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On June the 9th and 10th I attended a two-day symposium on ‘Transport in the Media’ hosted by the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) at Lancaster University and organised by Rachel Aldred from the University of Westminster. I was asked to give a 10-minute response to the first day’s presentations and discussions on the morning of the second day and an audio recording of my response is posted here on Rachel’s blog, along with an overview of the two-day event: http://rachelaldred.org/whatson/transport-in-the-media-write-up/

(An extract from my book, The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom: Borders, Intimacy, Terror. London and New York: Wallflower Press pp.56-62, in which I discuss the 2010 comedy TV series, The Trip. The sequel, The Trip to Italy is currently being screened on BBC2).

Masculine intimacies

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Romantic and intimate relationships in Winterbottom’s films are haunted by loss, failure, rejection and withdrawal and also by uncertain futures. Indeed, characters are often engaged with the active, self-harming dismantling of relationships, rather than with the constructive investment in secure partnerships. The Trip, a six-part UK TV series[i], is concerned with the comically awkward nature of the friendship between two straight male actors, and the way in which, for these men, the expression of intimacy is obstructed by emotional awkwardness and sexual anxiety, and is mediated and displaced through the adoption of various personae and self-conscious performance.

 

The premise of the series is that Steve Coogan, playing himself, has been commissioned by a national newspaper to write an article reviewing restaurants in the north of England. Coogan had intended to travel with his American girlfriend, Misha, taking the opportunity to introduce her to areas of the country that he knows and loves. However, with his girlfriend having left him to return to America, he asks his friend Rob Brydon, also playing himself, to accompany him. Thus, Brydon finds himself awkwardly occupying Misha’s role in what was conceived as a romantic excursion, demonstrating that the series is an exploration of the dynamics of a couple as well as an examination of middle-aged masculinity.

 

The series, a road film derivative with extended interruptions, is effectively a sequel to A Cock and Bull Story since it centres on the interplay of the two actors who were the protagonists of the earlier film in which they also played themselves (in more or less the same characterisation as in this series), although there is no reference to the fact that they have each previously appeared in two of Winterbottom’s films. The narrative premise of a road film featuring a same-sex couple is a flexible format in Winterbottom’s work and is shared with In This World and Butterfly Kiss. It isolates two characters in close proximity – the car is a particularly effective device for this, a parody of the confines of a relationship wherein the characters are strapped in to their seats, side by side – and tests their relationship by moving them through a series of encounters and unfamiliar locations. The car, in which the characters sit immobile (but travelling through space) looking not at one another but at the screen in front of them is also a reflection of the spectator’s position, inviting us to identify or to recognise a parallel. As Julian Stringer observes, while the protagonists of road films appear to be driven by two alternate solipsistic impulses – escape and self-discovery – these films tend in fact to be centrally concerned with social interaction of individuals encountering one another in unfamiliar contexts. ‘Paradoxically, then, in masquerading as one of the most anti-social of all cultural forms, road movies constitute a polar opposite. Presenting characters who travel through expansive landscapes in self-enclosed vehicles, they situate the work of ideology in the creation of new intimacies’ (Stringer 1997: 166). That is to say, regardless of their intentions, these characters are unable to escape ideological determination in their interaction with others during the trip. They are returned to themselves. ‘Road movie protagonists may look through the window and see the whole world ahead of them, but they usually end up becoming intimate with people just like themselves’ (Stringer 1997: 166). Tellingly, when Coogan and Brydon look through the windows of their Range Rover they see a film set in which they are acting. As they drive through Cumbria, Brydon suggests, ‘You could have a costume drama here, couldn’t you?’ Coogan responds excitedly, ‘Do you know what? I’d just love to do a costume drama in these hills, just leaping, vaulting over dry stone walls with a scabbard, that dead look in my eyes because I’ve seen so many horrors I’m immune to them.’ They then spend several minutes exchanging heroic dialogue and mocking the conventions of the genre.

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‘Gentlemen, to bed, for we rise at daybreak!’ – Coogan and Brydon extemporising a costume drama

 

 

Much of the dialogue in The Trip appears to be improvised and, as a result, certain scenes have an ‘authentic’, confessional quality where the actor behind the performance appears briefly to be exposed as in the flashes of anger, jealousy, angst and arrogance with which Coogan responds to Brydon’s conversation. The naturalism of the performances by Coogan and Brydon makes it difficult to determine to what degree the film is fictional as opposed to ‘authentic’, but this is exacerbated by the fact that they are playing professional performers and celebrities, who are inevitably self-conscious about their presentation, and it is redoubled by the fact that this is a performance of awkwardness – of two male friends placed in uncomfortably intimate circumstances. There are inseparable layers of artifice, self-reflexion and a concomitant absence of self-awareness in these performances.

 

 

 

In each half-hour episode they visit a different restaurant and the focus of the programme is on their conversations conducted during the meal, while driving through the winter landscape of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District and during visits to local tourist attractions such as Wordsworth’s cottage and Coleridge’s house. This simple structure is repeated in each episode as the two actors discuss the food and drink, reflect upon their experience of ageing, sing pop songs together, exchange acting techniques and observations, competitively perform impersonations for each other, occasionally slipping into improvised routines, and defensively compare the success of their careers. As Coogan asks Brydon in the third episode (in a typically self-reflexive comment upon the series):

 

Do you think we have the same conversation in every restaurant? (…) We start out being a bit awkward with each other, have a little bit of wine, exchange a few frivolities (…) Have a bit more wine, get cantankerous, pick faults with each other, and it descends into a kind of bitter, unhappy end to the meal.

