Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Hepburn Dichotomy

A friend of mine recently reminded me of a well-known theory involving two classic film stars.
At the time, we were discussing Sabrina and Audrey Hepburn’s penchant for playing the same sort of girl in film after film (flighty and glamorous). I observed that while it is great fun to spend a couple of hours basking in Audrey’s immaculate glibness, I am pretty well satiated with her by the time her film’s end. In fact, I am not certain how many more minutes I could stand of her.
This provoked my aforementioned friend to remind me that when it comes to Hepburn, some guys prefer Audrey – others Katharine. When it comes to dating women, “guys want one or the other,” she said.
I confess I had totally forgotten this dichotomy and reveled in being reacquainted with it. And although reducing an entire gender to a rather stark choice between two starlets is fraught with difficulty, I am nonetheless forced to admit there is truth in what my friend said.
The Hepburn Dichotomy breaks down in the following ways…
Audrey is fun, unserious and delightfully fashionable. She always wears perfect clothes, continually smiles at just the right moments and is forever ready to giggle at the absurdity of life. Her ability to be so unserious is bolstered by the fact that bad things do not happen to her on-screen – indeed, the entire notion of bad things even existing seems impossible in her cinematic world (Wait Until Dark aside). Everyone she meets is kind and willing to either wait on her or indulge whatever dreams her character conjures up for plot points.
As far as looks go, Audrey is elfin and girlish in the cute and innocent way that causes males to crumble. She is made-up almost entirely of limbs; hence her ability to look “fabulous” in just about whatever she is wearing. Women, who all secretly wish they could dress like her and pull it off half as well, typically describe her as a kind of “gorgeous” icon, worthy of the same high fashionista status as Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe. Men describe her as “pretty” and steer well clear of pointing out the obvious fact that part of her physical charm rests in her aforementioned girlishness. The word “sexy” never really comes into the conversation...
Always up for fun...
In contrast, Katharine is far more stoic, far more serious. She could be elegant, but nobody would describe her as fashionable, and for most of her career, she had a reputation – partly of her own making – for being something of a tomboy. She generally had to strive in her films to succeed and the world was not always pitch-perfect. Whenever she spoke she sounded serious and got right to the point, usually without batting her eyelashes or giggling.
Patrician beauty...

Put simply, there is nothing girlish about her. She is one of those women whose beauty looked “mature” – for lack of a better word – even when she was girlish and very young. She is made of more statuesque stuff than Audrey, and in the end, much of Katharine's charm comes down to appreciating her character.
As to whether guys want one or the other?
Well, without venturing too far into pop psychology, I think guys want both.
Every male dated an Audrey at some point in school – or really wanted to. Audrey is fun and carefree (and as my friend noted, “she doesn’t talk back”). She would make a wonderful date for a cocktail party and the perfect partner for a romantic weekend getaway – the latter of which is essentially the plot of Roman Holiday. But it is difficult to believe that after the fun and games are over that a lasting relationship could be built alongside Audrey’s screen persona. There just does not seem to be a lot of staying-power there...
I think this is because Audrey is forever playing the princess (both literally and figuratively), and attracting men to sweep her off her feet and take care of her. That is fine in the fantasia of movies, less so in real life. Katharine, on the other hand, is made of sterner, more independent stuff. Her relationships – such as the one in The African Queen – are largely built on mutual respect and cooperative achievement. She is old and withered in The Lion in Winter, and yet she still manages to hold the attention of King Henry precisely because she has as much guile and wit as he does – and he knows it.

In love with talking
Based on their film appearances, we can offer this further generalization: If a person dated Audrey, he could win her heart simply by showing her a good time; if a person dated Katharine, he would have to earn her love through a much deeper commitment (say an external cause, like blowing up a German warship).

As for where I come down on the two, I will simply recount a Humphrey Bogart story and leave things at that. The Hollywood stalwart got along famously with Katharine during the filming of The African Queen. He complained constantly about working with Audrey during the shooting of Sabrina. It was not just the difference in their ages, either. Remember, Bogey knew a thing or two about younger women (he was married to Lauren Bacall at the time he made Sabrina). For all her girlish charms, it seems he just could not abide Audrey’s flights of fancy for more than a few hours, either...

