People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016)

A different kind of Filipino history is claimed in this sort-of-documentary, which reconstructs an old, lost Filipino film, as an experimental conversation with lost film history. It’s difficult to describe, and can be difficult at times to watch, just because of the way the images have been comprehensively destroyed by time. There’s a hint of what Bill Morrison does in his film works too, a tactility to the decay that affects not just film history, but history itself.


Not precisely a documentary, not exactly a fiction either, this film presents itself as a reconstruction of long-lost, heavily-decayed footage from a 1986 Filipino film which was never completed. Evidently the soundtrack has been re-recorded, but so too has additional footage been shot, and all are matched to the barely-there haze of the original reels. What was clearly a fairly rote, exploitative drama about a young Vietnamese woman becomes in the retelling a meta-narrative about the making of a film (this film, ostensibly), and about its unmaking too, wherein the physical decay of the film itself becomes the looming tragedy that the film’s characters — and the actors portraying those characters — seem to fear.

The original actors provide the voices, which narrate in a weird sense their experiences of making the original film, but in a present tense which suggests they are still doing that, and what we’re seeing is them telling the story while it’s happening. As we start, images of people loom out of the warp, mould and noise of the decay, the penumbra of film history, barely there, ghostly vestiges of what could have been. The film never relinquishes this oneiric tone, continuing its strange pursuit of these hidden meanings within this lost footage, perhaps the potential stories that all images contain. It’s odd and avant garde, but it’s quite affecting.

People Power Bombshell film posterCREDITS
Director John Torres; Cinematographers Malay Javier and Jippy Pascua; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 24 September 2018.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

The London Film Festival has just finished, which means it’s straight into the BFI’s recent tradition, an in-depth focus on a particular theme that will run until the end of the year. They’ve done sci-fi and Black stars recently, amongst others, and this year it’s musicals, with a big UK cinematic re-release of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) planned for the end of this week. As such, I’m going to be doing a week focusing on that genre too, although as a fan of the genre, reviews have shown up in my other theme weeks (like the Australian 2009 musical Bran Nue Dae for that week, or Been So Long for my British women directors week). Unlike many of my theme weeks, this one may end up featuring more white male directors than usual, but the form has  a long heritage, with women taking key roles more often in front of the camera, or in writing and editing, not to mention (of course) the glamorous costumes and make-up. My first film I want to feature is one I recently saw, which also has a notable  sequence focusing on the lindy hop, a dance with roots in African-American culture.


This film is undeniably a lot. It is very extra. It revels in cramming gag after gag, absurdity upon idiocy every few seconds, such that even when we get a fairly ‘straight’ sequence — the young man singing a sweet love song towards his enamorata — the filmmakers superimpose cards over the screen asking a member of the audience to go home, that culminates in everyone on-screen turning towards the camera and admonishing this young man for watching. Because, indeed, another of the film’s formal features is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, whether actors on screen are addressing us or the projectionist (who for some reason controls where the camera is pointed, though it hardly seems fair to quibble). There are throughout moments of inspiration, even as everything else is piling on in an overwhelmingly zany way. For example, there’s the sequence where a male photographer is snapping attractive young women at a pool party and asks blousy Betty (Martha Raye) to step out of the frame, before she seizes the camera and starts objectifying the men diving into the pool instead, pushing the middle-aged guys in suits out of the frame instead. And of course there’s the entire lindy hop sequence, which is almost entirely self-contained, but also just a beautiful bit of pure cinema, capped by the (white) stars and director character scaring them off and then saying they’ll definitely find space for the troupe in their next movie. It’s all so meta that it feels like something conceived in the 90s, like something that must have inspired a generation of absurdist comedians, but yet it’s very much there in the 1940s and it’s a wonder.

