AUGUSTUS YOUNG        light verse, poetry and prose

  a regular webzine of new and unpublished work


Early Days at the Movies


Real Women in
the Movies

Just Kidding

The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven

So What Happened




Choses Vues



 When Alph reminded me that I am living in the port where Casablanca (1942) began, I said, ‘I’m in the seventh heaven of the Seventh Art’. The movies of the past stay in my brain, like a visual syntax. But when the old ones come back as remakes I don’t recognise them. Hoisting the new on the tried and tested is to build a living pyramid and pyramids are for burials. At least, Marlon Brando looked well on the way to Chubby Club heaven in Apocalypse Now’s ‘Half-Hearted Heart of Darkness’ (1979) but his Mister Kurtz isn’t quite dead. 

Bright boys like Gus Van Sant subvert the trend. His frame-by-frame mock-up of Hitchcock’s Psycho (2001) is an expensive reproduction, the cinematographic equivalent of today’s Elvis look-alikes. Cosmetics now are too sophisticated to catch the shade in the light. The imitation Elvis is gloss, the real one matted. Current film technology is too shocking in itself to pack Hitchcock’s. And, no matter how actors mimic one another, their natural vanity can’t fail to remind you they are doing just that. It’s a laudable trait which French film noir and Brecht’s plays exploited. But it’s a dying art as actors trying to be natural become boringly literal.

Hitchcock’s Catholicism expressed itself in moral games with his captive actors and audience. He made them feel guilty for being voyeurs at the sacrifice (his films were Black Masses). You can’t commit sins in a dream or at a movie, and actors were not ultimately responsible, being his playthings. So he forgave everybody when the film was released, and the lights went up. ‘I only know what the soul of the well-meaning fellow is like, and it makes me shudder’, says Camus.

The new new wave of hyper-film-literates from George Lucas to Van Sant make themselves voyeurs of a more relaxed movie culture. So many pictures were made in the nineteen thirties and forties that mistakes were permitted. You could take a chance or three. A week’s showing recouped the cost, reissues in fleapits made the profit. The current crop of filmmakers are like scientists who are only allowed by their discipline to work within the confines of what is called the literature, that is, the accumulation of received wisdom in a self-enclosed field. Creative works are put on the back burner while careers flourish. Their haunting of cinema history is self-serving rather than creative and the Seventh Art remains in a money-spinning rut. 

Actors too no longer derive their performances from psychological or life based sources. They draw from predecessors, who have been successful, in artistic as well as box-office terms. The two go together with film actors, at least in the long run. Cult movies become ‘Classics’ through their stars more than anything else. Learning from masters makes good sense if you are willing to defy them when the camera is yours. But modern actors are mastered by their role models, a pragmatic subservience - television has to be shot quickly and you wouldn’t want to surprise the director. Most parts are stock and conforming to them is easy. Prostrate yourself before the altar everybody prays at, and avoid risks. Be the protagonist of less rather than more. Make yourself tout petit and lose yourself in bigger and louder screens. Become dots in the desert, disappearing into the mirage. The only aspect of performance that hasn’t got smaller is physique (Tom Cruise is a giant compared to Audie Murphy or Alan Ladd).

Forty years ago, my father used to say the actors of today aren’t what they were. His were the barn-stormers like Edmund Keane and Henry Irving who were larger-than-life and the plays they made their own, cut down versions of Shakespeare, became the vehicles of their excessive presence. They brought down the house. The sky was theirs. In my childhood the last great actor managers, Donald Wolfit and Anew MacMaster (I wouldn’t dare put them in parentheses) preferred to tour stage plays in picture palaces after the last showing rather than be contained by a screen. Eisenstein might have done justice to their outsized presence. An arm raised, a disdainful lash caught in the eye of a storm. Still.

Performances borrowed from well-known movies provide ready-made emotions for the audience to share. But repeated exposure attenuates them. Every time the screen is flooded by a weepy moment from, say, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in Penny Serenade (1941), the handkerchief harvests less tears. There is less and less of ‘the child who was like no other’ to go round. Increasingly I am at one remove. All the better to appreciate George Stevens’ ruthless direction of the ultimate tearjerker. The tunes that evoke the staged memories that keep the action going are unmemorable ones, and Cary Grant’s charm has been reduced to that of Archie Leach, the blue collar worker he might have become if he had stayed in England.

I can’t say that last time seen it brought on tears enough to need a hanky. Still we cry all the time, subliminally, low-grade weeping keeps the retina healthy (less styes or motes in the eye can only be a good thing). Contemporary movies only make me feel hungry for the popcorn of my youth. They ringard a bell that’s gone digital, and so can no longer be heard. The saturation of films with quotations from the past (the over-educated directors must amuse themselves) renders them meaningless. Their context is outside the picture - crosswords rather than jigsaw puzzles. I have lost my taste for recognising them. It’s like seeing a bagwoman wearing your mother’s clothes. Big new movies overwhelm me with supersonic sound, supernatural colour and technical tricks. King Kong-sized rubber monsters with shrieks where the heart should beat. Human presence and feeling is absent. The one remove that allowed you to enjoy by secondary intention, genre films has eradicated. Sheer sensation has taken over and headache is the dominant effect. Product placement offers its anodynes while the new taboos bawdlerise the human realities (when did smoking in mainstream Hollywood movies become exclusive to bad guys and neurotic dolls?). Not that I reject all technical progress. Triple screens have serious allegorical potential.   

