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The Informer (1935)
A Meditation on the Consequences of Republicanism
John Ford was a lifetime supporter of Irish Republicanism. THE INFORMER is one of his major works on the subject, where he analyses the nature of the movement: are its supporters loyal to themselves, their mates, or to the cause?
Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is a loyal supporter of Republicanism, working with IRA man Frankie McPhilip (Wallace Ford): Frankie is the brains, Gypo the brawn. Things take a turn for the worse with the increased involvement of the Black-and-Tans, the British police force, and Gypo decides to shop Frankie out of self-preservation and a desire for money. This is a profoundly stupid decision with inevitable consequences, but one that director Ford implies is inevitable, in light of Gypo's lack of money. We are encouraged to sympathize with him, as he takes the reward money and spends it mostly on a night of pleasure, touring the pubs of Dublin and acquiring fair-weather friends who are only to willing to spend it for him. Accompanied by professional hanger-on Terry (J. M. Kerrigan), Gypo beats up anyone he dislikes, and reveals a sentimental love for romantic songs.
The action is relentlessly studio-bound, but Ford creates atmosphere through oblique shots and plenty of smoke. Dublin, as represented in this film, is a narrow city full of small streets and alleys, where your enemy could be lying in wait at any time. Once the IRA have discovered who the informer is, Gypo doesn't have a chance.
However Ford doesn't blame Gypo, as he has Frankie's widow Mary (Heather Angel), and girlfriend Katie Madden (Margot Grahame) both claiming that it was not his fault. during a time of severe economic hardship. Gypo is allowed to die in church, looking up at the image of God as he falls, signifying redemption.
The filming is straightforward, centering mostly on the characters. McLaglen is memorable as the ursuline Gypo - an imposing figure lacking the expression to ensure his continued safety. He is ideally complemented by Kerrigan as Terry, an F. J. McCormick-like figure full of Irish clichés but with a perpetual eye on the main chance.
The Spirit of '45 (2013)
Flawed Account of British History Since 1945
THE SPIRIT OF 45 goes back to the end of the Second World War to recreate the unique spirit of that era, when it really did seem as if a new order had been set up in Great Britain, one dedicated to everyone working for each other rather than out to make individual profits. Industries were nationalized with the aim of securing viable investment, the National Health Service offered medical care at point of contact for everyone, while the government of the time dedicated itself for everyone rather than simply appealing to rich interests. With the help of archive film plus testimonies from those who were around the period, Ken Loach evokes a unique spirit, one which has not existed either before or after that period.
Within those terms, the film is a nostalgic piece which makes some important points about people's capacity to change things, if they really want to. But unfortunately Loach veers off his theme when he introduces Margaret Thatcher into the proceedings. It is true that she ushered in a new area of capitalism and selling off state industries to the highest bidder, but we have to remember the size of her victories, which suggest that a substantial slice of the working classes actually voted for her, in spite of the fact that she was working against their interests. What the film illustrates above anything else is the limitation of communal activity, especially when voters are swayed by the prospect of increased wealth through private enterprise - for example, by being given the chance to buy their council houses. It might not be ethically fair, especially for those too poor to accomplish this, but people basically think for themselves first and their fellow-citizens later. In a sense we were responsible for creating a capitalist world; Mrs. Thatcher only offered the conditions.
With this in mind, a lot of the second half of THE SPIRIT OF '45 is largely rubbish, the product of a mind that consciously misreads British history and simply blames the government for all of our problems, rather than ourselves. On the other hand I applaud Loach for advocating this view, for it is only by appreciating its limitations that we can understand that we are responsible for our own demise.
Brilliant Expos of Contemporary Environmental and Religious Issues
To some extent, GRAIN is a messy film of two halves. The first takes place in a futuristic factory where everything is manufactured, even the air. The Professor (Jean-Marc Barr) discovers that the person who can enlighten him the most (Ermin Bravo) has gone AWOL into the wilderness, and cannot be contacted. The Professor goes after him, with the help of youngster Andrei (Grigory Dobrygin), and guide Alice /Cristina Fluter). This covers roughly the first hour of the film, making trenchant points about the ways in which humanity has conspired to ruin the soil and the atmosphere, to such an extent that most of its is now synthetic.
The second half of the time, set in the wilderness, has the Professor encountering his missing colleague, but discovering a more important lesson about the relationship between humanity and the soil. The colleague takes him on a tour of the wilderness, and into his private lair, where some soil unaffected by the prevailing acid rain is preserved. The colleague resolves to take it out and use it for growing new natural things. Meanwhile the Professor discovers things about himself through dreams such as witnessing a burning bush, and being taken to a small area of land where the soil yields fresh produce. The movie ends with a pretty explicit exhortation to everyone - including the professor - to avoid complacency and contribute towards restoring the relationship between humanity and the soil by digging deep and discovering new soil and new plants, especially the wheat plant, which contains within its seeds the entire relationship between the soil and humanity.
There are distinct echoes of Kaplanoğlu's earlier meditations on similar subjects in the familiar trilogy (MILK, HONEY, EGG) but here the message is more insistently expressed through dialogue between the Professor and his colleague, plus a final image of the Professor discovering wheat seeds in a fertile piece of land in the wilderness.
The film's style is characteristic Kaplanoğlu, a slowly burning narrative with long silent patches, where all we can hear are the birds or the rustle of the characters moving around. We are invited to focus on the land - or lack of it in the first half - and how humanity has destroyed it with buildings now in a state of disrepair. This strategy makes the ending all the more powerful, as the Professor moves out of his hidey-hole on to the land, draws a circular shape (containing the fertile area) and digs out some wheat seeds.
As usual, some filmgoers might be bored with the slow style and occasional clunky lines, but there's no doubting Kaplanoğlu's sense of ideological purpose, which comes fully to the fore as the narrative develops. Definitely a film to watch again for its subtleties, although perhaps viewers have to know something about the Qu'ran to appreciate it fully.
Portrait of a Troubled Star
Born into a repressive family in Connecticut, Gene Tierney achieved the impossible dream of most would-be performers when she landed a major Broadway role in THE MALE ANIMAL before her twentieth year had elapsed. Catching the attention of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, she was rapidly signed to a long-term contract at Twentieth Century- Fox and rapidly ascended the ladder to stardom by the early Forties.
Highly attractive as a screen presence, with a desire to perpetually improve herself, Tierney shared the screen with most of Fox's leading males including Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power, and Henry Fonda. The world, it seemed, was her oyster.
In private, however, Tierney's life was far more complicated. She married the designer Oleg Cassini - who forged out a movie career in his own right as a costume designer - and together they produced their first child. What Tierney did not know is that during her pregnancy she had come into contact with a fan who had German measles, as a result, Tierney's daughter was born with mental issues, as well as being half-blind and deaf. The couple tried to look after her, but the task eventually proved too, and the daughter was eventually confined permanently to an institution.
The experience profoundly affected Tierney. Although she later produced another child with no problems, her mind became more and more disturbed. Things were not helped by Cassini's infidelities. By the end of the Forties Tierney was still a major star, but on the verge of cracking up mentally. In the middle of the next decade she was confined to a variety of sanatoriums, where she received electric shock therapy as well as less extreme forms of cure.
She managed to find another husband, the tycoon Howard Lee, and the two of them lived quietly in Houston, Texas - Tierney having given up her career by the mid-Sixties. She enjoyed living the quotidian life of a homemaker, an experience she had never previously savored. She died aged seventy in 1991 of emphysema.
With reminiscences from Cassini, her daughter, sister, and others (including Richard Widmark), this was an unusually intimate portrait of a screen legend, focusing more on her off-screen personality.
