Saturday, 24 September 2016

Judgment at Nuremberg: worthy but dated

Jenny is unconvinced by Kramer’s classic courtroom drama

Last night, on Joe’s recommendation, I girded myself to watch Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer’s 1961 fictional take on the trial of those responsible for implementing the judicial system of the Third Reich).

It struck me how relevant it is to today, fifty-five years on, but also how brave to make the film at that time, with the Cold War raising exactly the same issues of expediency versus fundamental moral values and what duty, if any, the citizen has to protest.

But oh dear I found it so unnecessarily long and ponderous, sagging under the weight of its own virtuousness. You could snip 30 minutes out of it easily by doing salami slicing-style editing. I also thought it was ludicrously over-directed. Directors, agents and others in the non-performing part of the business divide roughly into two. First, those who believe actors are terminally stupid and have to be told what to do in minute detail. Second, those who believe that if you get the casting right, the actors will do everything you want – and more. Kramer seems to have belonged to the former. I imagined the scene on set – Kramer instructing Maximilian Schnell in his role of Defence Attorney:

Kramer: Max, can you turn a bit more slowly to the Judge? I want it more, like meaningful.
Schnell: OK Mr Kramer, like this?
Kramer: No, no, give him more of a hard stare - see - watch me!
(Kramer can't act, so crew stifles laughter)

Terrible piece of casting with Montgomery Clift as a manual worker, sterilised under Nazi law. Poor guy, he was always chosen for his prettiness not because he could act - which he couldn't. I had to keep reminding myself that the film was made at a time when mannered acting and directing was only just emerging from the blight of that immediate post-war period (see the to my mind very over praised films of Pressburger and Powell).

I thought Spencer Tracy was wonderful and I guess he was far too eminent either to take any notice of Kramer's instructions or to have been offered them in the first place. Just a brilliant performance, intelligent and naturalistic, brought life to what could have been a very dry and dull part.

I have always been fascinated by the immediate post-war period in Germany and by how quickly the country was reinvented. It’s so clear that there were people in the US administration who understood this basic principle of systems thinking – that to succeed, you have to help your enemies. So different from today.

Joe's heckle

I can see the force of your criticisms, Jenny. Of course the film is dated. Look at the date. And of course I prefer the greater sophistication, ‘naturalism’ and pace of contemporary film-making -- the style of my own era. But I think you exaggerate this film’s faults and diminish its virtues.

Some of that sophistication comes from money. When I watched I Claudius (BBC 1976) immediately after Rome (HBO/BBC 2005), it seemed at first hopelessly cramped and stagy, before I adjusted to its more theatrical style. Our expectations of pace are also clearly quite different now. Our communal fluency in the language of film means that the narrative and moral signposting of earlier film and TV looks crude.

I put ‘naturalism’ in quotes because it's the holy grail that acting has been seeking since acting began. Every generation thinks it has it in its grasp, only for its actors to look absurdly mannered in retrospect or for its apparently naturalistic style to become formalized into a bag of tricks. Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's business partner and leading man, was lauded for his naturalism. Hamlet's advice to the players is all about holding a mirror up to nature, and he gets impatient with the melodramatic performance of the stage poisoner: ‘Begin, murderer! Pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin!’

We might want to say the same now to Montgomery Clift. No one in 2016 would play that part the way Clift does. But in its own way it's powerful.

Jenny's response 

I'm not against slowness. Far from it. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska moves at a snail’s pace: an old guy does a trip to collect an illusory lottery 'prize' that takes him through a series of abandoned towns where he encounters abandoned people. About Schmidt, an earlier Payne film which I thought was wonderful, has a similar quality. In fact a lot of American indie cinema is 'slow', eg one of my favourites, Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt or All is Lost, starring Robert Redford in a film where only about 50 words were actually spoken. Or another very odd film (Greek) which I loved, Dogtooth, which is so slow it actually has fixed camera positions. I just thought that in Nuremberg there was something very false about the pace and style which was at odds with the noble intentions of the film and this grated on me and got in the way of absorbing the story.

But I take your point about acting styles and fashion. It's not always possible to see where and how contemporary views influence your own tastes. Also I agree that we have become more film literate and this makes a lot of difference. Just the amazing development of technology has a lot to answer for here.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Hockney at the Royal Academy

Jenny puzzles over David Hockney's 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life

There is no living artist I admire more than David Hockey. I love his blend of fine draughtsmanship, hectic colour and shrewd portraiture. I have stood many times in front of his double portraits, most notably the magisterial tribute to his parents which now hangs in Tate Britain. Looking at this portrait you feel you know everything about these two beloved people. This lean, naturalistic, sculptural style of painting was characteristic of his earlier work. And his stylized LA paintings will always have glamour, sensuality and sweetness for me.

Age, deafness, illness and personal tragedy seem to have made little difference to David Hockney’s productivity or to the quality of his work. His output is prodigious. He experiments enthusiastically with different media, embracing technology along with traditional materials.

So I had high hopes of 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life at the Royal Academy. But this exhibition left me puzzled. The 82 portraits, created in acrylic at a hectic pace in 2015 and 2016, each over no more than three days, are tightly hung on violently vermilion walls with the names of the sitters elegantly inscribed above each. All the subjects were placed on the same yellow chair against a giddying turquoise backcloth.

The attention to detail in the sitters’ clothing is touching and funny. His sister, Margaret Hockney, who has been his subject many times, is portrayed wearing voluminous navy spotted harem pants. I recognized this garment immediately as the refuge of a certain sort of older lady who has lost contact with her waist. Rita Pynoos dressed up for her sitting by wearing a sumptuous long red skirt which starts somewhat strangely under her breasts and pools out in front of her so that you barely look at her face. One of the youngest sitters looks as if he has been dressed by his mommy as a little man, complete with shirt, tie, waistcoat, nicely laced shoes and an important notebook.

One curious feature of the exhibition is that its curator, Edith Devaney, is also one of the sitters.

This is not a series of portraits where the artist was trying to flatter – or maybe even to suggest likenesses, except casually. So would I have recognized Barry Humphries without the red kipper tie, slouchy hat and pink trousers? Possibly not, though I loved the sitter’s roguish twinkle. The people all have oddly foreshortened legs, though in most cases their shoes have been conveyed in loving detail. The faces are hectically flushed or else bleached of colour.

I was especially puzzled by the portrait of his close friend Celia Birtwell, the young star of another wonderful double portrait painted in 1971, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, and a ‘muse’ he has painted many times. In the 2015 painting, Celia looks dumpy, has been given staring, wobbly turquoise eyes and a dab of bright green on the end of her nose. But why?

Taken together, which I assume is what we are meant to do, this is more like an installation than separate portraits. It is warm, it is humorous, but what else? After a few moments they all began to blend into one another. It was overwhelming. I was not tempted to linger. As I left, I did not feel their eyes following me.