Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Christmas Story (USA, 1983)

To Americans, my suggestion that, one Christmas, they should watch A Christmas Story will seem as unnecessary as the suggestion that, one Christmas, they should send cards or exchange gifts. In the US – where, during the festive season, the film famously plays on one cable channel 24 hours a day – A Christmas Story is an institution. In Britain it is almost unknown. Ask a Brit if he’s heard of a festive failure like Jingle All The Way or Scrooged or Christmas With The Kranks and he’ll probably tell you’ve he’s seen it several times. Ask if he’s heard of A Christmas Story and you’ll likely be met with a pause, eyes that narrow into a searching expression and, eventually, a question about whether that’s the one that’s something to do with the Nativity.

It isn’t anything to do with the Nativity. It isn’t anything to do with any of the traditional Christmas stories, and certainly not the traditional Christmas movie plots. There’s no sub-Scrooge miser who calls working lunches on Christmas Eve but is soon reformed by the faith of one sweet-eyed little girl toting a snow globe; there’s no race to reunite a fractured family; nobody steals Christmas and nobody has to save it. There is only a boy, a believable, lovable, flawed every-child, who urgently wants from Santa a certain toy – an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time’ – and is told by every adult to whom he appeals that, if he gets one, he’ll shoot his eye out.

Between meeting him sometime during Advent, and leaving him sometime on Christmas night, we experience with this boy, Peter Billingsley’s Ralphie Parker, many of the tests and joys and absurdities of small town childhood – and each of the ostensibly unremarkable episodes constructed around them is more magical, and more genuinely connected to the spirit of Christmas, than any amount of CGI-infected sequences showing previously hard-bitten New Yorkers joining hands and making Santa’s sleigh fly by just believing in him so damn hard.

Why the film is scarcely seen in Britain – and why, indeed, it isn’t considered a classic the watching of which is integral to any properly conducted Yuletide – is a mystery I cannot solve. Perhaps it is ‘too American’ … but that can’t be right. Certainly, A Christmas Story is entirely and unmistakably All-American, but it’s All-American in the welcoming, comforting, universally appealing way that Peanuts or Forrest Gump are All-American – not in the incomprehensible and off-putting way that homecoming queens or hotdog-eating contests are. The film isn’t just a slice of American pie: it’s a feast of human experience.

What astonishes most about A Christmas Story is its accuracy. I’m assured, by articles I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, that every detail of its period setting is perfect (even though its period is deliberately unspecified). The brands, the clothes, the manners, the streets, the school and the interior decoration are all, apparently, just as they were in towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s. I have had notably limited experience of towns like Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s and ‘40s, but I think I would have known how accurate a reflection of them this film presents even without being told. Every large and important element of this movie – the characters, their interactions, their emotions and motivations – feels so right it simply follows that all the smaller and less significant details are equally exact.

This shouldn’t suggest that A Christmas Story is dully realistic. In fact, it’s enhanced by pronounced cartoonish qualities. Ralphie’s father – who works ‘in profanity the way other artists might work in oils and clay’ – constantly screams obscenities, but these are heard only as streams of innocuous nonsense. And they are subsequently very much funnier than it would be hear Mr Parker (or ‘The Old Man’, as he is known) actually say ‘fuck’ to a furnace.

I don’t believe that Jean Shepherd – the raconteur on whose semi-autobiographical writings the film is based – ever visited, as Ralphie does, a department store Santa Claus who kicked him in the head when he took too long to say what he wanted for Christmas. I don’t believe that any children have ever visited a department store Santa who kicked them in the head when they took too long to say what they wanted for Christmas (not even Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa does that). But I believe totally that thousands of children have seen shopping centre Santas who were so gruff and efficient they might as well have kicked children in the head once their allotted moments in the grotto were over. As such, the scene, while no doubt factually inaccurate, is entirely true.

The characters in this movie behave the way people – not characters in movies – behave, and because of this we truly experience things from their points of view. Many good films – particularly good Christmas films – excel at making us empathise with one character. (Generally, we see everything from the perspective of the little boy who just wants his spoilsport parents to believe that the odd old man he’s befriended really is Father Christmas. We can see he’s Father Christmas – why can’t they? We see nothing from the perspective of those loving, sane, parents who are concerned about the intentions of the probably predatory, and most definitely deranged, white-bearded weirdo hanging around their only child.) Some films, special ones like A Christmas Story, make us able to empathise with two characters at once – and not just within the same movie, but within in the same moment.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film:

‘When [Ralphie’s father] wins a prize in a contest, and it turns out to be a table lamp in the shape of a female leg in a garter, he puts it in the window, because it is the most amazing lamp he has ever seen… I can understand that feeling. I can also understand the feeling of the mother… who is mortified beyond words.’