A Study in the Destructive Effects of Narcissism
Otto Preminger's classic film noir paints such a cynical portrait of mid-Forties New York that it's difficult to identify any redemptive points.
Living in a bubble-like world of parties, social rituals and other high-society occasions, the protagonists have little or no understanding either of themselves or their fellow human-beings. The tone is set in the initial encounter between Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) that takes place in New York's Algonquin Hotel, the site of the famed Round Table that flourished two decades prior to the film's release. The allusion is a suggestive one: Waldo displays all the cutting wit, narcissism and sheer cruelty associated with his illustrious contemporary Alexander Wollcott (who had passed away a year before the film's release). Both men reveled in their celebrity and made extensive use of it to manipulate others.
Walso treats Laura as a Pygmalion-like figure to be molded according to his whims. However things start to get rough when Laura displays a penchant for branching out on her own, most notably by planning to marry feckless socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). The rivalry produced thereby provides the mainspring of the story. Add to that a vicious cameo by Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Laura's supposed "confidante" who would drop her like a stone if necessary, and we have the ingredients for a murder mystery that twists and turns towards its unexpected denouement.
What perhaps renders this film so memorable is its use of symbolism. Waldo has a penchant for writing his articles in the bath; totally unfazed about his nakedness, he seems completely confident in himself. In public, however, he makes sure that every item of clothing is in place; the tie matters as much as anything else. Through such rituals Preminger suggests the importance of outward show; what matters is not what people think, but what they appear to think. All of the four protagonists - including Laura - resemble empty vessels, devoid of moral scruples and totally committed to maintaining their sophisticated facade in high society. If one of them should be accused of the murder, it doesn't really matter, as they would simply hire the best attorney to exonerate them.
Yet Preminger simultaneously suggests that their days are numbered, through the repeated use of ticking clocks on the soundtrack. A clock plays an important part in the denouement; but on other occasions we hear it as an accompaniment to the dialogue, suggesting some kind of impending doom. However badly the characters might behave, they have to face the day of reckoning at the end, and none of them are prepared to acknowledge this.
As the eponymous heroine, Tierney might be considered an innocent victim of male machination, but as the action unfolds, we see that she is as manipulative as anyone else. She ends up falling in love with investigating officer Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), but we have little faith in the relationship's future. She is as willing to sacrifice her loved ones as anyone else.
LAURA is a highly uncomfortable film in spite of its memorable theme (by David Raksin). We feel as if we have been unwillingly thrust into a nest of vipers and are mighty relieved to escape.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Brilliant Evocation of the Brittle Artistic Contest of Mid-Twentieth Century Metropolitan America
Let's face it, if viewers are not at least acquainted in some way with the socio-historical context that inspired Hart and Kaufman's classic play (and William Keighley's film), they are going to find it slightly difficult to understand.
If we are not aware that Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is an affectionate parody of Alexander Woollcott, at the time a national celebrity due to his radio program, then we will not really understand just what a monster he actually is; the former doyen of the Algonquin Round Table group who took malicious pleasure in insulting everyone just for the sake of it. George S. Kaufman, another member of that Round Table, uses Whiteside both to criticize yet celebrate Woolcott's monstrosity.
Likewise we need to understand how Reginald Gardiner's Beverley Carlton is a parody of Noel Coward: another member of the Round Table, he had become a star on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the epitome of the rather effete English upper class twit. Gardiner is asked to play that role in Keighley's film, and very funny he is too.
Banjo (Jimmy Durante) was apparently baaed on Harpo Marx: not much of Harpo's qualities emerge in Durante's performance, but instead we see Schnozzle emoting at all throttle, having the chance to jingle away at the piano keys as well as providing one of the main means by which the complicated plot can be wrapped up.
There is a story of sorts, but in truth Keighley's film is something of a showcase for the talents of actors performing against type. Bette davis's Maggie Cutler is strangely muted, as she tries and mostly succeeds to put up with Sheridan's whims, while the grande dame role (that Davis customarily played) is here given to Ann Sheridan. Sheridan grasps the opportunity with both hands, offering a series of stylized cameo performances - appropriate to her belief in herself as a "great actress" - reminiscent of Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EYE (1950).
