Tag Archives: movie

The European Rest Cure (1904)

The above is the US director Edwin S. Porter’s  The European Rest Cure (1904), a satire on the tourist industry. The film can also be taken as a play on the highly popular cinematic genre of the travelogue, just as can Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902.)

Anne Friedberg offers a good discussion of this film in her book Window Shopping, which I reprint below:

In Edwin S. Porter’s half-reel comedy, The European Rest Cure (1904), the narrative makes a simple point: the “rest cure” of a European “grand tour” proves to be far from restful; the “foreign” is dangerous, the familiar benign. In addition to this narrative content, the form of the film illustrates the similarities between the narrative conventions of early cinema and tourist operations.

The European Rest Cure is a thirteen-shot film that mixes actuality footage with acted fictional setups. It was a common trope for Porter to mix actuality footage with contrived narrative; of the film’s thirteen shots, six are exterior (five introductory and one concluding shot), and seven are studio tableaux. The story is designed to dissuade the traveler from exotic locales; the natural beauty of home is presented in the photographic fluidity of the exterior shots of the harbor and pier.

The tour itself is a series of claustrophobically circumscribed studio tableaux. Each shot is a stop on the “grand tour” (Kissing the Blarney Stone, Doing Paris, Climbing the Alps, Hold Up in Italy, Climbing the Pyramids of Egypt, The Mudbaths of Germany). The narrative is told as a series of “foreign” spaces, each made static and confined. The characters move left to right or right to left through interior spaces with painted backdrops. In each tableau, our tourist is thrown off balance, or falls off frame, or cowers at the center of the shot. For the spectator of the film the foreign is presented in very clumsy faux-virtual landscapes, coded in a set of familiar xenophobic clichés. Paradoxically, “home” is represented with more realistic detail – actual footage of the harbor and port and with more camera mobility. As a film that professes an antitravel message, it asserts the beauty of cinematic spectatorship as a more spectacular and fluid form of virtual mobility.

Movies in Literature Part 3: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Warning’

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                                        WARNING
                                                            from Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956)

                                        If your neighbour disappears
                                        O if your neighbour disappears
                                        The quiet man who raked his lawn
                                        The girl who always took the sun

                                        Never mention it to your wife
                                        Never say at dinnertime
                                        Whatever happened to that man
                                        Who used to rake his lawn

                                        Never say to your daughter
                                        As you’re walking home from church
                                        Funny thing about that girl
                                        I haven’t seen her for a month

                                       And if your son says to you
                                       Nobody lives next door
                                       They’ve all gone away
                                       Send him to bed with no supper

                                       Because it can spread, it can spread
                                       And one fine evening coming home
                                       Your wife and daughter and son
                                       They’ll have caught the idea and will be gone

Early Ingrid Bergman at the Bfi Southbank

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A few weeks ago now (2nd January) I was lucky enough to attend screenings of two very early Swedish-language Ingrid Bergman films, at a mini-season of her films at London’s own Bfi Southbank – with my good friend Christian Hayes. One of these was The Count of the Old Town (1934/5) and seems to have been her first role, although IMDb suggests she played, uncredited, a ‘girl waiting in line’ in a film before this. At any rate it’s her first starring role, at the age of 19. Although she doesn’t seem to be quite an actress yet her star presence is there in spades; I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to be able to see the star of Notorious (1946) at the outset, finding her feet.

I’m actually someone who came to the concept of the star persona relatively late, in that I didn’t feel it as an instinct as a child or even as a teenager: first I was fascinated simply by the stories and characters, then by the “art” of the films, focusing on the director. In my early twenties something clicked. There were stars before Ingrid but I think it was the double-whammy of her alongside Cary Grant in Notorious that did it for me. Notorious was my favourite Hitch for a long while, which had as much to do with the Ingrid/Cary combo as with Hitch.. 

In The Count of the Old Town Bergman plays a hotel maid. Our first sight of her is through a slightly ajar door, half-dressed. And this is from the point-of-view of a handsome young man who convinces her to let him hide in her room, away from the cops.

Her face really does light up the screen. Because it’s the very start of her career (as well as partly because I think ordinary films can have a tendency to do this), it feels, watching this, as though you’re getting a pure, unfiltered version of her personality.. Well anyway I took from the film a sense that although at times Bergman came across a little Joan Fontaine-insipid, her true character appeared full of tenderness and inner strength. Here’s a picture from the film that maybe illustrates this:

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In many ways The Count of the Old Town is a fairly ordinary film- although it does have a number of nice, offbeat characters. It’s a little like the folksy atmosphere of a provincial Renoir picture in a way.. The eponymous Count is a drunk and hangs out with another drunk called Cucumber, so-called because this was what he used to get hold of for people on the blackmarket in a time of rationing. There’s some storyline about diamonds being stolen and the police searching for the thief, but thankfully nobody on the film seems to be paying too much attention to the plot. Instead we have a whole host of wonderful character actors filling out a lovely little movie.

The film has, really, one scene that plucks it out of the ordinary which involves our hero, again hiding from the cops, dressed in an incredible beetle-suit that covers him and has a flap covering his face that he can open, to take a look-out. The costume has words on it that say something very strange I can’t quite remember, but which seemed to serve in an obscure way to mean something along the lines of “The End is Nigh”.. We then see him chased by a cop in this beetle-suit. I really can’t explain why this was so funny and seemed so absurd. I think it had to do with the way that he actually looked like a life-sized beetle, being chased down the streets, his feet the only visible human element- it really felt like the spirit of Kafka had taken this otherwise fairly ordinary movie completely unaware. 

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The other movie we saw that night is one I highly recommend: Walpurgis Night (1935.) It stars not only Bergman but the great Victor Sjostrom – yes, another double-whammy actor movie. The film is set around the Spring Festival of the title, which comes about once a year (and which Wikipedia tells me was named, back in the 8th century, after a woman called Walpurga, who, bizarrely, hailed from Devon.) Anyway, Ingrid’s father (Sjostrom) in the film runs a newspaper and, an old romantic, insists on covering the Spring Festival rather than all the more juicy stories around about celebrities and murders. He’s weary of the falsity of the business, particularly critical of his colleagues’ pretense towards engagement with serious political issues, when they repeatedly take the side that’ll sell.

Meanwhile Ingrid is leaving her boss because she’s secretly in love with him – and he’s married. The scene is incredibly touching and the silent love between the pair is undoubtable – maintained throughout a long scene in which everything said is cosmetic alongside those impassioned looks. At times Ingrid seems really a silent movie actress – here she brings an absolutely palpable emotional impact to this scene, through her carefully nuanced movements and gestures, and her eyes. Needless to say he convinces her to come out to the Spring Festival; they’re photographed and when daddy gets shown the photo he buys it, so as to cover up the story.

The title would seem to imply the film’s status as a romantic comedy. Indeed Walpurgis Night opens with a Lubitsch-esque scene as we see a line of mothers with identical prams, one of which has newspapers in it. Cut to the newspaper office and a debate about lack of housing, which Sjostrom blames on young couples being selfish, having kids and taking all the houses! Yet the film swiftly deepens. The story is strong, touching on complex areas such as abortion and suicide with the kind of maturity rarely seen in Hollywood. But it is the performances of Ingrid and Sjostrom, their development of a constantly changing father-daughter relationship, that make the film something special. While Ingrid develops her character silently in a seamless transition from small and modest girl into poised, solemn young woman, Sjostrom gives his performance conviction through a development of his voice alongside his physical performance as a direct extension of his character’s enveloping physical rage. 

I should be headed out to a couple more Ingrid movies tonight – tho Hollywood movies this time round. I’d really love it if somewhere would show more of these early Swedish films of hers – they all sound pretty special.

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Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (continued)

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John Steinbeck comes across as, like many writers, somewhat ambivalent about the value of cinema. The short sequence from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath quoted in the last post is, however, far from a blanket condemnation of cinema. It closes with the suggestion that the light entertainment offered by mainstream Hollywood cinema has a value in helping those that ‘git enough sorrow’ to ‘git away from it’. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest checking this out here.

Nevertheless cinema surely loses the battle when pitted against oral storytelling, which is seen as connected to the people and to their Nation’s intricate, complex history. The difference is between two forms of ‘popular’ storytelling, the latter seen as following this word’s originary meaning, ‘of the people’, the former perhaps not so much..

The tale from the man who was a ‘recruit against Geronimo’ proposes a version of American history that we would not ordinarily hear – that of the sympathy that some soldiers apparently had for their Native American foe. The figure of the Native American man here seems intended as a point of identification for those suffering through the Depression. They likewise might have felt tall and strong like this ‘brave’ and yet had now been cut down ‘All tore to pieces an’ little.’ This identification is clear as the storyteller describes him as appearing to the soldiers ‘like a cross’, linking him to the Christian image of unjust sacrifice.

