Saturday, 4 August 2012

Marilyn Monroe, June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962

Exactly fifty years ago, Marilyn Monroe died in what I consider to be one of the most unnecessary and avoidable, and consequently also one of the most tragic deaths in Hollywood history.

As Donald Spoto has exhaustively and plausibly demonstrated in his highly commendable study on Monroe, at no point did Monroe have any intention to kill herself. Nor was she killed; that is, at least not intentionally. The ultimately fatal overdose of barbiturates and other drugs was administered by her irresponsible housekeeper who acted under the instruction of Monroe's equally irresponsible psycho-analyst.

Had both acted with greater care and the amount responsibility that befits a housekeeper, not to mention a psycho analyst, for all we know Monroe might have celebrated her 86th birthday this year.

Marilyn Monroe's grave site at the Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Westwood.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Furious Love, Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

I love pictures to adorn on my walls, I love beautiful picture frames, what's more - I love the pictures ... so, a lifetime ago, when I had a little money to spare, I had an image I'd found in Interview magazine photographed and blown up to eventually adorn my bedroom wall. That, however, had to wait as having spent the little dough I had at the time on having the magazine image blown up, there was no money left for the frame.

The photograph was of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It's a black and white double portrait taken by Albert Watson some time in the mid 1960s. I still have it, to this very day, and whenever I moved house (which, being a serial house mover, was often) the - long since beautifully framed - photograph was taken along.

I can't say if the original photograph was taken during a sitting or if it's a snapshot, though my guess is, that it's probably the result of a sitting. I've been obsessed with Taylor and Burton by varying degrees ever since I was a little boy when I read about them in the many tabloids my mother used to be a subscriber to. As I grew older and my sources of information on Taylor and Burton became more reliable, my erstwhile obsession turned into fascination and eventually admiration. I realised that behind the undoubtedly glamorous façade of their affair there was a couple deeply devoted to each other, both hailing from backgrounds that couldn't possibly be any more different, both extremely talented each in their own way, and both of a superior intelligence which, in Richard, manifested itself in a supreme, often self-deprecating wit, while in Elizabeth, it expressed itself in a rare, razor-sharp, sense of self and in an equally rare ability to laugh at herself.

Taylor was also full of contradictions who felt equally at home at London's Dorchester Hotel as she did in a Welsh pub, feasting on beer and rarebit. That's precisely part of what won over Burton's large family and endeared Elizabeth to them, even though they blamed her at first for breaking up Burton's marriage to Sybil. Taylor, for all her extravagance and her notorious love for diamonds and jewels, probably was one of the most unpretentious and simple movie stars imaginable. Perhaps, it's because she was born into wealth that, although used to it, didn't mind not having it - on occasion. In any case, though her display of wealth would occasionally be ostentatious, she was never pretentious, or worse, arrogant.

Moreover, in the 1950s and 60s, Elizabeth was a worldwide trailblazer in making homosexuality socially acceptable. Much later, and more admirably still, she would be the first A-list celebrity to publicly stand up for people with HIV and AIDS. Eventually, her efforts to raise funds to combat the deadly disease, would wash millions into the coffers of many an organisation, not least of which her own, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

But back to the photograph.

Needless to say, there are thousands of photographs of Taylor and Burton, her probably being the most photographed woman of the 20th century bar none. However, what intrigued me about this particular one is the expression on the faces of both, Taylor and Burton. It's perhaps the only photograph of a (married) couple I can think of that manages to perfection to capture their love for each other, making this love very obviously and believably visible, if not palpable.

Taylor's face seems to say, "See, that's us, we're an item and always will be, and nothing and nobody will ever come between us", while his expression is one of complete devotion - perhaps even submission - to her. I have no idea, of course, how long it took Watson to take the photograph, let alone if its end result is what he was after in the first place. All I know is that it's an outstandingly beautiful photograph - in all its simplicity - and that no matter how deep the feelings are between two people, I suppose that it still takes a highly skilled photographer to get these feelings across in one single image.

This, often referred to as Marriage of the Century, has become the subject of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, aptly titled Furious Love. Of course, you may argue that with theirs having been such a highly publicised affair - their excesses having been covered by the international press to a heretofore unprecedented degree - what can there possibly be that we don't know already?

Well, for one thing, this, shall we say, Anatomy of a Marriage, was undertaken with the approval of none other than Dame Elizabeth Taylor herself. She even gave the authors unprecedented access to love letters by Richard Burton to her and the excerpts of these alone make the book worth reading. For it is one thing to know that theirs was indeed a furious love, but it's another to be presented with first-hand evidence, making you realise, for instance, that besides being a great actor, there also was a gifted poet hiding inside Burton.

