Catching up with old friends, even virtually, always fills me up with nostalgia over time passed. We aren’t young guns anymore, starting out in life, thinking we know everything and finding out we know nothing. We’ve been there. We found out we knew nothing. We now know that, at least. We’ve also changed, and nothing accentuates the transformations suffered over the years more than a long talk with an old friend. I used to be kind and patient, he said. Those were the things he praised me for. Kind and patient. I should have seen it as a compliment. Instead, it felt like a slap in the face. I used to be kind and patient, all the good attributes for someone who’s very dim. They are kind because they’re not bitter with the world’s reality. They are patient because they’re not curious and anxious about finding out all the world’s truths. Being kind was something I’ve been striving towards and hearing someone call me that is indeed lovely. But being patient, when I know I’ve just failed being that, feels like a step back, a regression. I wish I could be wise enough to be patient and kind. Instead life has made me angry and hasty. I rush doing things because I feel I am running out of time. I’m in my 30s and people much younger than me have arrived to where they needed and more importantly, wanted to be. Yet I am bargaining with myself as to what it is I need to achieve by this age. Once I’ve passed a certain age, a new bargaining process begins and I am running out of examples of late achievers. Yet, I’m told it’s not a race and slowing down might have its benefits. At the same time, when you’re past your early-twenties, your mid-twenties, heck, even your late-twenties… your excuses are running out. You find out it was a race after all and to quote Pink Floyd “you’ve missed the starting gun.”
Here I am, left with “patient and kind” stapled on my forehead, when I’m anything but. I am looking back at my patient and kind self. Do I want to go back to that or keep running with the angry impatient self I’ve got? Would it make a difference in the… long run?
I feel my heart rate going up. I’m blaming the coffee and unspent energy throughout the day. My smartwatch tells me I’ve only burned 1245 calories today. Only 500 steps and yet I feel exhausted. Outside the window there’s a constant flickering light coming from somewhere undetermined. It looks like an ambulance light, with its amber waves of danger spreading across the neighbourhood. I can’t see the ambulance, just its emanating light, like a bodiless threat, all encompassing. What has happened? Who needs the ambulance and why? The light keeps hitting against the window, as if to awake me from apathy. I’m awake. Are you? What shall we do, now that we’re awake? There is no siren yet, just the sound of traffic. People go about their business, as normal. Is it normal? Will there be a new normal soon or shall we go back to the old normal we’ve known for so long, the normal that led us to this situation?
What situation, do you ask? The one where a divine or maybe not so divine intervention released a new virus into this world. One that can and will mutate. One that’s already wreaked havoc with so many lives. One that was not considered a big deal until quite recently. And yet, panic has now set in throughout the land. Suddenly the siren outside reminds everyone we’re not living in normal times. The heart races even faster. The siren sounds the same as always, yet the wail feels heightened somewhat. Is the army out on the street already? The quiet streets aren’t calm. The siren has stopped, but pulsating light at the window has burst in through the curtains. Here it is dancing on the ceiling and the walls. It reminds me of the apocalyptic fresco one always finds outside orthodox churches.
Is there a silver lining in all this? Maybe, just maybe this imposed or self-imposed quarantine might lead to an assessment to our condition as humans. We’ve been living like gods, superstars. We are all the protagonists of our little daily narratives that unfolds on social media. We live our lives in the limelight now more than ever and we’ve built egos “the size of cathedrals” (to quote the devil in one of my favourite films). The rush of doing things has taken the place of in-depth thinking and self-reflection and, in spite of what some might say, there can never be too much thinking. We are guilty of too much bad thinking, which infringes on our time and simply leaves no room for any positive thinking or self-reflection. Maybe we could find time to do that today. Maybe we could exercise some patience, wisdom and kindness instead of anxiety, anger and fear.
I have never been a fan of Lady Gaga’s music, although I must admit that she is a very talented musician. She is, I believe, one of those rare artists who, despite having recycled various images from various other outrageous pop and rock stars (Madonna, Marilyn Manson), is writing her own material instead of having an army of producers behind her success, which I respect.
Lady Gaga has been recently quoted as having said that she wanted to be an actress first and singer second. Although I am more than slightly envious of her talent as a singer, I must say she has convinced me much more with her abilities as an actress. Her choice of feature debut is an appropriate one, which has given her room to showcase her talent as a musical performer, with the added bonus of stripping away all the Lady Gaga layers and artifices that her ‘little monsters’ are so used to. She is laid bare in front of us and what we see is genuine and genuinely moving.
