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Wednesday, 24 July 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare revels in the pleasures of KISMET (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1955)

(Click on any image for a slideshow)
"Lovers come, lovers go
And all that there is to know
Lovers know
Only lovers know."
Borodin's sumptuous Polovtsian Dances and the second String Quartet slow movement are subsumed by Andre Previn and Conrad Salinger into a giant Arthur Freed score for Kismet (1955). Mind boggling production design credited to Cedric Gibbons and Preston Ames but ultimately Minnelli's own. Photographed with totally careless rapture by Joe Ruttenberg and choreographed by Jack Cole (and Stanley Donen, uncredited) in the most visually hallucinatory Eastmancolor picture ever made in the American cinema. 
Howard Keel winds up the show with this surprisingly melancholy but ultimately Minnellian number, "Sands of Time", screen at top, scored by the great Conrad Salinger with strings and cor Anglais (like the Liebestod from Tristan) which simply defies categorization beyond being one of the supremely final works in the Arthur Freed canon. 
Kismet cost Metro more than $3 million and has never (and will never) make its money back. But it lives and breathes still, some kind of insane folly, one of the maddest and most beautiful in movies, every bit of it pushing the parameters of "camp" or (better put by Nabokov) poshlosht with more taste and insider genius than any other 20th century art movement. 
It's as though Minnelli dragged everyone who mattered (including Stanley Donen who hated his guts at this point) into the deranged fabulosity. Any movie that can give Dolores Gray (above) so much range, and explore her own considerable skills as an artist while she wears nothing but appliqued chiffon and gold lame is something out of the bag. 
Kismet was a show I always disdained, partly from the snobbery of fearing what destruction might be wreaked on classical scores I loved as much as anything in music. If there were ever proof that a movie reborn in a premium form can be a new force, born again, this now four year old Blu-ray is just that, taken from a new 2K, extracted by a forensically perfect transfer from the Eastman O-neg to a new, flawless inter-positive. The disc now seems to be about to explode from the screen pulsing with every grain of Minnelli's color schemes to burn your eyeballs. And the Warner engineers seem to have found the original multi-track audio stems to deliver a hair-raising DTS HD master five channel audio. 
It would be more than impossible for even the most dedicated Freedophile to deduce from the constant tracks, cranes and crab dolly shots what is Donen's or Minnelli's. I can only surmise, because there is only one signature Donen frontal crab dolly wide, down to face, back to wide and finish on face (like Audrey's "How Long has this Been Going On" from Funny Face) that the rest of the travellings may as well have been both of them. Plus Jack Cole. 
Here are more screens, two studio production shots in B&W from one of the edited documentaries someone at Warner Archive dug out from under a rock, missing for 60 years in the vaults: first of these above is Freed with leads Keel and Ann Blyth. Next screen below is Minnelli, left and Joe Ruttenberg right, with Howard Keel in costume towering over both of them in the centre.
And then the rest.





Scandinavian Film Festival - Barrie Pattison admires OUT STEALING HORSES (Hans Petter Moland, Norway)

Hans Petter Moland is probably the most interesting film maker we’ve had from Norway or indeed Scandinavia in the last thirty years. The reason he’s unknown and Lars Van Trier is a part of critic speak is that nobody seems to connect the dots when writing about Moland. I can understand the problem. It was hard work to track down his  Kjærlighetens kjøtere/Zero Kelvin (1995), Aberdeen (2000),  The Beautiful Country (2004),  En ganske snill mann/A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010), Kraftidioten/In Order of Disappearance  (2014) as well as Moland’s US remake Cold Pursuit (2019), an impressive collection which I’ve had to chase through festivals, national weeks and late night TV. This may be why the few English language reviews of his new Ut og stjæle hester/Out Stealing Horses all seem to take something different away from it. Well that makes an agreeable change from the usual “all together now” response.

We start with recent widower, sixty-seven year old Stellan Skarsgård, the director’s regular collaborator in the wintery thrillers that make up the best work of both. He’s contemplating his isolated existence in what we learn was once his father’s summer cabin, now run down and snow covered. His solitude is disturbed by the appearance of Bjørn Floberg, another senior Moland regular, and they get into a dialogue about (very Scandinavian) shooting dogs which appears extraneous but will later locate a key moment in a way that many of the film’s wide spaced incidents don’t get anchored. 

It takes a while to figure Floberg’s character as the ten-year-old Torjus Hopland Vollan in his mother’s dress and carrying a rifle. Skarsgård wakes convinced that snow is falling inside his bedroom - it’s that kind of film. We get a complex three timezone study of something which could pass for the Norwegian experience - Nazi Occupation, 1956 communing with nature and l999 (complete with millennium bug reference) frozen solitude.