Definitive Hepburn films:
Katherine: The African Queen (reviewed here), Bringing up Baby, The Lion in Winter
Audrey: Sabrina, Roman Holiday (reviewed here), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (reviewed here)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sharks and Minnows

A popular game when I was a child was to dive into the pool and try to make it to the other side without being tagged – or “eaten” – by the other children – or “sharks.” In this game, you were either a shark trying to tag someone or a minnow trying to elude the attentions of one of the predators lurking in the chlorinated water.
The goal of the game is nothing more complicated than “survival.” If a child made it to the other side of the pool, they promptly turned around and began contemplating exactly how they could swim back to the side they just abandoned...
I mention this only because it seems a perfect introduction to The Lady from Shanghai, a provocative and moody film noir from 1947 that traces the contours of a deadly – and yet, at the same time, childish – game between a trio of adults who refer to each other – and themselves – as sharks. Orson Welles, who produced the film, directed it and wrote the screenplay, plays the minnow the three sharks lure into their midst. Welles tries to swim with his treacherous company, but is thoroughly outmatched by their inherent cruelty.
The desperate chemistry created by the real-life disintegrating marriage between Welles and co-star Rita Hayworth adds to the interplay, as does the complex visual images Welles uses to infuse the picture with a paranoid atmosphere. The scenes in the aquarium and at the funhouse at the end are rightly hailed as wildly creative bits of noir, in which desperate characters try and fail to impose themselves on the fate they created through their own indiscretions.
A strikingly visual film...
Columbia Studio executive Harry Cohn famously hated this picture, claiming he could not understand what it was about. In Cohn’s defense, Welles never did a good job explaining the picture’s psychological themes. Hollywood lore has Welles conning Cohn into letting him make this film over the telephone before he even had a plot (While he was on the phone, Welles supposedly saw a nearby girl reading a Sherwood King book called If I Die Before I Wake and told Cohn that is what he intended to film). Borrowing heavily from the novel, the script was written in 72 hours and subsequently filmed at a similar breakneck pace. As a result, the entire enterprise has slapdash feel to it, but confusing? I cannot agree with that assessment.

Specifically, if we pay particular attention to a speech Welles gives in the film about a time his character watched some sharks erupt into a feeding frenzy, then the picture’s overall themes of emotional helplessness and self-annihilation become obvious:

“Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, 'till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.”
Michael, the character delivering this passage of dialogue, survives the events of The Lady from Shanghai – but only just. For much of the film, he is as confused about the plot as Cohn. Martin Fitzgerald believes this is because the film is essentially a “mystery story where the central character is too dumb to ask questions.” While Michael is clearly uneducated, I would hesitate to call him stupid. At times in the film, such as the lengthy passage I quoted above, he is the only character who realizes the truth about the sharks he has fallen in with. His ignorance elsewhere has more to do with him not being a shark himself – that is, in his being a “minnow” – than it does with any inherent lack of faculties. As Elsa, the femme fatale played by Rita Hayworth, tells him: “You know nothing about wickedness.”
Hayworth as blond femme fatale
We never learn about Elsa’s origins, beyond their Chinese source, but it is clear throughout the film that she knows plenty about wickedness and has no problem utilizing it whenever it suites her selfish purposes. She first meets Michael in Central Park, New York, where she takes such a liking to him that she allows herself to be mugged in order to compel him to save her. When he learns she is married, he wisely decides to steer clear of her, only to be recruited to help crew her husband’s yacht by the husband himself. As Michael’s strikingly self-aware narration reveals, “Some people can smell danger. Not me.”
On board the yacht, Michael and Elsa flirt with and tease one another while her husband and his law partner soak themselves in alcohol and quietly scheme their own schemes. When the law partner (played sometimes to perfection, sometimes too goofily by Glenn Anders) proposes Michael help “kill” him so he can scam the firm for insurance, we finally encounter the menace we believe has been building during the voyage.

However, like the funhouse of mirrors that dominate the film’s climax, this plot device is just one of the many distortions of reality competing for our attention. When Michael laments that “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he comes as close to the truth as any of the characters in the film. What Michael – and through him, the audience – fail to completely see until the very end is that Elsa, her husband and her husband’s law partner are all trying to make fools out of each other. Their game is a convoluted, adult-version of sharks and minnows, in which they are each trying to play as sharks and make minnows out of everyone else.
Ironically, what the trio fails to realize is that sharks cannot make minnows out of each other: Once a shark always shark, so to speak. Elsa comes closest to understanding this when she tells Michael about the Chinese proverb that says if someone follows their nature, then they follow their original nature to the end of their days, but even she is incapable of stopping herself from playing the game. Like the sharks in Michael’s story, Elsa, her husband and her husband’s law partner end up annihilating themselves because they are unable to contain the frenzy their bloodlust unleashed.
Funhouse of mirrors for distorted people
The only person who walks away from this turn of events is Michael. He is unable to understand most of what happened, why it happened or take a lesson away from the events of the film precisely because Elsa was right about him – he knows nothing about wickedness. It is unfamiliar to him and he is unused to playing the games it inspires. He is, for all intents and purposes, a minnow.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Grasping for Immortality

The first few minutes of Bonnie and Clyde are pure erotica.

