Saturday, September 07, 2013

Swirling and twirling through movie ballrooms

After seeing Heaven's Gate a few weeks ago I started thinking about films that had amazing dance scenes - by this I mean mass traditional ballroom type dancing - not salsa, disco jive etc. They are of course, I have just realised, all historic depictions - maybe this is what makes them so breathtaking. What they all share is amazing movement - so that as you watch you are swept up in the dancing. As someone who really can not dance this is the nearest I come to feeling what it must be like to be floating around the ballroom in a beautiful, big, swirling dress

So here are my favourites..

Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
Bette Davis plays headstrong Southern Belle Julie in pre Civil War America. She wants to live life to the full and refuses to play by the rules. At the annual Olympus Ball she decides to wear red rather than the traditional white - this marks her out as an immoral woman in the eyes of her fellow party goers. The ballroom scene is brilliantly filmed in black and white, using Wyler's trademark deep focus to show the whole scene. The crowded dance floor feels claustrophobic and is filmed from a low angle to give us the sickening vertiginous feeling Julie has when she realises that she may have gone too far. When she steps on to the dance floor everyone starts to depart leaving her to dance on her own. Wyler's ballroom influences all the film ballrooms to come.

Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli. 1949)
Jennifer Jones plays the beautiful, ambitious and very foolish Madame Bovary. When she receives an invitation to a society ball she swiftly ditches her homely, doctor husband, to become the belle of the ball and dances with an unending supply of society men. When the charming and handsome Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) asks her to dance, her head spins as he swirls her (and us, as the camera takes her point of view) around the dance floor. When she (and the rest of us) start to feel dizzy and eventually faint there is an extraordinary sequence where the host orders that the servants smash the windows to allow her to cool down. This is all done in Minnelli's trademark super stylish way.

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
The film begins at Harvard with a new class of graduating students. Their final ball is a huge open air extravaganza befitting of a film that bankrupted a studio. The camera starts by circling the group of dancers before getting right into the middle of them, gliding and drifting around just as they do, getting faster and faster and more claustrophobic as the Blue Danube speeds up. It is spectacular.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)
After only meeting him once Anna (Keira Knightly) encounters Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the second time at a ball where he orders her to dance with him. As soon as they face each their eyes lock, in classic romantic encounter style, and nothing else matters. Wright brilliantly depicts this by making the dancers around them freeze and start moving as if they are in another world altogether. Vronsky lifts Anna up and holds her there for just too long before they dance a curiously formal dance where they raise their arms and place them against each other whilst never breaking eye contact with each other. It is intense.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paul Nash and Dymchurch

Paul Nash first visited Dymchurch, a seaside town on Romney Marsh, Kent in 1919 and he found it to be ‘a delightful place with much inspiring material for work’. He returned numerous times and even rented a cottage to help him recover from a breakdown after his experiences of WWI.

He was particularly impressed by the vast sea wall at Dymchurch, a man-made structure designed to protect the Marsh from flooding from the sea.

In 2011 a new seawall was built at Dymchurch - it is impressively futuristic but still somehow retains the atmosphere that is embodied in Paul Nash's paintings and etchings.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Wild River

Two of my current fascinations Montgomery Clift and Elia Kazan come together in a film I saw as part of the BFI's Montgomery Clift season last night - Wild River (1960). As with all the films that these two great artists have made it did not disappoint.

It was a really important film for Kazan who wanted to imbibe the lead character Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) with all the idealism that he himself had in the 1930s. Chuck works for the TVA and thinks he can make people's lives better by implementing a scheme to dam the Tennessee River which will prevent floods and provide electricity. The only fly in the ointment is that some people don't want to sell the land that needs to be flooded to allow the scheme to go ahead. Glover travels to Tennessee to smooth things over, sees that things are more complex, upsets the status quo by employing a black labour force at equal pay, falls in love with one of the 'enemies', and gets attacked by a mob.

The other stars of the film are Jo Van Fleet who plays the unmoving matriarch Ella Garth and a luminous Lee Remick in one of her first film roles who plays her granddaughter and Glover's love interest Carol.

The film looks great - shot on location in Tennessee the landscape is vast and the skies are always blue (whenever it isn't raining). Jo Van Fleet is also very good as the feisty old lady. But of course it is Monty and more surprisingly Remick that hold the fascination for me. Their faces are so enthralling and their personas so captivating that I wanted them on screen the whole time. Their affair is depicted in a wholly unusual way - nothing explicit is ever shown but the erotic tension between them is palpable. A comment from the IMDb message board explains one such scene...

I like the scene where Clift tells Remick not to walk around in front of him, then she goes to the cupboard at the back of the room and gives herself a splinter, only then does Clift embrace her. I like the way it is staged, it is unusual for the emotional height of a scene to take place so far from the camera, it feels more genuine than if they were just shot in ever tighter close ups.

In fact Clift rushes to Remick when she exclaims in pain and proceeds to vigorously suck her finger before they embrace - wow.

