By Clive Bradley (reblogged from Solidarity and the AWL website)
Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, walked a precarious line.
Set in World War Two Europe, it dealt with very serious matters — the genocide of the Jews — but in Tarantino’s inimitable way: at least as much about movies as about history, very violent, very funny.
It could have been a distasteful monstrosity. But to my mind it was a brilliant tour de force, with a delirious and unexpected climax that in fact was very thought-provoking.
Django Unchained sets out to pull off the same trick but this time about slavery in America. Does it succeed?
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave sort-of-freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr Schulz (Christopher Waltz, the marvellous villain from Inglorious Basterds). Shulz — who is essentially a decent bloke — agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the most notorious and terrifying plantation in Mississippi, owned by Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Much tension, and then, inevitably, much violence and gore ensues. Along the way there’s a brilliant turn by Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candle’s apparently-sweet but actually-terrifying Uncle Tom servant.
Some — notably Spike Lee (though apparently he refuses actually to see the film) have objected to the movie, and indeed to the very idea of Tarantino addressing this subject. He trivialises slavery, they say, and the African American experience. Much of this objection seems to be against Tarantino himself — a geeky white boy who verges, sometimes, on the “wigger”, a film obsessive rather than a historian, steeped in B movies, trash culture, (horror of horrors) genre.
And indeed, as you would expect, Django Unchained is as much about Westerns as about slavery. Its colours, its soundtrack, many of its events, are comments on the genre itself – which was once immensely popular, but died out in the 1970s or before (with occasional revivals, of course, like the recent remake of True Grit).
But what a comment. Westerns, as a genre, rarely (I think it might be never, but maybe some Western fan can correct me) have slaves in them at all, never mind as central characters. (There are black characters, occasionally – comedy buffoons with wide eyes and shuffling feet — but not, I think, acknowledged to be slaves).
Westerns certainly never have slaves or ex-slaves as heroes, riding horses, shooting guns, and exacting terrible vengeance on plantation owners.
Foxx’s Django is an avenging angel. There is — not quite the climax of the movie, but towards it — the inevitable set-piece Tarantino gore fest (as you would expect, both bloody and played for jokes). And you want him to blow these evil motherfuckers away. You root for the massacre. It’s exhilarating.
I don’t think, here, it’s as successful as the massacre in Inglorious Basterds (where the Nazi leadership is taken out) —which (for me, anyway) makes you reflect on your own bloodthirsty emotions; but it’s not, either, as purely ridiculous and jokey as the bloodfest in Kill Bill I.
But I don’t see that it trivialises anything. It is extremely entertaining — but how is it a valid criticism of a film maker that his film is too enjoyable? It’s not very sophisticated — Django is the good guy, the slave owners are the bad guys… But that’s how Westerns work; it’s pretty much the point of Westerns, except in the classic Western, Good is signified by white (hats, usually), and Bad by black…
Tarantino has said, rightly, that there’s nothing in Django Unchained that’s remotely as violent as slavery was itself. And it includes some marvellous — though very bloody — dramatisations of what slavery actually meant: a runaway torn apart by dogs; slaves forced to pummel each other to death for their owners’ enjoyment.
There is, I’m sure, a great film yet to be made about the experience of slavery in the US. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, was leaden and dull; Spielberg’s Amistad was simply untruthful about the abolition of slavery. Django Unchained is not that film. But it’s a tall order for any film maker — to make the definitive statement about a vast historical experience.
The Graun‘s obit, here.
Here he has a go at the arsehole/asshole Littlejohn and defends lesbians.
But I still think his films are shite…
Yes, I know the London “tube” / Underground is stressful, should be free and is a paradise for gropers (especially during rush-hour), but still: it’s a wonder, isn’t it? And the first such underground system of its kind, anywhere.
It also has a tradition of employing a well-unionised , political and militant staff.
So let’s celebrate the 150th birthday of ’The Tube’ with this recently restored 1928 Brit film, ‘Underground‘:
“Blonds make the best victims” – A. Hitchcock
First things first: last night’s BBC 2/HBO film The Girl was absolutely superb – by far the best new work to be seen on Brit TV over the Christmas season. If you missed it, make sure you catch up via iplayer or whatever, asap.
