Waiting Fo (u) r Godard: A play for one actor & two laptops

5th August 2020

WAITING FO(U)R GODARD by Paul Pacifico

Copyright 2020. Paul Pacifico asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

Anyone is free to perform this play, royalty-free

If significant revenue is generated, then I merely ask that the actor or company make a donation to a cancer charity, UNICEF or the WWF

Have fun and break a leg

The play can use the actor’s real name and list their credits, for example the actor in the script is called James Green and he performed in ‘Krapp’s Last Tape,’ among other theatre, film and TV.

Directors are free to add their own ideas to localise the play.

BLACK

SOUND FX : The end of the world.

: Silence.

: Increasing sound of insects scuttling about.

: This fades as sound of a projector starts, very loud.

: Projector volume drops, but continues. Seagulls.

: Still with projector noise, various traffic and city sounds, cut in at random, at different levels. Ends with a loud bicycle bell.

LIGHTS

The stage has two tables at front, left and right, each with an open laptop (facing away from audience), one Windows, one Apple. Around the stage are symbols of film making: tripods, cameras, lights etc. as well as one old chair.

One door, upstage

Sound of knocking on door

MAN enters and, with a little trepidation, looks around. Closes door carefully. He is wearing a light brown raincoat covering a shirt and tie. He carries a slip of paper on which is written, ‘MAN’

MAN : Is this the place ?

Man seems encouraged when he notices the equipment. He looks around and slowly paces the room

MAN : Only me here. Hello ? Hello ? Maybe I should call my agent.

Man pulls out a mobile phone, tries calling, then walks around room holding phone out at different angles

Man : Can’t get a reception. Merde ! Ok, better warm up the voice.

Man changes voice and intonation

“Is this the place.” “Is this the place ?” “Is this the place !”

BLACK

SOUND FX : A voice with a European accent:

Germany, Year Zero.

LIGHTS

MAN : Ah, sounds like a European art film, lucky I wore my coat of many characters. What better to induce the ambience of world-weary, coffee-stained existentialism ?

Man demonstrates a sense of Fado, leaning forward as if the weight of the world were oppressing him. Suddenly he springs upright and starts to shake pretend hands a la Jacques Tati

ManMr Hulot by Jacques Tati. In addition to the aforementioned Tati, I can also play detectives, gumshoes, pickpockets, secret agents, private I’s, philosophers, misanthropes, gamblers, gun-runners, Bullitts, Samuarais, spies who come in from the cold, hit-men, thin men, conmen, last men, lusty men and bicycle thieves. The director will love it. Speaking of a director … I didn’t get a script. Maybe I should call my …

Man repeats procedure, seeming to loose his confidence as he tries, in vain, for a signal

Man :No reception. Merde. I have no idea what the part is, just says, ‘MAN’ … or who the director is … or where he is. Naturally, we, the actors, represent him, because it’s usually a man, but I don’t want to get into that now, a physical envoy of his thoughts and feelings, the idea made flesh, abstract peregrinations given tangible form. I hope I get a great speech like that…and sound effects, juxtaposed together. It would serve to support my thesis relating to the dichotomy of cinema, at one and the same time being the foremost cultural influence …

SOUND FX : A heavy piano chord

MAN: Charming. Very dramatic. I suppose it serves to highlight the very lack of drama. Is a bare stage the same as a stage that’s bare ? I don’t know. Je ne sais pas. Ich weiss es nicht ! See, I can act in three languages … and brilliant in each one.

SOUND FX : An electronic chicken 

The Windows computer seems to come ‘alive’. Man walks over, excitedly, to the laptop. 

MAN: Hello ? I’m here for the part of ‘MAN’ ? Hello ? Bonjour ? Guten Tag … Ni hao ? That’s it I’m … Oh, wait, Ciao …

Laptop : Enter password

MAN : OK. What is the password ? And why’s it just me here ? Will there be other actors coming ? You can just give me the part now, that will save every…

Laptop : Enter password

MAN: Ohhh ! La-la ! What is the blo … what is the password ?

Laptop : 3 point 1 4

MAN: Oh, easy as pi.

Laptop :15926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679

Man tries to enter the numbers but can’t keep up. He gets increasingly agitated and finally shuts the laptop

MAN : Never work with children, animals or computers. Or professionals but that doesn’t seem to be a problem here.

Man opens laptop. The voice has stopped. He tries for a phone signal again; no luck, again

Man : Merde ! Maybe I can email my agent. Hey, wait a moment.

Man walks over to other laptop which is an Apple

Man : The anguished cry of modern man, “What’s the wifi password ?” Hey, Siri, what’s the wifi password ?

SIRI : The password is …

SOUND FX : A loud electronic buzz blocks out the answer

Man : Oh, that’s clever, thanks, Siri. Pretty obvious, really.

Man enters password and the Apple seems to come ‘alive’

Man : Hello ? I’m here for the audition.

SIRI : Name ?

Man : Yes, haha, John, John Green

SIRI : Hello, Yes, haha, John, John Green

Man : Everything screwy is normal in this crummy place.

MAN walks to the centre of the stage and faces the audience, preparing himself before speaking.

MAN : Is this comedy or tragedy ? I don’t know. For the benefit of late-comers, an actor in the time when cinema is dying, is attending an audition for an unknown part in an unknown production with an unknown director. Talk about a script found on a dump. Who wrote th … oh, him ! I know him, well he’s far away in Viet Nam, now, best place for him. Remember the golden age of Hollywood ? Real writers. Now they just pick a hit book and call it a ‘ready-made script’. Siri, please tell my agent he’s fired.

SIRI : I’m sorry, Yes, haha, John, John Green, I can’t do that.

MAN : What ? Then what use is your hard-drive and motherboard and billion bytes of RAM ? You’re just a pocket calculator loaded with conspicuous consumption.

SIRI :Thespian !

MAN :Status symbol

SIRI :Character actor !

MAN :Over-priced piece of crap

SIRI :Walk-on parter !

MAN :Made in China rip-off. I’m going back to Windows

Man closes the Apple and types something into the Windows laptop.

SOUND FX : Sounds of people moving equipment around, background chatter, sounds from a film set.

MAN: Hello I’m … John Green. I’m here for the audition. Is this the right place ?

Windows: Hey, who are you ? What do you want ?

Man: I want a plot ! I’m here for … Excuse me, do you know what time the director’s getting here ? Only I don’t have all day. I want to watch ‘The Swimmer’ on TV with my friend Burt Lancaster ?

Man turns to camera and makes exaggerated smile

SOUND FX : A heavy piano chord, different from before

MAN: Well you’ve changed your tune. I have a question for you … What exactly is cinema ?

Windows: (in a different voice, a working class agitator)

Thank you brother. Cinema: it markets a dream which is unavailable to the target audience who could never participate in an equivalent reality. It propagates the idea that such dreams are possible while, at the same time and working in collusion with multi-national corporations, strives to ensure that such equality can never exist. I will now let my small brother, who represents the developing world, expand, expound and explain.

MAN: It’s full of symbolism, isn’t it? If you don’t like symbolism, if you don’t like metaphor, if you don’t like subtexts … you can get stuffed.

Windows: (in another different voice)

Thank you, brother. Success is only measured in how close we come to emulating the standard product. Such factors as locality, language or legend are labeled ‘colourful’ but viewed with suspicion, and are detrimental to the cause. Overseas sales are increasingly imperative in the battle for survival and as such, the product has to have a universality readily identifiable.

MAN: Now I have a headache. Ok, Let me draw an analogy between Cinema and the hamburger. Audiences will be unquestionably conditioned to accept one, and only one, type of movie. There are fewer and fewer descendants of D.W.Griffith as cinema plays whore to the lure of the dollar. 

Windows: (working class agitator voice )

We will leave you with a thought from the Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda. Under Communism, any film could be made, it just may not have been shown. In the West, any film gets shown, but may not have been made. Which is the better ? 

Windows appears to shut down.

MAN: Well don’t look at me, I don’t know what’s going on. What should I do now ? 

SOUND FX : A high-pitched, weak bell as in a works canteen

Man: Hello, who’s this ?

Electric voice: Union lunch break. Stop all work. Tea up. First coffee break.

MAN: At last. They must know I’m here, at least. What’s on the menu ?

Electric voice:Fizzy beverage. Pastry.

MAN: I get it, the drink represents USA and the pastry represents Europe, right ?

Slight pause.

Electric voice:Fizzy beverage. Pastry.

MAN: Well, if we’re going to share a stage, you’ll have to do a bit better than that. Do you have any more lines ?

