The Brave Decadence of Dirk Bogarde

Usually I write on subjects about which I know a fair amount, but today I’m taking a look at the bold, boundary-pushing film work of actor Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) from the 1960s and 70s, most of which I have not yet seen. Bogarde chose roles that other performers shied away from, unveiling elements of humanity, society and sexual practice that are frequently less than flattering. My interest was prompted by my viewing of the Joseph Losey-directed drama The Servant (1963) yesterday afternoon at the Film Forum. Bogarde’s character, Barrett (pictured left), is the newly appointed butler of a young aristocrat, Tony (James Fox).

Barrett proceeds to completely upend Tony’s life, personally, professionally and economically. Though mind games and physical means – including a vicarious seduction via Sarah Miles’ wanton character, Vera – Barrett’s manipulations reveal him to be a sadistic man, perhaps even a psychopath, looking with superior disdain on the upper-class and, in his perception, their complete lack of substance whilst simultaneously dragging Tony down to his decadent level.

Tony’s own masochistic streak feeds these manifestations of destruction. The job he once had, the fiancée whose love he possessed and the elite nature of his privileged place in society all go down the drain when the roles of master and servant are reversed.

Other roles Bogarde played in that same decade are all the more remarkable because in the late 1940s and throughout the 50s, Bogarde was never really taken seriously in his métier. He was the romantic leading man, to be sure, owing to his good looks and expressive eyes. Many of his films in that era did not call for subtlety, like the popular “Doctor” series of comedies (1954-1963), which only required Bogarde to look cute as a medical practitioner and to woo lovely ladies like Brigitte Bardot (as seen above in 1955’s Doctor at Sea), Shirley Eaton and Samantha Eggar.

Even after the success of his leading role in A Tale of Two Cities (1958), Bogarde’s craft didn’t begin to take its unique shape until he made the groundbreaking thriller Victim (1961, pictured above). Playing a gay barrister in a still-repressed England (homosexuality was against the law there until 1967), Bogarde was willing to play a role which most of his contemporaries probably would have considered career suicide. This choice of character correlated with Bogarde’s own homosexuality, though he never discussed that aspect of his life publicly, not even in the seven memoirs he published between 1977 and 1995.

As the 1960s continued and changed into the 1970s, Bogarde moved more and more towards art cinema. Surveying his filmography, you see a variety of entertaining and oftentimes daring titles made by bold directors: The Mind Benders (1963, pictured first) by Basil Dearden (who had worked with Bogarde earlier in Victim) (also: The Mind Benders has the encouraging tagline “PERVERTED… SOULESS! [sic] The Most Dangerous and Different Motion Picture Ever Brought to the Screen!”); King & Country (1964), Modesty Blaise (1966) and Accident (1967) by Joseph Losey (again); Darling (1965) by John Schlesinger; The Fixer (1968) by John Frankenheimer; Justine (1969) by George Cukor; The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971, pictured second) by Luchino Visconti; The Night Porter (1974, pictured third) by Liliana Cavani; Providence (1977) by Alain Resnais; Despair (1978) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dirk Bogarde concluded his career with the Bertrand Tavernier-helmed drama Daddy Nostalgia (1990).

As I wrote at the top of the post, I’ve seen few of Dirk Bogarde’s noteworthy films. I hope to remedy that now that I have experienced (if not necessarily “enjoyed”) The Servant.

In Remembrance of Sir Richard Attenborough

 

The legendary Sir Richard Attenborough passed away on August 24 at the age of 90. I am familiar with some, if not much, of his work: just a few weeks ago I watched his first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and I have also enjoyed his acting performances in The League of Gentleman (1960), Only Two Can Play (1962), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). But for me, one of Attenborough’s finest roles is a walk-on in my favorite Powell & Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Credited only as “An English Pilot,” Attenborough is memorable as a wide-eyed young man curious about his entry into the afterlife. Luckily the actor himself lived a far longer life, nearly seventy more years. Richard Attenborough made his mark on international cinema, a wonderful presence even in the smallest bit of screen time or behind the camera.

The New Who: Some Thoughts on the Twelfth Doctor’s First Adventure

Last night I watched the debut episode (“Deep Breath”) of the newest series of “Doctor Who,” now starring Peter Capaldi, who has taken over from Matt Smith. Like every other dedicated Whovian, I was excited to see how Capaldi would make the character of the Doctor his own. Here are a few of my observations:

  • Just one episode in and I can already tell that Peter Capaldi has created a version of the character that I will love. The sense of self-discovery seems to be a more prolonged process with this Doctor than with other fellows in the past, but I don’t mind that. (“I’m Scottish!” Twelve shouts incredulously when he realizes the type of accent he has. “I can complain about things!”) This Doctor appears to be less sentimental towards the human race than previous incarnations, but I don’t really mind that since I used to get a little tired of Ten and Eleven’s flowery speeches. There’s something really charming about the way that the episode ends: Twelve asks if Clara if he can take her out for coffee, even though he has no earthly money. (It’s also a reference to a similar request made to the character Rose Tyler by the Ninth Doctor.)
  • Clara Oswald, the Eleventh Doctor’s former companion who is still on the show (at least for a while), is as annoying as ever. She has very little personality, especially compared to the previous ladies from the last decade – Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy. I find it aggravating that a companion should be so torn as to whether she wants to continue having adventures with the most amazing being in the universe just because he transformed from looking like a guy in his early 30s to looking like a guy in his mid-50s. (Personally, I find Peter Capaldi far more attractive than Matt Smith, but maybe that’s just because Capaldi’s a better, more nuanced actor.) At the end of the episode there is a scene in which Clara receives a phone call from Eleven (it’s a message from the future – don’t ask), encouraging her to stick with Twelve. It feels like a slap in the face to the Twelfth Doctor, that his age and grey hair and “lined face” are such deterrents to Clara (who stands in for the fans) that she would no longer want to travel with him. How shallow must Clara – and the fans – be to reject a Doctor solely because of his looks? (And again, I think he’s a fine-looking gent.) Acting skill will win out in the end, I say.
  • For a while it seemed that the plot was moving along at a pretty slow pace, but I actually sort of liked that. During the Eleventh Doctor’s past couple of seasons, it often seemed that episodes were rushed through in order to pack in as many scenes as possible; in “Deep Breath,” we take a little more time to understand what’s going on, much like Twelve trying to piece everything together in his newly regenerated, still-confused state. Speaking of regeneration, I like that the villain of the episode was running an operation that was a metaphor for the premise of “Doctor Who.” The robot-villain was trying to make himself human by taking parts from many different people; similar to the Doctors always “regenerating” with new actors (and therefore new faces), the main robot and his robot followers could choose and change new faces from many different sources.
  • Twelve seems to recognize his face as someone from his past – is this a reference to the character Capaldi played in the 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” Caecilius? Or is the show going to an even stranger place and recalling the character John Frobisher from “Torchwood”?
  • Fact: Madame Vastra and Jenny are definitely the best alien-human lesbian couple on television.
  • It was a good start to the season, but I hope that Clara is booted out by Christmas and that the next companion has plenty of spark.

Saturday Night Spotlight #6: Shirley Clarke

American director Shirley Clarke (1919-1997) worked at the same time as another groundbreaking independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes, and tackled similar issues: racial prejudice, drug addiction, the influence of jazz and generally living in New York City. Born in that metropolis to a Jewish family that included younger sister Elaine Dundy (novelist and wife of theater critic Kenneth Tynan), Clarke was a multitasker on her cinematic projects, editing all four of the films highlighted below and producing the first three. She also received some accolades from the Academy, being nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects for Skyscraper (1960) and winning an Oscar for Best Documentary, Features for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963). Clarke was close to many of the leading figures in New York’s independent film/avant-garde art scenes, like Hans Richter (her mentor at City College), Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Lionel Rogosin and Stan Brakhage. Later on, Clarke was a film and video professor at UCLA from 1975 to 1985 and she received the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award from the American Film Institute in 1989.

The Connection (1961) – I have a particular interest in this drama about heroin-addicted jazz musicians waiting for their dealer in a seedy Greenwich Village apartment since the second man from the right, with the mustache and balding head, was my great-uncle, Jerome Raphel. (He is featured prominently in the film’s trailer – seen here – and a couple of years later had a supporting role in Clarke’s 1963 film The Cool World.) The drama also features other notable actors from theater, film and TV, including Roscoe Lee Browne, Warren Finnerty, William Redfield and Carl Lee as well as jazz musicians Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s subject matter and “vulgar” language led to a ban from New York screens until 1962. Arguing this issue of censorship, Shirley Clarke and co-producer Lewis M. Allen brought a lawsuit before the New York State Court of Appeals to fight the charge of the film being considered “obscene” (it was finally determined that it was not) so that the film could receive its license for a theatrical release.

