Friday, 7 July 2017

What to See this Weekend: Sucking Up

“Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, 2001)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

Those who love Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park just as well. Those — like myself — who detest Downton Abbey and all the trends that bring it great success will love Gosford Park much more. I had the advantage of seeing Robert Altman’s superb country house comedy a few years before the lumbering, sodden Julian Fellowes soap arrived on television, and the film shone too brightly in my mind for the series to obscure anything good. But I think that watchers of the series will find great delight and refreshment in the film as well, even if it doesn’t work powerfully enough to supplant all television from their lives.

I remember the sudden drop in my spirits when watching Downton Abbey, seven whole years ago, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. The earl’s cousin and nephew have tragically perished on the RMS Titanic and the family is consequently thrown into a constitutional crisis, since the next in line for the hereditary position of earl and holder of the estate — i.e., the next closest male relative — is some very distant middle-class cousin, and the eldest daughter of the family no longer has a second cousin to securely marry. The entire situation, from our vantage point of the 21st century, is absurd, and, surely, any contemporary film or television show can only approach this story from the position of recognising its absurdity. But — lo! — not only did Downton Abbey not note and lampoon this idiocy — it positively extolled the old ways, and its six seasons merrily embraced the feudal traditions of living and thinking and oppressing.

I suppose it took an American to go at it the right way. Robert Altman merely begins by acknowledging what contemporary culture often seems eager to forget: that class distinctions exist, that the divisions are often jarringly visible and viscerally unpleasant, and that the system that requires you abide by those distinctions is barbarous. Here, the discrepancies between Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are so vast as to seem astronomical. A reasonable reader may ask why I’d bother mentioning them together in the first place. The reasons are clear and serve a simple purpose: the common ground between the two should prove good enough to lure any ITV-lovers into the cinematic fold. First, both are set before World War II and in an old and sumptuous country house in England, owned by some aristocrat and crawling with well-heeled inhabitants and servants who know their places. Both pay close attention to the minutiae of the social and political order and trappings of high English living. Both were filmed from scripts written by Julian Fellowes. And, most enticing, both star Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Gosford Park brought the grand Dame her last Oscar nomination, and, aside from the acerbic remarks given to her by a screenwriter, it gave her a chance to bite at the others on set in her own words as well. Hence, we have one of my favourite and one of the most enduring lines from all of cinema in 2001: “Difficult colour, green.” Not much to look at, but a thunderbolt from her lips when caught by an able-bodied director.

Gosford Park was marketed as a murdery mystery for its release, à la Agatha Christie, but really it’s a pastiche of that familiar movie genre, as well as a satire on the British class system and, in its way, a social realist drama. Like all good movies, it yields well to repeat viewings, but in this particular case there are many felicitous visual details a viewer may catch only the second or third time, and there’s also the added benefit of seeing the entire murder mystery plot with the clearest of hindsight. Spoiler: the identity of the actual murder culprit matters far less than the many clues lying around the house and sewn into the dialogue, as well as the insights and false trails offered in following up with each suspect. The commentary is presented in clear, ingenious perceptions: the opening scene is of dutiful servants standing and waiting in the rain, the employers care little for their behaviour in front of the servants but place a world of burden on a servant’s unfortunate misstep, intercutting shows the inequities between the classes as well as the similar rigidities in bickering over station and precedence, the aristocrats and professionals (such as the inspector) are all woefully incompetent which would be apparent if only they took note of their exploitation of the working class. And the eventual insignificance of the murder mystery’s outcome highlights not any actual insignificance, but the burden of guilt and backstory intrigue that each of us carries around with us always, and which renders each of us vulnerable at times of tension and instability.

Altman collected two excellent teams of actors from different backgrounds to play his enormous cast of varied figures: Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Bob Balaban, Stephen Fry, Tom Hollander, James Wilby are some of those found upstairs; Kelly Macdonald, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, and many more are downstairs. Altman obviously intruded very little on the methods and approaches of the actors, and he cannily captures all the different acting styles to represent the divergent personalities and essences of the many people in the house. To best stimulate the free flow of living and being in the household, he kept all actors mic’ed up at all times and had two cameras moving about the scene, while they uttered their scripted lines and then continued in improvised conversation, never knowing which parts of which performances were on camera and would be edited into the final film. Rather than encouraging any upstaging, or a burdensome self-consciousness in each performance, this allowed Altman to catch actors off-guard, as they spoke and moved spontaneously, showing off their vitality and entirely natural charisma, while doing away with the straitening effects of any studied technique. Altman’s sense of style is coupled with his acute sense of irony, and seemingly superficial and mundane interactions hint both at the emotional depths of the people onscreen, as well as the piercing political and cultural insights that should inhere a film about a world as different from and connected to ours as this.

“Nosferatu” (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Snagfilms; on Import DVD.

The subtitle of F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire horror is “eine Symphonie des Grauens,” or, “A Symphony of Horror,” and a symphony is precisely what he offers. Silent films can often seem both alienating and abstractly intriguing, in that they add an extra degree of stylisation to their presentation (in addition to the already large distinctions of being in black-and-white, and the distractingly archaic photographic quality). But this extra stylisation adds extra artifice, and, in the hands of a genius creator, higher artifice can bring greater truth or wonder. On the basis of the two of his films I’ve seen, Murnau was one of the supreme inventors in all of cinematic history. Because of a lack of conventions or even an academic or industry establishment, the 20s were a time of great movie pioneering, and Murnau made some fantastic advances in Nosferatu, an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

The highly unrealistic sets, costumes, and makeup schemas in Nosferatu are brought together with a very specific style of performing and design, that in fact make the film not just strange but mind-altering, in the proportions of a revelation. Roger Ebert wrote of it that to see it “is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself.” It’s such a rich treasure of a film that I’m tempted to say no more about it, and bid you see it yourselves right away (the film is available for free at Snagfilms, at the link above); as Jean-Luc Godard wrote of another Murnau film in 1965 (Sunrise), Who needs to talk for hours about it? But the inordinate beauty and genius of Murnau’s work is that there is so much to talk about — far more than could ever fit into a mere blog post, and the wonder of art is that it brings so much to our lives that we couldn’t even imagine having asked for, or wanting to have asked for. As Ebert wrote, Nosferatu doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us.

“Dramatic Relationships” (Dustin Guy Defa, 2016)

Available on Vimeo.

Dustin Guy Defa’s six-minute film has just as political a range as Gosford Park, though on a different axis, while condensing its commentary to a few telling shots of a small number of choice scenes. The film regards the relationships between filmmakers and their female cast members and illustrates, by implication, the discrepancies between them and those between the filmmakers and their male cast members. Each vignette in the film is fictional, but they’re all based on the occasionally shocking unfairness to which female actors are subjected by filmmakers, without any conscious realisation of their unfair behaviour. Defa has said that the situations in his film “are fiction and exaggerated fictions, and even silly fictions.” He declares that “every actor [he works with] is different regardless of gender,” but admits that he has “personally acted differently towards female actors … i.e. being more aware of how they appear physically than their male counterparts.” Note also the canny framing of two male filmmakers discussing the female subject, where she sits between them, at a lowered position, while their lower abdomens and upper thighs dominate the frame. FX’s nominally feminist television series couldn’t depict power dynamics as effectively as that through a whole season of dialogue.

As with any good short, the commentary on the specific milieu extrapolates well to the world at large. If you were to film a short on the way you treated the people you encounter, could you say so much so succinctly as this?

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