Tag Archives: film

moon mania addendum

Melies moon in 3D

3D Méliès moon via Monster Kid magazine

When I wrote that moon mania post about the restored color print of George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune I was so into Air’s new soundtrack for it that I didn’t realize I already had an alternate soundtrack lurking in the more recessive recesses of my iTunes: Daniel Arfib’s L’Approche de la Lumière, from his album Musique Numérique. It’s just not an album I play often, but I happened to take a closer look at it the other day and immediately noticed that the length of the song (16:31) was maybe pretty close to the running time of the film. The title, of course, is not directly on point; it means “approach of the light.” The film is titled “Le Voyage dans la lune,” usually translated as “A trip to the moon,” and was made by George Méliès rather than his peers the Lumière brothers, who I used to mix him up with when I was a film student. (There was a healthy competition between them; Méliès was present at their first screening and offered them 10,000 francs for their camera, which they refused). But! It sounds like it could be a soundtrack. It’s not just that it’s outer space-y, it has a narrative feel, and it’s as arid and crunchy as moon rocks.

The running time isn’t quite right — the film is a couple minutes shorter, even with the long-lost ending that was discovered in 2002, which was well after the album was made in 1981. But if you press play on the song and the video at kind of the same time (or not quite the same time), something interesting might happen. As it did for me when I started the video a few seconds after the song and noticed the percussion kicking in at the same time the workers started hammering away on the projectile. There aren’t many moments of synchronicity like that but I think overall it’s more intriguing than the tired old Pink Floyd + Wizard of Oz sandwich others may have offered you.

Daniel Arfib, Musique Numerique


I don’t know how to change the color of WordPress’s sickly pale little mp3 player so I’m calling your attention to it with words. There it is above. Under the video.

There’s not a ton of information on this album on the internet and next to nothing about this particular track, which is the B-side. I don’t know how to explain why but I very often think the things I blog about are not obscure and I am genuinely surprised when someone says “that was esoteric” or something to that effect — apparently I am afflicted by a peculiar sort of naïveté that causes me to think people will know what I’m talking about if I mention, say, a magazine that was published for six months in 1937 and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page — but I can see that this is something people probably won’t be familiar with. I was tipped off by the eBay seller who describes the album as “private cosmic . . . . insanely rare and insane private electronic ‘photophonic’ music . . . . one of those early electronic music albums whose entire premise is based upon some bat-shit crazy arcane methods of computer programming or mathematical patterns . . .” I don’t have it on vinyl myself, I’ve just got a crappy mp3 I downloaded from who-knows-where a long time ago, but I see it was unofficially reissued by the Icelandic label Creel Pone in 2008, so . . . it is marginally less insanely rare than it used to be when the only actual copies floating around were the ones Arfib had privately pressed.

The internet says Mr. Arfib is currently working on something with “gesture controlled audio systems” in connection with “the geneva emotion research group,” but the links I’ve followed haven’t yet expanded my understanding of what that means. I’ll keep you posted. In the unlikely event you’re now jonesing for something at the poppier end of the French mathématiques-music spectrum, here’s that Jacno-produced single from Mathématiques Modernes I blogged about a while back.

moon mania

Have you seen the new-ish restored and hand-colored print of George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune yet? I’m doing something stern with my eyebrows at the thought that you might be shaking your head no. When it played here recently (at Lincoln Center in February), my friend and I bought our tickets on the internet well in advance because we were thinking “what sort of foolish fools would not want to go to this?” There turned out to be about eight people in the theater. I suspect that all other screenings but for the one I attended were crowded to the bursting point with delighted New Yorkers sitting on each other’s laps three deep, such that everyone who wanted to see the film on the big screen had a chance to. If you live elsewhere you may have a chance yet because it’s still making the rounds of a handful of U.S. cities: It’s showing in L.A. right now, Minneapolis next, then D.C., and so forth. The schedule is here and you should definitely go if you can. The restoration’s terrific, the color makes my lo-fi-DIY parts tingle, and there’s a new soundtrack by Air, who in my opinion were the perfect guys for the job. Here’s a clip:

The color print was discovered in 1993 but it was such a crumbly, brittle mess that it couldn’t be fed into even the fanciest high-tech mechanisms used to restore shabby old films at that time. Look here, you can see what a crumbly mess it was. All sorts of things were tried — including a risky chemical bath, followed by a time-out in what sounds like a deluxe humidor, where the film might unstick its stuck parts from itself — but the restoration couldn’t be completed until 2010, when the right technology made its way into the hands of the right people. Specifically, the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and Lobster Films. If you have a chance to see the film in a theater you’ll learn more about all this because it’s shown with a documentary about the restoration. One interesting tidbit I can show you in the meantime: The restoration resulted in such a pristine and complete version of the film that for a few seconds of it we can now see something no one had noticed before, a key hanging on the wall at the very edge of the frame, in the scene in which the projectile is launched. Méliès’s studio was in his garden and this is believed to be the key to it.

Le voyage key

I can’t remember when I first saw the film but it definitely would have been before 2002, when a print complete with the long-lost ending was discovered in a barn in France: instead of a murky, moody splashdown in the ocean, it now ends with a parade for the moon-goers and the unveiling of a statue of their leader. During these festivities the adventurers wear big paper moons around their necks, Flava Flav-style.

Le voyage moon medals

You know what my favorite part of the film is? Surprisingly it is not the part with the mushrooms.

Le voyage shrooms

No, my favorite part is just before the capsule lands in the moon’s eye. There’s so much emotion in it, far more emotion than anyone has since expected of the moon. How lonely he must be, to look as thrilled as he does when he first notices visitors approaching. How strangely moving it is when he’s struck, becomes weepy, and blubbers something to himself. To see a human face emerge in place of an assortment of fuzzy craters and transform an entire set of disparate feelings into something almost knowable to others in the space of just a few frames is as magical as anything else we might hope to see in a film, then or now.

Le voyage moon not yet a face

Le voyage moon just now a face

Le voyage moon smiling face

Le voyage moon weird smile

Le voyage moon face rocket in eye

Does the film represent some of the best or some of the worst aspects of science and exploration? People have noted, over the years, that the things Méliès’s heroes find on their 1902 moon are more enchanting than the rocks and other dusty inscrutables that we know to be knocking about our present moon. They’ve noted, too, that the green guys inhabiting Méliès’s moon aren’t treated well by their visitors, who see them as a nuisance to be conquered. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view the film as poking at least as much fun at the conquerors as it does at the moon-natives. When they land on the moon, for example, the very first thing they do is stretch out their blankies and take a nap, as cozy in their obliviousness as any French colonials wandering around Djibouti in search of a decent vigneron.

Le voyage yawning

Le voyage blankies

Le voyage nap time

They’re celebrated when they return home, but we the audience know that they were chased off the moon in slightly-less-than-glorious circumstances.

Le voyage angry green guys

Related reading and listening: There’s a nice interview with Air in The Quietus about the film, their album, French colonialism, Jules Verne, Jean Claude Vannier, and what kind of guys from the future they like best. You can and should listen to the soundtrack album here. Thoughtful scene-by-scene commentary on the film and lots of promising links to additional info on Spectacular Attractions here.

Black Narcissus

What a strange movie. Visually it is gorgeous — the painted Himalayan backdrops, Sister Superior’s steely blue bedroom, Sister Superior’s face in its starchy, trembling frame — Deborah Kerr’s face.

Black Narcissus, Mopu

sister br

Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr as Sister Superior

It’s a 1947 Powell-Pressburger melodrama about an order of nuns who are given the run of an old Himalayan palace for the purpose of setting up a school and a medical dispensary. I’ve been thinking about various scenes and images from it lately — I recently saw it for the first time, then promptly watched it again with the intention of writing about it.