Electric voice:Yes, I have a good one, imminently. 

MAN: Nu ? I’m waiting, boy am I waiting ? How about some acting ?

Electric voice:That’s not my job.

MAN: Oh, come on, it’s easy, you know you want to, don’t want to disappoint the audience, do you ? And don’t say “fizzy beverage” again.

Electric voice: It’s my bona fide line. 

MAN: What if I were to tell you, teach, yes, teach you something. I would then be passing on the training to another union member.

Electric voice: errrrr….

MAN: Bon. Alors, how about if I teach you some reactions ? How about surprise mixed with wonderment ?

Electric voice:Oh, I don’t know anything about …

MAN: La-la, it’s the easiest thing, we learn it on our first morning in acting class. Slowly open your mouth and make your eyes bigger, and wooooowwwwww. Voice high and soft.

Electric voice does perfect reaction

MAN: Wow ! Formidable ! Zwei mal wunderschoen!

Electric voice:Yes, well, I, er … don’t like to, er, blow trumpet, but, er … well … to business. Look under the table

MAN finds a can of Coke, a croissant and a copy of ‘Das Kapital’

Electric voice:For the children of Marx and Coca-cola.

MAN does a Groucho Marx impression

MAN : Last night I shot an industrialist in my pyjamas. He was studying the relations of re-production.

Electric voice:Twenty dollars.

MAN : What ?

Electric voice:Fizzy beverage and pastry. Twenty dollars.

MAN : I hate no-budget projects. OK, I’ll ask you a question, and if the answer is ‘I don’t know’, you owe me twenty dollars. Exactly, what is this play about ?

Electric voice:I don’t know.

MAN : Right, that’s twenty dollars you owe me. Don’t worry about it, use it to cover the cost of the catering.

SOUND FX : a bell as if played back on a broken tape player

MAN: It’s not even a real croissant ! It’s a prop.

MAN starts making little jumps around the stage, ending with a large jump.

MAN: Practicing my jump-cuts, and I do my own stunts. Now, here’s a trick I learnt in montage class.

Lights go out for a short period. When they come back, the MAN is standing on the chair, in a far corner. Light out, back on, MAN is making a sideways running gesture, frozen in mid run. Lights out, back on, MAN is under the chair, crawling out.

MAN: Merde ! This is why actors hate montage; no control over what happens. Hhhmmm, no-budget film, hey, or play, or project, or workshop, or … thing. Probably no effects. I also have that covered. Alors, watch this … I walk across the stage in real-time. Now, backwards … now looped, see the same sequence repeated, repeated … Now, a personal favourite, slow motion. Phew ! A guy can get tired like that. I should take a break ?

Apple laptop seems to come ‘alive’

Siri : From what ?

MAN becomes increasingly dramatic during his speech

MAN: Je ne sais pas … la vie … love, existence. 

All this … being … nothingness … oh, why am I

doomed to play in such insubstantial fare ? Where are

the inspired roles of yesteryear ? Where can I liberate

my oppressed soul in lofty flights of poetry, escape the

drudgery of moribund routine and don wings to ascend to

the Olympian heights of elegance and eloquence ? Oh, what time’s ‘The Swimmer’ on ?

SIRI : 21.30

MAN: You’re speaking to me again. Hey, Siri, why did I get a croissant ? Wouldn’t an English muffin be more appropriate, London and all ?

SIRI : I’m sorry, Yes, haha, John, John Green, I don’t know the answer to that.

MAN : Oh, not that again, just call me ‘Yes’.

SIRI : Yes 

MAN: It probably refers to the middle-classing of Socialism. You won’t find many poor socialists now, they can’t afford it. People have to be capitalists to earn the money to become socialists. To wit, the croissant, symbol of middle-class leisure and ineffectuality. 

SOUND FX: The MGM Leo the Lion roar

MAN: Hey, Siri … is this a play that thinks it’s a film, or a film that thinks it’s a play ?

SIRI : I’m sorry, Yes, haha, John, John Green, I don’t know the answer to that.

MAN : Someone needs an upgrade.

SIRI :Someone needs acting lessons.

MAN : I can unplug you, Missy !

SIRI :You and whose army ? Anyway, I have a lithium polymer battery to provide maximum battery life in a compact space. 

WINDOWS: (WORKER’S VOICE) Thus exploiting the downtrodden people of the Democratic Republic of Congo in cobalt mining.

MAN : The laptops get dialogue ? Hey, Siri … where did you get a script ? Windows … ?

SIRI & Windows together: 

We’re sorry, Yes, haha, John, John Green, we don’t know the answer to that. 

Black

SOUND FX : A voice:

Later, that same day.

LIGHTS

MAN is still walking around trying to get a signal. His coat is off and he is in shirt-sleeves.

MAN: No signal. Merde ! 

MAN continues searching, thinks he has a signal, but no success. Suddenly the Windows laptop appears to come ‘alive’.

Windows: Absurd.

MAN: Great ! Another extra with only one line. Look, I’ve been thinking, if the director’s not going to show up, I may as well leave.

Windows:D’accord. Goodbye.

MAN: You mean he, because it’s probably a man, may arrive ? I think I’ll stick around for a bit. Just a few minutes longer.

Windows:Just a few minutes longer, Just a few minutes longer.

MAN: So he’ll, it’s usually a he, he’ll be here soon ? Oh, I get it. This is the audition. All the while, all these cameras and lights and whatnot, the computers, yes, haha.

SIRI : Yes, haha, John, John Green.

MAN: Shut up, Siri, all the while, I’ve been watched, studied, scrutinised and, still being here, I’m evidently doing a great job. Now to reel them in.

Windows: Hey, who are you ? What do you want ?

MAN : Well, I’m glad you asked. Something engaging, with just the right amount of Brechtian alienation and a bit of Beckett to boot. I can act, magnificently, play guitar, musically, drink, moderately, you’ll never get me on a horse. I play the lead, supremely, react, subtlety, dance, sublimely, for extra money, of course. And, if the script calls for it, and the lady is cute, I mean … you know … artistically cute in a non-judgemental, non-patriarchal, non-Harvey Weinstein, sicko-pervo kinda way … if script calls … I do ‘love scenes’.

Windows: No love scenes. Bad for the Chinese Market. Mustn’t forget the Chinese market.

MAN : The population of China is, Siri, what’s the population of China ?

SIRI : The population of China is 1.42 billion

MAN: Is 1.42 billion, believe me, people in China are having love scenes.

SIRI : Haha. That told him. So what are you doing now ?

MAN: I’m just waiting for the director. .. been waiting since … No script …don’t know what, if any, rôle I’ll have …

Windows: You’ve been waiting for a director who won’t show up, without a script, which hasn’t been written, for a part, which doesn’t exist.

SIRI : Haha. That told him. So what are you doing now ?

MAN: The laptops get a love scene ? Why do I always end up in screwball comedies ? Enough. From my experience of no-budget, low-budget plays, the director ain’t gonna show. And, “It is beyond doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience.” 

Windows: You can’t say that.

MAN: I can’t ? but Kant can. And if Kant can, I can’t see I can’t. Adieu. Fare thee well.

MAN starts to leave, but before he reaches the door

SOUND FX : A fast sports car screeching to a halt

: Some music playing, fading in

: With song still playing, sound of heavy rain on a city street

: Electronic voice: 

The Second Act. Decision of the actor. Resolution

MAN: Lucky I stayed. Now we’re getting somewhere. 

MAN pulls out phone, extends but doesn’t even check if he has a signal.

MAN: No reception. Merde ! I see, Project Phoenix, Project MK Ultra, Russian sleep Deprivation, Big Brother. How will I respond, not to direction, but to no direction, to no director. To nobody. This is ‘opennism’. Allow me to explain. It’s up to the audience to contribute, to read the text and extract from it what they will. The play itself takes on a sort of existential life force, with no preconceived ideas or fixed point of reference. The audience is doomed to make their own interpretation, with no old fashioned abstract morality about what is right or wrong …

The Windows laptop appears to come alive. MAN runs over to it, with a hint of desperation

Windows:John Green.

MAN: Oui, c’est moi

Windows: Theatre – Krapp’s Last Tape, you were Krapp

SIRI: Haha

(Windows adds full list of theatre and acting work)

SIRI: Mr Green, exactly, what is cinema …?

MAN: Enough words, let me show you. Cinema is action, is passion, is dedication, is vision, is love, is life. Cinema is the composition of Ozu, the landscapes of John Ford, the ticking clock of Hitchcock, it is la Dolce Vita and playing chess with Death, Eisenstein steps, Tarantino toes, Bunuel eyes and a Bardot pout. It is the reason I live, and the reason I am here … here, alone, all alone, no one to improv with, no one to bounce ideas … just here, alone, all day, talking to computers. I will tell you about Cinema: Cinema is life and this isn’t living.

SIRI: … in five words or less

MAN: He’s, because it’s usually a he, he’s not here. There’s no one to impress. I need a break. I suggest running away from this play and starting my own. Let me just … search … hhmmm, 

SOUND FX :Sound of a heavy glass door opening. Immediately, new sounds of a busy café/restaurant.

MAN: : Some wonderful music, please.

SOUND FX : French-style accordion music

MAN seems more relaxed, walking around the stage as if it were a chic Parisian cafe, nodding to friends, kissing the hands of ladies. Windows laptop seems to come ‘alive’ as SOUND FX fade.

Windows: Is this modernist or post-modernist ?

MAN: It’s a cafe, look around, use your … imagination. I’ve always wanted to be in a kick-arse movie, directed by a Nicholas Ray. Today, the lead will have to be a hot chi…, I mean a highly-talented female actor. That looks good in leather.

Siri: Is this post-modernist or post-post-modernist ?

MAN: I don’t know what this is. Neither … both. It has the post- modern aspect of requiring a departure from the conventional structure, while being chockablock with pop culture references, though Bergman and Wajda are hardly Lady Gaga and those Kardashian calamities. To both break tradition but still being vaguely recognizable … within boundaries. Then something more, something else, something the audience has to bring, or take from it. As for our director, he’s either, as Camus would predict, having coffee or killing himself … because it’s usually a he. This is absurd.

Windows: Absurd

Siri : Absurd

MAN: Absurd ! Lenin said two things which are of eternal relevance. Firstly, cinema is the most important of the arts. Secondly, and of especial interest to us, ‘What is to be done ?’

Windows:Is it difficult getting an actress to do love scenes 

MAN: Getting an actress to do a nude scene isn’t the problem. Try getting an actress to keep her clothes on. But that’s only in cinema, alas. I’m tired, I can’t go on much longer. I can’t leave, not after waiting so long. I know …

MAN snaps his fingers 

SOUND FX : Sixties guitar-based song.

MAN : Come on, let’s dance.

MAN performs a very impressive dance routine, very ‘Ye-Ye’ and full of twists and shouts

SOUND FX : Record stops immediately as LIGHTS go down.

: An electronic hum/buzzing.

: A car stopping on some gravel. Door opens and shuts. Footsteps on gravel. Doorbell.

: A typewriter. The keys are hit slowly at first, then faster and faster. This turns into machine gun fire.

: A medium paced drum beat, played by a fairly competent amateur.

MAN is sitting in the chair, leaning back against the wall and balancing the chair on its two back legs. 

DRUMMING STOPS

MAN: I’m trying to sit like Henry Fonda in ‘My Darling Clementine’. This is getting us nowhere. Where’s my café gone ?

SOUND FX : The French music resumes, sounding as if it is being played on an old jukebox.

: A small café, quite busy. Coffee machines, glasses knocking against each other, an old cash till.

MAN: Somewhere that serves beer, but I don’t want to have to go through a whole linguistic routine with the barman about ultimate and abstract issues. I just want a beer. And I’d quite like some kind of resolution. I just want to do what actors do best … hang out in bars and tell people how talented we are.

SOUND FX : Sound of beer bottle being opened, then poured

MAN: To have come so far without getting anywhere … at least, nowhere that can be discerned. Does the fact that we can’t measure metaphysical distances make them less or more valid ?

Siri:Definition is a prerequisite and often the most contentious. The truth of a sentence lies in the ability to prove its meaning.

MAN: Then most of my lines have been meaningless.

Windows: Only insofar as they are subjected to the laws of that particular concept. Even when we reduce, we are still left with words such as ‘meaning’ or ‘truth’.

MAN: Truth is, I’m not even sure if this is a part at all.

Siri: That will at least save you from the actor’s revenge; preferring the life of the character to such a degree that they abandon their own self and take on the identity of the rôle. However, maybe a Cartesian approach to your dilemma will prove beneficial.

MAN: The central questions of knowledge and the relationship between mind and body ?

Windows: To counter the doubts about the character: You are acting, are you not ?

MAN: It’s a matter of some debate, but I believe I am.

Siri: Therefore, you have a character. Proceed from there.

MAN: As long as I continue to act, I will have a character. I act, therefore I, the character, am. If I act and I’m conscious of this, it follows that they must be a time when I’m not acting …

Windows: Or else it wouldn’t be acting.

MAN: And the time when I’m not acting is when I’m myself. I stop acting, therefore I am. The actor – character relationship can be seen as an analogy of the mind – body concept. I wonder if Jean Renoir would apply a Cartesian reading to his work ?

Siri: When one has mastered the art of storytelling, why trouble oneself with philosophy ? Appreciation and perpetuation of beauty is gift enough. Besides, one no sooner accepts a view of life, only to see it challenged and dismissed by a Wittgenstein 

MAN: A return to zero.

Lights slowly, slowly start to fade

SOUND FX : The following lines spoken as if at a political rally, with crowd reaction audible in the background, cheering and clapping:

Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.

It will signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said.

SOUND FX : A burst of laughter like in an English music hall. This continues during the following,

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

SOUND FX : Huge roar of laughter and applause.

LIGHTS return to normal

MAN: Hey, Siri, ca va ?

Siri: Oui, ca va.

MAN: Well, how do we end this ? We could have a classic Hollywood ending, fall in love and get married. Or fall in love, anyway … there ain’t nobody with whom to fall in love … or marry. Siri …

Siri No, that’s silly.

MAN : I quite like this … sitting around in coffee bars and talking. I wish I could get a job doing it, as my career as an actor is on the rubbish dump. 

Windows: Don’t you have anything else lined up ?

MAN : Maybe some adverts, but screw that. Oh, merde ! So it’s come to this ? I’m going to end it the way I want to. Nothing to lose, now. Doesn’t look like he’s coming. Maybe he never intended to. Because it’s usually a … Hey, I’ve an idea …

SOUND FX : An authoritarian voice reads the following:

The MAN pondered a neat, conclusive ending such as is found in the films of Howard Hawks. The Man also pondered something more dramatic, along the lines of Orson Welles. Then the MAN pondered a fixed camera fade on him, in the style of De Sica. Then he pondered … and he pondered

MAN: I don’t know.

SOUND FX: The opening movement of Mozart’s Requiem

MAN walks around, and finds a book he hadn’t seen, under the other table. He flicks through it, then finds a paragraph to read

MAN: Baudelaire, writing about Goya, the Spanish artist. He writes, “Goya often plunges into savagery or soars into comic brilliance. He is at all times a great artist and often a terrifying one … No-one has ventured further into the realms of the absurd than he has.”

BLACK

Windows : Cruelty, oppression, absurd

: Music stops

Siri : Absurd

MAN: Absurd

LIGHTS

There is to be no curtain call

There are to be no encores

F is for Fake, D is for Distracted: ‘Distracted’ (James Devereaux, 2018, UK)

9th August 2020

The official trailer is on:

http://jamesdevereaux.com/video-on-demand/

where the film can also be bought or rented.

James Devereaux, actor, in Distracted

Watching ‘Distracted’, with its constant contrasts, gives one the sense of being a child in a cinematic sweet shop, real and surreal, a shop designed by M. C. Escher. The audience is enticed along a hall of mirrors, catching glimpses of Melville, Fellini, Tarantino. We are never quite sure what we see, what sleight of hand is at work, what card is being forced upon us. Unlike ‘Noirish Project,’ viewers are no longer along for the Odyssey, but are watching a detective film in which THEY are the detectives.

As we distill the black and white linguistics from the multi-hued para linguistics, questioning motivation, method and montage, we realise there is simply too much evidence, too many layers to analyse in detail. Therefore, what follows is merely a focus on selected aspects of the film; one could write a monogram on this film that rewards repeated viewings.

I shall give a brief plot outline before offering an objective, then a subjective interpretation, the latter being the movie memories the film evokes. Finally, I shall suggest one possible reading, knowing that it is merely one out of …who knows ? Surely, a different reading(s) from each viewer. D is for duality, the black and white of the film, the intertwining of black and white elements in the characters, their disappointments, disillusions, disgust, deceptions and D is for distraction but who is doing the distracting and whom is being distracted ?