Steinbeck’s claim to a breaking-down of racial barriers through oral storytelling seems to serve in part as a means of differentiation of this form from cinema. Indeed this sympathy for the Native American, significantly, was absent from movie Westerns at this time. This notion of the importance and value of empathetic identification across barriers in a time of crisis, seen here, is central to this novel as a whole, where the principal barrier is not, however, race but that of class.. Steinbeck’s novel as a whole wants to show his characters as more than their poverty.. as human beings in a fuller sense than capitalism would dictate.

And it’s implied that movies on the Depression don’t offer this kind of empathy. While in the movie the rich couple are pretending to be poor, the poor guy who’s just seen the movie can’t remember the moral of the story – suggesting this was probably pretty banal. The Depression is seen to be exploited as a subject matter only in order to sell cinema-tickets.. It seems all the glamour of Hollywood remains intact in spite of the trouble that the rest of the US was facing.

Still, the paralleling of the ‘Injun’ and cinema as being both in someway bigger than us is intriguing. Perhaps it suggests that cinema has something innate within it that might still have some potential.. The potential to tell the kind of a big story that Steinbeck is trying to get at in his book..

By the by, I gather Steinbeck very much liked John Ford’s movie of the book. I recommend checking this out if you haven’t seen it yet..

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (further continued)

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I found this intriguing comment on the sequence we have been looking at from The Moviegoer. It was posted beneath an article on the novel, on the New York Times online:

I grew up in New Orleans and attended college — or mostly didn’t — there as well. I’ve always thought the movie theater that Percy describes so well at the beginning of the book was the lonely movie theater next to the University of New Orleans on Elysian Fields. In Gentilly (where Binx lives).

Don’t bother Google Mapping it — it was replaced, pre-Katrina, by a Taco Stand (I think). I can’t remember what it’s name was.

It was a lonely little movie theater, not popular, not nice, not far from Lake Pontchartrain, and in fact I can remember when the wind was really whipping it up you could hear it shaking the walls of the theater unless you were watching some blood bath with supersonic Jet levels of sound.

I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” there and this remains one of the frightening-est film experiences of my life. The film, the creepy guy down front, the howling wind, the absence of any real neighborhood life when the University wasn’t in session… it was, in its way, absolutely perfect.

Jude Bloom

I’m tempted to treat this comment as yet another text to be deciphered. There are certainly some interesting parallels with Percy’s writing as well as with my interpretation of Percy. I like that Jude emphasises the cinema as ‘lonely’ and talks of sounds as ‘shaking the walls.’ Both are examples that hardly only claim to affirm the literal reality of the setting as described by Percy. They rather stake a claim on the affirmation of its spiritual and psychological truth-value. 

Yet this might be saying too much. Jude’s comments here made me think a little about my last two posts on The Moviegoer. I noticed particularly that there seemed to be something close to contradictory in the fact that I first chose to describe the sequence as ‘beautiful’, then, after presenting it, to dwell on its negative criticism of cinema and moviegoing. After all what did I find beautiful? Of course it was the description of cinema: of the process of going to the cinema and of the pleasures one can attain from this. And how could the sequence give me these feelings about cinema (and Jude too, since he likewise concludes a criticism of the ‘not nice’ “real” cinema by stating that it was ‘perfect’) while seemingly at the same time attempting to undercut cinema’s worth?

I’m not sure I can claim to have a definitive answer to this question but I think it’s an important one to consider. It reminds me in passing of the protagonist narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground as he notes that ‘There is pleasure in a toothache.’ It’s perhaps that the very fact of touching on real experience, however dark this may be, can have a positive effect – of making it real to us. This may even perhaps be literature’s main purpose.

Alternatively and just as likely, however, tho admittedly somewhat more banal, is the possibility that Jude and I are quite simply choosing to read against the grain, adding to the text our own passion for cinema. We are taking the pleasure without the toothache..

A third possibility, also highly likely I think, is that Percy wants us to identify with his protagonist’s happiness, aligning our own pleasure with his, but also wants to suggest its problems on a perhaps more subtle, as yet only partially noticeable level. This might suggest an approach with therapeutic aims, hoping to cure us of our affliction.

These are just tentative thoughts and I imagine will remain this way for some time. Please let me know what you think. Reading one, two or three?! Or a combination of two or three of these readings? Or something completely different?

p.s. Jude’s comment can be read in full here. His excellent website Bloom Radio can be found here.

The original sequence from The Moviegoer can be found here. My reading of this sequence can be found here.