The flashes back and forward come complete with atmosphere inserts - plants shriveled in the snow cut to them blooming in spring sunshine, water freezing in accelerated motion. The key scenes offer Skarsgård’s character at fifteen, played by Jon Ranes, spending the summer in the timber country with his hedonist dad Tobias Santelmann who rubs himself with stinging nettles and tells the boy that he must choose what he takes away from experiences. Father and son improvise a shower soaping up in the pouring rain naked and the kid goes galloping with Vollan’s older brother Sjur Vatne Brean on borrowed horses in a place where sun is filtering through the trees, clear rushing water and enough close ups of bugs to outshine a Luis Buñuel film. 

It’s all very Scandi.  As if Victor Sjöstrom’s Professor Borg’s Wild Strawberries hallucinatory flashbacks were an Arne Sucksdorff nature film. However, here the bunny hopping through the grass is food for the circling eagle or the beautiful spotted owl they film.  It is also a place of betrayal and danger - crashing timber, jagged edged saws, axes and barbed wire.  

Two of the neighbors have central roles, Brean and his mother Danica (All Inclusive) Curcic, who has only three lines of dialogue but dominates as she does in her scenes in this Scandinavian event’s Department Q movie Fasandræberne. Moland’s camera notes her white slip revealing the tanned knees on which the river water is beading. A bit of Roger Vadim in here too.

A plot element that the film does explore is Santelmann felling the lumber which shades his cabin, against advice, in the summer when it is still full of sap and likely to sink in the river. They want to float it to mills in Sweden. Father and son follow along the bank and watch its progress halted by a log jam. This provides a foolhardy macho opportunity for suspense.

We also get to see Ranes’ drab urban mother Tone Beate Mostraum and his sister reduced to a single, brief, dialogue-free glimpse. Some of this is too obvious. Mostraum replaces the boy’s red sweater from the bucolic adventure with a black three piece Karlsbad suit bought with the meager returns of the logging. 

Minimal attention also goes to Skarsgård’s off-screen marriage and the visit of his grown daughter who took immense trouble to locate him when he doesn’t even have a phone number, echoing Damien Nguyen’s search for Nick Nolte in The Beautiful Country. We never see the outcome for the Santelmann and Curcic characters but we spot the deep resentment their actions have caused in the old men.

The editing is particularly striking. The two close ups of the pin striking the rifle cartridge are not accompanied by the sound of the shot. Dialogue from one scene continues over the next in the manner of a seventies film like T.R. Baskin. The nature inserts which are a feature of the opening come to a stop.

Out Stealing Horses remains a complex, master-crafted piece, possibly too demanding for even art house distribution.  This is a pity because it is certainly a work of substance. To tell the truth I prefer the more approachable Molland-Skarsgård crime films and I suspect that these will be the duo’s most admired work if the word ever gets out, but that’s no reason to ignore something more ambitious like this

Sunday, 21 July 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (3) - Ken Russell and Derek Jarman

Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Women in Love
In January 1970, just off the boat from Australia,  I walked into Southampton  and saw my first movie on British soil -  Ken Russell’s Women in Love. Eighteen months later, in London, a friend screened the 1937 Under the Red Robe, about Cardinal Richelieu. In the discussion that followed, I defended the latest re-telling of this story, by Russell in The Devils, his film about the 1634 witch hunt in Loudon which resulted in the torture and burning of the town’s pastor, Urbain Grandier.  Here, I insisted, was a directorial tour de force. It was Ken Russell about whom we should be writing books, not the likes of Lindsay Anderson.
Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils
The only person to agree was a soft-spoken American who turned out to be a Jesuit priest – and, moreover, Ken Russell’s spiritual advisor. A few days later, Russell’s secretary rang me. ‘I understand you’re writing a book about Ken.’ My reply required no thought. ‘Something like that’, I said.
Ken Russell, circa the production of The Devils
The British art scene had no hotter talent in the early seventies than Russell. Cross Quentin Tarantino’s iconoclastic film-buffery with the quirky entrepreneurship of Diaghilev and you have some idea of his influence. “I’m eaten up with the image,’ he told me. “With the way things look!” His lifestyle provided ample evidence of this. Posters by Cocteau and illustrations by Maxfield Parrish decorated his house in Notting Hill Gate, identifiable by the antique dentist chair on the first floor balcony. 
Self-taught in music, Ken was also a voracious, eclectic and adventurous listener who put his money where his ears were and financed recordings of Eight Songs for a Mad King andVesalii Icones by Peter Maxwell Davies, who also wrote the music for The Devils.
'hip young' Derek Jarman
The Devils’ sets were by Derek Jarman, archetype of the hip young designer. To borrow French TV’s capsule introduction to his recent retrospective, “He was young, he was gifted, he was gay, he was punk.” Derek occupied a cavernous loft at 13 Bankside, in the middle of which, to keep warm, he’d erected a small greenhouse. In better weather, he reclined in a hammock. When Russell arrived for their first meeting, the walls were hung with cardinals’ capes decorated with dollar bills, flowers, and debris skimmed from the Thames. Ken admired this sarcastic take on organised religion. Though a Catholic convert, he’d created his own version of the faith, stronger on mysticism and superstition than philosophy. He claimed, for instance, to have overcome his snuff addiction by praying to the Virgin Mary while carrying home her statue on top of a London bus.  
The Devils
Ken decided that the film’s interiors should resemble “a rape in a public lavatory”. Jarman’s white-tiled sets, evoking both lavatories and Fritz Lang’s futuristic Metropolis, excited much comment, though less than Ken’s bloodthirsty and erotic images, so unsparing that one sequence, depicting Oliver Reed as Christ on the cross being raped by voracious nuns with a hunchback Vanessa Redgrave at their head, was excised altogether.
When I began the year-long series of interviews that would make up most of the book An Appalling Talent, (cover at left) he and Derek were working on a production of Maxwell Davies’ two-act opera Taverner for Covent Garden, based on the life of the 16thcentury composer John Taverner. 
In a recent interview with Iain Fisher, Russell shrugged off this project. “Other commitments clashed with it and I couldn’t manage it; there was another film.” 
The reality is more interesting. For two months, I watched them develop their conception of Taverner, a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey who played the organ at Cardinal’s College, Oxford. In 1528, he and others at the College were accused of heresy, but Wolsey secured his release. The experience transformed Taverner, who abandoned composition to become a ruthless agent of Thomas Cromwell in his campaign to obliterate the Catholic church and its institutions. 
Davies saw Taverner as an artist who, in order to conform and survive, destroyed his talent. Tried for heresy before a White Abbot, whom he later burns at the stake, the opera’s Taverner stumbles into a moral maze. He’s manipulated by a King obsessed with divorcing his wife, and misled by a jester character called Joking Jesus, later revealed as Death, who bestrides a large Wheel of Fortune. At the climax, as the White Abbot burns, Taverner realises the fire is also consuming his talent.
Drawing for costume design by Derek Jarman for
Jazz Calendar
Though Jarman had already designed Jazz Calendar for the Royal Ballet, John Gielgud’s English National Opera Don Giovanni, and Throughway for Ballet Rambert, only the first had succeeded; critics so savaged Throughway  that choreographer Steve Popescu committed suicide. 
Notwithstanding this, startling designs flowed from Ken and Derek’s combined imaginations; a monkey in the triple crown of the Pope, characters who appeared female from one side, male from the other. Ken further proposed to lower all doors into the House to a metre. Patrons would enter on hands and knees, to confront the carcases of freshly-slaughtered animals hanging on the walls, while monks and nuns fornicated in the aisles. 
I never believed Covent Garden would accept this scheme, and when Ken and Derek returned from the make-or-break meeting it was clear they’d been turned down. Derek had prepared a notebook containing his designs. He also carried a folder of rough sketches, and a copy of Davies’ libretto, heavily annotated. As they came into Ken’s front room, he started to drop them into the wastepaper basket.
I said, ‘You’re not throwing those away?’ 
He looked at them in surprise. ‘They aren’t going to do it. Not with us anyway.’
‘Let me buy them from you.’
 ‘Have them, John,’ he said. ‘They’re no use to me.’
I accepted them with delight. I have them still.
Savage Messiah
Taverner had its Covent Garden premiere in July 1972, in a largely unmemorable production designed by Ralph Koltai. Derek designed Russell’s 1972 film Savage Messiah and also did preliminary work on a version of Gargantua, to have been shot in Rome, but effectively the collaboration was at an end. He became one of the most innovative British artists of his generation, while Russell descended into the excesses of Lisztomania and Mahler, devoured by the images and the music that he loved. With hindsight, one can see Taverner as the point where their paths began to diverge.

Editor's Note: Ken Russell died in 2011. Derek Jarman died in 1994. The piece above was first published in in 2003 in TATE, the magazine of Tate Modern. 


John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click on this link.  or on this link

On SBS World Movies - Barrie Pattison reports on the French thriller MEA CULPA (Fred Cavayé, France, 2014)

Delving into the SBS World Movies again delivers Fred Cavayé’s 2014 Mea Culpa. Flashes of buddies Vincent Lindon & Gilles Lellouche kidding about at the beach with their families and the pair flipping down the "Police" indicator to join the high speed chase with a smash up, result of checking the mobile 'phone, leaving three wrapped bodies on the road. 

