Watch A Non-Christmas Christmas Movie This December

The Thin Man  
I may have some favourite classic Christmas movies, but, truth be told, I have always preferred more non-traditional films this time of year. So here are some alternatives. Some of them are not about the holidays at all, but they are more magical than most Christmas movies, even the best. Others might take place around the holiday season, but they don’t hinge on Santa coming down the chimney, finding the right gift or Ebenezer Scrooge. I am sure there will be other titles I will add to the list in time (and update this post accordingly), so if you have any favourite non-Christmas movie that you most enjoy watching in December, I would love to hear.

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man is just the right kind of non-traditional Christmas movie for me. It has comedy and mystery and an irresistible, stylish couple, all wrapped in a festive atmosphere, as it takes place around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, without really being about the holidays. William Powell and Myrna Loy, as Nick and Nora Charles, are in perfect chemistry and very elegant – one of the film’s real secrets is its style, and this is the perfect time of year for a little Old Hollywood glamour. Besides, the carefree lifestyle, great sense of humour and eccentric relationship of the two are the right antidote to the usual sentimental Christmas movie. You might want to check out the entire The Thin Man series.
 
The Apartment  
The Apartment (1960)

One of the finest satirical comedies, The Apartment is different from the formal plot of romantic comedies, old and new. It has subtlety and an adult sensibility, which is what makes the story so good and poignant and real. It is set around the holidays, but there is no family gathered around the festive table, just two lonely leading characters, played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, for whom this is a time as any other time of year. Therein lies the beauty and strength of the movie – life comes with good and bad, you can’t have one without the other. This film hasn’t dated one bit.
 
Wings of Desire Wim Wenders 
Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

There are angels hovering over Berlin and walk unnoticed among its citizens, seen only by other angels and occasionally by children. They listen to people’s thoughts and, at times, they take an active role of guardian angels assisting those in need, stirring feelings of comfort, hope and optimism in them. The human drama fascinates Damiel (Bruno Ganz), one of the angels, and he yearns to touch, taste, and feel, and experience the ephemeral moments of simple joys. Wandering around, he finds his own angel at the circus: Marion (Solveig Dommartin). She’s a trapeze artist and, for her, he takes a monumental decision. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is not a Christmas movie, but there is more magic in it than in any Christmas movie. As I was writing above, from all human beings, only children can see the angels – and there it is, the most beautiful, magical message.
 
Eyes Wide Shut 1999 
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut is probably the most unvonventional Christmas movie. Kubrick planted a Christmas tree in nearly every scene. This was intentional, of course, as the director’s attention to detail is well known. Come to think of it, the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the Hartfords’ living room can easily evoke the kind of relationship they have, a beautiful appearance that has lost its roots. In Eyes Wide Shut, he paid particular attention to colours and lights, lamps, streetlights and Christmas lights to get a special look, a terrific exposure and depth. His last work is a visual masterpiece and a great film. Upon finishing the film, Kubrick told family members and close friends that this was the best work of his career (he died before the film’s release). “Kubrick’s film navigates the treacherous, gray area between waking life and dreams, between ‘reality’ and fantasy, between actions and desires, between fidelity and deception, between the conscious and the unconscious”, it is summed up in the book The Stanley Kubrick Archives.
 
Trading Places 1983 
Trading Places (1983)

I have only recently viewed Trading Places and it reminded me of classic comedies. It is very funny. It also manages to tell us something about human nature, without stopping being funny. Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd are just a perfect match. Plus, the film has the best idea of a New Year’s Eve party: it takes place on the train, making it probably the only kind of party I would like to attend on the night between the years. Not my favourite night, you’ve guessed, I usually just want to get it over with and move on – hence my take on the train setting.
 
La belle et la bete 
La belle et la bête (1946)

And finally, probably the best film to reflect the bittersweetness, longing and beauty of the end of the year is Jean Cocteau’s magical La belle et la bête. Never before has such a romantic fantasy been treated in such an artistic and poetic manner on screen. As a side note, the cinematographer was Henri Alekan, the same one who would film Wings of Desire mentioned a little earlier. There has been much talk about the screen adaptations of this classic fairy tale, and I was pretty clear about my point of view on Instagram, so now I will just say this: if you are going to watch a Beauty and the Beast film, make it this one.

photos: 1-The Thin Man (MGM) / 2-The Apartment (Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/United Artists) / 3-Wings of Desire (Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argo Films) / 4-Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Brothers/Stanley Kubrick Productions) / 5-Trading Places (Cinema Group Ventures/Paramont Pictures) / 6-La belle et la bête (DisCina)

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Everest: The First Ascent & Other Winter Reading

Everest The First Ascent 
First of all, I should start by confessing that I bought this book, Everest – The First Ascent, by mistake. And I am glad I did. Another book, with a very similar title, The Ascent of Everest, had been on my radar ever since I read a recommendation by these two world travelers. And given my love of and interested in all things mountaineering, in my excitement that I had found it on one of my bookshop visits that was turning out to be least fruitful, I didn’t realise the author was not John Hunt, but Harriet Tuckey. Both books recount the story of the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as part of a British team led by John Hunt. There is one major difference though: Tuckey’s book challenges many generally held beliefs and provides a very different perspective of the 1953 expedition than most other accounts. As the subtitle states, it is the untold story of the man who made it possible.

