Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


Class-Conscious Comedic Consequences

April 2, 2011

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is another Alec Guiness/Ealing Studio gem of a comedy.  Small in scale, understated, but with a vein of wicked satire, the pure pleasure of viewing it is all in the characters and the dialog, the little touches.  Guiness plays Sidney Stratton, a misfit chemistry genius who finally perfects his process for creating an indestructible fiber.  It doesn’t wear out, wrinkle, or get dirty.  Here, Miss Birnsby, the daughter of the mill owner that finally sponsors his work tells him that he is a knight in shining armor, relieving the world’s masses of the drudgery of doing laundry or working for money to buy clothes.  The shot captures the naive idealism of the characters, the irony of the film, and the wonderful, uncertainly proud character that Guiness projects.

A fiber that never wears out…that’s not good for business!  The aged, no-nonsense textile king, Sir John comes in to set Birnsby straight, and the assembled magnates decide to suppress the invention.  Stratton runs out – “How can we stop him?” shouts the wimpy Birnsby.  “Force!” retorts Sir John.  He’s a real capitalist!  They capture Stratton and hold him locked in the attic.  They nab him when he backs into a wall and knocks down a plaque showing Labor and Capital reconciled.  “Is he all right?”  “Yes, I think so…”  “Pity.” says Sir John.

Stratton doesn’t care for money, so they decide to use sex to get him to sign off on suppressing his find.  The textile magnates engage in some hard bargaining with Miss Birnsby who demands 5,000 pounds to seduce Stratton.   They agree reluctantly:  her father has some moral qualms, but for the others, only her high price is painful.  Sir John looks like he might be the model for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.

Miss Birnsby loves Stratton,  and she goes through the motions of seducing him only to hear him say that, no, he will not do it.  Just as she thought!  She’s elated, and helps him escape.

He escapes into the lower town where the workers live, only to get a rude reception there.  They want the invention suppressed because it will mean the end of their jobs.  They lock him up too.  While he’s struggling to get out, a worker’s delegation meets the magnates in Birnsby’s mansion.  One clever fellow points out that they, Labor and Capital, are in the same boat, they need each other…as always.  The scene is the most delicious send-up of class politics I’ve ever seen.

I suppose you could analyze the (middle class) politics of this film to death, but the point of satire is to demonstrate with humor the foibles of the human race, and here we see naked and short-sighted self-interest on hilarious display.  Just before the denouement, Stratton encounters his old landlady, a wrinkled little old woman who makes  some money on the side by doing laundry:  “What will I do when nobody needs my washing, Mr. Stratton?  Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?”  Stratton is abashed – unintended consequences he never foresaw in his single-minded pursuit.


Witchfinder General

December 25, 2010

Thanks to the blogger at the tilting planet and his futile preoccupations for pointing me to this little low-budget gem, Witchfinder General from 1968.  It isn’t rated highly by most – Ken Russell, hearing that his film, The Devils (1971), was thought to be influenced by it supposedly said it was the worst he’d ever seen (from Wiki) – but I think it tells its story rather well.  It’s a small film, focusing on a few characters in 17th century rural England, no large historical tableaux, no battles, but it makes its point, and Oliver Cromwell shows his face.

Based on a novel that fictionalizes an historical character, Matthew Hopkins, it tells of his cynical and profitable work searching the countryside for suspected witches, and extracting confessions when he finds them.  They are tortured, hanged, and burned; Hopkins gets a hefty fee, and the local officials who request his assistance get a cut of the action too.  How much of this story is invented, I do not know, but it captures something about the nature of witch hunts, 17th century and contemporary.

Despite the fact that he’s doing the Lord’s work in the midst of the Puritan Revolution, Hopkins is a bit of dandy.  His undoing comes when he “tries” and executes the uncle of the attractive young lady shown at top who is betrothed to a gallant soldier in Cromwell’s army.  The young man vows vengeance, and achieves it, hacking away at Hopkins’ carcass with a hatchet, and crying “You have taken him from me!” when his fellow soldiers shoot Hopkins to end the bloody frenzy.

Before his end, however, Hopkins has a good run, and even invents, or claims to, a new way of burning the devil’s minions, by lowering them with ropes onto a burning pyre – we’ve seen that before…  He also takes the time to personally “interrogate,” in the privacy of his rooms, any comely maiden that is brought before him.

In the case of the soldier’s woman, she serves herself up to him, knowing that is the only way to have a chance of saving her uncle until her beloved returns from the war.  Her uncle is killed anyway, and she is ravished and raped.  The film ends with Hopkins’ death and her deliverance, but the soundtrack is of her horrified screaming.  Is there any true deliverance for her, after her ordeals?


Caine/Carter

November 30, 2009

Michael Caine as the always fashionably dressed Jack Carter, a monstrous thug in the remarkably nasty, and very suspenseful, Get Carter.


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