A Star is Born is in its fourth incarnation and probably its most visceral since that hair-raising dressing room speech in the 1954 version. The film, directed beautifully by Bradley Cooper in what is surprisingly his directorial debut, follows the well-known Star is Born narrative (legend has it that it was inspired by real life marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay): established star has a drinking problem and he’s on a downward trajectory when he meets aspiring star who turns out to be his soulmate.
Lady Gaga plays Ally, the aspiring star in a way that makes you forget she’s the super mega pop star half the planet idolises. She is convincing as an insecure singer-songwriter who, despite dreaming big, won’t sing her own songs and thinks her nose is too large. When country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets her at the drag queen show, she is performing La Vie en Rose, a homage to the great French singer Edith Piaf. Only after spending some time with him does she confide in him and sing one of her own compositions, in what may be one of the most romantic scenes ever to take place in a parking lot.
The romance is tumultuous, marred by drunken stumblings that translate into full on arguments, but ultimately the love between the two rises above Jackson Maine’s inner demons, at least for long enough for the two to marry. Ally becomes the successful singer Jackson had predicted she would become, soon carving a name for herself, independent from that of her husband. It’s important here to highlight that the musician Ally aspires to be and ultimately becomes is a very different one from who Lady Gaga is as a musician. Unlike Lady Gaga, Ally is shy, less ambitious and has to be convinced to believe in her own values as an artist, which is why Jackson’s role as mentor is all the more important.
The narrative isn’t forced, despite playing slightly like a Cinderella story. It has enough humour, heartbreak and naturalness to pull the “this could never happen” element off. My only criticism is the added element of Ally’s manufactured star persona. The film hints slightly at her having sold her artistic integrity for fame when it shows us an orange haired Ally performing an R&B style song, half naked on SNL, but doesn’t follow that idea up any further. I believe the story was already rich enough without suggesting that Ally’s star image wasn’t what she wanted, but what was imposed on her from a manager with dubious intentions. At the same time, one might argue that without Jackson’s guidance, she wouldn’t be strong enough to stand up for herself and the type of music she wants to make.
I shall not spoil the film for the 1 or 2 people who aren’t familiar with the narrative, but it’s a rollercoaster of emotion, harmoniously performed, directed and shot. No wonder Lady Gaga found it so hard to shake the character off at the end of the day. As an added bonus, Sam Elliot’s in it.
For those needing proof that Buster Keaton had genius running through his veins, that he wasn’t just a comedian “in slapshoes and flat hat”, go watch Sherlock Jr.(1924). Most of his 1920s films are exquisite and worthy of praise. Orson Welles considered The General to be the greatest Civil War movie ever made (and Buster himself as one of the most beautiful people to ever be photographed). For me, Sherlock Jr. eclipses his other masterpieces (yes, even The General), due to its perfect harmony of playfulness, tragedy, comedy, absurd and a form of self-mocking misery that, unlike Chaplin’s, makes no excuses and asks for no lenience.
As exquisitely technical and historically accurate as The General is, as humorously sweet and cleverly directed Our Hospitality is, I find Sherlock Jr to be Buster Keaton’s most accomplished work. We are accustomed to his work ethic, where nothing is left to chance, where the gags are so elaborate and hilarious that you find yourself half laughing half gasping in awe. We know all that. His independent work of the 1920s was exquisite. Yes, even College and Spite Marriage.
What separates Buster Keaton for me from the likes of Chaplin and Lloyd transcends mere slapstick. It is Bunuel-like surrealism, a multi-layered vision and an understanding of the cinematic medium light years ahead of his peers through which Keaton was able to bend time, space and matter. Keaton started flexing his whimsical muscles with The Playhouse, during which he was unable to perform his usual gravity-defying stunts due to an ankle injury. He perfected his dream-within-a-dream, rule-reshuffling universe with Sherlock Jr., a masterpiece which served as inspiration for the likes of Woody Allen and John McTiernan, to name a few.
With Sherlock Jr. he took the classic detective story, cut it into little pieces, jumbled them all up then pasted it all together. The result is 44 minutes of cinematic perfection. Scenes of gorgeous romantic yet electrifying sensibility - check! Heartbreaking scenes caused by miscommunication and injustice - check! Action packed scenes - checked! Absurd scenes in which we doubt not only what we are seeing but also the reality of our own lives, Matrix-style - check! check!
