Tag Archives: American cinema

Metropolitan (1990)

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I’ve just watched Metropolitan (1990) on BBC iPlayer and if you happen to be checking-in here in late June I suggest trying to catch it there, as it’s an excellent film. Actually I should say “re-watched”, since I saw this film when I was very young. My parents showed it to me when I was, I’d say, about 12 years old. I remember being very affected by the film at the time, the reason why I’m now tapping these keys at 2.30 am..

The thing I remember being most affected by was the suggestion by the male protagonist Tom Townsend, an ardent socialist in amongst the cream of New York’s “social scene”,  that it wasn’t necessary to have read Austen or Tolstoy to have an opinion on their works’ relative merit. Tom has read far too much theory and become detached from the “work itself” the film is partly telling us, yet Tom’s world of ideas is shown respect in this scene:

Charlie Black: Fourierism was tried in the late nineteenth century… and it failed. Wasn’t Brook Farm Fourierist? It failed.
Tom Townsend: That’s debatable.
Charlie Black: Whether Brook Farm failed?
Tom Townsend: That it ceased to exist, I’ll grant you, but whether or not it failed cannot be definitively said.
Charlie Black: Well, for me, ceasing to exist is — is failure. I mean, that’s pretty definitive.
Tom Townsend: Well, everyone ceases to exist. Doesn’t mean everyone’s a failure.

Anyway this kind of prattle fascinated me as a kid and I’m happy to say that as an adult all the smart and witty chatter (which I can fully understand now!) still seemed pretty smart. I remember being stunned by this idea anyway, that you could read the critics on the books and not the books themselves – I was fascinated at the time, no doubt spurred on by the fact that my parents are both English teachers…

I say the film’s “male protagonist” and this perhaps shows an anxiety over the gender-ownership of the film’s narrative. I started to realise halfway through watching Metropolitan that the film’s female character Audrey Rouget was as central if not more central than the man who had appeared to be clearly the lead, an outsider poor West-side New Yorker discovering and socialising with the wealthy East-siders. Molly Ringwald was the undisputed star of John Hughes’ ’80s teen-films and as intellectual as Metropolitan is on the surface its social-networking narrative makes it clearly in part an extension of these classic films. As it happens Carolyn Farina, who plays Audrey Rouget, is the spitting image of Molly Ringwald. And actually the film opens with a scene between Audrey and her mother, emphasising the film’s status as a coming-of-age film and appearing to present this as her coming-of-age. Yet the character that we follow the closest throughout the film is actually Tom.

If there’s a dialectic in the film, for me right now, it’s between Molly who is incredibly well-read in literature and Tom who is incredibly well-read in theory. This theory/art dialectic is I guess ultimately just the age-old opposition of man-intellect/woman-heart. Perhaps theory is intended to be the loser of the battle, since Tom admits that Fourierism may not have been so great after all. But if so this is hardly rammed down our throats. I certainly didn’t accept this as a kid, even tho I remember my mum suggesting that really you should read Austen if you’re going to talk about her.. And all the way through the film Tom is admired by the whole social group for his intelligence.

Yet I think it is the admiration of Audrey for Tom and her search for a copy of a book by Fourier that most affirms that Tom’s theories may not be so bad after all. This crossover of interests between the pair also asserts something that I felt throughout the film – not only the  assertion that ideas are as important as art, but also that the pair cannot be separated. Tom brings from his poorer background a wealth of ideas to his newfound beautiful, decadent friends. As in Brideshead Revisited – another childhood TV experience for me – Metropolitan indulges in a significant amount of romance and nostalgia around the narrative of the “downward mobility” of the “feminised” heart of the high aristocracy in the modern world (in Brideshead “homosexualised”), seen again from the p.o.v. of a male protagonist from a poorer background. Yet Metropolitan is equally, from another angle, another version of the admiration for quick-witted intellectualism to be found in Manhattan (1979.) Anyway, whatever it is it’s a wonderful film all of its own and I’m surprised to see that its writer-director Whit Stillman doesn’t seem to have gone on to do anything that much since. Well, this one’s a memorable one, so check it out if you have the time!

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King Vidor on European Films!

