Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Girl, The Film Blog

Over the years this site has gone through a series of hiccups and transformations. And what would a film blog be without a little my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter action? For those of you who've stuck around, bless you. I've decided that the time has come to move out of ch-ch-ch-changes teenage hell, and thought the place to start would be to create a post (which I've also turned into a page to be updated as necessary) that gives a general sense of what I hope Internet stumblers will find here, now and in the future.

In terms of content this blog can be broken down as follows.

  • Reviews of films old and new, but mostly old. Since this is primarily a classic film blog most films highlighted will be pre-1970 but I'd like to throw in more current offerings as well. To be a rogue time traveler is not to get stuck in any one space.
  • Pieces highlighting personal experiences relatable to classic film, whether this be an event, a location, or a chance encounter with a shadowy stranger. Except that last option actually sounds terrifying. Scratch that.
  • Editor's Spotlight: Posts focused on the contributions of a named editor, the importance of editing to a specific film or more microscopic shot breakdowns/scene analysis that also takes into account how editing functions in respect to all other aspects of a production.
  • Other Topics. This could be anything really but some areas of film I'm especially interested in are star studies, new media uses of classic film, home front propaganda pictures of WWII, and a non-auteurist approach to cinema as a way to bring other contributors into the mix.
  • One Wild Card post a month on any topic unrelated to film for a little flavor.

This list is by no means all inclusive. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

Except that line has never made much sense to me because you do know. You're going to untie that perfect bow and get some form of chocolate, or run screaming back to the overpriced store where you bought it and demand what you paid for. I guess 'you never know what kind you're gonna get' doesn't sound as quotable. And what if the box specifically says all milk chocolate? Whatever, Forrest Gump. Whatever. We're done.

To come to the point this is a film blog. Therefore, a reader can and should expect film related topics. Even the spam is custom tailored. Who knew Bette Davis loved... well I'll stop there.

The url for this site Vote For Gracie is so named because one of my favorite historical quirks is comedienne Gracie Allen's mock Presidential Campaign of 1940 (♫Those big politicians don't know what to do/Gracie doesn't know either/But neither do you!). Because I like to make life confusing the actual name for this blog is Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax which I wish I was brilliant enough to think up myself but is actually from a Jack Johnson song called Inaudible Melodies.

I decided on this title for a number of reasons. For one my personal background is a mix of theory and production. I have a B.A. in film studies and will be pursuing an MFA starting in the fall with a focus in film editing. I'll never be Eisenstein, of course, but I love that he played both ends of the field, creating new art (and a new method of editing) while also contributing to written work on the subject. With a lot of luck and work this is what I hope to do as well.

Editor/montage joke aside the relax part is also important because I hope this blog is fun to read. This isn't Cinema Journal, I'm not James Agee (though a girl can dream), and when the main reason people find this site is a search for pictures of Thelma Todd's dead body I really can't take myself too seriously. My plan is to aim somewhere more squarely between fandom and film analysis, combining critical enquiry with readability. Meat and potatoes with some whipped cream on top. Though hopefully not as disgusting as that sounds.

So out with some of the old, in with a few things that are new. Here is your chance to run like hell while you still can. In stuffing and shaping the past I sometimes get confused, and who knows what you might find down in the fruit cellar....

EDIT Since writing this post the name of this blog has been changed to Movie Montage.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Queen Victoria, Colonialism, and The Rains Came (1939)

YAM has elected to host any unofficial entries to the 1939 blogathon through its site (thanks guys!). I didn't hear about the venture in time to officially apply but as a veritable milestone year in film I still wanted to join in the fun. No offence meant to the cool cats in CMBA, we play in our corner of the sandbox in peace. As the film I have elected to write about has already been reviewed it seems only fair to provide a link as I'm not trying to steal anyones thunder.

Such a turn of phrase is also appropriate for a discussion of a film famous for special effects. In that oft cited banner year The Rains Came beat out heavy hitters like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, new fangled technicolor marvels, for the special effects Oscar.

