What Is British Cinema?: "Dracula" (1958)

The golden age of Hammer Horror—the hugely successful horror franchise launched by Britain’s Hammer Film Productions—ran from the late 1950s through the 1960s, and revived many of the screen monsters from the 1930s Universal catalog.  Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, dir. Terence Fisher, 1958) marked the first appearance by the great Christopher Lee in the title role, starring opposite Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.  As far as adaptations of the Bram Stoker novel go, it’s fairly loose stuff.  Jonathan Harker dies during his initial visit to Castle Dracula, whereupon Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood become our heroes.  There’s also some general shuffling-around of Lucy and Mina; these are basically a set of stock characters who have been given names out of Stoker.  Come to think of it, has there ever been a completely faithful adaptation of that damned book?  (In spite of its title, Bram Stoker’s Dracula [dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992] certainly takes its liberties with the source material.) 

What Is British Cinema?: "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, 1949), a product of Britain’s successful Ealing Studios, has become something of a favorite among British audiences; in 1999, it was ranked #6 on the British Film Institute’s list of “Top 100 British Films.”  While it’s admittedly very funny, I can’t help but feel that in many ways it represents the worst aspects of British cinema—a kind of restraint or stylistic bloodlessness, coupled with a vague self-satisfaction with its own drollness.  (It is, indeed, a delightfully witty film, and Alec Guinness’ brilliance as an actor is beyond question.  But must we be so constantly reminded of these facts?)  The film comes to life most fully when Guinness is on-screen; his caricatures, and the intricately devised ways in which they are systematically bumped off, are the funniest things in the movie.  In their sheer zaniness, the murder scenes call to mind Road Runner cartoons, especially when a bomb is hidden in a jar of caviar.  Things get sluggish, though, whenever we turn our attention to our protagonist (Dennis Price), talking interminably with his would-be lovers: it’s as if we’re watching Oscar Wilde with all of the epigrams taken out. 

What Is British Cinema?: "Odd Man Out" (1947)

The English writer Angela Carter, reviewing Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982, wrote that Greenaway had “leapt over the great stumbling block to good British cinema—that is, the entire tradition of British theatrical acting. [...] British actors usually mess up movies by persistently acting—they never stop, they act all the time, always doing busy things with their hands, twiddling their pencils, fidgeting with props, they seem to think that if they keep still, they’re not earning their keep.”  (Greenaway gets around this, Carter argues, by embracing and even exaggerating the “high, artificial theatricality” of British acting to unsettling and comic effect.)  But even though we’re used to thinking of the British theatrical tradition of Olivier as antithetical to the subtlety and emotional truth of the American Method actors (recall the stories about Olivier and Dustin Hoffman butting heads on the set of Marathon Man), there are certain performances that seem to confound such a distinction. 


What Is British Cinema?: "A Canterbury Tale" (1944)

The majestic spires of Canterbury Cathedral, framed by bombed-out ruins in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944).  Nearly every essay or piece of writing about this film makes a point of insisting on its uncategorizability, its idiosyncrasy, and its outright strangeness.  It is a strange film, even from filmmakers as outlandish as Powell and Pressburger.  Their lush, feverishly pitched Black Narcissus (1947) is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the ballet sequences in The Red Shoes (1948) are justifiably great, but I’ve always been less excited by their other ’40s masterpieces; I never quite know what to do with them, and I certainly don’t know what to do with A Canterbury Tale, which is a kind of mystical fable/propaganda piece/mystery in which a divine-agent figure apparently goes around putting glue in women’s hair as a way of getting them to stop distracting soldiers from learning about their national heritage, or something.  (It’s a little bit like Black Narcissus’ mash-up of religious melodrama, colonial adventure, and Gothic horror, but weirder and more placid, and weirder still because it’s so placid.)  The climactic scenes are so touching that you feel that it’s been pulled off somehow, but you still don’t know how you got there, or why. 


What Is British Cinema?: "Listen to Britain" (1942)

It's possible to speak about British cinema in the forties in the way that we speak about German cinema in the twenties or America in the seventies—as a kind of high point.  The war years weren’t kind to Britain’s literary scene; they virtually brought the vibrant modernism of the 1920s and ’30s to a screeching halt.  But they invigorated its filmmakers.  In addition to seeing the rise of Ealing Studios, the emergence of Carol Reed, and a spectacular run of films by Powell and Pressburger, the 1940s brought about a whole host of films about or inspired by the war: Noel Coward and David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries.  His 18-minute newsreel Listen to Britain (1942) was released in the same year as William Wyler’s hugely successful blitz drama Mrs. Miniver. 


