The films of my life

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I’m not one of those people who looks back at their school days through rose-tinted glasses. I was always the outsider with pale skin, messy hair and and bad teeth but things improved when I was 16 and stayed on at the sixth form college. The worst kids left, we didn’t have to wear uniforms anymore (although maybe that wasn’t such a good thing when I think back to what we wore in the ’90s) and could go home early. Comfy chairs and sofas were spread out across a couple of large common rooms in which loud music played. Amazingly, I managed to concentrate and switch off enough to sit in a corner and read classic novels which had the added advantage of annoying the other students who not only thought that I was strange but also stuck-up. “Oh God, he’s so depressing,”one teacher exclaimed as she saw me reading Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’. But my favourite teacher was the head of the sixth form. Also a teacher of chemistry, biology and psychology, he had scruffy long hair, tied back, wore violently coloured ties, chain smoked, swore and was a committed Trotskyite.

He took me to the sixth form bookshelf and recommended me works by Lao Tzu and Nietzsche, as well as lending me his personal copy of The Communist Manifesto.

The most important day came though in one of our General Studies classes when we brought in the TV and told us he was going to show us and talk about some of the greatest films ever made. We started off with Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. In the opening scene where the heavens part and some strange and foreboding voices rang out, he asked whether we expected this to be a happy film, then went through it discussing all the key scenes which had influenced later directors like Scorsese. It was unlike anything I had ever seen but utterly compelling and the remarkable face of the leading actor, Max von Sydow, was forever burned in my memory that day.

But there was more to come – Chaplin, Keaton, Ginger and Fred, Busby Berkeley, Godard’s ‘Week-end’ which I later hated, ‘Blow-up’, ‘La Dolce Vita’,  John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’, Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samourai’. I went home that day feeling inspired in a way I had never done before and couldn’t wait to tell my my mum all about it. Of course, a huge cinephile herself, she already knew all of those films so well and on our next shopping trip, we called at the music store to pick up a video of ‘The Seventh Seal’ which was incredibly expensive back then. She ordered more and more titles from classic and world cinema and our little collection grew and grew. I have never stopped watching films and couldn’t imagine life without cinema.

When it came for me to leave for university after finishing my A-levels, I gave the head of the  sixth form a large poster of Visconti’s ‘L’innocente’ which my mum had kept from her days running film clubs and he told me that the director was an aristocratic Marxist. I never saw him again after that but always remembered that film lesson with huge affection and wondered if any of my fellow classmates had been similarly affected. I often considered writing to him to tell him how much that lesson had meant but I never did. Then a few years ago, someone posted on a local site that he had died. I felt as if I had lost a part of myself and deeply regretted not writing. But each time I see a truly great film, I think of him and maybe that’s the best tribute of all.

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A bookish Resolution

Loretta Young’s private library, 1943:

Loretta Young with her library

So first of all, Happy New Year! I can’t deny I was glad to see the back of 2016, even though I was lucky enough to make some wonderful friends which outweighs all the bad stuff for me. There is something a little daunting, as well as exciting, about being at the start of a fresh new year, wondering what it will bring.  Do you ever make New Year’s Resolutions? Mine have been the same for years – to be tidier, to throw things away I don’t use, to keep my papers in good order, to stop biting my nails, to buy fewer red lipsticks, to keep in touch with my friends regularly instead of just thinking about them often and then writing apologetic emails once or twice a year. I fail miserably with most or all of them, so this year have decided to make just one main resolution which is to read more.  I’m a slow reader but intend to take advantage of every opportunity available to open a book which means having one with me at all times whenever I leave the house, reading while the dinner is cooking and most of all, trying to stay awake for more than 10 minutes in bed each night to get through at least 1-2 pages. I don’t have a set list of things I wish to read this year because my book choice depends on my mood but here are some I’m hoping to get around to:

‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley

‘Put out more Flags’ by Evelyn Waugh

‘Hunters in the Dark’ by Lawrence Osborne

‘Stoner’ by John Williams

‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

‘Eugénie Grandet’ and ‘Le Père Goriot’ by Balzac

‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’ by Dumas

‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann

‘Ungeduld des Herzens’ by Stefan Zweig

Let me know if there are any books you have your heart set on this year. To finish off this post, I thought I’d include some Old Hollywood stars enjoying some reading for inspiration.

