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Posts from the ‘Film’ Category

Edith Head: Google Doodle celebrates the costume designer’s birthday

Edith Head on today’s Google Doodle brought some much needed Hollywood glamour to this dark, rainy English Monday.

Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head, with her trademark black-rimmed round spectacles, must be one of the most famous in her trade. She received 35 Academy Awards nominations and won eight Oscars in her career, more than any other woman, and the only costume designer to make it to the Hollywood walk of fame. There’s even an animated homage to her in the shape of Edna Mode, costume designer to superheroes, in the Pixar movie, The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004).

Edith Head’s Hollywood career

Edith Head managed to make her way into Hollywood without any portfolio, later admitting that she passed off other’s sketches as her own to secure a post at Paramount, under Howard Greer and then Travis Banton. When Banton resigned in 1938, she would have her chance in the spotlight, becoming Head Designer at the Studio.

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937) was the first film that brought her to public attention, where Dorothy Lamour wore a skimpy sarong, whilst her mink-trimmed gown for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944) provoked controversy contrasting with wartime austerity. Edith Head received her first Oscar nomination for The Emperor Waltz (Billy Wilder, 1948) beginning recognition after recognition from the Academy. 

The unlikely duo of Twiggy and Columbo‘s Peter Falk presented her Oscar for costume design in The Sting (George Hill Roy, 1973). It’s worth a watch, and Edith Head certainly knows how to do a short and sweet thank-you speech.

Costumes and character

Edith Head was a firm favourite of many a famous actor, including Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davies, Grace Kelly and Shirley MacLaine, because she consulted them and emphasised their strengths and played down their (perceived) flaws.

She also worked closely with directors to bring the characters to life, and ensure that the clothing would meet the demands of the action in the movies. Head noted that Hitchcock was extremely specific about the costumes for his leading ladies, specifying colour or movement of fabrics if they were important for plot or characterisation. In Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954), for instance, the perfect, richly embellished costumes worn by Grace Kelly, emphasise the difference in social standing between her and James Stewart, and his resultant insecurity.

Doris Day, who wore Head’s costumes in The Man Who Knew too Much (Hitchcock, 1956) gave the designer the ultimate compliment, stating that she dressed for the character not the actor. Day felt that the dresses she wore in the movie were not right for her, but they were appropriate for the part of a “doctor’s wife.”

Transformation through costume

In the clip below, Edith Head shows Audrey Hepburn’s costume ‘personality’ tests for Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953).

One costume is for Hepburn disguised as an ‘ordinary’ girl, with a simple full skirt and white blouse with rolled up sleeves and necktie, designed for when Hepburn is out on a motor scooter. The other two featured costumes show her character’s transformation through wardrobe when she is revealed as a Princess – a regal real lace fitted dress and a ball gown. Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose credits include Michael Jackson’s Thriller), says, “Miss Head, she could do the high and she could do the low, she designed what was appropriate for every script.”

Edith Head dressed Hepburn again on Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954), and that little black dress turned into another Oscar win. However, there were rumours that actually Givenchy was the deserving winner, with both Head and the French designer claiming credit. 

Reuse and upcyle… even in Hollywood

For Cecile DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Cecil B DeMille, 1949), she created the stunning peacock cape costume for Heddy Lamarr. Almost 2,000 plumes were gathered from DeMille’s own mansion. Indeed she had a reputation for reusing and upcycling. Randall Thropp, Paramount’s archivist says that she designed a nightgown for Gene Tierney, reused in Rear Window and trimmed with lace in another (Another Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2012, pp130-31).

Goodbye Tinseltown

When Edith Head’s contract ran out in 1967, she left Paramount for Universal, and towards the end of her career she was more involved in costume for television. Head continued in the costume biz until she died at the age of 83 of an incurable bone marrow disease whilst working on her last film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982). And of course this film gave her the opportunity to look back to her golden period, referencing 1940s noir.

Bette Davis, who Head costumed in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), read her eulogy. 

“A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”

I’m certainly inspired to re-watch some of these classics with eyes firmly on Edith Head’s costumes. If you have time, I’d recommend watching this clip of a presentation by Deborah Landis Nadoolman about Edith Head and Hitchcock.

Beats, portraits and tennis coats

As it’s now the weekend, here are three cultural treats of my week…

Hey Daddio, it’s Beat Girl

Swinging cats, strippers and squares all star in Beat Girl (dir, Gréville, 1960), an exploitation film revelling in the seedy side of Soho and the bad deeds of 1950s teens. The soundtrack by the John Barry Seven is the epitome of hip coffee bar cool. Just check out the entrance of the eponymous, rebellious ‘Beat Girl’, Jennifer (played by Gillian Hills) in the opening credits (and a young, zoned out Oliver Reed).

Jennifer is disgusted when her father remarries a much younger French women, Nicole, and sets out to reveal her stepmother’s murky past. One of the movie posters proclaims – “my mother was as stripper, I want to be one too”. Another warns, “this could happen to your teenage daughter”, but the moral panic offers an excuse to linger on lengthy strip scenes, explicit for the time.

The post-war generational divide is addressed awkwardly in the film, with the disaffected young men discussing their experiences of growing up during Blitz and hiding out in the underground, just like the cavernous clubs they now swing in.

In contrast, City 2000 is the obsession of Jennifer’s architect father, offering a rather sterile vision of the future, and her rebellion is a way to get attention from him. Ultimately, after she gets into danger with strip club owner (played by Christopher Lee), she is pulled back into the family unit.

While Beat Girl is not quite “over and out”, it’s worth a watch for the “straight out of the fridge” lingo, Gillian Hill’s pouty, beatnik disdain, and the recurring theme song. You dig.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012

For an afternoon treat this week, I headed to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. You can explore some of the chosen photos in this gallery. This portrait photography competition received over 5,000 entries, which were narrowed down to the 60 displayed in the exhibition. There weren’t any portraits which I felt would linger with me long after the exhibition, but I enjoyed seeing the variety of contemporary photos from the famous to family, from friends of the photographers to those they met on the street. Most of the portraits were staged, whether strictly commercial or not, and often full of drama and imagined stories behind their faces.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 M Shed

A sense of discomfort emanates from the winning portrait, Margarita Teichroeb (2011) by Jordi Ruiz Cirera, and as a viewer you wonder why the subject of the piece is covering her mouth and whether you or the photographer should be sharing this moment. Margarita is from a Mennonite community in Bolivia, living without electricity and cars, and where photography is often forbidden. The photographer spent time with them, but they were very uncertain about having their portraits taken (understandable in the circumstances). You can see blurred glimpses of her mother and sister in the background, in the context of the photo, seeming to shield themselves from the camera’s gaze. In comparison the second prize-winner, captures a woman at ease, almost incidentally naked with a chipped mug in her hand.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 is on at the M-Shed in Bristol until 3 November. This year’s prize starts on 14 November until 9 February 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Tennis Coats… at last

When in Tokyo, we wanted to say “sayonara” to the city by going a gig on the final night of our holiday. One of the city’s coolest married couples, the Tennis Coats (Saya & Takashi Ueno), were playing so we headed off to see them, got a little bit lost and ended up arriving just as they were playing their last song. (We hadn’t realised that the main act plays first in Japan, but at least we got to see the support act.)

Serendipitously this week, I noticed they were playing a surprise gig at Cafe Kino in Bristol. Although both feeling a little under the weather, we knew the holiday circle had to be completed. We came away feeling more than a little warm and fuzzy. Memories of our time in Japan, combined with the lovely, mellow but energetic atmosphere the musicians created, delightful tunes and the way that random people took to the stage throughout to join the act. A perfect way to spend a Tuesday evening.

What were your cultural highlights this week?

Bristol on film – Java Head and Anna May Wong

When a film or TV series is based where you live, you can’t help but look out for places you recognise. You probably have an example of it in your own town or city. For me in Bristol, it used to be Casualty and then Being Human (I walk past the house of vampires, werewolves and ghosts everyday) but it was certainly a little surprising to see Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong in 19th century Bristol in Java Head (1934, dir.  J. Walter Ruben & Thorold Dickinson). This British film from the 1930s has been on release from the BFI since 2011, and at last I’ve watched it.

Primarily my interest lay in the novelty of the Bristol setting (and mentions of Clifton Downs, St Mary Redcliffe, or Brandon Hill …) but actually it is worth watching in terms of its representation of the Orient(al) in film, and the effects of the East on the lives of those in the West (country).

West meets East

Java Head is a historical melodrama set in the port of Bristol in the 1850s with the title derived from the name of the family home of the shipping company, Ammidon and Sons. One of the sons, Gerrit is in love with Nettie, the daughter of his father’s rival, but as a family feud prevents marriage, he heads off for adventure on the high seas, where he is happiest. He returns with new wife, the ‘exotic’ Manchu Princess, Taou Yuen, played by Anna May Wong, which causes quite a stir in the conservative community. Just before her first appearance on screen, the youngest member of the family plays a discordant piano key, and then the camera follows each of the family members’ shocked faces. Gerrit’s father asks what she will be called – “Taou Yuen Ammidon? The two don’t go together”.


Java Head publicity

Wong’s character is steeped in Western representations of the East – noble, stoic and studied in Chinese philosophies, but also passive, wanting to please her husband. However for the time when ‘yellowface’ was common, it was a lead role for an Chinese actor and, at the beginning of the film, I felt that we could make a recuperative reading of the film. The town is to some extent critiqued for its hypocrisy and prejudice – we see the city gossip about the couple, but Gerrit stands up for his wife and goes against the grain of the closed-minded community.

