November Newsletter: Autumn Sea, The Maltese Falcon, and Budding Imagination

 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.
When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with,
but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

 

 

Viewing

The Maltese Falcon
John Huston

We know we are in San Francisco from the very beginning. Setting the mood can very often make or break a film. John Huston sets the mood as soon as The Maltese Falcon opens: dark, night, the most claustrophobic and cinematic of settings, San Francisco. It was his directorial debut. The film that ushered in and set the standard for film noir. The film that would give us the most American of actors, or, as Truffaut said, the “modern hero”. American noir and American film wouldn’t be what they are without Bogart. When you watch Bogart on screen, you see Bogart in action, not a character in play. That’s how immersive his role is, and his roles will continue to be. The soft cigarette, the soft-brimmed fedora and the belted trench coat became his trademark. Perhaps only Alain Delon has made the trench his own the way Bogart did. And I can say for sure that I wear a trench as much as I do because of Bogart and Delon.

The most important part Bogart had played until then was in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, alongside Ida Lupino, after a script by John Huston. Then Huston, hitherto known only as a writer, cast him in his first film after George Raft turned down the role (Raft had also turned down the part in High Sierra). It was a larger-than-life performance and the beginning of a wonderful character, that of Humphrey Bogart. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade. The role seems to have been written for him, but we know it wasn’t, which only means that Humphrey Bogart is the one who made Sam Spade. The rapid fire dialogue would easily be enough to keep your interest up, but there is so much we’d miss out on if we did that. Because so much more happens behind that dialogue. The way he clutches his jaw, how he tilts his fedora, what he does with his hands or the way he raises his eyebrow, it all means something. It’s the language of cinema. John Huston had Dashiell Hammett’s pulp fiction novel typed word for word in screenplay form. And then he translated it into images. There’s something that writer Paul Theroux said that comes to my mind, which I recently read in Nicolas Roeg’s book, The World Is Ever Changing, something Theroux said to Roeg: “You have a genuine love for reading and a liking for writers. John Huston also had it; not many others.” John Huston had that, and a genuinely distinctive love and talent for both writing and filmmaking. A first time director and an unproven actor deliver one of the finest lessons in the art of cinema.

“Walk and talk, talk and walk; that was his job,” François Truffaut wrote in his beautiful essay A Portrait of Humphrey Bogart, from 1958. “As he went along the street, he put his hand on anything it could reach. A fire hydrant, a railing, a kid’s head became so many markers along his route. Bogart adapted to life remarkably well, and grabbed hold of it. He constructed his own character; he learned to punch his ear to express astonishment. You think he’s just polishing his nails on the back of his jacket? Yes, but watch him stretch his arm out and land that sock right on the jaw: ‘Tell that to your boss.’ With Bogart, you had to know to keep your distance. […] Humphrey Bogart was a modern hero. The period film – the historical romance or pirate story – didn’t suit him. He was the starter at the race, the man who had a revolver with only one bullet, the guy in the felt hat that he could flick with a finger to express anger or gaiety, the man at the microphone: Hello! Hello! Calling all cars… If Bogart’s appearance was modern, his morality was classic. He knew that causes are worth less than beautiful deeds, and that every act is pure as long as it goes by the rules.”

Sam Spade upholds his hidden but strong principals, too: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” The way he delivers those lines, towards the very end of the film, and his look when she explains to Brigit O’Shaughnessy why he won’t let the killer of his partner get away (a partner who he may not have thought too much of, a partner whose wife had been carrying an affair with Spade), are such a great departure from the cynical detachment and jokes that he’s accustomed us with that it will take us by surprise. He’s been all along a close observer of the human kind.

The plot in The Maltese Falcon is so intricate that you end up following the characters more than understanding what’s going on. But it doesn’t even matter. It’s the tension, the lighting, the attitude that matter in a noir. The mood. And John Huston got it right from his very first shot. Everything is so bizarre (I wouldn’t have used this word before to describe it, but at the last viewing of the film, from a couple of nights ago, I found it very appropriate, much in the vein of The Big Sleep – but, of course, The Maltese Falcon came first), the characters are so self-centered, the dark streets so many, the offices and hotel rooms so cramped, that you are fully absorbed in this shadowy world where everyone’s interest, and your own, is to see if anyone gets away alive.

