The Phantom in time

•February 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

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Gerard Butler as the Phantom

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In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

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Lon Chaney as the Phantom

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The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

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Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

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The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.

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2011 in review

•January 3, 2012 • 1 Comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 23 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Whos afraid of Virginia Woolf?

•August 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

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In the entire history of the Academy Awards, Mike Nichols’ searing, scathing cinematic adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is arguably one of the finest examples of effortless adaptations in cinema. For the record, it holds the record for being the only film in the annals of Hollywood cinema, or anywhere else in the world, to be nominated in every major category at Oscars. James Cameron had to sink an entire ship for Titanic, Peter Jackson had to cast thousands dwarves and elves for The Return of the King, and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur had to go all Biblical epic – yet none of them succeeded in nailing all eligible category. All Mike Nichols had to do was to cast four actors, set in mostly one room, and had them all screaming hoarse at each other’s throats.

Like most great one-room movie settings – Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and even notoriously exploited on the small screen by Mike Leigh’s in Abigail’s Party – the film isn’t so much about the setting as the relationship between characters and Nichols, in this magnificent debut feature, sticks to his guns and settles all the action in the warring couple’s marital domain, except for one roadhouse sequence. The confinement of this setting is made all the more powerful and metaphorical to the suffocating domestic wretchedness at play here.

It’s a theatrical showdown between two opposing forces – Richard Burton’s frustrated, repressed college professor George versus Elizabeth Taylor’s plumpy, mad-haired, all-boozin’ and smokin’ spitfire Martha – man and wife in a verbal and psychological domestic battle that holds no guilty punches. As a film concept, it shouldn’t work – but it does, and effectively so. It’s a loud, boisterous film, yet it never treads shallow waters. In between George and Martha’s love-hate relationship, there’s a profound sense of disjointedness in this postwar suburban life, not so much peeling as tearing away the idealist portrait of Americana. It’s all the more remarkable that Woolf is crafted the same decade as Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde – works of art that dismantled the American dream.

Nichols’ assured direction gives this film a distinctive marriage between Hollywood cinema and arthouse aesthetic, opting to shoot in black-and-white, and employing the merciless technique of close-ups. Taylor, who threw vanity out of the window, gained weight and plumbed astonishing emotional depths for the character of Martha. This sexually deviant, disillusioned wife comes so close to becoming a monster, but Taylor gives it real weight, empathy and humanity. The final shot, with Taylor and Burton nursing their wounds, is not only the quietest moment in the film but also the most significant and most humbling, illustrating the empty pretensions and tribulations of marriage life.

VERDICT:
Nichols holds no guilty punches in this astonishing cinematic debut, a film of no-holds-barred emotional and psychological honesty that draws a scathing dissection on marriage life. It’s a powerhouse peformance-film, and Taylor is tremendous. Expect fireworks.

Janno, Themoviejerk

Three colors blue

•July 27, 2011 • 1 Comment

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“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.

Damnation

•July 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style. 

 Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film  “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.

 

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Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.

One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of  the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.

Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.

 

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Kerrers story is a story of  rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.   

At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;  

“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would  be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”  

Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.

Cronos

•July 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Del Toros’ breakthrough film is a sophisticated take on a legend that remains unexhausted by endless re-interpretation. The themes of greed, temptation and international politics permeate this film; Del Toro turns a gothic yarn into a dark political fable, using the vampire as a symbol of destructive craving and isolation.

http://www.metro.co.uk/metrolife/283554-film-cronos-18

The story is relatively simple: An ageing antiques dealer, Gris (Federico Luppi) and his little granddaughter stumble on a device that slowly turns the user into a vampire. A dying American billionaire and his nephew (Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman) are also in search of it, and try to terrorise Gris into giving it up. Gris, fascinated with the possibilities of the device, retains his hold on it. The story revolves around the conflict between temptation, addiction and fear of the consequences.

Visually the film is nearly faultless, especially the directors use of light, which is golden and misty in the domestic scenes. As the film grows darker, the colours are desaturated, and the lighting grows grimmer. Some frames are visually stunning, though others are a bit pedestrian, making the tone slightly uneven. The violence and horror is hard to bear, even if you allow that it makes the film more powerful, or brings the moral message home. As the device and the Americans infiltrate the protagonists life, the film grows correspondingly more violent.

 

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On one level, the film is a clear allegory of U.S. Mexican relations, set firmly on the side of Mexico. The small shopkeeper suffers at the hands of heartless, wealthy Americans, who try to steal something valuable from him; Gris is a sympathetic representation of Mexico as the victim: He is the harmless, provincial family man, a personification of easygoing Mexican values. The American characters, by contrast, are a portrayal of a bad America, distanced from the Mexicans by repeated lapses into English. The billionaire and his nephew are brutal, greedy, materialistic and have no affection for each other whatsoever. Their emotional isolation from the world signifies the directors belief that wealth and greed can be fatal to human values. Their preoccupation with materialism reflects U.S. capitalism, which the film Del Toro portrays as potentially fatal to Mexico as personified in Gris. The more addicted he becomes to the device, the more Gris becomes a reflection of the Americans, who have lost their humanity already. In this way, the device represents wealth, in Del Toros’ terms, as a force which grants material well-being, yet destroys and transforms; by the end of the film, Gris has completely changed from a very human personification of the Mexican everyman to a reflection of the antagonists: Isolated, inhuman, and consumed with craving. The political narrative of the allegory has Mexico transformed by wealth into a reflection of America-and in the process lose its values and identity.

