cinema

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND CARY GRANT

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This challenge was issued a decade ago.   It occurred on a rare visit to Sheekeys Restaurant in London.  The food was delicious and expensive.  My friend and I sat on two stools facing the bar sipping white wine as dry and crisp as any I have tasted.  Both well-fed and probably a little self-satisfied we talked about Elvis.  I mentioned the ending of the revised edition of the documentary ‘That’s The Way It Is’ and the appearance of Cary Grant in the after show party.  I described how the two men appeared to swap identities as they talked.  Cary Grant had told Elvis that he had been hot.  Elvis had said that he was probably a little too nervous.  Grant was edgy and modern American while Elvis was relaxed and almost haughty.  His southern accent languished into something like aloof English.  ‘Come, come,’ said my friend.

 

My surroundings were no longer quite so enhancing.   The people around me were different, and I suspected the impact of the bill would be less on them than me and that they would return before I did.   It was neither the place nor the time to compare a flash poor white Southerner to a charming English sophisticate once voted the best dressed man in Hollywood.

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The biography ‘Haunted Idol’ which refers to Cary Grant and not Elvis gives plenty of detail.   Archibald Leach arrived in Hollywood a working class Englishman who left home to join a circus.  No, this did not inspire the story of Pinocchio.  Pinocchio was made of wood, and Cary Grant was anything but wooden.   Like Elvis he used his body to enhance his performance and, again like Elvis, he was versatile.  Elvis could rock and sing ballads, and Grant was comfortable in comedy and drama.  This circus travelled to America, and somewhere along the way Grant left the big tent and became a Hollywood actor.   His early films, especially those with Mae West, reveal a different Grant to what emerged later.  Grant is no less confident but instead of the superior sophistication we have a defiant swagger.  This has been not properly recognised because in these films he also had a tendency to overact.  But his defensiveness and street cockiness are plainly evident, as they are in a more charming way in the classic ‘Gunga Din’ by the great director, George Stevens.  Grant was not ashamed of his working class background but like Elvis he wanted more.  Indeed the two men wanted both authenticity and luxury, or maybe something more complicated than luxury that involved status and personal power.   Elvis curled his lip, and Grant talked as if he was breathing rarefied air.  Both mannerisms suggest an insistence on recognition and acknowledgement.  The more conservative could argue this is why the two men became so haunted.  They simply wanted too much, a consequence of narcissism and its always attendant gluttony.

They paid a price.  Both suffered depression and insomnia for most of their lives and both felt entitled to experiment with ‘medication’.   The word entitled is important.  Grant and Presley were not alone in taking drugs but what they did have in common was a belief that their position or their work entitled them to unusual medication.  Elvis shovelled in pills, and Grant tortured himself with LSD hallucinations.

But they began as working class men and though they had an image that insisted on their separate superiority they were always loyal to their class and its habits.  Both enjoyed the taste of basic cooking.   Elvis liked bacon, mash and gravy, and Grant was so fond of bangers and mash he insisted it was served on Christmas Day.  Undoubtedly, a key factor in the loyalty of both men was their devotion to their mothers.  It is not fanciful to assume this devotion was exacerbated by feelings of guilt.  The mother of Elvis died early when he was in the Army, and the mother of Grant was kept in a lunatic asylum for a large part of his life.  When he was seven years old, he had been told by his father she had died.  He was already a superstar when he learned the truth.  He became devoted but their different circumstances meant they lived very different lives.

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To the European outsider it is tempting to think of Hollywood as a home to the successful but it also represents American privilege – the best parties, the most adoration and, last but not least, the most beautiful women.   This was even better than what happened to David Cameron at Eton and Oxford.  The problem for Elvis and Grant was they could only enjoy the privilege with the knowledge that the women they loved the most had been removed from their lives.    Grant, of course, survived into old age but he was of a different generation, one that never understood excess as well as that of Elvis and his peers.  He also had fabulous genes while Elvis was prone to fat.  That is why the scene at the end of ‘That’s The Way It Is’ chills.  If their identities could merge so easily, how much did chance influence their very different fates?

We will never know.  No two personalities are the same, and the slightest tilt in circumstances will have a significant effect.   The English found it inconceivable that Grant leaped across the English class system in the athletic way he did, and it probably would have been impossible if he had stayed in England.  Being an Englishman in America not only helped his self-esteem but helped others to groom him effectively and helped him to re-invent himself as a creature of our dreams.    Elvis dealt in dreams as well but he did not have the luxury of being the unfathomable alien.  He was merely unfathomable.  Grant secured adoration because of the confusion.  He side-stepped European social class while Elvis rejected racial and gender certainties.   For many Americans this was more uncomfortable than their homegrown idealised Englishman.  Elvis also had adoration but he also had to endure contempt.

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Both men were obsessive about fashion to the extent it generated phobias.  Elvis insisted upon high collars, and Grant could only wear jackets with narrow armholes.   The fashion phobias occurred because they were needed for their alternative identities.  Originally, their identities had been liberating, especially as they had attracted privilege but their mothers had been sacrificed so they were obliged to understand the price that needed paying – loneliness, alienation and self-hatred.   When Grant was told by someone, ‘I would love to be Cary Grant’ the actor replied, ‘So would I’.   Towards the end of his life Elvis met his drummer D J Fontana.  ‘I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley,’ he said.  The statements compliment remarkably well.  It is certainly possible that the remarks reflect different core natures, one maybe haunted but ultimately more sunny.   But if there are differences the remarks are all too illustrative of what they had in common.  What united them and, I like to think they recognised in each other, was success and the price that followed.  In their case the price was demanded because of their social class and their punishing family circumstances.  Elvis found the price to be unmanageable.   Grant endured but with significant cost and pain.

All of which makes me think from time to time of that evening in Sheekeys.  ‘Come, come,’ my fellow diner had said.

We had faced the mirror, two middle aged men who had drunk too much and who had clashed for a brief moment, two middle aged men obliged to think about their past and what made them different.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.  

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

EL AURA (THE AURA)

ARGENTINA, 2005

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Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished.   The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street.  He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.

In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges.   The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.

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It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures.   He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience.   Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals.   Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.

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Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy.   How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances.  At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith.   El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.

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At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist.  The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her.   To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions.   Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure.   Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout.  In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.

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El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons.  She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine.  The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity.   The dog forages for food and is a searcher.  He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour.  This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog.   Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures.   Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.

The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.

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Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action.   Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves.   The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist.  The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie.  In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.

In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week.   If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men.   Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump.   Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded.   Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational.  If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records.   In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.