Briefly, this was the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s choice of the previously unknown Tippi Hedren to star in The Birds (his follow-up to Psycho) and his obsession with her, culminating in a campaign of bullying and intimidation when she rejected his blundering advances. Finally, Hitchcock sabotaged her career by refusing to either release her from her contract or to use her in any more films, apart from the rather unpleasant Marnie.
His behaviour, these days, would be considered completely unacceptable and probably place him beyond the pale in the eyes of polite society.*
Once again we are confronted with the old conundrum: to what extent is it possible to separate a great artist from the more unpleasant aspects of his (and, it would seem, it is usually “his” rather than “her”) personality? As an admirer of Philip Larkin I have difficulty coming to terms with evidence of his misogyny and racism, just as admirers of Eliot and Pound have (or should have) difficulty with the fascist sympathies of those two, and Picasso enthusiasts ought to be at least concerned by his Stalin-worship (which lasted into the 1950s). As for unacceptable sexual practices, the superb sculptor and designer Eric Gill probably leads the field, though I’ve no doubt there have been plenty of other major artists with similarly hideous sexual proclivities. Benjamin Britten‘s interest in adolsescent boys has long been the subject of speculation, though in fairness it should be stated that there has never been any evidence that he engaged in paedophilia.
Anyway, The Girl, based as it was upon Tippi Hedren’s own accounts (in interviews) of what happened, pulled no punches and made no effort to excuse or explain-away Hitchcock’s behaviour. But, thanks to a masterful performance by Toby Jones, we feel pity as well as disgust. Hitchcock was, by his own description, a fat, ugly walrus of a man who had only ever had sex with his wife (for whom the term “long suffering” scarcely suffices) and, now in his sixties, was impotent anyway. According to Jones’ portrayal, he appears to have felt that Hedren simply owed him a tumble for having made her a star.
The question that The Girl poses but doesn’t answer, is to what extent Hitchcock’s sexual obessions contributed to the dark, ambiguous power of his best work.
As well as Jones’ extraordinary portrayal, Sienna Miller gives a strong (in every sense of the word) performance as Tippi Hedren and Imelda Staunton deserves a mention for her profoundly sad Alma Hitchcock.
* On the other hand, the rapist and paedophile Roman Polanski as recently as 2009, could count on the support and sympathy of leading celebs and ”intellectuals” throughout the world.
In my experience, most lefties dislike Westerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Almost by definition, the genre is a celebration of white settlers in confrontation with native peoples. Sometimes the portrayal of the natives is condescending and/or downright racist. It’s also the most macho of cinematic genres, with women rarely playing significant roles except as home-makers and/or romantic ideals (I leave aside, of course, the bordello girls). Westerns also tend to be morally simplistic, good-against-evil stories that leave little room for nuance, socio-economic background or understanding of the “other.”
Well, that’s what a lot of people on the left tend to think. Actually, the best Westerns explore the human condition and individual weakness in the face of hostile, relentless forces, as few other film genres do (the ‘noir’ detective films also do it, but they’re really just updated Westerns anyway). Some Westerns (and not just recent ones) even explore the position of women (Johnny Guitar) and Native Americans (The Searchers). It’s been suggested, also, that High Noon is, at least in part, about McCarthyism.
Anyway, what’s brought this on is ol’ Prof Norm’s latest poll, open until the end of this month: vote for your favourite Westerns. The Prof has provided his list:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1960)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
…but has been (imho) quite rightly denounced for not including the film that many of us consider The Greatest Western Of All Time..
My list would probably include High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959).
But, as I said, this is the best of them all:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- From Tennyson’s ’Ulysses,’ quoted by M in Skyfall
For once you can believe the hype. This is not just the best Bond film ever, but it’s a bloody good, intelligent thriller by any standards. Under the direction of Sam Mendes, the Bond franchise has caught up with, and maybe overhauled, the Bourne brand that looked set to consign 007 to the dustbin of history.
