Sunday, September 9, 2012

My day in Spain

I'll tell you about my day in Spain in a moment, but first of all, I don't think I told you about what I did a few days ago, when I went to the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. It was just incredible. It was this art gallery with an incredibly extensive display of the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists. The Lautrec's there were just... amazing. I got to see my favourite painting in the flesh! It was so exciting, standing in front of Lautrec's Le Lit. It was even more beautiful in person.

There were a whole load of Degas and Monet and Van Gough as well, and those were all great to see. But the Lautrecs... oh the Lautrecs...

His simplified line, his exaggeration of facial features, his colour pallette, the emotional insight...

So that was on my last day in Paris. And after me and Lauren went to the Musee D'Orsay, I decided we should probably do something that Lauren wanted to do. And Lauren had been in Paris for about five days, and had not done any shopping yet.

This was obviously insane.

So we trotted off to the Chomps D'Elysee or whatever that famous shopping street is called, for Lauren to do her French shopping. Because we hadn't timed it very well, though, it turned out we only had about half an hour. So she really only had enough time to have a good look around one of the shops there. And the shop she chose - the shop she chose to spend the last half an hour of shopping time on the most famous street in the most famous fashion city in the world, was Marks & Spencer. Which is English. And she's going to be in England in less than a week. Sooo... who knows what that was about.

After that we had to catch the Metro back to meet mum and dad. We'd timed it perfectly - we were going to arrive at the Metro station where mum and dad were right on the appointed meeting time. The train headed down one stop, opened its doors, let everybody off and everybody on, and then... just sat there. While trains whizzed by in the other direction. For about 20 minutes. After fifteen minutes, a lady came over the loudspeaker in the train and said... something. Even if it wasn't in French, or even if I could speak French, I'm sure I still wouldn't have had any clue as to what the hell the woman was saying, since the audio was about as good as tin cans attached by a piece of string, but since it was in French, and since I don't speak French, and since Lauren's claustrophobia was playing up massively as more and more people continued to pile on this already overcrowded train, we both looked at each other with panic in our eyes and then... just stood there. For ages.

Well, everybody else seemed to be doing it.

Finally, there was a second announcement, and this one the French at least seemed to understand, as they all piled out of the train angrily, leaving me and Lauren, alone and confused about what the fuck we were meant to be doing.

Eventually we left and hailed a taxi, which was surprisingly not as expensive as I had initially thought it was going to be!

So there's an upside to every spilt milk cloud, as nobody says.

So that was the last day in Paris - we got on our night train, got in our sleeper bed, Lauren had another claustrophobia-based panic attack, we watched the Aristocats, and eventually we went off to sleep.

To wake up in Spain! Which was great, except that the word "sleeper" in the name "sleeper bed"
 is a dirty bold-faced lie. No sleeping occurred. So we all walked around Barcelona in a daze, barely able to understand anything that was happening at any point. So pretty much the usual, except we were super damn tired as well.

So yesterday was a bit of a wash, to be honest. It was good, we saw some interesting things, but I was really too tired to appreciate any of them all that much, and by the end of the day I was feeling really nauseous as well, not helped by the fact that Lauren has a pretty bad cold at the moment, and I was sleeping in the same room as her. The same tiny, cramped, airless room. So, hello Snot Town, population: me.

But none of that mattered because today was really good. We went up to the Pyrenees, which is a mountain range on the border of Spain and France. And at first we were all worried because it was raining, and because Lauren definitely has a cold, and I'm probably developing one. And then dad managed to find some really terrible rain ponchos from the tacky-as-hell gift shop, which meant I spent today looking like this:

But I didn't feel quite so stupid, since we were a family of morons:
Note: mum sticking her tongue out weirdly in this picture, also dad's serial killer eyes. So I was less of a moron than everyone else.

Oh, wait, you haven't seen the back of these stupid things. They get so much worse:
So when we first headed out, I was, understandably, not in the greatest of spirits. I was expecting today to be another waste, and I was expecting to come home and complain about how Spain didn't even begin to compare to France.

Then I saw this:

And I thought, "Hey! A donkey. That's cool. Maybe this won't be so bad after all."

