“Mother of Tears”, “Giallo” and the decline of Dario Argento




So they built this big theme park dedicated to the films of Dario Argento, and they called it Italy.


I've written about this before, I know, but I've just got back from the place and it feels truer than ever.
Despite my ever-advancing disenchantment with his filmography, the man's shadow still looms over every street, every building and courtyard, every tree and streetlamp.
I've probably watched more Italian movies, with greater pleasure and keener appreciation, than those of any other non-Anglophone nation, but no other Italian director has stamped his signature on the landscape for me with anything like as much force and ubiquity.
With the possible exception of Chaplin, Fellini is to me the greatest film-poet in the history of the medium - but the fact remains that when I'm in Italy I rarely feel like I'm in Fellini's Italy. We watched I Vitelloni while we were in Florence last month, because we knew that it was partly shot there, but not for a second did I connect the images on the screen with the view from the window. It's Fellini-land; he built it himself. But Argento is Italy and Italy is Argento, and in that strange, seductive menace that is uniquely his, man and landscape share each other.
We walked from Florence to Fiesole, and the architecture that seemed merely picturesque to my wife was to me so vividly cinematic as to be almost hallucinatory. All those old houses, their peeling paint, high walls, rusty ironwork and crumbling pillars and shuttered windows, seemed like repositories of secrets - old secrets, nearly forgotten, biding their time.
Why is this? I've been trying to make sense of it for years. There now follows my latest attempt. Does this make sense, I wonder? Perhaps it comes down to this...

Some Italian directors ignore Italy. Antonioni ignores Italy because he's an existentialist and all that matters is the people: that's why his films could be set anywhere and, indeed, why he made a point of setting them all over the world. Others deliberately show you Italy because they want to tell you Italian stories: Bicycle Thieves, obviously, evokes a real and tangible Italy in this sense. While Fellini takes Italy and turns it into something different because he is interested in creating his own universe.
But only Argento uses the real Italy and plonks his own fantasy universe into it, each redefining the shape and limits of the other.
This is what sets Argento apart not just from other Italian directors generally but specifically from Italy's other exploitation horror directors of the seventies. Fulci made a couple of half-good films and some bad ones, but none of them trade in Italian-ness for their effects, and many try to deny it. Argento's work is explicitly Italian - he tends to name his cities and to really show them and use them, while still completely re-imagining them in the process. And it rubs off permanently, for me at least.

Though it's a long time since a new Argento release has actually excited me (not since Stendhal, I suppose; my interest in the man just post-dated his glory years, and Trauma was the first one I saw while it was still new) I always return from Italy with the compulsion to rewatch Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails.
But until this time I've never actually watched one of his films while there. (It seemed superfluous somehow.) Mother of Tears was on Italian general release last time I was in Bologna and I toyed with the idea of seeing it, but having seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player I was in no mad rush, and never quite got round to it. But I did get the DVD and watched it before heading off to Italy this time.

Wow! If it's not the worst film ever made - and it's got to be somewhere in the running - it must be the worst film Argento's ever made. As we speak, linguistic scientists are hard at work inventing a new language containing words capable of conveying how wretched it is.
The most obvious problems have been ably listed by others, notably Maitland McDonagh. The screenplay is by American hacks with no grasp of Argento's style, the gross-out violence is unaffectingly crude in both conception and mechanics, the scenes of diabolic excess are pretty puerile, it's all depressingly mean-spirited, none of it is even remotely scary and too much of it - especially but by no means solely the bit where the Italian branch of the Cyndi Lauper Appreciation Society go razzing at the airport - is just plain silly.
But the biggest problem for me is simply this: it doesn't for one minute make it impossible to believe that anyone but Argento made it. Until now, even his very worst films had at least done that. But this is completely faceless, voiceless, authorless. It doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like Suspiria or Inferno in any detail or regard. It's set in Italy only in the sense that it's set somewhere. Rome it may well be, but it doesn't say Argento and it doesn't say Italy. If anyone can save it, Asia can save it - and Asia can't save it. That patented Argento atmosphere - thick, weird, dusty, cloying, dreamlike but pin-sharp - is gone.
Instead we just have substandard sadism, gore as slapstick (more Three Stooges than Three Mothers), tits and monkeys and intestines, and all so unenthusiastically dispensed.

