I was saddened to learn of the death of Tony Scott. This was mainly because a man had decided to take his own life, leaving friends and family bereft. The circumstances surrounding his death, the causes of his leap from a bridge, are still unclear, and speculation is not my business. I didn’t come here to eulogise Scott’s work, nor even to defend it. If you do want to read an eloquent and spirited case for the artistic value of his films, look no further than Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s stirring appreciation. I have little that is terribly positive to say about Scott’s – I have always find his style so pronounced and his angular, dyspraxic cutting so distancing, that I rarely warmed to a Tony Scott film. Continue reading
Funded by the Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell Trust, the Department of English in the College of Humanities is seeking to award a studentship to support doctoral research on the work of filmmaker Bill Douglas, particularly the production of Comrades, released in 1987.
The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture is an accredited public museum and a research facility for scholars. It holds over 70,000 artefacts related to the broad history of the moving image and its founding collection was put together by the renowned filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell. The Centre plays an important role in teaching and research at the University of Exeter.
[In Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail, released in silent and talkie versions in 1929, Alice White (Anny Ondra) kills an artist who has attempted to rape her. She is protected by her boyfriend, a London detective, but blackmailed by a petty thief who had witnessed her leaving the scene of the crime. In the original ending, the thief dies being pursued by police when he becomes the prime suspect for the murder. Here, Hitchcock outlines how he would have preferred the film to end.]
The blackmailer was really a subsidiary theme. I wanted him to go through and expose the girl. That was my idea of how the story ought to end. I wanted the pursuit to be after the girl, not after the blackmailer. That would have brought the conflict on to a climax, with the young detective, ahead of the others, trying to push the girl out through a window to get her away, and the girl turning round and saying: “You can’t do that – I must give myself up.” Then the rest of the police arrive, misinterpret what he is doing, and say, “Good man, you’ve got her,” not knowing the relationship between them. Now the reason for the opening comes to light. You repeat every shot used first to illustrate the duty theme, only now it is the girl who is the criminal. The young man is there ostensibly as a detective, but of course the audience know he is in love with the girl. The girl is locked up in her cell and the two detectives walk away, and the older one says, “Going out with your girl to-night?” The younger one shakes his head. “No. Not to-night.”
That was the ending I wanted for Blackmail, but I had to change it for commercial reasons. The girl couldn’t be left to face her fate. And that shows you how the films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won’t let them.
Alfred Hitchcock, “Direction” in Charles Davy (ed.) Footnotes to the Film. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd, 1938.
It has been difficult to keep up the earlier pace of blogging, due to an abnormally heavy workload this term. I’m hoping things will ease off towards Christmas and in the New Year – I wouldn’t want to deprive the world of my opinions for too long. It has also been hard to see new movies, though this afternoon I’m off to see Paul Leni’s Waxworks, and there’s a Hong Sang-Soo retrospective happening locally that should tick a few boxes in the old-movie department. As a stop-gap, here are some brief reviews of a few things I’ve managed to see at the multiplex next door. They are in no way connected, except that none of them works well on a triple bill with any of the others.
[#2: Ealing's Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)]
The second Spectacular Attractions podcast is now available for download (see link below). I’m finding the editing a little easier now, but perhaps need to work on my microphone technique a little more. At least this one is a little less stilted than last week’s edition, so hopefully this will eventually blossom into an impressive bit of pod.
This episode discusses the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, directed by Robert Hamer in 1949. You can read the full post here, or download the podcast and take it with you wherever you’re going:
Chris Morris was one of my cultural heroes. I pored over recordings of On the Hour and his shows for Radio 1; The Day Today and Brass Eye were watertight satires of the language of news media. Blue Jam (plus its televisual progeny Jam) proved that comedy could be beyond edgy – it could be terrifying if you listened to it in the dark with headphones on, a truly groundbreaking, nightmarish hybrid of horror, ambient music and sketch comedy that might have been known as his crowning achievement if it hadn’t been deliberately hidden away in a late-night slot so that it could squat menacingly on the border between dreams and waking. Morris can, without exaggeration, lay claim to having helped change the way the makers of news media regard themselves and speak to us. His mockery of the self-important gigantism of newsy rhetoric was so precise, so powerful that it became difficult to deal in such bombast without irony, and his refusal to give interviews or answer to his critics even during the most frenzied moments of his censorship wrangles only added to the mystique and bolstered the credibility of a man who had opted out of second-tier commentary on his work: if there was almost no studies of Morris’ work, it wasn’t because it wasn’t important – it was such a lucid, categorical body of satirical essayis, that it needed nobody to step in to explain it. Did I mention that it was all really funny? Because that usually helps. I didn’t think so much of Nathan Barley, his collaboration with Charlie Brooker, not because it didn’t have some great jokes, but because it made fun of a certain kind of vacuous media twat that was so self-evidently objectionable as to require no further comment. It was fun to mock Nathan and his idiot ilk, but the show had none of the necessity of his earlier shows that slipped inside the news format and bent it out of shape from within.
