June Newsletter: On Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Film and Childhood Summers


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

“There was life everywhere, mysterious and energetic.
In time I came to cherish our surroundings.
We led our Peter Pan existence –
Bambi my spirit dog with the deep sad eyes.”

Patti Smith, Woolgathering

 
Summer is here. Are the engineered entertainment machines that we now call movies back, too? I am eager to go back to cinemas, but I hate the feeling of picking it up from where we left off. Stories told over and over again in prequels, sequels and franchises. I’m thinking I must choose wisely in order to make the best of returning to movie going. To mark the moment. To feel that something has changed for the better. Maybe I am too much of an idealist in thinking that we all have learned something from these past fifteen months, in hoping for even a small change in the way we see and do things. And when it comes to movies, I realise I may be dreaming too big. My first experience returning to cinema would be an open air cinema, where I could watch a classic, a return to form, to the magic of cinema. It would be the right place, small yet big enough for people to join and dream together and laugh together and be awed together, with their eyes “upwards, into the horizon, with perspective”, as Maialen Beloki, the deputy director of the San Sebastián Film Festival, beautifully expressed it in our conversation last year. The collective imagination is more likely to be born out of a moment carefully building tension, out of the quiet moments of a film than out of the noise and constant distraction of blockbusters. In his book, My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir recounts how his father believed that the empty spaces in a painting were as filled with life as the parts crammed with matter, and continues to express his own beliefs that “a pause in music can be as resonant as a fanfare by a dozen military bands”.

Remember those childhood summers, Generation X? When there was so much play, but also so much time to dream away, to be in your own world? A long country road would put your own imagination in motion, the dirt path stretching ahead paved with ideas. The surroundings and the books you read would weave their stories together. And again I am thinking of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and those of Satyajit Ray, too, when there are moments when nothing seems to happen, moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, leaving time to breath, but feeding the imagination, too.

In the same conversation about the experience of movie going mentioned before, Alessandro de Rosa, film music composer and author of the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, recounted one of his experiences, from San Francisco: “While walking around and exploring the city, I ended up in the Union Square area. It was a relatively cold and windy night, and from far I thought I heard a music I knew, a beautiful song sung by Bing Crosby. When I finally turned the corner and got to the square, totally unexpectedly for me I saw a lot of people gathered in the middle of the square around a big screen on which they were projecting Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. The audience was so varied: children, elderly and young people, families, homeless, all watching this masterpiece together. I described this unique moment in the last novel I wrote with my brother: “The guitar which survived the desert” (“La chitarra sopravvissuta al deserto”, yet to be translated in English). That unity, in spite of differences and distances… that night I seemed to see a photograph of the United States of America.”

This is it about cinema. It brings people together. But I also feel that the world is becoming so preoccupied with catching up speed again, too fast. Like the fleeting exhilaration (for whoever feels that) of a summer blockbuster. I would rather ride on summer’s quiet moments that can take you higher and further away long after the special effects have stopped. I wish I could find some of them at the movies, at a special summer gathering, at a cinema as a nature film set of sorts.
 

 
Viewing

After young Mary is orphaned by an earthquake in India, she is sent back to England to live in her uncle’s castle. Soon, she discovers some dark secrets emerging from the castle wrapped in fog, but a beautiful garden, too, and sets out to explore its own secrets. The Secret Garden (1993), directed by Agnieszka Holland and adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book by the same name, has both beauty and darkness in it, which I think is enriching for a child and everyone watching. And, most of all, I love the character of Mary Lennox (played with such feeling by Kate Maberly), how genuine she is. Rarely is a child depicted on screen as innately having both good parts and bad parts (which I think is very true with every child, as with every individual) and it’s beautiful how the story, and the film, charters this character, not by taming her, but by letting her shine in her own time.

There is an American patina and texture in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), but it is so offbeat and deadpan funny and perfectly minimalist that you sense that the drive behind it was a desire to express things independently and as freely as possible. It is a movie and a road movie with a narrative so unconstricted that it allows the viewer incredible freedom of interpretation. It has that “make-it-in-the-garage” aesthetic, as Jarmusch himself described the filmmaking and musical scene of the late 70s-early 80s, that was not about “trying to be famous or have a career, or be a virtuoso, or be flashy”, but about “having real emotional feelings that you expressed through whatever form” (and this is why I love the 80s so much). Stranger Than Paradise is filmmaking in the most raw and free and genuine form.

Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) is formed of three parts, three different stories, three people of different backgrounds who experience pleasure in different ways – an old man who wears a mask of youth in the first, a man’s lust transformed into life devotion in the third. It is the second part however, La Maison Tellier, I loved the most because, quite frankly, it reminded me of Jean Renoir. Julia Tellier, who owns a small-town brothel in the city, takes her girls on an outing to her brother’s village to attend the First Communion of her niece. Their loyal clients are taken aback when they discover the brothel is closed, the villagers are taken aback by the presence of the girls, the girls are moved to tears by the ceremony, and Julia’s brother, Joseph, played by Jean Gabin (who so beautifully gets his greatest effects with the smallest means, as Renoir remarked), becomes infatuated with Madame Rosa (Danielle Darieux), one of the girls. Everything is as funny as it sounds, and Joseph’s amorous intrigue seems to be his only object in life, but there is a realism behind this ludic spirit that is subtly felt. The shot towards the end of this second part, when Joseph stops his carriage on the way to the train station so that the girls can pick up flowers from the field seems depicted from a Renoir-the father painting.

I could watch Jeff Bridges (a former shock DJ who has a breakdown after an incident caused by an unstable caller) and Robin Williams (a former professor who lives in a world of his own creation to insulate himself from a tragedy in his past) over and over again in The Fisher King (1991). But the surprise for me was Mercedes Ruehl in the role of Anne. She is right there besides them. One of the great, memorable, completely natural comedic roles.

I hardly ever like the endings in romantic comedies (I hardly ever watch romantic comedies in fact). But there is The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), with Jeff Bridges and Barbara Streisand, and its ending, when the credits are already rolling. I love that sense you get that a great love story is about to begin. You don’t think that you’ve just watched a great love story throughout the film, you in turn imagine what’s about to come, that the most beautiful part is just beginning, and I won’t admit this often, but I think it’s wonderful to be left with that feeling of hope, and wondering, and happiness smeared all over your face.

In Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy (Marius, Fanny, and César), Marius and César (Raimu), his father, own a bar on the harbour front of Marseille. Marius is in love with a local girl, Fanny, whom he seems destined to marry, but can not overcome his urge for the unknown that the sea holds for him. Everyone’s life changes with Marius’ leaving and it’s beautiful how Pagnol presents us throughout the three movies the different destinies that life has in store for each of them. The atmosphere of old Marseille, the typical south of France culture, the way people talked and interacted. These films are fundamentally French yet incredibly universal. “Not only did he restrict himself geographically, like Bergman,” Jean Renoir wrote about Pagnol, “but he did so also in the historical sense. His company, Les Films Marcel Pagnol, operated like a medieval workshop. While I was working on my film Toni, I saw him constantly. He used my Vieux Colombier electrical equipment. He collected technicians, actors and workpeople in his country house like a fifteenth-century master-carpenter.”

That pastoral holiday cottage house in the Provence hills in Le château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle, 1990)… I am not usually one who looks for escapism in movies, but I loved the effect this film, based on Marcel Pagnol’s childhood recollections, had on me, as I drifted to another time and place, as if joining my mind elsewhere.
 

 
Reading

Patti Smith’s writing somehow reminds me of the characters in Yasujirō Ozu’s films. But in saying that, I don’t want to take away anything from the uniqueness of her writing. On the contrary. There is something so nobly quiet about her. It seems that hardly anything is allowed to interfere with her interior life and art, and this lack of artifice, her pared-down way of being is what draws you into her story and reasoning and feeling, into understanding the soothing nature of life, despite whatever may come its way. If you read Patti Smith, try to read it uninterrupted. I usually do, because I don’t want to interrupt that beautiful, natural flow of the narration, floating between present and past. She’s living so many lives in her writing, and it just fills “the reader with a vague and curious joy,” as she hoped she would when she wrote Woolgathering, as she confessed in the preface to the book. “The air was carnival, responsive. I opened the screen door and stepped out. I could feel the grass crackle. I could feel life – a burning coal tossed on a valentine of hay. I covered my head. I would gladly have covered my arms, face. I stood and watched the children at play and something in the atmosphere – the filtered light, the scent of things – carried me back…”