Furious Love is a monument - a celebration - to two of the most fascinating and talented, figures in film history, accurately retracing their affair, marriage, and collaborations, down to their excessive, fascinating, sometimes lurid, detail.

Indeed, reading the book made me hanker for a different world, the world of yesteryear, a world beyond the false morality and political correctness of today where, instead of attending yoga class followed by a macro-biotic meal, only to be in bed by ten, two newly weds - after an excessive shopping spree on Via dei Condotti - would booze on champagne until dawn before passionately making love, looking much the worse for wear on the set the next day but couldn't care less ...

Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor died not that long after the publication of Furious Love. Rumour has it, that Martin Scorsese has since optioned the movie rights and that the film is slated to be released in 2014.

Furious Love was published by Harper Collins in 2010. It is available on Amazon.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Heat: 3 Hot Classics To Watch

As entire parts of the planet are currently suffering under enormous heat-waves (Mid-West, Central Europe, etc.), it made me think of some movies where heat - or indeed heat-waves - are at the centre of the story or a crucial part of it.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in movies heat, high temperatures, and heat waves are frequently used as metaphors for the sexual tension and chemistry between the main characters. Similarly, heat in movies also often symbolises - or leads to - violence, rightly suggesting that suffering heat-waves may wreak havoc with our emotions, in one way or another. Or with both, as is the case in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, where the physical attraction between Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff is such that they decide to bump off Phyllis' husband. The references to the outside heat are few, however, in Wilder's film, but they are there. Equally in
Roman Polanski's Chinatown - incidentally also set in Los Angeles - where the persistent heat is being mentioned several times throughout the film as the violence increases and the film's main characters, Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, embark on their doomed love affair. Polanski's cinematographer, the brilliant John A. Alonzo, expertly managed to make the heat almost palpable using very bright key lights and medium close-ups, thus creating a claustrophobic atmosphere not dissimilar to how one feels when suffering under a heat-wave.

Yet, the heat is not at the centre of the story and the references to it are subtle.

They're a lot less subtle, however, in Lawrence Kasdan's Bodyheat, a quasi remake of Double Indemnity, shot almost 40 years later, showing everything Wilder couldn't show at the time due to the restrictions of the Hays Code, including some steamy sex scenes between Kathleen Turner and William Hurt which caused quite a stir, even in 1981, when Bodyheat was first released. There are numerous references to the unusually hot weather - even for Florida, where the film is set; having read Turner's autobiography, however, I remember her talking about shooting Bodyheat on location in Florida and the terrible experience of pretending it to be scorching hot when, in actual fact, it was freezing cold as Florida suffered under an unusual cold spell at the time.


This - be warned: raunchy - scene below is followed by one of Turner and Hurt trying to cool off in the bath tub:


Wilder's 7-Year Itch is set in the blistering heat of a New York summer where Tom Ewell's character is going through the 7-Year Itch, in other words, having been married for 7 years, the hot and sultry New York summer throws up heretofore unknown feelings in Ewell, especially as far as his new neighbour, an aspiring motion picture actress, is concerned. 

The film's - if not film history's - most famous scene is the one where, in order to cool off, Monroe catches the breeze coming up from a subway grate, causing her skirt to twirl up.   

Yes, here, the heat is also what does Ewell in - sort of ... - though this being the 1950s, the scenes between the Monroe and Ewell character are very tame and nowhere near as steamy as the ones in Bodyheat. In fact, the film version of George Axelrod's play doesn't even go as far as the Broadway play, where Ewell and the girl -remaining nameless throughout play and film - at least get the chance of a hot and steamy one-off.

Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beneix' classic French film from 1986 has a subtitle in the original version which - sadly - was deleted from the US and UK versions, Betty Blue, 37,2 degrees in the morning, referring to the sweltering temperatures that pervade almost throughout the picture. Beneix' amour fou is as disturbing as it is beautiful, revolving as it does, around the obsessive love of a young woman, played by Beatrice Dalle, for an odd-jobs man, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade. Their - at the beginning at least - reciprocal love is set against the rugged beauty of the Languedoc region in the South of France where the mid-summer heat is matched by the violently passionate love scenes between Dalle and Anglade. 

However, as Dalle's character slips ever deeper into self-destructive madness, and the heat gives way to somewhat cooler temperatures, the otherwise mesmerising film gets ever more painful to watch.