The chief asserts “If he tests positive, he’s going down.” Lindon gets sent to the frog slammer and his marriage to Nadine Labaki (director of 2007's Caramel, below) falls apart leaving him with no job and no family. 


Her new squeeze takes her and Lindon’s son Max Baissette de Malglaive for a surprise outing to a bullfight - something Labaki isn’t too happy about. The kid doesn’t like it either and goes to the loo, only to find a gang of bald Slavonic heavies in black leather jackets about to blow away an associate. Chase through the tunnels of the arena.

These guys are persistent about witnesses and we get the film’s reason for existence - three set piece chase-gun fights where they take off after the boy through the markets outside the cop station, then where Lindon and Lellouche find themselves outgunned setting out to take them down in the Why Not bordello, demolishing the place as they go, and on the fast train to Aix. 

No denying these have great kinetic energy and introduce bits of staging we haven’t seen before - the silhouettes of the pistol wielding antagonists where our hero isn’t sure which one to put a round into or crashing out of the carriage window onto the rail tracks and so on.

We get the explanation of the film’s desaturated flashbacks providing a kind of downbeat happy ending to go with bullying in the police locker room, air bubbles in the hospitalised nasty’s drip and “people go to jail for different reasons.”

Lindon and Lellouche can do this on autopilot and still look convincingly ravaged and disillusioned. Cavayé’s third feature doesn’t drive on ferocious logic like his 2008 Pour elle/Anything for Her (remade as the Russell Crowe thriller The Next Three Days). It just kills time efficiently. 

I don't know how many of these also-ran movies I'll watch in the hope of striking pay dirt before losing interest.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Bondi Cinema Club August December Program

Now in its third season, Bondi Cinema Club continues 2019 with a great line up of independent and art house films, with film maker Q&A’s and special events at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre. Check out the website http://www.cinemaclubfilmprojects.com


SPECIAL SCREENING AND DIRECTOR Q&A

Time to Renew your Cinema Club membership?

On Aug 6th we have a special one- off screening of Chauka Please Tell Us the Time -a documentary made on Manus Island shot on smart phone by award-winning Kurdish refugee journalist/writer Behrouz Boochani and edited by Netherland-based co-director/producer Arash Kamali Sarvestani.

Afterwards we connect via Zoom Conference with Behrouz - still on Manus Island - and Arash  for a Q&A moderated by Tanya Jackson-Vaughan CEO of RACS (Refugee Advice and Casework Centre). One-off tickets to this screening $10.

Membership $40 for 5 sessions
https://stickytickets.com.au/80081/bondi_cinema_club_2019.aspx
Find Out More

Friday, 19 July 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1941)





In this inexpressibly beautiful shot (above, click to enlarge), Mitchell Leisen give us a desperate refugee, stuck in Mexico, Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) undergoing a subtle but profound transformation, unaware it's even happening, until the second screen (below), in a shot so sublime it parallels Rossellini's majestic closing shots of Viaggio in Italiaand the reconciliation of George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in the "miracle" sequence that ends that masterpiece. 
Leisen, here, at the very end of Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes the mise-en-scène for redemption even further than Rossellini's, into a kind of totally exhilarating, minimalist expression of completion. Unlike Rossellini, who cross cuts the tracks of Sanders and Bergman finding each other again in the crowd, Leisen never cuts back to the object of his redemption, a superb Olivia de Havilland, but simply keeps travelling with a fade to black. The effect is completely devastating. 
On a scale of emotional and formal purity, at the most sublime level this shot most closely reminds me of the closing static shot in Sternberg's Morocco in which Dietrich shakes off her mules and walks on into the desert, in Morocco with the other women and their goats and chattels until she, along with them disappears over the horizon into infinity. Meanwhile only the soundtrack remains alive, with the wind whistling over the desert sands. And the film fades to the Paramount mountain as a final affirmation of the supremacy of memory. And art. 
Leisen's film is one of his greatest, and the resonances today cannot be lost in this terrible age of refugees, millions cast adrift, moral equivalences that seem to overwhelm common sense, rising fascism and humanity at sea. 
The new Blu-ray from Arrow is a very welcome addition to the slowly growing Leisen repertoire on Blu-ray. The disc includes an Adrian Martin commentary which fully engages with the movie, and a terrific face to camera video essay, "Love Knows no Borders" from British scholar Geoff Andrew.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (2) - A Venice introduction leads to Langlois and Paris

Editor's Note: This is the second memoir by John Baxter recalling his early days in Europe as a cinephile on the loose. The first, recalling his introduction to life on the Venice Lido during the film festival, can be found if you click here 

Lotte Eisner
One meeting at Venice in 1971 stands out.The festival presented a retrospective of German fantasy films, curated by the doyenne  of Teutonic cinema studies, Lotte Eisner. Tiny, talkative, driven, and delighted that I knew her book about Expressionist film, The Haunted Screen,  Lotte took Monica  and I under her wing. 
  
