Because I find Tumblr’s U.I. to be tricky whenever I publish long form pieces— which hasn’t motivated me to keep writing and posting new stuff- I have moved Invisible Work Film Writings to WordPress. You can find the new version of the blog, with its first post about The Creature From the Black Lagoon, here:
Yet, the Tumblr version of Invisible Work will stay up as it will serve as an indefinite archive of my previous posts as well as a place where I’ll announce/link upcoming posts at the new site.
Regardless, thank you for reading my work and I hope that you will continue to do so.
Trevor Howard (Source: The Guardian)
Alberto Cavalcanti—a man who once publicized himself just as Cavalcanti— made films as a peripatetic. Brazilian-born, he studied architecture in Geneva in the 1910s, fell-in with Avant Garde filmmakers Marcel l’Herbier and Louis Delluc in Paris in the 1920s, made industrial films for the UK General Post Office in the 1930s, directed features at Ealing Studios in the 1940s, and worked all over Europe and even Israel for the rest of his life.
Now I may be making myself seem like I’m an expert on Cavalcanti here. I’m not—I’ve only seen three of his directorial efforts (Went the Day Well?, Dead of Night (which he codirected) and They Made Me a Fugitive (aka I Became a Criminal)), and I’m just regurgitating information. But I wanted to include these biographical details to demonstrate that the man had a varied existence that could explain why his films and directorial style have a peculiar, idiosyncratic quality.
And to describe the style, here’s a descriptive analogy: if Cavalcanti were a fine artist, his style would consist of bold lines, jagged angles, curious chiaroscuro, slanted perspectives and acute representations. And his still images would even careen, making the world seem like a jolting, unstable place.
Alberto Cavalcanti (Source: Mubi.com)
The section of Cavalcanti’s storied career that is the most known is his stint at Ealing Studios, which resulted in movies like Went the Day Well?, Champagne Charlie, Dead of Night and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby. The film that is the focus of this post, They Made Me a Fugitive, was made shortly after he left Ealing but carries over the style on display in his Ealing work. In terms of film history, Cavalcanti’s best-known work plays like a triangulation between Pre-Code Hollywood Cinema, German Expressionism and 40s British Cinema. And in terms of worldview, his seems to be a winking cynicism, one that says, “sure I think people are capable of being this vulgar (and isn’t it funny?)”
Consider They Made Me a Fugitive. The story follows Clem (Trevor Howard), a grubby, wisecracking, ex-RAF criminal whom, after escaping prison, needs to clear his name after being double-crossed by the cruel, sociopathic and low-rent crimeboss Narcy (Griffith Jones.) Yet, all of postwar Britain seems to be in moral shambles in the film,
making turning the likes of Clem and Narcy into the rule, not the exception.
Sally Gray, Griffith Jones (Source: AV Maniacs)
The camerawork and editing are expressive in the film, often in the service of conveying the effect of violence. It’s as if Cavalcanti relied on an experimental understanding of cinema in order to convey force and shock when there were no censorial or acceptable ways to portray realistic violence. So instead of showing what would literally happen in a scene when Narcy beats-up a woman for tipping-off Clem, the speed of the editing increases and the camera eventually spins fast a la’ the Batman 60s TV series. There’s also a quick shot which has a Lettrist quality (the film image was altered through sheer physical means.) But whether the moment is deliberate or just the result of a printing mistake at a film lab is unclear. I choose to believe it was on purpose. [Plus: note the distortion in the mirror in the image above.]
There’s also a quiet and disturbing vignette in which Clem, after having escaped from jail, takes refuge in a residence. There Mrs. Fenshaw (Vida Hope) agrees to help him but on one condition: he must shoot her husband, who just came home drunk. Clem refuses and leaves but fails to removes his fingerprints from a gun that Mrs. Fenshaw presented to him. So she handles it with a napkin, sees her husband on the stairwell and blasts him away.
Vida Hope, Howard (Source: WondersInTheDark.)