Here endeth the hagiography. I just wanted to say that I really wanted to like Four Lions. I wanted it to be the next stage in the glittering career of an artist I had long admired. And I did enjoy it. And it does mark a new Morrisian age. But I have a few reservations.
A Matter of Life and Death is called Stairway to Heaven in the USA. This change of title seemed to us to illustrate a fundamental difference between the English and the American mind and outlook. We had been pleased with our title. I believe the suggestion was mine. I loved the old melodramatic phrase which crops up in every thriller written during the last century, in every European language: and I liked the play upon words, for in our film it really was a matter of life and death that was being discussed, so Emeric [Pressburger] and I looked a bit blank when the film was finished, and two young, excited New York lawyers, Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin, who were determined to take over the film business and use our film as their spearhead, came rushing down from the projection room, into the studio and said to us: “Boys, we’ve got a wonderful title for your film.”
“We have a title already, Arthur.” (This was Emeric.) “A Matter of Life and Death, don’t you remember?”
But this was 1946. Arthur and Bob brushed question and statement aside. “You can’t have ‘Death’ in the title,” they screamed. “We’re going to market it as Stairway to Heaven! What do you think of that?”
What did we think of it? We had all of us survived a war with the greatest and most fanatical power in the world, and won it. In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words “life and death” were no longer the great contradictions that they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that we couldn’t have “death” in the title.
I don’t recall that Emeric and I argued very much with Arthur and Bob. They loved our film and said so, and they were so proud of their inspiration and so sure we would be glad of this soapy title for our film. We had become rather anxious about Arthur Rank’s and John Davies’s promises and hope for world distribution, and it was exhilarating to know that these two young enthusiasts were going to start their career with our film. After all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word. And now these young Americans were juggling with it, as if it were a Hollywood musical.
Emeric made one last attempt to persuade them.
“Arthur, you say that no film with ‘death’ in the title has ever been a success, but what about the famous play which they made into a successful film also: Death Takes a Holiday?”
But Bob and Arthur were ready for him.
“That’s the very reason it was a success. Don’t you see, boys? Death takes a holiday – obviously there’s not going to be any death in the picture!”
Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: William Heinemann, 1986
I don’t get on well with biopics. I don’t like the pre-fab structure that they all seem obliged to follow, and I wince at the dramatic irony of the little moments that wink at you to indicate a shared foreknowledge of what’s going to happen. Particularly in those films that deal with artists, musicians etc., we are offered a series of obstacles to their “becoming” the celebrity we recognise, finding their voice/muse/inspiration through a series of miniature origin stories. The indignities and problems they tackle are set into context by the greatness we know they will go on to achieve – we are expected to be fascinated by John Lennon’s youth not because of what it tells us about Britain in the 1950s and 60s, but because of how it stands in contrast to Lennon the self-possessed megastar adult. There’s a moment at the beginning of Nowhere Boy when a group of schoolchildren are walking to school through the park. There’s a cut to the sign that tells us what we really need to know: STRAWBERRY FIELDS. It’s a heavy-handed, early reminder that this has meaning because it will one day become meaningful. I was also tempted to claw my own flesh every time a moment was designed to gain force from it’s understatement – the casual introduction of Paul McCartney, Kristin Scott Thomas forgetting the name of the new band that will shortly take over the music world.
You may have missed Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s debut feature film, Helen last year. Plenty of people did. I just caught up with it on DVD, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly the kind of work that I wish was supported more often in the UK. Told at a stately pace in an understated, almost fussily deliberate style, Helen is the story of a teenager in care, who is brought to question her own sense of identity when she is picked to play the part of a missing girl in a police reconstruction of her final movements.