Objective:

Plot & analysis

Notice how the back light shifts, left to right, from pure, innocent white to grainy, jaded grey. Mountjoy (left) meet Baker.

DI Baker is partnered with DC Mountjoy to investigate the murder of a young lady, Zoe. Baker is due to leave the police within days and appears disinterested, while Mountjoy is desperate for a quick resolution, to help save his failing marriage. The pair interview Zoe’s flatmate, then her aunt, learning of Zoe’s sexual proclivities, and of an ex-boyfriend, Tony.

Baker steals some underwear from Zoe’s house, and uses these to receive messages and clues about the case. Baker & Mountjoy arrest Tony and expose him to noise torture. During one session, Baker ‘hears’ a confession, yet it is absent when the recording is played back. Exhausted, and fearing for his sanity, Baker goes home, but is troubled by his ‘visions’. He receives another message and phones Mountjoy.

Baker leaves the job, and Mountjoy thanks him for solving the murder … Tony has confessed … and for giving him a good report. Baker becomes a private investigator, while Mountjoy’s success has come too late. His wife has left him.

The wrath of Baker, the “legendary,” inspector, contemptuous of his Captain, preparing to leave and damn the consequences, Achilles reborn. The obsequiousness of Mountjoy as blind as Achilles’ chronicler, stifled by protocol, obsessively following every rule yet unable to see reality. A detective of intuition, one of procedure, an allusion to Sherlock Holmes, 221B, an ironic play on happiness, both names comprising two syllables. Such is the world we have entered and we should be prepared for conflicts, contradictions and ambiguity, and not forgetting that every Achilles has a heel. What is Baker’s ?

“I’m bored,” Baker proclaims when asked why he is leaving, yet immediately undermines this assertion explaining that he really feels under-appreciated; he does the work, others take the credit. His ego demands recognition, thus his leaving will be an act of revenge.

During the investigation, Baker curtails a conversation with Mountjoy, stating, “I don’t want to talk about it,” before doing exactly that, “I had one of my visions, again.” The ‘vision’ or madness issue is central to our understanding of Baker as he questions, several times, his sanity before his junior partner, displaying a frailty, foregrounding a character fault. “I’m going out out my mind,” is repeated with minor variations, as Baker plays Catch 22 with himself, for Mountjoy’s benefit … just Mountjoys ?

Implication over literalness; we shall encounter more of this, further on, but first a short sketch of Mountjoy, a woefully uxorious pen-pusher who is continually projecting his anxieties onto his report grading. Mountjoy is only comfortable working within rules this does, after all, negate the need for thinking. His marriage is in serious trouble, his wife making (impossible ?) demands of him: a promotion, to loose weight. Their motivations for solving the crime ? Baker’s, to show how indispensable he is, Mountjoy’s, to have personal and professional security. How well they work together is demonstrated when they interview Catherine, Zoe’s flatmate.

The grieving friend, dressed in black but looking like a classic femme fatale or silent film vamp, seems “More than happy,” with the presence of the two men in her room. She refers to herself as a “Traditionalist,” with a certain amount of “Wildness,” a lady who, she carefully enunciates, does not “Sleep around,” (although no one inquired about her private life). She and Zoe were close, “As close as friends can be,” leaving us to infer whether that in- or excluded a sexual relationship. Her whole delivery infuses every comment with a palpable sexual charge, noticeably her insistence that she is “Happy to continue,” with the interview, an invitation that is repeated … and repeated.

Louise Torres-Ryan, John Giles, actor, Distracted

Catherine provokes Baker at one point, mentioning that Zoe adhered to the principle of ‘free love’. The Inspector visibly recoils in disgust and as this is filmed in Close-Up, we know it must be deeply significant. We’ve learnt a little about Zoe, maybe a lot about Baker.

At one point, Baker asks directions for Zoe’s room and, after taking some panties from a drawer and slipping them into his pocket, suggests the interview be terminated. Both Catherine and Mountjoy engage Baker in a polite passive-aggressive farce of staying or leaving, Mountjoy being oblivious to the undertone in Baker’s voice demonstrating how he needs things explained, needs to be told what to do. Did he once act impulsively ? Was Baker betrayed in love, and what are his intentions with the underwear ? We discover the answer to the last point shortly after … or, possibly uncover more questions.

Baker is at home when he suddenly gets pains in his head. We see a very short insert of a mouth, in colour, talking. Baker questions the voice, he cannot hear what it is saying. Then he knows what to do. He puts the panties, procured from Zoe’s house, on his head and is able to ‘hear’ the message … except, the message is from Catherine, not Zoe. We need to retrace our steps.

When Baker excuses himself, to go to Zoe’s room, we have a verbal visual cut that is, Baker asking for directions and then we see him in a room. We assume that it is Zoe’s room, but let’s break down the scene. Baker leaves but the camera stays in the main room, showing Catherine and Mountjoy talking, so some time passes before we see Baker, framed in a Dutch angle [1] entering a room.

Similar to ‘Noirish Project’, the majority of this film is shot with a static camera, therefore any deviation makes a statement: we are entering a different sphere (such as when the film suddenly turns colour and we see Catherine’s mouth). Then we have another effect: the camera fades to black, momentarily, and fades in with Baker standing at a chest of drawers. More time has passed. We presume it is Zoe’s room, but it may well be Catherine’s. No matter how close the flatmates were, it is more reasonable to suppose that the message would come from the owner of the clothes.

Baker’s legendary powers have been revealed. The agony it appears to cause him also gives him the insight to ask the right questions to unlock cases. Elementary ? far from it …

Baker

We have heard the message before, when Catherine was talking to Mountjoy. Baker wasn’t in the room but he may well have overheard the conversation while he was in one of the bedrooms. The audience already has this information. However, this ‘involuntary memory’ triggers another. He phones Mountjoy and mentions a diary he saw on Zoe’s bed. In the bedroom scene, we do see Baker look off-camera but, typically, we do not see the object of the gaze. If it were the diary, then he would have been in Zoe’s room and therefore the panties would logically be Zoe’s. The ‘vision messages’ are in fact nothing more mystical than recalled conversations from his subconscious.

So why does Baker take the underwear ? Is this the Achilles heel, a fetish that stops him from looking at Zoe’s diary, a valuable piece of evidence ? A shop designed by M.C. Escher, indeed. Where is this taking us ? Clearly, as with all great mysteries, we are not going to find out in the first act. What will we encounter along the next hall of mirrors ?

Nadine Hanwell in Distracted
Zoe’s aunt, a provider of donuts, brownies and Battenberg cake.

Subjective:

Czech New Wave & David Lynch

Cineastes are very generous people, enthusiastically sharing new films, and when they become directors, they love to put film references, blatantly or subtly, in their movies. In ‘Distracted’, I noticed several such references, but two seemed to permeate the film: the work of the Czech New Wave, and that of David Lynch [2].

I detect an old Eastern Bloc atmosphere, not throughout the entire film, but certainly in the police station scenes. The rooms are bare, only the most basic furnishings, pipes are exposed and the telephone, rotary dial (as shown in the first still) doesn’t work. Later we will see recordings made on a reel-to-reel, while Baker’s small sports car looks magnificently retro.

The station is predominately white, the darker secrets of the interrogations rooms, the criticisms of the broken system, the shortages and shortcoming whitewashed over. Just look at how shocked Mountjoy is when he hears Baker speak the unspeakable.

Alfie Black, James Devereaux, actor, Distracted
White walls, radiator pipes, plastic chairs …
and the results of cacophony.

Baker knows he will not raise above the rank of DI. Maybe his results are applauded but not his methods. Maybe he is simply not a party member, and he has to take orders from those who are loyal to the State, regardless of ability. Totalitarian states are not known for being meritocracies.

Czechoslovakian filmmakers infused their art with the national characteristics of humour and irreverence, shifting from realism to surrealism, splicing in (seemingly) unrelated images, and mocking the oppression that governed, then dictated their lives. Baker’s “Captain” represents the hierarchy, the government, the system.

Although the Captain is not shown, I imagine him as a character from Miloš Forman’s ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ (1967), bungling and awkward, comically incompetent. However, two other films could help us decode more about the sidekick Mountjoy.

The sudden insertion of colour shots, the striking Close-Ups of Catherine’s mouth, and the contrasting colours of the heretofore unmentioned Battenberg cake remind me of the wildly surreal ‘Daisies’ (1966) by Věry Chytilové while the seemless moves from reality into dream, inner thought or allegory make me think of ‘The Cremator’ (1969) by Juraj Herz. The film uses techniques from these two film to ingeniously relate Mountjoy’s backstory … and tell us more about Baker.