The only way to appreciate the eccentricity of such a film like Sherlock Jr is to watch it with the Club Foot Orchestra score. Controversial as it may be, I really loved the Club Foot Orchestra score for Sherlock Jr. Eerie yet playful, zany yet sensual, minimalist yet sophisticated, just like the man, just like the man’s work. Music is especially important for a silent film and I feel that the Club Foot Orchestra managed to capture the energy, innovation of the film as well as romantic quirkiness of Buster’s character. Special mentions of the pool table scene and the chase sequences. The music for the pool table scene, which was meticulously arranged, perfectly illustrates the difficulty with which the actual scene was shot (it took Buster a week to get all the perfect pool shots – there was no fakery involved). The music for the chase sequences are a blend of Mr. Bean and James Bond, which, I believe, perfectly encapsulate our hero’s nature: suave yet childish, sexy yet naïve, boyish and manly all at the same time. Buster would have appreciated the experimental nature of this original score, given that he worked for originality and innovation all his life.
There’s no doubt that the world is not in the best shape it could be. The fact that its salvation lies with the top 0.5% people in the world (or even less, I made that percentage up) who make up the oil industry and other minor and major industries that help ‘make our lives easier’ while draining our bank account doesn’t make the prognosis any more optimistic. And yet. And yet, today I found myself protesting again with XR. We went through the motions, stamped our feet, waved the flags and banners, shouted out chants passionately, as if we were making a difference. We weren’t. We got called names. People came at us trying to tear our canvas banners from our hands, angry that we were stopping the traffic. People were trying to go about their business as if nothing was changing. Well, nothing is changing because we are only disrupting normal people’s lives. Everyday people, who have worries and concerns, possibly rushing to a hospital to see a dying grandmother. None of the fat cats, the big corporate magnates running the world were there among the people whose lives we disrupted today. I knew our protest was in vain even when I was chanting the passionate slogans about the environment. It was and still is a cause I solemnly believe in, but there’s nobody to listen. Still, it was nice to be part of a community of people who can create the illusion of making a difference.
We aren’t making a difference, but at least we’re tricking ourselves into thinking we are. What else is there to do? Sit around and wait to die? Wait for the permafrost to melt? Take action. I’ve personally reduced my carbon footprint as much as I could. I’ve almost gone vegan, I don’t have children (why should I want to bring children into this world?), I don’t drive, I don’t use plastic unless I have no choice. I know one or two people who have done the same and who know one or two people in their turn, and so on.
We impose all these things on ourselves because we feel shamed into it. We are shown pictures of birds, whales and other creatures dead, with their stomachs full of plastic. The oceans are full of plastic, the corals are dying, the animals are dying. We have a conscience. We know what needs to change and we are starting with the one in the mirror. But when there is no balance of power, when the 70% of the world’s global gas emission comes from only 100 big fat oil companies, it makes you feel quite small and your effort quite insignificant. Yes, Greta Thurnberg is to be commended for her will and her resilience. She’s a very brave kid and she knows the monster we are dealing with. But the monster has many heads and only $ in its eyes and in its pockets. How do we stop feeding it and still live a normal life. The world’s brightest minds have found solutions, I’m told, but I’m also told they’re not profitable. Why give the world something for free when you can charge them?
I am so angry. I am angry at my inability to make peace with a world that is burning, a world that has stopped caring and is wallowing in apathy. And what do I do? Do I abandon it all and say carpe diem, every man for himself? Why not, it’s the end of the world, life be damned! Do it while you can! Treat yourself, you deserve it! It’s Mad Max Revisited, with bonus scenes.
Don’t believe in the fight, it’s doomed from the start. It’s doomed from the start not because there are only a few of us. There are millions of us around the world crying alongside Australia, weeping for the Amazon. But what good are our cries for, when the powers that be, the powers that can change everything won’t, because there’s no profit in it. There’s profit in keeping people feeling unhappy, anxious, angry and wishing they could do something to take the edge off. Don’t worry about what you can’t change, here’s a 20% discount at Asos! Treat yourself!
The fight is doomed from the start because the world’s richest 22 people are richer than the whole of the African continent, according to a fresh article doing the rounds on social media today. Do we believe it? Does it matter if it was 22 or 100? The fact is: the world is in the hands of the big corporations who have already pillaged this earth dry. We need a mass revolution. We live on borrowed time. It’s 100 seconds to midnight.