Hellzapoppin' film posterCREDITS
Director H. C. Potter; Writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (based on the musical by Harold Johnson, John Olsen, Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias); Cinematographer Elwood Bredell; Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 14 December 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)

Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)”

Criterion Sunday 264: Dokument Fanny och Alexander (The Making of Fanny and Alexander, 1984)

What’s interesting about this “making of” documentary is that, rarely enough, it is actually what it says: it shows in great detail the actual making of the film. It’s not so much bothered about contextualising the production, about where it was made or how long the shoot was (though that sort of comes out in a roundabout way), nor even the preparation or the post-production. This is focused strictly on Bergman himself making the film, with his actors on the sets, with his DoP Sven Nykvist, and just in the flow of eliciting the performances and ensuring that the vision being created by the camera and the lighting matches his. In that sense it can be a little claustrophobic, because you’re just in these houses with him constantly, but it imparts a little sense of how engaged and focused he is on the task, and about some of what it means to be a director: it’s about getting the performances you want to see from your actors, and about having the right people around you to deal with the other stuff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This feature was originally accorded its own spine number, but in the Blu-ray re-release of the box set, is essentially just one of the supplements. The others I mention on the page for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 19 August 2019.

LFF 2019 Day One: You Don’t Nomi (2019)

It is the start of another London Film Festival! As a resident of this city, it’s also one of the easiest ways (if not exactly cheapest, though it’s not terrible value given how much a regular cinema ticket can be in some venues) to see new and interesting films. As ever, my strategy is to select films that are less likely to come back, as well as ones not directed by straight white men — I can’t promise that every film I see will be super obscure, because I do have my favourite directors and my interests, and my first day’s film is one of the few I’m seeing directed by a white man, albeit it’s a film which has been screened in a number of LGBTQ festivals and contexts. It’s also about one of my (problematic) faves, Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls, which I rewatched a few days ago to prepare. In upcoming days expect more than one review per post, because I’ve packed my schedule with only a few evenings off.


You Don’t Nomi (2019)

There’s something pure about this film in the way it specifically doesn’t try to get in touch with any of the creatives involved with Showgirls, because ultimately that’s not what it’s interested in. Like a number of recent documentaries, it’s about the audience and about fan culture in its workings as much as it’s about how the thing everyone’s a fan of actually got made. That said, it does do a bit of digging about that, presenting clips of director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas talking about it at the time, and the film is very good about contrasting the way it was understood back then, both by its makers and contemporary critics (mostly broadsheet reviewers giving it simplistic star ratings and thumbs-up/thumbs-down critiques), and how it has come to be understood and embraced. The film is also good about presenting a range of opinions: it’s not just a queer subtext waiting to be uncovered, or a camp classic, or a misogynistic creep’s voyeuristic rendering of sexual liberation, or a pure expression of performance and performativity itself, but it’s also somehow all of these things — and that can be fine. As Adam Nayman (a critic who has written a book about Showgirls and who is heard on the soundtrack) more or less puts it, you can love the film while also accepting that’s it not in any conventional sense ‘Good’.

So what I love here is the stuff that feels like an unpacking of fan culture itself, and of the way audiences respond. The people in the row behind me at the cinema were certainly happy to quote along with the dialogue when we see it (and there are lots of good, high quality clips of all Verhoeven’s films), but it’s good to see a film that is serious about its subject and not just treating it as silly fun (because certainly a lot of Verhoeven’s work is not silly or fun, and there are still serious reservations which have been levelled at his use of rape as a theme across his body of work). Like all the excellent documentaries about films, this will probably end up being seen mainly as a supplementary feature to a deluxe reissue, but I hope that happens (the US 15th anniversary Blu-ray I’ve got is pretty patchy in quality, and while the Dutch Blu-ray has a great transfer it has no extras), because Showgirls is a film that deserves all its admirers and detractors both — whereas this exegesis should mainly have admirers.

You Don't Nomi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jeffrey McHale; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Wednesday 2 October 2019.

La flor (2018)

There’s nothing out at the end of this week in UK cinemas that’s inspiring me to any themed week so I thought I’d return to some of the ones I’ve already done with follow-up reviews. I’ll start with my South American cinema week, which was on the occasion of the (necessarily limited) cinematic release of La flor. I spent three nights in a cinema for this one, so here is my review.


