Whenever the Wind Shifts, Chim Chim Cher-ee

”November” photographic print available in the shop

 
Every once in a while there is a soundtrack song that stays with me long after I’ve watched the film. There are many good film songs, but not all of them have this staying power. I think it has much to do with the time and mood of when you are watching the film. It doesn’t even have to be an original song composed for the movie (I am thinking about the Just Like Honey, by The Jesus and Mary Chain from Lost in Translation), or it may have everything to do with the creation of a very specific and unique music for a film, like Ennio Morricone’s distinctive whistle theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, one of the most instantly recognizable elements in the history of cinema. Or it can be Chim Chim Cher-ee, sung by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964).

My son likes musicals, so one evening last week we watched Mary Poppins. It was the right call even for my sworn-in “Noirvember” evenings, and we all loved it. I loved the feeling that it gave you that Mary Poppins has a secret life, that she’s someone different than her prim appearance. And children love something and someone different, don’t they? They are drawn to her because she is real yet capable of all those magical things, maybe even hinting at something dark underneath. I keep coming back to the words of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.” When all is cheesy and cheeky all the time, how can you know the meaning of magic? That’s why I am so keen on classic fairy tales for children, where they can see both mystery and truth, good and bad, on exposing them to a world of fantasy through books and films. And I also believe they have to discover these worlds when they are young enough to still have that sense of wonder intact.

As for the song Chim Chim Cher-ee (just listen to it), there is a mystery to those lyrics and sounds evoking a much darker and introspective lore than what first meets the ear and watching the film this time of year infuses the film with an even much more eerie feeling. I have been playing the song to my son several times a day since we watched the film and we both sit in silence as we listen, each keeping one’s thoughts to oneself, each trying to conspiringly hide the twinkle in our eyes. I swear I won’t be surprised if on one of our daily forest walks we see Mary Poppins stepping down from the sky when we sense a shift of wind. Just as I wouldn’t be surprised if I stumbled upon Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. And come December, I am sure we will find new meaning to Chim Chim Cher-ee.
 

Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins”, 1964 | Walt Disney

 
 

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Deceit Is in the Details: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity”, 1944 | Paramount Pictures

 
“The living room was still stuffy from last night’s cigars. The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the Venetian blinds showed up a dust in the air.”

The only time when Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff is shown in broad daylight in Double Indemnity is when the flashback begins, right before he meets Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson. From then on, daylight only makes itself present through streaks of sunshine that come into interiors through the blinds of the windows which are more likely to suggest his being trapped in his own destiny rather than reveal the time of day. There is no escape for him. It’s a feeling that follows him around at all times, a sense of darkness that takes hold of him, even if he is trying to keep it at bay with his cynicism and black humour. His apartment is rendered cold and strange, the Dietrichson mansion is menacing, stifling and shadowy, the office usually appears deserted, just a place where one can make a buck and take a shot at living, the phone booths and other urban spaces are dark, like unmendable gaps in the urban grid.

In a genre that presented a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life had low values and an even lower running time, a world where love is hardly ever spoken or felt, being replaced by obsession and fatal desires, a world of danger, vice, loneliness and fatalism, a world that meets the death of the American dream, Double Indemnity may be the darkest, most bitterly disillusioned and sinister film noir of them all. “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder’”, Alfred Hitchcock would say.

Double Indemnity revealed a groundbreaking, raw sense of bleak postwar urban reality, riddled with anxieties and rotten morality that weaved through the American society. “We had to be very realistic…,” Wilder confessed. “You had to believe the situation and the characters… Double Indemnity was based on the principles of M… I tried for a very realistic picture… that looked like a newsreel. You never realized it was staged. But like a newsreel, you look to grab the moment of truth, and exploit it.”

Our anti-hero is cynical, tough and filled with greed. All his flaws surface when he is led astray by a desperate and dangerous dame who is plotting to murder and cash in the insurance after her husband’s death. He comes late to his senses, but only because betrayal is so sudden and striking. Phyllis has no sense of morality. She is rotten to the core.

When she first enters the scene, there is nothing much that she wears besides her bathrobe. But that little else, rings of gold and an anklet, is more than enough to paint us a clear picture. From the very beginning, accessories speak more about the character of Phyllis Dietrichson than her costumes. Because the clothes are smartly downplayed so that we keep guessing about the character. This time, it is not the costumes that trigger the exaggeration of femininity and artificiality, one of the defining elements of the femme fatale, but the finishing touches of her look. The oversized stone ring hints at the idea that she is onto a bigger life for herself. The anklet she wears is used to imply the male desire over and over again, emphasized by Neff’s constant, obsessive recollection of the anklet in his flashbacks, as a way to pass the Production Code’s censorship regulations: “I kept thinking about Mrs Dietrichson and the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg.”