The Cool World (1963) – Nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award in 1963 and added to the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994, Clarke’s drama of the black community living in Harlem, trying to survive in an atmosphere surrounded by violence, drugs and racism. Again utilizing jazz for the soundtrack, Dizzy Gillespie and his quintet are featured throughout, even showing up onscreen. Besides Carl Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke) and Jerome Raphel, who appeared in The Connection, The Cool World also stars Gloria Foster, who later acted in Nothing But a Man (1964) and as the Oracle in the first two Matrix films.

Portrait of Jason (1967) – Certainly unusual among documentaries of the 1960s, charismatic and flamboyant interview subject Jason Holliday speaks candidly of being a gay man, how that intersects with being black, and also discusses his history of work in cabarets and in prostitution. The film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this November, courtesy of Milestone Films.

Ornette: Made in America (1985) – Pioneering jazz musician Ornette Coleman is given the documentary film treatment here, studying his innovations in the field of “free jazz,” which encourages more improvisation than what is often already applied to the playing of jazz music. Some of the film’s talking heads include writer William S. Burroughs, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman, jazz bassist Charlie Haden and jazz guitarist Bern Nix. The film incorporates an element of dramatization as well, portraying earlier incarnations of Coleman with young actors.

Filmmaker Firsts: Leos Carax

#18: Mauvais Sang (1986) – dir. Leos Carax

The colorful second feature by enigmatic French filmmaker Leos Carax (b. 1960) is a study in style; substance, not so much. Although there are many memorable images in Mauvais Sang (translation: Bad Blood), a playful shaving-cream fight included, I could not help feeling as I sat in the somewhat empty Film Forum theater that this was one French film that owed quite a bit to a director who had first impacted cinema a quarter of a century earlier, Jean-Luc Godard.

For one thing, the editing, especially in moments when frames are cut out to show rapid elapses of time, reminded me of Godard’s early work, when he liked to use jump cuts for quick, sometimes playful transitions between actions. Also, the haircut sported by Juliette Binoche (right), not to mention photographing her from behind, is reminiscent of Anna Karina’s ‘do in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) – exhibit A, exhibit B. The shortness of Denis Lavant’s hair even makes the two look like doubles.

Speaking of Denis Lavant: what a strange, fascinating screen personality. He is not traditionally handsome, considering the lumpy nose, eyes a little too far apart and some pockmarks scattered across his cheeks, but he is still quite striking. From some angles, particularly in profile, his face takes on some interestingly photogenic qualities.

There is no greater scene in the film than when Lavant runs madly, in musical catharsis, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” For most of the film Lavant is a moody, sullen figure, yet in this moment he lets loose, athletically jumping and twirling and even doing a cartwheel. It’s a pity that the scene doesn’t last longer before Lavant has to return to reality.

Carax succeeds at occasionally creating a sense of grandness out of simple gestures. In a scene when Lavant carries Binoche to a hotel across the street from her boyfriend’s (Michel Piccoli) place, it is an act made into a sweeping romantic gesture by the melodramatic music that accompanies the motion. (I cannot recall if that particular scene is set to the soundtrack of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” theme, which is used as a motif throughout the film, but if it was not, I’m sure it was something similar to befit this act of strength and heroism.) The relationship between Lavant and Binoche is more like an anti-relationship… it has no real beginning or end, but rather a series of things that happen supported by semi-philosophical snippets of dialogue. It would have been nice for some of those philosophical musings to have had a greater effect than just sounding pretentious.

I did enjoy the art direction and set decoration.

If only Juliette Binoche’s character were better-written! It is not one of her more engaging performances, certainly not on the level of Three Colors: Blue (1993) or The English Patient (1996). Perhaps she needed time to grow as an actress, but more likely it is the fault of the screenplay. It is not until the end of the film that you have a sense of the character possibly having some emotional development, as opposed to just being a pixieish object for men to love. She is beautiful to look at, but it takes her character far too long before she does something of her own free will.