I instinctively gave Giallo an easier ride because, even though it wasn't Argento back to being good, at least it was Argento back to being interesting. This one I did see in Italy, in my hotel room in Florence as I recovered from the previous night's attack of the mosquitoes. It's bad but fascinating in its badness, and I haven't been able to stop pondering on it.
According to what I've read, the film had a complicated history. In the first place, rather than a project he devised himself, it was written for Argento by a pair of Americans: Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, the latter a Film Threat writer who, to quote the imdb, "played guitar for the Industrial Rock group Hate Dept". (The credits are very strange. First we get 'written and directed by Dario Argento', Argento solely that is, but then, quite a bit later, 'screenplay by...' the two other blokes, and Dario third, presumably meaning that he just gave it a bit of a polish.
But if the fact that it was written specifically for Argento makes you think it's going to be full of the kind of quirks and deviations that would be sure to lure him to the project (as Boileau and Narcejac deliberately wrote Vertigo to attract Hitchcock) let me sit you down and disappoint you before the film itself does.
The title may raise expectations of it being the director's ultimate giallo, both an example of the form and an examination of it, with tricks upon tricks upon tricks upon tricks in the plotting, in place of the director's usual tricks upon tricks upon tricks. But the film itself goes out of its way to frustrate them, and is (to the limits of my experience - I've not seen everything he's done in the last ten years or so) his first and only non-supernatural thriller with no plot twists of any sort - no sleight of hand, no audacious surprises... none of the structural mystery suggested, demanded even, by the title.
This is, I think, Argento's only twist-free giallo, and so arguably not really a giallo at all. It's just your basic police procedural serial killer thriller, fifteen-to-twenty years too late, and rendered ever stupider than the likes of Copycat and The Bone Collector (no small boast) by Argento's habitual (and in other contexts laudable) inattention to realism in scenario, plot development and characterisation.
It's not just the usual daffy criminal profiling stuff (killers who 'like to destroy beautiful things' and leave bodies in significant places because 'they're trying to tell us something', detectives that can see into the killer's mind, that sort of horseshit). It's crazy stuff like the detective knowing the killer uses a taxi on no evidence at all, or the idea that a policeman might interrupt someone in the act of committing a savage murder and, out of sympathy for his motives, give him a job on the force instead of arresting him, or how, after victim upon victim of thumb twiddling, the supposed psychological profiling genius is instantly galvanised into tracking down his man by someone else's idle speculation that the killer might be nicknamed Giallo because he has jaundice.
The casting, too, which in the absence of any non-linear plotting is the only distinctive thing about the movie, was all very last minute and haphazard.
Originally Ray Liotta was down to play the New York cop in the Italian sub-basement, Asia was the tagalong sister of the victim, and Vincent Gallo was Giallo. (Liotta would have been interesting; Gallo would have been very interesting.) Then, as I read it, Gallo dropped out like a big sissy for no better reason than that he and Asia had a bit of a history, Asia got pregnant and pulled out too, and Liotta, I don't know, had to go visit his brother Tarka or something.
Only then was it decided to recast the three roles with a Polanski double-header: his wife - Emmanuelle Seigner - as the heroine, and his pianist - that strange, strange actor Adrien Brody - as both 'tec and killer (and using an anagram of his real name in the latter role).
Seigner fits well, in a role that seems to deliberately evoke her iconic debut in Polanski's Frantic, my favourite Paris movie (albeit in the Harrison Ford role this time). But despite bagging himself a producer credit as well as the two main roles, Brody seems deeply unhappy, gives two totally ridiculous performances, and ended up suing for unpaid wages and trying to stop it being released at all.
Okay, it's a cheap shot to say you have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself. But you really do have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself.
But how odd that the only thing that makes the movie remotely Dario Argentoish - the doubling-up of Brody as both sleuth and sadist - was not part of the original idea. As the story develops, of course, there's no reason why it should have been, other than to do what the film in fact now does: frustrate the hell out of the audience. But that's what makes it all so intriguing.
As it is, even the most minimally Argento-savvy viewer will instantly recognise Brody under the Giallo putty and ready themselves for the totally predictable but still dramatically and logistically intriguing twist ending: that the killer is the detective in disguise. Certainly the most enjoyment the film gave me came from watching the scenes where the two characters appeared to be in different places at the same time, and trying to guess how Argento was going to explain it all away. (Or if not the same guy dressed up then they're brothers, and the one is somehow responsible for, perhaps even complicit in, the psychopathological quirks of the other.)
It comes as the worst kind of surprise to discover they are two different people after all, and the only reason Brody's playing both of them seems to be to get two silly performances out of him instead of just one, and to spoil the big fight at the end with loads of that similar-actor-with-back-to-camera-when-the-other-character's-in-shot stuff.
I suppose had it been two actors it would have been even more annoying, because our minds would have been constantly whirling with possible twists of all kinds, instead of the one we opt for from the start here. How much crueller then, would have been the big bad surprise that there is no surprise at all.
In the light of this, the film's silly-nasty violence is the least of its troubles, though it's a shame to see Argento playing catch-up with the torture prats rather than loftily challenging them to raise their game to his level.

