It (1927)

Speechless Blogathon

Published as part of the Speechless Blogathon.

In the America of the 1920s a new kind of woman emerged. A product of her times, she epitomised the free-living, energetic, sexually open, scandalous aspirations of her generation. By the end of the decade, in the years of the depression, she would come to be scorned as the epitome of decadence and waste. She was the flapper and the most famous of them all was Clara Bow, the world’s first ‘it girl’.

In the mainstream American cinema of the 1920s, perhaps more than at any other time in its history, actors were associated with particular genres and character types. This was the golden age of type-casting. Clara Bow’s onscreen persona came to be almost absurdly closely associated with her real life personality. She might play a Betty, or a Mary or Cynthia but her audience always saw Clara. As if to emphasise this link, in at least one of her films she played a character called Clara while in others the storylines toyed knowingly with the audience’s knowledge of her scandalous private life.

At the height of her fame, she was America’s biggest female box office draw for two consecutive years and near the top of the list in other years. She was a huge star with great mass appeal. On screen she was youthful, beautiful, uninhibited, strong-willed, sexy, subtle and vulnerable. She was strong willed and uninhibited enough to believably achieve her goals, sexy enough to seduce her onscreen lovers and vulnerable enough that the audience could believe in the possibility that it all might fall apart. And Clara Bow was subtle enough as an actress to make all of these competing emotions work. Subtlety is one of the few things that Bow was probably never accused of, but her acting shows this quality in spades.

While she had received good notices from the beginning of her career and appeared in a number of films previously, It (1927) cemented her reputation as the consummate flapper. The story is simple – Bow plays Betty Lou, a shop assistant at a large department store. She sets her sights on the owner’s son (Antonio Moreno) and is pursued by his friend (William Austin) who identifies Betty as possessing ‘it’. Comic misunderstandings threaten to derail the romance and set up a slapstick happily ever after finale.

“It” is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “It” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man.

‘It’, the concept, is defined numerous times throughout the film and is, of course, meaningless. Based on an article by English novelist Elinor Glyn, an introductory title card defines it as above. In the film characters all talk about the concept, read the article, talk about reading the article and even discuss it with writer herself, in a brief cameo. ‘It’ soon becomes irritating and as a basis for a film is flimsy in the extreme. There is even, I feel, a hint of mockery towards the concept in William Austin’s early examinations of people to test for ‘it’.

Needless to say, Bow is found to have ‘it’. She is introduced as she lays eyes on Antonio Moreno for the first time. She announces her attraction to her colleagues, who mock her, and then ogles him openly. This look is extraordinary – it is a look of pure lust, a look that stakes her claim and her intentions to the audience. It helps win the audience over to Betty almost immediately because it seems honest – she is genuinely attracted to him – and rescues her from being a gold-digging character. It is also an example of Bow’s spectacular ability with emotional expression. Through one seemingly simple look she is able to show a whole flurry of thoughts racing through her mind. The same look shows the contrasting dreamlike innocence and the sexually aggressive sides of her attraction. I can imagine her planning a future with him in those few brief moments and plotting her way to his heart. In short, in one look, Bow tells us everything that we need to know about her character.

Clara Bow is a merciless thief in It. She steals every scene she is in and is absolutely magnetic. Whenever she is on camera the eye is drawn to her energy, her charisma. She is beautiful, of course, but she is also a dominating physical presence on screen. Like a dancer, she seems very aware of the significance of her movements and in silent cinema movement is hugely important. Without dialogue to resort to, everything must be shown visually.

In her performance, Bow also shows off her comic timing. Whether its her thwarted efforts to grab Moreno’s attentions, her dodging of Austin’s affections, a hilarious sequence where she rescues her friend’s baby from being taken into care or the yacht-bound finale where lovers are won, lost and swapped, Bow is always on top form. William Austin is also a excellent and seems comfortable in the role of the affable buffoon. His mishap on the boat is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and he has one of the funniest title cards when he announces to Betty that he has come to forgive her.

Aside from the irritating repetitions of the ‘it’ concept, the writing is effective enough, telling its story in a lean way, piling on enough comedy and, surprisingly for a storyline with a baby being taken into care, limiting the melodrama. The direction, by Clarence Badger, is fairly loose, allowing the cast the freedom to explore the comic potential of the material. While remaining fairly anonymous for the most part, there are a number of effective sight gags and, in the fairground sequence, a technically impressive scene where the camera follows the couple down a slide, spinning with and around them right down to the bottom.

It should be nothing special – a frothy romantic comedy it has neither outstanding writing nor direction. It is special though and it is Clara Bow that makes it that way. She raises the material and carries the film. Nowadays she is more remembered as a brief icon of her time rather than as a skilled actress, but watching her work on film reveals a truly talented actress. Her surviving screen work offers frustrating glimpses at what could have been – with better material and given the chance to explore her range, she would almost certainly have been one of the greatest stars of the talkies. As it was, she would be continually squandered on sub par formula films, her confidence gradually eroded and thrown, under-prepared into the talkie revolution. It predates this, however, and shows Bow beginning the ascent to the peak of her popularity. Just as in the film, Clara Bow had ‘it’.

© Calum Campbell 2012

The Lady from Shanghai

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

The directorial career of Orson Welles stands to this day as one of Hollywood’s legendary cautionary tales. Egotistical, arrogant, pretentious; talented, visionary, audacious – there were many sides to the man. Like his Shakespearean characters, Welles the artist had a number of fatal flaws, flaws that would eventually become insurmountable obstacles in his career in Hollywood. Firstly he was, stylistically, years ahead of his time; secondly, he appears to have been utterly incapable of playing the Hollywood game – placating nervous studio executives, retaining creative control of his films, winning the fights that inevitably accompany making films. However his most damning flaw of all was that, with his first film, he had the misfortune of producing his masterpiece, a work of such quality that for over sixty years it has regularly been proclaimed the greatest motion picture ever committed to celluloid. That film is, of course, Citizen Kane, made when Welles was just 25 years old.

