Sunday, September 10, 2006

South Bronx on the South Bank

The sensuous yet cerebral Molly Bloom offers a thought- and argument-provoking list of her favourite London films. Of course, the question of what 'a London film' might be is as open to discussion as the content of the list. Which London are we talking? And whose?

In the 30s, Hollywood could create anything it wanted on its backlot, and that included Ver Smoke. Witness, as an example, Fred taking Ginger on a carriage ride round Hyde Park, CA, in the delightful, utterly nonsensical Top Hat. This is travelogue London, with chirpy cabbies, bewhiskered bobbies and shots of the obvious landmarks every five minutes to remind you where you are (especially necessary in this case to distinguish it from the scenes in an equally fanciful Venice). The whole concept was brilliantly sent up in the opening sequence of the first Austin Powers movie, although I suspect there's a hardcore of Midwestern multiplex-goers that really does believe the streets of Chelsea are patrolled by Beefeaters.

The ultimate city-as-cinematic-simulacrum, however, was Casablanca. Much was made of the fact that the cast was drawn from dozens of different countries (of the main actors only Bogart and Dooley Wilson were born in the States) but nobody seemed too worried about the absence of any actual Moroccans. In fact, the producers' attention to veracity was so half-arsed, they even put Casablanca in the wrong place on the map in the opening sequence.

From the late 1940s onwards, easier and cheaper transport made location shoots more feasible. Audiences, it was claimed, also wanted more realistic movies, although what they actually got (wanted?) was a different, less fluffy flavour of unreality. The 1950 noir Night and the City is a classic example. Jules Dassin's delightfully sleazy yarn of dodgy dealers and desperate losers offers us all the right establishment shots of St Paul's and Tower Bridge. The twilight world of Soho clipjoints and fixed wrestling bouts is inhabited by reliable pillars of the Brit moviemaking community: bloated Dickens specialist Francis L Sullivan; professional slattern Googie Withers; all-purpose immigrant Herbert Lom. But American cinemagoers wanted to have their individual fruit pie from a Lyon's Corner Cafe and eat it; the leads are Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney; even the boring bloke downstairs who carries a torch for Tierney is played by the American Hugh Marlowe. The question of why so many people would want to swap the post-war Truman/Eisenhower boom economy for damp, rationed Blighty is seldom addressed. They're there because American audiences want them there, just as they'd later want Hugh Grant to cop off with Andie or Julia. The Hudson flows into the Thames, and Nelson wields a torch.

The last scenes Night and the City offer a frenzied cat-and-mouse game between Widmark and the various thugs, snitches and low-lifes of London ('London'?). The first time I saw it, I became disoriented when the action moved to the river, hopping between dockside huts and building sites. Where the hell were they? I was guessing the Isle of Dogs, and wondering how he'd managed to get so quickly from W1, before someone asked a policeman (of course) for directions to York Road; and I realised this mess of mud and cranes was the South Bank, presumably in the throes of development for 1951's Festival of Britain. And this, of course, was also where Grant quoted David Cassidy to McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Everything is connected, even when you're being chased by sinister Cockneys.

Of course, for many years, the preferred destination for footloose Yanks was Paris: think Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Gene Kelly, Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, selling the Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées. The disadvantage, as Seberg's endearingly crap French demonstrated, is that Parisians insist on not understanding the international language of English shouted slowly. This created something of a problem for Roman Polanski in the mid-70s, when criminal charges of unlawful sex with a minor forced him to flee the States just after the success of Chinatown.

His first film in exile effectively wrote the whole Hollywood sojourn out of his history, by referring back to his London classic Repulsion (which is in Molly's Top Ten, something you can't say for Four Weddings). The Tenant (1976) is, like so many of Polanski's movies, about a small, insignificant individual cast adrift in a world gone insane. (Note to self... Polanski does Kafka... music by Radiohead...) In the familiar story of an apartment building that's not quite what it seems, he shakes up the model of Repulsion by making the lead character male (himself, rather than Catherine Deneuve) and transferring the action to Paris.

