Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Unfinished cinematography... Clouzot's L'enfer (1964)

There's always a fascination for works that don't get completed; there's the allure of trying to establish exactly what went wrong and just how good the finished piece could have been? The unobtainability intensifies the perception of what's left: you fill in the gap with imagination for the unreleased, the fragmentary, the bootlegged...the "lost". In this way "Smile" would have outdone "Sgt Pepper" wouldn't it...if only Brian Wilson had been able to complete it. The magnified glory of the object partially glimpsed...

As film "buffs" we know so much about this feeling. There are just too many lost films.

Henri-George Clouzot's L'enfer is an unfinished film from 1964. Highly innovative and experimental with a substantial budget, excellent cast and three camera crews, it would have languished in legend had it not been for a lift breaking down... The lift contained film archivist Serge Bromberg and Ines Clouzot who got talking as they waited to be rescued. Finding out that many hours of film survived from one of his favourite director's unfinished film, Bromberg set about reconstructing what he could.The result was released as a quite brilliantly realised documentary in 2009, L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Bromborg skilfully interweaves what remains of the footage - selected from over 13 hours' worth - with interviews with the cast and, mostly, crew who speak passionately about the film making. No useable soundtrack survived and so contemporary actors are used to fill in key dialogue.

It all works remarkably well and is compelling viewing in its own right never mind the "what might have beens". Clouzot obviously was a man driven by a vision he couldn't quite master in spite of the budget and the resources he was able to command. Things began to spiral out of control as the time ran out on their location (the lake was due to be drained), tempers frayed and his health gave in.But the film he was able to put together is striking and bold. It tells the story of the breakdown of relations between a married couple of disparate ages, the young and vibrant, Odette played by Romy Schneider and her insecure middle-aged husband, Marcel (Serge Reggiani). Marcel becomes convinced that Odette is having an affair with a hunky driver, played by Jean-Claud Bercq. He is driven to despair becoming more and more incapable of believing in his wife's love and even imagines her in a liaison with Dany Carrel (portraying the cheeky and uninhibited Marylou).

Whether these feelings are based on actuality we do not know and that is beside the point. Clouzot was more interested in the reality of the mind (well he was). He wanted to show the impact of unreasoned jealousy on perception and the distorted reality this can create.

Clouzot used various devices to underline the emotional narrative of the film: black and white to show the everyday and colour to show the distorted view of the fevered mind.

He also used modern kinetic art to unsettle and to show the unsettled and there are many shots of art installations that would have been used (some of which were later featured in his 1967 film La Prisonnière). There are also some amazing sequences with light strobing across of Romy Schneider's exquisite face, reflecting off its oiled surface which is then lightly coated with sparkling metallic dust...ahem!

Faces were painted and odd cloured lipstick was applied to allow even more unreality to be filmed and these produced the now iconic shots of Romy in blue.

Clouzot famously pushed his actors hard and whilst this certainly brought out a striking performance from Ms Schneider, it proved too much for Serge Reggiani. At one point, Clouzot forced Reggiani to run for long periods at a distance a stunt man could have been used. Exhausting for the then 42 year old. Reggiani eventually quit citing a mystery malady. Yet, by this stage this was merely one of many things going wrong on the film and Reggiani's replacement never even filmed a scrap of his part.

Clouzot succumbed to a heart attack and filming had to be stopped. That was it and, maybe, as some of the crew contend, that was the best outcome.

Possibly all Clouzot needed was a really good producer and he could have been coached into making a more focused effort and delivering what could have been one of the films of the 60's. But there I go again...we don't know how good the film could have been. However, what is presented in film by Bromberg is one of the best documentaries on film I've ever seen. And, what is shown in the reconstructed narrative is very strong; atmospheric and liable to linger in the mind.

It is a great pity that Clouzot made only one more film but what he left behind with L'Enfer, shows the same hallmarks of class as Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear.

Respect also goes to Romy Schneider - what an actress! What ever Clouzot threw at her she handled and she stands out for the depth and strength of her performance. All this and she still managed to act, water ski like a champion and wear blue lipstick!

Please buy this DVD!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Stylish Blogger Awards

A little while ago, "The Big Parade" aka Zoe Walker's excellent film blog, kindly awarded me with the Stylish blogger Award.

As a recipient I am to post a link to Zoe's blog which is here. It's well informed and very stylish, one of my favourites and it should be one of yours too!