With Citizen Kane, Welles took the risky decision of basing the film on the life of America’s most powerful media tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Mr Hearst was, predictably, unimpressed. His media empire blacklisted the film, allowing no reviews, mentions or advertising – even a bad review is better than no review at all. The film was a financial failure and Welles would never again make a film where he had the freedom of complete artistic control and a comfortable budget.

In the years following Citizen Kane, Welles would find his vision at odds with that of the studio executives. Afraid of having another flop on their hands or disturbed by his unconventional style, time and again he would lose creative control of his films. Starting with The Magnificent Ambersons, his second feature, his films would be wrested from him and re-edited by unsympathetic hands with little notice taken of his artistic intentions. Citizen Kane excepted, Welles became the poster boy of the compromised vision.

When Welles came to make The Lady from Shanghai he had just completed The Stranger , a director-for-hire assignment that had produced a profit for the studio. Things were beginning to look brighter. While working on a stage production of Around the World in Eighty Days he found opening night fast approaching and funds drying up fast. He approached Harry Cohn, the notorious vulgarian head of Columbia Pictures with a proposal – if Cohn provided the necessary funding to open the stage production, Welles would write, direct and star in a film for Columbia without taking a fee for his work. The story goes that when Welles struck the deal with Cohn he announced that he would adapt a novel that he happened see a secretary reading but had never read himself. This story is, of course, likely apocryphal, indeed it seems that the studio already owned the rights to the book. Welles was a showman who maintained his grand public persona rather like a separate, mostly invented character and for a showman, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

The Lady from Shanghai was the result of this deal and it is a problematic film. While it has moments of Wellesian brilliance and a number of strong performances, these often serve only to remind us of what could have been. These elements are tantalising glimpses of The director’s original unadulterated vision. The fact that Welles lost control of the film is at times painfully obvious. The editing is sometimes erratic and jarring, juxtaposing shots in sequences that do not flow, the apparent result of a significantly reduced running time: it is said that Welles’s original cut was around 150 minutes while the released print was less than 90 minutes.

The studio attempt to fill in the holes by keeping the pace of the story high and by introducing a narration by Welles. The narration is painfully bad, adding nothing to the proceedings. Often the narration is needed to explain the motivations of characters since the scenes that would make this clear have been removed. It is overly simplistic and used to explain the events of the screen rather than to comment on them or introduce the internal monologue of the character.

Of all the damage that the final cut did to Welles’ film, the biggest victim is in the fun house climax. As originally intended (and shot) this was a complicated sequence of some 20 minutes, utilising extensive stylish sets, disorienting visual tricks, creative use of shadow and light and all the creative power at his disposal. The sequence presented on screen lasts only a couple of minutes. It is erratically edited and undermines Sloane’s performance as well as his character’s motivation.

It is, perhaps a credit to Welles’s visual flair that, despite being a shadow of what it could have been, the climax remains visually audacious. The camera tricks are impressive and the use of multiple images of each actor remains unusual and highly effective even today. It does, however, seem rushed and is an ending that does little justice to any of the characters or their actors’ performances.

While there are problems aplenty with this film, there are some elements that do work. The performances all almost uniformly excellent. Welles himself takes on the lead role and acquits himself well. He plays with an Irish accent that takes a little getting used to but is well done. Welles is believable in this role but seems much more comfortable in less working class roles.

Opposite him plays his (then estranged) wife, Rita Hayworth. For this role, at Welles’s instigation, she cut her trademark red hair short and dyed it blonde. The hairstyle is fitting to her character – simultaneously pretty and harsh. It also emphasises that this is a new, much darker type of role for her.

Hayworth’s Elsa is, I suspect, the character most injured by the recutting of the film. She is set up as a femme fatale but we are permitted only the briefest of glimpses of this. Her character’s reveal in the climax does not ring true – it is too sudden. She would be a stronger character if we saw her manipulativeness at work. She has clearly been involved in planning the whole sordid plot and yet is shown as merely reacting to unfolding events.

Among the supporting cast, Glenn Anders puts in a bizarre and unsettling performance as the sweating, giggling manipulator, George. One of the few set piece scenes that completely works involves him and Welles plotting on the pier. His giggling creepiness reaches a disturbing crescendo in a scene shot in brilliant Wellesian shadow and unusual low angles.

Stealing the show, as the husband, is Everett Sloane. His performance is quite spectacular. His spidery gait as he slowly walks across the screen is mesmerising. He plays the weakened cripple but, like a femme fatale’s sexuality, this is a mask to disarm his opponents – he is strong-willed, intelligent, manipulative and cruel. His continually calling Hayworth ‘lover’ becomes increasingly disturbing, a veiled threat. Sloane is also responsible for much of the film’s humour, most notably in the courtroom scene. Here Welles crams in farcical comic touches that lead up to Sloane’s over-the-top but amusing self-cross-examination as both witness and lawyer.

In scenes like this and in the brilliant support casting, Welles’s talents come to the fore. The problem is that in this compromised version these are only glimpses that are lost in the confused mess that remains. Following the edit, the film feels long, even at under 90 minutes.

Welles losing control of the film was inevitable. He came up with a darkly confusing plot, took the studios greatest star, cut her trademark hair and cast her in her darkest role to date. He created a film of confusing moral ambiguity; a film where good and bad were not easily distinguishable. Of course they tried to change the film, make it more palatable. Of course it isn’t really possible to change the nature of a film after the fact. The resulting mess is a compromised vision that pained Welles. It was shelved for two years by the studio before being vomited onto the market. It didn’t make money and coincided with the release of his subsequent film, Macbeth – also a commercial disappointment. With two flops in row, Welles was Hollywood pariah all over again.