I am an admirer of Sylvie Lancrenon’s photography and I am happy she has published a book, Ombres et lumières – in a time when everyone seems to be releasing a book, whether they have something to say or not, I long for books telling the story of truly deserving artists. “I love natural light from dawn to dusk,” she told Elle France in an interview discussing her book. “I hate flash, heavy makeup, touch-ups that take away the magic. I seek the soul of those I photograph, the moment of abandonment. It’s just a fleeting moment, a look that suddenly is given to me and must be caught.”

I had only watched the film. Now I have finally read Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast. It’s the storytelling and the writer’s imagination (the story is much darker than the film, as I thought it would be) that grabbed me. Allie Fox is such a vivid creation as the man who uproots his family from the US for a deluded utopian mission in Central America that it’s both unnerving and fascinating. It’s just as unnerving and fascinating for his son, Charlie, whom River Phoenix so flawlessly brought to life on the screen.

In April, Paul Theroux’s new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, was published and he was interviewed by Penguin Publishing House. He mentions Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (mentioned above) as the first book remembers loving as a child. When asked what his favourite book is, he answers: “For all sorts of reasons, I would have to say The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. […] The writing of this book is just magnificent. But your question is a cruel one.”

In commemoration of 100 years since the birth of Satyajit Ray, two new books of his are being released this year. Another Dozen Stories is a collection of 12 stories for children. Actress Sharmila Tagore has penned the foreword of the upcoming book: “It is such a joy to be able to revisit some of Manik-da’s most memorable works in this genre. The stories translated by Indrani Majumdar highlight everything we have come to love and admire about Manik-da’s multifaceted creativity. It’s all here—the element of the unexpected, a hint of the supernatural, a whiff of the macabre with a generous measure of humour. This is a collection that makes me want to curl up in my bed with a pleasurable anticipation and let my imagination soar to the power of these timeless tales. This is a befitting tribute to the master on his 100th anniversary.”
 
 
Listening

Brian Johnson of AC/DC interviews musicians for his interview series Life On the Road, and a little while back he met up with Dave Grohl. Will you look at Dave’s look on his face at the beginning when Brian Johnson arrives in his van? Great recollections, great musicians, great fun.
 
 
The playlist*


 
 
Making

Sometimes, often times, it takes a new comer to clearly see the uniqueness of a place and the dormant values of a community. That is what happened when a couple, sculptor Virgil Scripcariu and art historian Adriana Scripcariu, moved to a little village fifteen years ago. In Piscu, a village about 35 km from Bucharest, they found a community of potters. Romania is a country packed with peerless craftsmanship, and this village has been making pottery, functional, simply adorned vessels and plates, for generations (one of the most valuable piece in the museum’s collection is a traditional wedding pitcher that one of the elders of the village donated to the museum a couple of years ago), even if today there are only two potters in the village still honing their craft. Despite their tradition, the village had a low name recognition, and that’s why the founders wanted to bring it the appreciation it deserved.

The Piscu School museum (images 2 and 6 in this article) wants to connect children (and adults alike) with the local cultural heritage, with its beauty and historical relevance, and to be an inspiration to all those who wish to gain a fascinating glimpse into the riches of the Romanian cultural heritage and become acquainted with its values. The museum gathers ceramics from all over the country, but its emphasis is on celebrating the place and community where it was born – imbued with the natural warmth of wood, the building itself was projected to fit in harmoniously with the surroundings and celebrate its landscape. Workshops, summer schools, exhibitions and online courses are regularly organised, and a heritage specialist school, Agatonia Elementary School, is how an important part of the community. It combines traditional and non-traditional teaching, classic methods and play, encouraging a great sense of freedom and curiosity.
 
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin (he has recently interviewed Hans Zimmer). Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.