This is a biography of Griffith Pugh, one of the early pioneers of high altitude medicine and sports science, the man who designed much of the equipment for the 1953 expedition (from boots, windproof jackets and goggles, to tents, sleeping bags and cooking stoves), and who took part in it himself. He is also the author’s father. But make no mistake, this is not a sentimental memoir written by a doting daughter – they had a very difficult relationship and did not reconcile by the time of his death and before Harriet embarked on the writing of the book. It’s a very objective, warts-and-all tale of a man she never actually liked, but who, as she found out during her research for the book, was very different from the man she had known as her father.

It’s a book meant to set the record straight. I revel in this kind of books. As a physician and scientist, Pugh was a key part in the success of the 1953 expedition (after 10 failed expeditions and 29 years from the first attempt). A truly remarkable man, who dedicated his life to his work and research, and who, first and foremost, loved the mountain and was a climber himself. Acclimatisation, hydration, oxygen flow rates, food intake, energy balance, hygiene, proper equipment and sleep, coping with the cold, such things are taken for granted in expeditions today, but, for Pugh’s team mates, such simple instructions were a revelation that considerably improved their performance and which have served as template from then on to the present day. It’s always the details that make the whole, and it’s always the details that make the difference.
 
Winter time 
Yet, Griffith Pugh’s merits had never been acknowledged, not even remotely, and not even by the members of the 1953 expedition. The experiments he conducted prior and during the expedition, and practically the role of science in its success, were often regarded with scepticism and suspicion, even derision. This is why the book is so poignant. It is an important tribute to all of the many unsung heroes who make essential contributions to the success of high altitude mountaineering expeditions. And, quite frankly, a tribute to the unsung heroes in many fields. It’s always going to be the leading participants who take center stage. But I am glad that there are voices who make themselves heard and who remind us what a concertated effort from an entire team one person’s (or, in this case, two persons’) win really is.

Everest: The First Ascent opened my eyes in one other regard, too. The first ascent of Everest was not exactly a romantic triumph of the sporting spirit, as I myself thought and, quite honestly, liked to think in the past. It is not portrayed as a heroic triumph for Britain either, but rather as a story of incompetence and failure, sparing no criticism towards the beurocratic and diplomatic scheming involved in the process. Not only does Harriet Tuckey describe how the British failed seven times to climb Everest before the war, but how they also used their position of power and influence in India and Tibet to deny other nations the opportunity of climbing it themselves. The conquest of Everest was such an important moment in the history of humankind, and I appreciate a book meant to get the facts right.

On an ending note, here are other books I am planning to read – can’t think of a better read for the season ahead:
• Tiger of the Snow, by Tenzing Norgay – because the Sherpas are some of the unsung heroes, too.
The Ascent of Everest, by John Hunt – I am still interested in a different point of view, although I am glad I read this one first.
Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson – I have wanted to read it since I watched this gripping documentary, too long ago.

Changing the topic a little, here are a few travel books I am finally getting around to reading:
The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

photos by me

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Keep It Real

Garçon Jon street style photography 
Terry O’Neill said it best in an interview for Mr. Porter: “There’s so much more vanity these days. There wasn’t any room for it back in the 1960s and 1970s. The men I shot, they were all great guys. Fab guys. Naturally stylish, masculine and handsome. None of them particularly enjoyed being photographed, but they put up with it, and they were great at it. Now, they preen and groom and take these selfies and have all these people dressing them. I never bothered with stylists because it got in the way. I like to photograph people as they are. You would never dream of asking Paul Newman to change his clothes for the sake of a picture, would you?” No, you would not.

I do not want to use the word disturbing, but there is something definitely unassuring and unstylish about the men excessively preoccupied by their image and who use their mobile phones for things other than speaking on them, writing emails and reading the news. And, if we are to keep it weather appropriate, I like a man who wears a hat, boots and a substantial wool coat (that doesn’t seem borrowed from a teenage boy) in winter. Just keep it practical, and natural. After all, that’s what we’ve always admired in men and men’s style.

photo: Garçon Jon

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Style in Film: Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams' costumes Nocturnal Animals 

Tom Ford’s second film is strangely seductive, beautifully constructed, and cautiously glamorous

 
A friend of mine once told me that it’s when she’s most impeccably dressed that she is going through the most difficult times. I have never forgotten her words and, as I was watching Nocturnal Animals one evening last week in an almost empty cinema theater, my friend’s words kept ringing through my head. Amy Adams’ character, Susan Morrow, is glamorously dressed, severely buttoned up and incredibly precise throughout the entire film. But it’s not the kind of glamour that you end up aspiring to. At the very most, it’s the kind of glamour you admire from afar as beautiful presentation. It’s almost too perfect. And we all know that perfect does not exist. It makes you feel uneasy, builds up tension, acting like a warning for something very bad that’s about to happen.