© Calum Campbell 2012

Some Like It Hot

Summer Under the Sun Blogathon

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

Marilyn Monroe was never a favourite star of mine. I preferred the icy beauty and elegance of Grace Kelly or the innocent charm of Audrey Hepburn. For pure sex appeal, Clara Bow was the girl for me, or maybe Louise Brooks. For delicate perfection there was Elizabeth Taylor and for gutsy disdain, Katharine Hepburn was the star I turned to. This left little room for poor old Norma Jeane. I disliked her petted-lip pronunciation, her posing, her apparent vacuousness. I was wrong, of course. What I came to realise was that in the right role, under the right direction, she could be a remarkable actress. She had star power, alright, but she also had class.

I think that part of the trouble for me was that while I could imagine having an argument with Katharine Hepburn, or pursuing Audrey Hepburn across Rome or down an rain-soaked New York alley, Marilyn Monroe often seemed untouchable. She was a fragile doll, an idol to be gazed upon but never a real person, never attainable, not someone that could be interacted with.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot she is as beautiful, artificial and delicate as ever, but she is also real. This is the film that made me stand up and take notice. This is the film that opened my eyes to her undeniable charm.

Monroe plays Sugar Kane, singer and Ukelele player in an all-girl travelling orchestra. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two musicians living hand-to-mouth. When they accidentally witness a mob hit instigated by Spats Colombo (George Raft) they go on the run. Needing to leave town fast and avoid detection they doll themselves up in drag and join Kane’s orchestra as ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’. The orchestra is leaving for Florida and will, they hope, be their means of escape.

Monroe dominates the screen in every scene she appears in. Her introduction in the train station stops Jack Lemmon in his tracks and stops us too. The camera lingers on her as she walks along the platform, encouraging us to ogle her. I don’t consider this misogynistic but the film, despite being a light comedy, does make certain observations on the treatment of women. Jack Lemmon, for instance, stumbles as he boards the train only to have his behind patted by Dave Barry. Later he is the indignant victim of a pass in an elevator. For his part, as Tony Curtis chats to Sugar on the train, she tells him her own sad history with men – a long series of mistreatment and disappointments. Of course this is exactly how Curtis has used and abused women himself. It takes him figuratively becoming a woman to understand his own bad behaviour from their point of view. He begins to empathise with a woman for the first time. By becoming a woman he finds himself becoming a better man.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon give outstanding performances. Lemmon excels as the giggling and feminine Daphne. Early in the film he is hilarious as he tries to stop then joins in with an impromptu party in his berth. Tony Curtis, on the other hand, is at his best when he loses the dress and dons his millionaire persona. In a more than passable impression of Cary Grant he is comedic dynamite. The scenes between Curtis and Monroe on board the yacht are perfect – he is manipulative, charming and very funny; she is seductive, vulnerable and more than holds her own in eliciting laughter.

Playing opposite two actors in career-defining roles, Monroe could be forgiven for being something of an also-ran in the film. In fact she is never less than mesmerising. As Kane she is sweetly sexy and genuinely alluring. As viewers we more than understand the attraction that Curtis feels for her. When she performs her numbers as part of the orchestra’s shows she steals whole sequences and anyone else on screen becomes invisible.

While the three stars are possibly at their best, the supporting cast are no less impressive. One of the highlights of the film is Raft’s performance. He sends himself up spectacularly, playing off his own gangster typecasting. His best moment is a scene where he mocks a low level mob enforcer for tossing a coin – a reference to his own character in Scarface. While Raft and his gang are definitely amusing and often the source of comic relief, they are still permitted to play with enough menace to prove a credible threat to Lemmon and Curtis. Pat O’Brien, as the detective constantly trying to bring down Colombo, is also perfectly cast.

The supporting cast is, without doubt, dominated by Joe E. Brown. Playing a millionaire multiple-divorcee he falls for Daphne on sight. As the smitten lover he is outstanding and his subplot allows for Lemmon’s best lines and most absurd situations.

Billy Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond. They let the absurdities of the story play to their comedic extent and, through deceptively careful plotting, are able to throw in some surprising plot turns. Notably they avoid cliche and do not go down the route of having Lemmon and Curtis compete for Monroe. One liners come thick and fast and some of their dialogue, particularly the closing ‘nobody’s perfect’ have become legendary.

Having started out as a screenwriter who moved into direction, Wilder is an excellent actors’ director. As a technician, however, he is conservative. His direction never makes itself felt in terms of virtuoso style and he favours straightforward shooting to extravagant camera movements. This doesn’t limit the impact of the film and there are several impressive sight gags throughout, my favourite being the backwards boat rides.

Some Like it Hot has come to be among the most acclaimed and beloved comedies of all time and deservedly so. It isn’t my all time favourite and, for me, it isn’t Wilder’s best work. It is, however, my favourite performance of almost everyone involved and, possibly most importantly, the film that made me reconsider my opinion on Marilyn Monroe.

© Calum Campbell 2012

The Searchers

Published as part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.

We are inside a darkened room before a closed door. A female figure approaches and opens it wide, revealing a glorious Technicolor landscape framed by the shadows of the door. The camera tracks forward, following the woman outside into the full cinematic splendour of the American West. As the viewer absorbs the VistaVision colours, the camera pans to the right to find Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into focus.

The opening shot of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is spectacular. The contrast between the shadows of the interior and bright exterior allows the landscape to burst onto the screen. Similar shots (dark interiors framing bright exteriors) are repeated throughout the film. They emphasise the vastness of the landscape and the futility and insignificance of human settlement in such an immense, rugged, unforgiving landscape. Indeed landscape and nature feature large in this film: the wide frame is used to its full effect in showing vast, empty spaces. The people that survive in this environment are as wild and unforgiving as their surroundings.