  Bodyheat, The 7-Year Itch, and Betty Blue are all available on AMAZON. So are Double Indemnity and Chinatown

Friday, 22 June 2012

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675

  Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mauritshuis, The Hague 

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer have fascinated me ever since I was a child. I suppose that back then I was primarily drawn to them by the quietude and peace they exuded as well as, of course, by their sheer beauty. Moreover, I was quite simply awestruck by the way Vermeer managed to make his paintings look real, to the point where it became well nigh impossible to tell whether they're paintings or photographs. Photography, of course, had yet to be invented; nevertheless the fact that Vermeer in his paintings excelled at imitating reality and came as close to photography as anyone could get in the 17th century, surely is part of their attraction - then and now. 

  A Lady Writing a Letter, National Gallery, Washington 

Years ago, I embarked on several trips around the world to see those of Vermeer's paintings that I hadn't yet seen. Since there are a mere 36 paintings of his that have survived, all in various museums spread across exactly 13 cities in 6 countries (USA: New York, Washington, Princeton; France: Paris; UK: London, Edinburgh; Ireland: Dublin; The Netherlands: Amsterdam, The Hague; Germany: Frankfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Dresden), the term around the world is, I suppose a slight exaggeration. But it was nonetheless nothing short of a revelation to finally lay eyes on each and every actual painting of his instead of just looking at their reproductions.

  A Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden 

A revelation indeed - for looking at Vermeer's paintings up-close (or as up-close as museum security will let you), what becomes evident is that the effect of imitating reality and making his painting look like a photograph (though they wouldn't of course have called it that, since photography hadn't yet been invented) is one that is only discernible at a certain distance. If scrutinised, his paintings will appear pixelised, so to speak, with their true and intended effect best coming across when stepping back a foot or two. According to Anthony Bailey's intriguing study on Vermeer - A View of Delft, Vermeer Then and Now - decades later, the technique Vermeer used would be admired and emulated by the Impressionists. Interestingly, one of Vermeer's contemporaries, Diego Velazquez, would also influence the Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet, though Vermeer and Velazquez apparently never met, nor did they use the same technique. 

  The Lacemaker, Louvre, Paris 

However, Vermeer's paintings recall photographs on another level, inasmuch as virtually all of them show people - mostly women - in motion, as it were, in the middle of doing something, such as weighing pearls, putting on a necklace, reading or writing a letter, and so on. Ad such, his paintings are not unlike snapshots, or put differently, they are the 17th century equivalent of a snapshot. While painting his subjects once the deed was done (meaning, after the pitcher had been put down, the pearls put on, etc.) would seem the obvious thing to do, Vermeer practically always chose to paint them as they were in the process of finishing a task. Doing the opposite, I guess, would have made his paintings quite simply portraits, which is what many - though by no means all - of his contemporaries tended to do. Even what, perhaps, may be called his most famous painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring - the one that comes closest to be classified as a portrait, rather than simply looking straight at the viewer, the girl is also seen in motion as she seems to turn around, looking over her left shoulder.

  The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

Vermeer was what I'd call an economic painter, a master of composition. Besides his subjects, the objects that surround them are few and, I would argue, carefully chosen. And while their arrangement looks ever so haphazard, I'm sure Vermeer took great care arranging them the way they best fitted the composition he had in mind. A far cry from the - often very cluttered - paintings of some of his peers, Vermeer's seem downright empty. Yet it is this purity and clarity that make his paintings so elegant. That, and the exquisite use of colours. Again, I am convinced that what seems to random and incidental was, in fact, the result of careful deliberation on his part. But it's not just the way he used colours, it is also the colours themselves - especially the blues and the yellows - that are so much more alive, and so much more intense, than the same (or rather: similar) colours in the paintings by his peers. 

  Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin 

Part of our ongoing fascination with Vermeer's work is the fact that so little is known about him or the women in his paintings. Who were they? Why did he paint them? Were the paintings commissioned? Much of Vermeer's background and the genesis of his paintings is shrouded in mystery. This, needless to say, contributes not a little to why we're so captivated by them. This paucity of information regarding Vermeer's life and work has also inspired a great deal of speculation, resulting in a number of novels, and even films. The best known example may be Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she cleverly traces - or rather: imagines - the genesis of this, Vermeer's most famous painting. In so doing, Chevalier, also goes into much detail concerning the paint Vermeer used and in everything she describes, including Vermeer's studio, his patrons, and his family life, it is obvious that she did her homework, immersing herself in 17th century Dutch history, resulting in a meticulously woven and carefully constructed story that is as compelling to read as it is instructive. 

