Early Days at the Movies
Real Women in
The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven
So What Happened
POETRY AND PROSE
THE SEVENTH ART’S SEVENTH HEAVEN
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.
borrowed from well-known movies provide ready-made emotions for the
share. But repeated exposure attenuates them. Every time the screen is
by a weepy moment from, say, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in Penny
(1941), the handkerchief harvests less tears. There is less and less of
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
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
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
(less styes or motes in the eye can only be a good thing). Contemporary
only make me feel hungry for the popcorn of my youth. They ringard
bell that’s gone digital, and so can no longer be heard. The
films with quotations from the past (the over-educated directors must
themselves) renders them meaningless. Their context is outside the
crosswords rather than jigsaw puzzles. I have lost my taste for
them. It’s like seeing a bagwoman wearing your
mother’s clothes. Big new movies
overwhelm me with supersonic sound, supernatural colour and technical
King Kong-sized rubber monsters with shrieks where the heart should
presence and feeling is absent. The one remove that allowed you to
secondary intention, genre films has eradicated. Sheer sensation has
and headache is the dominant effect. Product placement offers its
while the new taboos bawdlerise the human realities (when did smoking
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.
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
the sound of actors’ voices, but dialogue is so rare you
hardly notice (what a
pleasure being spared looking at them?). Its success everywhere
Sant allowed himself one single significant difference from the
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
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
mother. But since Brett Ellis has patented him in his self-obsessed
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?
which is always right, often contradicts common sense. I
wasn’t looking to
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,
there was no port footage at all on the European side of the
bothers me more that Bras might have been left on the cutting floor,