 

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (continued)

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The above painting is Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939.) It is well known that Hopper was heavily influenced by cinema in his painting style.. This painting actually depicts a cinema (the screen is on the far left.) I’ll get to this in a little while, but first let’s start with The Moviegoer (1960) and the short sequence from the last post, which opens Walker Percy’s novel. If you haven’t read this yet I suggest going back to it before reading this post..

It’s a strange and fascinating sequence. Not unlike much of the rest of the novel, which seems to flit from one idea to the next without any apparent narrative ‘motivation.’ The motivation is instead very much psychological and seems to serve the purpose of placing us squarely within the psyche of this man and thus the mindset of a moviegoer. Which begs the question, What does Percy think goes on in the mind of a moviegoer?

Well o.k., firstly I’d better warn you that I think the answer is ‘pretty dark stuff’.. He seems to be comparing movies and moviegoing to denial (1.) Acting like a soldier at hearing of one’s brother’s death would surely not really be a good idea.. Let it all out, that’s what I say. And the memory of this injunction and his apparent contentedness to follow it reminds our protagonist of a movie he saw in which a character up and leaves his whole life behind to start anew. Admittedly it’s blamed on amnesia, but this was a typical trope of post-WW2 film noir, usually with some relation (however metaphorical) to a wish to forget, i.e. deny/repress, the traumatic experience(s) of WW2. It seems rather that cinema has become our character’s method, in his adult life, of continuing this controlling of his emotions (2.)

There is something extremely perverse about the fact that our character says ‘It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake toward us.’ I guess a black sky might denote a lack of rain clouds (!) tho this is hardly our initial impression. Rather the character seems to be relishing in darkness which I would say is the darkness of depression; just as Churchill famously called depression his ‘black dog.’ I like the way in this sequence the real world seeps into the movies in the sound of the waves and conversely the movies blare out to the outside world from the sidewalk speaker. This interchangeability of the two spaces finds a purpose when we realise that pleasure in ‘the blackest sky’ outside is for our character only an extension of the darkened room of a cinema. Our character’s moviegoing is presented as not merely a pastime, but as something that envelops his life, a dark sky of depression and denial, which he seems to relish.

I think this is the point at which we can begin to compare this sequence with Hopper’s painting above. Here we equally have a dark, slightly depressive cinema, its audience, on the left of the image, pointedly male and in shadow. And the girl on the right of the frame could very easily be Linda, the secretary in this sequence of The Moviegoer, all dressed up, with movie-star glamour, but with no-place to go – solemn and pointedly abstaining from watching the film. In New York Movie she’s an usherette; in The Moviegoer she’s the secretary and girlfriend – in both cases money has something to do with the situation, tho it is not necessarily everything..

Percy and Hopper even both choose to define their ladies by the colour blue (the usherette wears blue while Linda likes to dance in the Blue Room); in both cases this is in contrast to the male black. That said, I don’t think either of these texts have a great deal invested in an overt feminist critique of patriarchy. Yet they can both be read as to some degree sympathetic to women’s struggles within patriarchy, each for example emphasising the woman’s negative emotions in her situation. In fact they register these emotions in very similar ways since the description of Linda in The Moviegoer could just as easily be that of this usherette, as she ‘stood by unhappily.’ The ‘standing by’ is essential here, pointing to the characters as being on the periphery, i.e. outside of patriarchy.

The most significant difference between these texts is that in New York Movie we remain within the cinema – the real world is really only a mysterious possibility, up the stairs.. Indeed, as already noted, the usherette looks like a movie-star.. She’s in a way not an entirely real person, still part of the dream, like a ‘real’ person in a David Lynch movie maybe (3.) (That’s not to say that there isn’t enough reality in her for us to register her unhappiness, as noted in the previous paragraph, however; just that she comes across as significantly more trapped within the movie world.) I’d say The Moviegoer offers some level of contrast to this. Linda forces the protagonist’s hand as she gets him to take her dancing. And the crashing of the waves create a racket that you can hear even from inside the cinema. The waves offer up something more elemental than cinema and also don’t really lend themselves to being perceived as merely a projection of the protagonist’s mind, as the black sky does..

Each perspective has its purpose. In the Hopper painting, we are trapped in the insular, unified world of the cinema. The faux-glamour of the orange lights above the patrons is parodied by the simplicity of the orange lights by the usherette. Yet at the same time these may not be the opposites we first take them to be. The added orange of the curtains add to the sense of the cinema as a unified universe. This speaks of  the way in which Hollywood cinema can suck us into its narcissistic self-reflexivity, without first warning us that we may never get out.. 