She was, she explained, writing a biography of Fritz Lang (cover left).  Leafing through a little book I’d written, Science Fiction in the Cinema,  she was transfixed by a photograph oftechnicians standing amidst the model skyscrapers of Lang’s future city, Metropolis ,manipulating the tiny cars on its swooping roadways.  

 “But…I have never seen this picture before!”

That was no surprise. It came from a collection unique to Australia. It had been taken in Berlin during the 1920s by an amateur named J.C. Taussig, who later emigrated, and gave his collection to the National Library in Canberra. 

“But I must have these for my book!”

When I offered her my own prints, she threw her arms around me. 

“If there is ever anything I can do for you….”

“Well, as a matter of fact….”

I told her of my hope, conceived after meeting Josef von Sternberg (right) in Sydney, to write something about his work. 

Which is how I found myself in Paris a few months later, facing the Palais de Chaillot, that art deco complex on the heights of Trocadero,  constructed for the 1937 World’s Fair. 

Viewed across the Seine, from under the Eiffel Tower, there’s a majestic sweep to the Palais. It reminds some people of Albert Speer – Hitler too, apparently, since he chose it as the site to be photographed surveying the city he’d just conquered. 

Lotte had simply given me the phone number of Mary Meerson, assistant to Henri Langlois, head of the Cinematheque Francaise, and told me a screening of von Sternberg films was “all arranged.” 

Friends in London hooted with laughter when I told them this. Though none had actually met Langlois, each had a horror story – about the African diplomat, for instance, who,  bearing the highest credentials, requested a tour. Langlois greeted him at the door, waved him ahead, then slipped down a side passage, leaving him to wander until he got fed up and went home. 

On the phone,  Madame Meerson (left) was cordial, if curt. “Be here at 10 on Monday morning,” 

The guard at the door was courteous, but my meagre French was unequal to his directions, since I soon found myself not in the offices of the Cinématheque but its  museum that filled the whole wing of the building above the screening theatre. 

It was still an hour before opening time and the place was empty – all the more reason to take a peek. Once in, however, I had no wish to escape. Each turn in its crooked, narrow aisles drew me on to some new wonder; James Dean’s leather jacket from Rebel Without a Cause, a fragment of the jagged Expressionist décor of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, even the shell of the robot from Metropolis. Looking at that tight-lipped malevolent image of Woman as Destroyer, I believed for the first time those rumours that Lang had murdered his first wife

Henri Langlois at the entrance of the Cinematheque francaise in the Palais
de Chaillot
I half expected to stumble over the desiccated dashiki-clad corpse of the African abandoned by Langlois. Instead, a heavy metal back door opened onto a staircase. At its foot was the park behind the Palais that sloped down to the Seine. Directly under my feet, I recognised the shallow ramp, more like a garage forecourt than a theatre, that led to the Cinématheque’s cinema. 

In newsreels, I’d seen Jean-Pierre Léaud, star of Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical Antoine Doinel films, stand on that abutment in May 1968, haranguing the cinéphilesas masked and  helmeted troops lined up with their round shields and billy clubs, ready to charge. Truffaut used the entrance as the opening image of La Nuit Americaine, his celebration of film-making, and in The Dreamers Bernardo Bertolucci chained Eva Green to its glass doors.

Those doors were locked, but as I peered inside a man materialised from the gloom.
“C’est Monsieur Baxter?”

“Um, yes…I mean, oui.”

He unlocked the door and beckoned me inside.

We stepped into the neat little cinema. All modern film scholarship started here, with a few dozen young men and women watching films which existed solely because Henri Langlois had preserved them from the Nazis and the stupidity of his own bureaucracy. 
“Alors, ou voulez vous commencer?”

Where did I want to start?  As I looked blank, he nodded towards the projection booth. Unlike regular cinemas, it didn’t have a single glazed port in a solid wall,
just a sheet of glass as big as a department store window. Piled beside the 35 mm projectors were dozens of shiny new metal cans. I read the labels in awe.  The Blue Angel, The Salvation Hunters, The Scarlet Empress, Shanghai Express….every film, it seemed, that Josef von Sternberg ever directed. 

“But…so many.”  I pointed to my watch. “How long?”

He shrugged. “Jusqu'à seize heures l'après-midi - et chaque jour cette semaine.’  Until 4 p.m. that day, and every day that week, the theatre was reserved for my exclusive use. All this – from one chance encounter, and a single phone call.

With a sense of joining a phantom congregation of a million co-religionists, I draped my coat over the seat and took my place in the front row. 
“The Docks of New York, s’il vous plait, m’sieur.”

I was home. And I’ve never really left.