*Note: As Alicia Kennedy writes in her latest newsletter, “I’m also aware that Spotify is terrible, which is why I purchase albums, concert tickets, and merchandise as much as possible to support the artists I love”. These are songs I gather from the vinyls, from the CDs, and from the soundtracks of the films in my library. I hope you opt for the whole, immersing experience of listening an album on the turntable and watch a film uninterrupted on a big screen or at least in the player at home on a big enough screen.
 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on June Newsletter: On Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Film and Childhood Summers

Daily Little Rituals and Their Lasting Beauty: SAYA Designs


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

In this world of fast, SAYA’s regard for detail and wellbeing and nature inspires us to go slow. The story of SAYA Designs started from the desire to make something unique yet functional, something creative yet supporting a bigger cause. A beauty brand that works with nature, based on the idea of interfering as little as possible and, by taking the time to observe, learn and listen, letting nature give us what works well for us.
 

 
Born in Indonesia, a place that founder Victoria Jones chose because of the environment, sense of community and business mindset, SAYA is fundamentally part of its surroundings. From bearing an Indonesian name (SAYA means ‘I’ or ‘my’ depending on your turn of phrase, Victoria told me), to having its hair accessories carved by hand by artisans of Bali from root wood salvaged from abandoned plantations and using as design inspiration the forms and rhythm of nature, reflecting the flora of the region, sustainability is built into the SAYA culture. But the result is more than responsible design and natural beauty, it’s an ode to local nature and culture, and to yourself and your wellbeing.

A respectful exchange, a communion with nature is at the core, an ethos that is carried on throughout their entire range of products, from the organic hair oils, to the wooden hair brushes. Wooden combs and accessories help to reduce anti static, breakage and damage to hair, unlike plastic and metal, and the porous nature of wood absorbs and redistributes your natural oils and maintains healthy hair continuously through your wash cycle. The hair oils are made with 100% certified organic ingredients. A beauty product made with natural ingredients has personality and life in it, and is, in turn, deeply nourishing and moisturising for your hair and skin. And even the box packaging is fully recyclable, handmade from papaya fruit pulp and vegetable inks, which, once used, can be placed in the food compost. Everything in SAYA’s making and aesthetic makes you feel good about yourself and the planet.
 

 
Of the many lessons we’ve learned this past year, one that hit home for many was that too many things still lacked ease and casualness, which made us yearn for a spirit of familiarity that was more personal and comforting. The SAYA products, functional and organic, that can be used daily and feel relevant in the long run, echo that spirit, leaning toward nature’s endless care and one’s renewed need to remain authentic.

To be beautiful means to be yourself. Being with your family, being in nature, feeling the sea breeze in your face that quietly whispers summer stories of play and adventure… that’s when you are feeling beautiful in a natural way, that’s when you radiate kindness and beauty from within. The way one experiences SAYA Designs is a connection with oneself. Self-care is the purest form of beauty and it must be practiced daily. Each SAYA product seems designed around a little daily ritual – accentuating what you love about yourself while unapologetically prioritising looking after your skin and hair in a nurturing and caressing way – that brings you closer to your inner self and your body. It feels soothing and calming, just like the soft blend of chamomile and lavender hues, grounded by the cedar wood base in the soothing hair oil, feels in your hair not just on a perfect day, but on any given day.
 

 

sayadesigns.com | Instagram: @saya_designs
 
 

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Wonderful Sense of Fantasy

“My Neighbor Totoro”, 1988. Studio Ghibli

 
Blessed those who haven’t yet watched Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Until recently I was one of them. Then my son asked if we could start watching films together and so we have started to discover Miyazaki’s fantastical universes.
 
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is about two sisters finding forest spirits when they move from the city to the rural countryside. Watching the film a couple of months ago with my son reminded me of the words of another great filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami: “The most wondrous period in the life of a human being is childhood, when encountering even the most minuscule things becomes a process of radical exploration. It’s a pity we leave those times behind so quickly.” My son was fascinated by the film, but I think I was even more enthralled with it, because I was discovering it myself for the first time and because I was watching it through his eyes, too. It was like a beautiful reminder that it isn’t that difficult to tap into that wondrous period as an adult.