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I reprint below an interview with King Vidor on European cinema. It’s taken from Close Up, a ‘British’ film magazine written from 1927 – 1933 for an ‘international’ audience (which, of course, means Western Europe and America – copies were sold in Paris, Berlin, London, Geneva, New York and LA.) The magazine’s editor Kenneth MacPherson was British and lived in Switzerland and the magazine had foreign correspondents in each city in which it was sold, as well as in Moscow. 

Close Up is highly critical of the American dominance of the global marketplace and often displays blatant anti-Americanism – as when its editor states that ‘damp and treacly’ ‘American sentiment’ is horrible for the ‘European mind’ but is alright for Americans who are ‘naive’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘unsophisticated. Nevertheless the magazine is at the same time not uninterested in Hollywood and can also include some quite rational and interesting reflections on the relationship between European cinema(s) and Hollywood. 

Close Up didn’t need to make a profit since it was funded by MacPherson’s wealthy wife Winifred Bryher, who also funded his only film Borderline. We can therefore assume that sales to America and foreign correspondents not being necessary for commercial success, rather point to an editorial interest in American cinema culture, even if mainly as an antithesis to the great ‘art’ cinema coming from Russia and Germany. 

A particularly likable example I found is of a letter from an American reader who writes to offer Close Up ‘all the ecouragement I can in your venture’ as well as a few corrections of the magazine’s position on America. The latter include the fact that ‘Griffith is not producing much now, and we can see pictures that were shown 10-12-15 years ago’, due to the nation’s size keeping the films in circulation, a reference to Close Up‘s ambitions for cinemas in Europe that would play older films. The writer also notes that the eyelashes of Greta Garbo, who had moved to America by this point, were not sewn on, as Close Up had previously stated. 

The magazine’s interest in American cinema had a lot to do with the wish to compare or contrast it to European cinema. The interview I am reprinting below is with King Vidor and was published in Close Up in October 1928. It takes an opposing view to the mainstream position of criticising Europeans cinemas for trying to copy the Hollywood model. It seems to me that the wish to print the views of an American on the state of cinema in Europe shows a willingness to accept a multiplicity of opinions on cinema and an openness to debate. Here’s the interview in full:

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KING VIDOR ON EUROPEAN FILMS

 European producers, instead of competing with American films on a straight production basis, are fighting for supremacy with freak and futuristic screen experiments.

 This was the finding of King Vidor, noted director, who studied the foreign production field during his extensive trip abroad.

 “The foreign producers are more courageous and making more headway than in the past,” Vidor observed. “This progress, however, has not been from a solid foundation of sound production methods as was the development of the film industry in America.

 “There are any number of ‘little theatre’ movements to be encountered, and it is in these houses that the unique productions being made abroad are to be found. I saw one in which the entire story was told in close-ups, a daring experiment that is admirable, in effort, but scarcely to be considered anything more than a very well done novelty. Others were done along similar lines, the producer attempting to strike upon some unusual camera work or treatment as an outstanding feature.

 “All of these pioneer steps are laudable and hold much promise. They are interesting and worthy of the attempt. But as earnest competition to American films they are woefully lacking.

 “It is apparent that the foreign producers are not trying to match their products with those of American producers. They have not built up their organizations and concentrated for their actual benefit upon straight productions. They are more intent, it seems, upon a cinematic fishing expedition that might net something worth while, but in all probability will be quite unproductive.

 “In my opinion the chief fault with the foreign producing market is that they appear reluctant to invest sufficient capital in their films to make really good productions. They cannot seem to see what enormous returns they can obtain from such investments by making good pictures. These ‘arty’ efforts are splendid, and often show strokes of genius. But they will not and cannot make money. And unless pictures make enough money to justify the tremendous financial outlay the producers cannot weld together a strong organization.

 “Another thing I noticed abroad is that while films are very popular, yet there are a great number of people who seldom find time to go to the picture theatres. With this great potential audience yet to be educated to screen entertainment it would seem that the foreign production market would have a very happy opportunity to expand and enlarge upon their production methods.

 “There is plenty of room in the film field for the foreign producer. There is no cause of any jealousy on this point. Better pictures raise the standards of the entire industry regardless as to who makes them.”

 Vidor, who directed The Big Parade and The Crowd, as well as Show People, soon to be released with Marion Davies and William Haines co-starring, expressed a desire to make a film abroad.

 There are many ideal location possibilities, he said, that can only be found in Southern Europe, where many towns remain to-day as they were hundreds of years ago. Such an atmosphere, he declared, defies reproduction and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.