 A Woman with a Water Pitcher, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

As with every bestseller, this one, too, was soon picked up by a film studio, though as with most great books, they usually turn into bad films. Or rather, get turned into bad films. But bad is perhaps too strong a word. Peter Webber's film isn't bad, it's just uninspired and inconsequential, and a far cry from being as spellbinding as the book it is based on. Let alone the painting!


For those about to head for Tokyo, visiting the exhibition From Renaissance to Rococo - Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture currently shown at Tokyo's National Museum Of Western Art, is a great opportunity to see a few of Vermeers paintings, among them Woman with a pearl Necklace, on loan from Berlin's Gemaeldegalerie.  

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fashioning Fashion


Fashioning Fashion is an exhibition on European fashions between 1700 and 1915.

The exhibition has been jointly put together by the Los Angeles County Museum and Berlin's German Historical Museum, which runs a series of films to accompany the show.

Its subtitle - European fashion between 1700 and 1915 - is rather a misnomer for what it actually does show, are French and English fashions of that period as the overwhelming majority of exhibits are from those two countries, begging the question if Italian, Swedish, Austrian or German women went naked ... Well, they didn't, of course, and my guess is, that because the influence and power wielded by those two countries was so strong that the rest of Europe also looked to them with regard to everything concerning etiquette, architecture - and apparel, and giving the visitor some background information and historical insight to that end, including a word about the choice of dresses, certainly would have benefited the exhibition.

For as I said, this is merely my guess, for let's not forget that Austria was a very powerful country, too, at the time, and so were a handful of other European nations, which is why putting the exhibition in some basic historical context would have been helpful, if not fundamental. And even though France and England may have been the countries everybody else took their cue from, it still might have been interesting to see some examples of dresses from other (European) countries, if only to identify variations in craftsmanship or national adaptations and modifications, if indeed there were any.

It may well be that period dresses from countries other than France and England weren't available or the respective museums unwilling to loan them out, in which case this information should have been passed on to the visitors.


That said, the exhibition itself has been beautifully put together by Belgian scenographer Bob Verhelst, who was in charge of the overall look, such as the the colour scheme and the design, of the show. However, to make the show more dynamic and to put the garments into a historical and cultural context, including paintings, drawings and sketches pertaining to the fashions of that time and period, might have helped. As it is, there are simply the - albeit beautifully dressed - mannequins and next to them explanations as to the fabric, trims, and tailoring of the dresses and suits on show. 

And there are, of course, the films

There, one wonders what Gone With the Wind is doing in the film section (entitled costume films) of an exhibition that's supposed to be about European fashions while, for instance, any version of Dangerous Liaisons is sadly missing. It's a bit of a random mix that includes films like Room With a View as well as, believe it or not, Muenchhausen.

A(ny) link between the selection of films and the actual exhibition would certainly have been beneficial.

Also missing is an explanation of the genre of the costume film - if indeed it is one - and defining of what makes a film a costume film - is it just the fact that a film's costumes are fancy? Or because it's a period drama? 

Regardless of all that, it nonetheless is a delight to be able to see Gone With the Wind on the big screen again! 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

AFI Life Achievement Award For Shirley MacLaine

Last night, Shirley MacLaine was the 40th recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

In a glamorous gala ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, Maclaine was seated amidst Julia Roberts and previous Life Achievement Award recipient, Meryl Streep, who later bestowed the award upon MacLaine.

Other presenters included MacLaine's brother, Warren Beatty, her sister-in-law, Annette Bening, and her co-star in the film that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jack Nicholson, who played her love interest in Terms Of Endearment (James Brooks, US 1983).

Looking at MacLaine's recent output it's easy to forget that she participated in a number of milestones in cinema history, for instance Being There, Hal Ashby's much underrated masterpiece from 1980, Sweet Charity, or Vincente Minnelli's best film, Some Came Running, from 1960.

She was fortunate enough to collaborate with Hitchcock, who offered her her first part in movies, in his black comedy, The Trouble with Harry, back in 1955. MacLaine arrived in Hollywood at the cusp when the studio system was about to disintegrate, yet the so-called New Hollywood that would soon emerge, had little to offer her, perhaps because she was still somehow identified with the old system. As a result, directors like Alan J. Pakula, Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola or Sydney Lumet seemed to have little use for her - with the exception of Hal Ashby, who, however, recognised Maclaine outstanding comic talent which substantially contributed to make Being There the hilarious, dark, way-before-its-time, media satire that it actually is.

