Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.

The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of Victorian literature. Freedom was a concept that had no longer a purely theoretical abstractness; its pent-up force sought outlet finally in the practical efforts of the few, exerting far-reaching impacts that would, in consequence, changed face of the social climate. Even for those to whom the prospect of freedom was not too implausible a dream, but altogether an unattainable privilege, their growing distrust with the old values and ideals that they used to hold dearly to triggered stirrings of rebelliousness against their secluded lives.

A typical Gothic fiction dramatises this struggle of attaining the freedom of self. Women are chiefly the voice, their stories a model for the oppressed to stand up against the injustice of their present conditions, or the tyranny that condemns their lives to endless fear and suffering. Passivity is no longer a mark of feminine virtue, but an impediment to one’s pursuit of future happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead of resigning to fruitless dreaming, those doughty women set out to rewrite their destiny.  

But not all women in those stories start in a place where their sense of resoluteness or intrepidity is readily evoked in the face of adversity, nor are they wholly aware of possessing those qualities. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight features a heroine who is constantly questioning her own sanity. It is clear from the outset that her husband isn’t totally innocent in the matter: he reproaches her for her incessant forgetfulness and, later, a paranoiac hallucination which convinces her that the gaslight would inexplicably dim whenever he is out. The unravelling of the mystery seems too facile, with every obvious clue pointing to the husband as the cause of the wife’s affliction. He is callous and scornful during his wife’s many mental break-downs, flirting behind her back with the servant and slipping out every night to tend to an unknown personal business.

Intentionally or not, the play’s want of suspenseful elements heightens this uneasy complicity between the playwright and the audience, to the extent that, as the heroine’s suffering of her husband’s cruel treatment becomes increasingly acute, our collective moral conscience is called into question. This manipulation of audience’s response constitutes in the main the mechanism of filmmaking. A filmmaker is, in a sense, more of an interpreter than a storyteller, whose invisible presence thrusts more forcefully between an audience and the film. It seems normally the case that, when viewing a film, especially for the first time, one is allowed not much freedom in diverting from the fundamental perspective through which the story is told.

With George Cukor’s 1944 film adaptation of Gaslight the viewers are subjected to an emotional trial that sees Ingrid Bergman’s Paula Alquit systematically driven mad by her wicked husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer. Both were acting against their types: Bergman reduced to a crumbling frailty that was oddly efficacious with someone whose tall, robust frame, and whose faultlessly dignified mien, earned her roles in the past of a more fearless, dogged temperament (in fact it was Cukor’s intention that the character should seem in appearance contrary to the tortured victim she then becomes); whilst Boyer swiveled between his signature lover’s charm and a shuddering viciousness.

What ultimately distinguishes Gaslight from other Gothic thrillers of the period is the timelessness of its subject - that our greatest fear derives not from the threat of what we don’t know, but the unsuspected danger inherent in what we know. Gaslight is a perfect metaphor for this: it consists in both light and darkness, offering at most temporary, tentative relief that is constantly accompanied by signs of its imminent extinction.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Review: A Taste of Honey (1961)

Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.

Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will between the irrevocable fate and the indefatigable resilience of mankind.

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey explores the extent to which men are capable of withstanding endless misfortunes whilst keeping alive the infallibly optimistic outlook of life. The story is set in 1950s’ Salford, a former industrial town that weathered a gradual decline in commerce and population as people left for the cities to seek for better fortunes. 17-year-old Jo and her errant mother Helen were amongst those who struggled to keep afloat in this implacable squalor, moonlight-flitting from one derelict accommodation to another. The relationship between the mother and daughter was a contentious one; their exchange abounded in sardonic humour and throwaway barbs. Desperate to be released from the straits, Helen ran off one day with an insolent cad, and the abandoned Jo was impregnated by a black sailor and afterward befriended a kind homosexual art student, Geoffrey.

Tony Richardson’s 1961 film version justly evinces a dogged hopefulness that, according to Delaney, is the keynote of the play. But whilst, in the play, this positivism is somewhat weighed down by a sense of unremitting oppressiveness and self-inhibition the cramped locale evokes, Richardson negates this vital contrast by expanding the visual scope, wherein the interiors are much wider, and the characters are taken out into the open, roaming frequently in the country and the dockside.

By muting the ambiguous overtone that makes the original story not only a celebration of human endurance, but an unvarnished observation of the difficult life in post-war Manchester, the film is evidently keen on conveying an edifying message that the brave of heart will eventually triumphs all obstacles. The play nonetheless is much more sceptic in its tone, as the ending sees Helen, back from her disastrous marriage to tend to her pregnant daughter, rush out in the shocked knowledge that her grandchild may be half-black. Although she promises Jo that she is only going to get herself a few drinks, there is no knowing if the fickle Helen will keep her word this time. Jo, left alone again, smilingly hums a tune Geoffrey teaches her, seemingly still in the dark of her friend’s earlier departure.

The film instead closes with manifest signs of hope: Helen is really back from the bar and Jo stares bedazzled by a sparkler. This overall image of hope is accompanied by a more sympathetic portrayal of characters: Dora Bryan as the mother whose maternal instinct atones for her failure as a responsible parent, and Rita Tushingham as a more likeable Jo whose flares of rebelliousness is a result of being perpetually exposed to harsh fate. Like all young sufferers, Jo often discloses her feelings in deceptively simple address: “I’m not frightened of the darkness outside. It’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like” is her way of expressing her wish for a more stable, loving household. One would suggest that such precocity could not have been any more exquisitely captured if the play weren’t written by Delaney when she was only 19.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Review: Hobson's Choice (1954)

In comedy a happy ending does not always resolve all. The case in point is Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, whose hilarity so overtly predicates on the wretchedness of the victim that, when one laughs there follows inevitably a conscience tug that one is gloating over someone’s misfortune.

My disquietude may seem misplaced here, for the importance of the play is really on its revolutionary illustration of an upending of the age-old hierarchy in traditional domesticity. Henry Hobson is the imperious, blustering, perennially sottish shoeseller bestriding his three unmarried daughters, who skivvy away at the shop and the household without pay. The story is set in late 19th century Salford, just a few miles from where the first suffrage movement germinated. The play presents a hallmark in heralding the birth of female empowerment: Maggie, the eldest daughter who is deemed too old to be marriageable at 30, is impelled to prove her father wrong by marrying William Mossop, the most skilled bootmaker in the shop, and gradually gaining upper hand with her calculated mind and steely ambition. The moral lesson seems to be, crudely, that parents should not underestimate their children’s potentials, and that upward mobility is an insidious power in transforming a society.

If it seems that I am equivocal with the play’s ostensible feminist statement, it is because I sense Brighouse’s doubt regarding the prospect of the rising number of self-made, independent women. This is especially evident in the characterisation of Maggie, who, despite embodying a fine mixture of sense and intelligence, is too set on fashioning her humble husband to become the top shoemaker that, instead of unfettering from the paternal yoke and asserting her strength, she is merely lurking in the outsized shadow of her father’s. The final triumphant moment with Maggie and Mossop patronisingly proposing working partnership with the ailing, subdued Hobson seems more of a vindictive display of their reversed fortune than a solicitous love for the defeated party- here lies the pathos that single-handedly eclipses whatever positive message the play wishes to convey.

David Lean’s 1954 adaptation of the play brilliantly enlivens a story that may seem too austere for silver screen. There are inventive moments of great comedy: like the opening scene with Charles Laughton’s paunchy, endearingly fractious Hobson tottering up the stairs to his room like a drunk high-wire artist, and the sequence when he, also drunk, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a puddle only to be confronted by his own bloated face staring stupidly back at him. As Lean’s last film in black-and-white, the visuals yield a symbolic pessimism for the future: Maggie and Mossop discuss their marriage plans in a pleasure garden that is bounded by industrial plants and river floated with scums.