This plot of deceit and double-crossings begins when Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) shows up at private eye’s Sam Spade’s office and hires him to rescue her sister from a man named Floyd Thursby. She pays up front, and Spade and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), know something is off, but nothing prepares them for the femme fatale that lurks underneath. Mary Astor (who quickly offers three names and settles on Brigit O’Shaughnessy) is one of most unpredictable and most unlikely femmes fatales in film noir, which is why she is the perfect bait for Sam Spade and his falling into the web of international thieves – Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre, in a role that fit him like a glove) and Casper Guttman (Sidney Greenstreet, at his wonderful debut in film at 61) are the other two – who will kill to get their hands on a little black jewel-encrusted bird statuette, the Maltese falcon, that they had been chasing for years. The futile pursuit of wealth. “You’re good, you’re very good!”, is Spade’s favourite description of O’Shaughnessy several times. “You’re not exactly the kind of girl you pretend to be.” And yet, she hides her character so well under a docile and restrained guise that Spade is smitten when he finally unmasks her. But nothing will prevent him from letting her take the fall. “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

 

Seven Samurai, 1954
Akira Kurosawa

Music and sound were elements Akira Kurosawa considered from the moment he began directing a film. In Seven Samurai, he used different theme music for each main character – the director acknowledged that he had changed his thinking about music in film when he began working with composer Hayasaka Fumio. The characters Kurosawa gives us are unlike any other. Seven samurai who are capable of finding the purest humanity in their violent-prone natures. Kurosawa’s is a revisionist portrayal of the traditional Japanese warrior. His samurai do not suffer from one-sidedness, they are shown in their human strength and weakness. You witness the chaos of battle, but there is no trace of violence for the sake of violence here. And there is no trace of the traditional samurai who has always been depicted as nothing more than an artful swordsman. And yet, the action scenes are so overwhelming and perfectly executed that you wish you could wipe out from the face of cinema all films that have ever used the slightest input of CGI in their making.

In his book, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explained how he used more than one camera to shoot the climactic battle scene, because “it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rainstorm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously.” It was ground-breaking. Kurosawa was obsessed with movement. His camera would follow the actor as he moved, it would stop when he stopped. Kurosawa got closer than ever before to the samurai, physically and emotionally. “There is something that might be called cinematic beauty. It can only be expressed in a film, and it must be present in a film for that film to be a moving work. When it it is very well expressed, one experiences a particularly deep emotion while watching that film. I believe it is this quality that draws people to come and see a film, and that it is the hope of attaining this quality that inspires the filmmaker to make his film in the first place. In other words, I believe that the essence of cinema lies in cinematic beauty.”

Quiet moments have never been more compassionate, battle scenes have never been more dynamic. Seven Samurai is a masterpiece of filmmaking, one that reached a level of meditative depth and cinematic beauty like no other.

 

Way Out West, 1937
James W. Home

I wonder, is there anyone in the world who wouldn’t laugh at seeing Oliver Hardy wrapped in a blanket right up to his belly (he’s naked underneath), being towed by a donkey, with his laundry hanging above him? The road is bumpy and he is grumpy. Stan Laurel is walking by the donkey and he is of course the one responsible for Oliver’s condition. The previous scene from Way Out West, with a slumbering Ollie (this time dressed) being towed by the mule, is one of the funniest entrances of the duo. For the next ten minutes after that first close-up, I laughed so hard that my belly hurt. Then I gave up – some moments were so funny that you didn’t even feel like laughing anymore, if that makes sense. Sometimes I think people have forgotten what is funny. Todd McEwen, a Laurel & Hardy devotee, who got up at 4.30 in the morning as a kid to watch their films, says it best in his book Cary Grant’s Suit: “Disney cartoons aren’t funny. At Disney they wasted all their time and money on capitalism winsomeness.”

A coach ride later, after Stan hitches a ride on a passing coach by doing an impression of Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, showing off his leg (more belly-aching laughs), we witness one of the most joyous moments in any film. The two encounter a singing quartet in front of a saloon and they get caught up in the rhythm of a song. Not only is their dance a perfect comic moment, it simply makes you happy. A good comedy should never be underrated again.

And who else but Oliver Hardy could get away with pulling the audience back from the illusion of watching a film by casting a glance in our direction whenever Stan Laurel does something foolish? It’s a paradox, but it just works. Wouldn’t any other character, in any film, just drive you crazy?

 

Babette’s Feast, 1987
Gabriel Axel

“In Babette’s Feast there’s a minister, but it’s not a film about religion. There’s a general, but it’s not a film about the army. There’s a cook, but it’s not a film about cooking. It’s a fairy tale, and if you try to over-explain it, you destroy it. If you wish, it’s a film about the vagaries of fate and a film about art because Babette is an artist. She creates the greatest masterpiece of her life and gives it to the two old maids. The moment you start to dissect the film it becomes symbolic, and I resist that. It’s the love of her work and her knowledge of it which affects people.” I have written at length about Gabriel Axel’s film in Stéphane Audran, Vermeer and Lagerfeld: The visual richness of Babette’s Feast.

 

 

Reading

For the last few months we have read The Chronicles of Narnia. It was the first time (never too late!) for both me and my son. To say that I am at least as fascinated as my eight year old (I would barely finish one book from the series that he’d be off to read it to his grandparents every chance he got) would be a huge understatement. First, I would like to say that I don’t share the contemporary taste for “proper” stories for children, those so-called practical stories about real life that are abounding nowadays, a type of story that has arisen from the digital age parents’ overprotective nature, out of a wrongly channeled desire to make the world of childhood as comfortable, bright, and cheery a place as it can possibly be. In his book, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, Vigen Guroian writes in the most eloquent and pleasant way about the harm of not reading to children classic fairy tales and stories. Why? Because traditional tales have the ability and gift to make children know and face their own fears and ask questions and try to discover the answers to their questions, about the world, about human kind, about everything. But the gift of these stories is bigger than that. They are filled with a richness and complexity that is often missing from the modern-day children’s books. But, most importantly, they ignite the imagination, they fascinate, they broaden children’s minds. And they reveal, in the most subtle, kind and natural way, so many layers that help children understand human kind and themselves. A child can see both the mystery and truth in such stories. As Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller explained, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.” The Chronicles of Narnia are that kind of books.