Apparently Kazan originally wanted Brando for the part (because as he says he wanted Brando for everything at the time) and Marilyn was mooted for Remick's part. This would of course have changed everything. Kazan says that he altered the emphasis of the film to fit Monty - he realised that he couldn't convincingly play the dominant partner in the relationship with Remick and so he switched things to make her take the lead. This makes the film very different from standard 1950s fare and very contemporary.

The film didn't get much a release in 1960 as the studio didn't think it would find an audience and it is generally pretty much unseen. If you get the chance I wholly recommend it.

As for Monty I'll leave you with these words from Trevor Johnson's intro to the BFI's Montgomery Clift season. ... 'He lived fast, he died young, and he remained cool enough to have The Clash write their song The Right Profile about him…. "That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!".

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Royal Affair

It didn't make my 2012 top ten because I have only just seen it and I didn't see it at the cinema. But A Royal Affair is definitely one of the best films of 2012 - it is really very, very good. It has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar but I suspect that it may lose out to Amour. 

The film is Danish but please don't let that put you off - and if you watch the killing you may even find some of the language familiar - tak anyone. The female lead in the film - Alicia Vikander - played Kitty in Anna Karenina and has a kind of wonderfully blank quality that is also there in Elizabeth Olsen's face. The hero Mads Mikkelson has played baddies in mainstream films such as Casino Royal and also has an extraordinary face with a long straight nose, high cheek bones and wide lips.

The plot is a piece of Danish history that I knew nothing about - but it is compelling. It will remind you in places of other films (Marie Antoinette (2006), The Madness of King George (1994), Barry Lyndon (1975) etc.) but it is perfectly composed and contained and very much its own thing. It is also very beautiful.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Top Films of 2012

Its that time of year - so I thought I would join in and add my top ten films of 2012 to the many other lists. These are films that I saw on their first UK release at the cinema during 2012.

1: The Master
Stylish, intriguing and actually masterful. It might not have a straightforward story but it is always engaging. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant (surely his character is modelled on the tics and quirks of Montgomery Clift) and I love love love the scene in the department store.

2: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Creepily atmospheric film about getting involved with a cult. The star, Elizabeth Olsen, has the most brilliantly expressive big face, her thoughts ripple across it making it readable without the need for dialogue. The music by Jackson C Frank is also very very good.

3: Shame
Michael Fassbender is a tour de force. I enjoyed his android version of Peter O'Toole in Prometheus but it is Brandon in Shame that is his major achievement of the year. His depiction of this dysfunctional character is deeply real, managing to be repulsive and strangely attractive at the same time. The acting performance of the year.

4: Electrick Children
A first film for director Rebecca Thomas. Charming story which pairs up a naive Mormon heroine (If this film had been made in the 1950s she could have been played by Marilyn Monroe) with a shambolic kind hearted stoner.

5: Amour
Not fun but it is completely engrossing which considering the whole film is set in a small apartment is quite an achievement. Occasionally director Haneke slips into cruelness but for the most part the film has a chilling honesty to it.

6: Silver Linings Playbook
Really enjoyable non-cheesy rom com (although there is not that much com). I also liked Take This Waltz and Liberal Arts which kind of have a similar feel to them but Silver Linings Playbook comes out on top for its originality and dancing.

7: The Descendants
I like director / writer Alexander Payne's downbeatness which makes things seem real. This is a story of a quiet guy played by George Clooney and how he copes with the circumstances that he finds himself in. Its also great to see Hawaii on screen post Elvis's Paradise Hawaiian Style.

8: Anna Karenina
Beautiful. Full of little Brechtian bits and pieces - most of the film is set in an old theatre. As with Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (see below) Aaron Johnson is perfectly cast as a shallow, handsome young man.

9: Cosmopolis
Worth the admission price just to look at the beautiful Pattinson face which is on screen in close-up for just about the entire film. Pattinson stars as a spoilt New Yorker who lives life purely on the surface. For most of the film he is in the back of a limousine which is stuck in traffic at various points around NYC. I think that director Cronenberg is having a little bit of a laugh at Pattinson and his stardom (in the same way that he has with Kiera Knightly in A Dangerous Method by making her gurn her way throughout the film). But Rob somehow runs with this and gives a really strong performance.

10: Goodbye First Love
There is something very French about the heroine and the story both of which have their roots in the director's own life. The heroine is self obsessed and a little amoral and the plot is unexpected, untidy and rambling but this gives the film a ring of truth that a neat beginning, middle and end could never provide.

Other honourable mentions (in no particular order) go to...
Take This Waltz
Liberal Arts
On the Road
Breaking Dawn Part 2
Young Adult
She Monkeys

Disappointments were...
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Holy Motors
Avengers Assemble
Berberian Sound Studio
A Dangerous Method
Killing Them Softly

And my rock bottom film is...
Rock of Ages (truly, truly terrible, I am ashamed that I went to a cinema to see it)