In the opening shot, Edwards has just returned home from a long absence. A former soldier, it is implied that following the war, he may have been involved in illicit activities. When the subject is broached, he refuses to discuss it. Edwards is a man of action, not words. When Comanches massacre his family and his nieces are kidnapped, Edwards cannot rest until he has avenged these deaths and retrieved his nieces. His obsessive hunt for revenge lasts for years.

While John Wayne dominates this film and does so with his prerequisite heightened masculinity and hard-man persona, he gives an undeniably subtle and complex performance. Things left unsaid, actions that occur off screen, are often the most interesting. What did Edwards do in the years after the war but before he came home? How did he get those bags of money? How did he acquire his knowledge of Comanche customs, beliefs and language? Is the story of what happened to him in the canyon the truth? Is the love between him and his sister-in-law imagined or real? Is it unrequited? Is his brother aware of it?

Ethan Edwards is a man whose rage barely conceals a crushing pain – he is grief sticken, an emotional wreck whose grief occasionally surfaces only to be suppressed by his anger. Grief fuels his anger, powers his obsession. Ethan Edwards is a man driven by his obsessions, by his prejudices and, above all, by his thirst for revenge. It is these prejudices, however, that prove the film’s major difficulty. There’s no denying that the film has a fiercely racist bite that is more than a little uncomfortable to watch. The most blatant instance of this occurs when Edwards is presented with a group of women recently rescued from the Comanches. They are portrayed as wide-eyed, grinning psychotics – live among the natives for long enough and you lose your mind being the clear implication. As Edwards puts it, they are no longer white. This attitude is, probably, accurate to the period in which the film is set. Arguably, and more worryingly, it could even be accurate for the time in which it was made. As uncomfortable as this is, the temptation to place modern standards of racism on a classic film should be avoided.

Jeffrey Hunter, as Martin, joins Edwards on his journey. The adoptive son of the slain family, he shares the need to rescue his sister. Wayne initially shows resentment towards him and is openly rude to him at a family meal but gradually comes to accept him. They spend years together, travelling from place to place in search of clues. It could be argued that a level of surrogate father-son relationship develops between them, although it is not always clear which man fits into which role. Edwards frequently protects Martin from the more horrible realities of the film – the sight of body of his aunt for example. He also withholds stories of the fates of other characters close to him. On the other hand Martin tries to be a calming influence on Edwards and to tame him when his temper or prejudice clouds his judgement.

The main thrust of the plot is heavy stuff. Necessary comedic value is found in the supporting cast, particularly Hank Worden as Mose whose life revolves around the hospitality of a rocking chair. Martin has a girlfriend (Vera Miles) waiting at home and a sub plot is devoted to her and her parents waiting for Martin’s return and her being wooed by another suitor. I particularly like the father’s habit of putting on his reading glasses every time a letter is read – whether he is reading it himself or not. The comedy highlight of the film, however, is found in an absurdly slapstick fight between Martin and his rival.

Traditionally the pursuit of vengeance would be portrayed positively in this genre. Interestingly, in this film, Wayne’s character is clearly not heroic: he shoots people in the back, has to be prevented from killing his niece, ignores pleas not to lead Martin into a life of the endless pursuit of revenge and even cuts short the funeral service. The resolution of the search lacks satisfaction for Edwards. He accepts his niece into the family again but is apparently unable to rejoin the family himself. Additionally, and again going against genre norms, it is Martin, rather than Edwards, who finally kills Scar, the Comanche chief that destroyed his family.

The last shot of the film shows that, without war, without his search, Edwards is lost. He has brought back his niece and she is taken inside the house, followed by the welcoming party. As they enter, they become silhouettes, enveloped by the shadow of the interior. The camera tracks back with them until the doorway frames the bright exterior. Wayne comes as far as the door but does not enter. For the first time, he seems unsure of what to do with himself and wanders around aimlessly. On the soundtrack a song repeats the lyric ‘ride away’ and we fade to black. This is not a comfortable ending – it lacks resolution. It is, however, fitting. Edwards entered the film from nowhere, crossing an empty landscape and the viewer was not told anything substantial about what happened to the character prior to the start of the film. In some ways it is fitting that it should end this way – Edwards cannot enter because he doesn’t belong. Like the opening shot, the contrast between light and dark emphasises the contrast between wildness and domesticity. The implication is clear, Edwards belongs outside in the wild, he cannot be domesticated.

The Searchers is a western that attempts to subvert some of the ideals of heroism in typical westerns. It does this on a screen that is dominated by some of the most expressive uses of the iconic western landscape ever put on the screen. It is a film that is dominated by a savage anger and fierce obsession; a film of contradictions and prejudices. It is a film that asks many more questions than it answers and, for those questions it does answer, doesn’t always provide comfortable answers. It isn’t the best American Western but it does come close. Ford’s spectacular depiction of landscape would influence David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and its style and influence would be heavily felt a few years later when Spaghetti Westerns began to emerge.

© Calum Campbell 2012

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) is a frenetically paced, angst-ridden teen romance that charms its way past its own clichés. A quirky, poetic tribute to New York, it is a love story set over the course of one long night.

That night begins when unappreciated, long-suffering, poor little rich girl, Norah (Kat Dennings) meets heartbroken good guy Nick (Michael Cera) bassist extraordinaire and the lone straight member of a queer-punk band. They meet when Norah, desperate to impress school friend rival, Tris (Alexis Dziena), asks Nick to be her boyfriend for five minutes.

There is an instant attraction between the couple and they share a kiss. But trouble lies ahead. Norah’s rival is also Nick’s ex. Norah is self-consciously straight-laced and has an ex-boyfriend waiting in the wings. Nick is still pining after Tris and blindly sabotages many early moments in their relationship. Inevitably Norah runs; inevitably Nick pursues; inevitably it will all end happily. We’ve seen it all before, of course, but this film has a few trump cards that it plays brilliantly.

Firstly there is the casting – the two leads, in particular, acquit themselves well. Cera plays a variation on his standard good-guy-loser persona but is effective in the role and hits all the right notes. He has genuine comedic timing and more range than he is often given credit for. Dennings, casually beautiful and believably awkward, steals her scenes with ease. Together they have genuine chemistry and manage to hook us in – vitally important in a romance that takes place in such a condensed space of time. Unusually, almost uniquely for a teen movie, both are believable as teenagers.

The supporting cast is strong too, particularly Ari Graynor, who, as Caroline, Norah’s best friend, has an often hilarious night of her own. A subplot is devoted to Caroline’s drunken misadventures and comedic misunderstandings as she is separated from Norah and tries to make her own way home. It is through this subplot that most of the film’s humour is found. This humour does verge into traditional teen gross out territory but manages to remain believable and adds to the story, rather than distracting from it.

A second trump card is the writing. Lorene Scafaria pens a largely loyal, if slightly watered down, adaptation of the YA novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Like the novel, the film takes pains to present fully formed gay characters. These characters are gay but this doesn’t define them, it is just an aside – they simply are. Almost uniquely in the genre these are not stock characters designed to be the target of homophobic humour. In short it is a realistic and deceptively modern portrayal of teenagers today, gay or straight.

Scafaria maintains the swift pacing of the novel and the film unfolds, more or less, in real time. In both novel and film, the protagonists are music obsessed. Nick futilely tries to lure Tris back with mix CDs that Norah secretly retrieves from bins. On this night of nights the couple pursue the prospect of discovering the location of a secret gig by a favourite band. In the novel this concert is squandered early on; for the film, Scafaria wisely places this much later and uses the search for it as a catalyst for the plot.

This is a film that is almost as much about music as it is about love. Nick and Norah meet at a concert, Nick plays in band, Norah’s father is a music executive, the couple spend a brief time in a recording studio and a great deal of time following clues for that elusive concert. Unsurprisingly music features heavily on the soundtrack – a well-placed assortment of indie rock that is one of the real highlights of the film.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a teen romance that doesn’t takes itself too seriously. A comedy that isn’t afraid to be romantic. Its characters are teenagers with teenage concerns not, as is so often the case, teenagers acting out the romantic ideals of an older generation. It is, for me, the first and to date best romance of and for the millennials.

© Calum Campbell 2012

Representing Humanity

Sam Fragoso at Duke & the Movies hosted a blogathon on Sunday. The premise:

Extraterrestrial forces land on Earth. Unknowing of our planet and society, you can pick five films from the history of cinema that represent humanity. What titles would you choose and why?

This is an intriguing idea. Movies represent the best and worst of humanity – our hopes, dreams and aspirations, our capacity for hatred and evil. They show reality and fantasy and reflect their times. But how to choose only five films?

The selection process was difficult and I changed my mind numerous times. Initially I considered films that would reflect five great emotions representative of humanity. Plenty of scope there for war films, great romances, sweeping epics and science fiction fantasies. However I reconsidered this approach. Most people don’t experience the world, or humanity for that matter, as great, sweeping, operatic movements. For most, the world is shaped through individual experience. Taking this as my perspective, my choices are films that represent five typical experiences in the lives of modern-day people. My first three choices represent childhood, the transition to adulthood and love, respectively. The fourth is a helplessly positive celluloid dream that charms despite the fact we know that people like this don’t exist and the world is not nearly as innocent as the film would have us believe. The final choice represents a depressingly realistic snapshot of the world of work, the nature of business and possibly even relationships today.

The films I chose are surprisingly recent but I make no apologies for that. For me they represent my feelings on the modern human experience. So far, so grand. Here are the films:

1. The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Childhood is a traumatic experience for both parent and child. Chaplin channels his own childhood traumas to spectacular effect in The Kid. The young Jackie Coogan plays his part perfectly, eliciting laughter, concern and even the odd tear or two. The endearing kid character and Chaplin’s tramp are an unlikely pairing but they charm us. Traumatic as childhood is it is also about simple pleasures, about love and the pleasure and pain that a parent can feel in their love for their child. Coogan isn’t the tramp’s son but Chaplin becomes a father to him and the scenes in which the authorities attempt to separate them are masterful juxtapositions of moments of comedy and genuinely affecting emotional turmoil. It is all hopelessly sentimental but, in this film, that’s fitting.

Alternatives: Les 400 coups, My Neighbor Totoro, The Fall

2. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

The transition from child to adult is a frightening, exhilarating and confusing time for anyone. However, no one ever had it as bad a Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) the hopelessly shy, friendless, bullied, loner, victim of a fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie). Spacek gives a wonderfully understated performance that allows the audience to both sympathise with Carrie the victim and, to an extent, with the bullies that target her. In addition to being rife with metaphorical meanings, Carrie’s telekinesis further alienates her but also provides her with the means for her gloriously cathartic revenge. Carrie’s brief moment of triumphant acceptance is perfectly captured and makes her inevitable humiliation all the more painful. As exaggerated as it is, Carrie perfectly captures the pain, heartbreak and triumph of being a teenager.