I have already mentioned above the book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. I vividly remember a visit of my son’s and mine to a bookshop from a couple of years back, when a mother of a toddler desperately started a conversation with me, asking for advice about children’s books, saying that she found the majority of the books there (the books referred to in my previous paragraph as practical stories about real life) “disastrous”. I agreed. Because her child was still very small, I recommended Peter Rabbit, Ernest e Célestine, Pettson and Findus, and Eric Carle’s books (firm favourites of my son’s when he was that small). But I wish I had Vigen Guroian’s book back then to refer to for books for children who were a little older. I was facing the same dilemma she was, but regarding a six year old. How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination is a valuable book. First of all because it guides us not what to read to our children, but simply to read to our children. Many parents stop reading to their children when children start reading by themselves, which in many cases, means when a child is only at the tender age of six. That, in my opinion, is disastrous. With the talent of a true storyteller, the author opens up the fascinating and powerful world of children’s books (from Narnia, to Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit and many others), which are so important in children’s upbringing and in shaping up their characters.

 

Listening

The podcast: The MUBI Podcast, my favourite film podcast alongside Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking. Hosted by Rico Gagliano, the podcast has run for three seasons so far and it has dived into particular aspects of filmmaking. That and the fact that it is beautifully written and edited (by the same Rico Gagliano) makes it intoxicating to listen to and makes you “go watch some movies”, as Rico ends every episodes. The first season is titled “Lost in Translation” and spotlights movies that were massive cultural phenomena in their home countries, but nowhere else. The second season, “Only in Theaters”, tells surprising stories of individual cinemas that had huge impact on film history and, in some cases, on history in general. And, finally, the third season, named “Needle on the Record”, tells the stories behind some of cinema’s most renowned needle drops – moments when filmmakers deployed pre-existing music instead of an original score.

 

The soundtrack: The Killer, by David Fincher. Needle drops almost exclusively from The Smiths.

 

The album: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, The Cranberries

 

Making

The Wild English Garden Collection by India Hicks and Phenelope Chilvers. At their third collaboration together, India Hicks and Penelope Chilvers have created a capsule collection that features boots inspired by the beautiful winter garden at India’s family home in Oxfordshire. “Designed by her late father, designer David Hicks, it is a calming, wild space where she enjoys taking time to reflect, and these products pay homage to the garden’s rich colours and autumnal essence.” The collection encapsulate the rich palette of an English landscape in autumn, reimagined with India’s unique sense of eye. I love the way India continues to weave her stories – India is not only a born storyteller, but she carries out her own story, as well as her storied heritage, so beautifully – into Penelope’s free vision of making slow fashion, defined by the reputation of the best quality crafted in Spain with great consideration and a design that is beautiful and enduringly elegant.

 

Exploring

Artist and film poster designer Akiko Stehrenberger’s solo show, “Doyrivative”, at The Lodge art gallery, Los Angeles.

With each new film poster, Akiko Stehrenberger seems to be opening the door to imagination even wider, not just for herself as an artist, but for the viewer, too – even movies you know, you come to think of them differently. Each of her poster designs extracts that special quality of the film it represents, is conceived to suit not just the story, but the feel and the mood of the film, creating visual symbols that merge completely with the experience of the film. Because you don’t just watch a film, you experience it. That’s the work of a visionary, who, with an aesthetic that is often strikingly minimalistic, enigmatic yet very precise in encapsulating a powerful frame of mind, has paved the way to less conventional movie poster design, driven by the desire and strengthened by the skill to create poster art that has its own visual identity.

“For me, the style of illustration communicates almost as much as the idea does. This is extremely important in my work and why my work is as versatile as it is. The piece has to feel appropriate for the film rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating. A good movie poster has a simple and clever idea. It also intrigues the viewer enough that they want to see the film in hopes it will answer the questions the poster imposes,” Akiko revealed in our interview.

Yet, Doyrivative dives deeper into Akiko Stehrenberger’s brilliant mind. Her first non movie solo show exhibits mixed media pieces (paintings, sculptures, installations) where the concept determines the materials used. She juggles so many aspects of design and art that I can only think of Akiko Stehrenberger as a 21st century design maverick, or some new kind of Renaissance designer. Doyrivative, The Lodge, Los Angeles, November 2nd – November 25th.

 

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Gone to Timbuktu, Sophy Robert’s podcast on the art of travel. Wachstumsversuche, with Sarah Schill. Sirene, Racquet, and Yolo Journal, all in print.

 


 

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