The two little girls can see Totoro and adults can’t. And it made perfect sense for my son, too. He just accepted it, fascinated by the mystery, not so much wondering about the why’s but eager to meet him again and again and accompany him and the girls in their adventure. The film has stayed with both of us, and we are also reading the book at the moment. Children and adults see this film differently, naturally, but it’s equally important for both children and adults. And it’s all because of the genius of Hayao Miyazaki, who weaves the story together with such emotion and intensity. Reality and mythology seem to coexist so naturally in the Japanese culture and daily life. And there is such a ritual to the everyday life for the Japanese, and I noticed how my son loved observing those daily rituals of the girls, or the moments when nothing seems to happen but moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, and that’s something very precious. Because it gives the children watching the chance to just think at what has just happened, imagine for a bit what’s about to happen, without keeping them in constant action and distraction. And that is simply extraordinary, letting the children navigate their own feelings and emotions, while giving them joy and astonishment. It’s about telling the story in the most engaging and in the most emphatic way at the same time, and that’s a true gift for children. This is the kind of narrative freedom that you rarely find in films, but more likely in books, and which, combined with the visual power of cinema, gives birth to an emotional honesty and artistry hard to be equaled.
 

“Princess Mononoke”, 1997. Studio Ghibli

 
Princess Mononoke (1997) is about a prince, Ashitaka, inflicted with a deadly curse by a boar creature when the boy kills it to defend his village. His fate is sealed, the village elders tell him, but he decides to leave and search for the place where the boar came from and the reason for its rage and hatred against people. On his way, he meets San, who calls herself Princess Mononoke, a human raised in the forest by the wolf goddess Moro. San’s plan is to kill local industrialist Lady Eboshi, who has destroyed the animal habitat while and with the manufacturing of iron and guns. It was a gun shot that had transformed the boar, himself an animal god, into an evil creature. And the moment I realised that, the brilliance of the entire film dawned on me.

Inspired by the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which saw the introduction of firearms to feudal Japan, the film is a work of art in the way it conjures a simple natural world where animal gods and tree spirits roam the earth, until they start to be threatened by humanity’s technological progress and cruelty. But another amazing thing about the film is that humans are not explicitly categorized in bad and evil. Each character is flawed, and yet the writer-director does not pass judgment on them. Everything seems to exist at the confluence of tragic and magical, of shadow and light, of good and evil – I smiled when, after we realise what Lady Eboshi is doing in her village, making firearms in order to take over the surrounding natural world, it is revealed to us that she has liberated prostitutes from brothels to come and work for her and made a safe home for the lepers, too. I love how the film refuses to conform to a simplistic, black and white view on human nature, and how it avoids sentimentality and a romanticized ending.

The film is filled with such richness and complexity that can reach children in this seemingly simple way – it may be simple enough for them to enjoy but I think that, even with children of five, it sinks deeper than that. By the contrasting nature of each character, of nature vs civilization, children are shown, even if they don’t comprehend the dimension of it all, the strengths and weaknesses inherent in human nature and instills in them moral behaviour and they are provided with a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives. But that sense of bewilderment and surprise prevails at all times and that’s the film’s secret – when, at the end, after disaster occurs in the natural world and a single small tree spirit appears suddenly, that’s a moment of pure joy and hope. Earlier in the film, tens, and then hundreds, of small tree spirits had sprung one after another in a frame, and that was a joyous and hilarious moment – what a wonderful way Miyazaki has to speak with children at just the right moments.

“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” Miyazaki told The Guardian in 2005. “It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that, I would die happy.” He is 80 now, he is still making movies and he still draws by hand.
 

“Spirited Away”, 2001. Studio Ghibli

 
When, in Spirited Away, at its 20th anniversary this year, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new home, they stop to look around and go through a tunnel at the end of which they reach a strange world, a seemingly deserted themed park. When night falls, the park becomes a world populated by spirits and witches, dust balls and a river creature whose body has absorbed decades of pollution – again, it’s amazing on how many levels Miyazaki’s stories work. Chihiro has to work at a bath house so that she, with the help of a young boy who himself had long ago entered this world and now can not escape, can save her parents who have been transformed into pigs.

Once again, Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastic world is unlike anything done before, free from typical fairy tale characters. Miyazaki’s characters are driven by their own logic. Good characters can become evil just by a change of scenery, can take the shape of human, animal or river spirit, a child enters a strange world and anything can happen. It’s simply this free flow of events and transformations and beings that just happen, that just are. And the beauty of it all is that they take you along for the ride. And you just have to do what children do: be astonished.
 