 

The sado-masochistic dynamic of the couple is that of a male comedy double act like Laurel and Hardy in which a vain, self-important but frustrated character continually abuses and humiliates his gentler, tolerant but resentful counterpart. The pair find themselves repeatedly thrust together not through choice, but through a certain fatal affinity and it is only when Coogan is asked by his son how long he’s known Brydon that he comes to acknowledge with surprise both to his son and himself, that ‘He’s a good friend’. The sexual dynamics of the classic male comedy double act typically remain unacknowledged in any direct way by the characters or the film’s narration, but they are nevertheless often a crucial comic component. Despite the fact that Laurel and Hardy are frequently shown sharing a bed, cross-dressing, and in one short (Our Wife (Horne, 1931)), are accidentally married by a cross-eyed J.P., they tend to be presented either as infantilised and asexual, or as chastely heterosexual husbands. As Jonathan Sanders has demonstrated, however, in a thorough thematic study of their films, the films of Laurel and Hardy consistently explore and derive comedy from gender instability and nonconformity: ‘Childhood and adulthood, masculinity and femininity, heterosexuality and homosexuality: polarities such as these are synthesized into comic ambiguities, which in turn are combined with each other to create a world in perpetual flux’ (Sanders 1995: 3). The pair is sometimes figured as a parody of a battling, vindictive married couple, sometimes as an idealised couple united in their difference from the hostile social environment.

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Two-shot – Brydon and Coogan dine at the Inn at Whitewell

 

Coogan’s discomfort with the ‘comic ambiguities’ of their intimate coupling is a running theme of The Trip as he repeatedly expresses his anxiety that they might be misperceived as a gay couple. This is superficially funny since, in a depiction that is consistent with his celebrity persona as it has been constructed by intrusive press reports on his ‘private life’, the Coogan character is depicted as a Lothario who sleeps with two women in the course of the trip while simultaneously trying to patch up his relationships with his girlfriend and with his son. However, this promiscuity and his disavowal of sexual intimacy with Brydon is, of course, poignantly underscored by a desire for intimacy. He will not allow the newspaper’s photographer to take a picture of the two of them together and he makes clear to Brydon in the opening scene of the series that he invited him on the trip only after failing to find another travelling companion, explaining, ‘It’s a job; I’m not asking you to go on holiday with me, or anything weird’. He is flatly insistent that they cannot share a bed when, in a comic cliché, they are booked into a single room by mistake. The awkward dynamic of forced proximity is a common feature of road films so that, Robert Lang suggests, ‘Almost every mainstream road movie in which two men travel together [...] contains at least one scene that turns on homosexual anxiety and the taboo of same-sex attraction’ (Lang, 334). This generic convention is made excessively obvious in a scene where Coogan recoils when Brydon playfully leans in to kiss him, snapping, ‘Don’t do that.’ Recovering his composure and attempting to gloss over this brief exposure of his anxiety, he jokingly explains to the two women they have just met, ‘There’s been none of that. Heavy petting…but no penetration.’ His ironic disavowal exposes precisely the erotics of their relationship. Discussing the emergence of (primarily American) queer independent road movies in the 1990s, Lang suggests that the road movie has emerged in this period as a particularly effective vehicle for exploring the nuances of male friendship: ‘Fifty years after Road to Morocco, the road movie can explore some of the erotic complexity of male-male friendships, without prohibitive cultural anxieties and Production Code pressure making comedy the only genre in which such questions can be honestly addressed’ (Lang 1997: 335). In The Trip this flexible cinematic tradition is fused with the conventions of the TV sitcom.

 

 

