Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two (kinda, sorta, not really) Christmas movies

Saint Nick (or Krampus) guided my hand last night in choosing utterly at random to watch Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) and The Crowded Day (John Guillermin, 1954) for both films touch tangentially on Christmas.

Holiday begins on Christmas Day but Cukor doesn't make a big deal out of it.
                                          Look it's Christmas!

In fact, he remains restrained throughout, permitting the romance between Katharine Hepburn's rich girl Linda and Cary Grant's boho Johnny to steadily boil rather than erupt in slapstick. Thus, the film never earns its screwball reputation.

Instead, it epitomizes Richard Dyer's dictum that Hollywood cinema tells us not how to organize utopia but what it feels like (most enraging example: the fist pump at the end of The Breakfast Club, the visual equivalent of John Hughes throwing his hands up in confusion as to how to deal with the Gen X youth group can of worms he just opened). We experience ecstasy when Linda finally escapes her banker father's castle to dropout with Johnny and his boho buds, Professor and Mrs. Potter (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon).
But during a depression in desperate need of organizational tactics, one can understand why audiences of the time felt cheated by it. Especially in a year when The Great Depression came roaring back, how precisely would Linda and Johnny make a go of it? And watch how Cukor immediately breaks down the utopian commune with The Potters retreating in order for the rote formation of the heterosexual couple to occur.
                                         I just...couldn't show the actual kiss.

That's not how Lubitsch did it at the end of Design for Living (1933) where the Gary Cooper-Miriam Hopkins-Frederic March triumvirate remains intact. Less predicated on economics (although, of course, decidedly central to its maintenance), their utopia bespeaks organizational smarts and thus becomes a more manageable model of action.

Like Holiday, The Crowded Day promises a bit too much. An ensemble drama about a day in the life of women working in a department store during the Christmas season is not going to delve too deeply into its characters in 82 minutes. But the truncated episodes epitomize a key virtue of British cinema, "the virtue of self-restraint, which was taken in Britain to imply that you did not encroach upon the territory - including the psychic and social territory - of others" (23)* The drama here stems so deeply from the saleswomen's difficulty in maintaining a private life that a synopsis seems like a tacky encroachment. So in the spirit of the film, I'll refrain from revealing their secrets. But at every turn, the frame is crowded with watching and prying.
Guillermin imbues the act with a noirish sense of villainy.

And instead of conferring power upon the characters, his low angles reveal them at their most hounded and observed.
The very act of observing (indeed, the very act of cinema itself) starts to feel indecent, unearned.

But Guillermin balances the film's visual scheme with warmer moments of looking. Sometimes the noir lighting affords a character her hard-won privacy.
And sometimes characters (and Guillermin's camera) look not with encroachment but rather sympathy and restraint.
In this respect, the department store mannequins are less symbols of retail dehumanization than humane models of mute witnessing.
If this all sounds so terribly British, well, it is. But uniquely so, much more complex and divided than most assume about British cinema. So in closing, I invoke Charles Barr's insightful summation of the tensions animating films like The Crowded Day

“It is as though a social world were distinguished from an imaginative world, with different rules governing them. The social world elicits the ‘aloof,’ objective look, which can be (Ray’s term) dehumanized, but can also enact a moving respect and concern for people; the imaginative world is viewed from a different position and its rules are those of subjectivity and stylization. Hence the need to hold in the mind together, as ‘British cinema,’ the modes of observation and interiority, of transparency and self-reflexivity, of sobriety and excess; Grierson and Loach, but also Powell and Hitchcock; and, in production and criticism alike, an instrumentalist indifference to the medium as such, but also a passionate interest in it.” 24
                                          What is that thing glowing on the right?

*“Introduction: Amnesia and Schizophrenia.” In All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. Ed. Charles Barr. London: British Film Institute, 1986. Pp. 1-29. Barr is quoting Daniel Snowman here.