What makes this scene disturbing is a) its superfluous nature, which only increases its strangeness, b) Hope’s demented yet matter-of-fact performance as Mrs. Fenshaw and c) its suggestion that danger even pervades in the homes of postwar Britain. In Cavalcanti’s pervious film Went the Day Well?, Brits retaliated viciously against invading Nazis within their residences. But during this vignette in Fugitive, viciousness occurs between a wife and husband, implying that the darkness of The War has become internalized and domesticated.
Yet, as Fugitive’s transgressive style/nature feels like an extension of an absurdist worldview, Cavalcanti’s bleakness isn’t without humor. The man was a Surrealist, after all. Take the dialogue in Fugitive: it’s snappy, hostile and full of wisecracks, but in a way that’s almost self-parodying. And the film is full of sly touches; for instance, in a funeral parlor hangs a framed, embroidered sign that says, “It Is Later Than You Think.” And after it’s shown close-up, it falls off its hook as a way to portend that a climatic confrontation won’t go well. Lubitsh and Hitchcock would’ve admired such a moment.
Another Humorous Touch (Source: The Movie Projector.)
Just on the basis of what I’ve seen, Cavalcanti’s directorial work is a subject for further research, and I recommend watching They Made Me a Fugitive.
—(Source: Total Film)
When it comes to playing a funny asshole, Steve Coogan is a marvel to behold. And outside of playing “himself” (see Tristham Shandy, The Trip and a great segment in Cigarettes and Coffee costarring Alfred Molina for that), his most celebrated asshole persona is Alan Partridge, a character whom Coogan co-created with Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep) and has been the focus of several successful radio/TV programs in the UK that have only reached cult status in the US.
Beginning as a spoof of superficial, out-of-touch broadcasters, Partridge became a richer comic character as he became more popular in the UK. And after years of being revised and revisited by Coogan and various cowriters, Partridge is now firmly in his middle age and a lode of buffoonery. His exploits are fueled by cultural insensitivity, petty hubris and a lack of self-awareness. Yet, he sees himself as suave as Roger Moore and as graceful as the melodies to ABBA’s “Fernando” or “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”*
—(Source: Red Carpet News TV)
Now Alan Partridge has his own eponymous movie, which was released a while ago in the UK as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and will be theatrically released in the US (and is now available via many VOD services.)
If a criticism is to be made of AP, one could say that it’s just an extended and embellished episode of the TV show I’m Alan Partridge (as is the case with many movies that are adaptations of current TV series.) But considering that any episode of IAP is hilarious and top-notch, this is a good thing. And the movie’s premise is ingenious: Partridge— an incredibly tactless man— has to mitigate a hostage crisis— a situation in which lives depend on tactfulness— at the radio station he works at. And it doesn’t help that the hostage-taker is Pat (Colm Meaney), a disgruntled broadcaster who’s Partridge’s colleague and, unbeknownst to Pat, Partridge threw under the bus.
—The film’s opening credits sequence (sans credits.) (Source: British Comedy Guide)
But this scenario is mostly a way to deliver jokes and gags, many of which made me laugh while some even put me in a fit. Throwaway lines like “it was a jingle genocide” or “you can keep your Jesus; Neil Diamond, for me, will always be King of the Jews!” come often,** and there’s a bit of physical comedy that made me giggle like I was on nitrous oxide. So AP defied my jaded sensibilities and gets my stamp of comedy approval.
—(Source: The Spectator)
*Some Alan Partridge trivia: 1) as he’s a big fan of the actor, Partridge considers Roger Moore’s Bond to be the best; 2) Partridge named his short-lived talk-show after “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (which is the first Alan Partridge TV series) and his son after “Fernando.”
**Another favorite line of mine is when Pat lifts the blinds on a studio window to show Partridge where the hostages are and Partridge replies, “it’s like a zoo from Planet of the Apes!”