For their secret rendezvous at the supermarket, she is wearing everyday outfits, plain and masculine, be it a tweed vest, white shirt and straight-cut black skirt or a white blouse and tailored trousers with a high, belted waist, as if desperately trying to fit in the middle-class neighbourhood life. But everything else about her, from her platinum blonde hair and perfectly rolled fringe, to using bold lipstick that somehow cuts through the black and white of the screen and dark sunglasses, says otherwise. She doesn’t want to fit in. It is a desperate call that she is trapped in a suburban hell. The sunglasses, worn inside the supermarket, are a clear yet contradictory disguise – people didn’t wear sunglasses in films in the 1940s, unless for a cover-up. And it is not the police or the insurance company that Phyllis is trying to shield away from, it’s not even us, the viewers, because we have already been let in on the plotting. It’s the ordinary people, the likes of those in the supermarket. It’s them who can be more menacing than the police. Our two protagonists are ordinary citizens, too, an insurance salesman and a housewife who stop at nothing to escape middle-class angst. It’s exactly this idea, that there is something rotten in each and every one of us, that is so shocking about Double Indemnity.

When we see Phyllis Dietrichson with those dark sunglasses on, we realise she might just as well have worn them the whole time. Because her eyes never flinch. It’s just a dark void behind them. Barbara Stanwyck is the archetypal femme fatale, just as Double Indemnity is the archetypal film noir.
 
 

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It’s Time to Be Better Listeners


 
We’ve all been there. Getting together with friends and friends of the friends, starting to tell a story, it may be from your latest travels, and then be constantly interrupted by someone else who must tell their own story first and faster. Even if something bad happened to you in the said travel story, you are still interrupted because they had experienced something much worse and they must tell it first.

I have always appreciated a good listener, even more than a good storyteller. A good listener always has time for you. You know he/she will listen to you and will give your storytelling the importance, patience and time that it deserves. And if you know how to listen, your future travels, too, will be wiser and more interesting. Because, as photographer Frederique Peckelsen says in our latest interview, “one thing I have learned though is that there is no need to travel just for the sake of it. Sometimes I felt that I had been home long enough and it was time to just go somewhere. Those journeys would never really impact me, because they might have been initiated out of boredom, instead of real interest in a place. I rather have a place coming to me through a photo that sparks a fascination or an article about the history of a place or even an old illustrations book from a certain area than me just picking a place to go to just because I want to leave.”

There are things I have missed since March and things that I haven’t. One thing I haven’t missed is having to put up with someone who needs to be the center of attention all the time. I know now who is willing to listen first. And when they in turn have a story to tell, I will be the first one affording it all my attention.

That’s the beauty about books. You always have the freedom of choosing the books you read. And only the worthy will get your undivided mindfulness until the end. A good travel book will require all your attention and interest, but it will also offer you room to dream, courage to take a leap of faith, power to transport you, the impulse for change. Maybe from now on we’ll be more selective with the stories we choose to listen to so that the experience feels just as enriching as when reading a good travel book.

Beryl Markham and Martha Gellhorn were both reluctant in telling their stories. That’s the first thing that made me interested in their books, the introduction to Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night, being written by Martha Gellhorn herself. Both unconventional, brave, contradictory. Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator, who recklessly pursued her life and freedom with a child-like curiosity – “I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.” Martha Gellhorn, novelist, journalist, war correspondent and great traveller, although she called herself an amateur traveller, who gathered the best disaster stories from her lifelong peregrinations in what came closest to a memoir that she ever wrote, Travels with Myself and Another – “Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.”

It’s time to take time to listen better, read more and sort ourselves out.
 
 

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Life and Travel Now, with Photographer Frederique Peckelsen

”Swart”. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen, Iceland.

 

Autumn is usually the time when life slows down. The clocks are literally turned back, and time, instead of racing by, seems to turn on a new mechanism, marked by the changing leaves. But this change in rhythm and pattern was felt very early on this year, back in March. As the first flower buds flickered to life and turned their faces to the sun, lockdowns descended on the whole world.

Travel came to a halt. People halted, too, sheltered in place and reflected. Then we once again sought refuge in nature and discovered that we could find beauty in the blackest of times. We started to cherish familiar territory and learned that travel doesn’t have to be about the destination, or not even about the journey, but about a fresh perspective on things. Travel is always about a leap of faith. For now, we have to put our faith in the vastness of our imagination, in the solace and beauty of our close surroundings, in the joy of rediscovering our own countries and in the flighting power of watching a sunrise from the peak of our own mountains. It is now that we can set the pattern for the future.

I have asked photographers and travel writers to join me this autumn and share with us their thoughts on life and travel during these exceptional times we are living. Today, my guest is photographer and visual storyteller Frederique Peckelsen. Her photographs feed my imagination the way the stories and fantasy tales from my childhood did. All those books of adventure that feed a child’s restless spirit, curious mind and fearless dreams. Frederique’s photography makes me see our world as a young world with barren skies, which will reveal itself only to those who truly believe.
 

”Some Forgotten Land”. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen, Tibet.

 

What are the positives you have taken away from lockdown?

For quite a long time, it felt like the earth was trying to tell us something, but we were all too busy living our lives. I think it was clear that change was inevitable. In this case, a forced and in a way unwelcome change – because it was so sudden and so intense. But the earth, and we, can finally breathe a little. Nature can restore, animals can swim, fly and walk where they used to go, and we humans, we have to reflect. It’s like all our lives are in winter season, but for almost a year now. We’re taking a step back and rethink, reflect and take time again. Also, because we are stuck at home, we are forced to look around us, and not look beyond. My eyes were always beyond the horizon, but never on my own heritage and culture. I rediscovered the richness of my own past and the nature around me.

What helped you escape during that time?

Doing research on old folk customs, learning about cultures and their history – not through physical travel but through books, films, internet and conversation. It’s more a travel of the mind in that sense. It gave me so much new inspiration and made me feel creative.

I have also been walking with my dogs in the forest a lot and spending time with my family as I moved back home with my parents for a while. They have an old farm in the woods, with a beautiful garden. I discovered I really like tending the garden! This lockdown also gave me the incentive to reflect on my own work and path in life. Because time seems to be standing still, I can rebuild parts of my mind that needed tending too, just like the garden.

Oh, and finding amazing new artists on instagram has also opened up a whole new world. The internet can be such a magical platform full of creativity and beauty that can be very inspiring and healing.

We have all more or less taken travel for granted. How do you think travel will change from now on?

Travelling has always felt like something big, in a way I can’t quite explain. Maybe because it has always touched and impacted me, whenever I went on a long or far away journey.
One thing I have learned though is that there is no need to travel just for the sake of it. Sometimes I felt that I had been home long enough and it was time to just go somewhere. Those journeys would never really impact me, because they might have been initiated out of boredom, instead of real interest in a place. I rather have a place coming to me through a photo that sparks a fascination or an article about the history of a place or even an old illustrations book from a certain area than me just picking a place to go to just because I want to leave. I think that fascination is a vital part of the journey for it to be meaningful. I’m intrigued by our world’s nature, our different religions, traditional clothes and its symbolism and can read about it for weeks or months prior to a journey.

I realise that a lot of people think that travel will be more locally, now that people rediscovered their own surroundings. But I think it might also have the opposite effect. It could mean that people rather travel to a special place every few years, instead of flying to a different country not too far away every month. I do think people will rethink the way they travel, and hopefully the way of how to get to the destination. But to be honest, I’m not quite sure if they will.

What is the first place you have travelled to after sheltering in place, or where will you first travel to after all this time, and which are the things you are taking into consideration before you do?

I haven’t done any real travels yet. I tried to stay as locally as possible, which has also shown a lot of beauty in its own way. If the situation allows for travel again, I would love to go somewhere in Eastern Europe, to see Greenland and revisit Central Asia, China and Mongolia. I do believe I have to ask myself before every travel why I feel I have to go, and will only allow myself if the answer is worth the cost. Not money-wise per se, but more so in terms of the environment and climate. Especially travelling by plane doesn’t do our planet any good, even though I believe it enriches us as human beings. But if I want my children and their children to come to enjoy the same things I have seen, I have to be honest with myself and be critical about the things I do and the future travels.

Are people creatures of place? Is travel essential?

I do think we are creatures of place. Most of us are very attached to the place we build a lot of memories. But I also think, in order to really appreciate this, we need to leave that place sometimes. And on the other hand, travel not only makes us appreciate our own surroundings because we can put things into perspective, but travel also very much enriches us. It broadens our minds and understanding of life. If you’ve been in a place for too long, you might not see the beauty of it anymore because you’ve gotten so used to it. There is magic in seeing everything like you’ve seen it for the first time. It makes you realise how beautiful our world is. I like the feeling of being in awe. In that sense, travelling is a little like falling in love.