Mountjoy’s backstory

I will define surrealism, for this essay, as the incongruous combination of two everyday items, here, a walk in the woods, and a man selling cakes from a makeshift stall. Mountjoy shows us, symbolically, why his marriage is failing. He is enticed, siren like, to the cake seller, and easily persuaded, so easily tempted to partake of this ‘forbidden fruit.’ His wife has imposed a diet on him but, as the seller points out, “Your wife isn’t here, now.” Having no money, Mountjoy immediately barters his watch, a “Solid gold,” watch, a wedding present, for some transitory sensual pleasure. The symbolism is obvious; Mountjoy had an affair, which his wife discovered.

“What have I done ?” Mountjoy cries, as the cake-seller runs away with the watch, “It was a mistake, just a silly mistake,” but one that can’t be undone. A marriage destroyed, ironically, by a piece of Battenberg, a cake invented, amidst Victorian values (and hypocrisy), to celebrate a wedding [3]. In this sequence, DI Baker helps Mountjoy, returning the watch to him, which could be read as Baker saving Mountjoy’s marriage. At any rate, we are not yet finished with our cake-seller; he shall return.

A final nod to the Czech New Wave is the Cacophony Room, a special area of the police station where Tony is taken and exposed to noise to ‘encourage’ him to be more open about Zoe’s murder. The scene reinforces the earlier similarities to a non-democratic society as Tony has no lawyer, and the police seems to operate without rules or supervision. Reel-to-reel recordings are easy to erase. Furthermore, despite the scene showing a suspect being coerced into confessing, even tortured, pleading “No more cacophony !” the scene is more comic than shocking, especially when the film is speeded up and we see Tony rolling along the floor, covering his ears. Another example of Czech black humour. Now, let’s use the cacophony to lead into a director famous for his innovative use of sound in film, David Lynch [4]

Each man delights in the work that suits him best

The links to ‘Twin Peaks’ are immediately apparent; the murder of a young lady, off-screen, and the subsequent investigation, a diary, a map to a secret place in the country. We encounter a range of idiosyncratic characters, each one appearing to have an interesting story, or two, of their own. As has been frequently mentioned on Twin Peaks posts, we don’t care about Laura Palmer, we only care about who killed her. In ‘Distracted’, we don’t even really care who killed Zoe. Our attention is on Baker and his methodology and, to a lesser extent, Mountjoy’s domestic soap opera.

Additionally we have the main detective receiving messages in dreams or visions while, similar to many Lynch productions, there is an element of surrealism, of ambiguity, of uncertainty. Viewing ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001), a second time is different to the first due to the information we later have, think we have, might possibly have. Our third has the same effect on our second … and so on [5].

Having said that, the experimental side of ‘Distracted’ is much more restrained. As with the Czech similarities they merely reflect my own feelings and tastes. Allow me one final comparison.

For me, the main Lynchian touch is the use of sound, although with a dramatic difference. Noise, effects, a non-musical soundtrack helped define ‘Eraserhead’ (1977). Conversely, both ‘Distracted’ & ‘Noirish Project’ are notable for their total absence of music, just minimal ambient diagetic sounds so the use of sound, of experimental noise as a torture, is especially germane.

Finally, and again, this is my impression, the cake-seller is not unlike a character from ‘Twin Peaks’, is not physically dissimilar to the Fireman, as like him, he holds clues for the audience … vital clues, so now it’s time for me to deliver my verdict.

Where to Eat the Best Battenberg Cake in Europe? | TasteAtlas

Conclusion

I do not believe that Baker has occult powers, or can receive messages. I base this on the fact that what we hear is merely a repetition of Catherine’s dialogue with Mountjoy. However, Baker does appear to hear something. Let’s go back to our cake-seller. The two meet in the country and have a little banter. Maybe the seller doesn’t just retail but also makes the cakes, he is, in fact … a baker. We have Baker talking to a baker, ergo a man talking to himself.

Baker’s weakness, his Achilles’ heel, is his mental illness. He is leaving the job for this reason, despite the blasting and bombardiering. He mentions this throughout the film, and we can see his ‘trance-like’ states as physical representation of this. Yet, doesn’t Baker mention his disability too often ? In a film so complex, isn’t this answer just a little too convenient ? Our work is not yet complete. Back to our notebooks.

Baker has ‘incidents’. They must be genuine because there is no one else in the room, no one watching, no one that is … except us. All the time, it is the audience that has been distracted. We have been lead up and down this Escher-like narrative, listening to voices that aren’t really there (hence the telephone that rings but has no one respond when picked up). Watching a full-grown man with panties on his head dance around, reciting nonsensical words is, at the very least, liable to attract our attention … to distract us, but distract us from what … the truth ? Baker’s success is down to his method, not his madness. He gets confessions by coercion.

The coda ? Mountjoy receives his watch back from Baker in the country, but this has a different symbolism. Mountjoy is now taking the baton from Baker, he will become disillusioned and cynical, as indicated by our last scene of him … drinking Bells whisky, the same brand Baker drank when they first met.

As for Baker, he moves from catching criminals to catching cheating spouses being too free with their love. A bit of revenge on cheating wives ? He seems a man in pain, so maybe that explains his methods of extracting confessions. But, it’s not really him, and it is certainly not helping, so that is his real reason for leaving. Now, he is free, no tie and no ties. He can choose his working hours, and methods and no one can tell him what to do. He has his book, the sun is shining and he is free. At last, he is free.

The illogical logic of M.C. Escher

MC Escher: An enigma behind an illusion - BBC Culture

[1] The Dutch angle is usually credited to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 ‘Man With A Movie Camera’, but have a look at Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 ‘A Page of Madness’, a silent that, like Murnau’s 1924 ‘The Last Laugh’ does away with inter-titles. All three are amazing films, maybe a subject for a future blog.

A Page Of Madness 1926 狂った一頁 Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa ...
‘A Page of Madness’ (Dir: Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

[2] There are even some connections between the two, as Lynch likes experimenting with film, and many Czechoslovakian films were abstract, surreal and experimental. Lynch has also worked with the City of Prague Orchestra, while in ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’, a poster of Franz Kafka prominently hangs in Gordon Cole’s (played by Lynch) office. I don’t attach any significance to these, it just an interesting coincidence for cine buffs.

David Lynch recording soundtrack music in Prague

[3] The cake, from 1884, is generally thought to have been invented for the wedding of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria and Prince Louis of Battenberg, though not all historians agree.

[4] James and I share similar tastes in cinema, but occasionally we diverge, and I believe this is such an example. I’m a Lynch fan (with reservations, naturally), but I’m pretty damn sure James is not so impressed by him.

[5] By the same token, watching ‘Distracted’ affected my view on ‘Noirish Project’. It will be very interesting to see the final film in the “triptych.”

‘Noirish Project’ – Theatre, Literature, Pure Cinema

11th July 2020

‘Noirish Project’ (66mins, UK, 2018)

Written & Directed by James Devereaux

Available on:

http://jamesdevereaux.com/video-on-demand/

james devereaux, alfie black, noir-ish project
James Devereaux as Jimmy (left) with Alfie Black as Billy

Torrential rain illuminated by a single street light, a face emerging from the shadows, anxious and tense, a clock ticking, pounding agonisingly, a policeman appearing unexpectedly, the essential key dropped down a drain, precision planning, split-second timing, tough times and tougher men.

Such are the images evoked by the crime sub-genre ‘Film Noir’ (1) yet we, the audience, can sense that this is not what we are about to witness in ‘Noirish Project’, written and directed by James Devereaux.

I’ve known James for several years, so I have to recuse myself from a review or critique, and instead focus on the plot, the cinematic choices used in telling this story and what I think happened – clearly there is some ambiguity, equally clearly I will be discussing the entire film, so in the modern argot there will be spoilers.

To set the scene, I’ll give the synopsis, after which …

I’ll spill the beans on what goes down so listen and listen good … go to James’ website, rent or buy the film, watch it real close, then come back and read my two cents’ worth.

Synopsis

This is taken from the official website:

Bleak, melancholy, neorealist feature film masquerading as film noir. A couple of low-lifes try to make some quick cash but end up just waiting around.

Noirish Project is a melancholy and gently comic feature film about Billy, who steals his family’s precious pearls and hands them over to low-life Jimmy (played by James Devereaux), who in turn takes them to a fence. But when the pearls turn out to be fake, Jimmy barely escapes from the fence with his life, let alone the pearls. Billy and Jimmy endevour to get the pearls back before Billy’s family finds out they’re gone, but when the fence goes missing, they realise their story has only just begun.

