A few years ago everyone was raving about The Great Beauty (2013) my natural reaction was to not watch it, which makes no sense, usually you’d go out of your way to watch a film. I decided to let it pass me by until it showed up on TV where I took the chance to see what all the fuss was about. Which in turn enriched my later understanding and enjoyment of Youth (2015) which to a certain extent deals with the same themes as the previous film – the effects of aging as we grow older. This time director Paolo Sorrentino gives us a mostly English speaking cast and more varied age range of actors which helps us explore themes of the film.
Why I really wanted to see this film was to see both Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in this more thoughtful film than the average. I soon learned why. Like The Great Beauty it’s bright, luxurious and treats its cast as both beautiful and flawed people. You enter into this almost perfect world that is the Swiss health farm where we spend the long duration of this sometimes drawn-out film that moves between four main characters, each with their own challenges. It’s not just about being in the lap of luxury, just lying there and being pampered. Of course we have a lot of that but at a mental cost.
Turning to both life-long friends Fred Ballinger (Caine) and Mick Boyle (Keitel) who as we learn have led long productive and creative lives; a retired conductor, the other an aging director whose in the midst of developing his next project. It’s the desired image and rich in cliché which becomes a bit of a turn-off, the high life and big profound ideas that after a while you have to switch off and go with. Unlike Ballinger the retired conductor whose being hounded by the emissary for Queen Elizabeth II who want his to conduct for her, one of his most famous pieces, one of his simple songs (for a opera maybe). Refusing due to personal reasons. Also he has his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose also his PA. These are not exactly average people at this health-spa.
Then we have a contemplative and arrogant actor Jimmy Tree, a skewed version of Paul Dano who’s there to find and develop his next part. That I won’t tell you. It’s a film that I find builds itself on the use of the clichés of the high and modern life. They are all discussing life but not really experiencing it, cut off by the mountains which we are allow ourselves to be transported to. They dwell and ponder not worrying about time. It’s somehow not boring though, as much as they could be talking down to you, we all have these conversations on some level. Maybe not with some of the big and clever words that.
As the film progress it does rely on a lot of repetition to carry the film, the formal structure of the health spa as we go through the week or so we spend there. From the performers on the rotating stage to the masseuse who works out at night and the almost levitating Buddhist monk. You have to have the routine to show the passage, we are only visiting as these characters learn about themselves, boy do they take their time too.
I have mixed feelings about this obviously accomplished film. It’s not your average pop-corn movie, it does take a bit more to sit through this admittedly sumptuous film, much like The Great Beauty which is more aware of its own world, the high life that Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) who wants to find meaning in his life beyond the luxury he has surrounded himself with. His friends are starting to die-away. He needs more purpose that just a pretty one-night stand. Compared to Ballinger who is obviously much older he has surpassed that stage, his has a daughter who he hardly knows but still adores him besides his faults.
Whilst director Boyle is still working, wanting to keep going to be known and appreciated. Wanting to work with his once starlet Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) who herself is a has been living on old glories, wanting to find recognition and meaning in her own life. A washed up actress (a version of Marilyn Monroe maybe had she lived longer) who s in-fact more aware of her position than her old friend. Fonda is fantastic, taking a massive risk, playing a version of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) deluded but still wanting to carrying on. Riding the wave of her fading legend to find relevance.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast delivered strong performances, none of them underused. Even supporting characters have their moments that make the film a rich experience, But rich is word I must emphasis it is a very rich film in its look and language which makes gives it exclusivity, I’m even using these big words myself to review this film that both entertain, enrich and to a point isolates at times. It would be lost thought without Caine and Keitel who are a part time couple who as we learn only share the good things until the end when we learn life must go on however it finds us.
My second day in the capital saw me take in four more galleries that got better and better. The day started off at Collyer Bristow Gallery for photographic exhibition Frame Thy Fearful Symmetry that left me with mixed feelings. There were pieces that I was really engaging with, wondering how they were constructed. Whilst others I felt they were just plain literally with little thought beyond being an ironic meme. Pointless for me, by David Raymond Conroy – Early Abandonment the title was added in pink swirly bubble writing, on-top of an image clearly constructed for the image, of charges and cables outside a pawn shop. It felt too forced and lazy to really have any impact for me. Maybe that was the point which passed me by.
Another piece by Rachel Maclean which at a distance looked like a bright depiction of Hindu gods became something more bright and kitsch almost. Usually this style is far too much for me. However for me was all about the construction of the piece. It’s obvious that she has posed a number of times, characters of her on creation, manipulated and enhanced to create this over the top image that is too much too look at yet drawn in by something I can’t explain still.