—(Source: Grape Soda)
As its best practitioners know, there’s a math to comedy. It’s basically a well-timed defiance of expectations. Hence, you have to count and know where the fulcrum of a joke is if you want to make people laugh.
And Harold Ramis, with his professorial look and attitude, was a great comedy mathematician.
Speaking to Mike Sacks for the book And Here’s the Kicker: Converations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, Ramis had this to say about his stint as the Joke Editor for Playboy magazine:
“…In the first month, I already knew 95 percent of the jokes in current circulation in America. I could not hear a joke I didn’t know. I could anticipate the punch lines, because most jokes are like any other joke. In fact, the way I did the job was to spend an hour each morning just slitting open the mail and lining the jokes up before me. Then I would read punch lines, one every second. If I knew the joke, I’d throw the card away. I practically recognized them all. But as soon as I’d see one I didn’t recognize, I wouldn’t even finish reading it—I’d set it aside to savor it later, just because it was new. Not because it was necessarily good, just different.” (40)
And this was very early on in Ramis’s career. Subpar humor didn’t ever have too much of a chance with him.
From Playboy, Ramis trained as an improv performer at Second City under Del Close and worked as a writer on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, The National Lampoon Show, SCTV and Animal House. Then he became more involved in making movies by either co/writing, acting in or directing stand-out comedies like Stripes, Caddyshack, Vacation and Ghostbusters. And in 1993, he cowrote and helmed Groundhog Day, a film that could’ve coasted on its ingenious premise but, as Ramis understood that comedy could be profound and transcendent if the particulars add up to something grander, is so much more. You can learn how to live well by watching that movie. In total, it’s safe to say that American comedy would’ve been different without Ramis.
As Groundhog Day implicates, Ramis wasn’t just a clever, hip dude; he was also socially and spiritually conscious, and he never really seemed to curdle or become too jaded. Also, he transformed much of his generation’s anger and dissatisfaction into a form of humor that helped to bring counter-cultural irreverence into the mainstream. Yes, he might’ve become too much a part of the mainstream by making some M.O.R. movies later in life. But he was a big part of a movement that managed to get away with flipping-off the status quo by making many people laugh. There’s something beautiful about that.
-(Source: Rachel Trek)
On a personal note: when I was a little kid, I watched Ghostbusters obsessively, a movie that to many people of a certain age is what Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is to people of another age: a genre-hybrid work that implanted the idea into the minds of many young and impressional people that movies can be solid F-U-N.
And Egon Spangler, Harold Ramis’s role in the film, was my favorite Ghostbuster as a youngster. Maybe it was because I, like Egon, was often shy and awkward, and I identified. Or it could’ve been his pompadour, which is unconsciously cool and somewhat endearing.
But if you watch Ghostbusters closely, you’ll notice that Ramis often has to do the heavy lifting of providing exposition to the audience and that he’s the best among the principal actors at doing so. And if you doubt this, just consider how many people remember him saying, “don’t cross the streams” or him holding-up a Twinkie to demonstrate the psycho kinetic energy in New York City. This is because there was something to Ramis’s nature that indicated he was a person who could funnel so much into his mind and present it all as something unified and clear. And funny.
Galileo Galilei stated that “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Comparably, Ramis seemed to know that comedy was an important way for people to understand, explain and cope with existence. And he had its math down pat.
—(Source: Lunatic Blog)
Lately, I’ve been thinking about death.
My birthday just happened and, as I was diagnosed for an illness around my 23rd birthday, I have morbid thoughts around this time of year. Yet now my anxiety isn’t about my mortality as it’s about worrying about and witnessing the mortality of others. And I have noticed that some people, whether they were famous or tangential acquaintances, have passed away recently.
Maybe I’m speaking in terms too general or subjective here but, as I’m a United States citizen, I don’t think my culture at-large accepts death. Perhaps it’s the long-term effects of post WWII prosperity but, unless it happens in the family or to a friend, U.S. citizens aren’t raised to deal with the inevitable as we are indoctrinated to believe in prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. And death is anathema to those ideas, or something to be swept under the rug until it is in clear sight of you or your loved ones.
