Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the shop around the corner as horror film

For Sally's holiday blogathon (12 bloggers for the 12 days of Christmas, a rather nifty idea) I chose The Shop Around the Corner, a seasonal favorite directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1940.

I haven't had much time to watch films lately, and when I have it has generally been time spent trying to fill gaps in my modern viewing. Thus when I sat down to watch the film after a number of years, I discovered something absolutely terrifying. More frightening than the fact that there is a holiday song devoted entirely to fruit cake. I'm not talking about how surprisingly depressing I found it this time around with its characters constantly worried about job security, so apt at the present time, or how it seemed more a parable for the perils of internet dating....

I was seeing it through modern eyes.

It seems a silly thing to say, but as much as it pains me for the first time I felt that alienation that quote "normal" people my age may experience when they watch an old film. Limited cutting, rather claustrophobic studio spaces. Even some of the stamped style similarities of old films are absent. There are no passage of time montages, nor is there any background music. For a film touted as a holiday favorite its sparsity cuts like a knife, its actors left to depend solely on each other to create a small world.

My God, the horror.

Instead of losing touch, losing the magic (for it slowly but steadily came back as my young eyes adjusted) it brought a new appreciation of the long take. Not at its showy best as in Citizen Kane, but as a strange collapse. After awhile I felt that I could inhabit the shop, walk around in the film space's shoes. I felt the same thing recently re-watching Remember the Night. There is a scene where Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck et al sit around a Christmas tree, singing songs and enjoying each other's company. The camera mostly just sits still in wait, a strange mirror of my own pose sitting next to a Christmas tree enjoying the company of friends. It was like we were all in the same room, enjoying the holidays together.

And I began to wonder if this is part of the otherworldliness of old film, if the lack of cuts makes it easier to 'experience' a film rather than feel strangely detached from it. An especially strange sensation given current preoccupations with making films 3D, making games more interactive. All the attention paid to bridging that gap. This is not to say that one way is better then the other, just as editing pace can be far too ADD these days it can also be far too slow depending on the situation. But there is something about that old quiet. Letting things lie just long enough for the viewer to settle in, but not so long as to become stilted. I've always thought of Lubitsch as an effortless comedy master, but here he simply lets things float gracefully, teasingly out of reach.

I feel like running through old streets like George Bailey reunited with old haunts that feel refreshingly new. My own unexpected Christmas miracle.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

No Man Of Her Own (1950)

There's something about the first winter chill and black and white celluloid slush that crackles like firewood. As I've been putting off turning on the heat in my apartment for as long as possible it was nice to warm my hands a bit with No Man Of Her Own (1950), a film I've been dying to see as a card carrying Stanwyckphile. Bless you, Netflix, for making it available on instant.

For those experiencing deja vu the feeling is justified, as the film takes its name but none of its plot from a 1932 version starring the then indifferent at best platonic Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Image Credits here and here

This later version stars Barbara Stanwyck (Helen Ferguson/Patrice Harkness) as a woman spurned by her lover and left penniless and pregnant. His 'parting gift' to her? A $5 bill and a train ticket. Classy. On the train she is shown real kindess by a young married couple who die when the train crashes as abruptly as the transition in this sentence. In a twist of fate Stanwyck is taken to the hospital wearing the young woman's wedding ring (because cold cream and wedding rings don't mix) and it is assumed that she is the young bride. As the family has never met her (living abroad cures so many ills) or seen her (apparently photographs hadn't been invented by 1950) she goes along with the charade to give her child a name, choosing to live a lie despite guilt over the complete kindness and trust of her new family. But for Helen there is no escaping the past.

This film marks the second time Mitchell Liesen had to direct Stanwyck as a woman with a past (the first being Remember the Night) the latter mixing sparse Christmas cheer with melodrama and murder.

Stanwcyk and holiday cheer in Chrstimas in Connecticut vs. a despairing Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own

The great performances are given guidance by a fantastic script. Its basis in a novel "I Married a Dead Man" is probably where the film gets its overuse of voiceover in the beginning and end of the film, but more important is its attention to character details. A shot of the deadbeat boyfriend deciding against giving Stanwyck more than a $5 bill out of his wallet, then an inconsolable Stanwyck leaving the money on the floor says a thousand words. It is also a compelling film because of its genre mixing. What starts as straight melodrama turns to who-done-it with aspects of the plot that seemed small paying off till the very end in unexpected ways. While some of the turns are a bit unbelievable critiquing a melodrama for its realism is like asking how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood so I'll let those plot points pass.

Definitely recommended for a cold winters night.