But, through LibriVox, and its amazing volunteers, I have discovered a whole new way to get to literature. It is imperative, of course, to find one voice that suits one’s taste, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in discovering David Clarke’s impeccable reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, and Nicholas Clifford’s readings of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

The latter, especially, gave me the opportunity to discover the short stories of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, in two volumes, The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904) and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). I never fancied myself as one who appreciates the short story as a literary form, but I was surprised to find out that I did, and that I enjoyed Wharton’s short stories as much as her novels (Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence rank among the novels I most cherish). The Tales of Men and Ghosts even includes two masterful ghost stories, The Eyes and Afterward (which I strongly recommend to fans of the genre). Her stories are always evocative and ambiguous, leaving ample space for interpretation, many times with enigmatic endings. But another aspect of them that I enjoyed (as I do with James’s writing as well), were the frequent allusions to art and art objects. This is why I am devoting two posts to The Reckoning and The Quicksand, both from The Descent of Man, and Other Stories.

In The Reckoning (1902), a bitter tale of marriage and divorce, there is only a fleeting mention to painting, a deprecating reference to contemporary art – and to the profession of painters as little more than an excuse for sociable interactions. I always find the impressions of writers precious, as they denote a particular form of reception, expressed through their literary sensibility, and they frequently allow a vivid image, not only of their personal tastes and distastes, but also of those of their contemporaries.

So, without further delay, the passage from The Reckoning goes as follows: “The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife’s ‘afternoons’ from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the ‘artistic’ impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.”

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Henri-Edmond Cross, Pines Along the Shore, 1896, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ‘purple grass’ and ‘green sky’ reminded me of neo-impressionist (yes, these interminable sub-categories of modernist art…) painters, such as Henri-Edmond Cross and, although a bit later, Henri Matisse’s fauvist canvases, which may provide an apt illustration of the kind of painting that Edith Wharton had in mind.

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Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1906 (?), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 55.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Henri Matisse, The Riverbank, 1907, oil on canvas, 73.2 x 60.3 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel

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Henri Matisse, Moroccan Landscape, 1912, oil on canvas, 115 x 80 cm, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

 

 

What I see when I see the world: Pompeii

 

“Architectures of Control”: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015)

Eyes wide open, pt. 3

Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

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Elective Affinities XXXIII

 

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Paul Klee, Pastorale (Rhythms), 1927, tempera on canvas mounted on wood, 69.3 x 52.4 cm, MoMA, New York

 

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Wall hanging (detail), India (Gujarat?), produced for the Portuguese market, early seventeenth century, silk and cotton, 311 x 278 cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (photo © Foteini Vlachou)

 

Champion (1949)

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To get some things out of the way from the start, Champion is a masterpiece and one of Kirk Douglas’s best roles. Directed by Mark Robson, Champion opens with a scene that immediately sets the mood for the rise-and-fall story that is about to follow, and definitely constitutes one of the most remarkable, non-verbal character introductions in cinema. Walking down a long corridor, surrounded by his crew, a boxer, his name emblazoned on the back of his robe, enters the stadium. The crowd breaks out in cheers – without ever seeing his face, the viewer already understands the importance of this man. Followed by the journalist’s comment on how wildly the crowd applauds, the boxer approaches the ring, enters and sits in his corner. Then, with the camera placed at a low angle, Kirk Douglas for the first time turns towards the viewer, revealing his face, as the journalist utters the word ‘Champion’.

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This is the beginning of the telling of Midge Kelly’s story which takes up most of the film’s narrative, that, in a stroke of structural brilliance, ends back in the present after the match, with Midge beaten to a bloody pulp, repeating, as if hallucinating, the speech he had given his coach and agent years before becoming famous. And although Champion is, on the surface at least, the story of an individual, it accomplishes so much more. Its unflinching portrayal of the world of boxing and the ugly corruption it entails is unforgettable, with a terrific overhead shot (among other instances) of Kirk Douglas battling alone the thugs that attack him after he wins the title in a game he was supposed to throw. When Arthur Kennedy, playing Connie, Midge’s brother (and moral counterbalance), exclaims ‘Oh, this rotten business!’, Midge cynically replies: ‘Awww, lay off the business. It’s like any other business, only here the blood shows.’ There is also the opposite aspect, the lifelong devotion of the people who love the sport (and get nothing in return, except betrayal), such as Paul Stewart’s Tommy Haley, the stoic, world-wise and bemused manager who first spots Midge’s talent and stays with him through thick and thin.

What is perhaps more surprising in the context of Champion is the representation of degrading, unadorned poverty (that serves as the character’s motivation for upward social mobility and to justify his implacable ambition), as well as the depiction of sexual relations, which strike the viewer as bold and unusually honest (even blunt), considering the period the film was made.

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From his first lover Emma (and their rather explicit ‘shall we get wet’ beach scene), to the shrewd, greedy femme fatale he obsessively chases after, to the elegant Palmer he seems to fall genuinely in love with, only to ditch later when he has to choose between her and her husband’s money, Midge moves from woman to woman with a carnal lust that can barely be contained and is only matched by his ambition. The film’s view of romantic love is bleak, to put it mildly: Midge seduces a girl he never intends to be tied down to (although his brother is clearly smitten with her), ending up marrying her after being blackmailed by her father. He then abandons her and focuses his attention on Grace, his boxing rival’s lover who is something of a veteran in choosing her partners from the ring and makes it no secret that money is what she’s after. He steals Palmer from her husband (who compliments him on his ‘wonderful body’), and then reaches perhaps his lowest point when he seduces Emma again, after she has announced that she is going to divorce him and marry his brother.

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Rather than straightforwardly illustrating Midge’s moral downfall, the expendable nature of his relationships with women serves to reveal what drives him from the start: a desire to escape poverty and never be poor again (not that different from Scarlett O’Hara’s drive, manifested in the oath she takes upon returning to a desolate Tara). This is showcased in early scenes, such as the beach scene referred to above, when he asks Emma whether she knows what it is to be really poor, cold poor, hungry poor – Emma, the daughter of a local diner owner, appearing removed from that reality.

Champion catapulted Kirk Douglas to stardom, and one only has to watch it to understand why. It would even be tempting, albeit misleading, to identify too closely character and actor (the son of impoverished Russian immigrants) in their unrelenting search for fame and success. When Douglas was honored by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1987, Hume Cronyn, upon presenting him with his award at the end of the ceremony, even used a line spoken by Midge in the film: ‘I don’t want to be a “hey you” anymore. I want people to call me Mister. I want to amount to something.’

 

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* In honor of Kirk Douglas’s 100th anniversary.

 

Eyes wide open, pt. 2

Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)

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Buffy Art Historian: Conundrums

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ANYA: Willow thinks she’s in love with my boyfriend, R.J.

BUFFY: Willow, you’re a gay woman—and he isn’t.

WILLOW: This isn’t about his physical presence. It’s about his heart.

ANYA: His physical presence has a penis!

WILLOW: I can work around it!

 

season 7, episode 6, Him (written by Drew Z. Greenberg, created by Joss Whedon)

(artwork: Cherubino Alberti, A naked man [Ignudo], twisting towards the right, holding drapery, after Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgment’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel, 1580–90, engraving, 31.6 x 20.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum, New York)

 

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