This is the key to A Christmas Story. When I watch it I’m Ralphie, looking up at his mother, hotly, painfully desperate to have that Red Ryder rifle – but I’m also his mother, looking down, disapproving, wanting Ralphie to get his gun but knowing that, if he does, the aforementioned ocular injury is almost inevitable. I’m The Old Man wanting to show my lamp – the Major Award I’ve always known I deserved – to the world from my window, and I’m his wife wanting to smash it to powder. I’m the kid who doesn’t believe that tongues really get stuck to frozen lampposts and I’m the kid triple-dog daring him to prove it.

Christmas is, at its best, about empathy. And Christmas movies, at their best, allow us to empathise. They connect us to characters, like us and utterly unlike us, across time and across oceans. Great Christmas movies make us feel more human, and make us want to be more humane. And A Christmas Story is a very great Christmas movie indeed.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Laura (USA, 1944)

Laura is a definitive film: one of the finest films noir and one of cinema’s most celebrated whodunits. Staged in exquisite sets (by Thomas Little), presented in pristine black and white by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and directed with the intensity of atmosphere and intelligence typical of Otto Preminger, the film sucks us into what is, for all its elegance, a profoundly unpleasant and persistently disturbing story populated by characters underserved by the ordinarily complimentary description ‘three dimensional’.

The titular lady (Gene Tierney) is dead when the film begins, her face – young, unblemished and universally beloved – having absorbed the impact of both barrels of a shotgun from only inches away. On a Friday night Laura answered the door of her apartment, and on the Saturday morning that follows Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) begins his investigation into the messy murder that immediately ensued. He has three chief suspects (four if you count the girl, a model, with most reason to be envious of Laura, though that girl doesn't seem to get around much anymore).

The rather prosaically named Laura Hunt could, it seems, have been slain by her finance, the money-chasing male beauty Shelby Carpenter (played, in a performance that will surprise those only accustomed to his later work as the grand old man of schlock, by Vincent Price). Her moneyed aunt (Judith Anderson) may also be the murderess; she apparently adored Laura, but then everyone, from maids to millionaires, apparently adored Laura, and the aunt is also in love with Carpenter.

The first person of interest to McPherson, though, is the person who is, throughout the film, of greatest interest to us: the rather un-prosaically named Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, in a role Price could well have played at the more famous end of his career). Lydecker is louche, effete and ferocious; one of America’s most celebrated minds; and one of its wickedest wits. His newspaper column, which he employs to assassinate the character of whomever he likes (or rather, whomever Laura likes, so keen is he to discredit her suitors) is read by millions. Only his obsession with Laura matches his absorption in himself. (‘In my case self-absorption is completely justified: I have never found any subject quite so worthy of my attention.’) He may well be gay, and yet his longing for Laura is overwhelming. He is a malign mastermind – but his urgent, possibly impotent, lust for a girl who could be his granddaughter makes him also a pitiable fool.

Lydecker was Laura’s social sponsor: under his stewardship, through his introductions and endorsements (both of her and the products she was employed to advertise), she became a sensational socialite, enthralling all. Besides bewitching Lydecker, she of course enchanted her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter, who Lydecker insists is sure to have slaughtered her. Carpenter is an inconstant pretty boy with two lovers besides Laura, one of whom is Laura’s aforementioned aunt. (The other is the aforementioned model.) Laura was too good for him – we agree with Lydecker about that – and at times it seems certain Carpenter killed her. At others, though, he seems a child, incapable of killing anything, and even less so of competently covering it up.

We are led through all this intrigue by Detective McPherson who is, in Andrews's characterisation, a classic noir investigator. He happens to be a legitimate law officer, but he could just as well be a shady private dick or a crooked cop. To him women are ‘dolls’ and ‘dames’. Asked if he's ever been in love, he answers: ‘A dame in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once ... but she kept walking me past furniture store windows to show me the parlour suites’. He, too, is in love with Laura – and his desire for her is the darkest on display. We’re accustomed to seeing noir heroes fall for the mysterious seductress who may be an innocent, may be an accomplice or may even be a murderess – but they usually do so whilst that seductress is alive. We’ve seen the weary, wisecracking detective fall for the chief suspect in a murder many times; in Laura we see him fall for the murder victim – after she has been murdered.

