April Showers (May Come Your Way)

April 12, 2014 at 1:58 pm (cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, philosophy, song)

An appropriate song for today, from hep-cat Mel Torme (who always wanted to be a drummer):

…but if you want real, classy corn, here’s Al Jolson singing it, acted and lip-synched by Larry Parks (happily, not in black-face):

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Mickey Rooney – as Puck – bows out

April 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm (Champagne Charlie, cinema, film, Guardian, Marxism, RIP)

Thanks to the Guardian (and how often do we say that here?) for reminding us of this remarkable Mickey Rooney performance from 1935:

The Graun even manages to find a Karl Marx connection;

In 1935 the late Mickey Rooney played Puck in Max Reinhardt’s movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Critical opinion was mixed – as it was for the audacious casting of James Cagney as Bottom. But, in his indomitable way, Rooney captured the manic mischief of a character who has one of the Bard’s great lines – “Lord, what fools these mortals be” – and who should be taken more seriously than he sometimes is. Shakespeare’s is only the most famous incarnation of one of English folklore’s great creations, “the oldest Old Thing in England” as Kipling’s Puck describes himself. As Puck, the Hobgoblin or Robin Goodfellow, the laughing sprite is a great subversive, as Karl Marx recognised when he wrote about “our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution”. It’s not often you get Mickey Rooney and Karl Marx in the same sentence, but Puck makes all things possible.

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Peter Lorre – a real star

March 24, 2014 at 9:32 pm (anti-fascism, cinema, comedy, culture, film, Germany, Jim D, United States, wild man)

Sorry folks: I missed the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death (23rd March, 1964).

I feel a particular closeness to this great character-actor, because he was one of the film stars that my dad (like many people of his generation) did impersonations of (the others, in my Dad’s case, being Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Walter Brennan):

Here’s Lorre in a typical role

Here’s his best ‘serious’ performance in Germany before he fled fascism for the US and ended up in Hollywood::

…and my personal favourite:

Finally: the ultimate accolade:

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The Nymphomaniac man and the virtue of “anti-Zionism”

February 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm (anti-semitism, cinema, fascism, film, Guardian, Jim D)

The film Nymphomaniac has been getting some pretty good reviews – in the serious press, you understand, because this is most emphatically not a porn movie. As the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshore tells us, “It is about the most tender, platonic relationship imaginable: a depressed and exhausted woman and an elderly, vulnerable man, played superbly by Charlotte Gainsbourgh and Stellan Skarsgård .” Sounds promising, I thought – I might even go and see it when it hits the multiplex.

But the review goes on, and suddenly bells start ringing. Writing about the film’s director, Lars von Trier, Bradshaw notes that “He playfully alludes to his earlier films Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, and is still clearly prickly about the ‘Nazi’ controversy of two years ago at Cannes. Out of nowhere Seligman [the 'elderly, vulnerable man' - JD] pointedly explains the virtue of being ‘ant-Zionist, not antisemitic’”.

Ah! This Von Trier – he must be that director chappie who upset people at the Cannes film festival with ill-advised comments about Hitler. If, like me, you can’t really remember the details, or indeed, didn’t take very much notice in the first place, this Youtube clip is worth watching:

Well, it’s certainly good to have any misunderstandings cleared up: when he said “I understand Hitler” and “OK, I am a Nazi!” Von Trier was just being playful. And now he’s got a character in his new film making the distinction between “anti-Zionist” and “antisemitic”, it’s obvious that the director cannot possibly be an antisemite. I mean, just using the words “anti-Zionist” proves that doesn’t it? And, after all, even at Cannes he stated “Israel is a pain in the ass.” So it’s OK for the Guardian and its readers to like poor, misunderstood Mr Von Trier, and his latest (“heartfelt and even passionate” – P Bradshaw) film.

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A London time capsule from 1927 – in colour!

January 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm (cinema, film, history, Jim D, London)

No politics here, but it’s a fascinating, newly-discovered glimpse of London between the wars. I found it strangely eerie and moving, looking at all those now-dead faces (the little girl at the Peter Pan statue may possibly now be a very old lady, but is probably long gone). At least England had a “brilliant victory” over the Aussies at the Oval in 1927:

H/t The BFI (British Film Institute) and Laurie Coombs

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas … the saddest Christmas song?

December 25, 2013 at 12:16 am (BBC, Christmas, cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, music, song, Soul, wireless)

In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’

It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:

My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!

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It’s A Wonderful Life: the Fox News version

December 24, 2013 at 12:14 am (Christmas, cinema, economics, fantasy, film, humanism, Jim D, red-baiting, satire, solidarity, United States)

This comes courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel, via Gene at That Place. The entire clip is worth watching (dealing, at first, with the burning question: “is Santa white?”), but the classic film trailer starts at around 2.10:

Below: clip from dangerous leftist subversive Frank Capra’s 1946 ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ before it became the ideologically acceptable ‘Mr Potter and the Commies of Bedford Falls’ (NB: children and impressionable adults should not be allowed to watch this unsupervised):

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Peter O’Toole as Lawrence: his greatest performance?