Even for a melodrama it’s uncommonly melodramatic. This movie is chock full of women who are visibly utterly lost in their moods. They need to function as a group but they’re more colleagues than friends, their hierarchy a source of endless friction, their collective mood increasingly misshapen by their individual torments; they work until their hands are blistered in an effort to keep hysteria at bay; they have flashbacks about things like the time a conflict with their fiancee set their lower lip a-trembling; they eventually go apeshit, some more spectacularly than others. They almost unanimously blame it on the strange atmosphere. One of the nuns says that in the clear air “you can see too far.” Nearly all of the characters seem to be sexually frustrated all of the time — even the oldest woman, a wizened native caretaker older than just about everyone else around, longs for the palace to be filled with concubines rather than nuns, as it once was — and their conflicts with each other take on a corresponding shadow of bitter anticipation. They desperately need to get out of their own heads for a few moments but it isn’t going to happen.

The film does have a few humorous moments to lighten the mood, such as Mr. Dean — the agent of the old general who owns the palace — bouncing up and down as he arrives to meet the nuns on a very small, very ordinary-looking pony.

Mr. Dean on pony

Or when he brings conversations with nuns perilously close to the subject of sex, which he does as pointedly and repeatedly as one can probably manage in conversation with nuns. In one scene, for example, Sister Superior greets him by saying she wants to talk about business. “I didn’t suppose you’d want to talk to me about anything else,” says Mr. Dean. On another occasion she complains that the locals are undisciplined, “like children.” “Oh,” says Mr. Dean. “Don’t you like children, Sister?” This latter remark is followed by a brief pause and the simultaneous raising of eyebrows, his out of pleasure with himself, hers out of surprise, then sudden exasperation.

I didn’t feel Mr. Dean was entirely convincing as a provocative character, though. The BFI describes actor David Farrar as “[a] strongly virile figure” and I suppose there is something virile about his appearance, but his character here is feckless, ultimately harmless. He’s inappropriately sexual with the nuns but it comes off more quirky than predatory. He eyes Sister Superior up and down when they first meet — I laughed; my male friend watching the movie with me said “that’s preposterous!” — and he’s always walking around shirtless in short shorts and finding little ways to call attention to the fact that nuns don’t fuck, but I found it implausible that he should sexually torment them as he supposedly does. It’s not Farrar’s acting or his looks that are to blame; the character, I think, is made slightly ridiculous, as if to allow him to unfurl his sexuality without poking fun at it would be too much for the setting. The little ponies he rides around on are the opposite of butch, the short shorts more of a silly affectation than a proper tease, and his manner of flirting is more clumsy than provocative. It’s adequate in the Himalayas but imagine him checking out nuns in London and I think you’ll see what I mean.

David Farrar in a stupid hat

At the same time he seems to have been thwarted before the nuns even arrived on the scene. What’s he doing there in the mountains of Nowhere if not refusing to have a love life? He is the one who brings the Jean Simmons character to the nunnery for safekeeping — a young local girl named Kanchi, ripe for marriage and related pursuits. There’s a strong implication that he might very well have kept her to himself — she’d been hanging around his house in hopes that he would — but he chose not to. Later in the film he yells at one of the other characters “I don’t love anyone!” but it’s obvious, it hardly needed to be said. He is the closest these nuns are going to get to a fully operational adult male so it’s not entirely implausible that they should want to fling themselves over cliffs on his account, but as a love interest he’s irredeemably shabby. It brings to mind stories like the one about the swan who fell for a swan-shaped boat.

Is the idea that the nuns, in choosing to repress themselves as they do, have also chosen to prevent themselves from seeing the world as it is? From seeing, for example, that Mr. Dean probably isn’t really into sex? Or is it that the exotic setting is meant to have a debilitating effect on the Westerners who find themselves there, such that they can no longer tell whether they’re grasping at a live wire or a more illusory excitement? Maybe I’m making too much of this point. Sometimes all it takes is one glimpse of a sullen rustic atop his idiotic little pony to turn one’s mind to cement. What a tidy parallel there could be, though, between the characters of Mr. Dean and the holy man, a constant presence (24 hours a day, rain or shine) on the palace’s property, and an irritant for Sister Superior, who can’t make sense of whether he’s a figure of advanced spirituality or a loony old man. She wants to evict him anyhow, and cries with frustration that she can’t, when he turns out to be a relation of the general who owns the place. He also turns out to be a decorated former general himself who reportedly speaks perfect English. She was mostly wrong about him, but essentially correct that his manner of refusing the world clashes with her own.