McPherson becomes enthralled by a portrait of Laura that hangs at the crime scene and, in the first certain sign he has lost his compass, puts in a bid for it before his case is close to being solved. The picture becomes an object of fascination, of fetishisation, of macabre desire – which is entirely typical of this movie’s psychological landscape. (There are in the film even, perhaps, suggestions of incestuous lesbian longings for Laura by her aunt.) The shafts of psychosexual subtext beneath Laura are deeper, and murkier, than those below Blue Velvet.

Laura’s script – adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel by a team of screenwriters led by the renowned Ring Lardner Jr. – is one of Hollywood’s best paced and best plotted. Midway through there comes a plot twist so extraordinary it would derail practically any other picture that attempted to incorporate it – but that propels Laura to levels of excellence and excitement unparalleled in all but the most elite film thrillers. Many, if not most, reviews of Laura describe this famous twist – as doing so does not reveal the story’s resolution – but I won’t. If there is anyone reading this who is yet to watch what is possibly Preminger’s most flawless film, and who now wants to, they should be allowed to do so with as little knowledge of the progress of its plot as is possible.

That is not to say that knowing how everything in Laura works out diminishes its appeal or is ever likely to dissuade anyone who has seen it from seeing it again. The best murder mysteries are not those that most intrigue and astonish, but those that continue to captivate after the third or fourth viewing, when every aspect of every character is uncovered and every lurch of the story is remembered and unsurprising. By this measure, as by virtually all others, Laura is one of greatest murder mysteries ever made.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Russian Ark (Russia, 2002)

For a man who spends an awful lot of his life considering the relative merits of movies, I’m surprisingly poor at picking favourites. Naming Top Tens, ‘Best Ofs’ or any other kind of list, of any kind of length, that erects a barrier between one wonderful film that is ‘in’ and another wonderful film that is ‘out’ is not something for which my mind is designed or towards which my personality is inclined. Predictably, this is an inability that’s revealed whenever I talk about Citizen Kane. Those friends who haven’t seen Kane but who’ve spoken to me about it have often seemed positively uninterested in letting me persuade them to watch it. (This, I concede, may well reveal more about me than it does about them, or about Orson Welles.) And yet they have all been urgently, achingly, keen to know if I think it is the best film ever made.

I have said innumerable times, in conversation if not in print, that I find there is an infinitesimal amount to be gained (for film fans, for film critics and, most importantly, for film) from squabbling over whether Citizen Kane is slightly ‘better’ than La Regle de Jeu or slightly ‘worse’ than Tokyo Story. There is, though, an incalculable amount to be gained from simply saying that Citizen Kane is a marvellous movie, as good as any other; that if you haven’t seen it you should watch it immediately; and that if you have you should watch it again.

This entry, though, isn’t about Citizen Kane – but it is about a film that, in its innovation and audacity, bears serious comparison to it. It is the film that, gun to my head or hand on my heart, I would, despite my aforementioned aversion to saying this kind of thing, nominate as the greatest film of that decade amusingly but inelegantly nicknamed ‘The Noughties’. The film is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark.

Sokurov is not so much a filmmaker as alchemist. He takes the same base metals of moviemaking that are constantly combined to produce those pictures – average and uninspiring, amusing but unoriginal – that we all watch weekly, and makes out of them films so astounding it’s difficult to accept they are the same breed of creation as most of those movies playing in our multiplexes and on our television channels. His exquisite Mother and Son was, if not the best film of the 1990s, an incredibly close contender, and – though it is opulent where Mother and Son is austere and massive where Mother and Son is minute – Russian Ark is a comparable accomplishment.

That I have yet to give a précis of its plot points to the difficulty of discussing Ark. It is a film that defeats film criticism. The standard language of movie analysis, whether journalistic or academic, seems (like so many movies one had previously thought cutting edge) suddenly and startlingly outdated once one has watched Sokurov’s masterwork about Russia’s heritage and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage.

The film’s American trailer introduces it best:

‘2000 actors. 1 single continuous shot. 33 rooms of The Hermitage Museum. 3 live orchestras. 300 years of Russian history … Not only is Russian Ark the longest single shot in cinema history, it is also the first film ever created in a single shot.’