On the other hand, I liked Julie Delpy better than usual. (She plays Lavant’s former girlfriend.) She was young here, only 16, and she is much more sympathetic here than in some later work like Three Colors: White (1994).

Yes, Carax experiments – filming reflective surfaces, seeing the inside of the parachute when Lavant and Binoche skydive, shooting a lot of extreme close-ups, filming one scene like a black-and-white silent film, depicting a theft (and the red lights from the security system) in an artful way – and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier is to be applauded for the efforts. But I wish I had felt more from the characters. I appreciated certain colors and certain sounds, but the entire package never coalesced into a whole.

I doubt that the film was intended to be more about style than substance. I wonder how I might feel about the film if I see it again in a few months or a few years. Sometimes I get the sense right away that I need to see the film again. I think I felt that way about David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991), like I knew that even if I didn’t like everything or “get” the film the first time around, a second viewing would reveal more to me. I don’t want to see Mauvais Sang again just yet, but I may try other Carax films. I suppose I could go see Holy Motors (2012), which is screening at the Film Forum tomorrow, but I don’t know if I should. It probably looks way more impressive on the big screen than it would on a TV, but I suppose it will eventually play in some other revival. In the meantime, maybe I’ll try some other films starring Denis Lavant.

Live from New York, It’s Don Pardo!

If you spent any time at all watching “Saturday Night Live” in the last forty years, you would immediately recognize the voice that proclaimed in the opening credits, “Live from New York, it’s ‘Saturday Night Live!'” That voice belonged to Don Pardo, who passed away yesterday at age 96. For decades he was the heard-but-not-seen presence that announced cast members and sometimes narrated skits. Pardo started working for NBC in 1944 with a “lifetime contract,” a distinction that was only ever given to him and to Bob Hope. Pardo worked for the NBC Nightly News and he was the first news announcer to state that President Kennedy had been shot on November 22, 1963. In 1975 Pardo began his work on “SNL” and he continued working there even after his official retirement in 2004. Through the years he also worked on popular game shows like “Three on a Match,” “Jeopardy!” and “The Price Is Right.” In 2008, Pardo was brought onstage at the end of a “Saturday Night Live” episode to blow out ninety candles on a cake for his 90th birthday.

Let’s remember Don Pardo with his appearance in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s music video for “I Lost on Jeopardy” (1984). We’ll miss ya, Don – “The Man with the Golden Voice.”

Food for Cinema Thought: Patrick Swayze, Arbiter of Masculinity

A few nights ago I caught part of one of my favorite movies, Point Break, on TV. As I watched a few of the scenes, I was reminded of just how much I have enjoyed Patrick Swayze’s movies over the years. (Today would actually have been his 62nd birthday.) In three of his most famous characters – dance instructor Johnny Castle, surfer/bank robber Bodhi, sophisticated drag queen Vida Boheme – the Texas-born Swayze inhabits three different and complex forms of masculinity, redefining audience concepts of what a leading man could be like in the 80s and 90s.

Dirty Dancing (1987, dir. Emile Ardolino) – In this beloved dance movie set at a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963, Swayze’s rebellious character, Johnny Castle, has a defensive tough-guy swagger (and a leather jacket to match) when he’s around authority figures, but when he’s called on to dance, Swayze’s years of learning ballet and other formal dance training paid off. The film’s final, triumphant dance scene, to the anachronistically 80s pop song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” allows Swayze to show off his dance moves and also to sweetly bring Johnny and “Baby” (Jennifer Grey) back together. The tough guy can be tender too.

Point Break (1991, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) – The skydiving scene in Point Break is one of the film’s most memorable moments, truly befitting the “100% Pure Adrenaline” idea used in the dialogue and the poster’s tagline. Flying through the California sky is the ultimate rush for these thrill-seekers. And I doubt that anyone has ever looked more graceful doing backflips in the air than Swayze.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995, dir. Beeban Kidron) – The opening credits of this comedy are designed to show the transition from what the moviegoer is used to seeing of Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes as muscular action heroes and heterosexual he-men into the glamorous drag queen characters Vida Boheme and Noxeema Jackson. The makeup, wigs and dresses create the physical foundation for sides of these actors that not been seen before in their previous roles. The fact that Patrick Swayze could go from playing bad boys to a classy lady shows the range he had.