That MacLaine isn't identified with a specific era in film history may be part of the reason that she's had such a long and successful career, avoiding the fate of so many actresses who, for instance, rose to fame in the 1970s, collaborated on a number of New Hollywood movies - only to subsequently disappear into oblivion. Think of Jane Alexander, Karen Black, Katherine Ross, or Genevieve Bujold, to name but a few.

Other reasons are her staying power and - quite simply - her talent. Difficult to label or classify as she's as convincing in musicals as she is in comedies or dramas, Maclaine, now pushing eighty, is still regularly offered work. One of her upcoming appearances include the part of  Elizabeth McGovern's wealthy  mother in the British television series, Downton Abbey. Rumour has it, that her scenes with Maggie Smith are bringing a new meaning to the word hilarious, something which I can easily believe.

Congratulations, Shirley!   


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Questions Of Identity And Nationality

The recent win of the Palme d'Or for Michael Haneke's Amour threw the question up again: is it a French film by an Austrian director or a French film by a German director or an Austrian film shot in French by an Austrian director ... or simply a European film by a ... European (?), Austrian (?), German (?) director?

To be sure, Amour was co-produced by France, Germany, and Austria while Haneke is German born, yet has lived in Austria for most of his life. The question of identity is one that as far as Haneke himself is concerned, only he can answer - is he German, because that's not only where he's been born, but that's also where he shot many of his films, or is he Austrian, because that's where he grew up and that's - perhaps - how he feels? Does it matter with two countries so similar in culture? Does it matter to Haneke? Does it matter at all? Especially in a global age such as ours where for many people, the question of identity is increasingly difficult to answer, not to mention the fact that with regard to Europe, borders disappear and with it, border controls.

But do they?

Michael Haneke 

Sometimes, I get the impression that if anything, the disappearance of these borders seems to have resulted in an increase for a need of a national identity - at least in Europe - so as if to seek shelter and reassurance behind a country's flag in exceedingly precarious and unsettled times. I wonder, if this need for identity, to belong to a particular nation, is a European phenomenon. In other words, is it the same for American (directors, actors, etc.), or are identities in the US easier to define: if you're not born American, moving to America makes you so?

Romy Schneider 

The question is by no means a new one. The most prominent example (in European cinema at least) may well be Romy Schneider. She was born in Vienna, but grew up in Germany, where she's lived for the better part of her life. Yet she's perhaps most identified today as a French actress, France having been her, shall we say, spiritual home, and I daresay, the country she was most happy in (if 'happy' is indeed an apt term to use in connection with Romy Schneider whose much troubled life ended way too soon). Today, Romy Schneider is claimed by all three countries - Austria in particular, although she never actually lived there and only one of her parents was Austrian. Her breakthrough as an actress and her biggest success, commercially, took place in Germany.

That said, Romy detested her German films more and more and wanted nothing more than shedding that 'Sissi' image which, so she said herself, "stuck to her like oatmeal". Moreover, the fact that her mother had a house close to Hitler's in Berchtesgaden which is where Romy grew up, tormented her more the older she got. Especially, after she'd moved to France which, after all, suffered heavily under Nazi occupation, never mind that there were a substantial number of collaborators on the French side, too. On the same token, though she made a number of commercially successful films in France, too, and was voted the most popular French actress in 1980 - the directors of the Nouvelle Vague had as little use for her as did their German counterparts.
Alexandra Maria Lara 

More recent examples regarding the question of identity include, for instance, Alexandra Maria Lara, who's Romanian-born, but immigrated with her parents to Germany at the age of four. I'm fairly certain that if someone were to ask her how she felt, she'd most probably say German, after all, that's where she's lived for most of her life. And yet, the international media usually calls her a German-Romanian or even a Romanian actress.

Again: It's probably her only that knows how she feels about her national identity or indeed if she has any at all. Is it one's language(s), the passport, the place of birth or the place one grows up in that determines one's national identity? And again - what does it really matter? It seems to, somehow, because be that BBC or most other media, there appears to be an eradicable need to put a country before a person's name, 'the French actress so-and-so', 'the Brazilian director ...' and so on.

Marlene Dietrich 

Oddly enough, in the case of Marlene Dietrich it has never been contested that she was German. That's how the German people and the German as well as the international media saw her. However, how did Dietrich see it? How did she define herself? Did she at all? Though I suppose she must have done, for it was upon her own request that her body was buried in Berlin, though one could also rightly argue that the place of burial says equally little about one's national identity (though that would make Romy Scheider French, for she's buried in Boissy-Sans-Avoir, the village she'd bought a house in just a few weeks prior to her death).

And yet, Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939 - and never gave up her American citizenship, not even after her move to France in the mid-1970s - and following her departure for the US in 1930, she only returned to Germany on a couple of occasions: twice before the war, and twice after the war. So surely, one's passport or citizenship say as little about a person's national identity as everything else.

Anyhow, both would make, say, Fatih Akin a great deal more German than Dietrich could ever wish to be for Akin was born in Hamburg - where he's lived all his life - and has a German passport, though Fatih Akin, too, is frequently - and I believe incorrectly - introduced by the (international) media as German-Turkish. Whether he sees himself as German or German-Turkish I don't know. To me, he's German.

Fatih Akin 

The question of one's national identity, brought to the fore with the emergence of the nation state, seems to become increasingly difficult to define in the globalised world of the 21st century. As the world has become smaller, it has made people across the globe more mobile. The UK of today regards itself as an 'immigrant country', so do many in Germany view their own country where close to 25% of the population have an immigrant background ( or both parents are of foreign descent). Whether this fact makes the issue of national identity redundant is open for discussion. It certainly contributed to rekindle nationalist movements across Europe that strive to emphasise particular values they believe to be indigenous to a certain people by excluding others.

While it cannot be denied that there are things, traits, and customs that may be labelled typically French or typically German or whatever, perhaps with immigrants accounting for a substantial part of a population in  countries across the globe, national identities have become more supple, less rigid, and therefore they need, I believe, to be redefined.

That, of course, still doesn't answer the question whether Michael Haneke (or Romy Schneider) are German or Austrian or even French. But, as I suggested earlier, perhaps in this day and age, it simply no longer matters. Or, if anything, it's a question everyone has to answer for themselves.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Cannes Film Festival 2012 - The Winners


AMOUR (LOVE) directed by Michael HANEKE

Grand Prix

REALITY directed by Matteo GARRONE

Award for Best Director

Award for Best Screenplay


Award for Best Actress

Cristina FLUTUR in DUPÃ DEALURI (BEYOND THE HILLS) directed by Cristian MUNGIU, Cosmina STRATAN in DUPÃ DEALURI (BEYOND THE HILLS) directed by Cristian MUNGIU
Award for Best Actor

Jury Prize


Palme d'Or - Short Film


Monday, 21 May 2012

Marilyn Monroe - The Biography, By Donald Spoto

This August (4 August, to be precise) exactly 50 years ago, Marilyn Monroe died in circumstances which to this day don't cease to invite and inspire the wildest and most unlikely conspiracy theories. 20 years ago, the acclaimed film historian Donald Spoto intended to put an end to them once and for all by writing the definitive book on Monroe by shedding new light on the mystery surrounding her demise.

The title Donald Spoto chose for his study on the greatest and arguably most famous movie star in history, is very apt indeed - The Biography - for it suggests that it is the only one around which, of course, it isn't. In fact, there are scads of books on Monroe available, more, probably, than on any other Hollywood star, though the emphasis is on book. For what's commonly available on Monroe has little to do with any biography - let alone one that is well researched and based on empirical data - notwithstanding the fact that their authors take great pains to pass them off as such. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these books are little more than thinly veiled attempts to cash in on the Monroe legend or to be precise, on the mystery surrounding her death. Thus they abound in conspiracy theories by adding fuel to the rumours, claims, and accounts regarding an alleged affair between Monroe and Robert Kennedy, an affair, which Spoto exhaustively proves actually never happened.

Spoto covers Monroe's life over nearly 700 pages. Having read other books by him before (on Hitchcock and Crawford) I hoped that this one, too, would be equally thoroughly researched and critical by also betraying his respect and admiration for the book's subject. My hopes weren't disappointed. If anything, the quality of Spoto's study - a word I deliberately employ here as the much overused term biography doesn't do it justice given the impressive research that evidently went into his book - on Monroe even exceeds his other works. That might have to do, first of all, with the fact that Spoto is a great admirer of Monroe, something which is clearly obvious by reading the book and which is something I consider to be a prerequisite for such an undertaking. For why bother, otherwise? Secondly, as a pre eminent film historian, Spoto must have been well aware of all the countless inaccuracies and the often calculated, exploitative fiction, that have been published on Monroe and her tragic life over the years, and decided she deserved the truth to finally be brought to light.