I can’t say if this movie is good in any traditional sense, but I suppose by the end of any 14 hour movie, anyone is likely to be a little unclear on critical categories, though the fact this is out there is in a sense worth more than any individual detail within it. It’s also not a film in which the visual style is its most important feature. The director, for example, is overly fond of shots with a shallow depth of focus, as figures move blurrily into the foreground. It’s also frequently discursive, sometimes in ways that are a little dull — I may have nodded off once or twice. The third episode out of six, for example, takes up the entirety of the second part (over five hours), itself split into three and then with countless other sub-headings as its spy genre drama flits between countries, and back and forth in time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a film that, at a formal level, is clearly intended to be screened (as I saw it) over three nights. Its director, Mariano Llinás, pops up in little interstitial scenes in each of its three parts, and makes reference not just to where we are within each part, but elaborates the overall structure via messy handwritten notes in his diary. He has a trolling sensibility too elsewhere, as quite aside from the (surely almost mandatory) scenes of characters relieving themselves deep into the epic runtime, he opens one section with loud snoring, cuts out the sound entirely for another episode, deploys ostentatious dubbing for foreign voices even while clearly using Argentinean actors (to our ears the American and British ones seem particularly ill-suited to their actors, and that’s quite aside from the presence of Margaret Thatcher as a character), he fiddles with the light levels even while a scene is playing out (rendering the subtitles briefly unreadable), and seems to have flies stuck to the camera lens at one point. In fact, episode four is structured around a paranormal investigator trying to understand the director’s own notebook, after an extensive sequence of him (played by an actor) dragging his forlorn crew around filming a drama about some trees.

Whatever else it might be, though, this is a film that is in love with the act of storytelling. Rivette’s Out 1 may be an obvious reference point in terms of not just a focus on acting (here the same four women play roles in all but one of the film’s six episodes), but also its use of secret societies and shady cabals pulling strings behind the scenes. However, La flor is mainly just obsessed with weaving plots, and Llinás uses genre cues to set them up, whether the long, tortuous espionage plot of the third episode (with flashbacks and sub-plots for each of its spies), the supernatural mummy of the first, or the fetching story of two singers who have divorced but still work together, intercut with a secret society working on a deadly scorpion poison, though at two days remove I can no longer remember quite how that works into the story of the singers. That said, none of the first four episodes have much of a resolution: the point, really, is in the telling of the stories, not where they go.

The lack of resolution, which the director’s diagrams suggest may be solved in the final two episodes, but these — which only come in the final couple of hours (a good half hour of which is taken up by the credits) — may prove to be unsatisfactory for those who have stuck out 12 hours in the hope that it will all come together. No, what this is all about is just a love of narrative and of acting, and the various ways that all of these roles and stories can be reconfigured and recombined. It’s perfectly happy along the way to poke fun at itself — the way his four leading ladies (witches, briefly, in episode 4) react to the idea that they might have to do another episode in French after the epic episode 3 (in which they play French-speaking spies) is particularly great, but then the film is filled with throwaway moments of fine acting and self-effacing humour. I can’t tell you that you’ll find it thrilling or promise 14 hours of non-stop fun, but it does have its rewards, and it’s clearly not willing to compromise either.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Mariano Llinás; Cinematographer Agustín Mendilaharzu; Starring Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes; Length 807 minutes (not including intermissions).
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 13, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September 2019.

Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, 2019)

Stepping away from this week’s horror theme, I wanted to highlight another film that’s out in UK cinemas today, which is the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker who is getting older and has made a film about it. Maybe it’s me getting older — or maybe it’s Pedro — but I really warmed to his latest film far more than anything I’ve watched before by him (and I gave his films a few tries back in the 1990s in particular).


This is a fairly thinly-disguised self-portrait of the filmmaker as ageing man, dealing with the pains of growing up, and more particularly the pains of getting old, self-medicating (with heroin, but of course), and generally trying to come to terms with his own life and those around him drifting away and dying. It trades less on heightened melodrama but is given enormous gravitas by Banderas’s underplayed performance, finding all the right notes for this guy who’s rather at loose ends now that he can’t work due to chronic pain and depression. He still has a very precise eye for framing a shot, and the use of music is perfect, plus there’s no big event, just a sort of flow of moments in a man’s life. There’s levity and there’s self-reflexiveness (a scene with his mother telling him he better not be thinking about putting her in a film), there’s a bit of darkness, but mostly there’s light and colour (bold, saturated colours, of course), that I enjoyed spending time with.

Pain and Glory film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Almodóvar; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 17 August 2019.