Guilty Pleasures - Uncovering Edmond T Gréville step by tentative step (1)

Did the name of Edmond T Gréville (left) first come to attention with Beat Girl?   Probably, but I’m not sure I gave the name any authorial notice. But slowly over the years, after that rather sleazy start, Gréville’s rather remarkable career has emerged from the shadows. 

Back in the day Beat Girl  was programmed into one of those sleazy Melbourne theatrettes down below ground level, the most notorious of which was the Star Theatrette near the corner of Flinders Lane and Elizabeth St. I can’t say for certain Beat Girl  went on there but if it didn’t it should have. One characteristic of the venue was that it had no qualms in showing films for its all-male audiences that had literally been carved up by the Australian censor, the notorious One-Armed Dick, Richard Prowse. Prowse lost the other arm fighting off the Japanese hordes during WW2, a military career that was apparently a qualification to tell the Australian people just what they could and could not see. And during Dick’s time they could not see female nipples thus rendering about half an hour of Beat Girl unviewable by curious Australians.


The film was set in a world of Soho strip shows and occasionally the foreground and frequently the background was filled with women dancing in almost no clothes. Snip, snip. The film starred the eminent David Farrar from, long ago, any number of Powell and Pressburger’s films all the way back to Black Narcissus  in 1947. Farrar also worked for Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, John Farrow and Michelangelo Antonioni. Beat Girl,  notwithstanding Gréville, must have seemed like a comedown of some dimension. 

The real star of Beat Girl  was Gillian Hills. In 2016  the BFI released a restored copy on DVD and you can get a taste of the action if you click on this link.  Clearly there was an attempt to make  Hills into a Brit Bardot a la Et Dieu Crea La Femme. The wild and unkempt hair, the pout, the liberated dance moves were all attempted carbon copies. She played a precocious teenager who gravitated to the fleshpots of Soho, most notably a café in which she hung out with the likes of Adam Faith, Peter McEnery, Shirley Ann Field and Oliver Reed, all in their first film and the last named prominent in the clip I've linked to. Hills was later, along with Jane Birkin, one of the girls who got frisky with David Hemmings in amongst the coloured paper in Antonioni’s Blow Up. 


Gillian Hills, Oliver Reed, Beat Girl
In Beat Girl she was first curious about and then tempted by the Soho strip joint opposite her hangout café. Oh my goodness it was spicy stuff in its day, and was directed with a lot of enthusiastic energy by Edmond T Gréville. At the time I didn’t know anything else of Gréville’s career. For decades I thought he was English. Maybe I didn’t notice the acute accent on the first “e”.

One final matter of curiosity, Beat Girl  was produced by George Willoughby who later came out to Australia as part of the production team that made Wake in Fright. 

I still thought Gréville was English when I found and watched a VHS copy of the Josephine Baker movie Princess Tam Tam (France, 1935)In fact, I’m not even sure I put the two films together as being directed by the same person. (I’ve never seen the film he did with the Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez in 1936, the British-made Gypsy Melody.)

It turns out that Gréville had an exotic ancestry. Wikipedia offers this explanation. “Born in June 1906, the adopted son of Franco-British parents, it was subsequently discovered through the 23andMe genetic testing of his daughter and grandson in 2017, that Gréville was in fact Ashkenazim Jewish from the likely area of Odessa, based on the present whereabouts of his closest genetic relations today. Family speculation suggests that his parents fled the 1905 Russian pogrom to Marseilles, where he may have been discovered in the Nice hospital his English father, a Salvation Army colonel and Protestant pastor, was associated with. His true origin and that of his parents, remains a mystery.”
Somehow or other he got work in the film industry in both Britain and France. He is mentioned as an assistant all the way back to Abel Gance on Le Fin du Monde and to E A Dupont on Piccadilly.
But…back to actually seeing Gréville’s films. 2013 was the kick along year. Quentin Turnour helped the discovery along when he programmed Noose  at the Sydney Film Festival in a series called Brit Noir way back in the day, so long ago before David Stratton was brought back to program the SFF retrospectives. 

Then Bologna added another brick in the wall. As part of a strand called “War is Near 1938-1939” Peter von Bagh curated a series of films based on the premise that “if an alien would visit our globe after the humans had destroyed each other and enter a film archive, the films from 1938-39 would give him a glimpse of the madness to come.”   Included was Menaces made following the signing of the Munich Pact in January 1939 and eventually released in December 1939. In his notes for the Bologna screening Bernard Eisenschitz gave a short history of the film’s troubled production and claims the script developed the plot alongside the political events of the day. Eisenschitz quotes Gréville: “Every week, a change in the international situation into panic and confusion. There were various partial mobilisations forcing me to change technicians and actors”. 

