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La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

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We Love You Klaus Kinski

My friend Neal and I are practicing cinephiles.  I am to DVDs what Harvey Pekar was to old jazz records.  Last week we were directing our snobbery to a film I can’t even remember anymore, but I think Tom Cruise was in it.  Anyhow, we got to talking about actors.  I argued that a single actor’s performance cannot redeem an entire film.  Neal argued that an actor could, and supported his case with Klaus Kinski.  And it goes without saying that Neal is always right.

Klaus Kinski, most famous for his films with Werner Herzog and his “Jesus Tour”, always steals the show.  It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him during his brief scene in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago.  Kinski manipulates his face like few others.  Drawing the most subtle and nuanced emotions from contorted expressions that exceed the films dialogue for given information.

His collaborations with Jess Franco are among his most under rated works.  The kinetic body language of his Jack The Ripper accompanied with eyes that appear to dilate on command makes his portrayal of the serial killer the most haunting and terrifying.  Likewise, Franco puts the same qualities of Kinski to use in his classic Venus In Furs.  And I am convinced that elements of Kinski’s performance in Venus in Furs were resurrected for his work in Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht.

Kinski’s later work in exploitation even deserves attention if only for the seriousness of his portrayals.  His work as the psychotic landlord in Crawlspace is as comic as it is disturbing, and I believe both qualities overlap, blurring any sort of dramatic analysis.  Watching these later works, I find myself often wondering when Kinski’s own film of the life of the composer Paganini will become available.

I didn’t admit it then, but I’ll admit it now, Kinski can make any film watchable and memorable.  If you haven’t seen what are in essence the essential titles mentioned above, you may want to begin your Kinski experience with the Werner Herzog titles.  Thanks for setting me straight Neal.

-Robert Curry

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The Music Of The Schoolgirl Report

Collecting movie soundtracks is a pastime shared by both film and music aficionados alike.  It’s true that for any collector it is a rare thrill to find something obscure or unique at a reasonable price.  I myself am such a person.  I’ve written before about the first vinyl pressing of Chico Hamilton’s score for Sweet Smell Of Success, but now I am going to write about a different kind of movie soundtrack; the “blue” film.

In 1970, Ernst Hofbauer brought Wolfgang C. Hartwig’s book to the screen with Schoolgirl Report Part 1: What Parents Don’t Think Is Possible.  Hartwig’s book followed a trend in West German journalism that was popular in the seventies.  Journalists wrote about the corruption of youth, often interviewing a number of subjects.  This was the case for Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck who published a series of interviews with girls who performed sex acts for heroin in Stern magazine.  Where Hermann and Rieck’s work was turned into a critical and commercial hit film by Uli Edel called Christiane F., Hartwig’s book was adapted into exploitative commercial fare.

Hofbauer’s film adaptation smacks of sleaze, and the stiff two-dimensional performances of soft-core porn movies.  Though the film and its subsequent sequels are easily dismissible, its soundtrack is not.  Christiane F. has its David Bowie soundtrack (all the songs were previously released); School Girl Report has Gert Wilden & His Orchestra.

Like Xavier Cugat in the forties, Wilden combined contrasting styles of music into a hybrid that optimized the mood and content of the film.  Wilden successfully crosses jazz with acid rock in a cabaret vernacular; creating music that is as sexual as it is distinctly German.  Wilden scored not just the first Schoolgirl Report film, but also all of it subsequent sequels, revising his musical aesthetic along the way with the introduction of vocals and a big band sound.

For years Wilden’s music had been unavailable in the U.S., surviving as an obscure “import only” item.  That is until Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records released an anthology of his Schoolgirl Report pieces to CD and collectable vinyl a few years back (they also released the soundtrack to Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos).  Since then, we’ve been very fortunate to have his music readily available.

-Robert Curry

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A Brief Reconsideration Of Leaving Las Vegas

Looking back at all the awards Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue either won or were nominated for in 1995 for Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, one would assume that the film would emphasize it’s actors over familiar cinematic devices.  This assumption is incorrect.  Often a film with even remotely controversial material finds its actors rewarded by critics based solely on the risk to their box office appeal.  Perhaps this is the cause of the accolades attributed to Leaving Las Vegas.

Leaving Las Vegas follows Ben Sanderson (Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter, during his last days as he drinks himself to death in Las Vegas.  Along the way, he finds himself in a relationship with a hooker named Sera (Shue).  The couple decides not to judge one another or interfere in each other’s lifestyles.  Instead they hope to coexist harmoniously.  That goes south when emotions start becoming a deciding factor in both of their behaviors toward one another.

This relationship, centered on self-destruction, is forfeited by Mike Figgis.  Perhaps his intention was to make the film more accessible to audiences, or maybe it was too hard to articulate the complexities of this relationship on film.  Relegated to the fringes are the performances of both Cage and Shue.  Their acting is understated and nuanced, playing naturally into the narrative.  For whatever reason, Figgis instead relies on montage and an abrasive jazz soundtrack to give his audience their emotional cues, rather than be dependent upon the work of his performers.  One may suggest that such a choice is a symptom of the “rock star” status given to independent filmmakers in 1995.

Scenes are played out without any audible diegetic sound.  The music in these scenes dictates the mood and atmosphere to the audience.  The casino scene is a good example.  Ben and Sera are gambling in a casino.  Ben is ordering drink after drink at his table, where he appears to be heckling his dealer.  Suddenly, he turns the table over, and security guards are bouncing him.  Little of Cage’s dialogue can be heard, other than one scream as he’s dragged off.  This equals the volume of the film’s score and acts as a sort of dramatic punctuation; a cue that the next scene will be riveting, confrontational, and thus demanding.  Of course, the next scene is a brilliant confrontation between Cage and Shue.

The superficiality of these techniques goes even further.  Another surprising result is sexual titillation disguised as affection or sympathy.  The use of slow motion in sex scenes draws them out while the use of close-ups directs the viewer to wet nipples and breasts, while the soundtrack plays a familiar and tender jazz standard.  The effect is something like sentimental soft-core porn, if there were such a thing. 

Leaving Las Vegas has some wonderful moments; moments for which the actors seem largely responsible.  But it remains tremendously difficult to assess the actor’s in Leaving Las Vegas.  The plasticity and gloss of the film’s formalist qualities inhibit any more in-depth analysis.

-Robert Curry

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On An Anniversary: Three Brief Pieces On The Classic French Cinema

None of the following pieces are new.  They were written about a year ago when I first began working at the Cinémathèque Internationale Of Philadelphia.  That experience has been one of the greatest in my life, which is perhaps why I still work there.  I do not write for them anymore since my duties have changed and taken me elsewhere.  But I feel some of my best work was written in those early days, which is why I am sharing them with you now on my one year anniversary.  The focus of these three short pieces is the classic French Cinema of the fifties and sixties.  By discussing individual titles, it is easier to present a clear portrait of French Filmmaking as it once was.

Diabolique: Layers of Cinema & Further Viewing

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique is a thriller, released in 1955; that said it is almost always compared to the works of Hitchcock, with whom its history is explicitly intertwined.  But upon a few more careful viewings, culminating with the screening last night at the Cinematheque International of Philadelphia, other layers to the film was exposed.  Which is to say Clouzot is drawing from a pool of cinematic ideas varied in a range that goes well beyond Hitchcock and may reveal him to be a rather self aware filmmaker.

Firstly, one cannot help but notice Clouzot’s use of mirrors and reflections throughout the second half of Diabolique.  Immediately, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee is called to mind with all its dream spaces and smoky mirror effects.  Cocteau is constantly confronting his audience with double images of his characters as they intern confront their double within the reflections he’s photographed.  Mirrors in the cinema of Cocteau are representative of the psychological conflicts going on within his characters, and it appears Clouzot, primarily in the climatic sequence of the film, makes use of this technique almost explicitly.