Shot in black and white, Noirish Project is a neo-realist fantasy, featuring moments of peculiar poetry and gentle comedy.

Additionally, there exists a prelude short, giving some back story, but I’ll just focus on the main film. Characters studies and plot will be followed by a section on cinematic technique, then my conclusion.

The title itself conveys all the information we need; this is not Noir but Noir-ish (2). Unlike the Hollywood Noir formula, with meticulous planning, boosting, hi-jacking and heists, this is a ‘project’, reminiscent of an innocent school activity; innocence and (perceived) experience as personified by the two leading characters.

The reversal of Noir conventions is further evident in the naming of the characters. The strong, regal-sounding James, William and Richard are softened to the familiar Jimmy, Billy & Dickie. Another detour from genre is the blatant disregard to the film-makers’ mantra: ‘show, don’t tell.’ What makes the film so intriguing is that almost nothing essential to a Noir film is shown … it is all told, and told by Jimmy. Therefore, our interpretation of the film relies on how much we trust him, by extension, how much we trust his narrative. This cinematic ‘project’ hangs on the literary concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’. So what do we know about said narrator ?

Our first view of Jimmy is telling. He is shown in MEDIUM-LONG shot, walking along the street, and when he realises he’s been seen, he pulls his cap further down and slips into a side street. We often see him walking away from the camera, or with his back initially turned to us, before swinging around, as if he’s been composing himself for a performance, an act.

Throughout the film, with one exception, mentioned later, Jimmy hides under a cloth cap, and wears a long black coat, buttoned up to the top, a metaphor for how Jimmy plays his cards close to his chest and is, literally and figuratively, giving nothing away. His hands are often in his pockets, which we perceive to be deep; Billy will more than once encounter the expression ‘short arms, long pockets.’ (3)

Jimmy’s language is full of portentous saying, aggressive expletives and admonishments not to apologise. He is certainly playing his part, verbally.

As for Billy, he seems a man out of time, a misfit, anachronistically resembling a refugee from Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu‘ (1939), alongside US literary icons Holden Caulfield and Ignatius J. Reilly (‘Catcher in the Rye’ 1945- 6 / 1951 & ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ 1960s published 1980) (4). Billy wears a dinner suit and bow tie (a ‘Dickie’ bow) and protects his head with a fur cap with ear flaps.

La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] ***** (1939, Marcel Dalio ...
Jean Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu

holden caulfield | Jorge Sette "Linguagem"
Holden Caulfield from ‘Catcher in the Rye’

Jimmy has to work, to earn his crust, Billy is protected and pampered; so much is indicated by their outfits. Jimmy is also taller than Billy and uses this advantage on occasion. He will be the dominant character in this tale, and all tales needs a McGuffin to set the wheels in motion … but first, the two protagonists need to be in the same scene. Not so easy when the evasive Jimmy seems hell bent on evading Billy.

Finally, around three minutes into the film, they start a conversation. Jimmy speaks in cliches, conveying urgency and danger but, characteristically, avoiding specifics. What follows is exposition, and a further clue to the path the film will take. There is a robbery, a jewel theft, [not shown in the film], jewels pass to an intermediary, then to a fence (5) [not shown], the fence declares the jewels fake and almost kills the intermediary in anger [also, not shown]. The previous sentence could concisely encapsulate a typical Noir plot … but this is not a typical Noir plot. Furthermore, it is the audience who has to be on their guard. We have not been shown any of the above action, we only have direct and indirect speech to go on. The plot, as the saying goes, thickens, so let’s clarify.

Billy is the thief. We learn that he has stolen some pearls from his own family. Our view of Billy as an innocence is suddenly altered, his act is both cowardly and detestable (from Greek drama we know that crimes against the family never end well). Jimmy is the intermediary; he is not the fence but knows someone who is, a certain ‘Dickie’. Or does he … ?

I’ve termed such a situation ‘opennism’: to describe a situation which has multiple interpretations, and where the reader or viewer is much more involved, indeed has to be an active contributor to the story. Thus, the viewer can accept everything Jimmy says as the truth and enjoy the film on that level.

However, for me, the interplay between characters, the changes in power, the dynamic swirls seem indicative of something deeper. Jimmy looks a guy with something to hide, and I want to find out what makes him tick.

The potential for ambiguity starts immediately. The pearls, Jimmy informs Billy are fake … at least, according to Dickie. How many permutations does that simple sentence generate?

ONE: All is 100% true

TWO: Dickie knows the pearls are real, knows Jimmy can’t tell a genuine pearl from a breathe mint and lies to him, to avoid paying. Jimmy, humiliated, leaves without the pearls, trying to save face.

THREE: As above but when Jimmy protests, Dickie gets aggressive to forestall any further discussion, and gets rid of Jimmy.

FOUR: Dickie sees they are real and offers a price. Jimmy takes the money, lying to Billy, claiming he was almost killed to explain the lack or pearls and money.

FIVE: There is no Dickie. Jimmy is flattered that Billy thinks he is part of the underworld and plays along, seeing how far he can take it.

Billy himself questions Jimmy’s reply, doubting Dickie’s appraisal (to be clear … Dickie’s response as related by Jimmy). All that we know for sure is that Billy is left without the pearls (fake or otherwise).

What follows is the Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin’: to retrieve the pearls, to put them back before his family notices, a return to the status quo although he will still be in debt and won’t be able to flee, “To Mexico,” [that ultimate goal for crooks in US Noir films]. To do that, he has to convince Jimmy to revisit Dickie, and thereafter the film turns into a quest full of challenges to be overcome and dangers to be meet and, as the synopsis promises … a lot of waiting.

First stage is to return to the ‘scene of the crime’. Jimmy takes Billy to where he (claims) to have met Dickie. It appears to be some sort of clinic, a very basic clinic with a receptionist, whose occupation is signified by a single telephone, and a doctor, an older man in a suit, with a stethoscope serpent-like around his neck.

Jimmy is unable to communicate with the receptionist, who speaks like a witness caught by the police, afraid to squeal: “I don’t know nothing, I’m a nobody.” The doctor appears, perturbed and aggressive, demanding to know what is happening. Despite Jimmy’s explanation (for Billy’s benefit ?) the doctor claims to know nothing about any pearls, nor to know anybody by the name of ‘Dickie’, furthermore, he seems unduly unsettled when he hears that Jimmy has been, “Asking questions.”

The doctor then breaks the Hippocratic Oath by nearly breaking Jimmy’s arm, knocking his cap off and pushing our anti-heroes out of the building. Instead of following Jimmy and Billy, we remain in the clinic and listen to some very dubious dialogue, a text-book sexual harassment case. However, the ‘receptionist’ plays along, willingly, possibly suggesting that another type of film is about to be made at this location, and explaining why the ‘doctor’ was so anxious to clear the set.

Back outside, we have some more revealing character development. Jimmy, so easily threatened and beaten by the doctor, tells how he could have snapped the doctor with just a click of his fingers. He further suggests going for a drink in Dickie’s local and, setting a repeated pattern, asks Billy to wait. Jimmy later returns with some more reported speech: Dickie isn’t in the pub but the bar staff said that he was on his way. In fact, they were preparing his drink right now. Unfortunately [with a theatrical show of hands on chest], Jimmy has left his wallet, “In my other coat.” The audience may wonder if Jimmy even owns a second coat, but Billy is taken in and, despite the perfunctory protests, Jimmy accepts the offer of a drink. There follows a long take, in shallow-focus, of Jimmy and Billy playing pool or snooker, for nearly ten minutes. All that time, Dickie fails to appear.

Jimmy phones Dickie and engages in a very friendly conversation, but again, this seems put on for Billy’s benefit as we don’t see Jimmy paying for the call, nor do we hear any voice at the end of the line. The banter makes it sound as if Jimmy hasn’t seen Dickie for a long time, as opposed to a few hours ago, while Jimmy signals to Billy with smiles and repeats the name ‘Dickie’ more times than is necessary or natural. The upshot … Dickie will come to meet them so now they wait outside at a train station … and wait.

The Beckett parallels are obvious, albeit with one difference; only Jimmy knows if Dickie really intends to come or, as I posited earlier, if there even is a Dickie.

Tension builds as the characters, and the audience wait .. and wait. We hear the sound of trains arriving, twice … but as in Beckett, “Nothing happens.” Finally Jimmy goes to phone Dickie and offers to buy some coffee, with Billy’s money, naturally. In his absence, Billy asks how he will recognise Dickie (an issue that didn’t seem to occur to Jimmy, further strengthening the theory that Dickie was never going to arrive). The answer is shown, but again is literary: Billy wears a sign saying, “Dickie.”