Alternatives: Deep End, The Breakfast Club, Super 8

3. Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

Cameron Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown is, for me, a near-perfect romance. Its premise is unpromising – Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) a suicidally depressed young man travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to collect his father’s body. Through becoming acquainted with his large, estranged family and with the guidance of the angelic Claire (Kirsten Dunst) Drew begins to come to terms with both his father’s death and his own failings. The film is full of eccentric, larger than life southerners and has a quirky charm all of its own. That said it also finds time for quietly moving scenes. The central sequence in which Drew and Claire conduct the beginnings of their courtship in one epic phone call which lays both characters bare is marvellous. Elizabethtown is a film about love, loss, hope and forgiveness; about remembering the past while looking to the future and not letting past mistakes, regrets and grudges hold you back. In short it is about being human.

Alternatives: Punch Drunk Love, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Before Sunrise

4. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

In Amélie one woman (Audrey Tautou) vows to bring happiness to others in her own unique style. This is the premise of the film, so simple it could be a children’s book. What unfolds, however, is a quirky masterpiece – a romantic fantasy that shows the relentlessly hopeful side of human nature. None of this is true, of course. People are really not like Amélie and the world is not the gold-green tinted paradise of the film but that is irrelevant. We like to dream like this and that is what makes us human. Cinema, at its best, never lets reality get in the way of a good story.

Alternatives: Edward Scissorhands, Pan’s Labyrinth, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

5. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Modern business, perhaps even modern life is a grey world of anonymous hotel rooms, faceless disloyal colleagues and superficial relationships. It is a world where everyone lies, where people avoid commitment, family ties and emotional attachment. It is a world where a stranger might be hired for the unpleasant but necessary task of making you redundant. A world where innocence and youth are sneered at and seen as a threat. This is the world of Up in the Air and while it is not my world I see aspects of it all around me. The film may be designed to show a stylised version of corporate America but it does, I fear, step rather close to the truth.

Alternatives: American Beauty, Little Children, Fight Club

© Calum Campbell 2012

American Wedding

The original American Pie films have aged with their audience. In the soon to be released American Reunion, the fourth and latest in the series, the cast is reunited for their ten year high school reunion. American Pie, the first of them, featured the quest of four teenage boys to lose their virginity by prom night and focused on the transition from school to adult life. It’s sequel moved a year on and showed the characters reuniting after their first year at college and finding that old relationships cannot always be continued into adult life. The third, American Pie 3: The Wedding (a.k.a. American Wedding) focuses on another great landmark for its still-young audience: marriage.

The returning cast for this third installment is smaller. Gone are Chris Klein, Tara Reid and Natasha Lyonne, among others. This is a welcome move, allowing the story of this film to be more focused than American Pie 2 and none of the omitted characters are missed.

The film opens in the now established pattern – Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) catches him in an embarrassingly awkward sexual situation. This scene is simultaneously very funny and touchingly romantic. With a few exceptions, romance has not been a real focus of these films and is a welcome new development in the franchise. In the past the focus has often been on bedding women but now even Stifler is looking for something more. This seems fitting – the characters are older and more mature.

Indeed the weakest aspects of the film are the attempts at gross out comedy. These do not work partly because the characters are older and more mature. What works for a teenage character does not necessarily work for a character in their twenties. An early scene involving a dog and a character’s crotch feels cheap. Later on jokes involve pubic hair and excrement. The film is at its best and funniest when, like American Pie 2 there is a detailed setup allowing us to guess the outcome and enjoy the build up. Among the stand out set pieces are Jim’s disastrous bachelor party and a scene in a gay club where Stifler surprises us for the first time.

Wedding films have been done so many times before. So many times that there is very little left to surprise us. The difference here is that we have had time to get to know the characters involved. The usual wedding movie issues plague our couple here but it all comes together in the end. Predictable, yes, but good enough. Jason Biggs’ great talent in these films is to play an archetypal loser who also works as an all round nice guy. We like Jim and we like Michelle for the same reason, we’ve got to know them over the course of two films and we want them to be happy together.

Seann William Scott as Stifler starts the film off as irritating. He hasn’t changed at all and wears a particularly annoying ‘idiot’ expression on his face for large parts of the early scenes. Gradually, however, he begins to show previously unseen depths and reveals that he does in fact care about his friends and their happiness. By the midpoint of the film he has become the highlight of the film and frequently provides its best scenes. Scott is an actor of some considerable skill. For anyone with any doubts about this, watch Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. He is the real focus of this film and carries it with ease. In a standout scene he brings a touch of brilliance to the cheapest, crudest joke in the series so far – a scene where he must eat dog shit. The material here is poor (it is clearly a token scene, the equivalent of the pale ale and champagne shower of the previous films) but pulls it off with aplomb.

Possibly the most effective aspect of the film is competition and role reversal between Stifler and Finch. With the latter, writer Adam Herz seemed unsure how to develop the character for the second movie and this resulted in an unfunny eccentric. For the third film Finch returns as a mature but arrogant friend who is still up for a laugh. Gone is the obsession with Tantra and the perpetual orgasmic moaning. But Herz doesn’t leave the characters like this. Instead he has them compete for the affections of Michelle’s sister (January Jones) in a genuinely amusing role reversal. Finch becomes the loudmouth, Stifler the pseudo intellectual.

It is genuinely funny seeing these two actors change roles and, surprisingly, this allows the two characters to grow. Finch is able to let his hair down and have genuine fun. In the past he has always kept himself at something of a distance. Stifler is able to show maturity and to realise that he too may want a relationship more like Jim’s. He is able to show his friends that he cares and to save the wedding, even though he caused almost all of the problems in the first place.

By focusing on only a selection of the original characters and genuinely developing them, this is a stronger sequel than its predecessor. It’s not perfect and some of the jokes are too cheap but it is funny, affectionate and nostalgic. For the first time we are introduced to a number of new characters including Michelle’s family, a gay pimp (Eric Allan Kramer in a standout performance) and his strippers . This helps inject new life into the film. American Wedding is a more than fitting conclusion to the story of Jim and his friends. It remains to be seen wether American Reunion can live up to its predecessors.