But to talk about the climatic sequence of Diabolique (in which Vera Clouzot pursues the ghost of Paul Meurisse) one must let Carl Theodor Dreyer into the conversation.  Where the Cocteau influence was a strictly visual one in Clouzot’s film, Dreyer’s influence in felt on the soundtrack.  An extensive use of diegetic sound was uncommon in cinema in the 1950s, but it’s best examples come from Germany of the early 1930s, right before the rise of the Third Reich.  The two films in particular I am thinking of are Fritz Lang’s M and Dreyer’s Vampyr.  I pinpoint Dreyer of the two because the diegetic sound of his film is often manipulated and exaggerated for dramatic effect, a mechanism Lang refrained from employing on his film M.  The sounds of Vampyr are strewn throughout the climatic sequence in Diabolique, and used toward great effect.

The incorporation of all these filmic styles and elements are instrumental to the success of Clouzot’s Diabolique.  After all, a master of an art can only learn from the passed masters logically.  But most of all, I hope these titles intrigue and that some of you do see them.

 A Meditation on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy is a colorful and musical film that offered escape to audiences throughout the world upon its initial release in 1964.  It was an escape from both the political and reflexive “French New Wave” and the mediocrity of Hollywood (which had been in slow decline since the late 1950s, and still awaiting the “New Hollywood” that would be ushered in by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967).  Yet, Demy combined aesthetics of the two with romantic whimsy and a nostalgia other French filmmakers of his day seem less inclined to offer in their films for the flamboyance and fantasy of Hollywood musicals like Du Berry Was A Lady, Singin’ In The Rain or Guys & Dolls. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also the film that made Catherine Deneuve an international star.

The narrative of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a familiar tale of romance and coming of age, but in its execution as a film presents something new and still innovative today.  Demy’s operetta film has a lush, rich color familiar to film buffs as the trademark of Hollywood glamour, and the visual palette of Jerry Lewis (particularly his film Cinderfella) and the dramatic use of color in the Powell & Pressburger films like The Red Shoes and The Tales Of Hoffmann.  The Eastman Color Process employed enabled Demy to transcend his audience to the film’s musical fairy tale setting.  Further, the cinematographer Jean Rabier was a long time collaborator of Demy’s, as well as with Demy’s wife filmmaker Agnes Varda, and perhaps that intimacy of artistic collaboration can be felt in the nuance of the camera moves as well as the iconic implementing of color technique.

Still, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is equally famous as a musical, impeccably scored by Michel Legrand.  One may even draw a parallel between Demy and Legrand with the director and musician collaboration of Brecht and Weill or Fassbinder and Raben.  The two artists worked together on the final sound, texture and overall meaning of the music in the film, perceiving each other as equals, a rare occurrence in the cinema when dealing with composers.  Regardless, Legrand had made a name for himself years earlier in the previous decade for his work as a performer and sometimes arranger with esteemed jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Stan Getz.  His work in the jazz medium made him an ideal choice for Demy, for not only has jazz always been in vogue in France, but also Legrand’s expertise at musical improvisation enabled him to work quickly and efficiently under the demands of the film making process.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is finally, in the context of Demy’s career, his masterpiece.  Unlike other “New Wave” films, and this is the root of my hesitation to call it such, it deals with film genres without the dry and esoteric manner of Godard, but is rather more entertained with its self, and becomes playful with the conventions of its genre. In this, Demy has been able to stand out from his peers, and has been able to make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a film accessible to all audiences.

 Putting Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in Context

In 1967, Jean-Pierre Melville released his film Le Samourai.  It is not a “New Wave” film like the ones that dominated the French Film market of the day; it is a meticulous and objective study of behavior, criminality and existentialism.  The films lead, Jef Costello, is in turn played by Alain Delon, whose beauty sets him far off from the ruggedness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Albert Remy, Jeanne Moreau and other stars of the French New Wave.  It is these ingredients that make Le Samourai a picture of singular merit, both within its moment and onward to the present.

Five years before Melville shot Le Samourai, he withdrew from the New Wave filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard.  Until 1962 Godard and Melville shared a mutual friendship and respect, which was forever lost over a dispute with regard to Godard’s film Vivre Sa Vie (1962).  Vivre Sa Vie marked a new and more consciously Brechtian style to Godard’s filmmaking process, which Melville dismissed as not actually being cinema.  This fact is important in understanding the approach Melville had toward the material of Le Samourai; it’s isolation as a film within the height of the New Wave powers.  Melville’s divergence from the New Wave, and his understanding of France’s position in the Cold War gave his films a disillusioned edge from that point onwards, an emphasis on the existential crisis in the every day living of France.  Le Samourai is not often considered a remarkably dark film, but in the light of socio-political analysis, there seems no other way to view Melville’s film.

Le Samourai is a visually bleak film, as photographed by Henri Decae, lacking the Romance often attributed to Paris when it is photographed.  Instead, the city appears worn, tattered and desolately gray.  Melville wants the history of the films urban environment to be palpable, to be understood.  That Le Samourai is a film of the Post Second World War era, a film in the midst of the Cold War.  As seen in the film, it is a city of no secrets or illusions; void of any Romantic flare it becomes more real in the minds of the audience.  Thus, Melville’s narrative is endowed with a special sort of trust from his audience, a trust in the reality he has constructed.

In Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira, the director describes the character Jef Costello as a schizophrenic.  Within the context of the film alone, such a fact is never made explicit.  In that case, much of the film prefers ambiguity to specificity.  It is in the rigorous objectivity that Melville finds any truth to his characters, slowly unfolding their motives and relationships through the film’s long scenes of criminal and judicial process, so that the characters manifest themselves as the starting point of their own existential crisis.  In that regard, the audience has no singular sympathy for one character; all characters are as sympathetic as they are despicable.  Only scene by scene do the allegiances of the audience change.  For instance, a scene in the beginning of the film has Costello shoot a club owner in a dressing room, only to be witnessed by Valerie (Cathy Rosier); and one wonders for a moment if he will kill her to.  But by the films conclusion, as Valerie stands guilty of betrayal, our sympathies have changed all together, turning against her character and for Delon’s character Jef Costello.  Thus, Melville has achieved a reality in this picture where even the innocents are guilty and the guilty have innocence, a reality within the confines of post-war existentialism.  The latter is a paradox that runs through much of Melville’s filmography from Les Enfants Terribles to Le Cercle Rouge.

The objectivity and obsession over process within Le Samourai are reminiscent to the modes and operations of Fritz Lang’s early sound masterpiece M (1931).  Though both films deal with criminal and judicial process objectively and thoroughly, M lacks the human realism of Le Samourai.  Melville has fewer characters to clutter his narrative, as he also has a definite focus on human behavior and realism.  Regarding realism in M, it would seem odd in Lang’s film, given his success with the unreal of German Expressionism with which he had his first career as a silent filmmaker.  Fritz Lang’s film M is populated by characters with a pulp dynamic as overt as Melville’s naturalism, which have clear and singular motives, desires and relationships.  But this difference of realism isn’t just an aesthetic one, by the time Melville had made Le Samourai there had been a Second World War, a German Occupation, a Cold War, and by the 1960s a cultural revolution.  So it begins to make sense that a filmmaker would wish to closely analyze objectively the behavior of the characters within his film.  If nothing else, it is behavior that is the universal language of man.  Melville’s interjection of human realism within the judicial and criminal processes depicted in turn becomes a parable for the existential problem of formulated process against the anarchy of human nature.

However, the style of realism and naturalism of Melville’s Le Samourai may have its roots in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk of the 1950s (particularly 1954’s Magnificent Obsession).  Sirk was always careful to give his characters layers of motive, and complicated relationships that transcend the judgment and sometimes sympathy of the audience as Melville has.  The credit of authenticity this realism affords the film is immeasurable, and equally as essential to the success of Le Samourai both as a human drama and an existential dramaWhich in the context of its moment made the film a bleak one.  The celebratory tone of the French New Wave by 1967 stands juxtaposed to Le Samourai’s ambiguity and coldness of manner.  Godard was as fixated on the unrealism of the cinema as Melville was determined to bring realism to his cinema of the existential.

I do not mean to isolate Le Samourai from the other films of French cinema, on the contrary, Le Samourai is as equally influential as Godard’s own Contempt, Rohmer’s L’amour l’apres-midi and Truffaut’s Jules et JimLe Samourai is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, and in 1972, Michael Winner took much of Le Samourai’s visual style and naturalist pacing as well as the lead Alain Delon and used them for his own thriller Scorpio (a film which also recast Burt Lancaster with his co-star from The Leopard, Alain Delon).  The passage of time has hence proven Jean-Pierre Melville to be as much a necessity to the development of French cinema as his younger contemporaries of the New Wave; rediscovered and celebrated posthumously.

-Robert Curry

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Thoughts On Jazz, Chico Hamilton, New York & Sweet Smell Of Success

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell Of Success has become an American classic in the years since its initial release.  Much has been written about the films dark themes, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, Ernest Lehman’s script, and of course Burt Lancaster’s iconic performance in the role of J.J. Hunsecker.  So there seems little left for me to discuss.

However, few people to my knowledge have written very much about the films musical score.  I don’t mean the music of Elmer Bernstein, I’m referring to the cool jazz sound of The Chico Hamilton Quintet.  The band appears in the film, despite the fact that a feature length score by Hamilton had been rejected by the films distributor United Artists.  Fortunately, the score Hamilton composed and recorded is available on record.  The B-side to this treasure is a twenty minute long improvisation by the group on the themes established in the tracks on side A.

Hamilton’s score is fresh, and pulses with Big Apple energy, just as Sweet Smell Of Success does.  Unlike his contemporaries, such as David Amram, Hamilton’s work for film is not reliant upon orchestrations or lavish productions.  The arrangements in Hamilton’s score are sparse, aggressive, and ultimately direct.

There seems a clear correlation between Hamilton’s score for Sweet Smell Of Success and John Lurie’s jazz scores for the early Jim Jarmusch classics Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train some twenty five years later.  It’s become an established tradition in American cinema to accompany a New York based drama with a jazz score.  Is there any medium of music better suited to express the metropolis?

-Robert Curry

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Looking Back At Look Back In Anger

This piece was originally written as a way for actress Charlette Hove to become more familiar with her character’s graduate thesis in our next film How Is One To Live?  But instead of just emailing her some notes, I thought it better to publish the piece here on our website.  I hope you enjoy.

Tony Richardson’s Look Back In Anger (1959) is perhaps one of the most enduring British films made during the genre’s renaissance from 1957 to 1966.  Stark and unflinching in its portrayal of daily life in London, this film also functions as a pseudo time capsule of the moment in which Jazz took the city by storm.

The films visual palette is stark in its black and white compositions of cluttered spaces and busy streets.  Often the cinematography by Oswald Morris grounds the primary character (played by the incomparable Richard Burton) in the foreground with the naturalist setting fading into soft focus.  This tactic, employed this way, emphasizes the primary subject of the scene, even if at times that character does little in terms of speaking or perpetuating the plot.  Like This Sporting Life, Look Back In Anger is more concerned with creating character and making the character’s environment tangible to an audience as opposed to abiding by more standard narrative mechanisms.  Thus the film becomes emotive of Jimmy (Richard Burton) and Helena’s (Claire Bloom) romance, in favor of addressing the relationship in strictly intellectual terms.

It can also be said that unlike the American realist movement of the day (Marty, On The Waterfront, Edge Of The City) Richardson’s film has more in common with the German Silent Film genre of the kammerspiel.  Like the German Kammerspiel films (The Last Laugh), Look Back In Anger was shot on lavish sets, and not on location as can be seen in later films of this movement.  Though this could have allowed a sense of plasticity to permeate Richardson’s film, the director worked conservatively with naturalist lighting techniques, only exaggerating shadows during night sequences (much in the way Carol Reed did a decade earlier with The Third Man and Murnau even earlier with Sunrise).  In this way Look Back In Anger demonstrates the filmic melting-pot which Britain had become, finally maturing into a consistent national voice (other filmmakers had come close or simply succeeded as an isolated case, such was the like of Carol Reed, Anthony Pelissier, Bryan Forbes and most famously Michael Powell).

Today, Look Back In Anger is most easily accessible as a film about alienation and loneliness.  Few performances in a film of such sentiments ever live beyond their moment, but Burton and Bloom pull it off with the subtle nuance of seasoned actors.  It’s well worth a look if one is interested in British Cinema.

-Robert Curry

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