Much like a glam rock star from the 70s, Hollywood is, if not dead, almost at death’s door, constantly churning out mediocre remakes of old films or relying on almost stale franchises.
The glorious days of Hollywood are now but a tale to be told. It is a tale of audacious beautiful women who make their own way in life. It is a tale of strong, bold, quick tempered men with questionable morals, bending the rules but having fun doing so. And they all enthral us with their magnetic screen personas: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Mae West and so many more.
The Pre-Code era of Hollywood holds the key to what makes cinema such an entertaining form of art. It was original, yet relatable, it offered escapism through its almost attainable glamour. All of the screen stars were gods and goddesses with human back stories, inviting the post October ’29 regular Joe to dare to dream.
Continuing in the Roaring Twenties fashion, the flapper girl gave way to the emancipated woman, who wasn’t afraid to break societal boundaries and be free in love and in life. The Pre-Code heroes and heroines are deeply flawed humans, but what they don’t lack in is zest for life. The passion showed on screen was so fierce that even today, both film lovers and history lovers look at the Pre-Code age of Hollywood as a well-documented study of man, a history lesson we can all learn from, especially our contemporary Hollywood studio executives.
The glamour on screen was equalled by a lot of drama off screen. The great studio system, most notably MGM, has a lot to answer for. They’ve established and run Hollywood like a star making machine. In exchange for fame, our beloved movie stars had to dispose of their own identity and be fitted with a new one, much like a see-through cocktail dress.
Perhaps this is where our fascination with movie stars comes from, especially those moving further and further away from our contemporary lifestyle, becoming effigies as well preserved and valued as museum pieces.
If you don’t know who William Wyler is, then cinema isn’t your passion. He is an artist, a captivating storyteller and such a good example against the auteur theory that I’m sure even Godard can agree with.
But I won’t attempt to delve deeper into Wyler’s career. That is too great a task, which will require years of research and perhaps the subject of a dissertation or two. I will only zoom in on one film directed by this master at work - The Desperate Hours, a film which caused stirrings of memories familiar and yet never experienced.
The Desperate Hours is the only film pairing, or setting against each other, two Hollywood heavy weights: Frederic March and Humphrey Bogart. And the sparks are for the ages. For those not in the know, Frederic March was a Broadway star as well as a matinee idol, who already had an Oscar (for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) in the bag by the time Humphrey Bogart was being pushed around and tried on for size on the Warner Brothers’ lot. But more on that on a later post. I feel Humphrey Bogart needs little introduction, other than to say that his short screen career (20 years) was perhaps richer, enviable and more intense than that of many of his peers.
In 1955 they were both veterans of the screen, wiser, wrinklier and more confident. And that’s where the charm of the whole picture lies. I use the term picture, because it has all the feels and depths of an old medium, rich in style, sentiment as well as action and plenty of suspense. I also always read the word ‘picture’ in Norma Desmond’s voice. And this one is not a small one either! It’s got faces, alright. The handsome, well-aged faces of March and Bogart shine dark and full of passion, anger, heroism and most of all humanity.
Frederic March plays the head of the Hilliard household, living a tranquil life in the suburbs until Bogart’s Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict, chooses his home as a temporary hideaway from the police, taking him, his wife and two children hostages. Griffin operates with his younger brother and another escaped convict, although the latter is merely a stereotype and only used to advance the plot. The main battle is between the Hilliards and the Griffins and is mostly a battle of wits and feelings. From the beginning the younger Griffin is having second thoughts about the life of crime his brother has led him on, when he expresses regret for not being able to have a family and a house in the suburbs like the Hilliards. One of the most memorable quotes from the film comes from the younger Griffin: “Yeah, you taught me everything. Except how to live in a house like this.”
Despite suffering from a rather predictable plot, the film is aided by astonishing close ups of both Bogart and March, impeccably edited and combined with astonishing ensemble compositions. Wyler seems to understand the character in both their faces, accumulated over the years. And he lets them both shine with the weariness of the passing years. Wyler’s collaboration with cinematographer extraordinaire Lee Garmes brings out the best in both – a film noir of both subtle and sublime beauty, equalled only by a superb and insidious darkness.