As I get older, I do see less and less of what is essential about Argento in his scenes of frenzied violent excess, even in the masterpieces. The first killing here, in the taxi, looks like it's going to be totally bloodless and I can't tell you how excited I was by that, and how disappointed that we then found the victim still alive, strapped to a table, next to that oh-so-boring trolley of tools and implements.
Doubtless he felt, quite rightly, that without the grue there really would be nothing left in the movie with his stamp on it at all, and it's true that the violence here is less stupid and special-effectsy than in Mother of Tears. But still, I always think there's something a bit sad about horror directors in their dotage still sucking up to the punks. (Look at Wes Craven. He's in his seventies for Christ's sake, and still fartarsing around with cock rock soundtracks and frat house killers. Grow up, man!)
Argento should have become the most stylish and acclaimed director in Italy, as cherished as Fellini; instead he went the fanboy route, which is ironic as well as disappointing, because the blackshirts by and large don't like his new stuff any more than I do.
So what next? Well, apparently, it's a 3-D Dracula. Will I be able to resist that if it's on when I'm next in Italy? Does Berlusconi dye his hair? You bet I won't - especially if Asia plays Lucy. But I'll be amazed if it's any good. And considering this is the director of Deep Red we're talking about, that's a depressing certainty to have settled on.

Norman Wisdom: Goodnight, sweet fool


Don your black cloth caps, gentlemen, for yesterday Norman Wisdom was taken from us.

In truth, he had been lost to us for some time, trapped in the embrace of that skulking coward Alzheimer's. His last few years were spent in a nursing home on his beloved Isle of Man where, it is said, he would watch his old movies but no longer recognise himself in them. (He did still enjoy them, though - which restores the smile somewhat.)

Lest it need be said: Norman was a great screen clown, though I'll admit that the films themselves were often self-destructively undisciplined. Had he been around in the thirties I think it would have been a very different story. In the fifties and sixties the film world had simply forgotten how to do this sort of thing, and as with the Martin and Lewis films, the talent is there but the handling is wrong.
American readers, I fear, will hardly recognise the name though in his day he packed out Broadway, and received an oscar nomination for The Night They Raided Minsky's. In Britain he was loved by nobody but the public, who adored him, spurring the critics on to greater and greater levels of invective and dismissal.
He was easy to resent: they hated especially the gear changes in his work, between slapstick clown, whose physical idiocy was perfectly matched by a vast repertoire of ear-splitting shrieks, and sentimental balladeer, prone to sudden bursts of inky sincerity in self-penned serenades to romantic or social failure, delivered in an almost parodyingly pitch-perfect croon. It was obvious, too, that both personae were equally unreal, and that a third Norman lay behind: a steely professional, enormously ambitious and enormously sure of himself.
His fans, especially children, saw or cared for none of this, however. They were just delighted to be able to go to the pictures and enjoy the continuing adventures of the greatest British screen imbecile since George Formby, and there is no reason to think that Chaplin and Stan Laurel were not entirely sincere in their praise of him. He was brilliant at what he did.