However, ultimately the film does not allow the interracial romance to flourish. Java Head fits in with “yellow peril” discourses where the West’s desires and fears are projected onto the East, and colonial practices sanctioned. As the narrative unfolds, her husband starts to drift away from Taou Yeun, finding her ‘foreign’ characteristics repellent. In one scene he looks around their bedroom, and the camera focuses on their Chinese objects, cutting back to his disgusted expression. Gerrit tells Taou Yuen “this will never be your home… you’re so different from everything here”. Wong’s character is described as priceless and delicate, a description more suited to the cargo the Ammidons trade, and as she is a princess, her status rather than ethnicity is used at times (disingenuously) to explain their irreconcilable difference. Although Gerrit turns against Taou Yuen, the film holds him up as honourable as he regards Taou Yuen as his (Colonial) responsibility.

Nettie, the innocent, but plucky girl-next-door, is set in opposition to the more worldly, detached Taou. When Gerrit sees Taou perform a ceremony for his deceased father, he asks her to stop her ‘barbaric’ ways and questions what she is wearing. Underneath Taou’s calm exterior, the Orientalist’s essential Eastern characteristics are revealed when she tries to strangle Nettie with a mad look in her eyes. Anna May Wong’s Chinese ‘costumes’, and hair and make-up in the Peking opera style, create her as Oriental Other. In the final scene when she visits and confronts Nettie, her elaborate outfit contrasts with the English rose in a plain, pure white cotton nightdress. In the end, Taou cannot live without her husband’s love, and sacrifices herself by committing suicide so that the white couple can be together. The film acts as a warning against an unnatural mixing of cultures and reveals that although the East seems to be wise and ordered, at essence lies instability and danger.

The moral dangers of the East are also played out through the family business itself. The head of the Ammidon family has a heart attack when he realises that his other son, landlubber, William, has been trading opium. Nettie’s uncle, Edward Dunsack has just returned from China, and the Ammidon ship has carried his stash of opium to feed his addiction to the East. He worships Eastern culture, but Taou Yuen says, “China’s bad for men like him”. Edward is weak (“as pale as a Chinaman”) and easily tainted by the East, whereas Gerrit, a ‘real man’, ultimately resists. Edward sees in Taou, “all the beauty and culture of two thousand years of civilisation in one women. It takes knowledge to appreciate the full fascination of China”. But his love of the East is seen as unnatural, a sickness, and he is a reminder to Taou that she will never belong in the West.

Anna May Wong death scene Java Head

Java Head in context of Anna May Wong’s career

Java Head was Wong’s third film in Britain in 1934, along with Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills) and Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde). After the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act, a quota of films had to be British to counter the dominance of Hollywood films and Americanisation. With more movies being made in the UK, this provided opportunities for Anna May Wong to attain roles – and leading roles – which were not forthcoming in Hollywood. Karen Leong (2006) argues that Wong’s European cinematic performances and star persona, led to her win Hollywood parts, such as in Limehouse Blues for Paramount (Alexander Hall, 1934).

Anna May Wong PhotoPlay article about her making Limehouse Nights.

After making Tiger Bay in an interview with Doris Mackie, Anna May Wong stated:

“You see, I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece? … We are not like that… why do they never show these on screen? Why should we always scheme-rob-kill? I got so weary of it all – the scenarist’s conceptions of Chinese character, that I told myself I was done with films forever.”

Although Wong goes on to say that her character in Tiger Bay is a more accurate representation of Chinese people, from our contemporary perspective, the narrative of this film follows a similar pattern to Java Head. Western colonisation is justified through a Chinese, exotic character, who, although seems to be on the side of the British Empire, has a murderous heart and must sacrifice herself so the young, white heterosexual couple can be happy. However, Wong’s critique of Hollywood as racist suits the British feeling against American imperialism, and also helps to cover their own colonial guilt.

The Motion Picture Production (Hays’) Code in America, which began to be enforced more strongly after 1934, prevented miscegenation, so kissing between different races was forbidden. Java Head was the only film where Wong kissed a male actor (her kissing scene from Piccadilly [Ewald André Dupon,1929] was cut).  However, even at the time, one reviewer stated that Java Head “chiefly serves to introduce the most famous object in the museum, the daughter of a Chinese mandarin (Miss Anna May Wong)… making an engaging contrast with the homely Bristolware”. There is a patriotic parade during Java Head for the Queen’s birthday where Gerrit and Nettie realise that they are in love, but Taou Yuen is absent illustrating that the East cannot fit into the British home.

A natural sacrifice

For contemporary audiences, as soon as Gerrit starts flirting with Nettie, you know that it’s over for Anna May Wong. Java Head may leave a bitter taste as she sacrifices herself so that the white couple can sail happily off into the sunset, to visit new lands, but stay British.

Gerritt and Nettie in the final scene of Java Head.

Have you seen Java Head or any other Anna May Wong movies? Let me know what you thought.

Further reading:

Leong, Karen J., (2006) “Anna May Wong and the British Film Industry” in “Quarterly Review of Film and Video (23, pp 13-22)

Hollywood 1920s silent romcom – Clara Bow has It

With the Oscars just hours away, when stars’ sartorial elegance and faux pas will be dissected, it seems timely to blog about Clara Bow – a darling on screen and at the box office, but also a somewhat forgotten outsider from tinsel town. Her Hollywood story is both one of dream fulfilment and a cautionary tale ending in faded glamour and an almost forgotten career, which has been just been rediscovered over the last 1o years or so.

Clara Bow came into my head for this Oscars blog after watching a documentary on Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddesses. All the talking heads reiterated that she had ‘it’ but the power of the star system and the way that it circulates via other media (magazines, TV shows, biopics) was not really discussed fully, and so I wanted to get to know Clara Bow, the star focusing on the silent film, It (Badger, 1927), her defining role as the original It-girl.

Coming from a troubled home in Brooklyn (her mother suffered from mental health issues and her father from alcohol abuse), Clara Bow’s Hollywood trajectory is on fast forward. Her acting début derived from winning Motion Picture Magazine’s Fame and Fortune Contest to appear in a film, and although this footage ended on the cutting room floor, she went on to make 57 films in her short career. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a year, and filled movie magazines with stories both complementary and scandalous, prior to retiring to married life on a ranch before she reached 30. Clara Bow  represented the new woman, who was taking on a more active role after the First World War, but these traits combined with her “vulgar” working class background, also brought her approbation (and the money from her talents went to the film bosses). Sadly her story ends almost ‘Baby Jane’ style with her divorced and living alone in Hollywood’s suburbia replying to fan mail and re-watching her old movies.  

Do you have It?

The character Clara plays in It has parallels with her off-screen persona. It tells the story of Molly Lou, a shop girl in a department store, who falls in love with the owner, Cyrus Waltham, and sets out to get her man. The movie is based upon the book of the same name by English author, Elinor Glyn, (who also has a cameo in the film) which tries to explain that indefinable characteristic that attracts us to certain people. According to the caption:

“It is that peculiar quality which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of it must be absolutely unselfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.”

A conventional romance narrative is played out, where after overcoming class obstacles and misunderstandings, love conquers all. At the end, the caption reads “We’re just a couple if it-less its” and the final shot sees them kiss with the ‘it’ of the name of the ship ‘Itola’ between them.

Although Molly uses a man to ahead, she is a character with agency – a new woman of the 1920s – who knows what she wants and how to get it. She may use her desirability to attract and steal men, but she’s also loyal to her female friend, willing to work to support her and her child, and she can fight her own battles (in the final scenes, she saves her love rival who tries to sink her and she does not need to any male assistance to save herself).

The pre-code film has an endearing, saucy tone. The inter-title reads – “Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy! Best in the beach!” – to introduce the scenes when Molly takes the upper-class Waltham to her milieu, the beach fair. The couple go on a ride called the social mixer which spins them round and round, and they whirl down a chute with Waltham holding Betty between his knees, resulting in her skirt flying up to reveal her garters. She slaps Waltham when he tries to kiss her, and later says that she has to play this game, as women should not be seen to take the lead sexually.

The feminine consumer of romance

The romance is played out in the department store, and linked with commodity culture. Orgeron (2004) argues that the space of the shop, one of the few places in the public sphere where woman would be actively encouraged to look, formalises the way that the spectator is set up in the film to look, desire and then buy. A defining scene early in the film is when Betty first sees Waltham and palpably shows her desire for him – “Sweet Santa Clause, give me him”.

It in particular illustrates the link between the Hollywood system, the commodification of the star to sell movies and products. Orgeron says:

“The fan magazines were advertisements, and their pitch was attainability; if you buy this you can look like Star X. Bow made such aspirations looks particularly possible because she failed to create distance between herself and her fans that other stars worked rigorously to achieve. She was in many ways the star system’s best advertisement because she perpetuated the illusion of possibility for fans.”

As Clara won a competition to get into the movies, her story is the fulfilment of a fantasy even greater than her character in It.  Below is an article about Clara Bow to sell a book about how to make love like the movie stars. If you look, desire and buy, you too can achieve love.

Clara Bow's secret

Fashionable Clara Bow – the one to follow

Last year at the Oscars, the talk of the town was The Artist, a silent film, following the rise of female star, Peppy Miller who had ‘it’. And that’s not where the connection ends, Clare Bow’s style was the inspiration for Mark Bridges’ (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) costumes for Peppy Miller. Clara Bow embodied the roaring twenties flapper, and after the success of It, she was a fashion icon. Fans could order their own Clara Bow cloche hat via mail order, scarf sales increased as did henna. Indeed, women are still encouraged to style themselves a la Clara Bow.

