Saturday, June 6, 2009

Film, Flesh, Night and the City

I. Cities on Film

Can you think of a movie that is a visual poem of London, the city, the way Manhattan is of New York or Diva of Paris--or Blade Runner, Los Angeles in 2019 (above), for that matter?

I tried to make a list a few month ago, and I couldn't come up with m/any. The images that come to mind are mostly of interiors--Brief Encounter's train station, for instance. Whoops, that's not London, but still, I do think of interiors, and often claustrophobic ones, when I think of London films.

Take the London rooming house of The Ladykillers (1955). You do see exteriors in that movie (right, on Euston Road), and of course the Routemaster buses and black cabs are iconic, but I still say it's the enclosed spaces one thinks of--the old lady's parlor.
[You can watch the GPS traces of 380 London taxi over one day.]

I can't think of a London equivalent to King Kong on top of the Empire State Building either. Aliens do wing Big Ben in a Dr Who episode, but that's TV and most Americans I know don't even know it. The very British Lavender Hill Mob spins on the Eiffel Tower.

I speak impressionistically here, I'm no film scholar, but that's my point: I'm looking for something popular--but imaginative.
I've seen and sometimes enjoyed Richard Curtis-written fare--well, I enjoyed Four Weddings and a Funeral, anyway, when the dew was still fresh.
The London of those movies, however, is the opposite of imaginative. Their London is to the city as Hugh Grant's characters are to human beings: formulaic tourist brochures.
I haven't seen some of the modern movies set in London, though--28 Days Later, Children of Men--maybe they imaginatively capture the city itself?

I went online looking for info about London in films. Seems I'm not all alone in thinking that London's exteriors have not been well captured iconically on film. Maybe partly because it's difficult for filmmakers to get permission to film in London?

The Guardian film blog has a good list--with lots of additions in the comments section:
"In Search of the Great London Movie" (I'm putting some of the titles at the end of this post), but not one is quite what I had in mind. Mike Leigh? He's a champion with claustrophobic interiors again! Vera Drake.

II. Night and the City

Then, last night I watched Night and the City (1950) for the first time, and there it is: my iconic, imaginative (if not popular) London film. Could it be because the director, Jules Dassin, was a teenager in the Bronx, that the city is so ... city-like? Sorry, I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, yet.

(Btw, I don't know about you, but I thought Dassin was French. Nope. He's a Jewish kid from the East Coast--you pronounce his name Jools DASS-in. He moved to Europe cause he was blacklisted in Hollywood.)

Night and the City is a film noir flick famous enough to be released by Criterion, but not exactly a crowd pleaser. It's hard to watch-- or hard to like, rather (it's easy to watch because it's beautifully black and white)-- because almost every character in it is unpalatable or ineffectual, or both.
Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, a two-bit hustler with so little self-awareness that watching his story unfold (or unravel) is sort of like watching a stupid dog that chewed up your favorite shoes run with enthusiasm into a busy street. You don't like the dog, but you don't want to see it get squashed.
Well, in this movie, you see it.

III. The Senses on Film

I've been wondering where I was going with my Movie Kisses of Taste series, since I don't seem to be attracted to the emotional love stories the way I used to be. After posting about the Borg Queen blowing on Data's patch of human skin, I realized that I'm looking out for moments on film that convey sensory information to the viewer beyond sight and sound, the two senses movies naturally are good at conveying.

Night and the City has an amazing sensory scene: the four+ minute wrestling match between Mike Mazurki and Stanislaus Zbyszko (pictured here). A real, former world-class wrestler, Zbyszko plays the only decent man in the film, Gregorius, an honorable old wrestler who wants to save the art of Greco-Roman wrestling from hucksters who milk it as no-holds-barred entertainment.
The film captures the way these two guys go at each other in such a way you register the sensory pressure of flesh.

David Mamet wrotes a nice piece about the sadness of fighters, and while he doesn't talk about its sensual quality, he does pay homage to this scene.

The two men wrestle because they are angry, not in a formal match. Harry Fabian tries to stop them hurting each other--not because he's nice but because he's betting his financial future on them. As with everything else he does, he fails, and Gregorius dies after the strenuous fight.

Is this Dassin's alter-ego, fighting a losing fight for decency?
Dassin was working in London because he had been denounced and shunned by Hollywood colleagues for his leftist views, so it's tempting to read him into his film's only strong, honest artist.

Art is something of a theme in the film. Another character is also an artist, but he makes little ceramic animals and is an ineffective man who can't even heat up spaghetti. He calls Fabian, by contrast, "an artist without an art," and like a loose cannon, that's a very dangerous thing.
This man ends up with the girl, because he's the only one left standing. The meek may inherit the earth, the film seems to say. But every other character has more energy, even if it's self-destructive, so the film kinda makes you wonder, would you want to be around when they do?
It's bleak. It's film noir. It's London by way of a Bronx kid blacklisted in Hollywood.

SOME LONDON FILMS, mostly from the Guardian Film Blog
(Grid Skipper has a nice post with a map: "Real-Life London in Movies".)
Mike Leigh High Hopes and Naked
Jamie Thraves's The Low Down
Performance, Repulsion, and Blow-Up
The Fallen Idol (1948)
The Ladykillers
Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland
London by Patrick Keiller
Mona Lisa
Hitchcock's Frenzy
Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth
The Long Good Friday
Defence of the Realm
I'm All Right Jack
Absolute Beginners
An American Werewolf in London


deanna said...

I've watched the latest Dr. Who series - not movies, true, but they're always doing something alienable to London. They're cool.

Krista said...

For visual poems of London, I always find myself back in Disney: the opening sequence of Mary Poppins, and the flight scenes from Peter Pan.

fresca said...

Hi, Deanna: Yeah, Dr Who. I don't know enough about this, but British TV seems to have been better funded than filmmaking--is that why their TV seems to be better than ours?

Thanks Krista: I blush to admit I've never seen those movies! I must remedy this. And is the beginning of 101 Dalmations also set in London?

Manfred Allseasons said...

Wow, so many films...but... specifically for the eighties, and absurd as it is, its got to be the bizarre Absolute Beginners...

Based on McInnes book set in the fifties, this film said a lot about eighties London...

fresca said...

Thanks, Manfred. I had cancelled Netflix for the summer but I must reinstate it--I've hardly seen any of the Guardian's list of films nor have I seen Absolute Beginners--but anything with David Bowie in a thin black tie looks promising.

momo said...

Oh, I love using film as a way to get to know a city! *opens up the Netflix queue*
I had "London in novels" jag a few years ago when I went there, and loved it. I'll have to look for my posts.
From your list, I second Blow-Up as a movie that fixed some exterior images of London vividly in my mind when I saw it in college. And even if the entire movie is not set in London, the beginning of 28 Days, with Cillian Murphy, has some amazing scenes of London-if-there-were-no-people-after-a-plague that really got people talking. That's a movie I want to see again, by the way.
Say, we can curate a London film festival with my Netflix queue and new groovy media set-up (aka my iMac), invite some friends. I have popcorn!

fresca said...

London film festival! Yeah! There are so many I haven't seen.