 

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Darkness Under the Limelight: Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley”

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
There is something sordid about the atmosphere of a small-time, small-town carnival. Comedians trapped in tragic roles. The performers may be under the limelight, but it is the dim light of a would-be only in hope, because they are always on the way towards something bigger but are often left bitter beyond any hope of achieving it. But they also seem to know more about fame and success than those who have achieved it: the ephemerality of it all.

“Stan Carlisle fascinated me. He was such an unmitigated heel. Here was a chance to create a character different from any I had ever played before.” Tyrone Power was the one who wanted to make Nightmare Alley, based on the 1946 book by William Lindsay Gresham, and he acquired the rights to the novel. He wanted to subvert his matinee-idol image and he sank his teeth into it, with merciless force. It is the story of the rise and fall of a man from small-time carnival operator to spiritualist conman, from putting on a sideshow for the working class to showing off in an upper act for the rich, revealing the dark recesses of his own nature in the process. It is an unvarnished portrayal of moral degradation and self-destruction, a largely pessimistic vision of the American dream, “where to become successful you must prey on the weaknesses of others,” writes Paul Duncan in Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites. “As Carlisle rises from hick to ace charlatan and crashes to become a “geek”, a creature that gets tearing the heads off live chickens in a bran-pit, we see a frightening glimpse of life without money or hope in a society that lives by both,” Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg observed in their 1968 essay Noir Cinema, republished in the book Film Noir Compendium.
 

Tyrone Power and Helen Walker in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
There is always a woman by Stanton’s side on his way up – in the book, there was no one by his side on his downward spiral, no good girl “redeemer”, the other female image that appears in noir films, and I will pretend the ending of Edmund Goulding’s film didn’t detach itself from the uncompromising force of Gresham’s novel, which would have been possible in the absence of the Hays Code but highly improbable because of filmmakers’ ardent dependence on the studios. First it’s Zeena, a worldly and hefty sideshow fortune teller who reveals to Stan the word codes for the mentalist act. There is a human “every woman” quality to her, with something good and something bad in her, earnest yet capable of duplicitous behaviour. Then it’s the young and warm-hearted Molly (Colleen Fray), the good girl, who becomes his partner in the entertaining act as well as in life. And then it’s dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist willing to betray her patients’ darkest secrets to become Stan’s accomplice. Dr. Lilith is his match. Played with ice-cold perfection by Helen Walker, “huge-eyed, sly as a cat, Dr. Ritter’s gestures suggest a soulless ambition; the web of hair, the smoothly disciplined face are unforgettable,” wrote Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg.

Nowhere is Dr. Ritter’s sexual allure and superior psychological insight (the two most covert and elusive weapons of the femme fatale) more obvious than in their meeting in her office, him standing up, her siting down, him in a striped suit, white shirt and black tie, her in a suit jacket and white buttoned-down shirt, with its sleeve cuffs peeking from under the jacket sleeves, and neckertie pinned with a brooch. Bonnie Cashin was the costume designer. She had begun her career in New York in the 1930s, as a designer at the Roxy Theater, while also designing clothes for a sports manufacturer. In 1943, she was invited to work at the Twentieth Century Fox, and one of her early assignments was Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney. Her clothes for the character of Laura contrasted the over-dressing of the America of the 1940s, something Cashin wanted to avoid so that the clothes in the film wouldn’t look too dated, too soon. She had her mind set on the modern woman.

At first, you could swear Dr. Ritter is wearing a tuxedo. She is not, it’s a skirt she is wearing with her jacket, but somehow, surprisingly, this makes her look even more striking and empowering, its somber shade the epitome of formality. That particular scene is lit in a way that casts shadows on the wall resembling prison bars. The world of film noir is usually a world where love is replaced by obsessions and fatal desires. This time, it is replaced by a hopeless addiction to hell-bent success and the one woman who can mitigate it better and faster than anyone else. Her treachery seems better disguised when Stanton pays her a visit by surprise and she is wearing her hair loose and loose she wears her pussy-cat bow, too, of her lounging gown. When they meet again on the pier, for the last time, she is again buttoned-up in her trench coat, forever crystallising the image of the unabashedly unruly femme fatale.
 