Coogan has appeared in a number of high-profile films[ii], although his character explains to Brydon (in an ironic comment upon his relationship with Winterbottom), ‘I don’t work with mainstream Hollywood directors. I work with auteurs’. However, both actors are best known in Britain as comic actors and skilful impressionists on radio and TV. In conversation with one another and with other characters they encounter during the trip they launch continually into comic voices or impressions of famous actors, adopting and exaggerating their voices, facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Over the course of the series the frequency with which they perform this masquerade begins to seem almost pathological. Brydon’s irrepressible readiness to launch into an impression at the slightest cue prompts Coogan to suggest that he is an ‘autistic impressionist’, adding that, ‘I think anyone over 40 who amuses themself by doing impressions needs to take a long hard look in the mirror’. Nevertheless, they both constantly fall back on impressions during conversation and seem more comfortable behind the persona of Al Pacino or Woody Allen. While it is underpinned by disavowal, particularly, for Coogan, masquerade for the two of them is also a means of intimate communication rather than an obstacle to it. Brydon, for example, continues to rotate through different voices during his flirtatious, playful and self-mocking phone calls to his partner from his hotel bed at the end of each episode, making it clear that intimacy and performance are not incompatible. On the contrary, the drama demonstrates that intimacy and authentic expression is something that is performed and that is structured by cultural knowledge. The joyful sequences where Coogan and Brydon sing kitsch pop songs in harmony and act out conversations in character are brief intervals of relaxed, pleasurable, intimate communication. In this sense, the question raised by some of Winterbottom’s other films about the relationship between documentary and fiction is addressed in a different way since, for these actors, adopting someone else’s voice – usually a comically exaggerated version of a famous film actor such as Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins or Roger Moore – enables them to express themselves in a nuanced way. On a visit to the priory, Coogan berates Brydon for reciting an extract from Wordsworth’s poem ‘The White Doe of Rylstone’ (1807)[iii], in the voice of actor Ian McKellen: ‘It was a lovely poem. What would have been really nice is if you’d got up this morning [...] and said the poem in your own voice and meant the words.’ Brydon calmly replies, ‘I chose the voice to suit the mood’. For Brydon, imitation and the conscious adoption of personae is a means of sincere and personal expression, a sensitive response to a specific context. Indeed, one of the most oddly moving moments in the series comes when Coogan, looking despondently at himself in a hotel bathroom mirror (echoing his earlier advice to Brydon), says in his childish ‘silly cartoon voice’, ‘I don’t care about silly voices. They’re stupid.’ This performance before the mirror is a moment of self-recognition and self-condemnation (and jealousy of Brydon’s popularity), voiced through the most bizarre of all the voices employed by the two actors.

 

Significantly, Coogan’s frustration is triggered by his inability to reproduce Brydon’s uncannily accurate impression of the muffled voice of a ‘small man trapped in a box’. This has become one of Brydon’s most well known impressions – they are able to get access to Dove cottage at closing time when Brydon performs it for the star-struck attendant, who is utterly uninterested in Coogan. It is, of course, also a vivid metaphor for repression, the psychic defence mechanism whereby thoughts and memories that might be troublesome if voiced or acted upon, are deflected into the unconscious. More precisely, it is a metaphor for the impossibility of masculine intimacy.

 

In one respect Coogan’s unhappiness is due to dissatisfaction with his lack of success in America. Anxious about being trapped in ‘the box’ (British slang for ‘television’), he explains to his agent at one point, when offered a role in the science fiction series Doctor Who, ‘I don’t want to do British TV’, adding, ‘I want to do films. Good films!’ The fact that the two of them repeatedly imitate the voices of much more famous actors underscores their comparative lack of success. We are given an intimate insight into the character’s egotism and anxiety through a dream sequence in which Coogan is addressed by Hollywood star, Ben Stiller[iv]. The actor tells Coogan that everyone wants to work with him, listing Tony and Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, the Wachowskis, Todd Haynes. ‘They’re all geniuses,’ Stiller assures him, ‘and they wanna work with the genius’. ‘I can’t believe it’s happening’, gasps Coogan, to which Stiller replies ambiguously, ‘You’re living the dream, Steve. It’s all a dream’. However a later dream reframes Coogan’s anxieties about success and ‘performance’ more precisely in terms of masculinity. In the second dream he is dismayed to meet a man coming out of a village newsagent holding a tabloid newspaper bearing the headline, ‘COOGAN IS A CUNT SAYS DAD’. This is an equally vivid figure for Oedipal hostility and emphasises that what motivates Coogan, much more so than Brydon, is repression. He is the small man trapped inside a box, which is precisely why he cannot reproduce Brydon’s impression, why he cannot find a voice for this diminutive version of himself and why easy intimacy remains an impossibility for him. This is true of his relationship with Brydon and also with others, since Coogan is separated from his partner and children, and is ‘chasing women’, as Brydon puts it, while also trying to resurrect his relationship with the absent Misha.

 

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Small man trapped in a box – Coogan at home after the trip

 

There is some sense that the two characters have got to know one another more fully during the journey, but the terms of the relationship are not altered substantially so that at the end of the series the characters return to where they began literally and symbolically. The trip has traced a circle rather than a progressive line. Coogan drops Brydon back at his house, driving off impatiently as Brydon suggests that they phone one another to arrange to get together. He then returns to the empty, pristinely minimal tower-block apartment where we saw him at the beginning of the first episode. Whereas Brydon is welcomed home by his partner, Sally (and continues to do impressions during dinner with her), Coogan sits alone watching a video of himself and his estranged girlfriend, Misha, on his phone. He then calls his agent to tell him that he’s turning down the offer of a starring role in the pilot for a US TV series because, ‘I’ve got kids’. However, it’s unclear whether this is genuinely based on a renewed determination to invest in his own family, whether it is a pretext for not taking up a job that may have led to a seven-year commitment, or whether it is an indication that he has reconciled himself to a less spectacular career. The series ends with a series of shots of the London skyline at night, reprising the daytime shots the series opened with.

References:

Lang, Robert (1997) ‘My Own Private Idaho and the New Queer Road Movies’, in Steven Cohan, Ina Rae Hark (eds.) The Road Movie Book. Routledge: London and New York, 330-348

Sanders, Jonathan (1995) Another Fine Dress: Role-Play in the Films of Laurel and Hardy. London and New York: Cassell

Stringer, Julian (1997) ‘Exposing Intimacy in Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ in Ina Rae Hark (ed.), The Road Movie Book. London: Routledge, 165-178

 

[i] The TV series was edited into a feature-length film for screening at film festivals.

[ii] Including, notably, Coffee and Cigarettes (Jarmusch, 2003) in which he again plays himself as an unattractively vain, career-obsessed character.

[iii] The extract makes reference to the abbey.

[iv] With whom Coogan acted in the Hollywood satire about Hollywood film-making, Tropic Thunder (Stiller, 2008).

Michael Bay’s promotional aesthetic.

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University, UK

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A new teaser trailer for the forthcoming action film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in this series of films directed by Michael Bay, was circulated on the internet earlier this week. There is a lot that might be said about these films (that are derived from a series of Japanese toys and a rudimentary transnationally produced children’s cartoon). For example, they might be discussed as symptomatic examples of:

  • the serial status of commercial cinema
  • the apparent convergence of cinema with other media
  • the apparently infantilising address of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed “the culture industry”
  • the cultural practice of what Georges Bataille termed “non-productive expenditure”
  • popular culture’s eschatological preoccupation with narratives of disaster
  • or the dominant ideological configuration of mainstream cinema.

Regardless of the critical distaste with which Michael Bay’s films are generally regarded, they provide us with rich source material.

The latest 150-second trailer is, however, a striking piece of audio-visual material in its own right. It is highly condensed and elliptical, repeatedly interspersing shots with fades to black. Brief lines of dialogue from the human characters are scattered through the short piece, and the sound design blends this dialogue with droning incidental music and emphatically synthesised sound effects. As the sequence moves towards a climax, cutting together spectacularly intricate and dynamic shots of the Transformer robots battling and metamorphosing, spacecraft, flying machines, and the cityscapes of Chicago and Hong Kong, the diegetic sound becomes muffled and indistinct beneath the electronic noise, before dropping briefly into silence.

The schematic narrative appears to concern a manual labourer (played by Mark Wahlberg), who has bought a decrepit truck to rebuild in order to make the money to pay his daughter’s college fees. In a gesture of ironic intertextuality typical of the contemporary action film the truck is almost identical to the vehicle used in a car chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991), and, indeed, as Wahlberg stares at the truck, preparing to go to work on it, he mutters to himself, ‘Come on, you old wreck. Judgment day’. He realises that he has found a Transformer, bringing it to life by connecting it to a car battery, whereupon a shadowy security team descend upon his house, demanding to know the whereabouts of ‘Optimus Prime’, one of the principal robots in the earlier films. At that point, the sound design changes and there is a generic shift from the codes of the family melodrama (with a father and daughter struggling to make money) to a science-fiction action film, marked by explosions and images of destruction, extensive use of visually baroque CGI, mobile cameras, slow-motion, dramatic lighting, aerial shots, and a diegetic expansion or perspective shift from the intimate scale of the mid-West farmhouse in the opening shots to a global scale with shots of vast spaceships orbiting the earth. The short montage concludes with three shots showing ‘Optimus Prime’ fighting in a canyon with a robotic Tyrannosaurus in another gesture of intertextual citation, linking this film with the Jurassic Park series of films, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg (who, as producer, persuaded a sceptical Bay to direct the first Transformers film).

There are certain formal conventions that are specific to the teaser trailer, since they are designed to be incomplete and ambiguous – to seduce the viewer through a brief indication of what will be offered liberally by the film itself – but what is striking about this trailer is how well it works as a film in its own right. In some respects, it is far more exciting and more arresting because of its extreme condensation. It invites the viewer to assemble the narrative speculatively from these semantically dense fragments.  If we have seen the previous three films – or, perhaps, any films – we can anticipate how the full-length film will unfold, but I suspect the fascination and richness of these spectacular, suggestive images will be dissipated rather than amplified and elaborated over the course of two hours or more. Writing in 1915 on the emergence of the feature-length film in the wake of the ‘nickel boom’ in the US, the pioneering Chicago-based film theorist Vachel Lindsay wrote that:

There is not a good film in the world but is the better for being seen in immediate succession to itself. Six-reel programmes are a weariness to the flesh. The best of the old one-reel Biographs of Griffith contained more in twenty minutes than these ambitious incontinent six-reel displays give us in two hours (Lindsay 1915, 46).

The same might perhaps be said of this trailer; this 2½-minute, $165m blockbuster (which is the estimated budget for this film) is certain to be far more exciting and rich than the epic film that will be released later this year (just as the re-released ‘director’s cut’ of a classic film is rarely an improvement). In this sense, the teaser trailer is the ideal form of the narrative film. It follows the same structural principles of the feature-length narrative, providing just enough narrative and generic cues for us to be able to construct the narrative as spectators, but eschews the exposition, redundancy and overstatement that are deemed to be essential elements of the conventional narrative film. In other words, overturning the hierarchical relationship between the two texts, we might argue that the commercial feature film embodies, or aspires to reproduce, the promotional aesthetic of the trailer. Michael Bay’s films are often dismissed as extended music promos, spot ads, or trailers because of their emphatic stylisation, narrative incoherence, and tonal uncertainty, but in this respect there is a formal purity to the films. They reduce mainstream cinema down to its essential commodity form.

Reference:

Lindsay, Vachel. (2000 [1915]), The Art of the Moving Picture, New York: The Modern Library

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This extraordinary photograph says a great deal about contemporary Hollywood. Taken with a phone at the Oscars ceremony when the host Ellen DeGeneres stepped off stage to take a picture of herself with Meryl Streep as a stunt to try to get a record-breaking number of retweets, the photograph has indeed reportedly broken records for the most retweeted and most rapidly retweeted photograph circulated on Twitter.

The image itself reproduces a very familiar fantasy of Hollywood stardom, crystallizing the impression that life is a continual party for the wealthy and the beautiful, but at the same time it demonstrates the paradoxical double register of stardom, in which we are periodically reminded that stars are also just like the rest of us. On the face of it, the image appears to be an authentic, spontaneous snap; formally it resembles a photograph anybody with a smartphone might have taken at one time or another. This impression is reinforced by the presence of Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o’s brother, Peter in the bottom right, who accompanied his sister to the event and who has become in an instant a globally recognisable individual after joining the group of stars who pushed themselves into the frame. But of course, no matter how provisional and unplanned the photograph itself might appear to be, there is nothing accidental about the staging of the event and the distribution of people around the space. It is a contingent document of a very carefully staged industrial promotional event.

Nevertheless, there are a number of historically significant dimensions to this image. The most obvious of these is that at the centre of the picture is a lesbian woman, the host for the global TV broadcast, while just visible at the back is Lupita Nyong’o, who won the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award for 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013), the film that won the ‘Best Picture’ award. It is therefore an attractive visualisation of the American film industry’s self-representation as a liberal, inclusive and historically reflective film culture. More broadly and more significantly, however, at a point at which Hollywood distributors are abandoning the distribution of 35mm prints, it represents both the integration of cinema with digital communications technologies in a shifting screen culture, as well as an increasingly indistinct and complex relationship between film and television (as embodied, for instance by the presence of  Kevin Spacey who is probably best known right now for his starring role in the series House of Cards, which was produced by David Fincher and is the first in-house production by the on-demand internet streaming service, Netflix). The real historical significance of this image lies not so much in the speed with which it has been circulated, nor in its content, but in its status as a synecdoche for the contemporary global entertainment complex.

 

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

‘Deserting the human race’: Introduction to La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Dukes cinema, 27th Jan, 2014

(This was the introduction I gave for the screening of a new digital restoration of this film, which was screened within a series of ‘Gothic’ films)

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La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is the second of the six extant films that were directed by the prolific French poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, artist and director, Jean Cocteau.

The film is an adaptation of the French fairy-tale that was first published as a novella  by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then later reworked and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Published in 1756, this is the version of the story that has become the key source for all subsequent adaptations. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known examples of the ‘literary fairy tale’. These were first produced by groups of writers, chiefly aristocratic women, in 18th France who gathered in Salons. Thus they were initially intended for educated adult audiences, as upper-class women would entertain themselves and one another by retelling stories adapted from traditional folk tales, improvising and embellishing them. Storytelling in this context was a form of competitive intellectual game-playing as well as entertainment, a demonstration of the wit and creativity of the storyteller.

Literary historians have argued that these stories were often a coded means by which the women could imagine how their restricted lives might be improved – these fantasy narratives were a highly symbolic and oblique way of telling allegorical stories about contemporary reality as they experienced it. At a certain point in the 18th century, however, women such as Beaumont began transcribing and publishing the stories, which made them available to a wider audience and, in particular, to bourgeois and aristocratic children. As the audience for the stories changed, the function of them changed too so that one of the principal aims of the literary fairy tale became that of providing moral instruction to children – the very small minority of children who could read or were read to. For instance, the version of Beauty and the Beast that Cocteau worked from was published in a volume pointedly entitled, The Children’s Journal, or Conversations between a wise governess and several of her pupils of the highest quality.

There are certain features that came to characterise the literary fairy tale: they were short (so that they were reproducible – they could be easily read and memorised and lend themselves to retelling and adaptation); they were didactic or instructional (teaching the readers certain values or ideologies);  and, in particular, they restate repeatedly the message that power lies naturally with the aristocracy.

For instance, in terms of its ideological significance, Beaumont’s version, is often understood as a story that asserts the importance of honouring promises, the value of women’s self-denial (sacrificing their desires for the interests of others), and uncritical devotion to one’s father. However, there is, of course, some ambiguity in the story, which is one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast has remained fascinating to readers and audiences. Beaumont was a progressive thinker in the context of the period in which she lived. As a governess herself, she wanted women to have more access to education and more prominent social roles. At the same time, however, like many of the women attending the salons she was committed to the patriarchal social structure in which she lived. Similarly, Beauty can be understood as brave and determined (she is far more courageous than her father or the other men in the story) or she can be seen as submissive, while the beast, the symbolic epitome of masculinity, is both repulsive and fascinating, violently aggressive and loving, animalistic and civilised – as one of Beauty’s sisters observes in the film, for instance, in a sardonic comment on masculinity, ‘Lots of husbands are hairy and horned’. Jack Zipes suggests that what makes the story so powerful, and why it has been retold so regularly, and also adapted for film numerous times, is precisely that it lays bare and dramatises these contradictions. The story concerns characters wrestling with contradictory desires, instincts and obligations.

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Production began on the film in August 1945 and it was apparently a difficult shoot. In the immediate aftermath of the war in which resources were limited, they were working with old, unreliable cameras that frequently jammed, damaged lenses, film stock of onconistsent quality, and even had trouble sourcing fabric for dressing sets and cutting costumes. It took them a lot of work, for example, to find unpatched sheets for a scene where they’re drying linen in the garden. The house where Beauty and her family live was also next to a military airfield and their sound-recordings were often ruined by training flights passing overhead. Cocteau himself suffered for much of the shoot with skin rashes and excruciatingly painful boils that led him to resume an opium addiction, and he claimed that his hair turned white over the months spent working on the film. In his production diary, he reconciles himself to these difficulties with the consolation that heroic suffering is essential for the production of poetry.

However, these difficulties aren’t evident in the film, which is visually sumptuous and has a lightness of touch and a clarity that belies the frustrations of the shoot, and it manages to capture the strangeness of the fairytale narrative very successfully.

Cocteau didn’t direct many films – although he enjoyed collaborating, he saw himself primarily as a poet, and preferred to work alone – but what drew him to cinema was the sense that it was the best medium in which to convey a sense of what he called the ‘Marvellous’ – inexplicable, irrational interruptions in the fabric of normality. As he explained it,

The Marvellous would be […] a simple human miracle, very commonplace, which consists of giving to persons and objects a certain “unusualness” which defies analysis. (43, 1977)

This is a concept that was central to surrealist art and literature (and André Breton’s writing in particular), and so it is unsurprising that Cocteau’s first film, Blood of a Poet (1930), is one of the avant-garde classics of surrealist cinema.

In terms of style and structure, Beauty and the Beast is a much more conventional film – Cocteau said that Blood of a Poet was a ‘film for fifty film connoisseurs’, whereas Beauty and the Beast was made for a wider audience. Nevertheless, it retains a number of elements – strange, unexplained details, photographic effects, abrupt edits, as well as theatrical tricks such as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ – that are familiar from surrealist cinema in order to render the ‘unusualness’ of the space inhabited by the beast. These include the uncanny living statues in the beast’s mansion, the candelabras supported by human arms, the use of slow-motion and reverse-motion cinematography, the rather disjointed narrative, the disconnected relationship between music and on-screen action and the use of silence, and the curiously theatrical style of some of the performances.

But, of course, the figure of the beast himself is the clearest embodiment of Cocteau’s concept of the marvellous – the inexplicable, irrational disruption of everyday reality. Perhaps the most fascinating and uncanny element of the film, he is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, who had suggested the idea for the film in the first place. Like Cocteau, he too suffered during the film since Cocteau insisted that rather than wear a rubber mask, his make-up should be glued painstakingly to his skin so that his own face remained visible underneath the fur. As a result, he recalled:

It took me five hours to make up – that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes I scarcely opened my mouth lest the makeup become unglued: no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

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But the consequence of this physical discomfort is a very memorable cinematic figure. Indeed, for Cocteau, Marais’ commitment to art was an inspiration and he wrote that, as a consequence of this passion, when Marais played the beast he went through a transformation, ‘deserting the human race for the animal race.’ This vivid phrase describes both the transformation undergone by the actor, and also the decision made by Beauty within the narrative to offer herself to the beast. More broadly still, it is suggestive of the potential of cinematic fantasy to transport the viewer to an imaginary and impossible space.

The beast’s spectacular costume is the central attraction of a visually rich film – the production designer used paintings by Johannes Vermeer and prints by the French illustrator Gustave Doré as reference points for designing the interiors. This is a film that is all about light in one respect – it is central to the film’s aesthetic and the precise lighting scheme establishes a distinction between the glowing sunshine of Beauty’s world, and the shadowy world of the Beast, which is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes and back-lighting, luminous smoke and fog, and dark rooms and corridors punctuated by sparkling highlights. Cocteau chose Agfa film stock over Kodak because, he said, he wanted the film to have the ‘soft gleam of hand-polished old silver’. It is a very accurate description of the film’s distinctive antiqued metallic lustre

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Cocteau was in an unhappy situation more generally when they were making the film. He had lived in Paris during the occupation and was accused by the BBC in 1944 of being a collaborator having published an article in 1942 praising the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (one of Hitler’s favourite artists). He wasn’t a fascist, and he was investigated and acquitted after the war by two tribunals, but would no doubt have been especially keen to put the war behind him.

Jack Zipes has suggested one of the remarkable features of Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is that it emphasises more strongly than any other film adaptation, the oedipal dimensions of the story: the daughter’s self-sacrificing devotion to her father. This is undoubtedly a plausible interpretation of the film, and the simple story invites a number of others; the American composer, Philip Glass, who has written operas based on three of Cocteau’s films including this one (wherein Glass’s opera was performed in exact synchronisation with the film), suggests it is a film about ‘the nature of the creative process’, as well as a love story. However, it seems quite likely that a powerful attraction of the film both for Cocteau, and for audiences watching it in the ruined and impoverished environment of post-war Europe, is also that it invites us to step into a fantasy world, a simpler, apparently innocent space (like the characters within the film who pass back and forth between normality and the magical space occupied by the Beast). The film opens with a written message from Cocteau, himself, inviting viewers to suspend their cynicism and watch the film with a childlike simplicity.

The film’s initial success – and the fact that it has been revived repeatedly culminating with this pristine new restoration – suggests that cinema audiences have always been very willing to take up the invitation.

References:

Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bete’ from the booklet accompanying the 1995 CD release of Glass’s opera.

Arthur B. Evans (1977) Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. London: Associated University Presses

Elizabeth Sprigge, Jean-Jacques Kim (1968) Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. London: Victor Gollancz

Francis Steegmuller (1970) Cocteau: A Biography. London: Macmillan.

Jack Zipes (1994) Fairytale as Myth/Myth as Fairytale. Lexington: University of Kentucky

New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings

Bruce Bennett

One of the running gags in Flight of the Conchords, the sitcom about the eponymous ‘novelty music’ duo from New Zealand, who are trying to make it in New York, is that the walls of their manager Murray Hewitt, the deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand embassy, are decorated with  posters diffidently promoting tourism to the country with such captions as  ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE SCOTLAND BUT FURTHER’ and ‘NEW ZEALAND, ONLY 18 HOURS FROM NEW YORK’, and ‘NEW ZEALAND, WORTH A GO’; but one of the funniest is a mountain-scape with the caption, ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS’.

Visiting New Zealand six years later, it is clear that this similarity is a crucial promotional device. When you fly in to Wellington airport, for instance, one of the first things you see is the exterior of the terminal building, which is decked with a large banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth’, while the interior of the terminal is dominated by impressive and beautifully detailed statues of Gollum catching fish underwater and Gandalf flying on the back of a giant eagle.

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These attest to the presence nearby of WETA digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects facility, but travelling through New Zealand you are constantly reminded of the importance of these films to the country’s cotemporary cultural identity and international prominence. Bookshops across the country have stands dedicated to the second Hobbit film, and it is difficult to escape the various locations used for shooting the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as you move around the country – I jogged up Mount Victoria in Wellington one morning, passing the point where the hobbits hide from the black riders beneath a bank, and later took the ski-lift up the volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and walked around ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Mead’s Wall’, the location for several scenes including the severing of Sauron’s hand.

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The neighbouring volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, meanwhile, also functions as Mount Doom in the films.

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On sale in almost every bookshop around the country is a Lord of the Rings location guide, newly updated to include The Hobbit trilogy, allowing tourists to plot a route around the country visiting the numerous locations. However, this project of over-writing the terrain of the country with a fantastic cinematic landscape goes into over-drive in the small town of Matamata, the dairy-farming and horse-breeding centre of the North island, Te Ika a-Maui, that is also the site of the set of the hobbits’ village, Hobbiton.

In the town centre a sign welcomes you to Hobbiton, and the adjacent tourist information centre is housed in a thatched hobbit house, while the windows and walls of local shops have been decorated with imagery from the films.

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The focus of a visit to Matamata is a 90-minute guided tour of the set. This was built as a temporary set on nearby farmland for the Lord of the Rings films with assistance from the NZ army who constructed a metalled road to the site – and the bus driver gave us a full account of the process by which the film-makers identified the location and negotiated with the fortunate land-owners, pointing out the famer’s house along the way, as well as his neighbour’s house which was commandeered by Jackson and his assistant as a production base for the shoot.

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After being partially dismantled on the films’ completion, it was rebuilt as a permanent set-cum-tourist attraction for the three Hobbit films and is now maintained by a team of staff. The company managing the site extended the set by constructing the ‘Green Dragon Inn’, which serves food and drinks at the end of the tour of the 44 hobbit holes, which are built to different scales to allow forced perspective staging (and only a handful of them have shallow interiors). It is an interesting  and popular tour – they were expecting 2000 visitors on boxing day but average around 1000 per day – and it is fascinating to see the amount of care with which the detailed sets were built, almost all of which is imperceptible in the films – such as the artificial oak tree above Bilbo’s house ‘Bag End’, or the apple tree that was changed to a plum tree (by art students who painstakingly replaced all the leaves), through to the artificial lichen covering the surface of the woodwork.

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The long-term value to New Zealand, and in particular, to film production in the country, of hosting these transnational super-productions is perhaps questionable. They offer a case study of how small national cinemas are occasionally invigorated by injections of US money due to tax breaks, comparatively high levels of privacy and extraordinary government support – it turns out, for example, that a 5,000 feet no-fly zone was established over the Hobbiton set to prevent paparazzi photographs, and, incredibly, one pilot who flew journalists over a location on the southern island was subsequently arrested and banned from flying in New Zealand.

James Cameron has just announced that three sequels to Avatar will be produced in New Zealand after negotiating a controversial increase of the tax rebate from 15 to 20% with a possible further 5% increase. Among the conditions of the deal are that the DVD and Bluray releases include a documentary focusing upon New Zealand’s importance as a base for the film’s production. The rationale for this deal is that the production will bring up to NZ$500 into the economy and may boost NZ film production more generally. While the long-term value of such mega-productions to the New Zealand film industry may be disputable, what is clear is that New Zealand has been made-over by Peter Jackson’s films into a quite different place, its landscape and architecture having become fused with the fictional mise-en-scène of the films. Once you are sensitised to it by the barrage of publicity, you begin to see the film’s scenography everywhere in the rolling pastoral hills and mountainous, volcanic skylines. Like the poster says in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand is like Lord of the Rings.

Everyday pleasures: cinema-going

Bruce Bennett

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As the term ‘cinema-going’ suggests, one of the historical pleasures of watching films has been visiting the structures in which they are screened. In An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, Annette Kuhn’s study of people’s memories of cinema-going in the 1930s, she found that for many of the people she interviewed, the cinemas themselves, the groups of friends they went with, or particular occasions on which they went to the pictures were at least as strong a memory as the actual films they saw. Cinema-going is, however, a vanishing pleasure since most of the films and audio-visual material we watch is viewed at home on TV screens and computer monitors, while the experience of watching a film at a multiplex is so expensive and alienating it can feel like undergoing a polite mugging. This is captured nicely in the episode of the sitcom Black Books when the protagonist, Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) pays a rare and reluctant visit to the local multiplex cinema after being locked out of his bookshop:

BB: ‘Excuse me. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I bought a drink and some popcorn and now I have no money left.’

Cashier: ‘That’s how much it costs.’

BB: ‘Why? Is it special popcorn? Does it produce some kind of dizzying high?’

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By contrast, the community cinema on Waiheke Island is a rare exception of a cinema that it is a pleasure to visit. It is in the basement of the community art gallery in the island’s main town of Oneroa and was staffed by volunteers on the occasions I visited. It screens first-run commercial films as well as ‘arthouse’ films and local productions, and has a good surround sound system and digital projector, however watching a film there felt like going to a cinema in another period. It was recommended to us by a volunteer who worked at the local recycling centre who said it reminded her husband of watching films in barracks rooms when he was in the army. The room is decorated with film posters, reels of film, miscellaneous bits of projection equipment and an old 35mm projector, while the ceiling is dotted with stars and crescents. One of the most pleasurable aspects of it is that in place of rows of cinema seats, the room is filled with a varied collection of sofas.

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It seemed appropriate to watch the new Peter Jackson film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in New Zealand for various reasons, but while I would like to have watched it in 3D and HFR, Waiheke community cinema seemed like the most suitable venue.

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Reference:

Annette Kuhn (2002). An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London: IB Tauris.

 Perfect and ephemeral: Chaplin as cinematic sign

Bruce Bennett

Driving back and forth past this outhouse on the small island of Waiheke in New Zealand/Aotearoa over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the incongruity of finding this image of Charlie Chaplin at what feels like, from a Eurocentric perspective, the edge of the world. The figure of Chaplin dressed in the costume of his most familiar character, the tramp (or ‘the little fellow’ as Chaplin called him), must surely be one of the most universally recognisable individuals ever to have existed. Like portraits of Che Guevara or Bob Marley, this has become a free-floating signifier that is detached from its original context and is familiar to people who’ve never seen the films.

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Although all the extant material is available on DVD now, Chaplin’s films are rarely screened in cinemas or on TV, and so it is odd that he remains such a familiar figure  that even children who’ve  never seen any of his films  are nevertheless able to imitate his splayed-feet walk. The insistent after-life of this mute cinematic figure may have something to do with the effectiveness of the films; whenever I have taught Chaplin’s satirical and sentimental feature film, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), the finely judged ending always leaves one or two of my worldly undergraduate students with tears in their eyes, and I’ve watched my children in tears of laughter at some of the early Keystone comedies. However, it’s also a testament to the perfect construction of this cinematic persona, which reduces a character to a few disconnected, reproducible (and easily imitated) visual elements – the dandyish cane, bowler and jacket with tails, outsized trousers and clown shoes, and pedantic moustache (as borrowed later by Oliver Hardy and, to Chaplin’s intense irritation, Hitler).

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The costume was first used in the brilliantly simple Keystone production, Kid Auto Races in Venice (Lerhman, 1914) – the first film in which Chaplin appears – a short commentary upon performance and celebrity, in which the tramp, noticing that cameramen are filming the go-cart races on Venice beach, tries nonchalantly to insert himself into every shot, sidling into the frame as if he hasn’t noticed the camera. Although he wears normal shoes in this film, the costume is more or less fully-formed and is used with little variation thereafter in different narrative contexts so that Chaplin’s character stands apart visually from those around him, emphasizing his (self-) importance.

Writing about Great Garbo’s icon-like face (or face-object) in the Hollywood film, Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Roland Barthes suggested that,  ‘In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn, but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once, perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’. This captures very well the contradictory quality of Chaplin’s image – smooth, flour-white, fragile, perfect, totemic. It is not an image of an individual – and, indeed, in photographs of Chaplin out of costume and not wearing make-up he can be hard to recognise – but of an individual rendered as a pure cinematic sign.

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Reference:

Roland Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies

Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

daily-mail-welfare

This is a new short piece I co-wrote with Imogen Tyler as a blog post for the online journal, New Left Project: blog http://goo.gl/IvFQom

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