His screen character is the familiar, Formbyesque little man, trying to make something of himself and enduring numerous setbacks before triumphing, and falling somewhat improbably into the arms of the perky leading lady, at fade-out. His funniest trait, and the one with the strongest claim to being uniquely his, is his exaggerated obtuseness in the face of impending embarrassment, exacerbated by his complete inability to recognise class signals or signs of frustration in others. Relentlessly proletariat and crass, yet oblivious of the class system, he assumes instant and extreme familiarity with everyone he encounters. Classic examples include his mistaking his new boss for a fellow employee in Trouble In Store and encouraging him to raid his own drinks cabinet and help himself to his own cigars while Norman inanely keeps watch, the excruciating train journey in One Good Turn where he simply will not take the hint that his upper middle class fellow passengers do not want to help pass the time with a sing-song, or are likely to be amused by his belching, and the wonderful sequence in Up In The World when, as the new window cleaner at a stately home, he mistakes one of m'lady's soirees for the staff canteen, hands out pieces of cake to the distinguished guests and finishes with a raucous drum solo.

Unfortunately, as his fans aged with him, new generations did not take on the mantle of adoration, and so critics were not forced into reassessment as they were with the Carry On films. Though the man himself had been grudgingly afforded British institution status many years back, no effort has been made to reappraise, or even distinguish between the films.
The tendency to view all of his films as one big indivisible lump is shared as much by their fans as their detractors. Even Wisdom himself, when I asked him what his own favourites were, tended to rank them more in terms of the memories they evoked, or their relative box-office performance (though in truth, virtually all of them were copper-bottomed smash hits). When I offered Up In The World as my personal choice, he asked - many, many years before the onset of his memory problems - "was that the one where I drive a little toy car?" (Nope - that was the much inferior, excessively sentimental One Good Turn.)

Most of his films have something to make them worth watching, but clear distinctions can certainly be made. Up In The World was a key film of my teenage that I have watched many, many times for largely incidental reasons, but I still think it the best. Trouble In Store, his first, is not far behind.
As his career progressed, his ambition became more and more counterproductive, and many of the later films are hobbled by unhelpful evidences of it: overlength, multiple characterisations, unwise attempts at seriousness or variation.
But there's not much wrong with Just My Luck or Man of the Moment or The Bulldog Breed or The Square Peg - and it's difficult to come away from viewing any of them without some respect for the sheer energy of the man, and the infectious desire to please..
It will be interesting to see what tone the obituaries take on the films, and whether his death will have any effect at all on their standing. They deserve a fresh look, perhaps even an NFT retrospective would not be inappropriate. His reputation will, I feel certain, grow, if not among the public then surely among the custodians of such things.
If you have children, show them one of his films tonight. I suspect his tricks will still work. You may find yourself enjoying them too.

Harold Lloyd


What follows is no kind of systematic analysis of the work of Harold Clayton Lloyd, but a few random reflections; a kind of stream of consciousness; a work in progress...

I'd always loved Harold: I'd seen a lot of his work in extract, and thanks to a compilation tv series I saw as a child (of which more later) I had got to know him more extensively, and earlier, than I had Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (and vastly more extensively and earlier than Keaton).
Then there was his own 1962 distillation Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, the most successful product, I would say, of the sixties vogue for feature compilations of comedy clips. (Lloyd's best sequences are often self-contained, or build from simple, easy-to-grasp premises, so their highlights can usually be removed from their narrative context with the minimum loss of meaning or effect: not so easy with other comics, which is why the Robert Youngson films, for instance, sometimes seemed a little spasmodic.)
As I grew older, I began to tick off the full features, and a few shorts, in occasional tv broadcasts, but there was so much of his work, produced over so many years, that my absorption of it was entirely unsystematic. I remained a fan, but never felt confident enough to call myself a connoisseur.
At last, now, I'm in a position to really get to grips with the full trajectory of his work, and to rope it all into critical perspective, thanks to my simultaneous acquisition of a terrific box set of 9 DVDs, containing a good selection of shorts and most of the features and a further two-disc set of still more, rarer shorts.
In so doing, I've also been able to soberly reassess my opinion. Perhaps I might still think Lloyd an important figure, but lose some of my youthful, uncritical love for the man as I gained a more thorough and detached perspective? That this might be possible seemed even more likely when I mentioned the box set to my cinematic touchstone Anthony Blampied, only to learn that he has no time for Lloyd at all. Major disagreements about movies are a rare thing between us.