The Desperate Hours is a film noir which somehow transcends the genre, becoming as much a gangster film as a family melodrama, with some truly suspenseful moments added in for good measure, of which even Hitchcock might be proud.
One can easily forget that Miss Shelley Winters had once played, albeit briefly, the Hollywood youth game. She began her career with a vivacious and appealing vulgarity, playing fun loving secondary, yet memorable characters. A most notable mention is A Double Life (1947), directed by George Cukor, which can be credited to have helped launch Shelley’s career.
Despite being seemingly typecast early in her career, limited to playing secondary characters whose destinies were to be killed off in the second act, Shelley Winters soon understood the rules of the game in the biggest star factory in the world – Hollywood. Just like her old friend, Marilyn would say: “Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” Winters was not ready to sell, or event rent out her soul.
Therefore, if swimming against the current would get her noticed, Shelley was determined to take “swimming lessons”. Which she did, at the famous Actors Studio, in New York, alongside Monroe, James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Performing was in her blood. Shelley Winters was keen on a long career that would allow her to keep performing. Thus, she would have to pursue the more challenging roles and mould new Hollywood stereotypes, carve her own niche rather than try to fit in with any of the old and outdated ones.
Starting with the quiet-as-a-mouse blend-in-with-the-scenery character of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, Winters grew from raw blonde sexpot to more well-rounded, flawed but deeply human characters. They still remained sometimes raw, sometimes bitter, but always relatable and always mesmerising to watch.
From then on, peer accolades started pouring in and the most coveted Oscar statuette was soon hers for the taking, for the great work in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). The quality of her roles didn't deteriorate over the following decade, or the one after that. Or quite possibly, all her roles gained the "Winters" quality once the cameras started rolling. She was wonderfully vivacious, albeit slightly neurotic as Charlotte Haze in Lolita; she was "in great condition", albeit slightly naughty in Alfie (1966).
With her second Oscar win in 1972, for The Poseidon Adventure, her legacy as a great character actress was well established by now. Shelley Winters proved to the world and the entire film industry that she was more than a ditzy blonde and more than just a matronly figure too, paving the way for future versatile actresses to follow suit, such as Miriam Margolyes, Samantha Morton, Toni Collette, Viola Davis and Sally Hawkins.
Dystopian is an adjective I do not care for. It is a frightening word and I fear it goes hand in hand with the verb ‘manipulate’. The most frightening thing is that, in a world where fact checking is easier than it has ever been, words like ‘dystopian’ and ‘mass manipulation’ can find their way in our day to day vocabulary. How is it possible for a civilised society to have forgotten its history, ignore the red flags and buy into the lies and propaganda? Google, Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools, but they have become the spaces where the enemy resides and thrives.
We are a generation of keyboard warriors who refuse to vote when it’s most important. We are a generation of celebrity fact-checkers, but not fact fact-checkers. We don’t care about politics, because we don’t understand it. But it understands us. The political leaders know what to do to manipulate and confuse us, set us up against one another. We are isolated in our social media bubbles. Fact. We are divided and easier to conquer. Fact. Hatred is easier than love. It gives us adrenaline and power. Love makes us weak and vulnerable. Why should we love our neighbour when we can’t relate with them or even understand their language? The ‘us vs them’ propaganda has never failed yet. And here we are: the age of Brexit, the age of “lock them up!”, “send them home!” chants that will echo through the ages, if the ages will still be there 50 years from now.
But you’ll say: “the world is not that bleak! There is still good news in the world, don’t let the bad outweigh the good!” Unfortunately, the bad will always outweigh the good, just as the lies will prove to be more powerful and destructive than the truth. I hope I’m proven wrong, but the speed with which we live our lives has affected our thinking. We are too trigger-happy, ready to blurt out a half-formed opinion regardless of the damage it may cause.
In contrast with the UK political landscape of today, I feel I must quote from a transcript of a BBC lecture from 1949 I came upon, held by Robert Birley entitled Britain in Europe. Reflections on the development of a European society:
“We have a great deal to learn about Europe. In fact, we have little idea yet of the revolution in our ways of thinking that our decision to join Europe will involve. To prepare for this we may learn much from our past history, at times as an example to be followed, at times as a warning. But we must remember that our contribution towards creating a common tradition in the union cannot be made from our past, but only from our present, and anything we can offer will depend, first of all, on the vigour, the skill and the confidence we can muster to solve our own problems.”