But if there was a place you never wanted to leave, which one would that be?

I guess it would be either Scotland or Iceland or Georgia (country). All three places feel so wild and ever inspiring. It feels like you would never stop exploring and finding – all for their very own reason.

 

”Swart”. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen, Iceland.

 

Website: frederiquepeckelsen.com | Instagram: @frederiqueloressa

 

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Bonnie Lee and the Leather Jacket Flying Men in Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 

They are men who are staring down death as they are flying dangerous missions over treacherous mountain terrain, come rain, shine or fog. The short landing strips are no less hazardous. They have poor navigational equipment and makeshift planes, but they are hard-shelled and have an unconquerable spirit. It’s an electrifying, fast-paced, past-the-edge-of-yourself world, one of Howard Hawks’ fantasy worlds, a place for world-weary romanticism, borderline cynicism and crazy courage. Hawks was an aviation enthusiast, a born storyteller and an “invisible director”, François Truffaut described him, because his “camera work is never apparent to the eye”. Seldom have I seen this abundance of life effervescence, verbal sparring and sense of fleeting existence better depicted on screen.

“One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction,“ pioneering aviator Beryl Markham wrote in her book West with the Night, recounting the early frontier of flying at just the same time the story in the film takes place.

This is one such story, from the days of the pioneering aviators. These daredevil pilots in Only Angels Have Wings seem to have forgotten everything but how to fly. They live up in the air, they don’t have a home and whenever they are not in the air they get by at Dutch’s – restaurant, bar, hotel and airmail company headquarters all in one. Some survive the missions, some don’t. But not because they are bad pilots, but because they dare to go where nobody else has. “If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work,” to paraphrase Beryl Markham again. The ones who survive have to forget easily, usually washed away with a round of celebratory drinks, because that’s the world they live in. The soundtrack is missing in Only Angels Have Wings. It’s just source music and the sound of the airplanes. “Live for today” is what they believe in. They also believe in one another. There are not many words among them, they trust and respect one another and the only thing they need to know before making one their own is if “he is any good”. And all they need to know to distrust someone is if he bails out on another colleague to save his own neck. They are defined by their professionalism. They do the job nobody else would.

It’s a man’s own land, “a tribute to man”, Truffaut would call Hawks’ adventure films. A world we are familiar with in his movies. But in his world, women are always welcome. They are strong-willed and ready to stand up to the hard-boiled men they fall in love with.
 

Richard Barthelmess in “Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 

There is something else that unites these buddying flyers. A code of dressing. They all wear leather flight jackets. It’s bomber jackets (the A-1 or A-2 jackets) – the style that became popular under the name of bomber jacket even though its use was not restricted to bomber crews – or variations thereof (some are lapel-collared, zipped-up, waist-long but with no knitted arm, collar or waistband, and no pockets, others are straight-cut, thigh-long and button-fastened, with side pockets). Howard Hawks was very particular about every detail in his films, costumes included. He was also a pilot himself and a director not at his first film about aviation (Ceiling Zero, 1936, with James Cagney in the main role, was another story about airmail pilots battling bad weather). He sought to give his characters credibility, as tough guys and pilots, so he naturally turned to the flyer’s jacket, steeped in utility and heroism.

It’s Cary Grant and one other character who wear button-fastening bomber jackets. I initially took it for an A-1 jacket, but while doing research for this article, I came across this piece on BAMF Style, that goes into such great sartorial detail, and found out it is in fact a variant of the style, the 37J1, which retains much of the cut and structure of the A-1, but has raised pockets as the most obvious differentiation. Cary’s jacket also has a left breast logo and a drawing on the back, recalling to mind the official service attire. The first airmail pilots were usually war pilots looking for a job they were good at and about the only ones willing to take on the dangerous job of airmail pilot, film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt explain, in a time when the rules of aviation were just being learned. Cary’s leather jacket may suggest his character was a World War I pilot himself. “The rear of a flyer’s jacket was an ideal spot for recoding his tours of duty,” Josh Sims notes in his book Icons of Men’s Style.
 

Cary Grant and Thomas Mitchell in “Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

“Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 
The characters in Only Angels Have Wings were based on a group of pilots Howard Hawks had briefly met in Mexico while scouting locations for Viva Villa!, 1934. ”Collectively and individually they were the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidental drinking, stunting, smuggling – each man’s existence almost a story in itself.” He wanted to use “the background of this group of men and their spirit” as starting point. But, as Todd McCarthy notes in his book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, the main source of inspiration may have been a short story called Plane Number Four by screen writer and former magazine feature writer Anne Wigton.