Time passes, Billy portraying his innocent side, plays with a yo-yo. Not only does he play with a yo-yo but he evidently carries one with him. Later, innocent as a babe, he falls asleep, only to be awoken by Jimmy. The quest takes another turn. They must visit Dickie in his country home. There is, of course, no coffee for Billy, “There’s no time for coffee !” yet when Billy says he’s hungry, Jimmy agrees. We can presume that Jimmy’s had enough coffee, while he was off-screen, but is also hungry. Of course, Billy will be paying.

We cut to, appropriately enough, a waiting room and wait, then ride a prosaic commuter train to a country station.

A further dichotomy arises, that of city and country. Jimmy, a city dweller is out of his comfort zone, and what starts as a pleasant city-break, a walk in the woods takes a more ominous turn as Billy realises that Jimmy doesn’t know the way, that he has been lead in circles (in both senses) and loses his temper, though it is more childish petulance than macho aggression.

Finally, Jimmy sees the house, or perhaps we should say a house. This is far removed from a reclusive, inconspicuous country getaway. It resembles a Baronial manor, an estate run by the National Trust. Unsurprisingly, Jimmy instructs Billy to wait, at quite a distance, and unsurprisingly the wait is long. Billy falls asleep.

Jimmy has the pearls, in a black, plastic bag. Billy sees them and is content. The quest is over, now the return to the city. Under a soulless station underpass, Jimmy offers to buy Billy a drink … he was given some money, he alleges, from Dickie. For Billy, this day has been a rite of passage. He has failed in his criminal endeavour, and maybe also lost faith in Jimmy. He built Jimmy up, in his imagination, as someone ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Now he’s not so sure. Billy declines the offer and exits with a, “See you around,” which is code for ‘I hope I don’t see you around.’

As for Jimmy, he has a little money in his pocket, whether from Dickie, or Billy, maybe even his own which he had all the time. He walks alone, pondering his day, then goes to a cafe, drinks coffee and watches the world go by.

The film uses, exclusively, a static camera (6) and the opening shot, is rather Zen-like in its framing. We see the city, the Docklands area of east London occupying the lower part of the frame, the upper devoted to the sky. The division sets a visual theme of two opposites (innocence / experience, city / country, breaking the law/ being caught), areas clearly demarked, not unlike a Rothko painting.

Mr Devereaux’s London story has similarities with ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) by the Japanese director Ozu, also known for making films with a static camera exclusively. As in the aforementioned film, ‘Noirish’s’ opening shot has movement, here provided by two Tube trains, who could easily represent the two characters. One trains enters, slowly laboriously making its way across the screen, while a second train enters from the opposite direction at speed, leaving the shot while the first train is still trudging by. We first see Billy, sitting at a cafe, then Jimmy, walking rapidally.

We also feel how this will be ‘Noir-ish‘. The scene starts in clear day, not a rainy night and unlike the frantic, fast-cutting in action films, we have a long, very leisurely take. The film will use long takes frequently, many shots lasting well over a minute, in contrast to what audiences expect from a crime caper. By my calculation, the entire film is composed of just 150 shots. Compare that to the contemporary ‘Bourne’ films with an average shot length (ASL) of around two seconds (7) .

The static camera sets up the scenes rather theatrically. Characters enter and exit the scene [usually] from the sides in the city, while the transition to the country enables Jimmy and Billy to enter from the back of the scene and walk towards the camera. The viewer is allowed time to consider the action or situation as the camera often lingers a numbers of seconds after the actors have made their exit, and we are allowed to view the scene, as if that too were a character. The camera is passive, not active; will that reflect the ultimate actions of the characters ?

The static camera / long take dynamic is taken to the extreme in the pub interior scene, the pool scene. This could be a homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (1948), shot in ten-minute takes, at the time, the maximum length of a film reel. In keeping with the film, we don’t see the game, just the players sitting and watching each other play and passing comment on the action.

The day ends with nothing gained, especially for Billy. He has a chance to repent, and his crime can be erased. It never happened. Throughout the film that are symbolic clues to indicate what could be the future if things had developed along a different trajectory. Jimmy and Billy are so often shown trapped or enclosed against walls, doors and windows. Waiting at the station, the pair are framed against a wire fence, resembling a prison yard with nothing but wasteland and a thick, high wall in the background. A police siren wails and even in the waiting room, a security camera can be seen, observing them.

During the train ride to the country, we have some focalisation, where we see Billy as Jimmy sees him; Billy has a false beard on. This could be a comic interlude, indicating Jimmy’s fatigue, a semi-dreaming state, or it could be a deeper realisation, that maybe Billy isn’t all that he seems. He too is putting on a front and Jimmy should be on his guard against this ‘innocent’. Jimmy has handled stolen goods, but Billy is the actual thief. So who is the worst of the two ? The final scenes, dialogue free, pure cinema, hold, I believe, the answer.

After Billy leaves, Jimmy walks, from the right into shot, as the train entered in the opening shot. He leans against a wall, framed, again like the opening shot, in the lower half, the upper showing a nondescript building. He smiles to himself. The film CUTS TO:

A street scene, two house doors next to an antique, bric-a-brac shop. The scene cuts back to Jimmy, in the Zen framing, thinking what happened, what could have happened.

Jimmy looks in the shop window. How easy to buy a cheap set of pearls and keep the real pearls. Billy would probably never know, and even if he did, what could he do ? He couldn’t beat Jimmy physically, nor could he report him to the police, nor hire someone from the criminal classes to beat Jimmy – Jimmy is the only person he (believes) to operate in that milieu. Like taking candy from a baby. Is that what Jimmy does ? The answer, for me, lies in a subsequent shot.

Jimmy is shown, back to camera, typically, walking away from camera, in a covered retail area. Concrete bridges create a heavy shadow on one side of the frame. Jimmy starts to move to the shadow … then changes his mind. He walks in the light and out of shot. Back at the antique shop, we see him look in, turn … and walk past the shop. He doesn’t go in, he doesn’t con his friend.

London may hold 8 or 9 million stories but Jimmy knows his isn’t one of them. He’s no Bogart or Mitchum, no Belmondo or Delon. He goes into a modest cafe, alone, and thinks about his day, how he played at being gangster, a life of thrills and danger but now he’s safe, protected behind a thick pane of glass, and watches the world, watches other people … watches.

References

Alfred Hitchcock: British film director, famous for crime and suspense movie.

Yasujiro Ozu: Japanese film maker, famous for his use of the static camera and low-angle ‘tatami’ shot. While the camera remains fixed, there is so much movement within the shot.

Jean Renoir: Regarded as one of the best ever French film directors

Mark Rothko: US artist

Untitled No 3 1967 Painting By Mark Rothko - Reproduction Gallery
A typical Rothko painting, showing clearly defined and separated areas

Notes

(1) A style of crime film popular in the 1940s and 50s, often with many night scenes and shadows, hence the name ‘noir’ which means black in French. The films were often about gangsters or criminals planning to rob banks, or rich people, then escaping but they were usually caught or killed by the police.

The Elements of Film Noir - Page 2 of 8 - The Script Lab
CNS media blog: Film Noir and Femme Fatale.

(2) The – ish suffix is applied to words to mean ‘a little bit,’ ‘to an extent.’ Examples would be,

“Are you free now ?” “No, I should be ready at 5-ish,” meaning some time around 5 o’clock.

“What colour is that ?” “It’s kind of blue-ish.”

(3) An humorous English expression to indicate a lack of generosity, meanness and selfishness.

(4) Famous and canonical ‘modern’ US fiction by J.D. Salinger & John Kennedy O’Toole, both of whom were troubled and ‘out of time’, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.

(5) Slang term for a person who buys stolen goods and then sells them to other people.

(6) The camera does not move at all. Characters can enter and exit the scene. Several directors use this style of filming, to various extents, in their films but I will draw comparisons with Ozu.

(7) Concerning the increasing speed of cutting in the Bourne Trilogy: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/jason-bourne-ruined-action-movies-hollywood-film-cinema-2018-4

Hooray for Harold Lloyd

28th June 2020

Harold Lloyd: Jazz Age Daredevil

In the early 1990s, I inherited an 8mm Bell & Howell cine camera and, with my flatmate Martin O’Shea as actor, began making short films in the East End of London.

