Picture of the Week #77: Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills


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Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’, examples of which you can see in this slideshow and gallery (click on the images below for a larger view), were taken in New York from 1977 to 1980. Sherman uses herself as the model for a series of set-ups which see her assuming the roles of various characters from imaginary movies, like a portfolio of stills from the career of an actress. Although we’ve seen none of these films, we recognise something of these character types: women on the run, waiting in a motel room for a lover, plotting a theft, regretting an infidelity – every expression, every setting, every prop is a prompt to create our own stories.  

What might seem like an exercise in fantasy, a professional game of dress-up, ends up poignantly conveying a sense of isolation, perhaps inadvertently encapsulating the limited options available to women in Hollywood; the feminist interpretation is there if you want it – Sherman shows how easily you can knock up a pre-fab female stereotype with a bit of make-up and a wig, and how readily the spectator will accept and participate in the construction and reinforcement of ideals of femininity. The staging is never glamorous, and always a little cheap and sparse, as if Sherman’s characters have been left stranded, out of time and out of context after the collapse of the studio system. From one picture to the next, she is troubled, locked in a private struggle with a story which is never explained to us; Sherman is invariably looking off screen, rarely returning the camera’s gaze, both exposed to us and simultaneously inaccessible, distant. In that sense, they offer a beautifully succinct summary of our tendentious relationship with the people we see on the screen above us at the cinema.



Picture of the Week #52: Happy Birthday Joan Fontaine

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Every time I see Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, a pristine piece of storytelling clockwork, I’m reminded of the greatness of Joan Fontaine’s central performance. It’s perfectly balanced, incredibly detailed and heartbreaking in its uncompromising depiction of a woman who devotes her life to a true love who barely registers her existence over all the years that have passed since their paths first crossed. Wrapped up in immaculate design and gleaming cinematography is  a tale of aching, ultimately defeated love, a tragedy of disconnect between a woman’s conception of her encounter with a charming concert pianist, and his inability to tell her apart from the roster of other random women he has seduced and discarded. This film is so painful I can hardly bear to look it in the eye again. And it’s all because Joan Fontaine achieved the near-impossible task of playing a character who makes a series of spectacularly poor judgment calls and still remains sympathetic (although a number of my undergraduates annually pin her down with the label “stalker”). I could make similarly glowing comments about her performances in Rebecca, Suspicion and Jane Eyre, in all of which her characters struggle to find their individuality in the shadows of controlling men (even as Suspicion (no spoilers) makes play with exactly this archetypal partnership).

The other thing I’m reminded of is the fact the Joan Fontaine is still with us, one of the few remaining stars who give us a direct link to Hollywood’s golden age. Today is her 93rd birthday, and even though she has chosen to live privately, away from the arc lights of publicity (go elsewhere if you’re looking for gossip on her alleged feud with sister Olivia de Havilland, who is also still going strong), Spectacular Attractions is honoured to salute her once again and wishes her the very best of health.

Naomi Watts Watch: Ellie Parker

Recently, my blog has been enjoying increased traffic thanks to a short, elderly post I made about Naomi Watts, who had been identified as the best value-for-money of all Hollywood actresses. It was just a brief mark of my appreciation, but garnered a lot of hits, probably in no small part due to the inclusion of large, glamourous publicity photographs. Now I feel that I should pay Naomi some proper attention, since I noticed that she enjoys very little critical analysis of her work, and because I’ve never really written about movie stars (or performers) very much around here, and it would be a good opportunity to try out something different, inspired at least in part by the recent Screen Studies conference in Glasgow, which focused on performance. So, here begins a series of occasional posts (and these may be very far apart) about performances by Naomi Watts, in no particular order, starting with Ellie Parker from 2005.

Read on…

Picture of the Week #27: Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks’s Handprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater

It was on this day, 30th April, in 1927 that the first movie stars stuck their hands and feet into wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. First to get their mitts dirty were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, then the most famous celebrity couple in the world, as well as partners in the Theatre itself. This was three weeks before the theatre officially opened with a screening of Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings. There are now more than two hundred pairs of hands and feet indented in the pavement outside the theatre, most recently those of Will Smith (though Jazzy Jeff is believed to be still awaiting his invitation). Grauman was an expert publicist to make a spectacle of the ground outside his venue, peppering it with permanent mementos of the world’s biggest movie stars, but I find that, instead of aggrandising those stars, it makes them seem smaller, more fragile, just a shallow impression underfoot. Perhaps that was the aim, to bring them closer to the people and get them to kneel.

Fragment #001: Rin Tin Tin Fired from Warner Bros. 1929

FROM P.A. CHASE [Warner executive, New York]

Mr. Ralph E. Lewis
Freston and Files [law firm]
650 South Spring St.
Los Angeles, Cal.

Re: Lee Duncan [Rin Tin Tin’s owner and trainer]

December 6, 1929

Dear Mr. Lewis:
… We are about to start another Rin Tin Tin production, and after that picture is finished, we do not propose to make any more pictures with Rin Tin Tin appearing therein.
It has been decided that since the talking pictures have come into their own, particularly with this organisation, that the making of any animal pictures, such as we have in the past with Rin Tin Tin, is not in keeping with the policy that has been adopted by us for talking pictures, very obviously, of course, because dogs don’t talk. …

P.A. Chase

[Rudy Behlmer, Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.