—(Source: La Jornada.)
In Mexican culture there’s the three-day holiday Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead, which is associated with Hallowmas as well as pre-colonial Aztec culture, which is all about acknowledging death and remembering those who have passed. Such a celebration feels healthy for any society. And the 1960 Mexican film Macario is predicated on the holiday, so much so that it could be considered the Christmas Carol of Dia De Los Muertos.
Based on B. “the man who wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre” Tavern’s book (which is inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “Godfather Death”) and co-written/directed by Robert Cavaldon, Macario is about a eponymous woodcutter (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) who barely can provide for his family and becomes frustrated when no food is left over for him. So, around Dia Del Los Muertos, his wife (Pina Pellicer) steals a turkey, cooks it and gives it to her husband for only him to eat.
—Macario and Death (Source: Cinema of the World.)
Macario runs away into the forest to devour the poultry but three phantasmagorical figures—each representations of Satan, God and Death—ask him to share his food. Yet he only shares with Death (Enrique Lucero) as it would benefit him the most. In return, Death returns the favor by giving Macario water that cures any disease. But whenever the water is about to be used on someone, Death will appear to indicate whether the person should live or die.
Thus, Macario uses his cure-all to become a rich and famous healer. Catholic authorities prosecute Macario over his “heretical” power until the Viceroy asks him to cure his dying son as a way to clear a sentencing. When he tries to, Death indicates that the Viceroy’s son must die.
—(Source: Saturn Satori.)
Running away from Church authorities after failing to save the boy, Macario then finds Death’s cavern, which is filled with lit candles that represent every human life. When Macario sees how his candle doesn’t have much left to burn, he takes it and runs out of the cavern in desperation.
The story ends with villagers helping Macario’s wife to find her husband’s corpse in the forest. In actuality, Macario never became a healer and died the day he received the turkey, having only eaten half of it.
Now summarizing a plot isn’t really criticism, but as Macario is under-seen and pretty much unavailable in the U.S., it seems necessary to do so. And to be honest, it isn’t a perfect movie. The story is padded to fill ninety minutes of screen time. And much of the acting is too broad, even according to allegorical standards. (Yet maybe I should tread lightly as this film seems beloved within Mexican culture.)
—(Source: El Desvan del Abuelito)
Yet what makes the movie sturdy is the Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography, which portrays the iconography of Mexico and Dia De Los Muerotos in a haunting, definitive and meaningful way. There’s a dream sequence early in the film in which Macario envisions calaca puppets tormenting him, as if they’re beckoning him to perish to hunger, that’s so evocative it could be shown in a museum. (In fact, I first saw it at an exhibit on Figueroa in the Los Angeles County Musuem of Art, so I’m not exaggerating.)
Figueroa visually entwines a country to its holiday, signifying that Dia De Los Muertos is how a culture processes mortality. And the morale of Macario suggests the attempt to supersede or disregarding death is, in the end, folly. Either for the living or the dying, it must be dealt with.
Yet, dealing with death will always be painful and invariably tragic. When Macario’s wife discovers her husband’s dead body in the forest, it’s an eerie and beautiful moment full of sadness. The ending suggests that even if a culture has an iconic and totemic means of processing the inevitable, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less burdensome. But, the older I get, I wish there was a clear, secular means like Dia De Los Muertos in my immediate culture.
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool."
This line, written by Cameron Crowe, was spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. In the scene that the line’s from, Bangs talks to William Miller (Patrick Fugit) over the phone about being seduced as a young journalist by the rock band Stillwater into thinking he’s one of the cool, beautiful people.
It also encapsulates what Hoffman did as an actor in his best screen work: he played that which is “uncool”— aka most of the human condition— as truthfully as possible and shared it for us to identify, understand and even connect with. In other words: he provided true currency.
