Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Snowman (Great Britain, 1982)

A boy wakes to find his garden covered with snow. He spends all day building a snowman and, in the evening, is sent to bed. Waking at midnight, he looks out of the window to see his snowman come to life and, joyously, joins him in exploring the thrills of wearing make-up, watching television, riding a motorbike, meeting Father Christmas and, most memorably of all, walking in the air. Back home, the boy goes to bed and, when he wakes up, runs outside to reunite with his frozen friend. He is devastated to see that, while he slept, the snowman melted. And so the 26-minute movie ends with the boy, alone in the snow, falling to his knees in despair.

As many before me have pointed out, it’s not a story (or, at least, an ending) that would have appeared in an American Christmas film (or, it must be admitted, in 99% of British ones) – but it is this honest and unflinching finish that has made The Snowman, and its sub-zero hero, part of the modern iconography of Christmas, both in Britain and abroad. The last moments of the movie elevate it from a sweet and wonderfully amusing entertainment into a perfect reflection of the briefness, and power, of those few childhood years when we can completely believe in the myths and magic of Christmas – and, by extension, make it a metaphor for the quick-burning brilliance of all childhood innocence.

Dianne Jackson’s classic animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s classic children’s picture book is essentially a silent film with a musical soundtrack (it is often preceded by one of a couple of bits of live action, by far the worse of which is an awkward introduction, and a few moments of unnecessary narration, from David Bowie), and every word-free moment is a reminder, for filmmakers and audiences alike, of just how redundant much movie dialogue can be. The excellence of the animation and the expressiveness of the music recorded to accompany it render pointless any of form of verbal description. The only words we do – or could want to – hear during the film are the lyrics to the endlessly whistle-worthy 'Walking in the Air' (sung not by Aled Jones – he would come later – but by St. Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Paul Auty). The song is the foundation of the film’s most famous scenes: the snowman, en route to a rendezvous with a certain S. Claus, flying hand-in-hand with the unbelieving boy over forests and fields, suburbs and seas.

The Snowman’s finest achievement is probably that anyone still wants to watch it. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, its annual Christmas appearances on (British) television are so long-standing a tradition that one wonders if schedulers aren’t trying to force a programme of aversion therapy onto the film’s fans. If ever a film had the opportunity to become worn out before our eyes, it is The Snowman. And yet the movie remains – the simplicity of its story, the agreeability of its characters, and the marvels of its animation making it immune to negative effects of age and overexposure.

Perhaps not the best Christmas movie (though very possibly the most moving), The Snowman is still a definitive festive film for millions of children, teenagers and adults. For charm and heartbreak, it’s equal to ET, that other great family film from 1982, and, for beauty and impact, to Watership Down, that other great classic of hand drawn British animation. Unlike the appeal of the formulaic, so-and-so-saves-Christmas movies that are vomited onto cinema screens each December, the brilliance of The Snowman will never be melted in the morning.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA, 1985)

I have a natural prejudice against The Purple Rose of Cairo: I so adore Woody Allen’s usual film character (his quintessential New York neurotic is as a funny, and as deceptively versatile, as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stoneface) that I automatically resent any Allen film in which he does not appear. But not even I would argue that the addition of Allen the actor, or indeed the addition of anything, could possibly improve this, one of the finest, and most bittersweet, of American comedies.

Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a scatty waitress in a 1930s New Jersey ravaged by the Great Depression. Her husband is a deadbeat boozer and the sadness of her life is alleviated only by her frequent pilgrimages to the local picture house. Up on the screen, in a world of spats and champagne, white telephones and one-liners, are the impossibly attractive characters of The Purple Rose of Cairo – the kind of urbane and exotic escapism beloved of Depression-era audiences (and those modern moviegoers prone to sigh and declare, ‘I love old movies!’ at any glimpse of black and white cinematography). Standout among these characters is Jeff Daniels’s dashing, pith-helmeted Tom Baxter – ‘of the Chicago Baxters: explorer, poet, adventurer; just back from Cairo, where [he] searched in vain for the legendary purple rose’ – and Cecilia returns to watch him again and again.

Eventually, intrigued by her incessant attention and desperate to meet her, Baxter steps off the screen and into the real world. The audience erupts, the management go mad, news reporters appear and so, eventually, do the movie’s makers. Accompanying them is Gil Shepherd, the actor underneath Tom Baxter’s safari outfit (and also, of course, played by Daniels). After a chance meeting and an afternoon’s ukulele-playing, Shepherd, too, falls for Cecilia – and soon she is being romanced by both a Hollywood movie star and his latest character. It’s one of the great comic plots, as spectacularly absurd as the storyline of any of the great screwballs, but resolved with an honesty and intelligence that the endings of few movies can match.

When asked to nominate his favourite of his films, Woody Allen frequently cites The Purple Rose of Cairo, not because it is necessarily the best, or the one for which he has most affection, but because it is the movie that, by the time it reached the screen, most exactly resembled the vision he had of it when he sat down to write the script. Even the most auterist major movie is the work of several ensembles and a couple of committees, and so it is remarkable to see one as cohesive and as consistent as Cairo. This isn’t to suggest that simple fidelity to a scriptwriter’s original concept of a film is automatically a mark of quality – only that is here, in a movie entirely without the muddled compromise and thematic loose-ends that so often infect films subjected to focus groups, studio-imposed script doctors or arguments in the editing suite.

Cinema as an escape from the woes of America’s Great Depression is not a new theme – in fact, it is almost a clichĂ© – but its treatment here is uniquely skilled. There is, for example, more psychological resonance – and, I’d wager, more historical accuracy – in the urgent hope in Farrow’s eyes as she gazes at the cinema screen than could be found in any documentary or lecture about 1930s America. And it is in the exquisite balance of period detail and emotional accuracy on the one side, with farce and fantasy on the other, that Cairo’s brilliance is most obvious.

Although the script and performances are equal to those of any of Allen’s many masterpieces (and, considering that Woody has written both more Oscar-nominated scripts and more Oscar-winning roles than any other screenwriter, that is a major compliment), it is the film's visuals that are primarily responsible for the impact of story. The grim and grimy browns of the costumes and backdrops instantaneously transport us to the period (and prefigure those that would star in that festival of nostalgia, Radio Days, which Allen would make two years later); and their contrast with the uncanny recreation of Golden Age sets and cinematography shown in the film-within-a-film not only reinforces our immersion in the era, but also makes a world in which a character stepping out of a cinema screen, or an audience member stepping into it, is both suitably amazing and utterly believable.

Although critical reaction to Cairo was – and remains – pretty much universally rapturous, the film is often omitted when cinephiles name Woody Allen’s best movies. This, I’m sure, is because of the very reason I was initially turned-off by it: Allen doesn’t appear onscreen. Without the spectacle of his comic alter-ego, bumbling, mumbling and spilling jokes of genius about penis envy and anti-Semitism, no Allen film will be ever be seen as emblematic of his work – but that shouldn’t stop it being as acclaimed as any other entry in his oeuvre. The Purple Rose of Cairo is as much a masterwork as Manhattan or Annie Hall.