The Next show was a one of the highlights of the weekend for me, seeing the work of Roberto Almango Suspended in Space in Rosenfeld Porcini. His sculptures look like 3dimensional drawings that have the illusion of hovering off the walls of the gallery space. He does the seemingly impossible with wood that he finds in the woods, bending them into wonderful shapes. I could have spent all day in that gallery space.
We moved onto the Halycon Art Gallery to look at Russell Young – Superstar, I came away enjoying the last photos of Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold some of which were taken during the filming of The Misfits (1961) which was a her last film. It was a nice surprise after the pop-art pieces with all the crushed diamonds which after a few minutes exposed their true identity as opulence for the rich. Of course the works in the show among other piece of pop-art, some made from hundreds of notes, other versions of Andy Warhol’s campbel soup cans.
The final exhibition was really playful and intricate work by Japanese artist Yuken Teruya at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery who takes paper cutting to another level. Most of the work made in the last two years, he is very playful in his work at the same time he is very much about nature and the economy. He takes the phrase “Money doesn’t grow on trees” and literally makes trees from rolled up notes with cut-out leaves. Even making a game of it with the Monopoly game. The financial world until recently has plated with money like it was a game, so maybe this could be too literal. Yet at the same time using monopoly you have the double meaning of how out of control, how successful players can be when playing, Yet you are safer playing these printed notes which come in a limited supply. Here we can see what could happen if we just let nature take over. Each piece is very intricate, made with real care and attention to detail,
My dad has the idea that Marilyn Monroe was no good as an actress which is true…to a point as I have found with her last film The Misfits (1961). I believe she unfairly earned this title due the directors she worked with, taking advantage of her, the film industry creating an image she couldn’t live up to and the pressure of public live being labelled a sex-symbol. And this is before the days of the internet when she would have surely suffered far worse under the gaze of the media. You have to look at earlier roles such as her small bit part in All About Eve (1950) where she was more a character role with a few lines, playing the blonde for a scene. Playing up that persona before it really took root a few years later. Another stronger example in Niagara (1953) where she’s paired against Joseph Cotten, yes the very same who found fame thanks to Citizen Kane (1941) and a strong of thrillers, a credible actor from the theatre who made the transition to Hollywood. It seems a very strange pairing on the face of it today. Yet it’s not really, take a pretty young thing who knows no better to bring in the audience and an established actor and there you have on-screen couple for a film. It happens sadly to this day, Hollywood really hasn’t broken that mould. Hopefully as more actresses speak out about the sexism in the industry we may finally get change,
As much as Monroe plays more to the classic femme-fetale this time, the blonde who can really drop a few knocks along the course of the film, getting her husband George Loomis (Cotten) all tied up, Not long out of a psychiatric hospital the couple are taking a break at the iconic resort of Niagara Falls, it’s not really what the doctor ordered for the Loomis’s who are further apart than ever before, just about able to stand each other in their cabin. On the face of this all American location dark secrets are beneath surface ready to seep out in the blazing Technicolor film-noir. George’s troubled by feelings of jealousy which consume him, unable to move on, which is pushing the couple apart. As Rose (Monroe) has gone to the arms of another man already whilst on holiday.
We discover the Loomis couple have out-stayed their welcome when The Cutler’s arrive on their “honeymoon” something that is never really explained. Promised that cabin the Lomis’s are still occupying, the two couples an uneasy friendship, the Cutlers aware of the Rose’s overt sexuality towards the other guests staying at the resort, playing music that stirs up George to the brink. I found the Cutlers to be underdeveloped as a couple, first meeting them at the border, before we learn they are not really newlyweds, so what are they, just a couple taking a holiday. Ray (Max Showalter) is hoping to meet his boss Mr. J.C. Kettering (Don Wilson) and his wife, hoping to take advantage of the situation. However it’s Polly (Jean Peters) who has the most excitement, discovering more than she expected whilst enjoying the attractions.
Polly’s caught up in the mess between George and Rose as things get messy, the disappearance of George before turning up dead a few days later. The all American holiday destination’s tinged with death, lies and alteria-motives that Polly is tangled up in unable to her herself free unlike her husband Ray who is harder to persuade. You could say its a classic Hitchcock where all this dark activity is going on, and only one person really knows the truth. Both of the Loomis’s are very different people, the very definition of opposites when it comes to a couple, the honeymoon period’s indeed well and truly over.
Henry Hathaway has taken the film-noir genre and brought it into the light of day, the all-American couple is no longer going on a happy holiday where you lie on the beach and get-drunk, a place where you can forget your troubles, they come with you and never leave. He has cleverly cast Monroe as the femme-fetale, using her beauty to distract us from what is going on inside her. Whilst Cotten is sometimes out of place, probably too old to really be her husband (like I said earlier a symptom of Hollywood) he’s possessed with jealousy and anger, not to the same level of darkness of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the anger within him has come from a different place as they couple tear shreds out of each other. Hathaway also makes great use of the bells throughout really adds a sense of dread. On first hearing them they are to taunt us, as they ring out a previous song. Before acting as a foundation for more powerful scene that is both brave and daring in full colour, relying on the audiences memory to complete the scene as we’re distracted by the murder below.