But, despite Lean’s efforts at trying to make the film an ingenious play of wits and will, this is the sort of drama that works best when it remains skin-deep. Once the laughter ceases the comedy reveals its jarring underside- that a sense of power that feeds off the deliberate deprivation of others’ can only lead to one destination, which by no means resemble the ideal image a democratic society consciously pursues.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Review: A Delicate Balance (1973)

There is a notion that life is a futile pursuit of the ever-unattainable balance. Men are creatures of contrariety, incessantly flitting from one extreme state of mind to another; rarely predictable and always volatile. Human caprice has a way of conciliating the opposing sensations, of confounding their differing values and gradually assimilating them into one. That explains why we sometimes find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the things we fear, or react with sudden repugnance someone to whom we’ve harboured a long-standing affection. Balance has no part in this ceaseless tumult of the warring forces- and yet all our life we strive for it, even if the vision of it is a glimmering star that winks at us fools who try unavailingly capture it.

Less about the ongoing, workaday struggle to find balance in life, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is more concerned with the corrosive effect of keeping up a semblance of balance amidst the mounting chaos. At first glance the story seems to carry an obscure portent: Agnes and Tobias, along with Agnes’s sozzled sister Claire, are the lethargic suburbanites whose equable state is galvanised by an untoward visit of their “best friends,” Harry and Edna, who are hounded out of their household by a nameless fear. In an unforgettable moment (with its improbable comedy) the distraught couple proceed to invite themselves to stay indefinitely with Agnes and Tobias, as they assume they are bestowed the permanent right of their friends’ unconditional succour when in distress.

Reading Albee’s play one feels like an outsider witnessing the unfolding of an event that, even after the curtain drops, one still can barely make head or tails of. The reason isn’t with the inaccessibility of speech- the characters rarely prevaricate and often express themselves in the bluntest terms. But one is nagged with the sense of intruding on a conversation that one is not part of and the speakers, probably noticing that they are under inspection, occasionally put on a stilted display of emotional flourishes that contradict their real intents.

There are so many aspects of human condition that can be manifested through one simple sentence or gesture. Such is the understated power of the economy that Albee exerts to an ingenious effect that recalls Hemingway, and allows the directors and actors a relatively broader, and emptier, canvas to evolve their individual ideas. In the case of Tony Richardson’s 1973 film adaptation of A Delicate Balance, the director does not exploit much of his creative license but chooses to stay faithful to the source material. And the result is not too different from that of reading the play in print: that most of the time one is befuddled.

There are still some nice touches. The theme of intrusion is vividly demonstrated through the lumbering camera, which at times comes dangerously close to the actors’ faces, and at others coolly observes from afar. The performance is first-rate: Paul Scofield, his void of expressions suggestive of habitual inertia, which is momentarily broken during an inflamed confrontation with Harry, is Albee’s archetype of quiet, browbeaten husband on the verge of an explosive crackup; Lee Remick as the prodigal daughter who is driven to hysterics by the unwanted visitors; Kate Reid as the alleged addict who delivers scraps of unvarnished wisdom when under the influence of alcohols; and Betsy Blair is positively chilling with her glacial menace. As the bucked-up matriarch whose stuttering eloquence betrays a brittle heart, and whose curtain line: “They say we sleep to let the demons out- to let the mind go raving mad, our dreams and nightmares all our logic gone awry, the dark side of our reason. And when the daylight comes again… comes order with it” aptly sums up the play’s symbolic message, Katherine Hepburn’s Agnes sometimes appears too austere and distanced to convince the audience of the character’s inner torment. But this is mere quibble.

In Albee’s preface to A Delicate Balance he reveals the play’s main concern as “rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” This statement, in my mind, imposes a disquieting overtone to the play’s ambiguous ending: the pesky visitors are gone and the family are finally able to start their day in peace, but peace hinges on their consistent effort of eschewing realities, and maintaining a tenuous balance that they know will soon be disrupted again.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Review: Design for Living (1933)

“Less is more” is a difficult balance to negotiate when dealing with proscribed subjects. There is always the concern that the illicit will no longer be as such if subjected to too much attenuation; or if the expression is couched in too abstract a language. Coarseness is at the nucleus of matters like sex and violence- attempt at over-refinement would be as ineffectual and absurd as giving a solemn speech to a table of revellers. In this case, less is definitely advisable, but only under the condition that it contains promises of the more.