Even the first credit showcases a technical mastery as the title melts from the screen

The Rains Came takes place in Ranchipur in the year 1938. It stars Myrna Loy as a different kind of lady whose trademark flipped nose remains stuck in the air through most of the film, George Brent as resident bad boy, and Tyrone Power as an 'Indian' doctor too involved with his work to take much notice of the blatant advances of Loy. I say 'Indian' because for Hollywood in a certain period that meant placing Power in a turban and giving him a little extra spray tan.

I find it interesting that Myrna Loy's brief account of the film in her autobiography includes this account of Power's character, as it is written with a kind of elementalism and poetry often associated with Indian culture.
"He used to invent games for us to play on the set, just to keep my mind off other things. "If you weren't who you are," he asked, "what would you like to be?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," I replied. "Do you know what you'd like to be if you weren't Ty?"
He made a graceful sweeping gesture with his hands: "I would like to be the wind, so I could be light and free and be anywhere I want at any time. I could go all around the world and look in people's windows and share their joys and sorrows. "When he died, that's all I could think of. I said to myself, "Well, all right, he's the wind."
-From Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
Other elements aren't quite as poetic, with characters including

Nigel Bruce as Smug British Jackass #1

Famous Russian Actress Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani, another victim of Snookie Orange Glow

Monkeys! And other native elements of the simple minded and affable variety

The reason this film is generally discussed is the tremendous rain and earthquake sequences where gallons of water gush over bridges, buildings, and people without prejudice.

Yet another film that confirms my preference for an industry pre-CGI

Other elements given less notice but worth mentioning are lighting and sound, which were made doubly difficult in the ways they had to factor in the tremendous weather. Sound in the necessity to balance the dialogue with a downpour, and lighting especially in effects meant to produce lightning and an overall gloomy atmosphere.

Candle/Lighter shots are particularly difficult as they have to give the impression of a single light source that must be timed to go out at the exact moment Myrna Loy gives a huff

While the effects are amazing, in my second viewing of this film the greater part of my attention was paid to the strange politics. On the one hand it criticizes the Raj and British expats as pompous and obscene, a thread that diminishes and is ultimately extinguished in the main character arcs of the film. With this in mind I have to bring in who in my view is the most important player in the film.

Queen Victoria.

While only a mere statue her importance is a symbolic one, and in her lies the central message of the film. You might have first noticed her presence in the background of one of the stills above, centrally framed behind the monkeys. It seems fitting that in this first sequence Brent takes out a sling shot and tries to scatter the native pests while Victoria remains serene and unwavering in the background.

She remains a central figure in the only patriotic speech in the film, the only instance that blatantly admits any knowledge of current events. George Brent's remarks are as follows:
"I've got faith in a lot of things, for instance Queen Victoria... To you she's only a statue, but to me she's an old friend. A living reminder of the fine, brave days before the world went to seed. When London bridge did its falling to a dance step, not to the threat of tomorrow's bombs. When every American was a millionaire, or about to be one.... There she stands in her cast iron petticoat, unconcerned about wars, dictators, and appeasement, as serene as ever. God Bless her."
Where Americans and the British come into play, modern India does not. While I know very little about India or its history the name Gandhi and his peaceful protestations of autocratic rule should ring some bells.

Victoria comes in later in the film when Brent nearly drowns, and provides an anchor to safety. Where complex buildings are reduced to rubble, Victoria stands.

Even her outfit bears some resemblance to a sari with her head draped in an elaborate cloth, a hint at the woman as nation metaphor present in famous Indian films like Mother India or in paintings where the sari becomes the upper portion of a picture of the country itself. Instead of an Indian woman as country the former Empress of India is given this prominent position.

The only 'Indian' woman in the film given any real screen time is the Maharani, and however skewed the portrait she does present a stalwart image in the face of great strife. But her reign is replaced by Powers, and the picture ends with an image of India still tied to its colonial trappings.

So why Victoria? Why this strange return to the past? I can't say that I have an answer, but will instead provide an anecdote. Two years ago I met an Englishman, an older gentlemen the very image of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He even professed a fascination with linguistics and commended my proper usage of a few choice words that we Americans tend to muddle. He went briefly into his past, including mention of a boyhood spent in India in what must have been the 30s and 40s. When I asked him about it his eyes shone and he lamented that it was wonderful then. It is the sad then that stuck out.