Pacific Rim Camera Catalog
8mm cine camera late 1950s / early 1960s

We had a two-bedroom flat near Mile End Tube Station (which we could somehow afford on a student grant), walking distance to Bethnal Green, Brick Lane and Limehouse, areas synonymous with names such as Hawksmoore (the architect), The Kray Twins (local crime lords) and Jack the Ripper (local ripper).

St George in the East - Wikipedia
St George in the East, a Hawksmoore church

The area is incredibly historic, and well worth a walk for local historians, psychogeographists, or anyone with a passing interest in this less salubrious quarter of London.

The Ragged School Museum - East London - Britain's Decays Urbex
Ragged School Museum, Mile End

Walk is what we did, one Saturday night, up to Victoria Park, down to the street markets of Brick Lane and back home via the city farm at Stepney and a visit to St Dunstan and All Saints Church, where we had a lovely chat with the vicar. He was in his working outfit, white, pressed and clean … us, none of the above.

This was where we decided to film what was, I believe, our first film together, ‘A Day Well Spent’, and I think this would be Spring 1992.

St Dunstan and All Saints Church, Stepney, East London

Now the technical side. 8mm film lasted four minutes in total. The film had to be thread, in a figure 8 shape, in the camera, then reversed after 2 minutes. This meant keeping careful time, and not shooting anything vital in the dying seconds before the film ran out.

The film was silent and the camera, I believe, had no zoom and no auto-aperture; the light had to be set manually. Basically, it was a ‘point and shoot’ affair. Close-ups had to be physically close, long-shots, far away.

So, we had four minutes to tell a story, beginning, middle and end. Martin plays a tramp, a happy-go-lucky, Chaplinesque character. He awakes, on a rubbish heap, scratches himself, looks around and gets up. He wanders through the City farm at Stepney

Farmer's Paradise: an inside look at Stepney City Farm | City farm ...
Stepney City Farm
Stepney City Farm (London, England) - Đánh giá - Tripadvisor

Naturally, he’s hungry and seeing the chickens gives him an idea; he has to ‘procure’ an egg for breakfast, without being detected or suffering an avian assault. With his cunning and agility, he is successful, and celebrates his victory by holding his prize aloft as he runs past St Dunstan’s.

However, when he searches his pockets, he only has a fork with twisted prongs … not a suitable implement to eat his breakfast. Disappointed, he throws the egg away, and decides to go back to sleep.

We also had a recurring event, namely a visit from the rozzers (London slang for police). One burly boy in blue was curious what we ne’re-do-wells were up to in his manor. To see a young guy, in trenchcoat, asleep on a rubbish tip alerted his instincts. And we had a recurring escape, namely I showed my camera and all became clear … “Oh, they’re making art,” heavy irony on the pronunciation of ‘art’, and that sarcasm has repeated through the years.

Or maybe, like most people of my generation, he would have seen some short compilation films on BBC1 after 5.30 pm and before the 6.00 pm News. This was how so many of my friends were introduced to the world of Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd - Wikipedia

Everyone knew Chaplin, most people had heard of Buster Keaton, but Mr Harold Lloyd was totally unknown. That all changed with a series of 20-minute programs featuring scenes from his silent films … and all my school-friends were knocked out by them. You would even hear people shout out as they left school, “Don’t forget to watch Harold Lloyd.”

Harold Lloyd | Biography, Movies, & Facts | Britannica
HAROLD LLOYD and JOHN AASEN in WHY WORRY? -1923-. Photograph by Album

Harold Lloyd, referred to as ‘The Third Genius’ was, and remains, a major influence, especially in how to tell a story by images alone and how comedy works. This photo from ‘Safety Last’ (1924) is iconic … and even more amazing when you know that Lloyd lost a thumb and finger in an accident on a film set.

His films and many clips are available on YouTube. I used to show them during break time to my Kindergarten class, and they loved him … I was able to silence 15 hyper-active kids with a silent movie star.

Happy Thanksgiving! Harold Lloyd in Hot Water (1924) | Nitrate Diva
Hot Water (1924): Harold Lloyd versus the Turkey on Make a GIF

Meanwhile, Mr O’Shea is busy in Berlin with a massive project: to put all our 8mm and Super 8 films onto computer, add commentaries and upload them on social media. Wish him luck, and take some time to watch Harold Lloyd … you won’t be disappointed

Art Cinema: The Cranes Are Flying 1957, USSR. Director : Mikhail Kalatozov

13th June 2020

The Cranes Are Flying | Jerusalem Film Festival
Looking up to see the cranes, flying

First, a thank you to Darrel over at ‘A World Of Films’:

https://aworldoffilm.com/2019/05/11/my-current-favourite-films/

Darrel lists his (current) top ten films, and topping the list was this Soviet film which I hadn’t seen. So I started searching online, and the clips I saw were so mesmerising, so dazzling, the reviews so laudatory, I had to see it. I began with a review:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCDHExdjO0M&t=6s

This introduction gives context and commentary on the film, as well as placing the film in relation to other noteworthy examples of Russian or Soviet cinema.

Despite only finding short, two-minute excepts with English text, I wasn’t going to be deterred. Instead, I decided to read the synopsis on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cranes_Are_Flying

and then watch the original Russian version sans subtitles. I’ve recently been considering how cinema should (could) be told, and how so much exposition text is actually needed, how much text, in fact, is needed. As F.W. Murnau has beautifully shown in ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924), a film, a great film can be told without any need for dialogue or title cards. But that, as they say, is for another blog …

I will briefly relate the plot, then what attracted me to the film.

SPOILER ALERT: in order to highlight the creative camerawork and staging, the plot details need to be mentioned.

Boris and Veronika are young sweethearts, staying out late and risking family censure by sneaking home, trying not to wake their parents.

Film Reviews: The Cranes Are Flying
Happy in love, the sun reflecting off the water, life is a dance

However, when the Germans invade Russia, Boris, along with his close friend Stepan, join up. Boris has to catch a train to get to his battalion and Veronika rushes to say goodbye, but the crowds are so thick, she has no hope of seeing him. In vain, she throws her gift, but it falls and breaks on the ground. This clearly foreshadows the fate of their romance; they will never meet again.

Meanwhile, the War comes to the city, and Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid. With nowhere else to go, Boris’ family take her in and during another air raid, with the living room symbolically shaken, glass shattered, Boris’ younger brother, Mark, sexually assaults Veronika. Her shame compels her to marry Mark, to the disdain and contempt of the family.

With the German advance, the Russians are moved eastwards. We see both the mounting Russian casualties and the sorry sordid state of the sham marriage.

Veronika is told that Boris is dead and runs frantically, racing a train under which she plans to throw herself … yet a young boy, who we later learn is also called Boris, diverts her attention, and she takes him home.

The film ends with Veronika waiting at the train station for the victorious Soviet soldiers to return. Amidst all the tearful reunions, Veronika meets Stephan; he confirms that Boris is indeed dead. Veronika is again denied any further contact by the sheer force of the crowd, her tears of heartbreak juxtaposed against the tears of happiness. As at the beginning, she looks up and sees, in a V-formation, the cranes flying.

I love the idea of the camera-stylo – the camera being able to move as freely as a pen, the director (and cinematographer, art-director, the whole team) being able to put their personalities on to the film so that by a mere shot or two we can detect a Hitchcock from a Hawks, a Kurosawa from an Ozu, a Godard from a Truffaut. Naturally, this will later clash with Roland Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) … again, for another blog.

I love the idea of a camera being free, released from the constrains of the studio, allowed to move and as it were, to breathe. From an actor’s point of view, it could be different, with concerns about hitting exact marks at exact times, instead of focusing purely on the performance (yes, another blog), but as a viewer, as a lover of cinema, ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ features some breathe-taking shots and said shots add meaning to the film … they are not mere decoration. Take this shot:

The Cranes Are Flying | Pima County Public Library

Veronika is so close to her goal yet blocked … and she had no where to turn, she is trapped, confined. This next still can’t capture the circular spinning of the camera, whirling up the stairs, as their hearts whirl with love, happiness and hope … none of which will last.

Russian Film Trailer: "The cranes are flying" 1957 - YouTube

Then we have the crowd scenes … and what scenes … the camera is like a character, bustling and elbowing its way through, between people, around vehicles, forcing its way off buses or onto trains.

The Cranes Are Flying - YouTube
The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Marx and Matryoshka · The Cranes are Flying
Flowers for the lover destined never to return
The Cranes Are Flying: A Free Camera | The Current | The Criterion ...

I hope you enjoy it

Allez, ciao !

quote movie quotes talking jean-luc godard Vivre Sa Vie ...
Vivra Sa Vie – Jean-Luc Godard 1962