Actually, a central theme of Skyfall is the idea that Bond may be past it, rendered obsolete by modern technology, the end of cold-war certainties and -not least- by advancing middle age, too much booze, and declining physical prowess. Judi Dench’s M is similarly threatened with enforced retirement as the politicians question her competence, MI6 having unfortunately allowed a list of its top agents round the world to fall into the hands of a vengeful lunatic who also manages to blow up their London HQ. Said lunatic is ensconsed with his henchmen on a deserted island and bent not so much on world domination (so passé) as upon the humiliation of those who failed to appreciate him when he was himself an M16 agent. Played with evident relish by a camp, giggling Javier Bardem, this may just be the most interesting Bond villain yet, and certainly the first to display such a degree of sexual and emotional ambiguity.
In fact the triangular love-hate relationship between the baddie, Bond and M is the other leitmotif of the film, culminating in a suitably Oedipal penultimate scene that is actually rather moving.
There are, of course, the required high-octane action scenes: the opening sequence in Istanbul is a buttock-clenching chase by car, motorbike and train before the action moves to the vertigo-inducing skyscrapers of Shanghai. There are a few self-referential jokes at the expense of previous Bond films (the new Q – a spotty young nerd – says “we don’t go in for exploding pens these days”). Even the old silver DB5 is retrieved from a lock-up, giving Dench/M the opportunity for a joke about ejector seats.
There are, naturally, the obligatory Bond girls, one of whom is pretty, black, British and a good sport. The other is sultry, foreign, untrustworthy and clearly destined for an unpleasant end. Bond’s relationship with both is fairly superficial but not blatantly sexist. And for the first time ever, Bond has an intelligent and profound relationship with a woman: M/Dench, of course.
I won’t risk giving any more away and spoiling it for you, but I must just add that in many ways you get two films in one. The final action-scenes move to the Highlands of Scotland as Bond decides he can only win by fighting in ”the old fashioned way.” This is more Buchan than Fleming and the pace slows (in a good way), the film becoming austere, brooding and almost elegiac.
No question, then: the best Bond film ever. And in the complex, troubled and intelligent portrayal by Daniel Craig, the best 007 ever.
Herbert Lom, actor. Born Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru, 11 Sept 1917 (Prague); died 27 Sept 2012 (London).
Lom was one of the great character actors of post-war British cinema who rarely played leading roles but regularly stole the show from better-known stars. In his younger days especially, his saturnine good looks might have made him a matinée idol, but his strong accent (he was Czech-born) led to his being typecast as smooth, sinister foreign criminals and villains for most of his career. As he once commented, “In British eyes anyone foreign is slightly villainous.”
He fled his homeland as Hitler invaded, arriving in Britain in 1939 with his girlfriend Didi, who was Jewish. She was turned away at Dover for not having the correct papers. Her subsequent death (from starvation) in a concentration camp haunted Lom for the rest of his life.
Most of the obituaries have emphasised his role as Clouseau’s boss Drayfus in the various Pink Panther films, but to be honest these became less and less entertaining (something Lom was well aware of); even the best of the early ones cannot hold a candle to the funniest Ealing comedy of them all, The Ladykillers, in which Lom played his usual sinister role with a straight-faced menace that was in delicious contrast to the almost farcical antics going on around him. It was, Lom once said, “one of the few films I’m proud to have been associated with.”
He was (as far as I know) the last surviving member of the brilliant cast and production team that made this 1955 masterpiece.
(Graun obit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/sep/27/herbert-lom)
A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”
The ever-excellent Michael Steinman, over at Jazz Lives, writes:
We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school. The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons. Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.
Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary. It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic. It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.
Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love. He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist. Crippled from childhood — he would never grow taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.
But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man. It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician. It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world. That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission. For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.
Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing? I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love. How many people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET? We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.
And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music. The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.
Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.
I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones. Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone. It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.
Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties. For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions. And many of the subject’s friends and family are also gone. Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film. Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.
I don’t think so.
But back to Kaufman’s problem. Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic / charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis. Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.