Apparently Davis was not entirely satisfied with the casting of Woolley in the central role. Yet perhaps that latent antagonism helped the film rather than hindered it - although professing enduring respect for the celebrity, Maggie holds his whims in infinite contempt. As a former Yale University academic, Woolley approaches the role of Whiteside with the same kind of bravura energy that he might have done had he been lecturing first year undergrads. He is so firmly convinced of his own rightness that he remains utterly imperious to anyone else's feelings.
THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER might be a period-piece, but is nonetheless a very funny one.
Shall We Dance (1937)
Disappointing Musical Despite its Memorable Score
In theory SHALL WE DANCE? should have had everything going for it. Fred, Ginger, choreography by Hermes Pan, efficient direction by RKO stalwart Mark Sandrich and a gorgeous score by George and Ira Gershwin including standards such as "Slap that Bass," "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing off," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and the title track. Add to the mix the brace of memorable comic characterizations by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, and you'd think that the movie could not miss.
Yet strangely this is precisely what it does. It begins snappily enough, with enough one-lines from Astaire, Everett Horton and (latterly) Blore to keep everyone amused. We also enjoy the love- hate relationship between Astaire's Petrov (aka Pete Peters) and his manager Jeffrey Baird (Everett Horton), paralleled by that between Linda Keene (Rogers) and her handler Arthur Miller (Jerome Cowan). There are also some memorable set piece sequences, especially involving Linda's highly talented pet dog.
Yet the dance sequences are often disappointing, apart from Astaire's "Slap that Bass," performed with a group of African American singers in the engine-room of an ocean-going liner. Fred 'n Ginger have there fair share of solo sequences, but their artistry seems strangely muted. And the lengthy sequence towards the end, where Pee/Fred performs with a corps de ballet all sporting Ginger masks seems especially labored.
Ginger also has her fair share of embarrassing moments, notably when she has to stare mutely at the camera while Fred sings "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Fred had a pleasant voice, to be sure, but it was hardly memorable: we wonder why it was not planned as a duet, at least. The number was reworked in the Astaire/Rogers film THE BARKLEYS OF Broadway (1945), suggesting that they might have been displeased themselves with the original staging.
SHALL WE DANCE? contains classic numbers, but lacks the sheer pizazz of the greatest Astaire musicals.
A Documentary Shot Through with Ambivalences
As an early example of the fandoc, TREKKIES tells a familiar tale of the extent to which fans of the long-running television series are prepared to go in pursuit of their obsessions. They might look and act grotesque on occasions, but we have to understand how their obsessions can have positive outcomes both personal as well as moral. Dressing up can help the discover hitherto buried aspects of their personalities, and thereby give them a more positive outlook on life, while the series' strongly moral constructing provides a role-model for anyone, whether viewer or fan.
Yet what Roger Nygard's film raises are some ambivalences about fandom that remain frustratingly unresolved. Trekkies all over the United States as well as other territories regularly assemble(d) at conventions where they would be addressed by cast members and have the opportunity to network with one another. Such gatherings would have psychological benefits. On the other hand they provided suitable merchandising outlets for manufacturers to sell every kind of knick-knack imaginable, as well as auction materials from the television series that drew high prices in charity's name. We wonder whether the fans' sensibilities are not being deliberately exploited by capitalist interests - make more money by offering the chance to possess some realia.
That impression is further compounded when individual fans show off their collections of Trekkie material, often stored in glass cases, cabinets or rooms set aside especially for that purpose. They might be quite happy spending money and thereby indulging their passion, but we wonder whether or not they would like being viewed as victims of a franchise determined to maximize its profits by sponsoring or licensing miscellaneous products.