Black Narcissus, holy man

There is also something resembling a parallel between the characters of Mr. Dean and the young general, who is apparently meant to be alluring to some of the women, particularly Kanchi — he’s pretty, he dresses well, his family’s got money — and who is trying to become more refined, educating himself among the studious nuns. In order to convince Sister Superior to permit this, he argues with her that she shouldn’t think of him as a man, and that anyhow Jesus was a man, would they have turned him away? Cut to a shot of a statue of Jesus on the cross that the nuns apparently had hauled up the mountain by sherpas, and wonder, as a viewer, whether he counts as a man, as a potential lover. The work of an order of nuns is a strange business indeed. The young general remains juvenile and seemingly unaware of himself as a sexual being, unaware even that he might seem glamorous to them. When one of the nuns comments on his exotic fragrance being a bit too worldly for one engaged in religious studies he cheerfully tells her it’s something he picked up at an Army Navy store in London, “Black Narcissus.” (There is a lot of imperialism-centric irony in the film, all very nicely done, all very timely too – India became independent from British rule the year it was released).

One thing I really noticed while watching the film for the first time, it’s not terribly accurate. There are a million ways in which a film can feel inaccurate and not all are detractions — I am one of those people who thinks there is something interesting about Hitchcock’s use of backdrops in Marnie, for example — but in Black Narcissus I found the inaccuracies a detraction during my first viewing, far less so during my second. Maybe I’m overly sensitive about the Himalayas. I traveled in the region while in college — I spent a semester studying in northeastern India and in Kathmandu — and I’ve seen a lot of monasteries and temples up close, and I couldn’t help but notice that the nunnery in Black Narcissus and its cultural environs are a mish-mash of various Asian styles. As a film it evokes a period of time when people went out for chop suey and thought they were having exotic “Oriental” cuisine. Of course it’s easier for contemporary art directors to thoroughly immerse themselves in their quarry than it was pre-jet travel and pre-internet, but it wasn’t impossible then, and I think it would not have taken away the novelty or exoticism of the location had the filmmakers taken a bit more care with their research; to the contrary, it would have heightened them. I don’t mean to imply that it should have been a documentary instead, but the film’s aesthetic integrity seems to have been needlessly compromised at moments. The birds calling out in the forest surrounding the palace, for example, are distinctly from a different continent. (IMDB says they’re Australian kookaburras). The urns in one of the sets appear to have been grabbed from the swords-and-sandals section of the prop warehouse, their discus-throwing Greeks given a once-over with spray paint before being pressed into service. The natives have a habit of forming drum circles whenever someone is ill but their drumming sounds far more African than Indian. The characters, too, often feel more stylized than accurate representations of people generally do, and the natives with speaking roles are not portrayed by genuinely brown people. Kanchi, the sexy local girl I mentioned above, is played by Jean Simmons in an awkward — almost maliciously so — slap of bronze makeup. She gyrates in her room like Britt Ekland’s double in The Wicker Man (clothed, alas) and makes eyes at the sharp-dressed young general, and gets whipped by a cackling, snaggle-toothed old crone for stealing a chain from one of the prayer rooms to wear as a necklace.

18-kanchi

The film is very much worth watching despite these flaws. It’s filled with passion, it’s well-written and terrifically acted, and visually it’s beautiful. Those backdrops! According to IMDB they were “blown-up black and white photographs. The art department then gave them their breathtaking colors by using pastel chalks on top of them.” Sister Superior’s bedroom was for me the most desirable location. It reminds me of the Bakst set designs for Schéhérazade I posted about months ago, but the incredible windows have the added attraction of framing incredible mountain views. She’s camping out in Shangri-La.

If you’re inclined to read more criticism of the film, there’s a Michael Walter essay with some interesting psychoanalytic bits here, and a thoughtful review by Joseph Jon Lanthier here. I’m very fond of this essay by Evan Bryson, digressions and sexy bits (“Is it obvious that the enormous bell Sister Clodagh pulls every morning is a homolog of God’s mighty genitals?”) and all.