Of course Clara Bow’s red hair was not really captured in her movies, and the film magazines would literally add extra colour to the black and white films, encouraging readers to buy henna to get the star’s look. Here are some recovered lost fragments, just as this star has been brought back into the limelight in recent years. The quality of the footage makes us feel voyeuristic as though we are watching her audition reel through the camera lens.

Loved by movie-goers and one of the biggest stars in the business, she was nonetheless, kept at a distance by the Hollywood glitterati failing to shake off her Brooklyn working class background (her accent was not a problem in the silent era). One story which seems to circulate frequently when reading about this actress is when she turned up to a formal Hollywood party in a belted swimsuit. Her outsider status is articulated through lack of cultural capital via inappropriate dress code.  

It‘s costume designer was Travis Banton, best known for shaping the styles of Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. In the popular discourses about Clara, he despaired of her lack of taste but succumbed to her fashion ideas because she had ‘it’. In a Photoplay magazine article, the interviewer writes:

“And then her boundless vitality never failed to turn Banton’s most costly gowns into rags within a few hours. There was too much in the sheer business of living for Clara to remember what she had on her back the moment she left a mirror. Sequin trains were dragged through muddy studio streets, white satin robes fell unnoticed on dusty floors, and a frock of cobweb lace was an unfailing signal for a romp with the Great Dane.”

Her taste in clothes was ‘noxious’ and she ‘jazzed up’ his most beautiful creations, accessorising with the vulgarity of  bangles, large earrings and socks, as well as pulling her skirt up to her knees. She may have had ‘it’ and moved to the West coast, but the Brooklyn girl remained.  I wonder if the cherries on Clara Bow’s cloche hat (which I love) were from her idea or his…

Fashion both its commercial side and the notion of a sense of style plays an important part in the film. Molly sells clothes to rich women whilst her love rival buys fancy stylish items. However, money and class cannot buy you ‘It’, so the qualities that made Clara Bow an outsider in real life, were her selling points in the movie. The difference between Molly and her rival for Waltham’s affections is played out through clothing as we see both actresses preparing for an evening at the Ritz. The wealthier woman takes time to dress in an opulent boudoir with a maid to help her, whilst Molly ‘makes do and mends’ with her friend’s help by cutting up the dress she is wearing to create an evening dress with a shawl. She also attaches flowers to her waist but once she is at the Ritz she copies the trend of her love rival and wears it like a corsage. When Molly sees an advert for dresses from Waltham’s store in the newspaper, she looks wistful for the object of her desire, which is also linked with the desire to consume. 

The pleasure in It, for me, resides in the active desire that Molly shows to get what she wants and the fun, cheeky attitude of the film. Although this is still very much within conventional gender roles, there is some negotiation here in a time where there were tensions in women’s roles. Clara Bow brings joie de vivre to her performance, and you feel that you would get carried along with her schemes. One of the first actresses to grow up watching movies, she brings expression and physicality to the screen. Indeed she said of the talkies:

“They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”

What do you think of Clara Bow, the Hollywood legend? Are there any contemporary Clara Bows? Will you be hooked reading about the Oscar winners and losers tomorrow in magazines? Why not watch It – a very Hollywood film – to get in the mood for the Oscars tonight?

Clara Bow articles to check out

Ball, Christina, (2001), “The Silencing of Clara Bow” in Gladfly, March/April.

Orergon, Marsha (2003), “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture”, in Cinema Journal, 42 (no.2), Summer.

Painting by house numbers: a Jubilee getaway

As a Jubilee getaway, we switched street parties and bunting for tiramisu and dinner for two under the stars. Destination: Lake Orta in Italy. Relaxation and more relaxation were top priority with our only decisions being what to eat, drink and read next… and whether to go back in the lake for another dip.

The Painted Houses of Legro

Miasino, a sleepy village, was perfect for our unwind/reading catch-up/unplug holiday. It was high on the hill and so each day we walked off the previous evening’s Italian feast al fresco with a one-hour walk down to the lake. We started to notice that house murals were a marked feature of the area. The mural’s hero below reminded of me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Although I think I got my films mixed up, I was on to something with the cinematic theme.

Gone with the Wind mural

The murals make up an open air cinema, with the inspiration coming from Italian film and television, especially those set in the Lake Orta area.  Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story in 1950, Miso Amaro (De Santis, 1949) is an Italian neorealist film, produced by Lux, the well-known film production house.

Amaro Film Poster

The film centres on a low-level criminal couple who try to hide out by disguising the woman, Francesca, as a peasant worker in the rice fields in Northern Italy. The title – Bitter Rice or Bitter Laugh – is a pun on the subsequent plot of murder, love and robbery.