The producers lost all their money and the film was taken over by the laboratory. A fire destroyed a large part of the negative. Shooting re-started in August 1939 and shut down again when war was declared. Later the negative was claimed to be destroyed by the Gestapo. In 1945 it was put back together and given a new ending. Lead actors Erich von Stroheim and John Loder had left the country. Ginette Leclerc and Mireille Balin were in prison and Jean Galland banned. Other actors and doubles were used to assemble the only extant version now held by the Belgian Cinematheque.

The key to the film is in the character created by von Stroheim, a man who wears a mask covering one side of his face to hide a hideous WW1 wound. He prowls around the hotel which is the film’s setting, mysteriously threatening in the manner implied by the film’s title.

There are two more Gréville titles to hand. Another of Gréville’s Brit films, the 1937 Brief Ecstasy  with Paul Lukas, Hugh Williams and Linden Travers in an exotic amorous but very British triangle.  And finally arriving via an Italian language/French subtitled DVD, located at Florence's beloved Alberti Dischi, is a film with so many titles its dazzling for that alone. In some  iterations it's called Temptation and  The Island at the End of the World. Then there are various translations of the latter. (The Italian DVD I bought has this variation above). 

So, just alerting at this stage that  more will be done. ....and I don't expect in some short time to pronounce Gréville to be another Duvivier.   A special check also needs to be made of Bertrand Tavernier's TV series Voyage a travers le cinema  which apparently devotes some attention to Greville as one of those unsung French film-makers overdue for some recognition. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (1) - An Aussie on the Venice Lido, August 1971

The Lido di Venezia, that former sandbank which for centuries has sheltered Venice from the worst surges of the Adriatic, is now so built up with hotels and villas, tennis courts and promenades that its lush plantings and stone walls constitute, like so much else in Venice, a kind of fashion statement. It’s a doormat on the city’s front step, tinted, appropriately, in the ochre and green of Gucci. Where better, then, to hold the annual Mostra del Cinema, aka the Venice Film Festival?  

Epicenter of the event is the Palazzo del Cinema (left), a slab of Mussolini Modern in grey/white marble which can’t help reminding visitors of something the organizers would prefer to forget - that the world’s oldest film festival was launched by Il Duce for the greater glory of Fascism. 

Not that politics was on the mind of the journalists assembled in the bar of the Hotel Excelsior, a little further up the island, in August 1971. Over inky espressos, each slurp delivering a caffeine hit as potent as CPR, we were debating how most fittingly to put John Ford, an elite guest of that year’s festival, in the ground. 

John Ford
In point of fact, he wasn’t dead. But from the glimpses we’d caught of him, hunched in a wheelchair, one eye obscured by a patch, he looked unlikely to last the week. To arrange a funeral in the style so often celebrated in his films was no more than courteous. 

A lanky Nebraskan had already been selected as the only suitable person to stand by the grave, sweep off his Stetson a la Duke Wayne, place it over his heart, look skywards and say, “Sir, we commend to your keeping the soul of John Martin Feeney, known to all present as John Ford.” After that, we debated who could play the harmonica well enough to provide a mournful musical accompaniment, and which tune would be more appropriate, Red River Valley or Taps.

Even as we plotted his funeral, however, Ford was showing unexpected signs of life. Electing to conduct his first interview from bed, he’d mortified the journalist by throwing off the covers to reveal he wore nothing below the waist. Ambling bare-assed across the room, he then pissed in the sink.  

Then news arrived of an incident while he was being transferred to a vaporetto  water taxi for the trip across the lagoon to the Lido. A festival functionary, fearing rough water, placed something in his lap. Ford glared at the object, rose shakily to his feet and roared in Cyclopean fury, “An officer whose last rank in the US Navy was Rear Admiral – and you offer him a barf bag?!”  

None of what was taking place around me felt entirely real. Six months ago, I’d been holding down a dull job at the Commonwealth Film Unit in Sydney. Deciding I could do better than composing press releases about films on the diseases of sheep, I wrote on CFU stationery to every European film festival, informing them of my imminent arrival on a fact-finding tour, and asking what they could offer in the way of hospitality.      Some never responded.  Others in Ireland and Finland, keen to justify their label “international,” invited me to serve on their juries.  None offered to pay my fare, but a few guaranteed room and board, providing I got there under my own steam.  The most prestigious of these was Venice.  

Through the spring and early summer, my companion Monica and I scraped together enough money to buy a battered VW and a tent. In July, we took the ferry to Calais, and started to experience Europe from the underside; camp-sites, not hotels; coffee, beer, bread and cheese rather than haute cuisine. We learned to recognize those cafés which, for the price of a cappuccino, would let us sponge off the worst of the sweat and grime in their washrooms.  

