Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE SERVANT (1963)

From the beginning of Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT (1963, British) we know something is going to go wrong with the central relationship depicted in the film.  Perhaps it is the portentous camera angles or Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy music score which seems the epitome of grim decadence.  Or maybe it is Dirk Bogarde’s first appearance in this unsettling little film.  His is a demeanor of rigid, perfect decorum.  He knows his place; so much so that we can’t be anything but certain that he is bad.  From that point it is just a question of how far Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter will take us.  In this, the first of their three collaborations, the experience is a potent one.  Potent because it features two of Pinter’s favorite themes: the break down of communication and thus relationships and the presence of a cryptic menace.  But it is also powerful because of Losey’s visual and audio touches, prominent throughout. 

We begin as Tony (James Fox), a symbol of snotty British upper class privilege, interviews a prospective employee, Barrett (Bogarde), who will become his man-servant.  But things get off to a bad start in the new relationship.  A “gentleman’s gentleman”, Barrett is mortified (or so it seems) when he accidentally intrudes on a tryst between Tony and his fiancée, Susan (Wendy Craig).  The interrupted lovers are not too pleased either.  Especially Susan (perhaps already aware that her own relationship is about to go bad), who is most demonstrative in revealing her displeasure with Barrett.  Interestingly enough, Tony castigates his lady-love.  “He may be a servant but he’s still a human being.”  We discover through the course of the film that Barrett is very human – with all the nastiness that entails.  For the moment, Tony is in control.  But Barrett has plans…

The devolution of the relationship is subtly depicted with carefully composed camera shots.  In an early scene Tony, who is standing, towers over Barrett who is meekly sitting, hat on lap in a wooden chair.  The high angle of the camera emphasizes the domination of the upper class over the servant class.  Slowly,  Barrett takes over the dominant role.  By the end, we have the one time subservient butler towering over Tony as he crawls on the floor in a drunken stupor – a defeated and deflated man.  But before we get to this point, we are treated to several bravura passages of visual and audio effects (including clever mixing of dialogue in the restaurant scene), often showing the manipulation of Tony by Barrett:  When the servant’s sexy sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) comes to visit (through Barrett’s chicanery), Tony finds himself alone with her in the kitchen.  A dripping faucet stands in for Tony’s heart beat, the sound getting louder and faster as Tony becomes increasingly aroused.  And when that faucet gives way to a ticking clock, we know it is only a matter of time.  Vera finishes her seduction of Tony in a plush, high back chair, turned away from us,  hiding the assignation from the eager eyes of the audience.  All that is alowd us is a close up of Vera’s feet hanging over the arm of the chair as she wiggles in ecstacy.  And what can be said of all the close-ups of feet throughout the film?  A close up of Vera’s feet begin the kitchen scene.  There is a tight shot of Tony’s feet splashing in a puddle followed by his feet soaking in a bath, close shots of a woman’s feet pacing in front of a phone booth and more.  But we must allow filmmakers their fetishes and perhaps shouldn’t delve into things that unlike the rest of the film, may be no deeper than that puddle of Tony’s. 

CREDITS: Directed by Joseph Losey.  Written by Harold Pinter.  Based on a novel by Robin Maugham.   Photography by Douglas Slocombe.  Music by Johnny Dankworth.  With Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey and Richard Vernon.

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June 14, 2012 Posted by | British film, class system | , , , , , | Leave a comment

FULL FRONTAL (2002)

FULL FRONTAL (2002) is one of several Steven Soderbergh digital video experiments, the most famous of which is the 2005 work BUBBLE.  The former is concerned with a lot of things, from Hollywood’s depiction of the sexuality of black men to a more severe form of fascism – as a theater group prepares a satirical low-budget play about Hitler.  But ultimately it seems to be an exploration of the relationship or conflict between art and reality.  Several of  the characters in FULL FRONTAL are actors involved in the creation of a film called RENDEZVOUS, which tells the story of a film journalist falling in love with a black movie star.  The actors who star in this film within a film (Julia Roberts is “Catherine” who portrays “Francesca”  and Blair Underwood is “Nicholas” acting the part of “Calvin”) are among the unhappy people preparing to attend a party for a movie producer (David Duchovny) who ends up committing suicide the day of the gathering.  The screenwriter of RENDEZVOUS, Carl (David Hyde Pierce) is involved in a failing marriage to Lee (Catherine Keener), a successful business woman who is having an affair with Nicholas. 

An engaging moment from RENDEZVOUS has Calvin reciting a rap poem about Hollywood’s fear of black male sexuality, and when an interracial sexual encounter between Lee and Nicholas occurs, Soderbergh shoots it in a distorted blur, implying that Americans in general are not ready for such things.  (He may be selling us short, considering the mixed racial identity of our current President). 