In contrast, Percy in The Moviegoer wants us to be aware of an alternative to cinema and to the life of a moviegoer, which as I’ve suggested is perceived as one of denial. We can see this reflected in the style of this sequence, and indeed the book as a whole, with each paragraph seeming to jump on from the previous without filling in the gaps. This is a style that is maintained throughout the book, so that while it’s easy to read for plot, it’s much more difficult to actually understand its ideas (tho well worth the effort..) This jumping-ahead is just like the idea of a kid acting like a soldier, denying past trauma rather than working it through – simply ploughing on ahead without reflection. Since the book rigidly follows the thoughts of its central character, we come to recognise the falsity of this way of living.

A good example of Percy’s wish to show the world outside of the Hollywood image can be seen in the aberration of this cinema to which the protagonist and his girlfriend go. We hear it was built in the hope that it would be one part of a suburb that would grow out to meet it. The suburb never grew and the cinema is instead an absurd ‘pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself.’ Thus on the macrocosmic scale we see this idea of jumping-ahead without thought. It is a cinema, yet it is the antithesis of the glamour that Hollywood promises. It represents a dream that went horribly wrong..

 

(1) Percy appears to be influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre who argues in Being and Nothingness that the individual chooses projects for himself which can be harmful but which allow him a sense of identity, of his ‘being.’ Acting like a soldier might be considered one such ‘project’ for our protagonist, aimed at denying his emotions, and moviegoing is a ‘determination’ of this project, meaning that it is another project determined by the first project. Sartre would have us believe that this acting like a soldier is also a ‘determination’ of yet another project that is broader still and that this pattern of ‘determinations’ will lead us back ultimately to the character’s failure to attain ‘Authenticity’, which is the first ‘determinable’ causing a string of ‘determinations.’ This failure to attain ‘Authenticity’ Sartre labels ‘Bad Faith.’ In The Moviegoer the protagonist dramatises this concept of having a project as he returns continually to a rather vague project, which appears important to him but which is never really explained, which he calls ‘the Search.’ Percy may have developed Sartre’s ideas in his own direction.. A very easy, helpful and trustworthy summary of Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis can be found here.

(2) Incidentally, in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night the central character, an author, describes a very similar scenario as appearing as a minor aside-story in Dashiell Hammett’s novel of The Maltese Falcon, which never made its way into John Huston’s film.. I think it’s not amnesia but a near-death experience that causes the character Flitcraft to change his life, but there is a similarly bourgeois conclusion and a similar existentialist emphasis on this hope for a change being false, a case of ‘Bad Faith.’ Auster’s fictional novelist then writes his own version of the Flitcraft story in which the man ends up getting himself locked inside an underground nuclear bunker with the only key that could get him out on a man who has just died on the operating table. It’s tempting to imagine that Auster was thinking of this passage from Percy’s novel.. Or even that Percy was thinking of this section from Hammett.. Other films in Percy’s novel are named but this one is not, could Percy be playing with the relationship between literature and film? And does Auster know this? Is Auster quoting Percy, quoting Hammett while thinking of Huston. The answer to all of this is very likely no. But it gives me more than enough pleasure that the possibility exists..

(3) Thanks to Todd Swift for his suggestion of a link to David Lynch in this painting, which can be found here.

Introducing …

 

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(King Vidor, 1955)

 

So let’s get started.. This site’s going to be somewhere for me to put some of my tentative musings about cinema and anything else arty etc that strikes my fancy. Nothing heavily analytical or academic, tho if you want to see some of my work of that sort try: http://www.ayearinthedark.wordpress.com .. That said, I’m not an idiot so it oughta be interesting for anyone with a brain for smart movies! 

 

The title: It refers to the fact that Kirk Douglas plays a man who isn’t a sheriff. Just a tough guy who rolls into town with a chip on his shoulder about barbed wire. But doesn’t want to get involved in violent cowboy rivalries. He reckons you should tear all the wire down and keep the land open and free..

 

Then maybe an hour in he switches. He realises that pulling down barbed wire for a wealthy landowner actually helps her to push out small farmers and he starts putting the stuff up again instead. Sure it’s a nice, healthy dose of anti-capitalist sentiment. But I particularly like the idea that a guy without a star has the right, or the mentality, to flip-flop, where another guy might not..

 

I saw this film a couple of years ago in Paris and it had an absolutely visceral effect upon me. I think it was the moment when Kirk Douglas, wrapped up in barbed wire, was thrown onto the ground- that made me think this was something a little different.. Visceral is good. Cinema isn’t about looking, any mug who tells you that needs his head checked. It’s all about the barbed wire..