As with Noel Coward’s Design for Living, there is barely any need for overexplicitness. The play centers on a ménage à trois in Paris 1932, during the period of Les années folles, or the “Crazy Years,” which saw the city’s artistic culture reaching an insuperable peak. Characters were drawn from real life: Coward indebted the play to his actor friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, whose long marriage was bedevilled by infidelities on both sides. The lines teeter on the edge of the risqué, wherein underlies a not too obscure implication of a homosexual relation. The New York audience embraced the play, though not without, perhaps, some apprehension. It became one of Coward’s seminal comedies that has been, curiously, the least revived.

For Design for Living seems in the main too contemplative and mordant for a light comedy. The three main characters intersperse their hysterical laughter with almost Freudian musings on human heart and its discontents, which, despite their lyricism, are symptomatic of none other than the weariness of the voluptuaries. But there are moments when one is moved to empathised with the characters and their self-imposed affliction- within this increasingly troublesome imbroglio somehow everyone is lone and dolorous.

Riding the coattail of the play’s Broadway success, a filmic adaptation came in 1933, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. There is very little left of Coward’s original: screenwriter Ben Hecht raffishly boasted that he eradicated all but one line: “for the good of our immortal souls.” Filmed a year before the enforcement of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, Lubitsch and Hecht would have little qualms of making their main stars talk about sex without a sign of unease- in perhaps one of the most implausible moments in the film, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) makes a deal with George (Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March) that their cohabitation should contain one stipulation: “No sex!” she exclaims, whilst chomping on a sausage.

The “Lubitsch touch,” whilst ruthlessly erased much of Coward’s meandering spoor, left intact the biting irony that ultimately attaches an ambiguous message to the light-hearted comedy. The film closes with the three lovers- Gilda married to her smarmy boss but leaves him to elope with the boys- joing their hands and swearing on a gentlemen’s agreement, an oath that they formerly failed to keep. In Coward’s play Gilda’s husband storms out on the knowledge of his wife’s decision to revert to her dissolute past, and the three main characters roar with laughter until they weep. I personally prefer the latter version to be the more effective.

As testament to the director’s choice of keeping the heroine’s name- therefore implicitly emphasising the character’s prime attraction- Miriam Hopkins is lovely as the amoral but perpetually high-spirited Gilda. Although there are moments when her declamatory style seems a pitch too shrilly for the film, it is her unaffected loveliness that ultimately engages us. March and Cooper are both competent in their roles but, as also in the play, they are not endowed with much substance to present a contrast, or in any respect to really counterpoint Gilda’s bold vivacity. Reading the play again I wonder if Coward were having Ibsen in mind when contrasting the heroine’s outward independence with her inner immurement. Both playwrights share in this a sceptic notion of self-transcendence- that man can never surmount the four walls of society.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: Rope (1948)

Colour, as Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut in a 1962 interview, is nonexistent. Every image or vision can be reduced to the stark elements of light and shade. Lines and colours are the spectral creations that materialise momentarily when exposed to lights. In film there are more instances of metaphorical darkness (known in literature as "lacunae") than those of actual, plunging darkness- the fact that every story is in a sense only a fraction of reality conditions the extent of the reader’s knowledge: like peeping into the lives of others one does more divining than actual registering of information. Nonetheless we are intrigued, of what could possibly happen in the intervals of the course of events, the parts that the author decides to omit, or to deliberately keep in secret so the reader is unprepared for the surprise to come.

Every time I saw Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt I found myself wondering incessantly how Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie manage to conceal from others their growing aversion to each other and carry on their lives in the same house after the latter confronts her uncle his heinous crime. The film reasonably refrains from chronicling every detail of the characters’ domestic lives, and yet, oddly, those absent shots are what to me hold the greatest fascination. In this the metaphorical darkness somehow augments our awareness of what is present: the ambivalent reaction that Young Charlie takes to her uncle finally leaving the town- that of relief and forlornness- implies that hitherto she is painstakingly but willingly enduring the presence of a serial killer in the house. Charlie’s love for her uncle triumphs even the personal trials of her moral conscience.