This really was a surprising, a rare colour film-noir, with the addition of Monroe before the mid-fifties when her fame was cemented for very different reasons. We see what she could have become in this beautiful location that is synonymous with what is great with America. It’s very classic in it’s form, tinged with darkness. You’ll never go on holiday and feel the same again.
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.
In what was to be the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe sees them acting their socks off in The Misfits (1961) as if they were fresh out of stage-school. Giving all they had to these two raw parts. Along with Montgomery Clift as he was nearing the end of his career and tragic life.
The wild that is America has been tamed, the cowboy is a dying breed in the form of Gay Langland (Gable), his buddies Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) and Guido (Eli Wallach) as they fight against the inevitable change that modern life has brought. They have become relics of an old way of life and genre that has become dated. Not wanting to become part of the rat race that draws a wage of salary, tied down to a certain way of life that tears them away from being in the open. It’s a sad state of circumstance for these men.
When newly divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe) who herself is adapting to a life of freedom after a waste of a marriage that saw only two years of life. A woman who is so pure that is really unaware of modern life around her, unlike her male friends who have watched it changed over time. A vulnerable woman who lets life take her from place to place, a free spirit. Probably the only film that allowed her to show her full potential as an actress in her short and tragic career. John Huston still used her as an attractive young woman, which was more subtle, and at time reinforced and corrected. Even the pretty have their problems and should be depicted that way.
The Misfits (1961) has all the trappings of a western in a modern context, with a realization that the genre in its present form may longer have no more steam. It has to change, as the characters in this film are all forced to do so. Made fully aware as they round-up 6 stallions in a gruesome collection of sequences that see them each having to reconsider the directions their lives are headed. They fight themselves to decide what they all want out of life.
Full of rich conversation that comments of the changing world. Nevada being a barren landscape that allows you to run free, whilst at the same time be used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Americas backyard in essence. With little life in the state is a reminder of the vast open spaces that have been lost to change.
Clift gives us another sensitive man to enjoy, who pushes the limits of what he can do to feel alive and forget his problems. With the catalyst of Monroe’s Taber who makes him realize what is going on. With a passion for life and animal rights that are coming through. Even protesting to Langland who wants to shoot a rabbit, which a decade before would be unquestioned as part of pest control and farming techniques that were essential during the pioneer days.
I cannot comment on the supporting cast of Thelma Ritter‘s Isabelle Steers being much older than her female friend has seen all these changes happen, accepting them as a fact of life. Whilst the veteran pilot Guido is trapped in the past with his friends, knowing he has killed countless people without seeing one of them. A victim of warfare that has not fully adjusted to civilian life.
Returning last but not least to the performance of his career put in by Gable a man who stuck in his ways, the ways of the past, who has been at the for front on the changes to farming. Falling for Monroe which for a time seems creepy, but I learnt to accept the relationship as two lost souls who love different aspects of each other. Monroe is not willing to really understand his life, which for him is too late to change.
- New data show how closely FBI monitored Marilyn Monroe (cbsnews.com)
Only finishing an hour ago was a quick look at the filmic myth of the screen goddess, Starting in the silent era with the likes of Lilian Gish through to the power of the seductive Marlene Dietrich, and the plain powerful Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, ending as the studio system collapses with the arrival of the foreign Sophia Loren, to the legendary Marilyn Monroe who in herself has created her own legacy beyond film that outstrips that of any of other actresses who were once tailored for the screen by the major studios.
The short documentary touches on all the major players of the golden age of cinema, their change statuses with the audience and the world that admired them. I felt it would’ve been longer by at least half an hour to go more in depth, especially when they touch at the end on Louise Brooks who was lost at the dawn of the sound era and the Hays code that made it harder for her type, like Mae West to continue with a career in American Cinema. A light-hearted look at this aspect of the film industry, especially at this time of year, a chance to indulge in light fantasy and nostalgia.
Still, all that said it was interesting to see how the actresses were perceived by the the studios, and the public. Even using archive footage to gauge more insight. Reaching extremes with Rita Hayworth‘s image being plastered in the A-bomb, which shocked her to the core. The Screen goddess is a vital component of cinemas history, which without our view of the art form would be very different, helping to create a modern day religion where larger than life figures were/are brought together to play out new stories/parables that become a part of modern culture.
- In pictures: Hollywood unseen (bbc.co.uk)
- Louise Brooks and Me (multiglom.wordpress.com)
- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Louise Brooks (rchristopoulos5166.wordpress.com)