But because Polanski was now a Hollywood player, albeit a disgraced one, there was American money around; which meant American stars. Melvyn Douglas is the landlord; Shelley Winters the concierge. And if they're not going to speak French, why should anyone else? The polyglot Polanski is fine; but Isabelle Adjani, her loveliness only slightly marred by green eyeshadow and Deidre Langton specs, seems to be dubbed; the other French performers (including Josiane Belasko, Michel Simon and Claude Dauphin) are definitely given the Singing Ringing Tree treatment.

It's Paris made safe for Anglophones, although the image of a deranged Polanski dressing up as a woman and pulling out his own tooth may take the romantic sheen off the city for some. It's properly abroad, but you don't even need subtitles, let alone a phrasebook. In a world where Americans feel the need to sew Canadian flags on their backpacks before boarding international flights, such a concept must be tempting.

However, it's not just a case of moving into a city and installing enough aircon, valet parking and Hershey bars to make it comfortable. Location filming in New York and LA has become so expensive that Toronto and Budapest, Pinewood and Cinecitta are now called to stand in for the definitive American cities, CGI smoothing over the joins. Instead of bringing the world to the Hollywood backlot, the world becomes the backlot. As Le Monde declared on the morning of September 12, 2001: "Nous sommes tous des Américains".

22 comments:

Molly Bloom said...

Cor - this is fantastic! Tres bien Tim. I must admit I was nodding all the way through. What gets me, like you say, is the fact that we have to have the cultural 'signs' rammed down our throats when there is a link to London. Like you say, Beefeater syndrome. But also, red buses, large Tube signs and the like.

I think that's why I like 'Nil By Mouth' because it really does present a more realistic portrayal. Not in a patronising way either. It is the reality and rawness of South London. Oldman had obviously 'lived' it and captured that violence and beauty at the same time. There is always an 'edge' about living here. I had this 'moment' when I went home and went to this party and everybody just left their handbags on the tables. It made me realise that you constantly live on a strange edge in London.

I think that there is often a 'twee' portrayal. In contrast, you have the American portrayals...everybody I meet says that the representation of New York in films is exactly the same as in reality. Perhaps New York is even more real than real.

Well...I think I shall have to go back and put a link to this wonderful piece on my blog...but I'm notoriously rubbish at doing links! So, a mention. Erudite words Mr. Footman. Fascinating.

Tim Footman said...

Thank you, Molly.

The first time I went to NYC, I came out of Penn Station, and the first thing I saw was steam coming out of a grating in the tarmac. I crossed the road (when it said WALK) and bought a pretzel from a fat man with a moustache.

My joy could only have been more complete if Woody Allen were standing behind me.

Billy said...

Tim: just reading your comment there, made me get Rhapsody in Blue running through my head.

Great post, BTW.

Annie said...

I never recognise the London I see in films (though like you said, in New York you feel as if you have stepped straight into a film.)

I believe you and Molly about Nil by Mouth but am scared to watch it as it looks unbelievably grim. (A friend of mine worked on it and said the crew used to go home v depressed & subdued every day.) There must be a middle ground between touristy shots of Big Ben and the South Bank, and gritty urban deprivation...?

I hear Michael Winterbotham's Wonderland is pretty good but seems to be unavailable these days...

orange anubis said...

We've committed our own crimes against London too - Spiceworld, anyone? I love Repulsion, think I ought to have a look at The Tenant.

Robert A. Swipe said...

"My joy could only have been more complete if Woody Allen were standing behind me."

I once hugged Parliament/Funcadelicateer Bernie Worrell in a New York music club, if that's any good. He was wearing a ridiculously long fur coat ans 'coon skin hat at the time.

He didn't recognise me...

I say again - "Jazzin' for Blue Jean". And the video for Absolute Beginners.

As Bryan would no doubt tell you - you're never alone with a Strand...

Tim Footman said...

I bumped into Luther Vandross in Soho once. It was entirely my fault, but he apologised, which I thought was sweet, and oddly English as well.