In the event, I'm delighted with what I've found, and I'm delighted that I'm delighted. I don't think Lloyd was as important an artist as Chaplin, but I never did. I do think his films are funnier pound for pound, however, and for laughs and formal innovation, I see him as fully the equal of Keaton, with a somewhat more winning screen presence. (I admire Buster hugely, and laugh at him as loud as anyone, but I came to him as an adult and, for whatever reason, that just seems to make a difference with me...)
The thing that Lloyd has over both men - and by and large qualitative ranking of these three giants is as odious to me as to all of good will and stout heart - is a beautifully precise sense of his own place and time. By which I mean not just in the backgrounds to his films, but also in his own characterisation, which is specifically and instantly a thing of the American teens and twenties, as opposed to that something of the eternal that we see in Chaplin and Keaton. This is, of course, part of what made Lloyd so very successful, and part of what counted against him in the Roosevelt years.
It's a good thing or a bad thing; it comes down to taste. Personally, I'm in love with the twenties, and so I am in love with Lloyd and his screen world, and I bless him for preserving so much of the flavour and the iconography of the times in which he worked.

And so, that's what I've been watching lately: Lloyd, Lloyd and more Lloyd. As always, I find myself drawn first to the less acclaimed and the less familiar: the earlier shorts, the later features. I've now seen all of his sound films except for Professor Beware, which is, frustratingly, the only one apart from the widely (albeit multi-generationally) available Sin of Harold Diddlebock not to be included in the set.
And watching the shorts in chronological sequence is revealing too - showing that the switch from Lonesome Luke to the Glasses character may have been an instant visual transition, but a much more gradual one in terms of character and performance.


No question what the most striking discovery has been so far: The Cat's Paw (1934) is one of the most fascinating films of the early thirties I've yet seen. Not Lloyd films - anybody's films. And the early thirties are, after all, where a conservatively-estimated 99% of my most cherished movie experiences are crowded, so this really is something.
The film is a conscious effort by Lloyd to try something new - his character is not called Harold, for the first time in one of his features - and it is also one of the very last Hollywood films to enjoy the liberty of pre-Code censorship (or lack thereof). There's very little of the traditional Harold to be seen here, except perhaps in his obtuseness (that gets more pronounced in the talkies), the sweetness of his naive courting of the leading lady (Una Merkel here: superb as ever), and in an amusing nightclub sequence, that strives for the same embarrassment-at-a-public-event effect that worked so well in The Freshman and Movie Crazy but is chiefly notable here for the eye-opening pre-Code outfits on the girls.


The big reason why the film is so interesting, however, is how it fits into the New Deal era 'Dictator Craze', with Lloyd as a Capra-esque naif accidentally elected Mayor of a big American city, discredited by a fabricated scandal, who decides to become a dictator, rounds up all of the neighbourhood criminals and forces them to confess under threat of decapitation! We get to see a convincing severed head and gory, oozing neck before we are let into the secret that it is all an illusion, a trick to get them to talk... nonetheless, this is one of those 1933-4 pro-Roosevelt movies that today get labelled 'Fascist' - occasionally by people who actually know what the word means.
Cinematically these films are all completely thrilling: it's that juxtaposition of a familiar style and a totally unfamiliar viewpoint: the accepted pre-Code experience, times ten. Beast of the City, Gabriel Over the White House, let's not forget Duck Soup (anti-war satire my arse), and most of all DeMille's unimpeachable This Day and Age are vital, vivid documents of a period of true uncertainty in American history. Others: Vidor's beautiful, perfect Our Daily Bread... Capra's fantastic American Madness... Certainly Capra is the film-maker you'd most be prepared to accept was behind the camera of The Cat's Paw were such a claim made... It anticipates the screwball mode - it was made before It Happened One Night - but also taps into that Mussolini-admiring era of Hollywood/Washington paternalism... plus it's Harold Lloyd, so it's really charming and really funny... Me and the missus are still reeling from it, actually.