I wondered then as now at these strange markers of forgotten times that most celebrate for their passing. Yet here they remain.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

portrait of an art gallery

There were no Parent Trap style handshakes involved but I have nonetheless made a pact with Amanda of A Noodle in A Haystack to produce one wild card post a month. Not only is it a chance to flex muscles outside of filmdom, it has the added fun of not knowing what we may come up with. Feel free to pull up a chair and join us if you like. The more the merrier.

Art is generally prized for its form. What is discussed less, but can be just as important, is the space in which the artwork is exhibited. This is always taken into account, and sometimes plays an integral part in the conception. But rarely does a piece of art have a lasting impact on the experience of the gallery itself, and by extension all formal presentations of art. Which is why I'd like to discuss my experience viewing a collection of Damien Hirst portraits at the Wallace Collection two years ago in London. While a far cry from a personal favorite no one can deny his ability to stir and incite. I experienced no less in my only personal viewing of his work.

If compiling a list of controversial artists YBA Hirst is sure to be foremost among them. In the 90s he turned the art world on its head with his the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, a showcase featuring a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. To his further discredit in some circles due to deterioration of the original piece of 'artwork' another shark was purchased as a replacement in 2006. Some have mused that Hirst himself should be embalmed and placed on display to see how he likes the practice.

While nowhere near as controversial, his exhibition No Love Lost, Blue Paintings (October 2009-January 2010) also welcomes similar critical engagement.

When viewed without context the works themselves are rather drab, to my eye. But as they say, location, location, location.

The Wallace Collection itself is a mansion frozen in time, each room decorated in such a way that it feels as though someone left the house 100 years ago, locked the door and not a thing has been touched since.

In this showy expanse the Damien Hirst exhibition highlighted the effects of decay you cannot see in painting. Entering the two rooms displaying his artwork felt cold and desolate, devoid of any antique furniture, pomp or circumstance. Patterns of skulls, shark jaws, lizards, and ashtrays replaced a monotony of opulence. The painting that most caught my eye was Floating Skull (2006) an eerie work dominated by a blue green glowing human cranium, with the rest of the frame a black void. My mind jumped to The Swing by Fragonard, on display in another room. With these paintings in mind her pinkish flesh begins to decay, the sumptuous clothes eaten by moths as all those before are made part of the earth. Hirst himself claims the exhibition was one "deeply connected with the past."

Portraits come to life with a price paid in sudden, gruesome understanding of their underlying decomposition both in matter and material. A passage of time that art defers, but can never really escape.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why I should win a nonexistent contest for a spot on the TCM Classic Cruise

If you've been following this blog for a time, or know me in life, you know my love of film to the point of over exuberant, pull out the roll on eye glitter excitement, especially as related to all things classic. I've also mentioned my fascination with old ocean liners and an instant interest in any film that utilizes them as a key setting. With these points in mind it should be no surprise that the moment I heard about this cruise I ran to the nearest empty telephone box and put on my Lucy Ricardo thinking cap.

One of my favorite quotes, ostensibly by Franz Kafka, is "By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired." Though in the words of Abe Lincoln "Never trust any quote you see on the Internet." Thus I'm going to ignore the fact that no such chance exists (yet), by providing as compelling a presentation as I can of why I should win a spot on the TCM Classic Cruise, as well as the various realistic plans I have should this scheme fall through.