Films about Filmmaking: Top 5 List

Films About FilmmakingAs ever, I’ve let my month of focusing on films about filmmaking peter out somewhat, but hello! Still here! I promised you a list and so a list I shall provide. (Thankfully, Wikipedia has its own useful list to jog my ever ineffectual memory.)

Of course, I should say a few words about the category. First off, these aren’t just films set in the world of filmmaking, of which there are plenty. In fact, at least one of the below isn’t even set in that world. No, these are films that engage with the issues around filmmaking, whether at the technical level or at a deeper more inchoate level of what it is to create a work of art, and all the moral and ethical issues this may involve, when you’re collaborating with and manipulating characters and lives (whether real or fictional).

What are your favourites? Do feel free to let me know!

Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Close-Up

In any case, here are mine:

کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک‎ Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) There’s a strong strain of reflexivity about filmmaking that runs through a lot of the films to have come out of Iran since the 1980s. I might here mention Jafar Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997), which ostensibly begins like his big break-out arthouse hit of a few years before, Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon, 1995), with a young girl on a quest, before the child actor throws a strop and walks away from the filming, and it swiftly becomes about Panahi’s own practice. There’s also Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1995), in which he revisits a pivotal event from his youth but in such a way as to cast a light on the nature of representation on film. However, arguably the greatest of all Iranian films and — as its appearance here may suggest — one of the great self-reflexive films, is this pseudo-documentary by renowned auteur Abbas Kiarostami, made with his colleague Makhmalbaf. It’s starts off with a young man impersonating Makhmalbaf (though looking at the screenshots in retrospect, he could as well be an Ahmadinejad impersonator) to gain access to a rich family’s home, but again deals with the way that events become manipulated and changed by the presence of the camera in all kinds of fascinating and subtle ways.

Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) Taking a different approach is this film of Godard’s (which I’ve already reviewed). It’s a beautifully shimmering modernist fantasia set in Italy, in which various different modes of film production come up against one another, and in which a couple’s relationship is refracted through the politics of filmmaking, in a typically sly and allusive way by Godard.

Showgirls (1995) I know this film has come in for a lot of derision over the years, and that it’s not even set in the film world, but it must surely count as one of the most caustic portrayals of showbusiness put down on film — and by extension, the kind of Hollywood filmmaking director Paul Verhoeven had been involved in for the past decade or so. It’s about young ingenues who come to the big city with a big dream, and the way in which that dream is brutally crushed and degraded into something ugly and exploitative. The acting is of course hammy in the extreme, but I’m not convinced that it was ever intended to be otherwise. Like the director’s subsequent Starship Troopers (1997), it takes the form of an Aaron Spelling TV soap opera of the era, with all the glossy production values you might expect (and some gloriously baroque widescreen cinematography), but filters it through industrial levels of toxic nastiness, including plenty of unsettling misogyny (which may partly derive from the Joe Eszterhas script, though it’s no less than you’d expect given the setting). However, I don’t think it’s excessive to see all that as part of the moribund culture the film is getting at, where everything and everyone is just an object to be manipulated. It is, needless to say, no feel-good movie, however it may have been repackaged since.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Another film I recently reviewed, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows this Hollywood classic. It does song and it does dance, and beneath it all it gives us a hint at how a film is put together, albeit in a glitzy and twinkly-toed way that effaces every bit as much as it enlightens.

Irma Vep (1996) This French film by director and former film critic Olivier Assayas sets itself in the rarefied milieu of French arthouse filmmaking, with a grumpy, reclusive auteur (the iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud) putting together a remake of a silent film serial, Les Vampires (1915-16), with a Hong Kong film star. This may all make it sound like the most airless bit of tedium, but by focusing on the role of Irma Vep and the actor Maggie Cheung, wrapping into the story her own baggage as a leading lady of Hong Kong action filmmaking, it becomes (for me at least) a delightful love letter to the cinema, to the kineticism of Hong Kong’s 1990s film industry, and to the dreams they inspire. It’s also got a great soundtrack.


Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters

And here also are a few honourable mentions, because I have the feeling they’re underappreciated:

A Cock and Bull Story (2005) Director Michael Winterbottom has collaborated with actor Steve Coogan many times, but this one is many ways the most delightful, being both a literary adaptation and a film about putting a literary adaptation on film, with Coogan being as amusingly self-deprecatory as he’s ever been.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) Documentaries about filmmakers that reveal their practice may show up as a bonus feature on every DVD of the past 10 years, but most are filler and fodder of the most disposable kind. However, there are a few films that deserve to rank up here, and many of them were made as part of the French TV series Cinéstes de notre temps, many of them strong works that stand up to viewing in a cinema. I reviewed this one about Pedro Costa recently, but one could also look to Chris Marker’s film about Andrei Tarkovsky Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 1999), or to Claire Denis’s Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), amongst others. These are just some of the ones I’ve seen, and all are excellent. Speaking of Marker, and although not made for this series, his film about Russian silent filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1992) is also a fantastic documentary, with Marker’s lightly allusive and playful touch all over it.

Stories We Tell (2012) One of my favourite films I saw last year, actor/director Sarah Polley’s film about her family is ostensibly a personal memoir film (another subgenre of filmmaking), but as her family are actors, it has a lot of thoughtful ideas about the way personal history can be represented on screen. As a result it moves far beyond being ‘merely’ a documentary to a sort of meta-text about what it means to make a documentary. Or something like that. In any case, I can recommend it.

Gods and Monsters (1998) Finally, this story of the making of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has Ian McKellen as the gay filmmaker, and Brendan Fraser as his muse, and it’s all very enjoyably put together.

No (2012)

Films About FilmmakingThere are many types of filmmaking, and television advertising is one more. This is a film that finds common ground between filmmaking and political change, via the medium of television and the language of advertising.


As a story from his own country’s recent history, ostensibly this film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is about the democratic overthrow of dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1988, following 15 years of his rule, since he seized power from the left-wing Salvador Allende in a coup aided by the United States. However, it’s not really straight history, and it deftly manages to wrap in a commentary on the importance of television and the power of advertising, not to mention being a human drama about one man in the centre of this movement for change.

The protagonist of the drama is René, a creative at an advertising company, played by the ever-reliable Gael García Bernal. He’s no hero though, no crusading campaigner against dictatorship, bent on exposing the unjustness and brutality of the regime he’s working against. He’s just a man who knows how to sell stuff to people, and so the anti-Pinochet campaign is just another portfolio, albeit one that his conservative boss tries to dissuade him from pursuing. What he sees in it may ultimately be a hope for a better country, but at first it just seems to be a challenge to his training. Watching one of the ads that the politically conscious action group have created, he is aghast at how bitter and negative it is, and so he goes about fashioning something a little more ‘saleable’ — which, of course, resembles nothing so much as a Coke ad, a bit of lifestyle product placement with a voting agenda (vote “no” to Pinochet’s continued rule).

The film that Larraín has put together takes the historical situation as a backdrop. The film is primarily about the ironic disjunction between the political aims and the methods used. Towards the end, René returns to the usual fare, a ridiculous set-up with a helicopter full of plastic low-grade local celebrities, and nothing seems different. The film seems profoundly ambivalent at a certain level about what exactly has been achieved (not that it’s in any way supportive of Pinochet or his regime, for which little love is evident). It’s just that for advertisers and people in the media, it’s global capital that dictates their jobs and the way they work, not local politics.

Working alongside the script, the film’s style is a key to its success, as it mimics the film format of the era. Partly this is done so as to integrate the original television adverts seamlessly into the drama, but it also puts everything at just that slight remove, with the grainy fuzzy film making it seem like something quaintly out of time (in a similar way to, say, Andrew Bujalski’s recent Computer Chess).

It’s an interesting story of a country and an era that doesn’t get much airplay outside the region. It’s also a fascinating take on an advertisers’ dream of the 1980s, and about the way that advertising and politics don’t exactly make for easy bedfellows. Most of all, though, it’s a human drama about one man dealing with an industry (not to mention a country) founded on corruption, and where exactly that can lead.

No film posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Pedro Peirano (based on the play El plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta); Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong; Starring Gael García Bernal; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Films About FilmmakingAmong the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.


I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.

As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.

As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.

If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.

On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.

Singin' in the Rain film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).