Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.
Want proof? Look no further than the following.
The year was 1926.
Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.
It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.
It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.
Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady: “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”
Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.
Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.
You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?
They move into the garden…..
Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)
While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.
If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.
Forget Helen of Troy. It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.
But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….
As the stunning Kubrick exhibition prepares to depart Los Angeles, here is a quick tour (with some additional photos). Think of this as a prelude to a future perambulation through the Kubrickian maze….
“Essentially the film is a mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific, literal explanation.” — Stanley Kubrick.
From Kubrick’s photos of New York life in the 1940s in Look magazine:
(More photos from Bert Stern’s legendary shoot can be found here).
One possible future of Man —
or another —
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends —
It gives a lovely light.”
What critic Michael Ciment calls “the return of the repressed”, a strand of behaviour that weaves throughout Kubrick’s work, becoming a murderous psychosis signalled by a telltale look:
Private Pyle (Full Metal Jacket):
In flagrante delecto — Masques of the Red Death….
Masks of marriage…..
“Who’s been sleeping in my bed…..?”
In the room the people come and go….
Talking of Michelangelo….
Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard a month ago, I found myself swerving to avoid a Spiderman who had temporarily lost control of his web.
Now a native Angeleno will immediately know whereof I speak. I was on the block of Los Angeles that every tourist flocks to, as well as assorted street performers acting out their superhero and celebrity complexes. This is where you’ll find Grauman’s Chinese Theater, home to the concrete signatures, handprints, footprints and even pawprints of Tinsel Town’s legends.
Also along this street you will find the Hollywood Walk of Fame: these are the stars set into the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard that bear the names of those who have defined the movies, both in front of and behind the camera. In swerving to avoid Spiderman (who was probably trying to catch the eye of Jimmy Kimmel’s talent spotter), I found myself careening towards a bouquet of flowers set upon an easel above one of these sidewalk memorials. This is what they do here to mark the recent passage of a star from the Hollywood constellation to the Great Walk of Fame in the Sky.
Fortunately, my collision was narrowly averted by a friendly steadying hand from Spongebob (who looked in need of a good rinse). Then I noticed the name of the legend whose floral epitaph I had almost demolished.
How appropriate, I thought, as I imagined the headline from the flowers’ point of view: “LARGE CREATURE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN WREAKS DEVASTATION FROM THE SKY!”. This was exactly the kind of thing you might see in a Ray Harryhausen movie.
Now if you don’t know who Ray Harryhausen is, then you are about to learn about one of the greatest sorcerers of the silver screen. If you are already familiar with his work, and live in Los Angeles, then I suspect you will already be planning to make the pilgrimage to this weekend’s retrospective of his work at the American Cinematheque.
Ray Harryhausen was the master of a process practically as old as film itself: stop motion animation. The ironic thing about those early filmmakers was that after laboring so long and hard to create a technology that could accurately record and then re-project reality, they then almost immediately set their minds to creating fantasies using all manner of camera trickery. Thomas Edison, one of the pioneers of movies, made some of the earliest examples of stop motion animation.
From the beginning, film led a double life. By day, it was a mild-mannered reporter of the factual and everyday; by night, a Jungian fantasist with superhero powers of endless invention.
Stop motion, just one weapon in the technical arsenal of the film wizard, is the process by which an animator films a model one frame at a time, slightly moving the model with each new frame exposure. Then, projected at 24 frames per second, the inanimate model miraculously comes to life. The most famous early examples of this technique used in features were The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). Willis O’Brien, who created the animation for both films, was later Harryhausen’s mentor.
Harryhausen took this technique and expanded upon it, eventually creating his own process to combine models and live action, which he named “Dynamation”.
My mind is prone to find odd equivalencies, so I consider Harryhausen to be the Chuck Jones of stop motion model animation. This is not because his films are funny (they aren’t – they are mostly about Armageddon monsters and mythological beasties – but they can give rise to unintentional giggles in rare moments of misjudged invention), but because he brought a level of genius to something that was completely artificial, often visibly so, and imbued it with incredible humanity, rendering it credible and, to the audience, utterly real.
With Jones it was line drawings which, in his greatest cartoons — like the Road Runner meditations on the futility of pursuit, literal or otherwise — were given broad stroke design and crude animation (at least compared to Disney’s fantasias), yet still seemed to capture the deep absurdities and pathos of the human condition. With Harryhausen, when the black-and-white T.Rex from outer space (official name Ymir) in 20 Million Miles to Earth is gunned down by soldiers in the Colisseum, and becomes a ruin in the ruins, guess who we feel sorry for, and guess who seems more human than the humans?
We may be aware of the sometimes jerky movements of Harryhausen’s animated creatures (his preferred term for his creations), the subtle but clear differentiations between the models and the real actors and locations. But at the same time we marvel at the apparent interaction between the models and the separately filmed elements. We buy the fantasy, because we imbue the models with character and emotion. How is that possible? They are just models.
Why do our hearts break at the end of King Kong? How is it that we, like Fay Wray, learn to weep for a rubber monkey?
Firty years from now, which version of the Perseus legend are you going to take your kids to see? The recent CGI, 3-D run-amok Clash of the Titans, or Ray Harryhausen’s whimsical 1981 version starring L.A.Law’s hunky Harry Hamlin and his dimple, with Larry Olivier hamming it up as Zeus on Mt. Olympus? (And keep an eye open, or maybe two, for James Bond’s Blonde Venus who arose from the waves: Ursula Andress as — yes, you guessed it — Venus/Aphrodite, minus the conch).
So what kind of cinematic alchemy is at work here, decades before CGI is able to render reality with more reality than reality?
Well, maybe that’s the point. Sometimes reality on film is less real, aesthetically and emotionally, than the real thing. Emotional truth is more important than strict pictorial accuracy. Art has always been about the missing piece, the leap of imagination, the interpretative act that is required of the viewer or listener to fully engage with the construct (the art work). In film, as Hitchcock so tellingly observed, it’s what you do not see that tickles the imagination, which in turn teases you into the spaces between the frames, between the visible. This is where the soul of film resides, and where we make the connection with our dream life.
In the pre-digital era the action of creating film was first a physical process, then a chemical one. First the object or actor moves or is manipulated. With Harryhausen his fingers shape and move the model frame by frame, touching it, pouring his energy through his fingers into the rubber or clay. Light bounces off the reality being photographed, passing through lenses onto the recording medium itself, then is manipulated and developed through chemicals in a laboratory, and finally imprinted. It is literally an alchemical process: disembodied light acting on one set of materials to turn them into another. Moving clay or rubber models in front of lights is a physical, organic process: a performance, like that of an actor, except this one is recorded one frame at a time.
On the other hand CGI, the digital equivalent of Harryhausen’s stop motion, takes place in an alternative reality generated within a computer. It is a mathematical process, a sampling of reality dressed up to look like a recording of reality. On some deep, intuitive level, that artificiality is communicated, and our brains, our souls do not completely buy it. We’re used to imperfection in everything we look at and experience in the physical world. Models exist in that world, and carry that DNA with them.
CGI can be further compromised by the desire of the modern filmmaker, paying no heed to Hitchcock, to fill in the blanks: now that he can show everything, he does show everything. There’s no space into which the viewer’s consciousness can quietly slip and settle, then absorb, grow, and make connections.
Harryhausen himself put his finger on it: “There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
Understanding that music is another magical alchemy that enhances the emotional connection we make to moving images, Harryhausen also made the brilliant decision to hire one of the best composers around, Bernard Herrmann, for four of his films, including his two best: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. It was Herrmann who added soul to Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s masterpieces Vertigo and Psycho with his bold, imaginative scores. Herrmann was a supreme colorist and a master of inventive orchestration. Harryhausen’s mythic creatures inspired him to create dazzling combinations of unusual instruments to lend each animation its own personality, like the sword-wielding skeleton in 7th Voyage of Sinbad who attacks with xylophone, percussion and brass staccatos.
In the 1970s, Decca’s hi-fi specatacular label, Phase 4 Stereo, embarked on a series of recordings of suites from these scores with Herrmann himself conducting. Their success helped nurture the growing interest in film music as a serious art form in its own right, and are now considered audio classics, with used LPs fetching high prices.
Some years ago I took my then 8-year-old daughter to a screening of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. She was utterly transported by this Technicolor fantasy voyage come true.
But as far as I was concerned this was just the warm-up to the main event. We walked across the street to meet the man himself, who was signing copies of his latest book.
This was a lavishly assembled collection of stills, drawings and storyboards from his movies, and framed copies of certain drawings hung on the walls of the bookstore. They would not have been out of place in a LACMA exhibit.
Hollywood art. Yes, there is such a thing.
My daughter was excited beyond measure to meet the man whose movie had just brought to life the myths she had only read about in books, or been told by me. Uncharacteristically tongue-tied, she came to the head of the line, clasping the book to be signed.
I told him we had just been to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. My daughter was visibly trembling, completely in awe. Harryhausen immediately put her at ease.
“So what did you like the best?” he asked gently.
Then: “The skeleton. He – “ note the use of the word ‘he’ rather than ‘it’. Now she hesitated, wanting to be sure to use exactly the right words. “He — was so real.”
“Well”, came Harryhausen’s reply. “He was real.”
Precisely my point.
That book continues to stand in pride of place on my daughter’s bookshelves, next to the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy epics that have so thoroughly colonized the landscapes of her imagination. Mythology and creatures from the beyond will always be with us, as will — thanks to film — the fantastical worlds of Ray Harryhausen.
And I’m willing to bet J.K. Rowling’s a fan too
Paul Simon wasn’t there (but he should have been) to gently coo the adjusted lyric to his classic song “Still Crazy After All These Years”, as Cybill Shepherd — the femme fatale in question — took her bow on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. The occasion was a sold-out screening of The Last Picture Show, celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern American classic.
No, not director Peter Bogdanovich’s movie — or at least that’s not how it was starting to seem at the Academy that night. No, we were here to revisit another Hollywood classic: the director’s notorious on-set extra-marital affair with his leading lady, carried on under the nose, literally, of his wife and creative collaborator, Polly Platt, who was also the film’s production designer. Hollywood, like the elephant it is, and all protestations to the contrary, never entirely forgets sins a little too close to hearth and home.
The affair ended her and Peter’s marriage, and was the scandal of the day. And now, forty years on, it was almost as if no time had gone by, no water had flowed under the bridge, as cast members pointedly teased and taunted Bogdanovich and Shepherd about their off-screen shenanigans all those years ago. Clearly “The Last Picture Show starring Pete and Cybill” still got the thumbs-down.
The evening had started out as a more conventional anniversary celebration of one of the best American movies the 70s have to offer, with a gorgeous, newly struck print and the presence of cast and crew luminaries, but by the end of the Q&A the only thing anyone (cast and director included) was talking about was how Miss. Shepherd was still getting it done. By getting it done, I mean getting her co-stars all riled up about those far off days of high jinks, and still looking so hot that her director seemed about ready to melt into his younger self (and Cybill) right there and then on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And could we blame him? I mean, Cybill — damn!
Of course we’d all caught the fever from the movie we’d just watched, which portrays the sexual fumblings and tumblings of a 1950s small town citizenry as the last gasp of lives and of a town – of a picture show – that were all essentially over long ago. It’s just that the inhabitants don’t yet fully grasp the fact of their own obsolescence, and keep going through the motions anyway. This is a place where watching movies and getting laid are the only escape from the inexorable, slow-motion death of hope. Maybe we’re not so far from Beverly Hills after all…..
Film companies out on location are like two years of high school crammed into a couple of months. The intensity of the work, the long hours, the isolation and distance away from hearth and home combine with flammable egos and jacked-up emotions to create a unique petri-dish of carnal possibilities. It was probably inevitable that the film’s makers would be drawn into the vortex of lust games they were laboring to capture onscreen. To judge from its effect at the Academy on that night four decades after the shooting, the film hadn’t lost any of its power to combust and discombobulate. By the time the lights came up, the air was heavy with a potent mix of melancholia and yearning for lost innocence, combined with that musty, close aroma you get in a basement where a bunch of teenagers have been heavy petting all night.
How uniquely Hollywood, I thought, as the director and cast members variously ambled, staggered, and stumbled onto the stage. Here they are, our stars of the movies, destined always to be confronted by these giant images of their own eternal youth and erotic angst, alive but also embalmed up there on the silver screen. Yet each day, every day, looking into the mirror — that other silver screen — they must bear witness to their present, mortal, in some cases almost unrecognizable, selves, the fragments and remains of those same immortal images up on the bog screen. Alive, “live”, in the flesh, but now being photographed and filmed again for the Academy archives, they have lived long enough to become archives for the archives.
You go to one of these Academy get-togethers and it’s like finding yourself sitting next to both Dorian Grey and his portrait at the High School reunion dance. What a dilemma. Which one is real? Who do you take out onto the floor for a spin? The young beautiful one with skin like warm silk, who promises to reconnect you with your idealized younger self; or the one sitting in film-noir shadows, his deep eye-wells of experience daring you to dance with him into the dark, and beyond? It’s the kind of situation or dilemma that is compelling, fascinating, a little unsettling, and absolutely one of the reasons why I love living in L.A., because this kind of weirdness is going on all the time. It’s what powers this town: the primal energy derived from protons of illusion gun-barrelling towards nuclei of reality.
The other thing that is clearly going on all the time is Cybill Shepherd, who sweeps down through the audience and onto the stage like she has a story to tell. And boy does she tell it!
Notions of the passing of the years softening her libido, or of her youthful indiscretions being a thing of the past be damned. Cybill looks about ready to pick up right where she left off on that diving-board 40 years ago, awkwardly stripping down to her panties in front of a room of drooling teenagers, then casually flinging her last shred of modesty to the waiting pack of celebrity watchers before plunging into stardom and beyond: the black hole of fickle fandom. And the Academy audience, already plugged-in and jacked-up on its two-hour, black-and-white make-out session, is primed and ready to wave her into home base.
So Cybill marches up onto the stage and sits right next to Peter Bogdanovich — naturally. She gives him that “You know I’m still a gorgeous movie-star, don’t you?” look, straight in the eye: “Go on. I dare you”.
You can feel the tension ripple through the cast — naturally, for this was the woman who destroyed the life of their friend and colleague, remember, with sex. Young sex. Young blonde sex. The room goes quiet. We’re all teenagers back in that swimming-pool, waiting for the blonde in her skivvies to prove she’s the real deal. Is she really going to do it? Is she really going to take it all off?
Lights! Camera! ACTION!