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ISLAND IN THE SUN (1957) dir. Robert Rossen

21 Oct

“Oh my island in the sun” the song goes. It pops into my head on occasions when homesickness swells in my veins. As soon as the island way of perceiving the environment was adopted, the song reminded of the falsity of calling it an island, no matter how island-like a place might be. ‘The island’ – as it was known by locals – is a place that calls out to my instincts. Even though in a busier environment, in Harajuku, in the middle of a vast city like Tokyo where there are many things to do, many activities to enjoy, if I’m honest – as much as I love it in the city – I do miss certain things about the island lifestyle.
A lifestyle where winter evenings were spent cosy next to a hearth with roaring embers, while sipping gin. And summers were filled with swimming, working hard, lounging on terraces enjoying great food. It was idyllic. I miss the bonds with nature. I miss the emphasis on the sea. I miss the importance of the weather. I miss the pressures of community spirit. I miss the obtund gossip. I miss the gorgeous environment – subtropical – where it could’ve been a Caribbean island with palms and azure waters if it wasn’t for the murky fish that swam beneath the waves.
Island in the Sun was a good movie choice for a Sunday afternoon with this lusty mindset. It stars Joan Collins (swoon). Colours and sets are opulent in technicolour. Costumes are exquisite. The island location and historical period make race relations the main topic of the movie. A few white men govern a 90% majority of black people. It was a movie of two halves. At more or less exactly half way through, a crime was committed. The crime didn’t add a lot to the plot, though it changed the pace. What brought more drama to the fictitious island was the following sentence printed in a newspaper article:

image
The article went on to reveal the true parentage of Mr. Fleury. The shame! The main family in the story – a prestigious white family – had a secret black ancestor. Joan Collins is 1/32 black! Her brother, running in an election, could persuade the black natives with ‘I’m one of you now!’ to charm their vote from them. It was that ridiculous.
Of course, it was ridiculous and so David Boyeur, an ‘upstart’ (haven’t heard that said about anyone since the village days, in fact haven’t heard a lot said since village days, things that are still influential in my thought patterns, perhaps what is causing this spate of longing), stood up for his people – the island people – by telling Joan Collins’ brother, in a public meeting, that he was delusional. David Boyeur: a man rumored to have powers. We had a glimpse of these when he stopped the crowd’s merry-making just by telling them to be quiet. He’s in an inter-racial relationship with a white woman. He’s a well-respected member of the community, someone who commands the trust of others, no matter what background or race.
At the end of the movie, Joan Collins is a black woman, in an ‘inter-racial’ relationship and starting a new life in England (though the dramatic irony, which kicks in during the second half of the movie, gives the viewer an advantage that the islanders don’t have). Plus the beautiful black checkout assistant (Dorothy Dandridge) from the pharmacy is moving to England to start a new life with the island governor’s white assistant, who was forced to resign due to his inter-racial relationship with her.
In the final scene, David Boyeur’s white girlfriend asked him if they can get married and start a new life together. He then went on a bit of a rant about the importance of the island and the importance of him being on the island – where he is powerful and black – not miles away talking about the island in a place where he is still black but not powerful. And that’s how it ended: David Boyeur ranting to a beautiful blonde against a backdrop of pristine coastline and tempestuous, ravaging seas.
This movie ticked several boxes in my missing rural-coastal isolation checklist:
1. The wonderful scenery and property sets.
2. The great colours and costumes of the 1957 movie world.
3. Watching people living under the silent pressure of community entertain themselves. These kicks aren’t to be found by visiting neighborhood cafes. Even the people I see everyday in the neighborhood – their struggles are imperceivable. The transparency of characters in this movie added something to my day!
As a movie known for its opening song, there’s little singing. It’s not South Sea Pacific and it doesn’t star Elvis. It’s been strange having to draw attention to character’s skin tone when writing this, in life it’s not something that I notice much, not centering around human skin. Overall the sleepy first half followed by the melodramatic conclusion – in a historical window – was just my cup of tea on a quiet, non-eventful Sunday in suburban Harajuku, with its tranquil evening yet to come.

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The Lady Vanishes (1938) Hitchcock

28 Oct

Aaah this is still a draft

Historicism is something to salivate over. Most modern cinema is too recent for its historical content to be worth scrutiny, passed onto digital formats for the supposedly anti-decaying properties, which personally I think is erroneous. I’ve seen faint beams of light, in more than one online image, become crystalline. Ultimately time alone will tell how presence occupies digital reserves. Film corrodes and alters in time. Who knows what will occur with other mediums? How could we possibly tell? The Lady Vanishes for free on YouTube.com was a real eye opener, mainly because it’s set in 1938, when tensions between European nations were a paramount media topic. The historical content, both direct and indirect, a thing of beauty for the viewer or a cinema historian.

The opening titles are played over what resembles a black and white interpretation of an alpine oil painting. Then cue the action and the camera pans round from a height: this is real not some painting. There is slight movement juxtaposed against the still backdrop. The camera moves out impossibly off the edge of the precipice. We’re above a train lying half buried in snow, growing closer, zooming closer, until we’re almost level with a moving car. Then we reach the first location of the movie: a hotel.