I'm thinking of a post that joins the dots between Absolute Beginners and Lipstick On Your Collar, by the way. But it will have to begin with a mythical meeting between the two flawed geniuses in a pub somewhere, and have them arguing; if only so I can get in the ultimatum as they go toe to toe: "Is this Temple Bar - or Potter's Bar?"

Bum. I've realised, I got all the timings arse about tit on the Polanski thing. I reckon The Tenant must have been made before his LA unpleasantness. Shall I change it? Any thoughts?

Robert A. Swipe said...

Yes, that period hasn't really been recreated all that well, imho - I was really disappointed with Lipstick after Singing Detective - seemed a bit formulaic: you know, Pennies - 30s, Detective 40s. Lipstick 50s. Will have to watch again as it seems popular round here.

The best thing I've seen recently that recreates a bygone era was the TV verion of The Long Firm. I thought that was spot on - esp. the one with Joe Meek in. Phil Daniels was also superb recast as an older version of his Quadrophenia character. So maybe we should get that team to revisit the era and remake AB.

I'm with you on Absolute Beginners - admiring your cojones for bigging it up when I wimped out. I think that they did a fairly good job and if they hadn't hyped it up so much, it might have had a more sympathetic response at the time. Also, don't you wish thay'd filmed it like the video for the song - that era just *is|* b*w, don't you think?

True story here - they filmed all the fascist meeting scenes at a church hall in Twickenham right behind where I was working at the time. We heard all this banging and stomping and shouting and screaming and thought nothing of it (well, the Boy Scouts round our way....you don't mess with 'em...)

Turns out that Bowie had been on the set and there was a piece in the local paper about how he'd been spotted hanging around a stone's through from where we were all sat, moanng about the racket from next door.

Just think, I could have dueted with him on Someone's Pinched Me Sausages...

Tangential - there's a RockDocumentary festival in Bristol at the moment (heads up Spin) but they're *not* showing that brilliant one about Gene Vincent touring the working men's clubs of northern England, not long before he died. It is absolutely *heartbreaking* - but there's a weird beauty to the smoke-fug griminess of it all.

Oh, and Get Carter - that really is City as soulless modern hell, if ever anything was...

Great Luther Story - do you regret not saying to him, funky music, sho-nuff takes a part of meeee....in a Bowie voice? No, I wouldn't either...

I'll shut up now.

Wyndham said...

My favourite London films: The Ladykillers, Hidden City, Passport To Pimlico, Quartermass And The Pit, An American Werewolf in London, Frenzy, Blow Up, and, best of all, The Day The Earth Caught Fire. For anyone interested in classic movie locations, go to Reel Streets, which links from my blog. Absolute Beginners doesn't count - recreating a mythicasl London on a soundstage isn't the same thing.

Spinsterella said...

Hello,

just letting you know that Andrew Collins in this month's Word mag has pinpointed the first use of the word 'indie' to January 1980, when industry mag Record Business started its 'indie chart', which was then taken up by Sounds..

Right, I'm off now to get a life or something.

(Sorry for off-topic-ness, but I don't know anythign about fillums.)

Tim Footman said...

Wyndham: But that's my whole point. Dassin (and Hitchcock and Antonioni and Landis et al) were all creating fake Londons as well, even if they were shooting them on real streets. You could argue that Temple was more honest, in that he was constantly pointing out the unreality of his 'London'. Brecht vs Chekhov. I'm just watching the BBC 1984 from the 50s, with Peter Cushing. That was really shot in London, a lot of it on bombsites. But it clearly wasn't 'real', as it was set 30 years in the future. There's a backdrop of a modified London skyline that's clearly painted on canvas...

Spin: I might have words with Mr Collins. I've got a book by the late Barry Lazell, who compiled that chart. the word indie (to describe a record company) was kicking around some time before that. Rough Trade had been around since the mid 70s, I think. It's the application to a kind of music (essentially post-punk, guitars, shambly, bedraggled quiffs, etc etc) that's a mystery. Will drop him a line.

Robert A. Swipe said...

"Will drop him a line."

Sop it's not just names you drop then...?

Luther, Collins. You'll be telling us you know Rufus Sewell next....

Spinsterella said...

He pinpoints the genre thing to(you can probably guess) C86.

Sorry.

Right, London Films - um...can't think of any that haven't been mentioned 'cept 'This Year's Love'. Which was kind of rubbish.

Kwok said...

More 'realistic' London films to consider:

Withnail and I
28 Days Later
Wimbledon
and erm, Harry Potter

and about the New York/London comparison: surely New York is more cinematic. Straight lines, grids, landmark buildings; whereas London is a bit more squat and sprawling...

Tim Footman said...

...and thus better suited to widescreen?

Spin: I'm sure the genre thing came earlier (Smiths, New Order, Fall, Cocteaus, J&MC). Was This Year's Model one of those kinda-like-Richard-Curtis-but-with-attitude that always had people like Tom Hollander and Rufus Sewell in?

Bob: Talking of which... AC's got a website. His email's public domain.

Spinsterella said...

This Year's Love - yeah - ensemble thing kind of aiming to be a sort of grittier Richard Curtis.

Starred Kathy Bates, Ian Hart, Jennifer Ehle with dreads and loads of others you'd recognise.

Great scene of a bride puking up with her knickers round her ankles after a one-night-stand on her wedding day - but that's about it.

(I was also very excited by the steam coming out of the pavements in NYC)

M. A. Peel said...

Native New Yorker here, long-time lurker to your blog. No one has mentioned Woody abandoning NY for London in Match Point and Scoop. That was a pretty big deal over here.

Tim Footman said...

Hello, M.A., and what a sexy nom de blog you've assigned to yourself. To my shame, I've still yet to see either of those films (I've kind of cooled on Woody - the last thing I really liked was Deconstructing Harry). A number of the reviews suggest that he's simply dealing with the sort of Londoners (rich, articulate, well-read, neurotic) who would socialise with the sort of New Yorkers who inhabit Annie Hall, Manhattan, etc. In other words, he's not really making London movies; he's still making New York movie, but painting the cabs a different colour. Do you think that's fair?

patroclus said...

I know this is a totally facetious and petty comment to make on such a brilliant post, but shouldn't it be Nous sommes tous *des* Américains? That's been niggling at me for a couple of days now.

Of course if I'm wrong I'll be stripped of my French degree and hounded out of the land of the stripy top and beret.

I don't know nuffink about films, me, but Absolute Beginners is one of my favourite books of all time.

Tim Footman said...

Ooops... you are, of course, right. All changed, like airbrushing Trotsky out of the Revolution. Hey, I only got a B for French at O-level. But I blame my teacher, Mr S., who didn't give me enough encouragement because I wasn't to his, um, specific preferences.

Please be assured that all future pretentious stabs at francophilia (including any ramblings about Baudrillard, Barthes, Audrey Tautou's bottom, etc) will be forwarded to your good self for proofreading. Do you charge extra for circumflexes?

M. A. Peel said...

Tim--Yes, I saw "Avengers" reruns at a very impressionable age. "Match Point" and "Scoop" are certainly stylized, fantasy London. And "Match Point" has the other oddity of being a retelling of "An American Tragedy" reset in the land of Big Ben, and with a plot twist. Still surprising from the quintessential NY director. And we all thought he had a thing for Paris . . .

Speaking of surprising: has Hugh Laurie's series "House" reached your shores yet? It is a huge hit here, and there is much fawning over the man's blue eyes in print and at the watercooler.

Tim Footman said...

Indeed it has, MA - in fact, that little tag under the blog header is a quote from the great man himself. Of course, Hugh Laurie has been a national treasure in the UK for the past couple of decades, although better known for his comedy - since House, rather a lot of women have begun to admit that they've been harbouring carnal desires for him for ages.

I touched on his surly charm back in May (go here, scroll down a bit) and, partly spurred by your perceptive House-Bogart comparison on the MTR blog, I've got something else brewing - will be up today or tomorrow.