Der Hund von Baskerville (1929). Review

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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!

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Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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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.

Call Me By Your Name (Review)

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.

Bobby: Directions. A Listener’s Guide. 2nd Edition

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.

Should academics and writers be opting out or butting heads?

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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.

https://theconversation.com/the-journal-of-controversial-ideas-its-academic-freedom-without-responsibility-and-thats-recklessness-107106

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.

https://vaguevisages.com/2016/05/03/why-criticism-sarris-vs-kael/

Amen to that.

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 😉

Revisiting Dorian Gray (2009)

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Perhaps the biggest reason why the 2009 film of Dorian Gray is so disappointing is that Ben Barnes is probably the most suitable actor to play the role since Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 MGM version.  Barnes might have been twenty-seven at the time of filming, but he looks younger and, perhaps more importantly, is both beautiful and contains a childlike innocence during much of the first half of the movie.  If Hatfield had come across at fragile with his porcelain-like features, Barnes portrays Dorian as naïve – something I could never believe Hatfield to be, he seemed far too wicked for that.  And in both versions of the story, the lead actor was relatively unknown – Hatfield particularly so, but the public was only aware of Barnes through his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia series, and a jolly jape misfire of a Noel Coward play.  And the public’s lack of familiarity with the lead actor can help with something like Dorian Gray.  By the time Helmut Berger was cast in the 1970 film, he had already appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, and, after that, who could ever believe that Berger could be an innocent?

Unfortunately, the 2009 movie falls down in so many places that the potentially perfect casting of Barnes becomes almost immaterial.  The opening of the film is a case in point, unable to convey through its CGI-laden visuals whether the audience should prepare for a horror movie or a fairy story.  This is an issue that continues throughout the film, with even some of the acting (particularly Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sybil Vane) making audiences wonder if they are watching a Wilde adaptation or a Tim Burton movie.  Ironically, a Burton take on Dorian Gray might be an interesting venture if Burton was feeling inspired that day, but here the visuals are too pretty, too clean (even in the sordid moments) and without the underlying wickedness that Burton is capable of bringing to such seemingly-innocent images.

But the film fails mostly because it dares to show us, repeatedly, just what Dorian’s sins are.  We know very little of them in the book, or, indeed, in the Hatfield film, but here they take place before our very eyes.  The issue here is that this is a mainstream film and, because of that, none of the sins appear particularly sinful – especially to a modern audience.  I very much doubt that anyone watching the film is likely to faint with shock that Dorian has a threesome, or has sex with another man, or that he doesn’t mind a bit of S&M even if it means roughing up that pretty little face of his (albeit temporarily).  Sure, he commits a murder too, but you only have to tune in to ITV3 every night to see half a dozen of those thanks to Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot.  Trying to shock audiences (or even to titillate them) in a 15-certificate movie through some images of fetishist sex is hardly going to make us realise just what an horrific fellow Gray has become, especially when Fifty Shade of Grey is more likely to make one giggle than get aroused.

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It might work if it was a movie made by an independent filmmaker, with an appetite to come up with something more genuinely shocking, explicit or, at least, visually stimulating.  But Ben Barnes with his shirt off kissing two women at the same time is hardly a startling, hedonistic existence in a world where you can do a search on Google and be shown all kinds of sexual activities that you never knew existed – and all because you were looking for the amount of calories in a bowl of corn flakes.

Hinting at Dorian’s sins would have made for a somewhat more mysterious, maybe more eerie, film.  Even the decaying picture itself gets shown far too often for the changes to be remotely shocking – quite unlike the 1945 version where the colour insert of the decaying picture is in itself quite a jolt for the viewer near the end of the black and white film.   The script itself is formulaic for the most part, and the special effects really not very special – check out the explosion at the end of the film.  There are parts of the movie where it looks like an ITV Sunday night two-part adaptation, only with Colin Firth as Lord Henry instead of Jim Nettles.

Going by online reviews, many blame the film’s failings on Ben Barnes, but I would suggest that the film is bland and disappointing despite of him, rather than because of him.  You can’t make a good film with a bad script, and that is exactly what this film has – from the underdeveloped characters to the pointless changes to the source text, including the introduction of a back story where Dorian was the victim of child abuse, which seemingly has no purpose in the narrative and no influence on the character.

Dorian Gray is, unfortunately, a highly frustrating if somewhat watchable mess, but with a TV series in development and another film version out this year, perhaps someone will get an adaptation of Wilde’s own novel right at some point in the near future.

Love, Simon (2018)

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Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.