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: