The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

If you have a natural aversion to people breaking out into song in films it is safe to say that you should give this one a miss. Jacques Demy here has fully realised his vision of creating a ‘film in song’, it is less musical theatre more jazz backed modern opera. Add on to the top of this a large helping of deeply felt French romance and you have a film that remains a true curio of world cinema. It is not really a standard musical in that there is no spoken word in the entire piece, instead Demy uses normal speech and conversation as the lyrics of the songs, creating an interesting balance of fantasy and realism. It is a vibrant and heartfelt experiment in musical filmmaking which for the most part pays off very well.

For the story we have Genevieve and Guy, the former being played by a captivating young Catherine Deneuve and the later by the solemnly charismatic Nino Castelnuovo. The couple is freshly embroiled in a secret relationship and the chemistry between the two is immediately palpable. However all is not well, when they sing that they will love each other forever and that nothing will ever part them the alarm bells start ringing. These chimes soon crescendo as life take a hold of the romance, firstly Genevieve’s mother is unhappy with the two dating and then suddenly Guy is conscribed to join the French army in the fight in Algiers. We then watch as the two people struggle to find a place for their love in a world which cannot allow the two to be together. This is a fairly well-worn romantic tale of lovers kept apart despite their wishes, however Demy and his choice to heighten the mood through the operatic nature of the songs he has his characters sing breathes life into an otherwise fairly unremarkable plot.

The songs in the film are less songs than conversations with melody and rhythm, people talk in full sentences and interact normally just in a continuous melody. The effect of seeing a film tell its story in song but without a normal verse chorus structure gives the piece a real flowingly fast pace which may seem difficult to get on board with at first but soon you become enraptured into the beat of the film. Demy understands the humour and jollity that musicals can bring and yet gives his characters a fairly bleak hand to play in the film. At one point we may have upbeat jaunts underscoring a mothers nagging of her daughter to find the right man, but then the film shifts into its more sombre laments to the nature of lost or misplaced love. At one point Deneuve (or the overdub of Deneuve) sings ‘Why is absence so hard to bear’ in the films signature melody and we feel the emotion of the sentiment. We have watched and heard the joy that the young lovers had when they were together but as life continues we are carried along of the wave of regrets that the two people share. Much like other musicals the emotions in this are very earnest and close to the skin but unlike most there comes with it a sadness which feels very true and less forced than musicals can tend to be.

Demy does not just let the songs speak for the film however, this is 60s French filmmaking after all and we can see his cinephilia shining through in the vibrancy of his frame. Yes we don’t have the huge musical numbers of Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly or the sheer scale of Busby Berkley but Demy doesn’t need these when he has composition and colour. The Technicolor glow of every environment in Cherbourg is a sight to behold, he doesn’t need to use huge sound stages with dance routines to perform his art, and instead he makes real life magical and otherworldly through retina burning pinks, greens and blues. He shows a painters eye for using colour in composition with clear reference being taken from the great Hollywood classics, especially Gene Kelly’s oeuvre.

To say the film is a perfect example of musical filmmaking is not correct. At points the structure of the songs works against it with sentences having to be rushed or crowbarred into the beat of the background music. This is not necessarily a negative however and for me just added to the charm of the piece. It is not an overly happy film despite the vibrancy of every other aspect from the cinematography to the acting to the songs, the plot remains drenched in ennui. As with many of the films in and around the French New Wave both joy and sadness are to be found but you must always break through or reckon with an auteur vision of whatever subject is to be found. For me Demy here created an accessibly vivid tale of young love which dodges the pretensions of the day whilst still feeling artistically daring.

-Ed

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

The Producers

“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)

Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians.  I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.

Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.

And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.

But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?


Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)

The Producers 1967.jpg

The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.

Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.

Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.

Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.

It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.

Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.


Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)

 

The Producers 2005

Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.

Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.

If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.

It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.


Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)

One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.

It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.

But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.

And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.

Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.

-Alex

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Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

La La Land – Review

la-la-land-reviews

(Dear Reader, todays post comes as a brand new guest piece from a brand new guest contributor. Please enjoy his review of the new release, La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016). In the meantime, expect more talking about films coming your way soon, and please follow us on twitter: @filmpravda – Alex)


Dreamy.

There’s always that one film every year that is purely hyperbole and exaggeration. The film receiving standing ovations at every festival, nominated for all the awards, adored by every critic, praised from every possible angle. Movies that are apologetically artsy or old-fashioned are eaten up by that crowd, especially if it’s anything to do with golden age Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) was one, and now, it’s La La Land.

Except La La Land isn’t hyperbole or exaggeration. There are so many layers of excellence in this perfect meld of new-school filmmaking with classic ideas, it completely earns all the accolades that’ll shower down over the next few months.

Like the most timeless tales, the heart of it is nothing new. It’s a story of boy meets girl, yet their journey is a carefully constructed sidestep of clichés. Paths collide in the exact opposite ways to what you expect, hinting at an obvious next direction before spinning in the other. Personalities are flipped, roles are switched. An actor and actress chase dreams – not each other – in the place where they’re legendarily made, they just happen to meet at the right times and encourage each other down their respective paths. The striking landmark sights of Los Angeles surrounding them are made even better by the full Technicolor cinematography, images of famous stars and other clever references from days long gone, lingering in the backdrop. It might be showing a new romance, but its foundations lay from many a decade ago, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone adorned in sharp, colourful outfits straight out of that era. Old contrasts with new.

The opening freeway dance number alone dazzles. Damien Chazelle effortlessly sweeps from character-focused drama to grand Broadway show-stoppers, the hectic energy of Scorcese one minute and the quiet intensity of Coppola the next. The film is big when it wants to be and small when it needs to be. The songs meld perfectly with the everyday, never outstaying their welcome, never outweighing the conversations, always kicking in to support emotional climaxes, and it’s all shown to the audience with such modern storytelling flair that you can’t helped be whisked away. When Seb passionately explains the appeal of jazz to Mia, you learn about the history of jazz right alongside her. They’re both very different, believable characters, appealing in their own ways. One scene has Emma delivering a stunning, Oscar-worthy monologue phone call audition, only for the reality of auditioning to come crashing down. Another has Ryan performing an impressive piano piece, only for nobody around him in the restaurant to notice. When things are going well one evening, they literally glide off into the stars together.

It’s not just seeing their relationship emerging from their respective climbs upwards that makes La La Land so powerful. It’s unashamedly, wholeheartedly hopeful. In it’s world, the sun never stops shining, and life gets tough, but the laughs still come along. The message it lays out is your hopes and dreams are always out there if you only try hard enough. Everything you want can come true if you pursue it enough, no matter how rocky the road. It ends on a grounded note you wouldn’t expect, and exactly like Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014), it’s a jaw-dropping sequence that will leave you walking out of the screen with a smile.

La La Land isn’t just nice. It’s gorgeous on the inside and out.

*****

-Jack Woodward

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La La Land – Review