We see a woman’s nude body, several close-ups of her mouth and eyes and a tantalizing shot of her full figure that almost reveals her entire breasts. The object of all this titillation is a well-dressed man standing beneath her windowsill. This man later asserts that he is “no lover boy,” which is his polite way of telling the woman he is impotent.
Lest anyone be confused, this film is about sex.
Unable to conquer her sexually, the man pulls from his pocket and shows her a revolver – that she curiously touches, of course – and then robs a store while she stands across the street and watches. In between this frankly sexual beginning and the film’s infamous and spasmodic ending, the misadventures of the two title characters dances to the tune of their awkward foreplay, exploring an attraction that can only be realized through robbery, murder and the everlasting thrills and boredom of being on the run from the law.
Clyde (Warren Beatty) is only able to consummate his lust for his gun-moll girlfriend and partner-in-crime when she reads him a poem she published about their exploits in the newspaper. Certain for the first time in his life that some part of him is immortal, Clyde overcomes his impotence and makes love to Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) in a blossoming field.
What are two frustrated lovers to do?
Of all the reasons dangled in front of the audience for the pair’s crime spree, it is the sexual imperative and the filmmaker’s deliberate attempt to link that imperative to uneasiness about death that feels the most compelling. More specifically, Bonnie and Clyde are characters hankering for some kind of immortality that will forever enshrine the way they feel about each other, and in doing so, give greater meaning to what are essentially nothing more extraordinary than impulses and attraction (the idea of “love” is never really mentioned by either partner).
When Clyde promises/warns Bonnie that if she comes with him on the road she will never have a moment of peace, he is saying exactly what she wants to hear. Bonnie’s life has been full of peace and she has no more use for it. On an even deeper level, both her and Clyde come to enjoy being on the run because whenever they are motionlessness, the relative stability of the moment forces them to stop and consider who they are and what will become of them. Such existential questions are, of course, primitive versions of the ultimate question about death – what death is and what death really means.
Neither Bonnie, nor Clyde is particular proud of themselves and where they come from. Throughout the film, they exhibit an enormous amount of self-awareness the other members of their gang seem completely incapable of. This is why the gang-members become concerned when they realize their robbery spree is not netting the group that much cash. In contrast, Bonnie and Clyde do not really care. For them, it is about the act of robbing – their form of sexual consummation and release – and the subsequent notoriety that results from their ill-thought antics.
For the thrill of it...
This is not to say moments of doubt do not creep into their minds.
There is a sequence in the middle of the film when Bonnie yearns to see her mother and convinces Clyde to take her home. During the visit, she picnics with her family and plays with toddlers in a sequence of scenes filmed in otherworldly hues. This is a life not available to Bonnie, and although part of her pines for it, the film has already shown us how the ordinariness of life in a rural town drove her into Clyde’s gang, and her later attempts at making plans for the future do not feel like anything more tangible than foolish daydreams. In other words, she takes as much satisfaction from the publication of her poetry as Clyde does in knowing he has been immortalized. She, too, wants to live forever.
Invariably, like the act of love itself, a film built around passion ends violently and suddenly.

Bonnie and Clyde perish in a hail of bullets that shocked audiences when the film was first released in 1967. Living on the other side of films such as Natural Born Killers – to say nothing of just about every other empty-headed, orgy if violence Quentin Tarantino had a hand in creating – it is no longer possible for audiences to flinch in the places Bonnie and Clyde’s filmmaker wanted. This is not the fault of the filmmakers, of course, but much of the other unevenness that plagues the film can be laid at their feet.
The main problem with trying to enjoy this film lies in not knowing how to feel about it. There is real purpose and passion in some of the scenes, while others unfold listlessly with something that stinks of apathy. Pauline Kael thinks veering between these two divergent emotions is intentional, in that the harsh juxtaposition is meant to shock and unbalance audiences used to traditional narratives unfolding in typical fashion. I think it is just bad movie-making.
There is truth in the claim that the famous pair often come across as bumblers in this film.

