Wednesday, March 27, 2013

That Certain Female

Last night I watched Joseph Pevney's 1955 film Female on the Beach, based entirely, I don't mind saying, on a short piece Richard Brody wrote on his blog. Noting that Pevney's "work in film ranges from the ferociously expressive to ridiculous, sometimes in the same sequences," he goes on to write:
Female on the Beach reveals Pevney to have been a good bad director whose way with images ranges from the stodgily conventional to the weirdly idiosyncratic. He has a single tone to offer, one that stretches to fit all but is, nonetheless, alluringly negative. ...
He may have been, at times, deliciously incompetent, but his impulsive or uncontrolled failures came closer to art - and are certainly likelier to spark the imagination of artists - than the calculated successes of those whose greater skill masks lesser inspiration. Such found objects of cinematic wonder converge with a wonder at existence itself.
I certainly agree with Brody's conclusion, as Female on the Beach is, I suppose, nothing special in the overall, but wondrous in a million tiny details. Take, for instance, this image below. Joan Crawford plays a widow who's moving into her late husband's beach house until she and her real estate agent can find a buyer. She's actually never been to the house before, so the agent is showing her around, mentioning, "It's too bad you never lived here. Mr. Markham was very fond of this house, before you were married." And then Crawford throws her this glance, which lasts just a little longer than perhaps a more polite woman would allow... if to say, "what did you know about my husband's fondnesses before we were married?" Brody's point about the fiercely expressive converging with the ridiculous is well taken in just how wide, and how long, Crawford holds this precise expression, which boils over just as Pevney cuts the shot, and the heat.

Where I'm not sure I agree with Brody is when he says, "The essence of [Pevney's] art is, to a great extent, his lack of authority." While he unquestionably is more than open to a certain wildfire element of cinema, there's a passage in Female on the Beach that's as beautifully, and specifically, executed as something out of Hitchcock (Vertigo and the Master of Suspense's own abandonment of emotional control, Marnie, sprang to mind immediately). Mrs. Markham has become friendly, on her own icy terms, with beach bum Drummy (Jeff Chandler), whose relationship with an elderly couple (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer) is a great deal more sinister than the familial terms on which they present themselves, the nature of which is unmistakable given the way the film opens, but which is explicated a great deal more when Mrs. Markham finds the diary of her former tenant, Mrs. Crandall.

Here, Pevney really shows us what he's made of, using double- and triple-exposure to show intersecting memories (or are they imaginations?). Sometimes they're stately and lyrical, almost something that might be framed at the very sort of beach house around which the film takes place...

...other times they're wildly claustrophobic and sinister, as characters begin to exist on, we acknowledge, two separate planes, but because of the crushing nature of two-dimensional photography, seem to sit side-by-side. In one moment that doesn't quite translate into stills but is boldly evident in motion, Mrs. Crandall comes in and comforts herself. Here, she seems actively concerned over her own well-being (and the eye peering out, just pass us, through the page is certainly cause for concern), even though the two Mrs. Crandalls in this image are far apart, temporally and emotionally.

The extent to which Pevney planned how these images would interact is, of course, impossible to say, but also represents its own kind of authority - the certainty that the total sequence would yield a particular effect, regardless of the particulars, and that it does. Crawford's manner upon arrival is pretty distinctly standoffish, though she rarely descends into outright rudeness; it's a sort of polite contempt, rigid and unrelenting. She has to make a very definite departure from here, and while Crawford is a skilled (and unpredictable) enough performer to sell that transition, Pevney does her, and us, a great service in using such a bold and terrifying sequence to set her off.

That it, coming so early, is perhaps the highlight of the film should not indicate that the film is somehow lesser for peaking early, as the thematic and dramatic waters it then enters are more than vicious and lurid enough to engage. For whatever tameness to which the story may succumb, it always navigates towards some strange, sideways, and (thus?) all the more effective means of expression, often in the images but, not to be discounted, also in the dialogue ("He's very tall, isn't he?" a detective asks Crawford of Drummy, in a manner that makes clear he's talking about everything except the man's height). As straightforward women-in-danger thrillers go (and its placement in a TCM boxset of the same name is not unreasonable), this one is anything but.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Funny Facileness

I've sort of been ducking and dodging discussing the relative "offensiveness" of various comedians (or comic news establishments, as the case may be) over the last few weeks, knowing essentially that there's an issue of context that is often overlooked, but not feeling enthused to the point that, frankly, it'd be worth the possibility that a minor miscommunication could derail the conversation. And I'm fragile. So, so fragile.

But I still think the basic idea is interesting, so it was a welcome surprise to find, while watching Stanley Donen's marvelous Funny Face for the first time last night, an avenue to explore how a piece (be it a stand-up routine, film, comic strip, awards show hosting, tweet, whatever) presents its world view, in spite of what it may be more obviously stating. In the film, bookworm Jo (Audrey Hepburn) is recruited to be a model for a fashion magazine by Dick Avery (Fred Astaire), the outfit's photographer. She has any number of moral and philosophical objections to the whole enterprise, but can't turn down a free trip to Paris, home of her favorite philosopher, Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), whom she hopes to meet.

While Jo is delighted by the company she quickly discovers (mostly in a place referred to only as "the cafe"), Dick is less impressed, considering them largely to be easily-fooled phonies, not too different from the customer base with which he's more familiar. The parallel, not explicitly stated in the film, is a worthy one to draw, as it's not unusual for someone to take up intellectual pursuits as little more than a fashion statement, though, as someone who likes to think his interest in such matters extends beyond that, I will admit to getting a little touchy when Dick and the magazine's editor-in-chief, Maggie (Kay Thompson), infiltrate Flostre's home in the kind of bohemian disguises that one of the particularly square partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would imagine and proceed to mock even the appearance of honest expression.

Which, in turn, brings me around to the point. Funny Face is pretty relentless in its portrayal of the culture of intellectualism, but that's not our introduction to philosophical theory - that comes through Audrey Hepburn. Sure, by the end, she heads off into the wide world of modeling so that she and Dick can be together forever, but she doesn't abandon her interest in the fictional "empathicalism" movement, noting with joy in one climactic moment that Maggie finally understands it, cementing a slow-forming bond between the two. The ideas succeed, even when their champions fail, even in something as simple as making those ideas understood. The film is not, in my view, making fun of those who honestly pursue deeper issues, but those who reject one contemporary fashions for another, or who, in the case of Flostre, wield intellectualism as a cheap way to get some ladies.

This is a discussion that's probably been going on as long as someone has tried to speak one way while intoning something else (perhaps even the opposite), and I don't expect it to be settled here and now, but suffice to say that it's worth looking past any initial offense you may take, and consider the context in which something is being presented - what has been established, and what will come to be crafted.