Let me begin my saying that I hope the readers and followers of the blog have managed to remain healthy during the current situation.
Looking at social media, many people have done their best to remain active and busy during the lockdowns that are going on around the world. I also needed a new project, and so I purchased some very basic video editing software and decided to revisit the research I did for my PhD and book on gay characters in silent film. My plan was to create a short video about it, lasting about ten minutes – but it ended up at 68 minutes instead.
“A Queer Romance” is a video essay, written and narrated by yours truly and covering gay characters and romantic friendships in European and American film up to 1934. Clips are included from three dozen movies, some of which are obscure or hard to find. Sadly, a couple of edits had to be made when uploading the finished product to YouTube due to copyright claims on a couple of clips – I could have argued the case given that my use falls under “fair use,” but given the current situation I just thought it best to make a couple of edits and upload it anyway or I could potentially be sitting on the video for weeks.
Hopefully the video will be of interest to some of you. Stay safe.
Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!
I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.
What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?
Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.
MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!
There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.
But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.
The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.
Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.
I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).
Tonight was a special treat, as I finally got hold of the 1929 version of Hound of the Baskervilles, made as a silent film in Germany. This was a very late silent, and while it was popular in mainland Europe at the time, it never reached the UK or America as cinemas had converted to sound by that point. It is directed by Richard Oswald, the same director as the 1914 version of the story. The 1929 film was found about a decade ago (after eighty years) and has now been restored and is released on blu ray and DVD (in one pack) by Flicker Alley.
The film is very good indeed. Sadly, a few bits early on are missing and replaced by stills, but not much. It is strange watching a film such as this as one can see how a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927) had been influenced by German expressionism, and then how THIS film was influenced by Cat and Canary. So we have German films influencing American films influencing German films! Carlyle Blackwell plays a surprisingly chipper Sherlock Holmes, which is rather at odds with much of the film that is dark in tone and looks like it came straight out of a silent horror movie. Cue lots of secret passages, hands emerging from wall, and even a Fu Manchu-like device to try to kill off our hero.
Richard Oswald, who directed the film, is a fascinating figure. He wasn’t a top-tier director in Germany, but a surprisingly important one considering few today have heard of him. He was what might be called a jobbing director. He didn’t secure for himself a particular style, but he was the first director ever to make a film that challenged anti-gay laws in Different from the Others, a film that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Bear in mind, it took the UK to 1961 to make Victim, a similar themed film!
Oswald also helped to pioneer the portmanteau fantasy/horror film genre – where short stories are joined together to make one movie. In 1916 he did this with his version of Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1919 did the same thing with Eerie Tales, which includes stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve seen Corman’s Tales of Terror from 1963, this was in many ways the prototype of it. He also made other early horror films that no doubt influenced the expressionist horrors that followed. 1917 saw him direct the Picture of Dorian Gray and A Night of Horror.
Oswald was also the director who brought Conrad Veidt to the fore, giving him leading roles in both Different from the Others (as the doomed gay violinist who gets blackmailed) and Eerie Tales, and casting him as Phineas Fogg in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. Werner Kraus and Emil Jannings also got career boosts at the start of their careers thanks to Oswald. Sadly, despite all of this he is a virtually unknown figure, overshadowed by Wiene, Leni, Murnau and Lang – and, unlike some of those, when he sought exile in America, his career didn’t take off there.
The Flicker Alley release of Der Hund von Baskervilles is quite a treat. It not only includes the 1929 version, but also the 1914 version which was also directed by Oswald – but which I have yet to see. The blu ray/DVD combo edition is region free and will play worldwide. The downside is the price, especially if you are outside of America and get stuck with customs. I paid £25 for a used copy on ebay simply because it was being posted within the UK so no customs to pay, but you’re looking at nearly £40 if you buy it new and factor in customs – which is a lot of money for two films of the same story.
But there is no getting away from the fact that this is an important release, and is the second major “lost” Holmes silent movie to be discovered and released in less than a decade (the other being the 1916 film “Sherlock Holmes”). So never give up hope!
The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood. If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band. Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American. The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.
The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby. It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917. This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it. Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.
It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin. But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history. There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.
Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen. However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:
The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason. Picture and sound are very good. The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.
I watched Call Me By Your Name tonight (a few months after most other people!). It looks very pretty, and certainly works as a very nice advertisement for Northern Italy, but I found it surprisingly disappointing and I didn’t manage to get emotionally involved in the story or empathising with the characters. This wasn’t helped by what seemed like a considerable amount of padding, and I wonder if it might have been better had it been twenty minutes shorter (it runs at two and a quarter hours).
The story about a seventeen year old (ish) teenager who begins a relationship with a research assistant who has come to live with his family for the summer to work with his father in Northern Italy is very slight and seems to go to all the various plot points that you might expect. I should also add that I know a number of research assistants and none of them are facing the prospect of eight weeks of sunning themselves in Italy! Perhaps they should complain.
Arnie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet do very well in their roles, with the latter no doubt destined for great things – and the fact that he makes you start to like a character who transcribes Schoenberg for fun gives an indication of his screen presence. But it is only in the last section of the film that he becomes that likeable, as it is that point he becomes vulnerable. Apparently, there will be a sequel, and may be even a long-running series about these characters, but I’m not going to get too excited.
The film gained some considerable attention, mostly because the two romantic leads were both male. It’s a big step forward for Hollywood in that they produced a whopping two major films with male gay lead characters this year (how did they cope?!), but a film that is a milestone for Hollywood is not anything special for anyone who watches independent or foreign-language films on a regular basis. In truth, France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia in particular have been making films with gay lead characters literally for decades, better than this, and without trumpeting their “daring” every time such a film is released. It’s just par for the course. I re-watched Les Roseau Sauvages (Andre Techine, 1994) earlier this week and it has considerably more depth and emotional involvement than Call Me By Your Name.
Love Simon, the other Hollywood film of male-male love release this year is another thing altogether and truly is a first in its use of the high school movie format that we have all seen over the last few decades for a gay romance – and it is a more entertaining, and thoroughly likeable, film by far. Hopefully, Love Simon will lead to such things being “normal” in major films. It is, apparently, the 14th highest grossing teen romance since 1980, which demonstrates that teenage audiences have no problem with the subject matter – not that anyone is likely to be shocked by that other than film executives, it seems. But out of Call Me By Your Name and Love Simon, it will be the latter that I will return to. It’s funny, charming and thoroughly engaging whether you’re the intended teen audience or not, and I found little of that in the more self-important watched tonight.
On a final note, the two films contain scenes that are very reminiscent of each other towards the end of their running times. The scene where Simon’s mother talks to him about his sexuality after he has come out has been rightfully applauded, but we get a similar scene between Elio and his father in Call Me By Your Name which is just as well done, if not better. In fact, it is probably the most touching moment within the whole film, and one of the few where I really thought I was getting to know what was going on inside the mind of the characters – but at that point, the film has ten minutes left to run and it all seems just a little too late. Fran Tirado, deputy editor of Out Magazine said of the film, “[it] seemed to be a very long, very beautifully art-directed gay porn, but with not as much sex, or plot.” It’s a quote that seems to sum the film up well.
During a career of seventeen years, cut short at the age of thirty-seven, Bobby Darin did it all. He recorded well over five-hundred songs ranging from jazz and swing through to folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and virtually everything in between; was a composer of dozens of songs and film scores; played piano, guitar, harmonica, drums, and the vibraphone; was a record producer; made over two-hundred television appearances; was an Oscar-nominated actor; hosted his own variety show; and was hailed as one of the greatest live performers of his time.
Bobby Darin: Directions covers all of these facets of Darin’s career, but tells its story through his recordings, taking the reader session by session, song by song, on a journey from his first tentative session in 1956 through to his final one in 1973.
This significantly expanded and revised edition of 2015’s “A Listener’s Guide” provides a commentary on Darin’s vast and varied body of work, while also examining in detail how he, his recordings, films, and television and live performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines, and trade publications from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The text of the second edition is around 40% longer than the first (in terms of word count) and much of that is taken up by examining nearly 600 contemporary articles and reviews, telling for the first time how Bobby’s life and career played out in the printed media, and often forces us to question our understanding of both the man and his music. All of Bobby’s music is discussed, up to and including Go Ahead and Back Up, issued in 2018.
Perfect for both dedicated fans and those approaching Darin’s work for the first time, this is the ultimate book on the career of one of the most electrifying performers of the 20th Century.
Large format paperback (7 inch by 10 inch). Over 100 black and white illustrations including rare record sleeves from around the room and candids previously unpublished in book form. 465 pages.
Paperback available from all Amazon sites. Please note that there are no plans for a Kindle edition at this time.
Five years ago, when the Viva for my PhD was approaching, I was worried about it and was told to look at it in a different way – that someone had bothered to read my work from beginning to end, they had engaged with it, and they wanted to debate it. In other words, it was a compliment, not something to worry about. In hindsight, that is a good way of looking at it – although it doesn’t stop the stress at the time.
But I am getting concerned how some academics and other writers not only run away in fright of someone reading and challenging and debating their work, but view it as an act of aggression. It seems that it is believed that it is a God-given right that they/we can write something, advertise on social media that they/we have written it and thus draw attention to it, and then not want people to do anything but provide unequivocal praise.
We should not be turning into an academic equivalent of the Memphis Mafia – saying “that’s right” to every utterance, and unable to question ideas, theories and, yes, supposed facts. If people publish something, and/or draw attention to their work, then they should expect it to be debated in a rigorous fashion. Are we really heading to a position where a conference panel ends not with questions from the audience but with compliments from the audience in case the questions are a tad awkward and draw attention to something we haven’t considered?
Academia and academic writing cannot and should not be a place inhabited by those who want to type away in an office with a closed door and the phone off the hook, who then go to the door and shove their latest article out into the public domain through the gap at the bottom, before running back to their chair ready to don blindfolds and earplugs so they can’t see any negative or challenging reactions to it.
Anyone happy and confident with their work and their research would not be fearing debate. And how boring it would be if this became the norm. I could never imagine Pauline Kael disagreeing with Andrew Sarris but keeping quiet about it in case she hurt his feelings. While that kind of academic jousting might not be for all, hiding away from dissenting voices must not be the way forward.
Sadly, as so much debate is now done on social media, hiding away is much easier. We can block anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is asking awkward questions and debating our ideas. But we need to remember that there is a world outside our offices, or bedrooms, or wherever we write and think. And perhaps if we as writers and, indeed, as human beings, ventured out there a bit more often and spoke to people other than those who we know will agree with us, we might learn something, and most definitely might be more rigorous in our own ideas.
And, of course, I write this at the same time as it is announced that next year will see the formation of a new academic journal for controversial ideas, where academics can publish anonymously if they are worried they might receive a backlash to their work. Jeff McMahan, one of the organisers of the journal, has been quoted as saying, “it would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.” How the hell did we come to THIS? Surely, part of the reason why the country is so divided is because people can hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts and spout as much drivel as they want without any fear of reprisals? Do we want an academic world that works in the same way? Haixin Dang and Joshua Habgood-Coate recently wrote in a piece about the formation of the journal:
When it is working well, academic inquiry is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and work together to open up new fields of inquiry. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is talking, what they have said before, and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out from the conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversation.
If we have ideas, theories, plans, or arguments, then it is our duty to own them and be confident enough in them to be able to argue our position – and there is nothing wrong with hearing what others have to say about those ideas and then changing our own minds. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.
I recently read an article that said the following:
There is (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.
And yes, I realise that not all authors or academics (and it should be reiterated that this goes beyond academia) are the head-butting, argumentative type, but that does not mean that anyone should be hiding behind the sofa in case a negative response or difficult question is aimed towards them. Debate doesn’t have to be confrontational – but it is likely to become more confrontational when you start being defensive or simply run away from it!
I should, of course, say that comments are welcome 😉