Susan is an LA art gallery owner, living the high life. But despite her handsome husband, her immaculately luxurious mansion overlooking the city and her fabulous wardrobe, her whole life is far from idyllic. It soon becomes clear that her clothes are used as a glamorous armour, a façade, a front to mask the turbulence beneath the surface. The film is a cautionary tale about empty wealth and beauty, and about coming to terms with the choices one makes in life. And Susan’s life is thrown into an even deeper emotional turmoil after she receives the novel written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the manuscript over a weekend, the contemporary timeline and the fictional story in the book (having the same Gyllenhaal as main character, Tony Hastings) begin to overlap, unlocking intimate flashes of Susan’s past and her relationship with her ex-husband.

The direction, cinematography, production design and the costumes all come into play to artfully interweave the three different story lines and settings. An acute aesthetic sense is one thing one might have expected from Tom Ford’s second foray into film. But not because the director is Tom Ford, the fashion designer, who has created a singular design aesthetic, a highly stylised and perfectly controlled image and unattainable perfect taste, but because director Tom Ford has the skill to use beautiful visuals to tell a story, even at its darkest.
 
Style in film Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Style in film Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals 
Susan’s sleek tailored – even architectural – clothes, killer heels and somptuous statement jewellery “really help tell the story of her precision, her perfection and her attempt to be presentational at all times, even when her life is falling apart,” costume designer Arianne Phillips was saying in an interview for The Telegraph. Even when she is alone, at night, at home, reading the novel Edward has sent her, she is wearing steely-grey knitwear.

In case you were wondering, Amy Adams’ costumes were not designed by Tom Ford. He did not want to displace the viewer from within the plot by placing his own designs in the film. It’s the right approach and I didn’t expect anything less from Tom Ford, who turned once again to costume designer Arianne Phillips, the one also responsible for the both visually pleasing and highly suggestive wardrobes in Ford’s directorial debut movie, A Single Man.
 
Style in film Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Style in film Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals 
There are a lot of neutrals in Susan’s wardrobe, but for the film’s climax scene, when she attends an important dinner, she is dressed in a green keyhole neckline dress. The dress was designed by Phillips in collaboration with Tom Ford’s design consultant David Bamber.

Green is rarely picked for film costumes. “I am not a fan of the red dress that you see in movies”, Phillips told The Telegraph. Red, however, recurs throughout the film, in different forms, from the blood from Susan’s paper cut when she opens the manuscript, to Tony’s checked shirt and the walls in her office. “We saved a strong colour for the end – this very strong green dress. It’s a public scene and we really wanted a colour that would stand out cinematically. That particular green is flattering to Amy Adams. I love a redhead in green and that was a yellowy chartreuse. It felt right, sometimes there’s an intuitive sensibility to film making.”

The sequence reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the restaurant scene when Madeleine’s green suit stands out against the red wallpapered room, and the viewer is immediately drawn to the character. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan’s green dress, also set against the red walls of the opulent restaurant, seems to serve to awaken the right sense of discomfort and apprehension in the viewer. It can suggest both attraction and the potential for harm. It controls the screen in a way any other colour would have not. Green becomes the symbol of the night – Susan’s ex-husband used to call her a “nocturnal animal” – that eventually affected the lives of all the main characters in the three worlds that make up the film, so skillfully intertwined and all permeated with Susan’s obsession with rampant materialism and haunted by the decisions she once made.
 
Style in film Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Note: This article has also appeared on The Big Picture magazine

photos: film stills |Merrick Morton/Focus Features

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Le jour se lève

Le Jour Se Leve 1939 
I am working on the second part of my all-time favourite films noir, which means I have been revisiting many of the ones I had watched years ago. Viewing Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (Daybreak), 1939, prompted me to write separately about it because I loved it that much, probably more than the first time around.

“You have a sad eye and a joyful eye.” That’s what the woman François (Jean Gabin) falls in love with, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), says to him, comparing him with her plush bear toy of which she thinks the same. The sad eye wins in the end. This is one of the purest and best films noir. François is an uncomplicated man, a factory worker who does not have much expectations of his life (even the unhealthy environment he works in is like a foreshadow of what’s to come), but when he meets flower girl Françoise, an almost idyllic relationship begins. Although Le jour se lève is not just a simple tale of love which goes wrong when jealousy enters the picture (it is also a reflection of the times), it is in the simplicity of the way it’s told that lies the greatness of the film.

The film is incredibly expressive, because so is Jean Gabin’s mere look. François is shown trapped in his room, after committing murder, chain-smoking and spending a sleepless night while recounting, through flashbacks, the events leading up to the fatidic evening. You feel trapped in his destiny, too. The devastating finale, one of the most memorable endings in film history, comes just before daybreak, on the sound of the alarm clock. It’s always darkest just before dawn.

photo: Productions Sigma

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