What Is British Cinema?: "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933)

Francois Truffaut famously quipped that “British cinema” was an oxymoron—that, as far as national cinemas go, Britain had never been able to hold its own beside the continental European superpowers.  Anglophobia has persisted in haunting film studies until fairly recently, when a flurry of books and articles on British cinema (such as Sarah Street’s British National Cinema) have sought to assert its importance and relevance within cinema history.  These accounts have the disadvantage of feeling somewhat forced, and risk overcorrection: whatever else we may say in defense of British cinema, it has admittedly never (not yet?) changed the film game in the ways that Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and American all have done.  But such arguments raise valuable questions about what British cinema is and why it has been historically marginalized.  What are its strengths and charms?  Where has it failed? 


On Julianne Moore in "Game Change"--or, When bad movies happen to good actors, part II

I’ve been a little bit in love with Julianne Moore ever since 1997, when I first saw her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.  There’s a dynamite scene late in the film when her character appears in family court to plead for custody of her son.  It’s largely done in one shot; the camera slowly dollies into a medium close-up of her face as she realizes she’s losing the case and struggles to retain her composure.  Shots like this best showcase Moore's skill as an actress: she has a great gift for letting emotions play out just behind her eyes.  In addition to following her career closely in the years since Boogie Nights, I’ve discovered her earlier roles in two other extraordinary films, [Safe] (1995) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), in both of which she gives masterfully understated performances.  So I can’t help but feel that her somewhat showier turn as Sarah Palin in the recent HBO movie Game Change, directed by Jay Roach and written by Danny Strong, is something of a misstep.  It’s also, ironically, the role that could land her her first major acting award(s) at this year’s primetime Emmys and later at the Golden Globes. 


Silent Nights: Picking up steam

Posting has been scant these last few weeks, due to a number of factors—mainly my being busy with other things, coupled with a touch of post-awards-season burn-out.  But in my spare time I have been blasting through a fantastic lot of films from the silent era, including Murnau’s stunningly edited and genuinely creepy Faust (1926), Erich von Stroheim’s remarkable Foolish Wives (1922), and the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last (dir. Fred Newmayer and Sam Taylor, 1923).  I also was thrilled to discover the work of the underseen Lois Weber, who apparently was one of the most successful American filmmakers, male or female, of her day; I checked out three of her most famous features, Hypocrites (1915), Where Are My Children? (1916), and The Blot (1921), all of which are justifiably great.  (Her clever early short How Men Propose [1913] is also worth its five-minute running time.)  


Silent Nights: German cinema, death and the fairy tale

Die Müde Tod [The Weary Death, a.k.a. Destiny, 1921] was my first success, the first picture where the people said, 'Here is someone.'  It doesn't take place in any specific time: a girl fights with Death for the life of her lover.  Death leads her into an enormous hall where millions of candles are burning.  Each candle is the life light of a human being, and he says, 'Here are three candles that flicker'--meaning that their lives will be extinguished shortly--'if you can save one of these three lives, I will return your lover to you.'  The picture plays between two strokes of a chime on a clock tower at midnight.  She has read the book of Solomon: 'There stands love as strong as death....'  And in her desire, she thinks love is stronger than death, so she fights, and the picture tells the story of the three candles.  Everything the girl does to save her lover creates his death--a fight against fate, against destiny. — Fritz Lang in 1965, interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich for Who The Devil Made It?

“The difference between the Germans and other races, said Clemenceau, is that the Germans have a taste for death, whereas other nations have a taste for life.  But the truth of the matter is perhaps—as Hölderlin implies in Hyperion—that the German is obsessed by the phantom of destruction and, in his intense fear of death, exhausts himself in seeking means of escaping Destiny.” — Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, 1952

“When Death saw that for a second time his own property had been misused, he walked up to the physician with long strides, and said: ‘All is over with you, and now the lot falls on you,’ and seized him so firmly with his ice-cold hand, that he could not resist, and led him into a cave below the earth.  There he saw how thousands and thousands of candles were burning in countless rows, some large, some medium-sized, others small.  Every instant some were extinguished, and others again burnt up, so that the flames seemed to leap hither and thither in perpetual change.  ‘See,’ said Death, ‘these are the lights of men’s lives.  The large ones belong to children, the medium-sized ones to married people in their prime, the little ones belong to old people; but children and young folks likewise have often only a tiny candle.’  ‘Show me the light of my life,’ said the physician, and he thought that it would be very tall.  Death pointed to a little end which was just threatening to go out, and said: ‘Behold, it is there.’” — Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Der Gevatter Tod (Godfather Death),” 1812 (trans. Margaret Hunt)

 “In these days, when people are afraid about so many things—look at the newspapers—I think that a happy ending, or what we call a happy ending, is more satisfactory for an audience than a terribly sad one.  The end of Destiny, for example, is that Death guides the boy and girl up to a heavenly meadow with lots of flowers and sunshine, into which they walk off together.  A business friend of mine asked, 'You think that's a happy ending?'  I said, 'Yes.'  Do you know his answer?  'But they can no longer fuck each other in heaven.'  That's one attitude. — Lang, in Who The Devil Made It?