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
That sense of Stanton feeling trapped, in his own doomed destiny, was felt earlier in the film, too, during his carnival days, when he was plotting with Zeena. As they are shown observing the crowd from the back stage, there is a spotlight on the two of them and everything else around them remains in the dark. He is making plans, but the look in his eye is not overshadowed just by the camera play with light. It is however the dramatic lighting that makes his striped jacket, the costume for his act, look like a jail jacket.

Those days he was usually wearing a simple white t-shirt, and often just his tank top. It was before the plain t-shirt was transformed from underwear item into a symbol of rebellion and youth and deemed acceptable on screen to expose more of a male’s body when Marlon Brando wore his as an outer garment in A Streetcar Named Desire, freeing the fifties from buttoned-up mentalities and clothes. Stanton attracts the eyes of Zeena and Molly, but the t-shirt doesn’t necessarily imply that it is meant to be indicative of a certain hyper-masculine physique or virility. His t-shirt is no more than a humble piece of undershirt and he is wearing one because it’s a cheap garment, he doesn’t have anything else to wear when it’s too hot or when when he needs to take his jacket off so that he can use his arms freely as he performs the carnival chores.
 

Tyrone Power, Helen Walker in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
When he finds success, he is wearing a suit. And it must be a bespoke suit, because that’s the height of men’s style, and Stan’s suit is the apogee of his evolution. In its dark portrait of the American dream, the film charts the rise and fall of the man who climbs the ladder of social mobility, the transition point being most poignantly marked by the acquisition of a different kind of wardrobe. From the nondescript tank top and t-shirt clothing to the impeccable suit, his continuing rise is finally complete with the dinner suit, when he reaches the height of his powers. But if the tuxedo, despite its being the most elegant and expensive item in a man’s wardrobe, also has a pre-defined role here, as it represents his entertaining costume, the bespoke striped suit, completed with the most refined details, like a white pocket square and a white carnation, makes a much more individual statement. His new-found power is put on display, just like the erosion of his conscience and downfall will be displayed through his wrinkled, worn-off, humble clothes and his plebeian flat cap when he sinks to his lowest low.

I am curious to see how free a reign will Guillermo del Toro have with his adaptation of Gresham’s novel, set to be released at the end of this year.
 

Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
 

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‘80s Style Rocks in Neo-Noir: Rachel Ward in “Against All Odds”

Rachel Ward in “Against All Odds”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 
LA at dawn. Silhouettes of high-rises, bungalows and lines of palm trees merge together into a glowing mist. The urban jungle created through light and shadow, and new dreams that are always rising up, and old dreams that have turned to concrete. That’s the opening image from Michael Doster’s book Doster 80s/90s. And, for some reason, I associated it with the film Against All Odds once I had watched it.

Taylor Hackford’s 1984 neo-noir had as inspiration one of the greatest films noir of all time, Out of the Past, 1947, “a film so dark and fatalistic that even the scenes in sunny California and heatstroken Acapulco look like overexposed nightmares”, wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas had a climactic rapport every time they were on screen. Douglas’s character, a gangster by the name of Whit Sterling, hired Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey to find his runaway lover and bring her home at any cost. Jane Greer was the girl. Even before meeting her, her image had already, inexplicably, been set up for Bailey, part of his past and present. Kathie Moffat had the appeal and darkness, the beauty and brutality of the authentic femme fatale. Few others, if any, have achieved this. No foolish flirtations, no sentimentality, a chilling composure. She just went after what she wanted, remaining unperturbed as she tells Mitchum: “You’re no good for anybody else. You’re no good and neither am I.”

We meet Jane Greer again in Against All Odds. This time, she is Mrs. Wyler, the mother of the missing girl, Jessie (Rachel Ward). Mrs. Wyler is into real estate and has a plan of destroying a canyon and building houses for the rich. The boyfriend, the bad guy (James Woods as Jake Wise), is a gambler who hires a football player (for a team owned by the same Mrs. Wyler), Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges), who has just been let go because of a shoulder injury, to track her down her and bring her back to him.