Moving on from Capra, we arrive at Sturges. I am unusual in quite liking The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. I think it will inevitably disappoint if you think of it as a Lloyd movie that happens to have been made by Sturges (and admittedly the film does all it can to foster that impression with an opening flashback to the end of The Freshman that achieves nothing other than show how good for his age Lloyd was in 1947). Think of it, rather, as a Sturges movie, for which he had the inspired idea of casting Lloyd in the lead, alongside his other rep players: Conlin, Pangborn, Kennedy, Vallee... Listen to the dialogue: some of it is wonderful; Sturges at his best, and Lloyd delivers it well. Never mind the back-projected thrill finale - remember this was the forties, and communal film-making genius of the sort that could be commandeered for Safety Last was just a memory now.


Lloyd had the greatest Hollywood house of all: an amazing Italianate Los Angeles monstrosity, so exquisitely tasteless... just beautiful. If you want a tour of the property, seek out a tv movie called Death at Love House, filmed there with somewhat indecent haste, given the morbid subject matter, a year after his death. Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson are husband and wife journalists researching the great, fictional thirties starlet who supposedly lived there, and who appears in flashbacks and faked old film clips, and looks exactly as you would expect a fake thirties film star to look in a seventies tv movie: like a fake fifties film star. Is she haunting the estate? Has she possessed Robert? Or is she even not dead at all? Who knows, and who cares, to be honest. It's just fun, inconsequential spook stuff, enlivened all the way and back again by the authentic support cast: Sylvia Sidney, John Carradine, Dorothy Lamour and an especially droll Joan Blondell. But the real star is the house - Harold's house, which is shown in immodest detail. Even his celebrated 'rogue's gallery', an arched corridor lined with autographed photos of Harold's fellow Hollywood royalty, is worked in, and frankly it looked a bit creepy and mausoleumish even in Harold's heyday. No set dressing necessary here. The thought that his beloved mansion would have served as instant Hollywood kitsch would have horrified him. But if you can reconcile your respect for Harold and your innate voyeurism, take the tour. Death at Love House, it's called.


How unknown a quantity is he, really? Whenever I read a book or an essay, or watch a documentary about Lloyd, they always start the same way: by remarking how ironic it is that this giant of silent comedy, who consistently outgrossed his - apparently - better-known and more celebrated peers, should now be more or less forgotten. This always takes me aback. At first I thought it was simply wrong, but lately I've come to accept my astonishing good fortune in being a member of the sole generation in Britain since Lloyd's active years of which this is not true. Everyone who was born in Britain somewhere between the late 1960's and the mid 1970's knows Lloyd. And I don't mean the film buffs solely; I mean everyone; I mean people with only the vaguest sense of who Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy are; people who have never even heard of Buster Keaton and couldn't pick him out of a line-up of four. But not only would they recognise Lloyd and be able to tell you who he was and what he did, they'd be able - and more or less certain, unprompted - to launch into a song that begins:

Hooray for Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)
Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)

and ends:
A pair of glasses and a smile!

See, in the early nineteen-eighties, Britain had just three tv channels (envy us, envy us) and after the kids' programmes had finished on the main channels and we were waiting for our parents to bring the chips in from the kitchen, we all switched to BBC 2 to escape the news. BBC 2 was at this time the best reason for owning a television. (Today, alas, it is just one more good reason not to.) We first saw Chaplin here, and Stan and Ollie, but the big hit was Harold. Everyone loved Harold Lloyd, chiefly, I suppose because of the thrill sequences, and the fact that, unlike the other stars, BBC 2 showed not whole shorts but a packaged tv compilation series, with two extracted sequences per show, and that insanely catchy theme song I quoted above.
Yet Kevin Brownlow's introduction to Jeffrey Vance's near-edible coffee table book Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian not only opens with the usual spiel about Lloyd being now forgotten, it actually indicts these programmes as partly responsible for the man's oblivion:

Two years after Lloyd died in 1971, Time-Life signed a distribution deal for his films and handled them with a tragic lack of understanding. The shorts were packaged with a commentary in the style of Pete Smith ("Poor Harold! It's doom for the groom unless he gets to his room!"), which effectively sank them without a trace. The features were spared the commentary, but insensitive, honky-tonk scores and the elimination of entire sequences often crippled their effect.