There are also two duties to
carry out:
  • Pass it on to some 7 stylish bloggers,
  • and write 7 random tell all facts about yours truly (the real me and not just "Arthur"!)
7 facts!
- I am from a place called part of Liverpool. John Lennon lived near by for a few months (before I was born) and, indeed, went to the same school as my dad
- my aunty's husband was in a film with Rock Hudson called "Captain Lightfoot"
- my mother in law was chair of the Wellsian Society and knows all things about HG Wells; she curated a series of Wells films at the BFi a few years' back
- I work in publishing and once wrote a book on the marketing of leisure services...
- my then girlfriend was removed from shot as an extra in the Rob Lowe *classic* "Oxford Blues" for being too "distracting" (she made it into some of the movie though and is distracting!)
- I was almost an extra in "Heaven's Gate"but couldn't be bothered (big mistake eh!?)
- I once said hello to Jack Lemmon in the street, much to his annoyance (sorry Jack, I was young!)

7 stylish blogs? So many to chose from but the first to come to mind win:

1. Thomas Gladysz quite brilliant
Louise Brooks Society blog
2. Pamela Hutchison's similarly superb Silent London
the beating heart of the capital's silent film revival!
3. Zoe Walker's above mentioned blog, The Big Parade, a great film and a great site!
4. Matthew Coniam''s well-informed and witty Movietone News
5. Roy Bean's wildly-diverse and dedicated Ganarse un Acre
6. D For Doom's opinionated (in a good way!) Classic Movie Ramblings
7. Ferdinand Von Galitzien's extraordinary cinematic cornucopia..."Spreading The Silent News Around The World..."

I'd also add Stacia's She Blogged by Night because it's also very stylish! And it's a blog, a very good one!

I urge you to visit these sites and there are plenty more our there but if I had to pick 7 (or 8) then these are my choices today!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Great Scott! The Great White Silence (1924)

Last Monday brought the extraordinary Great White Silence to Hertford's Castle Theatre...a small, remarkably well-informed and enlightened, audience sat slack-jawed (speaking personally) as Herbert Ponting's film of the fateful Terra Nova Expedition unfolded.

In my ignorance I'd never expected there to be a film of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's journey to the South Pole, that it was so skilfully assembled by Ponting was another surprise. But, I should know by now, don't ever take "silent film" for granted...

Ponting sailed out with the Terra Nova in 1910 and it was his job to record the expedition for scientific and commercial purposes. His photographs and film were to form the basis of Scott's lecture tours after the anticipated success of the mission. He was to record the unfamiliar wildlife and did this with much rigour. "I could have done without the seals and penguins..." was one comment I overheard from a jaded 21st century viewer but looking at them through the enthusiastic lens of Ponting you can understand why: he's loving his time with these strange and unfamiliar creatures.

But that's not the real story, it's Scott and his band of brave explorers man-hauling their sleds, joking around a frozen campfire, hanging out their socks to freeze-dry and, most poignantly of all, waving goodbye as their horses carry them away from the camera for the very last time.

Whatever the merits of the venture, their nationalistic motivations and organisational capabilities these were courageous men. As Scott wrote in his diary as they trudged towards death..."Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

Seeing these men, hale and hearty, ready to take on the challenge when we know they will not succeed is very moving.
Ponting filmed them setting up camp, conducting research and preparing for the push to the pole. There are some haunting images of the forbidding landscape and the film is strikingly clean for a century old print. Ponting used an early portable camera and is shown balanced precariously on a wooden platform to film the Terra Nova crashing through the ice. He almost gets nailed by one of the seals and apparently nearly got toppled into the sea after getting too close to a pod of killer whales.
Mr Ponting was a pioneering and brave film maker in the truest sense. Never could those reviewer staples be more aptly applied.

After the shattering conclusion to the expedition Ponting's films were not used as anticipated but he came back to construct this film and tell the story of the journey. He used models shot in studio to show the progress of the journey as well as mixing his stills with the film of Scott's men rehearsing their routines for the trek. His witty intertitles underpin the images well and he quotes from Scott's fateful diary entries...I liked the penguin jokes: they were in the spirit of this bold adventure. Scott's team took the risks in good humour but they were fully aware of the dangers they faced.

The striking new score by Simon Fisher Turner should also be mentioned: it is stark and skilfully embelishes Ponting's images.
Scott's reputation has taken a pounding over recent years with arguments for and against...but as one commentator, Diana Preston, has said: "The point is not that they ultimately failed but that they so very nearly succeeded."

Ponting's film helps show us how great that feat was.

The BFI have this on DVD/BluRay.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Gloriously grotesque... Greed (1924)

I've just finished watching the near-four-hour restored version of Erich von Stroheim's "Greed". It took me a few sessions but it's definitely worth it to get a proper feel for how his vision for the fuller version of this once ten hours' long epic would have played out.

