The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

The-Sound-of-Fury-1950-1

Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUA, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

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Salomé (US, 1922)

Fabulous costume and set design

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:

‘re-contextualize [the film] in a new kind of satire… When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’

The score certainly did ‘re-contextualize’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is ‘perhaps… a bold choice’. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.

My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian emigre Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.

Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.

 

 

I, Tonya (US, 2017)

The burden of representation

Although I remember Tonya Harding’s name and vague details of her ice skating notoriety I didn’t know the detail. Presumably I do now though the playfulness of Steven Roger’s script and Chris Gillespie’s direction allow for uncertainty; Tonya says to camera, when she fired a gun at her husband, “That never happened!”. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach works with the subject matter because Harding was clearly a no-holds barred woman and Margot Robbie portrays her brilliantly. Also impressive are the skating sequences where Robbie appears to be executing the extremely difficult ‘triple axel’ (see here for how it was done) Gillespie’s fluid camera with the sound of skate on ice high in the mix make the routines as thrilling as they should be. However…

In a sense my problem with the film isn’t the film’s fault. Harding was a working class woman who had to overcome economic difficulties, not to mention a monster-mother, and class prejudice: the skating establishment routinely under-scored her because her face didn’t fit (there’s an interesting story in that). I, Tonya, however, is a straightforward – apart from the stylistic tics noted above – biopic and the focus is on the stupidity of her husband and his crony, Shawn. The latter, in particular, is milked for his delusional self regard and the fact his is a ‘fat pig’ (the latter emphasised through close-ups of him incessantly eating). The impression I get is that these are typical working class people who are uncouth, stupid and pathetic; but working class people aren’t typically like that. The absence of the class from films in general means when they appear the burden of representation falls heavily on the text. During the end credits video footage of the actual Shawn shows him to be exactly as he is portrayed; so you can hardly blame the film.

Ultimately I found the representations offensive and even (Oscar-winner) Allison Janney’s mother is no more than an appalling cipher.

Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.

 

Available at Amazon here.

Lady Bird (US, 2017)

Teen conventions

I’m getting slightly worried about my mental health as once again I’m finding my judgement on a film in the first few shots to be correct. Could it be that I’m allowing my first impressions to dominate the rest of the film? If my response is negative in the first 60 seconds should I leave the screening and ask for my money back? Lady Bird was trailing plaudits and promised a female perspective, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, so I was anticipating a good experience but…

I don’t believe Lady Bird is a bad film, unlike Phantom Thread, but it struggled to engage me in its modest 90 minute length. I’m struggling to understand why: it’s not the performances; the 22-year-old Saoirse Ronan is a convincing teenager. Gerwig’s direction is fine as is the script. Maybe it’s the autobiographical element; I just didn’t find the life portrayed as interesting. It’s not the female perspective that’s off-putting as I enjoyed The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

On the plus side it’s good to see Gerwig reaping success both in terms of awards and box office. It is the type of small film, budgeted at $10m, that struggles to get a hearing amongst the behemoths of Hollywood that absorb most budgets and screens. Parlaying $10m into $68m and counting worldwide is decent business and hopefully will encourage independent producers and audiences for small films.

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, 2015)

Empowering the twisted sister

FilmFour, in the UK, are to be congratulated for putting on a season of female-directed films to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of (limited) votes for women. Marielle Heller directed and adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel; she’d previously adapted it for stage and appeared in the titular role played in the film by British actor, Bel Powley.

This is an excellent test case study to investigate what a female perspective can bring because the narrative shows a 15-year-old seducing her mum’s boyfriend; in the wrong hands this would not get beyond ‘creepy’. Whilst there’s plenty of female nudity it is motivated by the narrative and Minnie’s issues with her body; the female direction means it doesn’t feel exploitative. (This is not to say that a female director cannot make a misogynist film or necessarily has to deal with ‘female’ issues). However, by ensuring the film is Minnie’s narrative, she gives us a commentary on her feeling via tape recordings and in dialogue with animated characters who appear from her imagination, we can feel confident that this is a female perspective.

Although set over 40 years ago in 1976, the issues of female anxiety about being validated only through being attractive haven’t changed. Heller captures the post-hippy, pre punk ambience very well reminding us it was a time of potential revolution. There had seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the better in the post-Vietnam era. Reagan’s election at the end of the decade nailed that particular coffin.

Kristin Wiig plays Minnie’s mixed-up mother: she tells her daughter to get a boyfriend and then states that’s not a ‘feminist thing to say’. The portrayal of her is quite reactionary in that she is something of a hypocritical wastrel: the ‘hippies as hypocrites’ trope, most notoriously seen in Forrest Gump (1994), has some mileage but too often is used simply to dis counter culture. However, I guess the novel is autobiographical and Phoebe’s mum was just like that.

Satisfyingly Minnie becomes increasingly empowered through her experiences whilst the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is shown for what he is. Gratifyingly Heller hasn’t had to wait too long for her second feature: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, is due later this year.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.