True, the commentary was naff in the extreme: I remember one beginning, "Here's our old friend Harold Lloyd; I used to know his brother Cellu..." I also have it on good authority that the programme split the Safety Last climb into two segments, ending the first with, "Hickory dickory dock, Harold's on the clock, We'll finish his climb some other time, Hickory dickory dock!"
On the other hand, we were all doing that voice in the playground next day; it didn't put us off or seem inappropriate... And as for the honky-tonk music, I loved it. In these new versions, it's going to take me a long time to get used to the absence of the infectious musical motif that accompanied the 'call me Speedy' greeting in The Freshman. Another interesting thing the Time-Life programmes did was show the Feet First climb as a silent, slightly re-edited, with honky-tonk accompaniment. I couldn't believe how less funny it was when I finally saw it in its proper form, with no music, just the sound of Lloyd grunting and yelling.

I could go on like this for ages. I haven't, for instance, devoted a dozen or so paragraphs to how adorable Bebe Daniels is. I haven't raised the matter of whether Lloyd reminds anyone else but me of Woody Allen when, in his sound films, he pulls his 'idiot face' (ie: when trying to hide the colt in the taxi in The Milky Way).
But you must excuse me: I have Harold Lloyd movies to watch.

A Tale of Two Bookshops


The Big Sleep could well be the greatest crime film ever made.

Is it the real world?
No, of course not. It is completely artificial.

Consider either of the scenes set in the second hand book shop: the one where he pulls Dorothy with the corniest routine in the manual (you'd look beautiful without your glasses, Miss Malone) and coaxes her into closing up the shop for a boozy afternoon in the back room, or the one where he affects a lisp and tries to needle Sonia Darrin into admitting that her store is a front for Geiger's porno and blackmail racket.
Both sequences are surprising: Malone's for its sexual frankness, Darrin's because Bogart is unmistakably pretending to be homosexual. But they are also perfect little nuggets of cinema; scenes that exist - like all scenes used to do - purely to advance the plot, but which through the utmost professionalism of everyone responsible for them before and behind the camera, emerge as little mini-masterpieces in their own right.
Like the whole film, these sequences are a lesson in how to achieve and sustain mood, style and excitement without once setting foot outside a studio sound stage. And never for a second do we think in either one of them that we are in a real bookshop.

This latter point reminded me of an email I received last year from an American visitor to this site called Joe Kenney, who wrote:

What I love about old films is their artificiality: rather than go to Paris they built a replica on the lot... You know that scene where John Barrymore sneaks out the window in Grand Hotel, and looks over that German cityscape? It's obviously a painting, yet its artificiality (for me) only serves to further the "fairy tale" ambiance of these old movies.

As well as everything that people love about old Hollywood, I also love everything that people hate about old Hollywood. I love the studio system and the tyrannical moguls. I love censorship.
And most of all I love the artificiality.
What is it with this cult of realism? I go along with Mamoulian.

Mamoulian's worth listening to on most any subject. I'd say he was the greatest creative artist in cinema, a supreme stylist whose best films, hugely diverse in genre and mood, are made one by their innovation, their clear commitment to the transformation of the material - away from realism, into poetry, into art - by use of all the stylistic (that is, artificial) resources available to the film-maker. And if those resources were not there he invented them, and all, never let it be forgotten, within the strictly commercial framework of popular Hollywood narrative.
Mamoulian knew that lack of restriction shrinks aspiration. He realised, for instance, that censorship, for all his brushes with it and the inevitable pettinesses and double-standards that must rise from it, was a guarantee of high creative standards as much as - in fact far more than - moral ones. And in particular, he hated realism, which he identified as the art of the obvious.
I've quoted him elsewhere on this subject but it stands repeating:

I've heard that films are a reflection of life. Is that all? Is that what the films are, is that what theatre is, a reflection of life? Is it enough just to put a mirror and reflect what you see? I don't think it is. Films are not as much a reflection as a revelation of life. While obviously we are of our time and we have to function within the texture of the times we live in, and portray the world as it is, it is very important for us also to indicate in that same film the way the world should be, the way we would like the world to be.