In this introduction the methods of the film’s construction and hints at its ‘story’ are intertwined – and so should they be: in Russian Ark form and content are inseparable. A disorientated man awakens at The Hermitage Museum, formerly the palace of the Tsars, and sees episodes from its vast and varied history played out as he (or rather we) wander through its rooms and its history. He (or rather we) admire its exhibits, argue over their quality and, most memorably, witness figures from Russia’s past play out the events the Hermitage has housed. Before him (or rather, before us) appears Peter the First and Puskin, Nicholas the First and Catherine the Great. His (or rather our) companions on his (or rather our) trip through reality and time are the Marquisde Custine, a 19th Century French diplomat dismissive of much of Russian art, and the 19th Century Russian spy who shadows him. (The spy’s presence is one of a half a million historically accurate and subtlety deployed details.)

The parentheses in the preceding paragraph are important. We never see Ark’s main character. In fact, perhaps, we are Ark’s main character. The character is, I think, a modern day filmmaker. Certainly, he is Russian and voiced by Sokurov – but is he Sokurov? Or is the unseen Sokurov playing someone else? We hear his words – indeed, we virtually think his thoughts – but we are not gifted any explanation as to why. The film is not simply shot in one unbroken shot, but in one unbroken Point of View shot. Subsequently, no movie has ever come closer to capturing the experience of consciousness.

Sokurov’s success is due not only to his talent, endeavour and strict generalship of his enormous army of collaborators, but to crucial advances in filmmaking equipment. Other directors – most famously, perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock in Rope – have attempted to make features filmed in a single shot, but their ambition exceeded the capabilities of the technology available to them. In their films you can, sometimes quite literally, see the join. (After ten minutes or so, reels of film had to be changed in the camera.) Because of the stupendous sophistication of its digital recording, Russian Ark is, again quite literally, seamless.

There are those who ask, slightly derisively, ‘Yes… but what if Russian Ark hadn’t been filmed in one take? What if it had used traditional methods of editing?’ To those questions, I find, the best answers are questions themselves: What if Battleship Potemkin had used traditional methods of editing? What if A bout de souffe had? What if Toy Story had been made using traditional animation? What if Citizen Kane hadn’t used deep focus photography or if The Red Shoes had been in black and white? We cannot separate artworks from the means and styles of their creation and, as film critics, we can assess only what is onscreen.

At the core of the question, ‘What if Ark hadn’t been made in one take?’ is, I think, a far cleverer question: ‘Is the film all style and no substance?’ I, emphatically, do not believe that it is – but I can see that there will be always be viewers who think that, and I can almost see their reasons for it. Chief among these is that the film’s style is so arch it is hard for the first-, or fifth-, time viewer to take in anything else. There is, though, far more to take in. Ark is a film about the collision of cultures; about man’s reaction against circumstance as expressed through the art he makes and the societies he constructs; and, above all, about Russia, alone and in relation to the rest of Europe. In Ark, there is almost as much to think about as there is to gawp at. But not quite: Arks form, and our wonder at how it was created, will always overwhelm us. This doesn’t disturb me: the same is true of The Sphinx.

As I wrote in my review of El Topo, there is always an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ quality to any film this esoteric, and many who laud it as I do are no doubt simply pseuds showing off. Perhaps I will be proved to be one of them – but I’m willing to take that chance in order to take the chance of persuading someone to see it. Ark is a marvel. It’s a film that focuses on the past, but that feels like it was sent from the future. Whether, decades hence, it does prove to have been the best film of its time is ultimately immaterial – but I hope it proves to have been the most influential. The prospect of a future for filmmaking in which Russian Ark’s ideas are influential, and its qualities commonplace, is awesome.

At present, though, Russian Ark stands clear as a film that is – if any film can be – unique. Indeed, it is so unusual it forces the viewer to go outside cinema for reference points and comparisons. It reminds me a little of Ulysses (and, no, I don’t pretend to understand half of that, either) and a little of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. That ordinarily un-illuminating cliché ‘poetry in motion’ has been applied to the picture more than once and, for once, it actually says something about the film it describes. The measured rhythm of Ark’s development; the well-timed appearances of its motifs (both thematic and visual); and, most of all, the obsessively strict way it is orchestrated all recall tightly ordered poetry. Most films are written in free verse. Russian Ark is a Petrachan sonnet.