But Against All Odds can not simply be written off as a remake, because it is clearly aware of the film it pays homage to and is firmly grounded in the times and style of the ‘80s. And it has that something that makes ‘80s movies special: it was made because that’s where the director’s interest lay, because that’s the kind of film he wanted to make, according to his interview with Bobbie Wygant, disregarding his previous films’ recipes for success, the studios’ expectations and what the audiences thought. Brogan does find Jessie – in Mexico, just as Mitchum had found Jane Greer in that Mexican café, all dressed in white, fooling him into appearing to be his dream come to life, not the messenger of his downfall that she really was – and the love triangle, the cause of all tension and suspicion and foul betrayal, ensues. Because Jessie Wyler is no dream come true for Terry Brogan either. And that’s good, because much of the film’s attraction lies in her scheming character. The most interesting movie characters are never black or white, are they?
 

Rachel Ward in “Against All Odds”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 
In the same interview with Bobbie Wygant, Taylor Hackford said that Rachel Ward was the actress he wanted to work with on this film from the very beginning. “Had I done the film in the ‘40s, there would have been maybe 10 actresses that I could have chosen from,” he said. “There are not a lot of actresses today that would fit that bill. I wasn’t interested in just beauty, but intelligence and presence and substance.” But it was only when they met in person that he sensed that there was something in her that he hadn’t seen on screen from her before and that was exciting for him and wanted to put that out there. And the Jessie Wyler character has that kind of a mystery, you can’t quite figure her out, none of the other characters can, the least of whom Terry Brogan.

Jessie Wyler’s light clothes are the perfect disguise. Carefree, airy and sensuous, they are the perfect island-like life attire. The essence of unabridged style, white and khaki dresses (instead of the loud colours that were quintessential for the 1980s) in the most beautiful linens and crepes, extremely sensuous in their simplicity, carrying something from the Calvin Klein aesthetic and essence, that of reducing an item “until it is finally at its essence,” as Zack Carr, the creative director at Calvin Klein for three decades, told Donna Karan during one of her first days working at CK. Rachel Ward is sensuous and sexy wearing them, and so should a good noir femme fatale be. Her passionate appeal is so obvious that Brogan’s falling for her and downfall are inevitable. Because her white clothes from Mexico, starting with the white blouse she is wearing when Terry first sees her, represent the most insistent anachronism in the iconography of the femme fatale, another Out of the Past Mexico café moment, another perfect example of inverse symbolism.
 

Rachel Ward in “Against All Odds”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 
And then Jessie Wyler is back in LA and the eighties style is felt more profoundly. The jacket with strong shoulders over a graphic t-shirt and loose-fit trousers – they could be jeans – turned up at the hem. Again I thought of Doster’s 80s fashion photography. “Allure. The look of the eighties needed that, to wear those clothes,” Doster said. “Fashion was fun in the eighties. There was no marketing pressure. People enjoyed life.”

There is not enough praise that can be sung to the broad-shoulder blazer and to how it encapsulated the entire feel of the eighties and ‘80s fashion: attitude. The “coat hanger” look that was invented by Hollywood costume designer Adrian, a silhouette that has intermittently returned to fashion, but never as feverishly as in the 1980s. Michael Kaplan, the costume designer for the film, was also responsible for the costumes in Blade Runner (in collaboration with Charles Knode), where Sean Young’s sharp costumes, a mashup of retro and futurism, were largely influenced by the tailored suits that Adrian designed in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“How can dressing be simplified so that I can get on with my own life?”, Jessie seems to say as she defies her mother playing dress-down in the garment symbol of power dressing at her mother’s formal party. A form of rebellion against her mother, but also underlining the femme fatale’s duplicity. Towards the end of the film, when the twists of the plot are finally untied and there is that last confrontation between Brogan and the villains, Jessie appears standing among the latter. The line between characters and between her conflicting sides becomes even more blurry.

What is then to make of her final outfit, wearing a green polka-dot dress under the glistening LA sun? That’s probably the most intriguing use of detail that questions her characterization. Brogan’s look in the eye is certainly telling us, and maybe trying to tell himself, too, that he hasn’t even grasped the complexity of the one he is looking at.
 

James Woods, Dorian Harewood, Rachel Ward and Richard Widmark in “Against All Odds”, 1984. Columbia Pictures

 
 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Style in film | | Comments Off on ‘80s Style Rocks in Neo-Noir: Rachel Ward in “Against All Odds”