I could go on and describe every instance in which Hoffman made an impression on me as a movie-watcher, but we’d be here all day if I did that. I’ll just say that I’m glad those moments will go on in perpetuity. RIP.
Another Ron Howard film scripted by Peter Morgan—who seems very keen on two-tiered stories about dual individuals (i.e. The Queen, Frost/Nixon)— Rush recounts the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) that reached its peak during a very dramatic F1 season in 1976. There’s much brooding and many, many vrooms in this flick.
One could say that the brooding fuels the vroom as the story delves into the personalities of Hunt and Lauda, the former a well-educated and hunky party-boy alcoholic who excels due to his sheer bravura, the latter a talented pedant whose impressive results helps him to gets away with being a unliked stickler. While both Hunt and Lauda came from privilege, this is a story where a machine-centered sport levels the playing field for two men who respectively fit the “jock” and “nerd” archetypes, and both Hemsworth and Bruhl fully inhabit their roles as to make their characters’ personal motives clearly tied-in to their professional activities.
While there is much character work in Rush, it isn’t a subtle movie as Howard isn’t a particularly subtle director. Yet this predilection-of-style suits the material—as many characters allude in the film, racing is a big, loud, Type A sport full of self-aggrandizers. And Morgan’s script manages to dramatize blatancies in a non-canned manner, which offsets the possibility of the story becoming way too simple. This movie is blunt, but, to lean on a driving metaphor, that doesn’t mean that its engine was ill designed by boneheads.
Also, the relative limitations of the film’s budget (almost 40 million) downsized the production values to a modest degree for a Ron Howard film. But this too works for material as it makes the movie feel hemmed in, just like Hunt and Lauda’s perspectives as athletes. They are men who travel the world and live extravagantly but are mainly focused on their cars, race tracks and each other. It figures that the world of the film mirrors their mentalities, even if this aspect of the movie probably resulted more from the circumstances of production than any deliberate design. (Making this film, Howard must’ve applied lessons that he learned as Roger Corman’s apprentice in the 70s, starring and making car movies with shoestring budgets.)
And the racing sequences are exciting. They indicate that Howard has learned some things from former mentor Lucas and Scorsese in that they are kinetically real but often visualize Hunt and Lauda’s psychological perspectives in expressionistic ways as they are driving, just as Jake LaMotta’s perspective was visualized in Raging Bull as he boxed. (Granted, Rush doesn’t get as surreal as Bull does in somes spots.)
Overall, a very solid sports docudrama that took me by surprise. Recommended.
FYI I also write weekly posts for Los Angeles Magazine’s Culture Files Blog that highlight L.A. moviegoing events at repertory movie theaters, art houses and other fine, off-the-beaten-track cultural institutions. You can find them here.
—(Source: Noir Whale)
For the uninitiated: in Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two prohibition era musicians who, after witnessing/escaping the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, masquerade as women, join an all girl’s band—which includes Marilyn Monroe in all of her allure as Sugar— and travel to Florida with the band. Call it self-motivated, gender bending Witness Protection that tees off one of the all-time best comedies, perhaps the paragon farce of the cinema.
But, as a Billy Wilder film written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, it’s also a satire of gender relations (as well as gender roles, as so well detailed by Dr. Suzanne Woodward.) Curtis and Lemmon, two womanizing heels, realize first-hand how men like them consistently treat women: by objectifying and sexually harassing them. In fact, Some Like it Hot is an examination of sexual harassment before the concept was coined in the general consciousness, making it movie that continues to be progressive (even if it does have its fair share of leering shots of Monroe’s derriere.) It’s a role reversal premise that could work just as comedy but also as a subversion that could dismantle the relational notions of the roles to begin with.
How satirical of problematic gender relations Wilder and Diamond deliberately were is debatable—they could’ve been working out of sheer cleverness when writing Hot. (“What if he gets pinched in the elevator” so on and so on.) Also, it should be mentioned that Hot is a remake of the French film Fanfaren der Liebe and, while I have not seen the latter, the former’s full originality could be questioned. Still, as someone who is against the non-canonization of Wilder as a filmmaker and willing to give him and his cowriter the benefit of the doubt, I’m willing to bet that he and Diamond were fully aware of the trenchant implications of the film’s comedy.
As a guy who has a mom, sisters, a long-time girlfriend and female friends, I’ve come to realize that women being harassed by men in public is commonplace enough that it is an accepted nuisance of female existence. As one female friend explained to me with a grave matter-of-factness after I expressed dismay upon hearing about how some guys catcalled her horribly as she walked home: “they do it because they can.” And in her book Bossypants, Tina Fey observes something related:
“When I was writing the movie Mean Girls […] I went to a workshop taught by Rosalind Wiseman as part of my research… She did this particular exercise […] with about two hundred group women, asking them to write down the moment they first “knew they were a woman.” […] We wrote down our answers and shared them […] The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them… mostly [sic] yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.”
If you’re a woman reading this, you might be thinking “yeah, I know, thanks enlightened film dude” at this point. But I just think it’s a sorry state of human affairs that is wonderfully mocked in Some Like it Hot. And this mockery made me realize another meaning to the film’s famous last line. [SPOILERS] In the end, Joe/sphine (Curtis) and Jerry/Daphne (Lemmon) get sanctuary from being pursued by gangsters from Osgood (Joe E. Brown), a millionaire who fancies Daphne and has an offshore yacht to hide amidst. As the three abscond by means of a speedboat, Sugar manages to tag at last second and accepts Joe although he previously deceived her and admittedly represents the men who have treated her poorly. Then, the focus shifts to Jerry/Daphne and Osgood, and this happens:
“Nobody’s perfect.” This punchline is a sterling example of comedy writers having their cake and devouring it. First, on the surface, it could make the (possibly/strictly hetero-normative) viewer assume that it’s funny because Osgood is oblivious to an “obvious” “incompatibility.” But, also, Osgood either a) was well aware that Daphne was really a man and didn’t care and/or b) is open-minded and sees love as completely unconditional, whether it be between a man and women, two men, two women, a transsexual and a wo/man, or two transsexuals. This latter interpretation makes “nobody’s perfect” the last line heard around the world for LGBT supporters as it represents an early instance in which an acceptance of non-straight sexuality was sneaked into a mainstream, Hollywood film, and in plain sight to boot. Being sophisticated men, Wilder and Diamond must have relished how Hot’s conclusive and famous bon mot became so celebrated and prescient.
But, seeing the movie partly as a satire of ubiquitous sexual harassment, I realized that “nobody’s perfect” works yet another way. When Jerry takes off his wig and exclaims, “I’m a man!” it could be inferred that what he means is “I’m a [lowly, piece-of-crap, tragically-all-too-common] man!” And when Osgood replies with “nobody’s perfect,” it could be seen as him agreeing that the accepted social construct of the sexually entitled heterosexual man is problematic and imperfect but possible to deflect. And since this punchline comes on the heels of Joe admitting to Sugar that he’s just another lousy guy in a long line of lousy guys that circles the globe, this interpretation seems especially useful.
(Now, this third interpretation might’ve been obvious to some of you readers, to which all I can say is pobody’s nerfect, guys.)
—(Source: Amazing True Life Stories)
I first saw and rewatched Hot when I twelve and— seeing it now as the first film I watched in 2014— I’m glad I did. It’s the type of well-honed classic movie that entertains and, in a way that could go unnoticed, shape a worldview for a lifetime. Just like how the unexpecting Joe becomes a better man when he realizes what his type often does to a nice person like Sugar, Hot has the covert ability to make the viewer a better person. While they don’t have to, few comedies do this. But Billy Wilder, a near-perfect filmmaker as there ever was one, pulled it off with ostensible ease… just like how Joe E. Brown says those two final words with aplomb that make for a perfect and closing comeback.