And then I continued walking for a little bit, and I saw this:
And it was stunning. The photo hardly does it justice. It was just... so beautiful. The smell of fresh air, the gentle rain on my poncho, the crisp coolness, the mist, the clouds, the trees, the interesting and complex patterns that the rainfall had made on the cliff faces... It was... It was all so... amazing. I am so glad I went, and so glad I wore my stupid poncho.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

100 years, 100 films metapost: 10 Best Films of the Forties

The Forties were sort of a schizophrenic decade for Hollywood movies in a lot of ways. About half of the films made were super-depressing, super-serious films along the lines of "we're in a war how could anything ever be fun ever again," or, "we've just been through a war how could anything ever be fun ever again". And the other half of the films were ridiculous escapist stuff - intentionally and bull-headedly ignoring everything that was going on around them, reminiscent of John Cleese screaming, "Don't mention the war!"

Actually, now that I think about it, that's pretty much every decade of Hollywood movies. About equal parts sanctimonious b.s. and escapist pap.

Now to the best of them!

10. The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed directed what may well be Orson Welles' best performance. Joseph Cotten doesn't do to badly either. My only problem with the film is how much of a dumbass Cotten's character is. What, he couldn't fake his way through a literary discussion of his own books? What a dumbass!

9. Unfaithfully Yours (1948). For my money, this is the fastest and funniest of all of Preston Sturges' comedies. Generally I find Rex Harrison insufferable, but here his mannered jerkishness is comic gold.

8. Easter Parade (1948). To atone for my grievous sin of not including any Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies in my "best of the thirties" list, I offer Easter Parade, which some people consider "lesser" Astaire. Those people are stupid-heads.

7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston going crazy in the desert. The harshness of untamed America is on display here better than in any mere Western I've ever seen.

6. Great Expectations (1946). Before David Lean became a director, he was an editor, and in his Great Expectations, it shows. His manipulation of the medium for maximum effect is, quite frankly, extraordinary.

5. Beauty and the Beast (1946). Jean Cocteu's dreamlike fantasy is the definitive screen version of the oft-told story. The ending still feels like a cop-out, but at least it's rushed.

4. To Have and Have Not (1944). Howard Hawks riffing on Casablanca, giving Bogie almost exactly the same role, but giving the Ingrid Bergman role to Lauren Bacall. Bacall does it better than Bergman ever could.

3. Double Indemnity (1944). Before Billy Wilder became a director of decent-but-slow fifties comedies, he was one of the most interesting, experimental guys in Hollywood. This quintissential film noir is, for my money, the best crime movie ever made.

2. Dumbo (1941). The best Disney movie. Short, lean, and packing an emotional wallop, this movie doesn't contain any of the tedious flab that drags down other Disney films of the forties.

1. His Girl Friday (1940). What can I say? I have an undying love for Howard Hawks, and undying love for Cary Grant, and an undying love for this movie. And boy, can Rosalind Russell talk. I could listen to that all day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

100 years, 100 films 40: On The Town (1949)

This is one of those perfectly watchable Arthur Freed produced MGM musicals from the forties and fifties. There's nothing particularly good or bad about it. It's fun enough to hold your interest, the dances are good, the girls are pretty, the songs are... amiable... in a way...

That's not to say that the Arthur Freed unit didn't make some great musicals, but this isn't one of them. There's nothing particularly wrong with the film (except for the performance of Jules Munshin, who makes Donald O' Conner in Singin' in the Rain seem postively not annoying), but, well...

Maybe part of the problem is the fact that I have always been, and will always remain, a Fred Astaire man. I can see that Gene Kelly is good and all, but he's just too... all-American-boy-ish for my taste. When Astaire breaks into song and dance, it feels like it's a natural extension of his exuberant charm and class. When Gene Kelly breaks into song, it can sometimes feel like a stupid American hick getting bored and dicking around. There's just something graceless about him. He always looks like he's having a good time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the audience is.

Maybe I'm being a little hard on the film. It isn't bad. Stanley Donen (who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly) is a sometimes-great director, and the fact that this isn't anywhere near his best doesn't mean that you'll feel cheated of your time. It's just that... well... there are certainly better ways to spend your time. Like watching Singin' in the Rain. Or The Pirate. Or any Fred Astaire movie...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

100 years, 100 films 39: The Big Clock (1948)

This is a movie about clockwork. I'm not just talking about the fact that publishing magnate Earl Janoth, played with admirable creepiness by Charles Laughton, is obsessed with the precision of clocks - both in and of themselves, and as a metaphor for the ceaselessly mechanical way he runs his business. And I'm not talking about the fact that every other line uttered in the first thirty minutes of the film is something like, "do you have the time?" or, "what kind of time do you call this?" And I'm not even talking about the fact that the two most pivotal moments in the movie - the murder (this is, after all, a film noir - of course there's a murder) and the movie's climax - both completely revolve around clocks.

What I mean when I say that the movie is "about clockwork" is that the enjoyment one derives from The Big Clock comes from the fact that the film is perfectly timed. It's like a good Agatha Christie story, in that everything that happens, happens exactly when it needs to. Every action of every character leads inevitably to the other actions of the other characters. Nothing happens arbitrarily. Nothing happens accidentally. I don't mean that characters don't have accidents, or do things that they hadn't planned. But every accident any character makes is set in motion by something a previous character has done. Much like the gears in a clock, the characters in this film have preset paths they are forced to follow by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths... and all this seeming chaos works together to create one unified effect - the never-ending ticking of the plot.

Mirroring the actions of the obsessive Earl Janoth, director John Farrow never allows The Big Clock to stop ticking. Because as Janoth suspects at the beginning of the film and knows for certain by the end, when the clock stops ticking, chaos reigns. And this chaos might be good for Janoth's tired and belittled workers, but it is bad, bad, bad for the guy at the top. Fortunately, Farrow never looses his cool, never breaks the clock, never sends his world into chaos. The movie just keeps moving inevitably along, unbroken and entertaining.

Also, this movie has what may be the most thematically perfect murder weapon in the history of cinema. I mean, the film's The Big Clock, it's obsessed with clocks, so yeah, it makes sense that the murder weapon is a clock. But it isn't just any clock. It's a sundial. A mechanical clock is perfect as long as it keeps on ticking, but a sundial has all sorts of potential for error. A human has to line it up exactly right for it to work, and humans make mistakes. Earl Janoth (who is the murderer - not really a spoiler as the film never tries to keep it a secret) absolutely despises the idea of human error. To him, the sundial represents everything that was wrong with the pre-industrial world: it wasn't totally controlable. Also, a sundial has to be used outside, and in Janoth's world, the act of going outside is an act of rebellion. The sundial, to Janoth, is like a sick, twisted, abomination version of the one thing he loves - his clocks. And it is the mere presence of the sundial in his mistress' apartment that sets him into a fit of rage. Moreso even than the fact that she was cheating on him.

Monday, August 16, 2010

100 years, 100 films 38: Brute Force (1947)

This is the kind of movie where characters stand around, spouting pop-philosophy garbage at each other. There's not a character in the whole film who doesn't awkwardly "represent" something - the prison guard is the evils of beaurocracy and capitalism; the doctor is the ineffectual intelligentsia, explaining social problems but unable to do anything to stop them; the warden is the problems with democracy - limp wristed and more concerned with the retention of his job than actually doing it competently; the prisoners are "society" - being pushed around by forces beyond their control. And this stupid symbolism is handled so heavy handedly by the director, Jules Dassin, that the movie stops feeling like a movie and starts feeling like a sociology lesson aimed at mentally retarded people. Characters basically just walk around screaming, "THIS IS WHAT I REPRESENT! I AM THE EVILS OF THE CAPITALIST SYSTEM!" for ninty minutes. It's really annoying.

Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a hardened criminal with a heart of gold (you can tell he has a heart of gold, because he's in love with a crippled woman. Goddamn this movie is stupid) who is planning the Communist overthrow of society... whoops... errm... I mean a prison break. Lancaster acts as if he's got a slice of lemon in his mouth, spitting out his lines in between stoic grimaces. He's acting opposite Hume Cronyn as the evil prison guard, who is a walking bundle of allusions to sadism, fascism, capitalism, beaurocracy, homosexuality, anything else Jules Dassin can think of to despise. Both of these actors do the best with what they're given, but what they're given is a huge pile of horse shit, so...

To be fair to the movie, the climactic action set piece is actually quite effective (although the effect is somewhat ruined by the doctor's final line: "Nobody ever escapes! Nobody!"), the cinematography is uniformly excellent, the dirt and the grime and the muck all look suitably disgusting. I just wish the film stopped shouting it's stupid points at me, and just let the characters be themselves, rather than conforming to some dumbassed and highly "symbolic" scheme.

Friday, August 13, 2010

100 years, 100 films 37: The Lady in the Lake (1946)

This is more of an experiment than a movie. It's ostensibly an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, but... it's all shot in first person perspective, and I suppose this was supposed to be analogous to Chandler's first person narration, but it just isn't. What would be analogous to Chandler's first person narration would be, you know, first person narration. Robert Montgomery was both director and star of this movie, so I suppose that the idea might have been that the film would offer one ultra-unified vision. But it doesn't. It just offers a cheap and not particularly well executed gimmick.

Not that the first person perspective gimmick is an inherently bad idea, but it is rarely actually utilised properly in the movie, and it just means that you get a whole lot of actors trying awkwardly to interact with the camera, without really having any idea how to do that convincingly. Also, because the camera is an awkward, clunky, hard-to-maneuver 1940s camera, it always looks weird - like Chandler is walking in perfectly straight lines, standing perfectly still, not moving his head for minutes at a time, keeping his head perfectly straight as he stumbles around drunk. Rather than pulling you into the story by making you feel like you are Chandler (which I assume was the point) the film makes you intensely and constantly aware that you are looking through a camera.

There are moments in this film that use the first person perspective thing properly. There is a car chase sequence, followed by a post-car-crash scramble to a telephone booth, that are surprisingly effective and taut, and where the first person perspective does actually draw you in. But most of the time, when it's just people standing around and talking, the film feels like nothing more than one of those stupid interactive DVD games, where the characters are all trying desperately to make you feel like you're "part of the action!"

And it all moves so slowly. Because there are no editing cheats to speed the movie up. Every scene is one long, uninterrupted take, and the editor can't just cut in the middle of some dialgoue and say, "well, we don't need this thirty seconds". And it's not just the dialogue scenes that aren't edited properly. Because it's all in first person perspective, we get so many agonsizingly pointless shots of Marlowe walking up stairs. Marlowe walking down a hallway. Marlowe openning a door, walking through the doorway, then closing the door behind him. And because these sorts of scenes were difficult to orchestrate from a technical standpoint, the film seems to think that they will be, somehow, inherently interesting to the audience. But no. They're just tedious.

Really the only thing that made this movie interesting for most of the running time was the fact that when you can't see Robert Montgomery's face, he actually sounds quite a bit like Alan Alda. So I just kept imagining Alan Alda as Marlowe. Now that would be a good movie. But then Marlowe would look into a mirror, and Robert Montgomery's face would pop up, and the whole effect was ruined.

If you feel the need to watch something that's shot entirely in first person perspective, go for the British sitcom Peep Show. It's all first person perspective, but there are five things that make it just so much better than The Lady in the Lake:
1. Though every shot is somebody's perspective, they aren't all the same person's perspective, which allows for things like editing, and also visual variation.
2. It's not only all first person perspective, but it also has a lot of first person narration, allowing for some pretty damn hilarious inner monologues.
3. A contemporary digital camera is much easier to handle than a 1940s film camera, meaning that the camera work feels like what the characters would actually see, rather than looking bizarrely staid.
4. It is really, really funny.
5. It's not someone's stupid vanity project.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

100 years, 100 films 36: Open City (1945)

We have been conditioned by thousands of Hollywood movies to think of spies as people with almost superhuman abilities and total emotional detachment. They may enjoy sex, but apart from that, they're pretty much robots. They're always expertly trained in everything, and their motto is always "professionalism". Obviously there are exceptions to these rules, even amongst conventional Hollywood spy movies. But I've never seen a movie that depicts spies like Roberto Rossellini's Open City depicts spies. Open City's spies are real humans - they aren't mythological beings acting out some Kabuki play for the audience's enjoyment. They're average people with average desires and goals, but they're driven to the extremes of heroism by circumstances that seem beyond their control.

The film is set in Italy in 1944. Italy has been bombed ceaselessly by the Americans and the British, and is overrun by Nazis who feel nothing but disdain for the Italians they are forced to deal with. It's this climate of constant fear of death from the Allies, and torture from the Nazis, that forces otherwise regular Italians into working as spies for the Communists, who seem to be the only people not attempting to destroy Italy. These people who become spies don't just abandon all their other problems, they still have to deal with girl troubles, or money troubles, or food troubles. And it's this refusal to abandon their previous lives that make these characters all feel real, and honest, and it gives the film an underlying sense of truth. Sure, some pretty melodramtic stuff happens in Open City, but it never feels fake. It just feels like life is serving up a big hunk of crap to these people, and they've got to deal with it. The overlying sense of realism gives the moments of melodrama a raw emotional power that they just simply would not possess in a Hollywood film.

The film isn't perfect. It's attitude towards women is pretty damn mysoginistic, even for its time (which is a real shame, because the film does have some great female performances). And the subtitling on the copy I watched was, quite frankly, woeful. And while the spies are more realistic here than they would be in a Hollywood film, the Nazis are exactly as two dimensional. But the movie is still really damn powerful.