Coming from any writer other than Spoto, a title as this - The Biography - might easily come across as sophomoric or braggy. But this being Spoto, the book more than lives up to the title's promise. It is a biography worthy of the name. And it is indeed the biography. To say it bluntly, having read several others on Monroe myself, this is the only one worth reading. The definitive study on her. Comprehensibly, Spoto does away with murky murder and conspiracy theories which might make could copy, but which have little to do with the truth which, it should be added, is actually far sadder and far more tragic than the many myths, lies and half-truths that have been circulating for half a century. These might have filled the pockets of some of their creators, but they were of no service to Monroe, who deserved better than this. In fact, what these ruthless peddlers of rumours have been doing precisely mirrors what many of the people Monroe was surrounded by during her lifetime did: using her for their own self-serving purposes, this is especially true for her shrink, the infamous Dr. Greenson, and Monroe's housekeeper, Eunice Murray who, as Spoto suggests, was little more than Greenson's stooge.

Rather than relying on previous accounts and books published on the subject, Spoto based his study solely on empirical data, letters, documents, and oral histories to recapitulate Monroe's life and demise. Starting as far back as her great grandfather, he also refutes those who claim that Monroe's biological family had a history of mental illness. Therefore, Spoto's book was a revelation in more than just one way. For instance, Spoto also amply demonstrates that far from being depressed during her last weeks, as generally believed, Monroe was in fact in great spirits, looking forward to a future, 'she couldn't wait to begin' as she told a close friend verbatim. Having bought into the 'constantly late', 'hopelessly depressed', and the 'perennially drugged' latter-day Monroe myself, I also often wondered how the footage of her last - uncompleted - film, Something's Got to Give, could be so wonderful, virtually flawless and promising. Spoto has the answer: it was a fabrication by 20th Century Fox which sought to abandon a much troubled film project whose script, for instance, had never been completed. So why not make use of the film's star and put the blame on her, especially since her travails had already been well covered by the press and thus easily believable.

A clip from Something's Got to Give (George Cukor, 20th Century Fox, 1962, uncompleted)

Spoto uncovers all the lies and myths bit by bit and credibly exposes them for what they are. However, what's as astonishing as it is annoying is that his effort notwithstanding, these lies and myths are very persistent. They have a way of sticking like oatmeal, refusing to go away. The answer as to why they do is the same as to why they emerged in the first place: because it makes for better copy. Why destroy the myth and legend, since it's so much more exciting and exotic than the truth, which, if anything, is nothing but sordid. And terribly and utterly sad.

For anyone truly interested in the life of Marilyn Monroe and the circumstances that led to her demise almost exactly 50 years ago, this is the book to read - if you haven't done so already.

For anyone who's after melodramatic, hair-raising murder mysteries, I'd recommend, say, Robert Ludlum.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Downton Abbey, Season 1 + 2, UK 2010 - 2012

It seems that there isn't really much point talking about Downton Abbey as its success - primarily, though far from exclusively, in the UK and in the US - has triggered a plethora of responses and reactions in the form of blogs, websites, and so on, its reception having been overwhelmingly positive resulting in a string of Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy wins. As someone who watches as little television as possible it probably took me longer than most people to fall under Downton Abbey's spell. And being one of the world's greatest Maggie Smith aficionados, my main reason for watching it in the first place - on DVD - was naturally to see her camp it up in the role of the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham who, basically, is a reprise of Maggie's equally iconic Constance Trentham in Gosford Park (UK/ US 2002).

That expression - to camp it up - probably makes a lot of people cringe, and rightly so, in a way, for it seems to belittle - however unintentionally - Smith's considerable acting skills as campness may be the (part-)result of her performance, but I'm well aware that this performance is far too nuanced to be merely dismissed as camp. Nevertheless, the programme's other qualities notwithstanding, Smith is indeed the highlight of it - to me, anyway - and I look forward to every moment she comes on (which, sadly, isn't often enough, as far as I'm concerned as hers is a supporting role). However, with Downton Abbey being full of drama, betrayal, and intrigue - Smith adds the necessary comic relief, the spice, or put differently, she's the cream in the coffee.

Luckily, some fellow Maggie Smith aficionado (from GPB, it seems) has put together these two wonderful collections of the Dowager Countess' most outrageous - and camp! - remarks:


In case you hadn't been familiar with the Dowager Countess' wit, you now are, and will agree, I presume,  that Smith alone is worth the watch.