Occasionally we caught a movie. In Australia, a night at “the pictures” was a rite, celebrated in purpose-built Palaces, Plazas and Boomerangs. The cities of France, Germany and Italy still had such places, but once you left the bright lights behind, film-going had as much sense of occasion as a trip to the supermarket.  

Invariably dubbed into the local language, a movie might be projected in the town square or on a white wall in the cement-floored yard behind a bar. You sat on stackable chairs, and naturally  you took your beer with you. Frequent breaks, usually in mid-scene, permitted toilet visits, and the purchase of more beer. 

Cinema here was just another thread in the fabric of daily life; not  Cinema as Event but Cinema as Staple. Which did I prefer? Swept along by a Belgian horror movie already incomprehensible before being dubbed into Italian, I no longer cared. Lush dark female vampires threw off their clothes and sank their fangs into chill Nordic virgins.  In Australia, the mere glimpse of a nipple had the censor reaching for his scissors. Here, the locals just nudged one another and took another gulp of Stella Artois.  

Arriving outside Venice, we shook the wrinkles from our best clothes and took the car ferry to the Lido. The suave functionaries in the festival office weren’t fooled, but they were tolerant, barely smirking as they handed over the vouchers that gave us two weeks’ board and lodging. 

The elite stayed in hotels. We were allocated a pensione. It turned out to be the run-down mansion of a languid ex-actress, forced to rent the bedrooms where, she hinted broadly, stars had once vied for her body. 

About twenty metres from the bottom of her overgrown garden was one of the open-air cinemas to which we’d become accustomed. It shouldn’t trouble us, she said, casually closing the shutters; screenings seldom went later than 1am.  Fortunately, its sound system was too feeble to register as more than a mumble, but this just made the looming screen images that much more omnipresent. Posses of riders, ominously silent, stampeded through our dreams, and giant lovers - the phantoms of our landlady’s suitors? - murmured inaudible endearments. 

Johnnie Ray
Getting in with the other journalists proved easier than expected. Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne once summarized film industry chat as “all context, shared references, and coded knowledge of the private idiosyncrasies of very public people.” Newbies were welcome so long as they could contribute to the conversation.  Fortunately, I’d used my time in England to catch up on the latest scandals.  Better still, I could sweeten the pot with stories of bad behaviour by Hollywood personalities visiting Australia, news of which, they were convinced, would never get back to the real world.  After I’d described Johnnie Ray, now-forgotten singer of the lachrymose hit Cry, roaming the corridors of his hotel in the small hours, high on cocaine and dressed like Mrs. Bates in Psycho, my membership was assured.  

Monica found most of this group too movie-obsessed, but discovered a kindred soul in John Coleman, long-time film critic of the New Statesman.
       “I think I reviewed one of your books,” John said when we first met. 
        “You did,” I replied. ‘You said ‘Baxter’s book surfs on a wave of clichés.’ ” 
        “Did I really?” he said, unfazed. “Let me top up your glass.”  

John Coleman 
John was far too urbane and charming to dislike for long.  We sat in the gardens around the casino, watching his cigar smoke rising into the soft evening air, and listening to his stories of how, as a young man, he’d lived in Paris, supporting himself by writing pornographic novels for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.   I could only think of James Thurber’s description of working on the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune during 1925/6. “Nice, in that indolent winter, was full of knaves and rascals, adventurers and imposters,pochards and indiscrets, whose ingenious exploits, sometimes in full masquerade costume, sometimes in the nude, were easy and pleasant to report.”  

John never met a malt he didn’t like. Scotch was his downfall – literally. One night, we arrived at the casino to see him poised unsteadily at the top of its wide stone steps. Slowly, majestically, he toppled, tumbling down the first flight to come to rest on the landing, dusty, but, with the luck of the very drunk, unhurt.  

During our sessions at the Excelsior and in the Venice cafés, the Anglophones had time to size me up. On the last day, the tall guy from Nebraska who so effectively impersonated John Wayne, asked “Are you thinking of settling in London?”
        “Depends on whether I can find work,” I said.

He handed me a card.  “Maybe I could help you there.” 

I read it in disbelief. He was Ken Wlaschin, director of the London Film Festival and the National Film Theatre. 

Ken Wlaschin (l) with Roger Corman and Derek Malcolm
A BBC radio producer added his card. It turned out he ran Kaleidoscope, the prestigious nightly arts review programme.

Another American, better dressed than the rest, and with some vague connection to the US Embassy, also proposed a lunch once we returned to London.  A year later, when I found myself lecturing on American cinema in Bucharest, the Embassy’s Second Secretary,  over a bottle of the potent local slivovitz,  explained that my new friend’s title of Student Affairs Officer disguised his role as a CIA spook whose job it was to filter sympathetic academics into unsympathetic regimes such as that of Ceausescu. 



John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure."