Posts Tagged ‘Preston Sturges’

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 2/3

February 3, 2010

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III” (1953).

From “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1942).

A painting puts the visible on view; a film brings into view successive pieces of the visible, and so enacts a continual exchange across the border, impassable in a painting, between the visible and the invisible. A painting exists within its frame; a film image exists amid transaction with what lies out of frame, what cannot be seen at the moment, what has left view and what at any point may enter. Representation in the film medium rests on the out of frame: it’s in relation to a space off screen and its implied contents that the images unfolding on screen make sense. The out of frame is not a fact, however, but a convention, a creation of film technique, in most cases not what was actually there out of range of the camera’s picturing but what we are to accept as being there in the space off screen. ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,’ wrote Derrida: there is not out of text. The out of frame in a film, the hors-champ, is not out of text but a construction of the text.

From Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium.

Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Christmas in July’

September 1, 2009


Well, the summer is functionally over, and just as months of wearing shorts and t-shirts and reading outside must come to an end, so too must my Preston Sturges kick; and what better way to see the summer off than to watch Sturges’s warmly regarded (and appropriately titled) Christmas in July (1940)? Incapable of thinking of anything better to do on this handsome afternoon (apart from devouring a waffle cone loaded with pistachio ice cream), I headed to Memorial Library to bid farewell, at least for now, to both 70+ degree temperatures and Sturges’s world of screwball calamity.


Christmas in July, like The Great McGinty, manages to be both wonderfully topical and terribly impertinent, often seeming to arrive accidentally at a place where some really incisive critique of Americanism could be made. To its credit, Christmas in July establishes its target early and hits that target often: the capitalists are whimsical morons wielding inflated wallets and overfed bellies; modern happiness is predicated entirely on the state of one’s bank account; a lie is often just as significant (or as important) as a truth; it isn’t love if there isn’t an enormous diamond involved; and so on.


But Christmas in July is just as tender as it is stern. When we first meet our protagonists, it seems as though Jimmy (Dick Powell) is going to be a turtleneck-wearing lump of hair-grease stoicism while his fiancée, Betty (Ellen Drew), is going to be all chase and no bait. However, the funny thing about first impressions is that they’re always dead-on except when they’re dead-wrong: a $25,000 check reveals Jimmy to be a likable softy and Betty to be a girl who doesn’t wear a mink coat or a gaudy wedding ring but who certainly wouldn’t turn down either if offered to her. Christmas in July, more so than any other film with which Xmas is even indirectly related, captures the whole capitalist potlatch phenomenon with irresistible correctness and incidental precision. The film feels a bit like a thematic pinata: if the truth should come spilling out of it, great, but if not, oh well, at least the acting is funny.


One has to give it up to Sturges for taking the compositional principle of clutter to new heights through his never-bare approach to mise-en-scène. Many Sturges comedies seem like attempts to fit as much crap in the frame as that sucker can hold before bursting apart and falling into the occlusive expanses of offscreen space. How many faces can one fit on the screen without compromising the clarity of appearance of a single one of them? How many wrapped gifts can one fit into the backseat of a taxi without overwhelming the dialogue going on between the lounging lovers in said backseat? Watch Christmas in July and you’ll feel as though you’ve discovered the answers to these superfluous questions.

Christmas in July can be found at the Memorial Library Media Center right now. Come for the innovative long takes, the graceful yet modest tracking shots and the narrative’s overall controlled mayhem; stay for the genuine warmth and the subtle critique.


Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Unfaithfully Yours’

August 24, 2009


Having rented Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer (1994) just the day before, I decided to fix myself an infidelity cinesandwich on Sunday afternoon, so I headed to the Memorial Library Media Center to check out Preston Sturges’s terrifically black comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948). While I haven’t yet seen all of Sturges’s oeuvre, I’d be surprised if Unfaithfully Yours doesn’t rank amongst his best.