Picture of the Week #12: Ed Ruscha

The Picture of the Week feature was meant to be a gentle way to blog my way into the weekend with an eye-catching image and a brief comment to make some sense of it. I’ve turned out to be not very good at it, because I tend to post more than one image at a time. There are just too many pictures in the world. This week, I’m reminding myself of the marvellous Ed Ruscha exhibition I saw at London’s Hayward gallery before Christmas. It closed last weekend, so I’m afraid you can’t even pay a visit if you like what you see here. Sorry. Ruscha’s blunt-statement paintings match perfectly with the Hayward’s brutal, boxy architecture, especially things like his famous “OOF”, which I photographed at MOMA a couple of years ago. Anyway, I was particularly taken with his movie-related paintings such as The End (above, 1991) and Exit (below, 1990). Making something the subject of a painting gives it a special emphasis, a new status, and Ruscha likes to grant that promotion to the bits of text we’re not supposed to celebrate – the sign that points to the way out of the cinema, for instance, like an “off” switch for the movie, or the text that marks the conclusion, in this case the stuttering, scratched breakdown of the film itself as well as its finish. “Deathly but wry” is what I would write on the poster if it was my job to write posters…

Alternatively, you might find Ruscha taking iconic text and bringing it down a peg or two:

Picture of the Week #6: Deanna Durbin

In the run-up to Christmas, the Picture of the Week  feature will be searching around for appropriate images. Since we’re not too close to Christmas just yet, I’ll allow myself a pretty tenuous link this time around and celebrate the 88th birthday of Deanna Durbin today, 4th December. It’s more than sixty years since she appeared onscreen, after retiring at 26 to live in Paris with her husband. After appearing alongside Judy Garland in the short Every Sunday (1936), she made her feature debut in Three Smart Girls later the same year; it would be followed by two sequels, and made her a world-famous star of musical comedies.

So what’s it got to with Christmas? Er … well, one of her later films was Robert Siodmak’s noir thriller, Christmas Holiday. The attempt to diversify her star persona was not paying off, though, and she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the limited roles offered to her. She has avoided public appearances and given only one interview (in 1983) since her retirement, but Spectacular Attractions wishes her well today, and will be re-watching this film in her honour:

And how’s this for a (non-Christmassy) poignant bit of trivia – Anne Frank pinned up a portrait of Durbin on the wall of the house in which her family hid from the Nazis … and it’s still there.

Destination Moon: It’s Rocket Science.

Destination Moon Italian Poster

[This is a revised extract from my book, Performing Illusions, mixed with fragments and notes not included in the book. The broader context of this section, which looks at Destination Moon, is a discussion of science fiction cinema in the 1950s, drawing a distinction between the subversive excesses of low-budget exploitation, which treated the military-industrial agenda of “big science” with some disdain, and the big budget tales of space exploration that aligned science with spectacular imagery and limitless potential for human gain in the form of national pride and military advantage.]

While tales of alien invasion were finding their place as a staple of the science fiction B-movie circuit, a few major productions were entertaining the possibility of a future lunar mission, and in the process espousing the value of the technologies denigrated by their low-budget imitators. In the 1950s, inspired by genuine rocket research and concerted efforts to reach and explore outer space, a few films offered predictions of what the space race might achieve, sometimes smuggling in militaristic propaganda. This visualisation of capital-intensive science stands in sharp contrast to the half-hearted attempts at astronautical engineering shown in the B-movies of the time, and show up even more starkly the divisions between the high and low budget cinema of the time, the one aggrandising the military and scientific establishment with meticulously constructed effects held up for spectatorial contemplation, and the other besmirching the worth of multi-billion dollar space program with depictions of the cosmos as a site of plastic toys wobbling through a worthless void.

Read on…

Naomi Watts: Best for the Buck?

Naomi Watts

[See more of my posts about Naomi Watts here.]

Forbes magazine, who we are expected to presume know about these things (they can’t be worse at doing sums than me) have published a list of the top ten “actresses in Hollywood who offer studios the best return on investment”. You may or may not be surprised to see that the list stacks up as follows, beginning with the best value actress in town: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Connelly, Rachel McAdams, Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Hilary Swank. No sign of Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz? Of course not – their  asking prices are way too high. Now, I’ve never seen a film with Rachel McAdams in it, and I’m indifferent to many of the others, but I’m glad to see Naomi Watts, who has, without playing the tabloid publicity system, quietly gone about her business of providing remarkably nuanced, emotionally delicate performances in a wide range of films. She made the preposterous Ring remakes seem a bit frightening after all, and she singlehandedly stopped Peter Jackson’s King Kong from sliding into nostalgic boysy pastiche by anchoring a believable character at its core and refusing to sexualise a role that his traditionally been invested with crude innuendo.

Read more about the Forbes list here. The list seems a little arbitrary, with some entrants boosted by a single film (who knew that He’s Not that Into You had made enough impact to push Jennifer Connelly to second place?), or still hanging on despite few recent successes (when did Halle Berry last have a hit?), but it’s nice to see Naomi’s hard graft and low low prices getting recognition. There’s a bit of a fix going on, though. To qualify, the films considered have to have been seen on more than 500 screens, excluding performers who might be doing valuable work in much smaller films. Tilda Swinton and Samantha Morton must be offering good returns on their modest fees, I bet. Can anyone think of others who might make a list expanded to produce films without the widest releases?

The male stars’ list, published in August, is just as surprising, but I didn’t feel so warmly towards Shia LeBeouf today. Instead, I nobly took the rare opportunity to post some pictures of one of my favourite actresses. Hope you don’t mind.

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