The Pitch
  • As the Marx Brothers have taught us, it's entirely possible to fit an entire army of people in a closet size cabin. So what's one extra girl?
  • I know how to tap dance, so should the entire boat decide to break into song I could lead the charge. If character references are necessary, I have several friends who would be more than happy to attest to my ability to do so at the drop of a hat. As evidence I could also provide a Facebook album entitled "Flashdance made me do it."
  • There can never be enough entertainment on a cruise ship, and a collection of classic film fans offers so many potentialities. I would be more than willing to contribute and earn the experience in unique ways aside from the old standard of washing dishes (though that's always an option). For example
  1. A Circus Style Booth where I can wow the crowds with my ability to channel the habits of an 85 year old. Come one come all to see the amazing Meredith! She eats dinner at 5pm! She's watched 8 seasons of Murder She Wrote!
  2. Malicious Gossip with Meredith: A daily discussion of the great scandals of Hollywood, the proposed truths and untruths, and why either way Hollywood Babylon is still nothing more than an interesting piece of trash (truth? you can't handle the truth!). Followed by an encore where I then have to fight off everyone who loves Hollywood Babylon.
  3. William Desmond Taylor Murder Mystery Dinner Party: Every other evening at 8pm. I'll play all the roles.
And many more!

Should This Plea Not Work Out For Some Strange Reason...
  • Barnyard musical.
  • Practice perfecting my I'll be back! cape swish

As God is my witness... well, you know the rest. More importantly, who's coming along? ;)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

History is Made at Night (1937)

The love that sank the Titanic

I really wanted to like this movie. As a Jean Arthur cheerleader with Mrs. Charles Boyer written all over my notebooks (I actually wish I wasn't kidding) I had all the hope and blind faith in the world. But in love as in war rosy beginnings often beget bitter ends. See All Quiet on the Western Front as reference.

History is Made at Night is not a war film in genre. In fact the script is never really able to decide what it wants to be at all. Instead the battlefield is one of character.

Boyer lacks the oceanic charm he would perfect two years later in Love Affair. Arthur fills her usual role as part movie star, part bashful child. One side of her face lit to perfection, the other, when it is shown (and rarely is it shown) a shadow of a girl who's just been told by a boy that she shouldn't wear her hair in pigtails because it looks prettier down.

The love is stale. To create beautiful music requires a rhythm, a build up. Here there is one brief beginning scene where all suddenly and unceremoniously falls into place. A crudely drawn face on Charles Boyer's hand meant to speak his feelings to Arthur adds embarrassment rather than tenderness.

Yet the above is all by the poorly written book. Until the end. Saints alive the end.

I know Hollywood likes to play fast and loose with the facts for a variety of reasons. But having Arthur and Boyer jump ship, pretty literally in a plot nosedive that lands them on some twisted Titanic II is simply crass. In fact it's worse than crass. Not quite despicable but somewhere in the realm of shameful. While the boat the two travel on at the end of the film is not meant to be a period piece aboard that most famous of ocean liners all the signs are there. A poorly made decision to break a speed record, a direct hit with an iceberg, lack of lifeboats amidst chaos, even a group of musicians performing stoically when the ship is supposed to go down. But it is not the Titanic, nor is it the same story. For in this tale all interest and potential blame is reduced to the needs of a romantic plot line and dramatic tension. 1,517 people degraded for a convenient end.

The result is sea sickness.

I know some people love this film, and that I'm letting dramatics run away with me. I appreciate that someone was kind enough to bring my attention to it. But personally I can only shake my head at lost potential, and hang it for what in my view is a lack of respect shown lost life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Link Love #1

Recently I've been inspired by several blogs either devoted to links or featuring occasional spotlights to start one of my own. I know I appreciate it when others enjoy what I write enough to share, whether it be through posts, facebook, twitter, or in awards, and I want to share in that sense of community in a more active way. Possibly once a month, will see how things go. Will also include other items of interest, mainly film related but I make no promises.

  • The severely underrated Gerald's latest installment of the monthly series Ten Random Thoughts on the Tenth. Few are more insightful in so few words.
  • On the theme of less is more Clara's series of classic film haikus are all worth a look. My favorite is still her take on Breakfast at Tiffany's.
  • Speaking of Audrey Hepburn, one of the nicest bloggers around, Casee, shares her love of the star in Our Huckleberry Friend: Remembering Audrey Hepburn, focusing on the real woman behind the twisted style icon facade.
  • I love how Kendra takes her love of the Oliviers outside the internet in the people she meets, the places she goes and the event she has planned that I wish I could attend! Recently Kendra visited Tickerage Mill, home of Vivien Leigh, and shared her adventure.
  • In the spirit of the day Heather's lovely post about pen pals and parental love, Trudy