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James Stewart who rightly understood the need of a comfortable place to read.

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Rita Hayworth

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The famous photo of Marilyn Monroe reading ‘Ulysses’ by Eve Arnold, 1955.

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Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the set of ‘North by Northwest.’

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Bette Davis with the morning papers in 1939

Fred Astaire via the tumblr Old Hollywood Stars Reading:

Fred Astaire

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Sophia Loren

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Marlon Brando by Cecil Beaton, 1946

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Clark Gable

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Barbara Stanwyck – I dream that one day someone will bring me breakfast in bed.

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Gene Tierney in ‘Leave Her to Heaven.’

Happy reading!

No(ir)vember: Laura (1944)

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Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ is not only one of the finest noirs but also one of the most popular, even among those who are not die hard fans of the genre like me. Is it the theme tune by David Raskin, or Gene Tierney’s exquisite beauty, or the witty dialogue which crackles throughout? To be honest, it’s all of these and more.

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The film opens with a murder mystery. Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating who killed Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Could it be her acid tongued friend, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her shady fiancé, Shelby (Vincent Price) or someone else? As the mystery deepens, MacPherson finds himself more and more drawn to Laura, reading her letters and even sleeping in the apartment underneath her portrait. She seems to have inspired a strange kind of devotion, even in her housekeeper determined to keep her memory unsullied, and in death, she represents female perfection. But who really was Laura?

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I can’t say much more without giving away a major plot twist which would somehow rob the first time viewer of the pleasure of discovering that for him/herself. So I’ll just say that this is a flawless noir, superbly directed by the great Preminger and with equally superb performances from the cast, particularly Clifton Webb whose first major screen role it was. Waldo Lydecker is truly one of the great characters in film, vicious and cynical and unafraid to destroy any potential rivals through the column he writes and his wit. Watching it again recently, I was also struck by the way this film influenced David Lynch in Twin Peaks whose whole plot revolves around the murder of Laura Palmer, another beautiful and enigmatic character who in death exerts a powerful fascination on all those around her but was not quite what she seemed.

A film to fall in love with.

No(ir)vember: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Let’s take a stroll down Edmund Goulding’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, the one of the darkest and grimmest places  you can venture in film noir. Cast against type, Tyrone Power gives arguably his greatest performance as scumbag trickster Stanton Carlisle who works at a travelling carnival. Stan is ambitious and will stop at nothing to reach the top so when he hears that fellow artiste Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell – fabulous) and her husband once had a lucrative mind-reading act, he sets out to seduce her to learn the code while all the name making eyes at gorgeous Molly (the excellent Coleen Gray) who’s in an act with strongman Bruno. Only one thing haunts Stan; the geek, part man, part animal, a stage show freak who devours live chickens and can only be calmed by a bottle of spirits a night. How could anyone sink so low, he wonders?

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Once he has the code, Stan and Molly get married and set about hitting the big time with their new act and make quite a stir in Chicago. But Stan finds himself drawn to Dr. Lillith Ritter (Helen Walker as a chilling therapist), a fellow charlatan and opportunist. They seem to make a great team but can she really be trusted?

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Image result for nightmare alley 1947

It’s the rise and fall of a man destroyed by his ambition and deceit. I can think of few films so dark and cynical and the alcohol fuelled visions only add to its haunting quality. It’s both compelling and repulsive and one which you’ll never forget. Not even the happy ending they tried to tack on can erase the sense of despair. And you have to see it for Tyrone Power – he is simply magnificent.

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No(ir)vember: Kiss of Death (1947)

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It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Victor Mature. A Hollywood hunk, he gave two of his finest performances in two great noirs, Cry of the City (1948) and Kiss of Death (1947), but was outclassed each time by Richard Conte in the former and Richard Widmark in the latter. It’s hard to believe it was Widmark’s screen debut. In just 15 minutes of screen time, he gives a mesmerising performance as Tommy Udo, taking psychotic to a whole new level. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nobody has ever had such a terrifying laugh and the wheelchair scene is still chilling with its deranged violence and cruelty.

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Convicted for at attempted jewel robbery, Nick (Mature) is happy not to name names until he learns that his wife has committed suicide after struggling with financial problems and that his young daughters have been placed in an orphanage. He decides to cooperate with the D.A. (Brian Donlevy) who’s trying to put deranged criminal Tommy Udo (Widmark) away. Nicks is released and marries Nettie (Colleen Gray), but when Udo goes free, he begins to fear for his family and his life.

Expertly directed by Henry Hathaway, this is a tightly structured and tense film that never lets up. Free to watch on YouTube.

Mistress America

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Even cinephiles make mistakes. After seeing the trailer for ‘Mistress America’, I decided it just looked plain irritating and not to bother seeing it. But to my surprise, after finally watching it yesterday, I absolutely loved it and it has even surpassed ‘The Squid the the Whale’ as my favourite Noah Baumbach film.

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18 year old Tracy (Lola Kirke) is having a hard time making friends and settling into her creative writing course at a New York college. Her mother, who is about to get married again, suggests calling Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her future stepdaughter and thirtysomething New York hipster who is also impossibly cool. She lives on Times Square, knows all the best people and places, tutors, coaches, works as a spinning instructor and is about to open a restaurant. Tracy is smitten with her new friend while Brooke is thrilled to have a younger follower who idolises her, but soon Tracy comes to realise Brooke doesn’t quite have it together like she first thought and begins to have doubts about her ever succeeding. Brooke does, however, provide her with great material for a new story she’s writing, entitled ‘Mistress America’ after one of her many failed business ventures.

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Although billed as a screwball comedy, I found much in it that was also painful and honest. Tracy is younger but seems to be the more mature one. Brooke is in some ways a continuation of Frances Ha in Baumbach’s earlier film but here she’s also bullying, self-obsessed and ruthless, although she’s still the type of person you’d give your eye teeth to know. Everything culminates in a brilliant sequence of events where Brooke, Tracy and two of her college acquaintances take a trip out to the suburbs to get the funds necessary for the restaurant from Brooke’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan, and his scheming wife, Mamie-Claire, who has made a fortune from Brooke’s T-shirt idea and also stolen her cats.

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For me, the film really reflects how it feels to be friends with someone older, to be jealous of their self-assurance and success and also how it feels to be friends with younger people, knowing that your own youth is slipping by and feeling anxious about the future in a way you didn’t use to. It’s refreshing to see such an erudite and witty film which is ultimately about friendship between two women. Of course, I have to mention the excellent central performances  of Greta Gerwig who shows herself to be the great comic actress of her generation and a throwback to the likes of Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, and Lola Kirke, younger sister of Girls’ regular Jemima Kirke, who lights up the screen and shows she’s just as brilliant at delivering sharp dialogue. To be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight for me with ‘Frances Ha’. I almost felt like I had to love it before I’d even seen it because it was a hommage to Truffaut’s films and Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ which are great favourites of mine. But with repeated viewings, I’ve learned to appreciate it on its own terms and feel great affection for it. But ‘Mistress America’ is a film that captivated me from the beginning and seems especially good for autumn with its mixture of humour and more poignant scenes. I can’t wait to come back to it.

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Red in films

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Regular readers of this blog will know how much I love red so it’s not really surprising that I’m always fascinated by its use in films. Red can stand for many things – fraternity, passion, warmth, strength, sensuality, but on the flip side, it can also represent danger, aggression, blood and can appear glossy, superficial and claustrophobic.

Here are some of my favourite films in which it’s used, including Vertigo, above.

Trois Couleurs Rouge

 Vertigo

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The scene with the liftboy also reminds me of Clovis Sangrail’s blogpost.

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Jean-Luc Godard

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to deny that Godard is a master of colour and like me, he also favours the primary ones, particularly red.

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Anna Karina in Une Femme est une Femme

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Pierrot le fou

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Anna Karina, wearing one of the most beautiful dresses

La Chinoise

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The Red Shoes

At one time, their Powell and Pressburger films were the only British ones acceptable to like. Thanks to Jack Cardiff’s magnificent photography, they also remain some of the most visually stunning too, particularly The Red Shoes.

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Cries and Whispers

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Funny Face

Audrey Hepburn in the ultimate red dress, designed by Givenchy

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In the Mood for Love

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American Beauty

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Red Desert

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