The greatest cinema has often been the most artificial in style and effect - what, after all, could be more artifical than Hitchcock? Our current fad for realism of presentation seems to sit paradoxically alongside the greater and greater infantilisation of subject matter (the idea of a Batman film prohibited to the under fifteens says something profound about us, I think) until you realise that both reflect the shrinking of the imagination.
We do not want to put any effort into the illusion; we need to have all the work done for us by the product itself, and if it falls short in any department we are incapable of engaging with it at all. Yet modern audiences who object on principle to watching silent or even black and white movies, because they lack that necessary degree of reality, rarely note how weird it is that they are perfectly happy to watch films they are completely unable to smell.
Do they really expect us to believe that last scene was set in a coffee shop? Oh, come on! You couldn't smell anything!
I've never heard someone say that. Yet the logic applies.
(By the same token, it is odd how easily people who could not possibly cope without a mobile phone or an i-Pod seem to get by without a single 3/Ralph.p(p)ps. What is a 3/Ralph.p(p)ps? I've no idea - but once everybody's got one they're going to think us ever so cute for struggling by without any.)

'Good' acting has become synonomous with naturalistic acting, so the likes of Tod Slaughter, Robert Newton, Vincent Price, George Arliss, even Bette Davis or Charles Laughton, are often termed 'bad' actors, because their style is theatrical. (This particular cult goes back to the laugh-a-minute method school to which modern actors remain in thrall.)
I have no idea - but it would be fascinating to find out - when that dismal little term 'overacting' was first coined. If it means, as it appears to, acting that is poor, that reveals limitations, that falls wide of its intentions, then it is invariably misused, applied rather to a no longer fashionable type of acting: that of expressive acting, with its roots in theatrical and pantomime tradition. If overacting is truly the crime - that is to say too much acting, acting that is inappropriate in its own context - then the handcuffs belong on Tom Cruise, not Bela Lugosi.

Theatre is as artificial as can be, but nobody complains about the fact that the castle ramparts weren't real when they went to see Hamlet at the National. Why must cinema be any different? Movies are just filmed theatre. They have more scope for adventurousness, but this need not be narrowed into the pursuit of realism at all costs.
The more work the audience has to do for themselves, the more rewarding the experience. This is why, whatever the relative merits of individual films, as a whole silent films are a higher art form than sound, black and white is higher than colour, restraint is higher than explicitness. So what if it doesn't reflect real life? Er... movies aren't real life, you know...
Realism is an illusion, and nothing dates faster than that which pursues it most assiduously. It's also a willo the wisp: you think it's there, but then you come back to it a decade later and you can see that all it was is all it ever is: that which happens to be fashionable at the time.

Which brings me back to the bookshop.
Last November I watched a film being made.
Or rather, a scene from it. A bookshop scene.
How long did it take to shoot the bookshop scenes in The Big Sleep? An afternoon, perhaps. A whole day at most. But not a second was wasted shooting it, that's for sure.

I have no idea how important to the plot or how enjoyable in its own right the bookshop scene of Stephen Frears's new film Tamara Drewe will be - but I do know what a song and dance it was to shoot. Though it is hardly a set-dresser's nightmare to turn a corner of a studio into a convincing bookshop, the cult of realism demanded that a real bookshop must be used. For some reason they chose the one opposite where I work, in London's Muswell Hill. We were warned in advance that they would be commandeering that side of the road, but were also asked if we could avoid parking on our side too, the excuse being that the camera would be shooting through the window and the scene is supposedly set not in London but rural Dorset. (So instead of creating exactly the settings and effects you want in a studio for a fraction of the cost, reality was demanded - and then faked anyway!)
But in fact, the bit about shooting through the window was a fib: they blacked out the windows, so it didn't matter in the least what was happening on our side of the road, they just wanted an excuse to take possession of it too, blocking it off with (presumably) illegal parking cones, so that the film's stars could pull up in their taxis and get out without any inconvenient waiting around for, or brushing shoulders against, the ordinary people. At one stage a car pulled up with just a dog in the back.
The other side of the street was full for its entire length with enormous trucks and heaps of equipment, of the sort that would have been instantly available, without expensive transportation, in a studio. A huge table was bedecked with food, and most of the crew did little other than stand there eating it all day. Though it was Armistice Day, the 11 o'clock silence was observed by nobody.
The trucks arrived the night before, and were still dismantling their equipment the following morning. They left behind the lighting they had put up in the shop.
The total cost of the exercise was probably more than the whole of The Big Sleep cost to shoot. Will that bookshop scene be worth the trouble it took? How can the expense possibly be justified? How can such a colossal lack of imagination even qualify as realism?

It's that kind of thinking that did this to the MGM backlot: