Monday, February 26, 2007

Cinema: The Dead

I went to see The Dead yesterday afternoon in the IFI, which was being shown as part of a season of John Huston films. Adapted from the short story by James Joyce, it takes place over one evening, the 6th January 1904, at the home of the Morkham sisters, well-established members of the Dublin musical scene.
Played initially as an ensemble with a large cast of characters dancing, sharing memories, arguing, performing party pieces, getting pissed and eating, the closing stages of the film focus on the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta as she is overcome on hearing 'The Lass of Aughrim', sung by the tenor Bartell Darcy. It reminds her of Michael Furey, who loved her when she was a girl growing up in Galway and, on hearing she was to move to Dublin, died because, she says, he could not bear the prospect of life without her.
On hearing this in a bare room in the Gresham Hotel, Gabriel reflects on his own life and how he has never really experienced love or felt passion in that way. Earlier in the film we see that Gabriel is an 'empty shell', and attempts to construct an identity for himself by writing for the Daily Express and going on cycling holidays in Belgium. When pulled up on this by ardent nationalist Molly Ivors, who calls him a West Brit, Gabriel replies he is tired of 'his country' and rejects the notion that Irish is his language.
He also plays the role of dutiful nephew, giving a pompous speech about his aunts at the dinner and later imagining one of them dying and being unable to deliver any words of comfort. Language without feeling is a dessicated husk and Gabriel is only eloquent after realising the counterfeit nature of his own life, delivering the famous closing sentences of the snow falling on the 'dark mutinous Shannon waves' and 'like the descent of their last end, on all the living and the dead.'
I remember when the film came out first in 1987, I was going through a particularly pretentious phase, and went to see it twice, on the second occasion I brought along a few mates from school who were so bored with what was on offer that they decided to organise a 'pile-up' at the back of the cinema, a show of boisterousness that shocked my precious thirteen year old self. Curiously, a woman made a similar mistake at yesterday's screening by bringing her two young daughters along to what is really an adult film, given its themes of lost love, regret and death.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cinema: Boy meets Girl meets Genre

I had an interesting chat with film studies academic Tamar Jeffers McDonald on this week's Viewfinder, the cinema programme that broadcasts Thursday evenings on Dublin City Anna Livia FM.
McDonald has written an analytical history of the Hollywood romantic comedy, charting its development from the screwball comedies of the 30's and 40's to the sex comedies of the 50's and on to their radical 70's incarnation and finally the sanitised formulaic efforts that have dominated since the eighties.
At first blush, such films may not seem a 'proper subject of study' but then you need only recall the importance both the Soviet and the Nazi regimes (I'm not aligning them by the way) placed on popular cinema in the cultivation of mass feeling to accept their relevance.
Screwball comedies were characterised by pithy innuendo and sparkling dialogue between the likes of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in 'It happened one night'(pictured above) or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in 'Bringing up Baby', creative responses to the repressive Hays Code, which censored any overt sexual reference in films made in post-Depression America. This reminded me of what Philip Roth said on returning to the States after visiting the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War: "There nothing goes and everything matters. Here everything goes and nothing matters."
Negotiating when the sexual act would occur, either before or after marriage, appears to have been the preoccupation of romantic comedies of the 50's when the optimism of the post-war generation ushered in a new candour while at the same time retaining a sense of propriety. Contrary to received opinion, McDonald pointed out that Doris Day, the doyenne of these movies, only once played a virgin in all of her thirty nine films, indicative of the fact that the era was not so sugar sweet as is usually assumed.
What changes in the 70's is the recognition that pursuit of love does not always end in happiness as a more cynical, or perhaps realistic, mood becomes apparent, notably in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where the couple finish apart, the last shot being of a busy street where we expect the pair to reunite but never do. However, with Annie Hall, Allen also bequeathed the standard 'framing shots' for every subsequent romantic comedy- New York streets and parks- which are to be seen in When Harry Met Sally, You've got Mail, Maid in Manhattan and on ad infinitum.
What McDonald dislikes about these films is that they lack invention or wit and instead have become mechanical product that verge on the puritanical. Indeed she has gone so far as to write a list of their recurring tropes such as the embarrassing public display of affection invariably made by the male lead or the inevitable 'spill scene' where the heroine splatters her hitherto pristine outfit with coffee or juice thus making her appear more vulnerable and to the audience more likeable(think Julia Roberts in Notting Hill).
Whether the form can be revived remains uncertain but McDonald has spotted some new directions like The 40 Year Old Virgin, a romantic comedy for men that combines gross out humour and the quest for love. But in the main contemporary romcoms, by sticking rigidly to formulae set down in the late Eighties, are failing to do what their predecessors managed, that is to accurately reflect social change. The consequence is that they are acquiring an eerie repetitive feel that lacks both romance or comedy.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cinema: The Science of Sleep

Despite its fantastical imagery and playful tendencies,'The Science of Sleep', the new film by Michel Gondry reminded me of one of Roman Polanski's early works, 'Repulsion', in which a young Belgian woman played by Catherine Deneuve, descends into madness cooped up in her London flat. Here, Stephane, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a Mexican artist cut adrift in Paris who becomes obsessed with his neighbour, Stephanie, who, he says, has a similar personality to his recently deceased father. What at first appears to be a love story, is in fact a disquieting study in grief and insanity.
It is clear from the outset that Stephan is simply unable to exist in what we could loosely call the 'real world'. He has come to Paris, after the death of his father in Mexico, in the mistaken belief his French mother has set him up as an illustrator in a calendar publishing company. It transpires that the position is more akin to that of dogsbody and Stephan's petulant response that he is an artist, one who specialises in disaster scenes, is an early sign of his revulsion at the fact that the world doesn't recognise his talents. Meanwhile, his fellow workers have long since taken on board the concept of 'absolute indifference' and are content to play out their days in name calling and pranks.
Back in the family's old apartment, where he sleeps in his childhood bed, Stephan retreats ever more into a dream world where he is sometimes the star of his own television show, other times the creator of new and improbable cities.
A girl, Stephanie (the name suggesting she is yet another figment of his imagination), played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, moves in across the hall and soon she becomes the focus of his obsessive personality.
If you get past the relentless visual invention, which is delivered at a frenetic pace, the film charts Stephan's mental decline triggered by the collapse of his family, the death of his father and his failure as an artist. Seeming at first to be an innocent abroad, Stephan's behaviour gets increasingly erratic and sinister; after cracking his head open against a door, he disinhibits, reflecting that a toothless mouth is better for a blow job, a fact he counsels Stephanie to consider before getting her cluttered teeth treated by a dentist. At the end, he lies curled in a foetal ball, dreaming of riding a horse across an open plain with the object of his affection.
Perhaps the absence of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Gondry's last film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, explains the lack of an American feel-good finish or heart warming message to sign off with. Instead we are left with a bleaker,darker, more, dare I say, European ending as the real world is finally shut out, the descent into delusion complete.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 16, 2007

Amis as Lucky Jim

Imagine the scene: you've spent the last few months of your creative writing course slaving over the final draft of what you consider to be your magnum opus, a remarkable meditation on contemporary society that echoes Houllebecq, Jeliniek and Monzo, while owing an acknowledged debt to Nabokov, Bellow and Beckett. You await the reaction of the diminutive but haughty celebrity author turned creative writing professor who has seen fit to cast an eye over your work. Finally summoned to his office, he throws the manuscript at you and says, "On reading this effort, I first felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear."
At least Martin Amis is clear about why he is taking up a post as professor of creative writing at Manchester University: he is out of touch and needs new source material. In exchange, the students will be taught by the best prose writer of the last thirty years. It's a fair cop. But I wonder what Amis will teach them? Go west? Don't romanticise the Soviet Union, especially not Stalin? An awareness that they are writing in the age of horrorism? Interesting times ahead for the Mancunians.

Labels: , , ,

Irish Blogs Blogarama - The Blog Directory