On another level, the film goes further than political allegory; the narrative also represents the internal war in everyone between greed and innocence, which are portrayed as very much at odds. The granddaughter in the film personifies conscience, and the higher morals; She repeatedly tries to interrupt Gris’ addiction, which reflects the addiction of humanity to anything spiritually dangerous. As the film progresses, Gris first makes half-hearted reassurances to her, then shifts to wordless dependence on her forgiveness. The transformation Gris goes through, from man to vampire, is a shift away from humanity, towards the cruelty and brutality the Americans personify. As the narrative progresses, there is a reversal of roles: the first scenes are dominated by the granddaughter, and Gris’ home life; By the end of the film, the Americans are the centre of attention. The crucial moment, which decides Gris’ fate, comes at the end: Starved of blood, he comes close to killing the granddaughter. His choice-to die and thus protect the granddaughter-is a rejection of greed which we all have to make.

Cronos is essentially a dark fable, as well as a political allegory. But the presentation of it is very slightly unbelievable due to the symbolism-the Americans are so utterly, disgustingly foul it is hard to believe people like that exist. Overall, the film works, but the horror makes it hard to watch.

Great books three: The Master and Margarita

•May 3, 2011 • 2 Comments

http://www.travelallrussia.com/russian-culture/master-and-margarita-r46.html

Demons. Vampires. Witches. Literary critics. Just some of the eerie and menacing creatures that populate Bulgakovs sweeping novel. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s regime, the book combines grotesque comedy with a sense of omnipresent menace and secrecy.  Both a satire on soviet life and a tender examination of the human spirit, this is a book not to be overlooked.

The plot is a complex structure interweaving three stories: The Devils visit to Moscow with his Demons; A woman who sells her soul to save her lover; And the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who had Christ executed. The third story weaves between the other two and provides a moral backdrop for the rest of the action.

The story of the Demons exploits is largely a satire of soviet life, told in the spirit of grotesque comedy. The Demons booze and gun sling their way through Moscow,  savaging the literary Elite. The motive seems to largely be retribution: publishers have fallen in with government policy and suppressed religious literature. Throughout the book bewildered publishers are evicted, beaten up, harassed with menacing phone calls, and set on by Vampires. The action climaxes in a grotesque Seance in which the Demons punish greed and vanity; They give women elaborate dresses-which vanish, leaving the wearer in their underwear. The whole plot presents a picture of mundane reality interrupted by unexplained bouts of violence.

 

http://maudnewton.com/blog/?p=6046

The story of Margarita is more complex and centered. It is a female Faust story centering on a demonic pact and its consequences-but Margarita is more complex and ambiguous than Faust. She represents the meeting point of good and evil, displaying good qualities at the most incongruous moments. True to form, she and her lover end up in purgatory, eternally hanging between good and evil. The couple represent all-too-worldly human love, both un-condemnable and un-savable.

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The only equal to Margarita in moral dubity is also the only character to reach redemption: Pontus Pilate is the brutal and conflicted anti-hero of the “flashback” plot set in ancient Jerusalem. Travelling through the moral spectrum, his story is the high point of the book, being a fable of guilt, cowardice and redemption. The brutal comedy and the worldly love of the other two plots are set against the third, in which a character is his own tormentor. Pilates story provides a context for Bulgakovs moral that “cowardice is tha greatest human vice”.

In parallel, the three plots represent three examples of sin and retribution, determined by the levels of recognition.  In the first plot, the literary elite are so desensitized to corruption, they are unconscious of having done anything wrong. Their bewilderment at the demonic attacks provides a lot of the comedy, but also defines the story. They represent a society gone morally blind.

The second story concerns guilt conscious but passive; Margarita makes her deal with her eyes open, absolutely complacent provided she gets what she wants. The lovers make no move towards redemption. There is no introspective debate in the story. The lovers do not  recognise that they have done wrong, and so end up in purgatory. Margaritas story presents a moral passivity that Bulgakov considered dangerous, personally and socially the unwillingness to become conscious of wrongdoing.

Pilate, who spends most of the book in a miasma of guilt, is the only one to reach redemption. There is no compromise or Demonic punishment in his story, because Pilate faces his own wrongdoing. There are attempts to make amends, internal debates, and a final reward. Bulgakovs moral is that, individually and  socially , we have to look our crimes full in the face. Then we can set them right.

“The Master and Margarita” may have political meaning, but it also has a far more permanent relevance. Bulgakov examines the moral ambiguity of human nature, the nature of sin, the importance of introspection. It is a lovely book, written with humour and intelligence, and deserves its place among the great classics.