Even if you don’t understand Italian, here is a groovy dancing scene from Miso Amaro, which illustrates the tensions between characters.

There were many other murals in the town but their big screen influence was not as easy to identify as with Miso Amaro. The stories of the famed Italian children’s book writer Gianni Rodari, born on Lake Orta, are also supposed to feature but I didn’t see any that correspond to what little I know about him. An allegory of class struggle, his most famous story is Cipollino (or Little Onion), where the onion fights the injustice in the garden.

Singer mural in Legro

Two murals in Legro

As we dragged ourselves up the hill to our apartment from the lake, desperately looking for an excuse to pause for breathe casually, this mural keep us distracted. What exactly is going on in that boat?

Legro Mural - Man and woman in boat The modern cinematic murals complemented the more traditional Christian frescos on the apartment walls of the narrow, shaded streets, which were as commonplace as door numbers.

Painting at house number 5


And it was not only on the walls of Miasino and Legro which were adorned. Just behind the village lies Sacre Monte, an UNESCO site, with 21 chapels and a staggering, 900 frescos and 366 monuments dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Work on the site began in the late 16th century and it encompasses many architectural styles from late Renaissance to baroque and rococo.

Sacre Monte fresco of St Francis

St Francis painting with graffiti

St Francis Tableau

Summer frock

And no holiday snap album would be complete without an appropriate dress. Here’s the dress of the summer – a stripy vintage 80s (trying to do 50s) dress bought in Brighton in the winter months in anticipation of long sunny days. Released at last in this Italian village…

Summer dress

Have any of you visited Lake Orta or seen any quirky mural towns? Let me know…

Injustices unseen

Injustice on Vimeo.

Last year the summer riots in the UK were relayed to me via French and Spanish TV whilst on holiday. Domestic events were given an added critical distance through the eyes of other countries’ media. The shooting of Mark Duggan by police perhaps got lost in the media representation as unrest spread from London throughout England. The story has reappeared in discussions about the inquest into his death. His family have been waiting almost a year to find out what happened and recently the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) requested a change in the law allowing them to use phone tapping evidence as currently they could not reveal all at the inquest.

This story about race and the police got me thinking about a shocking and inspiring film that I watched recently at the Bristol Radical Film Festival called Injustice (Fero & Mehmood, 2001). The documentary looks a 30-period from 1969 to 1999 when more than 1,000 people, the vast majority black British, died in police custody in the UK. The film concentrates on a number of cases, including Brian Douglas, Shiji Lapite, Joy Gardner and Ibrahim Sey, and their families and friends who are still seeking justice.

Injustice does not only question the British justice system but also puts censorship, media representations and documentary-making (production and distribution) under the spotlight. The film was pulled from general release in 2001 after legal threats from the Police Federation. Moments before its launch at the Metro cinema in London, solicitors representing the Police said they would sue for damages if the film were shown. Similar cancellations occurred all over the country but, showing the depth of feeling, at the Conway Hall in London spectators barricaded themselves to watch. In response Fero was forced to rethink his means of distribution:

“After the film was pulled from cinemas, following its UK release in 2001, I decided to organise screenings across the country and internationally, as part of film festivals and at private showings in small independent venues. As a filmmaker, having your work seen and appreciated is essential, and the response from audiences and the media across the globe has been very positive and encouraging for those it sought to help.”

At the screening in Bristol, I hadn’t realised the film’s censored history. Of course distribution is paramount to the representations that the majority of us see and after watching the film, it occurred to me the valuable contribution this film could have made to the TV landscape. Fero said that he asked BBC, ITV and Channel 4 if they wanted to produce the film but concerns about libel were raised and also that the story wasn’t ‘new’. (see BFI article) Actually the power of the film is that it doesn’t show ‘new’ stories but catalogues the experiences of family after family over 30 years. To a large extent these ‘ordinary’ families, whose lives had become a struggle for justice, speak for themselves. Refreshing in a commercial TV landscape post-docu-soap.

In the vérité tradition of documentary with narration by actress Cathy Tyson, the filmmakers clearly are involved in the families’ campaigns and stories. Interviews with those involved are intercut with still images of the victims and their campaign for justice.  A pattern of shared experience emerges as their stories unfold making uncomfortable viewing.

Mediated representations can alter not only the coverage of stories but the stories which get told. Certain claims were made about those who died – often re-articulations of racial discourses (drug-dealer, gang member, illegal immigrant) and then the story does not get as much coverage as if it were a more ‘media-friendly sympathetic’ (and white) victim.

Police voices are absent from the film (other than a statement at a police conference saying how distressed police officers were after a killing in police custody and at a protest for Brian Douglas). Fero said that he asked the police for their input but they refused:

“Even if we had got the interviews I don’t think we would have used them, because everywhere the families went they faced brick walls and visually we wanted to get that into the film.”