Clyde’s first murder, for example, is an accident and his response is more suited for spilled milk. Perhaps that was the filmmaker’s intent, but it does not do justice the philosophical depth that occurs in other portions of the picture (I am willing to accept that Bonnie and Clyde are childlike but having them behave as children ruins portions of the film). The simple and unreflective nature of most of the brutality present here is also difficult to pin down, intellectually-speaking. For most of the action Dunaway, whose performance is something to behold, prowls or pouts her way through scenes like an angry and caged animal. Beatty just grins his toothy grin.
Dunaway, dangerous and vulnerable.
This curious lack of synchronization between the leads hurts the overall product (I say curious because in several scenes the duo's interactions are absolutely perfect). But whatever its specific defects, this is a bold and imaginative film that ventures into dangerous and interesting psychological territory and comes away with some serious and disturbing ideas. Is some delusion of mortality really all anyone is after when they meet a special someone else? Or is it only the pyschologically damaged who cannot let go of their own existential dread and enjoy the simpler things? And finally, do we all have someone we would rob banks for/with?

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Gloriously Troubled History

The pitch for Battle of Britain probably sounded incredible.

I can imagine Guy Hamilton, flush from his success with Goldfinger, crooning to some studio head about how they would hire just about every notable British actor working during that period, find entire wings of contemporary World War Two aircraft and lump them altogether to make an epic film about one of the past century’s most important – and narrowly decided -- battles. And as far as all that is concerned, Hamilton succeeded...
Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Michael Redgrave and Susannah York all appear in the film, as do vintage Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitt aircraft. With a $12 million budget and more than 100 total planes employed, the film broke new ground for depicting aerial combat in cinema, and set the standard for such filming until toppled from its perch by a rash of 1980s movies about jet fighters (Top Gun being the most notable).
Indeed, a great deal of the film’s ultimate weakness lies in Hamilton’s singular obsession to explore what could and could not be captured in the air on camera. The result is a film in which what happens among the clouds outweighs the drama on the ground below, and the audience is forced to suffer through repetitive battle sequences that become almost indistinguishable from one another. Silly explosions of red paint standing in for blood do not help matters, either.

Following the plot is treacherous business, especially if you are not a history buff. To be sure, the film does its best to chronologically present dramatizations of actual events that occurred when the Nazi Luftwaffe attempted to destroy Britain’s air force in 1940, but the picture fails to package what is undoubtedly an exciting narrative in a logical way that makes sense. Part of this difficulty, no doubt, lies in the formlessness of the Battle of Britain itself -- key decisions and critical confrontations transpired during a period of several months, not a few days or several weeks. The other part lies in a horrible lack of dramatic structure.
More specifically, by choosing to include as many characters as it does, we end up never really knowing or caring about any of them. Shaw, for example, is never even named (he is simply called “skipper”), while Michael Caine appears and then expires so quickly, one is left to search the credits for his given and surname.

Another Briton, William Shakespeare understood history is not a five-act play, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which is precisely why his histories focus on the human dramas – either real or imagined – of the people involved in the noteworthy events. Nobody really knows how Brutus felt about Caesar, before or after Caesar was knifed in the Roman Senate, but watching a play about Brutus agonizing over whether his loyalty was to the state or to his friend makes for great entertainment. To borrow a cliché, it also helps bring history “alive” in a tangible way audiences of any era can relate to.
An attempt in Battle of Britain is made to follow a troubled romance between Plummer and York, but the filmmaker’s heart never really seems in this effort, and as a result, these scenes seem clumsy and out of place. Worse yet, coming as they are – sandwiched between battles or meetings of historical importance – they feel foolish. The film should have chosen to stay at the tactical level (as movies like Patton or Midway do) or taken the time to invest in people and events affected by the battle in the skies. Trying to have it both ways means doing neither well.

But for all these fumbles, those who delight in detail can find plenty to relish here. From the planes themselves, to the period-accurate BBC broadcasts and the humorous and believable scenes of boys fighting over which German planes are streaking over the sky or handing a downed RAF pilot a cigarette, the mood of the picture feels right. The Anglophile in me wanted more Churchill (he is merely glimpsed), perhaps with his actual speeches (their text bookend the film and are never read aloud or replayed), but the decision to keep the great man at one remove probably served the plot better.
As for the aerial combat, blood bursts aside, the action stands the test of time rather well. If I have one complaint in that department it is that the dogfights are too difficult to follow and too numerous to carry the weight the filmmakers want them to. As an audience, it is also never really clear what factor turned the battle and allowed Britain to win (after all the ballyhooing about being such an underdog). I know why, of course, but not from this film...
In sum, Battle of Britain remains beloved by a generation of British filmgoers. Its solitary sin is that like Icarus it flew too near the sun, in that its ambitions outstripped its abilities. Even so, it is difficult to imagine another effort doing as well this one does at manhandling a complex and important clash into a discernible narrative. History is funny like that. It is just too big and too complex for movies.
A good retrospective story on the now-legendary production can be found here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Perfectly Believable Happenstances

It is difficult for the first-time viewer to approach Roman Holiday with anything like objectivity.

