Casablanca has been my favourite film since forever, so clearly I couldn’t resist Future Cinema‘s latest extravaganza, which sees the Troxy in Limehouse transformed as if by magic into Rick’s Café Américan.
I’d never been to a Future Cinema event before and having heard tales of their most recent Shawshank Redemption themed event, I had to admit to feeling a bit unsure about what I was getting myself into. The fun begins as soon as you book your tickets and receive your instructions and ‘papers’ complete with your new identity for the occasion – I became Gabriela Ostrowska of Italy for the evening. Arriving at the Troxy, the queue was full of people decked out in impressive 1940s finery, clutching their papers for inspection, whilst members of the Moroccan police shouted out orders, and various shady characters lurked in the shadows or struck up conversations with those waiting in line.
Once inside the theatre, however, there were champagne cocktails, swinging music from Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra, roulette tables and Moroccan food from Moro. The music was fantastic and I enjoyed the chance to practice my (pretty woeful) swing dance steps on the dance floor, but even more fun for me was spotting the various characters from the film as they appeared amongst us: from Major Strasser and his fellow Nazi officers striding about, to Senor Ferrari, complete with fez and fly-swat, chatting with guests; from Sam leading a rousing chorus of ‘Knock on Wood’, to Rick himself coolly playing chess in the corner. There was plenty going on around us: the police hauling off anyone who looked like a ‘suspicious character’, much hushed talk of exit visas, and of course, the arrival of Ilsa and Laszlo to look out for.
My highlight of the evening, however, was singing the Marseillaise in a recreation of my favourite scene from the film – I’ll admit to having been a little disappointed that most of the audience didn’t seem to share quite the same level of enthusiasm for joining in (but perhaps unlike me they hadn’t got the words ready in advance, ahem…).
Finally came the opportunity to watch the film itself, with every ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ getting a big cheer from the audience. Even though I must have seen it dozens of times, it was just as brilliant as ever, and I still teared up at the final scenes, as Laszlo tells Rick, ‘Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.’
At the very end of the evening we were granted our exit visas assuring us safe passage to Lisbon. Sadly it was time to leave Casablanca behind us and head back out into the cold and wet East London night…
Together with Spike Jonze, she has also createdMourir Auprès de Toi, a quirky stop-animated film about book characters that come to life after dark in the famous Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Company.
You can watch the film in full here, and read more about how it came to be made, but an excerpt is below.
I’ve not had much chance to see any exhibitions for a while: a last-ditch winter illness and lots of work to do seem to have got in the way. Having said that, time at home recuperating has given me a chance to catch up on my viewing, including the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. It seems especially appropriate to write a little something about it here, given that this film seems, to me at least, more artist film/video than coventional cinema release.
The film centres around two eccentric protagonists who are, for the most part, the only characters who appear on screen. They are mother and daughter ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Beale, who live an odd and isolated life in a decaying East Hamptons mansion, the eponymous Grey Gardens, so called because of the colour of the sea-mist and dunes that lie nearby. The pair are the aunt and cousins of Jackie Onassis, and once a part of New York’s sophisticated Park Avenue set – in their heyday, both glamorous, bohemian and beautiful. Big Edie had once been a singer, and her daughter a model and aspiring actress, but in later days, they found themselves living in poverty and squalor, selling off their Tiffany jewelry to eke out their reclusive existence.
The duo had first come to public attention in the 1970s when the New York Times had run a piece about the dreadful conditions they lived in – the house overrun by feral cats and raccoons, and filled with sewage and rubbish. The authorities threatened to evict them and condemn the house, but Jackie and her sister Lee Radizwell came to the rescue, paying to make the house structurally sound and for over 100 bags of rubbish to be cleared away. But the media coverage of the story also caught the attention of documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, who went on to visit Grey Gardens and film a documentary about the ladies over a period of six weeks. During their time there, they reportedly had to wear flea collars on their ankles to keep from being bitten.
Intimate, meditative and strangely ghostly, the resulting film seems to be devoid of any conventional narrative. In a series of disjointed fragments that play out through the house and its tangled gardens, Little Edie tries on a succession of bizarre outfits, swathed in headscarves and costume jewelery, her mother sings the songs of her youth, and the two gently bicker, sitting outside in the sunshine or in the bedroom, lying side-by-side on twin beds. It’s not clear whether or not these fragments occur in any kind of sequence: the film merely drifts onwards without resolution, in parallel to the lives of the two Edies themselves. Revealingly though, both seem oddly preoccupied by the idea of time, as well as the chronology of their own personal histories, poring over old photographs and demanding of each other to know what time it is at regular intervals.
There’s something mesmerising, almost hypnotic, about this film, and perhaps that is why, in spite of the lonely, otherworldly lives they lead, this portrait of the two Edies has gone on to exert an influence on artists of all kinds, from writers to visual artists to performance artists to fashion designers. Its legacy continues: a made-for-TV movie based on the original documentary was released by HBO in 2009, featuring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the Beales; Mark Jacobs designed a ‘Little Edie’ bag a few seasons ago; Rebekah and Sara Maysles published a book of collage and ephemera from the film; and filmmaker Liliana Greenfield-Sanders even made a film in tribute, Ghosts of Grey Gardens, a documentary on the original documentary exploring the legacy of the Beales’ influence on creatives of all kinds, re-mixing the original footage with performance art, interviews, monologue and dialogue. Remarkably there’s even a successful Broadway musical based on Grey Gardens.
Maybe another reason for the enduring influence of this film is the sheer magnetism of its protagonists – both mother and daughter are natural performers, seeming to take an almost childlike delight in being the subjects of the documentary. On its original release, however, the Maylses were in fact criticised by many of their fellow filmmakers for ‘exploiting’ the pair, as well as being condemned for breaking the then rigidly-followed rules of so-called ‘direct cinema’ – the idea being that documentarists should distance themselves from the action and allow the truth to emerge through simple observation, rather than engaging in the lives and actions of their subjects. Indeed, unusually for a documentary, the filmmakers themselves occasionally do actually appear in the action, taking part in conversations or even glimpsed as an arm, a hand or a reflection in a mirror, but far from reducing the ‘truth’ of the work, for me at least, the result is a documentary that feels more human. Uncanny, haunting and often deeply poignant it may well be, but this is ultimately a kind-hearted portrait of two extraordinary women.
Clips of Grey Gardens can be seen on YouTube here.
I honestly think that the title sequence is probably my favourite part of a lot of films. There’s something about that moment just when the titles begin, the music starts and the audience stop shuffling and whispering and chomping down popcorn and suddenly go quiet, as if by the wave of an invisible magic wand.
If I was a film-maker, I think I would especially love making those title sequences. Maybe I’d even forget about making the films themselves, and just concentrate on making really beautiful title sequences – hints to imaginary stories that are never told. For me, what makes the titles so interesting is that they are a question mark – they set the tone for what is to come, atmospherically, stylistically – but at the same time, they can’t give too much away. But simultaneously, as a framing device, they demonstrate that the story is exactly that – just a story, no more, no less.
I was pleased to discover Art of the Title recently, via the lovely myturtleneck blog. Art of the Title is a site entirely dedicated to title sequences – taking its inspiration from that moment “when your heart sank just a little when you realized the Pink Panther movie wasn’t a cartoon.” The site has a great selection of images from both iconic and little-known title sequences, as well as video clips you can watch.
Who could resist, for example, the glorious title sequence to Amélie?
Mmmmm… dreaming of summer and raspberries – ideally one for each finger. March is finally here, and it feels like spring is on the way. Other good things from today: mocha; homemade currant cake; a rainbow of coloured pens; listening to the new Lily Allen album (which I know I’m not supposed to like, but I do anyway); excellent new woolly socks; a riot of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils in the park; getting things crossed off the to do list; and an enormous bowl of spaghetti bolognese on its way for my dinner. How have your Mondays been?
(It has become obvious to me from writing these lists that most of the things that cheer me up are things to eat. But what can you do? Can’t help it – just greedy. Now I’m off for another piece of that cake…)
This week I took a much-needed break from Woolf’s (at times rather bleak) 1920s London and ventured into a very different imaginative landscape – the gorgeously glittering, candy-coloured and utterly decadent Versailles of Sophia Coppola’s much-maligned 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette. I’d never seen the film before, though I had read Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette upon which the film was loosely based. I also love both of Coppola’s previous films (her debut, The Virgin Suicides, which I remember going to see by myself at my local arthouse cinema at the age of about 16, toting my dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel under my arm like some kind of clutch-bag; and of course, the popular Lost in Translation) so I was intrigued to see what Coppola would make of the iconic story of the ill-fated French Queen.
The film hadn’t exactly ‘wowed’ audiences: Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes, and many reviewers dismissed it as mere shallow, vacuous fluff, characterising it as a sort of lightweight costume drama for the MTV generation. Coppola was widely criticised for her decision to portray Marie Antoinette as “a real girl… just a teenager [who] wanted to stay out late and go to parties”, which critics suggested represented a failure to take seriously the political and historical context of the young queen’s story – the demise of the French monarchy and the subsequent revolution. Broadly speaking, Marie Antoinette was written off as little better than a glorified music video – a few pretty pictures, a funky soundtrack, but no real substance, meaningful content or historical validity.
For me, the music video comparison is probably valid enough – after all, the film is characterised by atmospheric sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a beautifully-shot music video, dialogue is kept to a minimum, the narrative is meandering rather than tightly-plotted, and as so often with Coppola’s work, the soundtrack plays a key role – but to dismiss it as such really misses the fundamental point.
There are a number of issues in play here, but firstly such an interpretation fails to take into account the fact that the “music video” approach is obviously a very deliberate creative choice, reflecting Coppola’s conception of the queen as simply a teenager who liked a good party. The controversial decision to feature new wave and punk on the soundtrack alongside the more conventional orchestral music we might expect from a period piece underlines the sense that this film is not an attempt at historical realism and accuracy, but (as to some extent with The Virgin Suicides which also blends period and contemporary music on its soundtrack) is rather interested in creating a certain sense of timelessness, bringing together fact and fiction to imaginatively re-vision the identity of the central character, who consequently comes to function as a kind of ‘universal’ teenage girl.
In this way, Coppola plays with the idea of history itself as a series of stories that are told and retold, themselves coming to occupy the territory of fiction – the ‘myth’ of Marie Antoinette perhaps as much as any other. Her famous “let them eat cake” remark itself has long been proved apocryphal, but nevertheless seems to endure – Coppola loves playing with this throughout the film, depicting the queen as a compulsive nibbler of fancy pastries and pastel macaroons. In this, she demonstrates that Marie Antoinette has increasingly become a figure of legend, not so dissimilar in many ways to Robin Hood or King Arthur, both themselves figures who existed in historical reality, but who have transformed into semi-fictional characters, whose stories are continually retold and reinvented in new forms to suit the specific needs of new generations, new contexts. Consequently, in this very specific ‘re-telling’ or even ‘reappropriation’ of her story, Marie Antoinette seems to exist outside the conventional boundaries of history in her own playfully anachronistic, imagined world, appearing at one moment in an 18th century gown, the next in goth-inspired make up – at one point we even glimpse a pair of Converse shoes.
For me, it’s precisely this quirky, playful approach to the story that gives the film its distinctive freshness. I also liked the slightly idiosyncratic, sideways view of the political context: whilst its fair to say the film doesn’t explore the historical events in much depth – Coppola’s focus seems to be on the personal rather than the political – it simultaneously avoids offering us any simple answers. Kirsten Dunst’s nuanced portrayal of Marie Antoinette resists depicting her as either a straightforward innocent victim or the spoilt and extravagant stereotype of 18th century propaganda, whilst Jason Schwartzman’s doe-eyed King Louis XVI delicately treads the line between sweetly naive and unappealingly odd. Coppola does not depict Marie Antoinette’s final grisly fate, yet the last shot of the Queen’s ransacked bedroom is surprisingly moving, perhaps not for what we do see, but precisely for what we do not – she allows Marie Antoinette’s myth speak to us in silence.
Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, criticises Coppola for precisely this reason: “You’d never guess from this that men’s lives—those of the Queen’s guards—were also destroyed in that violence; their severed heads, stuck on pikes, were gleefully paraded before the procession bearing the royal family to Paris… Coppola forlornly catalogs only the ruined bric-a-brac. As with the teenaged girls for whom she has such sympathy, her worst imagination of disaster, it would seem, is a messy bedroom.” But for me, this image was both powerful and resonant. The bedroom at Versailles seemed throughout the film to be a physical representation of Marie Antoinette’s inner space, and so this final sense of disorder, subtle though it may be, ultimately has more impact than any scene of violence or bloodshed.
Watching the film left me wondering exactly what it was about it that offended so many critics and audiences. Marie Antoinette is certainly historically obtuse – but is that in itself so much of an issue? The film does not prioritise historical accuracy or realism – instead it’s driven by mood, atmosphere, aesthetics, taking unapologetic pleasure in cataloguing the decadence and extravagance of the French court in endless, dreamy shots of exquisite delicacies, magnificent interiors, and of course, clothes – unsurprisingly given her own interests in fashion, Coppola takes particular delight in exploring Marie Antoinette’s role as a fashion icon of her times, with scene after scene featuring new and beautiful shoes and gowns, not to mention increasingly outrageous hairstyles. Yes, it may be totally anachronistic, but in the end, isn’t that part of the point, part of the fun? Perhaps what is really at the bottom of all this is the (to me, slightly bizarre) notion that weighty or worthy ‘serious’ art is somehow superior to any other. Personally, I don’t understand why something cannot be considered interesting or high quality simply because it is beautiful, affecting, or engaging in some other way – even simply just good fun. True, an entirely vacuous film might be a bit boring, but whilst it is playful and whimsical, perhaps even frivolous, there’s plenty to engage with and think about in a film like Marie Antoinette. The decision to explore surface aesthetics, as Coppola does so adeptly in this film can, after all, be a valid creative choice, and can result in a final piece of work that is challenging and intriguing in its own way. I don’t think critics would be quite so quick to dismiss a book simply because it foregrounds creating a powerful ambiance at the expense of so-called “deep and meaningful” political content, Maybe some would even applaud the courage of the writer in taking an alternative approach – after all, the ability to break rules, explore new angles and experiment with new perspectives is something we look for from artists.
This seems to have turned into quite a long ramble, and I’m not entirely sure what it is I want to say, except perhaps that in the end, I both enjoyed the film in an entirely frivolous way (champagne, fabulous gowns, cute puppies and cakes – erm, yes please) and found it very interesting – it is after all, possible to do both. Whether or not Coppola’s take on history is for you, there’s no doubt she manages to create a vivid sense of her character’s inner life and imagination. And maybe, in the end, in spite of her determination to sidestep the political, (indeed perhaps because of it), in its distinctive and offbeat approach to the topic, I suspect that, far from being just “fluff”, Marie Antoinette is secretly a little bit anarchic after all…