In FULL FRONTAL’s sharpest scene, Lee tosses around a balloon globe with her employees, demanding they name all the countries in Africa.  This presses the African/black theme further while simultaneously reminding us of Chaplin balancing that globe in THE GREAT DICTATOR.  Could Soderbergh be commenting on what he feels are the fascistic aspects of big business?   Another Hitler knock off (Nicky Katt) amuses us in the experimental play “The Sound And The Furher”, scenes of which periodically pop up in FULL FRONTAL

The scenes of the daily interactions between all these disparate characters are cunningly shot on home digital video, while the scenes from RENDEZVOUS are filmed on glossy 35 millimeter film stock.  The glamorous Hollywood images are contrasted with the drab reality of everyday life as depicted in the digital footage.  However, even those “realistic”  images, as the last shot of the film reminds us, turn out to be artifice: The creations of  skilled story tellers – director Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough.  Film (and video by inference) is fake, in spight of or perhaps because of  the efforts put into its presentation.  FULL FRONTAL is ostensibly a piece of cinema verite, but the director (as he had planned all along) eventually throws up his hands implying that capturing reality on film or video is impossible.  And what about the reality of Soderbergh’s pronouncements on race and big business?

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.  Written by Coleman Hough.  Director of Photography: Peter Andrews.  With David Duchovny, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood and Nicky Katt

June 10, 2012 Posted by | American Film, film directors, independent film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIM BURTON’S DARK SHADOWS

With skin as pale as in any of his other collaborations with Tim Burton, Johnny Depp revisits a piece of 1970’s Gothic camp in DARK SHADOWS (2012).  As vampire Barnabas Collins, he sports a none to subtle pair of fangs yet gums his way through the performance.  This is not to say that his performance is bad-it isn’t at all-but he just seems to be coasting here.   It is as if he has taken an easy part with a proven director and is relaxing on-screen.  As a result, the film is fun but nothing spectacular, and that is probably as intended.  This film lightly entertains right from its eighteenth century prologue, through to its eye-opening conclusion. 

The early scenes present Barnabas as the young son of a wealthy Maine family who is involved in a tryst with a young domestic, Angelique (Eva Green) at the Collins mansion.  But this beautiful maid happens to be a witch and when spurned by her lover takes the inconsiderate action of turning him into a vampire.  Locked in a coffin for 200 years, he is unearthed in 1972, providing infinite opportunities for fish out of water jokes.  Some of them-well most of them-are pretty funny, especially a hilarious scene of dope smoking hippies, with a twist I never saw coming. 

Aside from the comedy, the plotting and characters follow the TV series closely.  Operating a fishery that is in competition with the Collin’s cannery, is Angelique, and she is still hot for Barnabas.  He, however, is prepared to give his heart to the comely Josette (Bella Heathcote).  Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer-even better preserved than Barnabas) is the matriarch of the Collins clan.  Her family’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) is busy giving Barnabas blood transfusions in order to cure his vampirism.  There is another twist here, and Dr. Hoffman promptly performs oral sex on the vampire, who returns the favor by sucking her blood.  All of this is approached by Burton with his usual macabre wit and intriguing visual touches, particularly in the depiction of Dr Hoffman’s demise. 

Explicit in the film is the theme of the American food industry as being corrupt and malevolent.  In the prologue, Barnabas describes Angelique as discovering the proper name of the Devil himself.   The woman reads a book on witchcraft featuring the name “Mephistopheles” emblazoned in Gothic type, the “M” baring a startling resemblance to the “Golden Arches” of the McDonald’s logo.  On the table at which the Collins family has breakfast, a Wheaties box is prominently displayed.  Since the athlete featured on the package is O.J. Simpson, Burton’s attitudinal proclivities are obvious. 

Tim Burton probably set the film in the early 1970s partly because that is when the original TV show was aired.  But there may be another reason: It was the height of the “mod”  era, with mini skirts, lava lamps, psychedelic posters and the introduction of freewheeling attitudes toward sex and feminism.  There was probably never another time contrasting so perfectly with the eighteenth century. 

Not as perversely jolly as BEETLEJUICE or as thrilling as BATMAN, DARK SHADOWS is never the less an acceptably effective piece of Grand Guignol and occasional cheekiness that is a worthy addition to Tim Burton’s impressive cannon.

Directed by Tim Burton.  Written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August.  Based on characters created by Dan Curtis.  Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.  Music by Danny Elfman.  With Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and Bella Heathcote.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | American Film, Dan Curtis, film directors, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer, Tim Burton | , , | 1 Comment