William Wyler’s 1953 romantic comedy about a princess who escapes from her handlers to experience the beauty and splendor of Rome on her own created the cinematic formula for just about every romantic comedy that followed. It also, in many ways, is the film that launched a thousand study abroad programs in Europe for American princesses keen on seeing something of the world beyond shopping malls and sand-covered spring breaks.

The film itself has three essential problems, one of which it cannot help.
The first is the core of the plot: A young and naïve girl who has plenty of money and status escapes her lavish life, goes on an adventure and falls in love with hardscrabble reporter – the latter of whom initially gives her the time of day because he wants the exclusive on her story. We have seen a great deal of all of this before in the Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night, and for my money, Capra’s effort with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert outshines Roman Holiday in just about every aspect, including believability, though I am willing to grant such a thing really does not matter in this genre.
The second problem is casting. Audrey Hepburn was born to play a princess, but Gregory Peck is the absolute wrong man to put beside her delicate, elfin form. Peck is a fine actor, of course, but he is far too rigid for this role, and as a result, we never quite believe that he is the kind of rakish reporter who sleeps through assignments and then lies to his editor about it. Even worse, the notion that the ethereal and fun-loving Hepburn could fall in love with Peck’s stern gravity seems farfetched (he comes across as her father). When I imagine Cary Grant in Peck’s role (Grant was in fact offered the part), the film becomes more enjoyable.

The third and final problem – the one the filmmakers cannot really help – is that this is a movie built around imagery. More specifically, filming in color was sacrificed in favor of shooting on location. Lavish passages with Hepburn and Peck cavorting on Capitoline Hill or riding a scooter on real Roman streets are the tangible results of this decision. These scenes (and others) were undoubtedly incredibly attractive to a 1950s audience, most of whom had no idea what Rome looked like. Consequently, the scenes do not work quite as well on contemporary viewers, some of whom will have actually been to Rome, while the rest have no doubt seen it on television, in books and online. Rome, in other words, cannot be as equally arresting today as it was then.
Before the torches and pitchforks come out and people accuse me of stomping on what for many is a beloved cinematic whirl, let me quickly add that despite its shortcomings Roman Holiday hums along with an intangible magic that just about every contemporary romantic comedy forever reaches for and misses. Exactly what the critical ingredient Roman Holiday has and its successors do not is difficult to pin down.

I suppose part of it is Hepburn herself. Although she is too flighty for my fancy, her performance here is beautifully precise, in that she manages to act aloof and unobtainable at the same time she oozes charm and fun. The openning scene, where her royalty is in full effect, is poked fun at by her taking off a slipper (under the safety of her lavish gown) to scratch an itch with her foot. This is pure Hepburn, and I do not suspect there is a male in America who would mind sharing a scooter with her or taking her dancing on a warm night in Rome, though whether the proverbial male could date her for an extended period of time is an entirely different matter.
In its initial review, The New York Times said the film soared because of its “perfectly believable happenstances.” To reiterate an earlier theme, after some 60-plus years later of romantic comedies, I believe audiences are fairly jaded with such happenstances that we now see them clearly for what they are – carefully crafted plot pointss that unfold exactly so and produce near clockwork like emotional responses. However, Roman Holiday remains amazingly fresh, despite its age and its innumerable imitators (Notting Hill actually robs scenes and re-writes them).
Two of the better passages involve Hepburn getting her hair cut and receiving a speeding citation for her now infamous scooter jaunt. The fight that breaks out on her night of dancing – to say nothing of the rather silly escape – is more farfetched and less believable.

But towering over it all, what really works is the warm – and ultimately bittersweet – message of the film: Chance encounters can lead to love and life-altering experiences, but all too often these encounters are chained to a particular time, a particular place and they are not made of permanent stuff.

The indeterminate nature of the film’s ending, in which Hepburn slyly acknowledges Peck’s affections during a press conference, but then seems to close the door on a shared future (given their differences in age and stature), would never stand in today’s everything-ends-well moviemaking world. Herein the film's greatness lies. It is self-aware, honest and it understands what the “holiday” is for its main characters and what it is not. This truly makes it a film for adults and a film for the ages.