© Calum Campbell 2012

American Pie 2

The late nineties were a brief golden age for teen cinema. John Hughes and the brat pack that had dominated the eighties were a fading memory and the moralistic movies that they had made seemed perhaps a little quaint. For this new decade the teen movie was revamped, its parameters expanded. Now teens had sex, did drugs and committed crimes without punishment. Now endings were not always happily ever after – Molly Ringwald would never hook up with Judd Nelson in the nineties. During this period, the slasher genre reemerged from its direct to video purgatory with Wes Craven’s blockbuster Scream; Wild Things, an erotic crime thriller became a Basic Instinct equivalent for teens; Cruel Intentions, a modernising adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses caused a mini sensation and launched the career of Reese Witherspoon; American Beauty showed that unhappiness and angst were not the exclusive preserve of the middle-aged; and American Pie reconfigured the teen comedy and showed that teens could be portrayed relatively realistically without the need for a John Hughes-style moral message.

You might argue that some of these films were not ‘teen’ films and I would agree. But the teen audience did embrace them. In any case these were among the films that were talked about at the time, that my friends and I saw together, that seemed to speak to us.

It couldn’t last, of course, and within a few years it was all over. The success and quality of these movies inevitably ended their reign. American Pie made $235,483,004 at the worldwide box office from a budget of $11,000,000; Scream $173,046,663 from a $14,000,000 investment (figures from Box Office Mojo). Cashing in, the studios flooded the market with sequels, imitations and remakes. If the nineties was a utopia of quality in teen movie making, the following decade was a mass of cynical sequels and insulting remakes. The time of Scream 3, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions 2 and 3, Road Trip: Beer Pong, Wild Things 2 and 3 and later a whole slew of direct-to-video American Pie spinoff sequels, among many others.

It was in this environment that American Pie 2 was made. Released in 2001, two years after the original, and set one year on from that film, the sequel sees the cast reunite for a summer vacation together. The friends have all been at college over the last year and on returning home find themselves bored and disillusioned. They decide to rent a beach house on Lake Michigan, work as handymen to cover the rent and party the rest of the time.

Adam Herz returns as screenwriter of the sequel while directorial duties are taken on by J. B. Rogers. Virtually the entire cast of the original film return and in many ways not much has changed. Jim (Jason Biggs) is still nervous and sexually inexperienced, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still hung up on Stifler’s mom, Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari) are still in a relationship, (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has not moved on from Victoria (Tara Reid) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is still his rudely overconfident, sex-obsessed self. In some ways the return of so many of the original characters is a weakness. While Jim and his friends, for the most part, develop, Natasha Lyonne is basically comic decoration and Tara Reid’s character Victoria is just plain boring. The film lags in places and would have been stronger with some streamlining. Reid’s character in particular is superfluous. Among the males, Finch, amusing in the original, is irritating here. His obsession with Tantric meditation is tedious, unfunny and unbelievable and his story line is a series of repetitions of the same joke – ‘I slept with Stifler’s mom and really want to do so again’.

The recurring theme of the film is the guys coming to terms with the fact that as they grow older they are changing and their relationships are changing. Stifler is frustrated that Oz has remained in a relationship with Heather and others are frustrated that Stifler is still as immature and obnoxious as ever. Jim is gearing up for a reunion with Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) and is endearingly and believeably paranoid about not disappointing her. This leads to the return of Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle as Jim’s performance coach. Hannigan makes the most of her expanded character and is able to infuse her performance with a quirky cuteness that is immediately winning.

The big problem with comedy sequels is that they tend to rehash the jokes of the original. There is some of that here but it must be said that some of the biggest laughs in this film come from American Pie Redux scenes: the opening embarrassment with a brilliant Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad and the Stifler’s champagne scene in particular. These scenes work so well partly because we know the characters and know what to expect. The anticipation of a punch line can be as amusing as the punch line itself. Elsewhere Jason Biggs shows off his slapstick skills in a genuinely hilarious extended masturbation sequence which lands him in hospital.

Among the strengths of the original film was that its comedy was never vindictive and its female characters were well drawn. In this film three of the main female characters are bit players and not involved in the main plot – one of them even spends the bulk of the film on a different continent. Like the previous film, the female characters tend to reject attempts by the guys to objectify them and this is played out explicitly in a scene where the target of the boys’ voyeuristic machinations turns the tables to fairly humourous, if vaguely homophobic, effect. Elsewhere, Jim impersonates an apparently ‘special’ student at band camp. This joke is overplayed and is probably on the wrong side of the line in terms of offensiveness.

Overall the strengths of the sequel outweigh its weaknesses. The characters are entertaining enough and the cast engaging enough for us to go on the journey with them. Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy steal the show but the acting of the whole ensemble has improved in the interim. Most of the characters have developed and Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle, in particular, has developed from a slightly irritating one-joke character to a romantic lead. It would be a stronger film if it had cut out some of the secondary characters and focussed on the leads but for the most part it is a good, fun comedy. It’s weaknesses do mean, however, that the original remains the best.

© Calum Campbell 2012

American Pie

With the release of American Reunion just around the corner I thought it was about time to revisit the original trilogy of films.

Hard to believe but there was a time when MILF was not part of the common vocabulary. American Pie (1999) popularised the term and precipitated a surge of increasingly puerile, gross out teen comedies. It clearly has a lot to answer for.

The directorial debut of brother duo Chris and Paul Weitz, the story is simple – four high school graduates pledge to lose their virginity by prom night. What sets it apart from its imitators is the depth of its characters. Somewhat atypically, it gives almost equal thrift to its main female characters and presents them as both intelligent and aware. These young women are not simply sex objects and specifically chastise the males when they are treated as such.