Inside the hotel we’re introduced to the main characters: a bickering couple; some young assured ladies; a couple of Englishmen; a middle-aged governess; and a folk-dance historian. We’re also introduced to some English idiosyncrasies that are to become themes throughout the movie. Marriage is a theme: one of the young ladies is to return to London to be wed because ‘what else is left?’ for her, the couple (who are married to other people we learn) consist of a dissatisfied, disempowered woman and her decisive partner. Carelessness and disregard are also a theme with the peculiar Englishness of giving the appearance of caring and expecting this to be reciprocated.

The Englishmen muse upon the importance of showing respect for another’s culture by standing for the Romanian national anthem and then humorously reveal that they were the only people standing. They certainly show no regard or respect for the hotel yet demand a level of hospitality that is beyond the proprietor’s power; they’re given the maid’s room, sulking ironically rather than with gratitude, when she needs to use it momentarily. The folk-dance historian goes beyond rude to become ‘the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met in all my life’ according to the young lady who is to be married.

Then the mystery begins with a shadowy pair of hands wrapping round the throat of a musician outside, still unnoticed as the inhabitants of the hotel board the train the following morning, when another creepy pair of hands pushes a wooden plant container off a windowsill directly above the governess but unfortunately striking the young lady upon the head instead.

The setting changes to the train. The governess accompanies the lady for tea, where the Englishmen are debating cricket, writing her name casually in the steamy window: Froy. She hands over her own herbal concoction popular in Mexico to be prepared by the steward. The lady takes a turn for the worse and the two women enter a compartment with several Victorian looking Europeans. She falls asleep. When she awakens, not only is Miss Froy nowhere to be found, but nobody on the train has seen her at all.

The Europeans deny she was ever in the compartment; the steward shows the lady a bill to prove that she took tea for one, regular tea, not herbal; the married couple, whom Miss Froy stumbled upon, have no knowledge; the Englishmen, not wanting to be delayed for the test match, say they have no recollection…

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1990) dir. Jud Taylor

17 Oct

Do you have any fleeting memories of films that you saw and enjoyed as a child? There are two that stand out for me: in one, people are on an island crossing rope bridges over a steady lava flow, while in another a man has caught a fish that grows and grows, pulling him out to sea. It was in search of the latter that I stumbled upon The Old Man and the Sea, a television movie made in 1990, starring Anthony Quinn.

Without checking the 1958 version, I can’t be sure that this is the film from that afternoon at my grandparents house, although the man wrestling with a giant marlin out at sea was a familiar shot. The movie is based upon the Ernest Hemingway story of 1952 and had previously been dramatized starring Spencer Tracey. At this moment, I’ve neither read the story nor watched the other movie, so can’t draw any comparisons or analyze too much the symbolism that the director was trying to give the viewer a sniff of.

The plot is that an Cuban old man, Santiago, has gone 84 days without a catch on his line. The other fisherman are saying he is unlucky and to stay away from him. A boy, Manolo, remains loyal. His daughter is trying to persuade him to give up fishing and move to Havana to live with her. Meanwhile, a American couple – a writer and his wife – are in the village, asking questions about the old man.

The old man goes fishing alone. He is gone for three days. The giant marlin that he eventually reels in – tied to the side of the boat – gets eaten by sharks. He returns with the skeletal remains attached to the boat. There is the strong impression that it all means something more than what is presented on the surface. It has the quality of a parable.

The deeper symbolism is hinted at by the director during a cheesy retrospective of the man’s life as he drifts out at sea. As a young man, he sneaks off with his newly wed wife: “This morning, at our wedding, I gave you my heart and now I give you…”. Cut back to the old man talking to himself about fish, dedicating himself to fish, giving his life to fish. What’s a fish about, huh?

Like all great made-for-TV movies, there is the cheese-factor, you know, lines that are way too rehearsed, acting that isn’t really acting rather ego jutting out here and there from behind a casual newspaper, wobbly walls and feigned surprise. My favorite of these cringe-worthy moments is the boy talking about Mr and Mrs Marlin to the American tourists. It’s so bad it’s brilliant. The way the woman pulls her face away from the camera when she asks how long the male fish stayed by the boat with the female fish on it and the boy replies “until she was butchered”. It’s a cinematic classic!

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger

15 Aug

When the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch first opened, back in May 2010, it felt like a special secret. Luxurious, with some of the best acoustics to be found in a cinema, grey velvet sofas and wine coolers, yet to be discovered by a horde. The Adventures of Prince Achmed screened one Saturday morning. There was nobody else in the audience to behold its wonders but one small boy and his father.

 I hadn’t read any blurb about it, just happened upon it (so to speak), becoming utterly captivated by the quality of the animation. It’s lush! In fact, the only thing more beautiful that I’ve seen in a cinema was Voyage de la Lune, with a score by Air, restored in colour. That made me cry, it was incredible, the hairs on my neck stood on end, my whole self trembled. Still, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was thoroughly awe imposing, a sublime endeavour to encounter in the cinema. At the time I knew nothing about it; I supposed it to be a new release.