What’s on the screen is reflective and rarely of the self. This is, as Kierkegaard prophesised, a reflective age. The last time a contemporary film closed the distance between the screen and me was Les Triplettes de Belleville (2004) by Sylvain Chomet, possibly the last of the handmade cartoons (computer imaging is more economic). The doleful eyes of the orphan, Champion, who became a lonely cyclist, meet those of his endlessly resourceful grandmother, Madame Souza, while Bruno, their obese dog, yaps at passing trains out the window in whatever urban wilderness they find themselves. I know they will make do despite.

Les Triplettes’s making is not some modish return to primitive narrative (as in, say, Chaplin). It’s full of quotations. The doleful eye is pure Keaton, hardly a naïve. Buster was the brash, noisy and impulsive Joseph Francis when directing, dangerously close to high art in his holistic mise en scène where clapboard towns in hurricanes become the extension of the settlers’ world disintegrating into capitalist chaos. The great German Expressionist FW Murnau (Faust, 1927) could not do it better. Joseph Francis was just the real-life brother of Betty Davis’s Paris-dreaming girl in The Petrified Forest (1936), a self-made aesthete in a desert outback, doomed to disappointment and decline by drink. Whereas Buster the actor was the saint of silent movie slapstick. But the two Keatons - Buster and Joseph Francis - overlap in his facial (and physical) expression of headstrong poetry. He is not just an acrobat of brilliant gags. A pity Beckett’s Film (1966) came so late in his career. Unlike Billie Holiday, he had no Teddy Wilson to prop him up. I identify with him too (not so ridiculous. I am no stranger to pretentious pratfalls). Actors as their real selves despite, writers who can’t help themselves have something in common. ‘Nature breaks through the cat’s eyes’ in adversity. The Irish proverb is not gratuitous. Keaton’s Irish origins show through his films. A tramp who was once a hedgeschool master. No wonder Beckett paid attention.   

Animations like Les Triplettes offer the future something more grown up than the normal run. There is more in the film than meets the eye. The only weakness is the sound of actors’ voices, but dialogue is so rare you hardly notice (what a pleasure being spared looking at them?). Its success everywhere surprised Hollywood, which hit back with the Christmas release (2005) of Chicken Little (Disney) and King Kong (Universal remake). Computer generated and the noise level ‘ups the ante’ (a phrase I hate).

Van Sant allowed himself one single significant difference from the original Psycho. The idea that there is a murderous mother’s boy in us all. Hitchcock would have liked it (make them feel guilty). The actor who played Norman Bates was in no way like Anthony Perkins. I think he studied for the part by watching East of Eden. He sees himself as James Dean, a chunky youth crying for his mother. But since Brett Ellis has patented him in his self-obsessed novels as the standard Hollywood brat, James Deans nowadays could be anybody.

I think it was Van Sant’s way of killing off Hitchcock (something his actors wouldn’t have minded. He treated them badly). But being like anybody is so near to being nobody that the whole enterprise dies in the water. Just like Janet Leigh, though the shock is more delayed. The new Norman Bates is a sniveling self-indulgent boy from a dysfunctional family. In other words, Frank Paul is playing himself playing Brett Ellis playing James Dean. It’s all too knowing and world-weary. Actors are surely meant to act someone we don’t know. And films are the gauze that sees through the stranger to us, the audience, who entertain him for an hour our two before we go home and get on with our dreams. I have a backlog of such encounters and the dreams to sustain them.  I don’t think there will be many more new ones for me. But who knows?    

Serendipity, which is always right, often contradicts common sense. I wasn’t looking to discover that Casablanca did not start in Bras de Vendres. It’s the nearest port to Africa and quiet enough for important refugees to embark from. Logic and memory conspired to confirm what Alph told me. After all, he claims to be a cinéaste. Though his credits are educational - documentaries in Third World countries and the former USSR. His last was three years ago. But not being a snob buff I took Alph at his word. He invariably asserts facts with the authority of confidence. Moreover, I thought I remembered it like he said it was. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen Casablanca, by no means a favourite.

By accident, I saw the beginning again in Le Café. Guy was otherwise engaged and Eric the clochard got his hands on the télécommande. And there it was, Casablanca, after all those years. Refugee routes traced on a map, with a voice over like Pathe News saying the alternative route to Lisbon was via Marseilles, and an arrow shot straight from there to the dark continent.

But there was no port footage at all on the European side of the Mediterranean. Unless it was on the way back, and if I remember right (Guy grabbed the remote from Eric and it was Colombo again. So I only saw five minutes) Ingrid Bergman took an airplane and Bogart stayed behind. Of course, there is a possibility that Alph was correct and the Bras scene was edited out. This would be reasonable from a narrative point of view, in the sort of movie that depends on maps, newspaper headings and voice-overs (Orson Welles has a lot to answer for). In that case, Curtiz missed an opportunity to show the port of Bras just before the Germans blew it up.

It bothers me more that Bras might have been left on the cutting floor, and Casablanca was a worse movie for that, than the doomed port being not captured on film for the archives. I’m no longer in a seventh heaven with Seventh Art and feel unprepared for a rush of movies flooding back. My memory has suffered. And I blame, not Alph, but Curtiz and Eric a little (and Guy for being distracted by a customer. Unlike him). All right, I blame Alph too for putting me on the wrong track. He should know better. Cinéastes, no matter how modest, ought to be better informed than serendipitous moviegoers like me, who depend on what’s on where you happen to be with the price in your pocket and time to spend.