Unfaithfully Yours has a surprisingly perverse, almost surrealist sense of humor, which manifests itself both in the film’s many allusions (to Wagner, to Tchaikovsky, to Henri Rousseau) and in the film’s narrative structure (especially during the stretches of what we in the business call “restricted subjective narration”; these sequences are anything but “funny”, at least in the conventional sense of the word). One can’t help but be impressed by the lengths to which Sturges and co. were willing to go in order to produce a legitimately transgressive comedy: Unfaithfully Yours features a brutal murder, an accidental suicide, even a scene featuring marital payola.

The camera snakes its way through the hallways of the apartment building where Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) neurotically tangles himself into paranoid knots over the affair that his wife (Linda Darnell) may or may not be having with his assistant (Kurt Kreuger). Long takes stretch two-shots to the point of organic uneasiness. The pratfalls feel essential rather than superfluous. This is all to say: Unfaithfully Yours is a tightly assembled film, a unified whole whose constituent parts are rich and remarkable in and of themselves. Sturges was an artist whose grasp of the medium was impeccable: his work seems to argue that cinema isn’t just about making pretty pictures, adorning them with evocative music, and calling the resulting heap of aesthetic data a film; Sturges’s style of composition more closely resembles the orchestration of a train wreck than it does the painting of a picture or the writing of a novel.

Wow, was this a hyperbolic post or what? To see why you can’t fault me for writing this way, head to the Memorial Library Media Center and check out Unfaithfully Yours. You shan’t regret it.






Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘The Great McGinty’

August 17, 2009


My Preston Sturges kick continued on Sunday afternoon with The Great McGinty (1940), which screened here in Madison last Fall as part of the Cinematheque’s series of ‘political’ films (in honor of the 2008 presidential election). For whatever reason I wasn’t able to see the film then, but seeing it yesterday, I was struck by how the film was at once both weirdly political and deceptively unpolitical.

Dan McGinty (played by Brian Donlevy) begins as a bum, morphs into a volatile lump of hired muscle, abruptly emerges as a legitimate mayoral candidate, and finally, is elected governor of the never-named state in which the film is set; he then proceeds to fall from grace in a goofy, self-consciously implausible manner. Thankfully, most of this fantastic absurdity is treated as absurdity, and thus the film narrowly avoids being too ridiculous for its own good. In ‘real life’, politics inevitably becomes a parody of itself; but the truth is, as always, in the details, and The Great McGinty is essentially disinterested in those very details. The closest we ever come to finding out what’s really going on behind the slightly illusory surface of what seems to be going on is when, very late in the film, the charges of corruption levied against McGinty are revealed to be… true. And then he rides off into the sunset.

The Great McGinty is not nearly as relentless or as hilarious as Sturges’s comparatively conventional screwball masterpieces; indeed, throughout the film’s latter half, the depiction of McGinty’s personal transformation is bogged down by an unnecessarily generous coating of melodramatic shellac. The film manages to redeem itself with an ending that’s nihilistic in the sneakiest of ways. To be sure, Sturges’s subsequent pinnacles (like Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, etc.) are more dramatically dazzling, and those films are also staged in a more overtly (though not more obviously) expressive style; that said, at a concise 80 minutes in length, one certainly wouldn’t be harming oneself to check this DVD out from Memorial Library’s Media Center.





Library Haul, revisited again

August 12, 2009


Pardon me if the following sounds a bit dorky, but… folks my age probably watch more films in their rooms and on their laptops than they do in movie theaters; so if you find yourself with nothing better to do in the middle of the afternoon, and you’ve had your fill of mid-80’s temperatures and blaring sun, why not head to Memorial Library, check out a DVD or two, grab a cubicle in the stacks somewhere and watch the film on your laptop? It’s private, quiet, fairly dark and temperate; sure, the wooden seat is stiff as a corpse, but you can always bring a sweater or something like that to sit on. I tested this activity out for the first time just this afternoon, watching Preston Sturges’s excellent The Palm Beach Story (1942), which is available at the Media Center.



For all the folks facing 24 hours of homelessness this Friday, might I suggest checking out some films you’ve always wanted to see, if nothing else so that you can have a roof over your head for a little while?