It’s possible to watch it from the comfort of your laptop via China. I tried it before embarking upon writing this. It’s better to find a copy with the subtitles translated into English (unless you speak German). Otherwise, expect the experience to be lovely and moving but also confusing, like visiting the ballet without first reading the programme, or playing poker without learning the rules. It’s the kind of film a young child might enjoy but you would have to talk them through it. “Now what’s happening? The sorcerer and the witch are fighting each other. Now they’ve turned into a lion and a snake,” catch my drift? (Watch out for the harem scene).

Yes there is a sorcerer and a witch and – in case that wasn’t magic enough –  Aladdin and a goddess called Pari Banu. Outrageous! I probably shouldn’t confess it but the shadowy Achmed is hot! He has a flying horse; it makes me go shivery. Every girl wants to be Pari Banu, let’s face it, she’s the best dressed silloette, even if her clothes resemble creepy doilies. It’s possible to imagine how opulent she would be if she were out of her world and not on top of a light box. Of course, Achmed and Aladdin win in the end. They get the ensorcered lamp back, everyone gets married, but Pari Banu, the shady figurine, has bird-power and settles for nothing less. No pleasing some.

It was a surprise to learn that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is ancient. It has an eternal quality that too few films ever have. Perhaps it is the most timeless film of all time (if some things are more timeless than others). Lotte Reiniger based the story on 1001 Arabian Nights. She worked on the film with other well known avant-garde animators. It was filmed frame by frame. To date it remains the oldest surviving animation. It is remarkable. A more electronic score would probably be of  benefit to the modern ear but the original is fine. The hues of the background linger on the palate with synthesia, sinister characters live on long inside our hearts with exquisite elegance, sixty-five minutes of mystery, silent visual poetry.

PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) dir. John Waters

15 Aug

The video above came in handy a couple of years back when facing corporate interview scenarios. If I supposed I was talking to some power hungry ego-nut, male or female, my mind would scan back to this clip for a fleeting moment. ‘I am Connie Marble’ became a mantra I wrote sardonically on my Twitter page. Anything to survive.

 Less than a month later, I happened to have the pleasure of bumping into John Waters: hero, legend and renegade movie director. I love his style. As you can imagine, meeting him on Mare Street was an unparalleled experience, requiring that I gave him a pencil as a token of my adoration. ”It was a long time ago,” he said charmingly about Pink Flamingos. “Forty years.”

  While decades have passed since Pink Flamingos was made, it still seems fresh, possibly because the acting was stale from the outset. The dialogue is reminiscient of an am-dram pantomime. The lines are read as if on autocue (or acid). The stagnant approach somehow gives the characters an extra dimension in a fictional space. They seem to be themselves playing the role of themselves, in shocking situations that could almost be believeable, too absurd for fiction.

 There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments where the volume of the background music gives the effect of silent movie slapstick. Mr Marble flashing in a park with a saveloy sausage, for example. There is bestiality, murder, incest, excrement, kidnap, cock and other vulgarity – none of which is as offensive as it is strange. 

 The essence of the story is that Divine lives in a trailer outside of Baltimore with her travelling companion Cotton, son Crackers and playpen abiding, egg-loving mother. She has attracted notoriety as ‘the filthiest person alive’ but Mr and Mrs Marble, who run a baby ring in the city, have something to say about it.

 Determined not to be outdone, they pay Cookie to date Crackers and spy on Divine’s activities. They send Divine an unwelcome present. Divine and Crackers go to their house and unveil the horrendous secret in the cellar. They return home to find that the trailer was sabotaged: dowsed in gasolene by the Marbles. Divine seeks revenge: the Marble’s ‘court appearance’ and subsequent murder.

 Pink Flamingos is one of the wackiest films ever made. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; the costumes and colours are camp and splendid; the music is amazing (Link Wray plays the opening tune The Swag); the plot is bizarre and totally nuts. It’s a classic. The ultimate in bad taste.

 Next time you’re in a formal, intimidating situation, with cold sweaty palms and uneasy silence, or when made to seem a dullard, think to yourself: ’I guess there are two types of people, Miss Sandstone: my type of people and assholes’. You’ll remain poised, for sure!

Papillion 26/8/2010

15 Aug

The BFI has a Steve McQueen moment at the moment and not knowing what to do on Friday night, I stumbled happily into Papillion. I once read the first hundred or so pages of the book and thought it was one of the most amazing stories,(although I believe there are even better tales of men on rafts surviving out at sea). It was the kind of book I almost wished I’d stolen to finish.
Papillion the film (on 35mm). The burnished hues, the smells. I wanted the book. I wanted to get inside Papillion’s head during the work camp, during the 2 year stint in isolation when he was caught escaping. I wondered how he felt when he reached Honaduras. I wondered how he felt when he was returned to 5 years in isolation. I wondered. I long to know.
Papillion the film has some great moments of acting. McQueen’s characterisation and progression of character in the film as the eponymous hero is splendid. Hoffmans portrayal of Dega as a warmly illuminating character is genius. By the end you have an impression of strength. You have a hint.
A classic escapee film, still stands out.