I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 March

 

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Today in 1962, having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it had come about after Dylan had played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961, and caught the eye of producer John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan up to Columbia in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

 

 

 

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth. Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it. Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course they are now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria). As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though I found her self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

I’m Not There – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Curious Return of Douglas Sirk

All That Heaven Allows original poster

 

What is it about a film-maker who died around 25 years ago in obscurity 

that fascinates a new generation of directors?

 

 

 

 

The director Douglas Sirk died in 1987 aged 90. Born in Hamburg as Detlef Sierck, he became well known for his string of lush melodramas made in Hollywood in the 1950s. Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959) are considered his key works. The French “auteurists” were the first to start the re-assessment of Sirk in the late 1950s – the distinctive look of his films marking them out as obviously the work of one person’s hand. Since then his films, often originally dismissed as weepy slush, have been re-assessed as works of multiple meaning, ripe for ironic readings. Sirk, the theory now goes, was a much more nuanced film-maker than he was initially given credit for. But though critics were hot to re-appraise Sirk, film-makers (Fassbinder being a notable exception) were slow to follow suit – as genres went, melodrama was to be filed alongside the musical; neither of them were as sexy as horror, sci-fi or film noir.

But things have changed in recent years. Film-makers from Tarantino (in Pulp Fiction) to Wong Kar–wai (in In the Mood for Love) started referencing Sirk, and since then a new generation of directors, perhaps mindful that we were once again living in a conservative age, have drawn on his methods, his colour palette, his style of drama, to produce films unafraid to let it all hang out.

Joan Crawford never worked with Sirk. But my shorthand test for working out if a film is Sirkian is to ask myself – can I imagine Joan Crawford, stoically holding back the sobs, with the back of her hand to her forehead? If I can, then bingo, it’s Sirkian. Here are a run of modern films that all owe a debt to one of cinema’s great ironists.

 

 

 

 

Far From Heaven (2002, dir: Todd Haynes)

This is the film that announced that Sirk, hovering in the background, had moved back centre stage. A film about a lovely American family living the dream, it was photographed by Todd Haynes in the Tupperware colour palette Sirk would have recognised. Its theme – things are not always what they appear – couldn’t be more Sirkian either, as happily married Cathy and Frank (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) start to acknowledge that their marriage isn’t all it should be after Cathy finds Frank kissing a man one day. She, in full headlong Joan Crawford flight, then starts to seek comfort from the gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while the husband is subjected to electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure him of homosexuality. Sirk would also have enjoyed that bit of medical intervention too – the primal and the thoroughly modern, that’s Sirk all the way.



Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

Aronofsky ditched his often rather monochrome, dialled down, cerebral style and kept the melodrama for his most Sirkian work – a camp furnace of a movie he keeps feeding with cinematic fuel till it’s white hot. I mean, rival ballerinas (Natalie Portman as a white swan trying to go dark; Mila Kunis as her nemesis), a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a draconian master of ballet (Vincent Cassel), a bitter former star (Winona Ryder, perfect), rivalry, bitchiness, vomiting, lesbianism, obsession. And again there an elemental, Sirkian thrust – by this gruesome process, Aronofsky says, girls are transformed into women. And by the film’s end Portman has indeed become the black swan, by sacrificing her humanity to become sexy, bending everything holy out of shape in the process. That last ballet finale, set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, is a seething dance of flying camerawork, rhythmic editing and increasingly gothic revelation. It’s pure Sirk, though he probably would have thrown in a bit more colour.



Blood Simple aka A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009, dir: Zhang Yimou)

A remake of the Coen brothers’ first film is interesting any day of the week. That it’s remade by Zhang Yimou, the former cinematographer whose Red Sorghum, Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers caused jaws to drop the world over makes it only moreso. Zhang relocates the story to feudal China, turning the characters into archetypes from Chinese opera – the older husband, the scheming wife, the fat buffoon, the cowardly lover – the Coens having already done most of the hard work. He then brings a Sirkian focus to telling the story visually. Always fanatical at getting things just so, Zhang has embraced digital technology to rework backgrounds, foregrounds, skies, anything he fancies. I don’t think there’s a sky in his Blood Simple that hasn’t been digitally messed with – dark, rain-filled clouds hover impossibly over sun-baked deserts. Sirk wasn’t really a man for comedy and this Blood Simple doesn’t fit thematically into an easy categorisation as nouveau Sirk, but the looks do, the use of visuals to do the work of pages of text, the way externals mirror internal states of mind, that’s all very Sirkian.