December 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm (cinema, history, imperialism, Jim D, Middle East, palestine, Racism, RIP, wild man)

David Lean - Peter O'Toole 

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) may or may not have been Peter O’Toole’s greatest achievement, but it was certainly his finest film. Though not in all respects historically accurate, it still tells a us a lot about British imperialism and its accompanying racism. It was also a brilliant, beautiful and moving piece of cinema:

This is from the New York Times:

Peter O’Toole, an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose magnetic performance in the 1962 epic film “Lawrence of Arabia” earned him overnight fame and put him on the road to becoming one of his generation’s most accomplished and charismatic actors, died on Saturday in London. He was 81.

His daughter Kate O’Toole said in a statement that he had been ill for some time.

A blond, blue-eyed six-footer, Mr. O’Toole had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man, and he did not disappoint in “Lawrence,” David Lean’s wide-screen, almost-four-hour homage to T.E. Lawrence, the daring British soldier and adventurer who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks in the Middle East during World War I.

The performance brought Mr. O’Toole the first of eight Academy Award nominations, a flood of film offers and a string of artistic successes in the 1960s and early ‘70s. In the theater — he was a classically trained actor — he played an anguished, angular tramp in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and a memorably battered title character in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

In film, he twice played a robust King Henry II, first opposite Richard Burton in “Becket,” then with Katharine Hepburn as his queen in “The Lion in Winter.” Both earned Oscar nominations for Best Actor, as did his repressed, decaying schoolmaster in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and the crazed 14th Earl of Gurney in “The Ruling Class.”

Less successful was his Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” Arthur Hiller’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway musical, but it emphasized that his specialty was increasingly becoming the outsider or misfit: dreamy, romantic, turbulent, damaged, or even mad, but usually larger than life.

Mr. O’Toole threw himself wholeheartedly into what he called “bravura acting,” courting and sometimes deserving the accusation that he became over-theatrical, mannered, even hammy. His lanky, loose-jointed build; his blue eyes; his long, lantern-jawed face; his oddly languorous sexual charm; and the eccentric loops and whoops of his voice tended to reinforce the impression of power and extravagance.

Mr. Burton called him “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war,” with “something odd, mystical and deeply disturbing” in his work.

Some critics called him the next Laurence Olivier. As a young actor Mr. O’Toole displayed an authority that the critic Kenneth Tynan said “may presage greatness.” In 1958 the director Peter Hall called Mr. O’Toole’s Hamlet in a London production “electrifying” and “unendurably exciting” — a display of “animal magnetism and danger which proclaimed the real thing.”

He showed those strengths somewhat erratically, however; for all his accolades and his box-office success, there was a lingering note of unfulfilled promise in Mr. O’Toole.

It was no surprise when Olivier chose Mr. O’Toole to inaugurate Britain’s National Theater Company in 1963 with a reprisal of his Hamlet. But the first night left most critics unmoved and unexcited and the actor himself lamenting “the most humbling, humiliating experience of my life.”

“As it went on,” he said, “I suddenly knew it wasn’t going to be any good.”

A production in 1965 of David Mercer’s “Ride-a-Cock-Horse,” in which he played an adulterous alcoholic, was booed at its London opening.

Onscreen, mixed reviews followed his performances as the cowardly naval officer seeking redemption in “Lord Jim,” Richard Brooks’s 1965 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel; as a playboy in “What’s New, Pussycat?” a 1965 comedy with Peter Sellers and written by a young Woody Allen; and as the Three Angels in “The Bible: In the Beginning,” John Huston’s 1966 recreation of Genesis. And his sadistic Nazi general in Anatole Litvak’s “Night of the Generals” (1967) was panned.

His carousing became legend, particularly in the 1970s. As he himself said, he had long been “happy to grasp the hand of misfortune, dissipation, riotous living and violence,” counting Mr. Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Francis Bacon, Trevor Howard, Laurence Harvey and Peter Finch among his drinking companions. He lost much of his “Lawrence” earnings in two nights with Omar Sharif at casinos in Beirut and Casablanca.

Though he won many lesser awards during his career, triumph at the Academy eluded him, perhaps in part because he had made no secret of his dislike of Hollywood and naturalistic acting, which he considered drab. He was nothing if not ambitious, but success would come on his own terms, not the movie industry’s. He had made that plain at 18, when an acting career was already in his mind. In his notebook he made a promise to himself:

“I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.”

Marc Santora and Robert Berkvist contributed reporting.

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Louis at Hallowe’en: Skeleton In The Closet

October 31, 2013 at 6:36 pm (cinema, comedy, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

Any excuse to run a clip of the great Mr Armstrong. This is from the 1936 Bing Crosby movie ‘Pennies From Heaven.’ Behind the masks the band includes Lionel Hampton on drums and Joe Sullivan on piano:


Scary, isn’t it?

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The poverty of Žižek’s philosophy

October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am (AWL, celebrity, cinema, fantasy, film, intellectuals, Marxism, philosophy, post modernism, posted by JD, wild man)

The Perverts Guide to Ideology, reviewed by Matt Cooper at the Workers Liberty website:

It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.

So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.

Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.

He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.

His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.

It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.

Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.

There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.

His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!

To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.

Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.

Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a wilful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).

Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “feely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.

For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.

Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.

Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.

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