Hitchcock’s earlier films tend to dwell on the capacity of the metaphorical darkness in regards to generating excitement for a story.Rope (1948), his first colour film, operates from the reverse- something horrible is already happening as the curtain unfurls. A pair of Ivy League elitists strangle their classmate to death purely as an intellectual experiment on the practicability of a perfect murder. The dead body is placed in a wooden chest, which is then used as a buffet table for a house party the two arrange on a whim, inviting the victim’s family and friends. Amongst the guests is publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), whose lectures on Nietzsche’s Superman sparked the murderers’ intent on embodying just such a character: in their misapprehension, a superior being endowing with the incontrovertible right of treating all lower ones as animals and slaves.

Today Rope is perhaps most known for its continuous shot, an ingenious technique that Hitchcock had flirted with years ago inLifeboat (1944). The mood is claustrophobic and discomfiting: neither of the guests really comes close to opening the chest but the morbid knowledge of a dead body lying in the midst of an ostensibly lively party makes the viewing of the film increasingly unsettling. The deft interplay of contrasts- principally, the treating of a serious matter with an intentionally frisky manner- amounts to a benumbing alarmism that would reach its pinnacle in Psycho (1960).

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most somber in tone but graphic in appearance. There are moments when the colours seem too gaudy and grisly that you fear the picture would suddenly combust into a chromatic mess. The director utilises colour to the same unnerving effect in his later colour films, but none seems to trump the emotional imbalance that Rope so effortlessly conveys.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Review: Rear Window (1954)

Obsession is a disease, the gnawing void of a heart that can never be filled but is ever expanding. As is warned by Virginia Woolf- “All extremes of feeling are allied with madness”- any obsessive has the making of a madman. The causes are more often than not inconsequential: one simply pricks ears too incessantly at the subtle goings-on next door, gaping too indiscreetly at a habitué of the local diner, or harbouring too absorbedly amorous illusions of someone one knows never truly exists. In the long run an obsession invariably extends to something pathological: the overriding, engrossing focus on an object exterior to oneself comes to assume the importance of life and death, as though it were the indispensible excrescence of one’s growingly implausible existence.

Obsession hovers around the diverse nominal subjects of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, most of which are at their core studies of human desire when bordering on destructive fixedness. Hitchcock has an unavowed proclivity of driving primal sentiments towards emotional desperation: love is preceded by an unquenchable thirst for possession; murders are chiefly committed on grounds of continual unfulfilled gratification; acts of heroism rarely achieved without yielding to the command of a greater evil.

In Rear Window (1954) the obsession has a name: voyeurism. The protagonist, Jeff, is a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair on account of a racetrack accident. Bored in his cramped studio apartment, Jeff whiles away the day observing from the rear window the inhabitants of a building across the street, and fancies in the midst of inspecting their sundry activities that a particularly suspicious-looking man may have just murdered his bedridden wife. The ethical question of how far can one be involved in a stranger’s affairs and not crossing the line of propriety is bandied about throughout the film, but clearly not alarming enough to mitigate the protagonist’s curiosity, as he proceeds spying on his neighbour day and night, determined to investigate the crime guided by barely any evidence but his nagging suspicion.

One of the disquieting aspects of Rear Window is its enforced affinity with the world outside its fictional context, its implicit involvement of the audience in situations that call into question the stringency of ethical integrity. Nearly half of the film is seen through the lens of Jeff’s long-focus camera, a convenient means of prying into every nook and corner the private lives of others. The vision that yields is at once sharp and limiting- images and motions can furnish only a fraction of the truth and reality, mostly in manners misleading and inconclusive. Obsession thrives also in narrow confines, and an obsessive’s vision is exactly that of a camera’s, naked and rarely swerved.

The occasional wisecracking aside, Rear Window should be ranked as one of Hitchcock’s bleakest achievements, as it deftly tackles the compounded moral issues in ways that still seem startlingly progressive decades after its release. It is also endlessly relevant: how often does our incorrigible nosiness land us in a pickle we are unable to get out of? Today I see the film more as a social indictment of the media’s relentless chase after an unimportant item and the general public’s culpability in abetting the cruel and perennial entertainment. The hunter always captures what he desires, but not without paying the stiff price of a slightly frazzled sanity, an exceedingly dubious conscience, and, as in the film, two broken legs.