Broken Embraces (2009, dir: Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodóvar’s film about a woman who has a great hold over men is largely a pastiche of Hitchcock but there’s a fair bit of Sirk in there too. It is melodramatic, deals with unbridled love, sacrifice, exotic illness, obsession, innocence and blindness (and all films that deal with blindness recall Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession). The twist-filled plot centres on Penélope Cruz, playing a whore who falls for a director. He then turns her – using all the gifts at his disposal – into a star. Has the metamorphosis exposed her true self? Or is there no amount of hair, make-up and transformative magic that can hide a person’s true nature. See The Skin I Live In for another of Almodóvar’s treatments of the theme, which also works at such a level of excess and with such a layering of irony that the phrase Sirkian also pops unbidden into the mind.



Flight (2012, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The line where human weakness meets human grandeur is territory Douglas Sirk knew well. In Magnificent Obsession, a playboy disgusted with himself after inadvertently causing the death of a noble doctor decides to retrain as a doctor himself – to replace the man, or at least atone for the world’s loss. He falls for the man’s wife. He blinds the man’s wife. Now who could possibly save her sight? In Flight Denzel Washington, a drunk, cocaine-sniffing pilot becomes an accidental hero after saving a plane and most of the passengers on his flight with the sort of stunt-flying only he could pull off. Later, as accident inspectors poke into his private life he is called upon to decide whether to be noble or not. The nobility, the self-examination, the hand-wringing, that’s all Sirk. The lowering clouds reflecting the man’s inner torment (or murky morality, take your pick), that’s all Sirk too.



Love Exposure (2008, dir: Sion Sono)

There aren’t many film that combine soft porn, Christianity, kung fu and Japanese teen culture. But then Sion Sono is no ordinary film-maker. In Love Exposure, the first of his Hate Trilogy, he cues the opening credits one hour into a film that has up till then been soundtracked to Ravel’s Bolero. After them, the action shifts from the quiet boy who’s become the master of the upskirt shot to the young woman who, having cut off her father’s penis, becomes a coke dealer, a cult member and a dealer in bogus antiques. The third segment of this drama deals with a schoolgirl who makes money from smashing up houses. Extremism, indoctrination, cult beliefs, gang membership, obsession – be it with porn or exercise or religion – are what Sono is dealing in. And he serves the whole thing up as overcooked, over-plotted melodrama, Douglas Sirk goes quasi-anime in a world where even the schoolkids know what bukkake is.



The Box (2009, dir: Richard Kelly)

Richard Kelly famously made Donnie Darko, then the more troublesome Southland Tales. With The Box he returns vaguely to Twilight Zone territory with an adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson which put human flesh on the series of mind games called the Trolley Problem – you wouldn’t kill someone right in front of you, but what if killing them saved someone else? And what if the person you were killing wasn’t in front of you? Sort of thing. Here, it’s Cameron Diaz who is being tested, after a mysterious stranger offers her $1 million. All she has to do is press the button on The Box. The downside: someone, somewhere in the world, someone she doesn’t know, will die. Under the mumbo-jumbo wrapping what Kelly is presenting us with is an Adam and Eve story – Eve gains power and knowledge on behalf of humankind, but at what cost? It’s an elemental story, wrapped in the story of the disintegration of a suburban marriage, with a layering of paranoid melodrama, a keen interest in guilt, an even keener interest in the power of women. Sirkian, in other words.



The Burning Plain (2009, dir: Guillermo Arriaga)

Guillermo Arriaga wrote Amores Perros, which was a torrid affair with choppy chronology. The Burning Plain is similar, a whole host of intersecting stories unfolding over decades, all of them wildly emotional, held together by the most unlikely coincidence. It is essentially a Douglas Sirk film that’s been chopped up and re-arranged, a lot of small stories with a big melodrama at the centre of each – a plane crash, breast cancer, the rediscovery of a daughter etc. To go into the plot is spoilerish but there are three notable blondes in it – Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence and, most impressive of all, Charlize Theron as a maitre d’ at a swish restaurant whose off-the-clock time is spent self-harming and having serial sex with strangers. Knotty.



The Hunt (2012, dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg famously made Festen, a drama about the nasty little secrets that lie behind seemingly blameless middle-class exteriors. In The Hunt he’s doing something similar, though he’s dressed it up this time in Sirkian self-flagellation, as we watch blameless teaching assistant Mads Mikkelsen being accused by a five-year-old of showing her his penis “sticking out like a rod”, as the subtitles put it. What then plays out is a The Crucible-like drama of hysteria in a small town, an examination of the way nice people actually make things worse by refusing to deal with the nut of a problem (there is an awful lot of euphemism in The Hunt) but most of all it’s the story of a lone man adrift on a roiling sea, continuing to proclaim his innocence to a world that has become deaf to him. That protestation of guilt, those judgemental eyes, that’s Sirk territory.


White Elephant (2013, dir: Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero, one of the best directors working anywhere in the world at the moment, does love a bit of Sirkian angst. In White Elephant he tells us the story of a pair of priests working in an Argentinean shanty town which sits in the shadow of a never-finished hospital (the white elephant of the title). Set in the world of gangs, drugs and death, White Elephant splits its Sirkian business equally between the two priests – one (Ricard Darín) has a terminal illness he’s not telling anyone about. The other (Jérémie Renier), deeply traumatised after seeing an entire missionary village butchered, finds himself getting closer to the astonishingly beautiful volunteer in the shanty town (the astonishingly beautiful Martina Gusman), which is, of course, against his vow of chastity. The beautiful visuals are not Sirk (they’re more Scorsese) but the themes – secrets, temptation, redemption – definitely are. As is the way the drama builds slowly towards its conclusion, with Trapero holding back the melodrama right to the last minute.

 

 

A sign of Sirk’s neglect is that there is no box set of his best work available in the US.

Next best thing is this UK import of seven Sirk films. You’ll need a multi-region PAL/NTSC dvd player to play it though, so be warned.

 

 

Velvet Goldmine

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine

 

 

 

 

In 1988 Todd Haynes made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In it he used Barbie and Ken dolls instead of actors to play out the tragic story of the singer with the golden voice whose anorexia eventually killed her off. Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter stamped it out of the record books, claiming Haynes didn’t have clearance to use the music. It has since resurfaced as an entry on imdb and pops up on youtube in various shitty resolutions.

Haynes is in pop-music territory again with Velvet Goldmine, moving Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers into 20th-century-boy poses in a story about a newspaper reporter (Christian Bale) in 1984 doing a story on the high point of glam rock more than ten years before. In particular he’s on the hunt, Citizen Kane-style, for its prettiest star, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As he digs, Bowie, Bolan, Bryan Ferry, Steve Harley, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed are all excavated from the mound of dicarded tinsel, though Haynes has learnt his lesson and no one is too identifiable – even though the film itself is named after a Bowie song recorded for the Ziggy Stardust sessions and left out of the finished album. It can’t be denied, the film does have its share of naffery, but then so did the 70s. It’s the good bits that make it worthwhile. They succeed in transporting the viewer to the “gorgeous, gorgeous time when we were all living our dreams” as one character puts it. The soundtrack is transportational too, reminding us of the project of so many 1970s glam acts to sound like camp extra-terrestrials – Ferry, Bowie, Eno, they were all at it. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on the big screen, probably because the death of dreams doesn’t make most people want to wet themselves with glee. It’s a film that tries hard, perhaps too hard. But at least it dares to try.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

Velvet Goldmine – Buy the book (no film available) it at Amazon 

 

 

 

Far from Heaven

 

 

Todd Haynes wasn’t the first director to pay homage to Douglas Sirk, creator of teary melodramas such as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. Fassbinder had had a go with Fear Eats the Soul, a homage to All That Heaven Allows. And Haynes took the same source material for Far from Heaven, which nods like a demented thing at Sirk’s magnum opus. But why turn to something so apparently unfashionable? Three big reasons immediately suggest themselves – Sirk’s sweetshop colour palette, his unashamedly lip-chewing approach, his blowsy plot lines, they are all the antithesis of arthouse film-making and an ideal starting point for an auteur hoping to stir things up, which is exactly what Haynes was trying to do back then. All three fight for supremacy in Far from Heaven – which evokes the Tupperware/Avon lady world of the 1950s better than any film since Sirk. Then there’s that plot – perfect company wife Julianne Moore turns to black gardener Dennis Haysbert for succour after discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man. And the melodrama, that surely doesn’t need to be spelled out – shocked neighbours, uncomprehending, weeping children, Haysbert’s quiet dignity, Quaid’s character heading off to the doctor to get “cured”. It’s a rococo sweep and a half, played straight, served up in a movie so obsessively made there’s not a hint of an anachronistic slip.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Far from Heaven – at Amazon