The main characters all conform to a type; there is the eccentric middle-aged man in a teenager’s body; the rich, insensitive, overconfident jock; the sensitive kind-hearted jock; the nice guy in a long-term relationship; the unconfident nice guy. Among the women: the apparently naïve and geeky band camp veteran; the sweetly virginal girl in a long-term relationship; her confidently nonconformist and apparently more experienced best friend; the shy jazz singer; the forward and sexually confident foreign exchange student. The situations, too, are familiar – first love and the associated embarrassments, uncomfortable parental guidance, prom, nervousness about the post-high school world.

All of this is secondary, of course. What matters is that it is funny, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The comedy comes thick, fast and crude but never gets in the way of the characters. And as crude as the humour gets it is never vindictive and largely avoids misogyny. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, one of the things that sets American Pie apart from its contemporaries is that it is ‘not mean’.

The young actors acquit themselves well. Seann William Scott in particular gives a confident and deceptively nuanced performance. Alyson Hannigan, at the time known for her role as the geeky and retiring Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays to type leading up to a still-effective turnaround: a joke where the punch line has been building for almost the entire movie. Jason Biggs is convincingly endearing as nice guy Jim and Tara Reid was probably never better. However Eugene Levy steals the show as Jim’s excruciatingly embarrassing and relentlessly forgiving father.

The charm of this movie for me is in showing the inherent crappiness of being a teenager, the worry of what is to come, the obsession with sex and what people think of you. It is genuinely crude but gets away with it by taking time to build characters that we care about. For my age group, it became something of a zeitgeist movie, one that was quoted relentlessly (MILF, This one time at band camp…). It defined a particular moment in time. Like The Breakfast Club before it, American Pie does have a moral message but unlike the earlier film it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a stronger film for it.

When I rewatched this film I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. I hadn’t watched it for probably a decade and was oddly relieved to see that it still seemed fresh. It is very much of its time but hasn’t dated particularly. Its descendants include Super Bad and although those films upped the crudeness, they have yet to surpass it. American Pie, almost uniquely in this genre, found the balance between story, character and humour.

© Calum Campbell 2012

William Finley (1942-2012)

Character actor William Finley passed away last week following a long illness. For many people his name and face will be unknown. And it is true that he made only a relatively small number of films, the bulk of which were in the seventies. For those in the know, however, his presence was always felt in a film.

His unconventional looks – he was well over six feet in height, wore thick glasses and was certainly not movie star handsome – perhaps tended to steer him towards quirky supporting roles. He had a supporting role in the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage, an uncredited role in John Huston’s Wise Blood and appeared in The Funhouse and Night Terrors for Tobe Hooper.

It was under the direction of Brian De Palma, however, that he made his greatest contribution to cinema. Finley and De Palma met as students at Columbia University. In De Palma’s most celebrated short film, Woton’s Wake, Finley found his first screen role as the title character in a striking homage to the German Expressionist movies of the twenties. When De Palma graduated to feature films, Finley was there too, usually in supporting roles, occasionally starring. He played opposite a fresh-faced Robert De Niro in the light comedy The Wedding Party which De Palma co-directed. In the director’s first solo feature, the surrealistic comic thriller Murder a la Mod, he played the sinister and odd Otto as well as contributing the rather catchy theme song.

Under De Palma’s direction, he went on to appear in the split screen experiment Dionysus in ’69, which documented a unique production of The Bacchae by the Performance Group. This production blurred the lines between performer and spectator, performance space and audience space and was filmed with two cameras simultaneously with one focused primarily on the actors and the other on the audience. The footage from these two cameras was projected as a single, splitscreen image (a device De Palma would later master and use repeatedly) providing a uniquely fascinating, at times disorienting experience.

Sisters De Palma’s first fully-realised thriller, complete with Bernard Herrmann score, saw Finley (pictured above) playing the sinister Emil Breton. It is a testament to his skill as an actor than Finley was able to inject an element of slapstick into a scene involving the coverup of the vicious murder of a character the audience has grown to like.

In The Fury a big budget telekinetic horror-thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes, he had a smaller role and for Dressed to Kill featured in a voice-only part. Finley is best remembered, however, for his dual roles as the wronged songwriter Winslow Leach and the Phantom of the title in De Palma’s stylistically most atypical film, the rock musical Phantom of the Paradise. In the role he was able play the gentle and naïve Winslow with a genuine sense of pathos and portray the damaged and vengeful phantom as both menacing and sympathetic. Phantom of the Paradise is a criminally under-rated movie. A parody of the music industry of the day (which has only grown more relevant with time) as well as a melding of the Phantom of the Opera and the legend of Faust, it was overshadowed in the UK by The Rocky Horror Picture Show with which it was at one time the b-feature of a double-bill. While neglected in general, the film did find its share of passionate supporters: in France it was a success and critically acclaimed (a special edition DVD of the film was released in that country a few years ago) and in the city of Winnipeg it seems to have captured the collective imagination of the population and is now the subject of an annual festival, Phantompalooza. Dario Argento also went on to cast Finley’s costar, Jessica Harper, in his horror masterpiece Suspiria after seeing Phantom.

Finley’s career seemed to slow down in the 1990s and 2000s. He did, however, become increasingly accessible to his fans, contributing to a Movie Geeks United show dedicated to De Palma and appearing at Phantompalooza. Fittingly, his last role was a small supporting part in his old friend Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia in 2006.

In an earlier period of cinema history, Finley could have had a strong career as a character actor in the way that someone like Edward G Robinson did. In reality he was criminally under-used. For his fans, though, he will be fondly remembered.

Related Links:

Edgar Wright’s touchingly personal tribute to the late actor.

Phantom of the Paradise costar Jessica Harper on working with Finley.

A 2007 Movie Geeks United interview with Finley.

© Calum Campbell 2012