And having just finished watching both seasons virtually in a single week myself, I must admit that it does make for addictive viewing. That is, if you're into English heritage films in the mould of The Remains of the Day, Room With A View and especially Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs. Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey was also the brainchild of Julian Fellowes and it is quite a wonderful and accomplished continuation thereof. Never mind that Downton Abbey, being a television show, has to comply with saleable television rules including, for instance, revealing titbits of an emerging scandal right at the end of one episode to keep the viewers on tenterhooks, and similar such television gimmicks. Nevertheless, Fellowes does manage to keep it in check, though he does so better in the first season than in the second which occasionally does bear traces - if ever so faint - of Dynasty and Dallas, when, for instance, a character  believed to have perished in the Titanic disaster miraculously re-emerges. It is owed to the outstanding acting talent of literally the entire cast that highly improbable plot-lines as these still come across as - vaguely - plausible.

In fact, one of the fascinating things about Downton Abbey is exactly that: that seemingly out of nowhere a great many actors and actresses of outstanding talent have emerged who substantially add to the show's quality and merit. Naturally, they didn't just emerge - looking at their screen credits actually shows that they've been around for some time. It took meaty roles in a high-profile show such as Downton Abbey, however,  to adequately showcase their talent. I do hope that in the future we'll be seeing a great deal more of the likes of Joanne Froggat, Lesley Nicol, and Michelle Dockery, to name but a few - and please, this time on the big screen!  

Downton Abbey has 16 major characters, and that Fellowes successfully manages to breathe life into all of them, as it were, is an achievement in itself. Of course, he's already more than proved his mettle in that regard with Gosford Park. However, Gosford Park was a feature film and though at nearly 140 minutes a rather long one, to keep the lives of 16 and more characters going for over two seasons, is no mean feat, to say the least.

Apparently, due to the programme's enormous success, a third season is currently in the making, to be aired in 2013. Probably to cater to Downton Abbey's growing popularity in the US, Shirley Maclaine has been brought on board to play Cora's - Elizabth McGovern's Lady Grantham - mother.

Talk about shrewd casting!

My imagination is already running riot when I think of MacLaine's wealthy American heiress having tea with the Dowager Countess. I predict, we'll be in for a treat!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cannes Film Festival 2012 - Official Programme

The Cannes Film Festival, which opens on May 16 and runs until May 27 has announced its official programme, including all sections.

2012 marking the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's tragic death, the festival opted for an image of her, blowing out candles on a birthday cake to celebrate the festival's own 65th anniversary.

The programme reads like a mildly interesting and inspired selection with surprisingly few US but a predictably high number of French entries, and an unsurprising sheer total absence of German entries, German films having become an increasingly rare sight at the Cannes Film Festival. This year, there is but one (German film) to be found in the entire programme, Fatih Akin's Garbage in the Garden of Eden. A debacle which few, if any, in Germany's film industry are willing to face up to. Bestowing an award at last week's German Film Awards ceremony in Berlin that country's Cultural Minister of State, Bernd Neumann,  blithely proclaimed  that "German films are now part and parcel of all film festivals around the globe". It's either that Neumann doesn't know what he's talking about (in which case he'd be in the wrong job), or he's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Germany's tax payers who, after all, make that country's (less than profitable) film industry possible in the first place as it is primarily based on state subsidies. Or else, he's suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's (and in this case, too, stepping down from his job would be highly recommended!).


Opening Film
IM Sang-soo

Film to be screened at
the Closing Ceremony
Claude MILLERTHÉRÈSE DESQUEYROUX     (Out of Comp.)       1h50




Opening Film
Ashim AHLUWALIA                   MISS LOVELY                             First film1h50
Juan Andrés ARANGOLA PLAYA DC                                  First film1h30
Brandon CRONENBERG    ANTIVIRAL                                  First film1h50
Benicio DEL TORO,
Julio MEDEM,
Juan Carlos TABIO,
Gaspard NOÉ et
Laurent CANTET
Adam LEONGIMME THE LOOT                         1st film1h24
Film to be screened at
the Closing Ceremony




Wayne BLAIRTHE SAPPHIRES                        1st film1h38


UNE JOURNÉE PARTICULIÈRE by Gilles Jacob and Samuel Faure53'



Candida BRADYTRASHED                                       1st film1h40
Sarah BURNS,
Claudine NOUGARET,
Gonzalo TOBALVILLEGAS                                   First film1h36