Now the film is on Vimeo, so we can watch, make up our own minds, share and discuss. I’m pleased that the Bristol Radical Film Festival screened this film and would recommend watching it in the communal cinematic space if you get the chance. Let me know what you think.

Ken Fero is currently working on a new film called “Who Polices the Police” about the IPCC. You can also get involved with the campaigns at United Friends and Family Campaign Central.

Want to read more?

Article about the Bristol Radical Film Festival in the Birmingham Post.

Useful article in Sight and Sound called My Tears Will Catch Them from 2001.

In-depth interview with Ken Fero in The Multicultural Politic.

Film blog on the Guardian on why Injustice did not get a cinema release.

Top 5 vintage styles – Oscar nominee actresses

Most Oscar fashion talk revolves around the movie stars’ red carpet style. In fact a huge part of Oscar talk full stop is about off-screen style. Who’s more red-faced than red carpet? That kind of thing … So I thought let’s take a look at some of the styles from the films themselves. Here’s my selection of vintage fashion worn by the characters played by the five Leading Actress nominees. Each of the five pieces could be picked up in vintage or high-street stores but I’ve tried to opt for classics rather than fast fashion.

Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011)
The Tuxedo/Le Smoking

An androgynous fashion choice here. In the film, Glenn Close plays a woman who passes as a man, Albert Nobbs, to make a living and survive in nineteenth century Dublin. There are many different kinds of androgynous looks to choose from baggie pants to brogues. And after seeing a friend make an entrance in a bowler hat recently, I think this could be a way to work the Albert Nobbs look. It’s a definite stylish statement.

But for this movie, I’ve opted for the tux. Here we go from the androgynous looks of 1920s La Garconne to Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking in 1966 and its various incarnations season after season. I love this look on other people but have never really used it as an alternative to an LBD or any dress. Maybe I’ll give it a go. As Yves Saint Laurent said, “Fashions come and go, but style is forever.”

Viola Davis – The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)
Sunday best hat

As Aibileen Clark in The Help, Viola Davis is mostly dressed in a blue housekeeper’s uniform with a white apron. The colourful, pretty clothes of the white characters (and the lack of attention given to African-American characters in fashion spreads) illustrate their social position in the movie.

So I thought I’d leave the floral full dresses and the pretty playsuits and go for an accessory – a 1960s hat.  As we don’t wear hats as much in Western society now, when we do (unless it’s woolly) it makes a statement. Often worn in the burlesque scene, it’s easy to pick up 1960s hats from vintage shops so you can look your Sunday best every day.

hat with a veil.Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)
Black biker jacket

Another androgynous look from Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s remake of the Swedish thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a grungy, punky look, establishing her as an outsider with goth dyed hair, tattoos and piercings. These elements of alternative lifestyles have been incorporated into the mainstream from catwalk to high-street. The same goes for the rebel choice of outerwear – the leather biker jacket. Although it’s one of those items, where if it suits you, I think you can comfortably ignore those tweaks from the designers. Does the rebel need a wool version?

Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)
Pussy bow blouse

“The pearls are non-negotiable”. I love this line from The Iron Lady when Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher is encouraged to deepen her voice and get a new do. Thatcher politics may have inspired 1980s power dressing but her look was more boxy suits, blouses, structured handbags and pearls. In blue or blue of course. Although an unlikely fashion icon, I do love blue, have recently bought some pearls and have been known to tote a granny-chic handbag. But my vintage piece from The Iron Lady, is the pussy bow blouse. It’s another classic – ladylike with a sexy wink.  You can find different versions through the decades in vintage shops from 1950s sleeveless numbers to the puffy shouldered 1980s. Check out Vogue for lots more on the Iron Lady’s style, including sketches of the film’s designs and for the seamstress in you, here’s a how to make a pussy bow blouse (blue’s optional).

Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011)
Black polo neck

With Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe circa 1956 it is difficult to pick one fashion piece. My Week with Marilyn, is an adaptation of Colin Clark’s memoir about the time he spent with the starlet on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier, 1957). So it’s about “Marilyn” in down-time style as well as “Marilyn”, fashion icon. Which piece to choose? The star must-have – shades and headscarf – to escape the paparazzi (though head-scarves can look more rain-mac on us mere mortals)? The sexy, curve-inducing dress, the lush wrap woollen coat or the simple pencil skirt?

Marilyn Monroe in a roll neck sweater.

After some consideration, I’ve opted for a sweater – the turtle, polo or roll-neck. It’s a look that still says hip beatnik cool to me. It can be difficult to pick up vintage knitwear but if you buy carefully you can find gems. A high-street polo doesn’t seem too fast-fashion wasteful as it never really goes out of style. OK, so you may not look like Marilyn but at least you don’t look like you’re trying too hard to channel her (think that white halter-neck dress).

Who’s the Oscar fashion winner?

The Oscar nominees don’t have long to wait to find out who’s won for their acting ability. But who would you pick for fashion style? Get in touch and let me know.

Valentine’s Day Movie – In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

I don’t really do Valentine’s Day. The only nod to cupid was going to see Casablanca (1942) at the movies. And how could I not, as my other half – a huge film buff – hadn’t seen it. Since then, we’ve got a Valentine’s tradition of watching romantic movies – but at home – no listening to noisy couples in the cinema or meal surcharges for us canny lovers.
And this year’s picture is one of my favourite films – In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000). Although the pre-titles warn that this is not going to be a romance with a Hollywood ending…

‘It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.’

Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film depicts the relationship between, secretary Mrs Chan, (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) who discover that their spouses are having an affair. The elements of repressed desire and social pressures are reminiscent of that classic of unrequited love, Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945). With an unusual twist, In the Mood for Love’s couple imagine how their partners began their deceit and rehearse how to confront them, determined not to become like them. However, as Mr Chow says, ‘feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control.’

When I first watched the film, I was blown away by its sheer elegance and poignancy. Indeed it would win a place in my top 10 films of all time. Director Wong Kar-Wai (whose oeuvre includes Days of Being Wild (1990) and 2046 (2004) which make up a trilogy of sorts with In the Mood for Love) and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle produce a stylish dance of repressed desire, loss and regret.

In an interview Wong Kar-Wai likened In the Mood for Love to “a dance, a waltz between these two characters”. Coincidence brings them together but later social mores and repressed desires means they dance past each other. Their lovers’ song, Yumeji’s Theme, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi, stays with you long after the movie has ended. On re-watching, I found that while I looked forward to the moments when their theme comes in and the ‘dance’ begins again, it was tinged with a sense of melancholy that they would come achingly close to each other but not quite meet.

A key scene which illustrates the stylistic elements (music, lighting, time shifts, repetition, film noir shading) that recur in the film is when Mr Chow and Mrs Chan pass on the stairs to their apartment.

Mr Chow is shot to left of the screen in film noir shadows, then their theme starts up as Mrs Chan walks down narrow darkly lit steps to get noodles in slow motion. As she returns up the staircase in the dark, the camera slowly lingers on a street light. Mr Chow goes past leaving the viewer unsure if they’ve seen each other off-screen. A simple visit to the noodle stand becomes a beautiful dance of anticipation and these choreographed scenes recur throughout the film.

In the Mood for Love visualises and plays with memory. Its original Chinese title, also a song from a 1946 film, meaning ‘the age of blossoms’ or ‘the flowery years’ is a metaphor for the short-lived time of youth and beauty. Indeed the film shows the transience of love and how we may attempt to hold on to these lost moments. Many of the shots are blurred around the edges, as though we’re watching the past unfold through the haze of memory. The slow motion cinematography works to freeze the couple in time as in still photography. This emphasises their loss; as we can only remember those happy moments of the past, not relive them. The colour of the film too is steeped in memory, muted with a warmth like an old 1960s photograph.

Their loneliness is represented through the claustrophobic setting – though close to each other, they are far apart as they cannot express their feelings because of social propriety and their own repressed desires. The Age of Blossoms plays on the radio – a dedication from Mrs Chan’s husband – after the cuckolded couple have ended their relationship, signifying the end of her blooming youth. As the Age of Blossoms plays, the camera cuts from Mrs Chan’s room to Chow’s and back again.  Her gossipy landlady tells her it’s good to enjoy herself when she’s young but not too much – a warning to end her relationship with Mr Chow.

The film slows time down by focusing on simple details, such as the smoke from Chow’s cigarette or raindrops, which heightens the emotional tone. Just as the couple are restrained in their affair (their love scene was filmed but edited out), the camera shows restraint by holding back. Their loneliness, distance from each other and from society is shown through the camera work. The camera peeks at the couple from under the bed, from the wardrobe and through bars, shadows and doorways. The camera hangs back in the scenes in the apartment as though we’re on the edges of the action.
The viewer often sees characters talking to someone off-screen – showing the separateness between individuals. Mirrors too are used to emphasis the difficulty in making connections (for instance, when the couple get caught in Mr Chow’s room together we see them through mirrors).

I would love to watch this lovers’ dance unfold in all its lingering detail on the big screen! I hope I’ve convinced you to watch but if you need more encouragement here’s the trailer.

I haven’t even mentioned a feature of the film that is breath-taking – the costume design and Maggie Cheung’s manifold cheongsams. Look out for a blog coming soon … (The film’s fashion is so pitch perfect that even my boyfriend mentioned it!)

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on In the Mood for Love or any other Valentine’s Day (or anti-Valentine’s) movies you love.