That dilemma is one that dates back to the earliest days of the movies when studio publicity departments invited punters to dress up at specially-staged performances of particular films, preferably in period costumes. By offering prizes to the lucky winners, they could guarantee high box-office returns. The Trekkie phenomenon merely extends and updates that strategy. We would love to know what fans really thought about this issue, but such issues are far beyond this mostly celebratory piece.
Winnebago Man (2009)
Grotesque Documentary that Willfully Manipulates its Subject
In 1989 Jack Rebney made a series of videos promoting Winnebago products. The shoot was not a happy one, taking place in Iowa during midsummer, and Rebney became highly frustrated with his efforts. Unbeknownst to him the camera crew edited many of the outtakes together and released them on VHS; they showed Rebney cursing everything and everyone in the basest terms.
Due in no small part to the ease of copying tapes, the video became something of a cult with Rebney cast as "The Angriest Man in the World." With the advent of the internet its popularity soared - so much so, in fact, that filmmaker Ben Steinbauer was persuaded to search for Rebney's whereabouts and find out what he had been doing since the videos were made.
WINNEBAGO MAN follows a familiar thematic path with Steinbauer at first finding difficulties in his quest, then discovering Rebney; trying to establish a relationship with Rebney; and at the end persuading the reluctant ex-salesperson to appear at a fan convention in San Francisco dedicated to the original video. Steinbauer manufactures a happy ending in which the fans congratulate Rebney, and the old man returns home apparently touched by their affection for him.
But that is not how the documentary pans out. Throughout the action there remains the distasteful suspicion that Rebney's sensibilities are being willfully exploited by the filmmaker. Now in his mid-seventies with a glaucoma rendering him almost blind, Rebney uses aggression to compensate for his shortcomings, and by doing so conforms precisely to that sobriquet that has stuck to him ever since 1989. At one point he tries to act calm, but eventually admits that this was nothing more than a form of pretense.
In truth it's not Rebney who pretends, but Steinbauer himself. Saddled with the responsibility of making an "hilarious" film for the fans, he willfully allows Rebney to give vent to his anger. The fact that he is now a frail old person seems irrelevant. When the two of them end up in San Francisco, the sight is grotesque: I was reminded of the most notorious sequences in Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932) in which the disadvantaged were presented for our entertainment.
The film reveals one of the seamier aspects of fan studies: whereas people of all classes, ages and ethnicities might be devoted to a particular text, their addiction can destroy as well as enhance. This is precisely what happens to Rebney. For all the director's attempts to manufacture a happy ending, the old man's melancholy expression (revealed in close-up at the end), denotes his true state of mind.
Steptoe and Son: A Winter's Tale (2016)
Another Example of Galton and Simpson's Scriptwriting Genius
Filmed once more in front of a live audience, this remake of an episode originally broadcast in 1970 told a familiar tale of Harold (Ed Coleman) trying to escape from urban squalor in Shepherd's Bush yet being frustrated by his scheming father (Jeff Rawle).
Wisely the two actors did not attempt to recreate the vocal and gestural nuances of Corbett and Brambell, but instead provided impersonations - the kind of approach where we could laugh with them, but at the same time realizing that the modern actors were very different. On the other hand we could revel in the sheer brilliance of the Galton and Simpson script - in case we did not already know it, Harold Steptoe is another version of Hancock, the man perpetually looking for something better yet unable to find it. Both men were equipped with the ability to vocalize their frustrations in sentences that were at once funny yet exceptionally sad. Try as they might, they would never escape. Albert Steptoe, for all his tendency to act pathetic, was actually a strong and manipulative personality, keeping his unfortunate son under a tight leash and thereby restricting Harold's prospects.
Producer Owen Bell was highly successful at communicating this relationship to viewers through a camera-style based on the close-up and the two-shot. This was perhaps the biggest advantage of the studio-based sitcom - it might have been visually stereotyped, but it gave an insight into what the characters thought and felt.