The leader of the group Hawks had met in real life was Tex, and he was to be the main character in the film. “You could only guess at his history, because he didn’t talk much even when drinking – and that was most of the time. […] He ran the outfit the only way it could be run – by complete domination – what he said went and everybody knew he‘d do twice anything he asked to have done,” Hawks said about his leading man inspiration. In the film, he takes the name of Geoff Carter, and is played by Cary Grant, found here at his chilliest, toughest side. Carter is the most daredevil of them all. He is the boss of the freight company and the chief pilot. He was in love once, but he found out that women and flying don’t match, so he hasn’t put his trust in any other woman since.
 

“Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 
The Hawksian woman is just as much part of Hawks’ universe as his tough men are. “Just before I met him, Tex had married Bonnie – they were a great pair. She was blonde, pretty, full of life and a great sense of humour… Outwardly unlike Tex, she was strangely like him otherwise. She loved flying as much as he did, not just the riding around but the strange love for the air that men had. Bonnie had been married before to one of the other pilots. He had been killed and she had drifted and knocked around until meeting Tex.”

Bonnie Lee: “That’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” (when she first sees one of the planes taking off).

Geoff Carter: “Yeah, right, it’s reminded you of a big bird.”

Bonnie Lee: “No, it didn’t. It’s really a flying human being.”

She seems to get it. What Beryl Markham said.
 

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 
Geoff Carter’s woman is played by Jean Arthur. According to the book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood and the sources stated there, Hawks was not content with Jean Arthur. She was one of Columbia’s top female stars and featuring her was the deal if he wanted to retain control over the production. “She was simply too wholesome, irrepressibly upbeat, and unironical to fit comfortably into Hawks’ world. She was not adept at improvising with the quicksilver Grant, and when Hawks would try to direct her to act in a sexy, subtly immersing way that he liked, she simply refused saying “I can’t do that kind of stuff”.

I’m not quite sure I agree. Bonnie Lee immediately fits in. In the fictional town of Baranca (which was actually built, so incredibly realistically, in Los Angeles, at the Columbia Ranch), in the story, in the men’s world she finds there. Bonnie Lee is a travelling entertainer who gets more than what she was expecting when she stops in the South American trading port. She is blonde, pretty, spirited, charming, good-humoured and a team player from the very beginning. In one of the first sequences in the film, when Bonnie Lee takes a seat at the table with the two pilots she had just met and they take off their hats, she takes hers off as well, although the etiquette didn’t dictate it. But take it off she does, ready to hold her drinks.
 

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth in “Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 
“Howard Hawks was one of the first directors to show women as self-confident in a male group, even sexually aggressive,” Elsa Martinelli, the leading female character in Hawks’ Hatari!, where men and women share spaces, professions, friendships, and safari clothes, said in an interview for Cinema Retro magazine. In her houndstooth wool skirt suit, Jean Arthur foreshadows the ultimate Hawksian woman, Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, whose costume would in turn be inspired by Hawks’ wife, “Slim”. Actually, Jean Arthur’s suit, with its straight cut and coupled with a timeless, buttoned-up white shirt looks much more modern and menslike utilitarian than Bacall’s peplum jacket suit.

Bacall would be a revelation in 1944, paying opposite Humphrey Bogart at her debut role, as she showed that she could crack wise with Bogie, measure up to his personality and be even “a little more insolent than he was”, in Hawks’ words. The sexual spark between Bogart and Bacall may be missing here, but by no means does Arthur lack allure and verbal wit, and she is certainly paired convincingly with the men. And if we have any doubt she is a trailblazer, we shouldn’t when we see her sporting wide-legged trousers and loose-fitting shirt a little further down the plot, just about when she eavesdrops on Carter when he has a visit from that one particular woman from his past. Twenty-year-old starlet Rita Hayworth is in the part of Judy MacPherson, now the wife of another pilot. Hayworth’s tremendous sexual appeal is already palpable and it makes me even more surprised about Hawks’ remark regarding his discontent with Jean Arthur’s performance. Surely, he wasn’t looking to duplicate the woman from Carter’s past. The one who would ultimately turn Carter again towards women would have to be different. Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee is different. She is not some star-struck lady in waiting, she is more likely willing to be part of the men’s activities, of their world. She is part of the action.
 

“Only Angels Have Wings”, 1939 | Columbia Pictures

 
editorial sources: Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy; The Films in My Life, by François Truffaut; West with the Night, by Beryl Markham; Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies feature with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, available on the Criterion Collection blu-Ray edition; Icons of Men’s Style, by Josh Sims; BAMFstyle.com
 
 

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