So Kaufman had to be ingenious. And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.
The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera. The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.
And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap. Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots. Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages. Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?
THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it deserves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”
It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.
That’s the beautiful part. Now here comes four bars of gritty reality. In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now. But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.
Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release. All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference. Here is the link.
Think of a world made better by swing.
See and support this film.
May your happiness increase.
One of my favourite actors, Bob Hoskins, is retiring due to ill-health. He starred in probably the finest-ever Brit gangster film (far better than any of Guy Ritchie’s crap) , The Long Good Friday, the gut-wrenching romantic thriller Mona Lisa, and the hilarious part-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
He is also, by all accounts, a thoroughly good guy.
The Graun reports:
Bob Hoskins is to retire from acting following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease last autumn, it was announced on Wednesday.
A statement issued on his behalf said: “He wishes to thank all the great and brilliant people he has worked with over the years, and all of his fans who have supported him during a wonderful career. Bob is now looking forward to his retirement with his family, and would greatly appreciate that his privacy be respected at this time.”
Hoskins, one of Britain’s best-loved actors, known for his gruff bonhomie, has been working for more than 30 years. He first found fame on the small screen in Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, and then in cinemas as a London gangster-turned-businessman in The Long Good Friday (1980).
Hoskins had leading roles in Brazil (1985), Mona Lisa (1986), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Mermaids (1990) and Super Mario Bros (1993) – which he described in a recent Guardian interview as “the worst thing I ever did”.
Many will know him best for a series of adverts shot in the late 80s and early 90s for BT with his catchphrase, “It’s good to talk”. He teamed up with Shane Meadows for Twenty Four Seven (1997) and A Room for Romeo Brass (2000), and winning much acclaim for his role in Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey (1999).
Most recently, Hoskins was seen in Made in Dagenham, Snow White and the Huntsman and Outside Bet. On the set of that film, about the Wapping newspaper dispute in the mid-80s, Hoskins told the Guardian why he kept on working: “There’s always someone who rings up and says: ‘Now Bob, before you go, there’s a cracking little swansong for you’.”
I shall always best remember Hoskins for the first role I saw him in: ‘Arthur’, the doomed sheet-music salesman in Dennis Potter’s elegiac 1978 TV series, Pennies From Heaven, in which he and co-star Cheryl Campbell lip-synched 1930′s pop songs to quite incredible emotional effect. Here he is, ‘singing’ Al Bowlly’s 1938 vocal (with the Lew Stone Orchestra), You Couldn’t Be Cuter:
My favourite scene from Pennies is this one, where the two lovers are holed-up in a barn, awaiting their inevitable, tragic, fate. ‘Joan’ (Cheryl Campbell) lip-synches Connee Boswell’s 1935 record of In The Middle Of A Kiss. I defy you to watch this without a damp eye:
Have a good and long retirement, Bob.
Marvin Hamlisch, film-score and Broadway composer and arranger, born June 2 1944, died August 6 2012
From the Telegraph obit:
A classic moment in Academy Awards history occurred in 1974 when, aged 30, Hamlisch picked up three Oscars in one evening — two (for best score and best song) for The Way We Were and one (for best musical adaptation) for The Sting. Appearing uncharacteristically abashed by the windfall, he stepped to the podium, looked out at the audience and observed: “I think we can now talk to each other as friends” — a characteristic wisecrack that earned him a new sideline as a sought-after guest on chat shows.
I had always understood that Hamlisch’s comment was ‘addressed’ to the shade of of Scott Joplin, the original composer of the music used in ’The Sting.’ Anyway, Hamlisch deserves credit for reviving interest in ragtime as a whole and Scott Joplin in particular. I’d always assumed that Joshua Rifkin was the pianist on the ‘Sting’ soundtack, but I now understand it was Hamlisch himself.
I was going to post a clip of Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer,‘ the jaunty theme tune of ‘The Sting,’ but I decided that the hauntingly beautiful ‘Solace – A Mexican Serenade’ (1909) was more appropriate. I think the pianist here is Rifkin:
New York Times obit, here.
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