The Hawks and the Sparrows

Earlier this week I started to watch Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (Uccellacci e Uccellini), an allegorical 1966 film about a father and son who meet a talking crow. It was very interesting! Alas I was so sleepy that I paused it about a third of the way through and went to bed, and I don’t want to write much about it until I’ve seen the whole thing. In the meantime you should see the opening credits, which are incredibly simple, inventive, funny and utterly distinct.

The whole thing is very Pasolini. At the beginning of the movie the son dances with some boys outside of a grubby bar on the outskirts of Rome and runs off to visit his girlfriend, who is dressed like an angel for a pageant.

The Hawks and the Sparrows angel

He meets up with his father again, they walk some more, and they meet a talking crow who says he’s left-wing. The crow joins them (although they refuse to say where they’re going) and explains that he comes from far away, that his country is Ideology, that he lives in “the capital, the city of the future, on Karl Marx Street, number seventy times seven,” all of which the father and son find very funny.

The Hawks and the Sparrows laughing

The Hawks and the Sparrows laughing two

Later on the father is complaining about their poverty and the crow tells them they’re actually very lucky, they “walk like masters in the streets on the outskirts of the cities, and you enter the little cafés with the workers and the morning sun, and you kiss girls dressed as angels, and you discuss life and death with the words closest to hand, whereas I . . .” He’s a thoughtful crow. He’s portrayed by a well-trained actual crow, not a mechanical movie crow.

The Hawks and the Sparrows story

You might like it. I think I like it. I hope to find time to watch it again from the beginning and write more about it soon.

snow-viewing

Whether or not you’ll have any actual snow around to look at this weekend, this 1963 British Railways film called “Snow” is pretty terrific. Via Caught by the River.

Avec son Tra-la-la

Here’s a scene from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres. Suzy Delair is fun to watch but what I really love about this scene is its Balzacian sweep through 1940s Parisian music hall culture. It begins in a music publisher’s shop and continues with rehearsal at home and in the venue before closing with Suzy on stage, but we don’t see just her, we see the audience and the other performers. We also briefly see her friend and neighbor Dora the photographer, whose sweater makes me jealous. Should I make myself one that says “MADELEINE’S SWEATER”?

Dora the photographer

Dora the photographer 2

minor miracles of the internet

Many months ago I uploaded a scene from The Killing of Sister George on YouTube. It was shot on location at the Gateways club, a lesbian club in London that opened in the 1930s and closed in 1985, and I thought it was an important little artifact. The film as a whole is hardly a documentary — here, read this if you’re not familiar with it — but this scene features many of the club’s regulars at the time (including its famous bartender/manager Smithy and its proprietor Gina Ware) and I thought it was a shame it wasn’t on YouTube already. (There are more lesbian characters in movies and on tv these days but for the most part they don’t seem any more genuine or interesting than the heteronormative minstrelry of “Real Housewives of Wherever”. . .). I also thought the hipster couple in black glasses slow-dancing around 6:36 was super cool.

But what was the name of the band playing throughout the entire scene?

No answer on IMDB, no answer anywhere.

Until yesterday, when a YouTube commentator named Renee serendipitously told me that the band was called the Mission Belles and that she played drums with them while their regular drummer was having a baby. The band was from East Ham and was comprised of three sisters and one sister-in-law, and “[t]hey were playing still up to the nineties (more or less).”

Cheers, Mission Belles! I’ve been wondering who you were for a long time now so as far as I’m concerned this calls for a round of sherry.

free tour departing now

If you have approximately 35 minutes to spare, Jean Cocteau would like to give you a tour of his friend’s villa in Cap Ferrat. The tour is in French but mostly you’ll be looking at artwork, and it’s still perfectly lovely and transporting without subtitles. There is no slush there; instead there is greenery and good-natured camera tricks, filmed in Kodachrome.

more about "“La Villa Santo Sospir”", posted with vodpod

“La Villa Santo Sospir” (1952) via UbuWeb here. (If you’re having trouble watching the embedded video above, try watching there).