The film is renowned for its cost, its length and its director's ambition. Von Stroheim wanted to film the whole of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague and he wanted to leave nothing out. His whole approach was uncompromising and stubbornly brave for a film of its period - any period really. The commercial pressure was no different in the early 20's from the era of "Heaven's Gate", Kubrick's never filmed "Napoleon" or any number of Francis Ford Coppola epics.

This tale of human frailty and the perverting, twisting power of greed pulls no punches either dramatically or visually. Von Stroheim cast an offbeat and strikingly un-attractive cast or at least one that didn't mind unforgiving lighting, unsympathetic make up and prolonged exposure via close ups. Gibson Gowland is McTeague, Jean Hersholt his buddy turned bitter nemesis Marcus and Zasu Pitts plays Trina who marries McTeague, wins the lottery and sets things off. All give honest and unflinching performances, but Pitts is particularly unsettling. She was more noted as a comedienne in her career bur maybe clowns make the transition to grotesquerie more easily than those more used to playing heroes?

There are few sympathetic characters in this film and almost all are made unpleasant by selfishness and a lack of human concern so prevalent in Hollywood then, now and forever. This is not a film to be taken for granted and it’s a hard, challenging experience.

It's paced like a book and reminds me of Zola and other late nineteenth century "realists". The characters are largely doomed and mostly by their own decisions. Their world is horrible and not unlike our own: how would we act in "Greed"?

The closing section is a work of genius, prefiguring dozens of desertpursuits in later westerns, it shows the options fatally running out for men, horses and even birds. The story is wound up by a classic device which rams home the central point that the consequences of selfishness are terminal and damning in this world not just the next.

Now...I think I need something light! Maybe Jean Harlow again in "Bombshell"!

But watch "Greed" if you haven't already seen it. Reconstructed youTube viewing here otherwise you'll have to track down a VHS copy; there's one left on Amazon!.

Friday, 1 July 2011

A star is matured...Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)

Coming to a lot of older films “out of your period” it’s sometimes hard to properly contextualise them and, in particular, the film stars. Every so often you get a real poke in the eye, like with Louise Brooks, Elmer Booth or Eleanor Boardman, but mostly you need time to adjust, to work out why the actor in question was popular and what level of ability they had. What really made them transcendent?

Sometimes things can be confused by that actor’s development: not all stars were born some, most, had to work hard to establish a style that made them memorable and special.

I think this was true of Jean Harlow. Watching her early appearances in "Public Enemy", "Platinum Blonde" or "Secret Six", you’re impressed with her presence, her looks and, well yes, her looks...but she’s a little bit inconsistent and not always sure footed. Yet she had raw talent to burn…there was always something about Harlean.

Not for nothing did Laurel & Hardy cast her in “Double Whoopee” and other shorts, whilst Clara Bow recognised the threat when she saw the bit part player on set for “The Saturday Night Kid”: “…take her off the goddamn set and never bring her back…Who’s gonna see me nexta her?”

Clara grew to like the scene-stealer and gave her a helping hand: “She’s gonna go places…you’ll see.” And as the 30’s get into their stride we do see.

By “Red Dust” to me Harlow looks like a complete star – pitch perfect, completely in the role and very hard not to watch! Made in 1932 when she was still only 21, it crucially matched her for the second time with Clark Gable. The duo’s chemistry is magical and came more from the fact that, off screen, they were great buddies rather than lovers.

That friendship provides the ideal underpinning for their screen relationship as Gable’s rubber plantation owner, Dennis Carson, ignores the more obvious charms of Jean’s blousy “working girl”, Vantine, for the allure of the classy, but married, Barbara Willis (played with icy reserve by Mary Astor). “He wants the one he can’t have…” (and it is driving him mad) and sends Barbara’s honest Joe husband on long missions into the rain forest as he attempts to woo her.

All the while Vantine stands as honest witness pricking his conscience with her frank appraisal of events in a series of sassy, funny, one liners. She delivers these with pin point accuracy and her warmth for Carson shines through. She knows he’s taking the wrong path but has to bide her time: these two are going to have to save each other in the end. It’s a pretty sophisticated storyline and definitely “pre-code”; infidelity, prostitution…Jean bathing in a barrel!

Another Victor Fleming movie, this is one more to add to the “why the heck aren’t they on DVD yet” list but I enjoyed it even on old VHS. There's a trailer on youTube but, seriously, c’mon MGM!

And that Gable guy…he’s interesting too! Someone I don’t really know much about but maybe one of those stars born less made?