Also of Interest
  • Issue #72 of Bright Lights Cinema Journal is out!
  • Cannes begins next Wednesday. View a few of their beautiful posters from the past here
  • Love Russian Cinema? Mosfilm is now offering free access to over 500 films for free. Happy viewing! Also filed under perks of being friends with your former professors on Facebook, as I would not have found this otherwise.
  • Fantastic Science Friday featuring Werner Herzog, Cormac McCarthy and Lawrence Krauss.
  • Going to the Show: Mapping Moviegoing in North Carolina from 1896-1930. A look at the importance of space to film outside of the big city centers where the majority experience cinema.

Just For Fun
  • Video Montage dedicated to 'The Great Stone Face' aka Buster Keaton

Thursday, May 5, 2011

things I didn't learn in film studies

Over the past four years I've had one conversation over and over again. Because after where are you from and various comments about the weather invariably comes the age old question what are you studying in school?

Answering film studies is like diving head first into concrete. As a fairly new scholarly pursuit the primary response, especially if the person I'm talking with is older, is a blank stare or a resounding huh? where the mental image is and should always be of a person with an ear trumpet and cataract glasses leaning sideways and saying speak up girlie because I don't think I heard you clearly.

But now it's official. Well, as official as a ceremonial rite of passage can be. No one dared throw their cap in the air, though one rogue beach ball threaded through the crowd as those seated on the stage in their academic jedi robes spoke about 'the future' and other vague concepts.

Now the question is no longer one of future study but of something in the past.

I've unashamedly loved my time in film studies, and don't view a diploma as an end. But instead of compiling a saccharine list of things I've learned I thought I'd try a different tack in an attempt to keep myself from turning into a bad Hallmark card.

So here is a short list of things I didn't learn.

It's ok to be a pretentious jerkface
I think the general impression of those who study film is one of noses in air and rooms devoid of oxygen by chests puffed up with self-importance. And while there certainly are people like that more often than not I've seen them shot down and slapped like a deck of cards in Egyptian rat screw. There is a difference between a stretch and a snap that breaks with all logical reasoning in favor of poetic license. If groping for the latter be prepared for a healthy helping of 'lucy you've got some splainin' to do' and an eyebrow raise.

The director is God
Auteur theory aside the great thing about being taught to more actively watch a film is the appreciation it brings for all other aspects of the process. Not to say that such attention to detail requires a course or a degree but it certainly has changed how I watch and think about film. While there is still a clear bias in film studies (dictated in certain ways by general taste) in the kinds of classes that are taught I hope to one day see not just courses devoted to Woody Allen but the likes of Walter Murch or Jack Cardiff as well.

There are others...
Just like you. That's the nerd dream, right? While I have had some great film discussions it is possible to feel just as alienated and alien-like as in any other setting. For example about two years ago I was giving a presentation on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. I don't remember the exact exchange but here's the gist:

The scene we just watched also included references to popular music that the audience would have recognized. For example the phrase 'bomb me daddy, eight to the bar.'

~Blank stares~

It's a playoff on 'beat me daddy, eight to the bar.'

~Shaking heads~

The Andrews Sisters

~Still nothing~

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy?

~Nervous laughter~

So much for kumbaya.

You have to know it all
One of the pitfalls of having a degree in film studies is that it opens the possibility for heightened scorn. A what? You haven't seen such and such film? (To fill in the blank I'll go with The Shining) or pressure to be able to ratchet off the films of Alice Guy in chronological order or discuss the political implications of Chaplin's impish smile on a whim. When studying something so a part of everyday life that almost everyone has some opinion on it becomes a game to prove knowledge and worth. On the one hand this can be frustrating, on the other it strengthens the drive to learn.

You can see them all
In studying films from a variety of countries, times, movements, genres, whatever the categorization the list of must see or should watch tumbles like a continuously unraveling carpet, always a step ahead.

On the one hand this can be frustrating, on the other it strengthens the drive to continue to watch.