I don’t mean to imply, by heaping all this praise upon it, that Russian Ark does everything a film can do. Watching it, you are unlikely to burst out into belly laughs or weep at the emotional intimacy you feel with its characters – but you may well be moved to laugh at the astonishing daring of it all and to weep at its equally astonishing visual beauty. If you choose which films to watch because you like to be consumed by a powerful plot, or simply to have your ribs tickled (and those are, incidentally, perfectly decent reasons to choose which films to watch), you may not find much pleasure here. If, however, your mind is set alight by those movies that could change what movies are – and if you want to travel to filmmaking’s freshest frontier – there is no better choice than Russian Ark.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Murder By Death (USA, 1976)

It is a dark and stormy night … The world’s five finest detectives – Inspector Wang (read: Charlie Chan), Jessica Marbles (read: Miss Marple), Sam Diamond (read: an amalgamation of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), Dick Charleston (read: Nick Charles, ‘The Thin Man’) and Milo Perrier (read: Hercule Poirot) – are enticed to the mysterious, mechanised and misleading mansion of ‘short madman’ Lilo Twain, by his cordial invitation ‘to Dinner and a Murder’. After surviving several absurd attempts on their lives, these preeminent private dicks are eventually informed that, at midnight, there will be a murder and, in the morning, there will be a million dollars for whosoever is able to solve it. There follows a film so deliciously ludicrous that its most straight-faced scenes feature a blind butler arguing with a deaf-mute cook.

Astonishing silliness and astonishing intelligence seldom arrive together onscreen. When they do, as they do throughout Murder By Death, the comedy is always exquisite. Everything in this movie is calculated to entertain. The cast is listed ‘in diabolical order’; the opening credits, designed by Wayne Fitzgerald and drawn by Charles Adams, are a fine warm up act for the film; and, once the dialogue begins, we immediately attempt to memorise every line of it. The term ‘big name screenwriter’ is almost an oxymoron, and Neil Simon’s is one of the very few names that keeps it from being a complete contradiction. Though not as intellectual, or as frequently studied, as some of his other scripts, his work here should be as celebrated as anything else in his oeuvre.

Forced, by the Machiavellian machinations of a short madman, to pick a favourite line, I would probably opt for: ‘Locked from the inside! This can only mean one thing … but I don’t know what it is.’ However, practically every joke in the film would be in contention: its lowliest one-liner would be the standout gag in a hundred Hollywood comedies. Just as there are sing-along screenings of The Sound of Music, so should there be (and perhaps there already are) speak-along showings of Murder By Death.

The cast set loose on Simon’s lines is so superb that the best praise it can be given is simply to list its members: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk … and, of course, Truman Capote. Capote’s turn as Lionel Twain (a character who is, according to the trailer, ‘a short, sinister man who looks exactly like Truman Capote’) is a joyous and unrestrained explosion of himself, and un-reproachable proof that, given correct casting and understanding direction, a performance beyond the capabilities of any actor can be wrung from someone who is not any kind of actor at all.

Praise for (generally engendered by surprise at) Capote’s performance should, though, never be allowed to overshadow appreciation of the other actors on show. No one has ever been better at giving glimpses of the lecherous and the louche underneath an ‘enormously well-bred’ exterior than David Niven, and he was never better at doing it than he is as Dick Charleston. Not even Jerry Lacy – who provided a priceless impersonation of Humphrey Bogart throughout Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam has ever been better at aping Bogey than Peter Falk is as Sam Diamond. But what is most impressive about the performances exhibited in Murder By Death is that its actors are able to present such obvious and individual caricatures and yet, somehow, to tessellate as an ensemble.

Set designers are seldom the subject of a sentence in film reviews, but Stephen B. Grimes’s work is worthy of a whole paragraph here. Twain’s house, all of which was constructed upon a soundstage, is an incredible creation and enhances the hilarity of every scene: it is every country mansion from every country mansion murder mystery Hollywood ever made, and every haunted house from every haunted house thriller you’ve ever seen. It’s fitting that a film that thrives on its cast’s high-class scenery chewing has such high-class scenery for them to chew.

Outstanding as it is, the film has faults. Any picture this absurd is almost certain to be uneven (cf. Monty Python’s inability to concoct a cohesive plot in anything other than The Life of Brian) and Murder By Death has too many moments that bemuse more than they amuse. The film’s ending, although it makes a clever and amusing point in a clever and amusing way, is also dramatically disappointing.

To pick at such imperfections, though, is not just to miss the point of this movie, but to miss the point of moviegoing. This is a spoof so spot on it is often incapacitatingly entertaining. Next time you want to feel a little more alive, prescribe yourself a little Murder By Death.