Thursday, March 31, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's Place in the Sun

You can mourn in a number of ways.

Douglas produced a DVD of A Place in the Sun which we had in the stockpile.

There was nothing on television so we started to watch it.

It's aged rather well. I'd forgotten about Montgomery Clift and how he mastered the art of making a
face be a river of emotions. It was called method acting and I think he kind of introduced it on film.

He was 29ish when he made the film and he plays a lean hungry young man who is tangentially related to
a rich classy American family.

The film was made in the early 1950s when America was never more confident (and paranoid.)

And Liz was seventeen...

She plays an enticing society girl who has everything and wants what she can't have...

But it's the dance and kissing sequence I want to talk about.

Liz is almost staggeringly beautiful. She's so beautiful it makes you
weep. (Black and white helps too as it makes her skin so beautifully white and the lashes and hair coaldust black.)
Her waist is incredibly small, she is dressed spectacularly.

I also think she spontaneously responded to the high artifice of Clift's method acting so she suddenly became real on screen.

In the shot Monty and Liz dance together and move into a clinch. The shot is extremely tight. On a massive
screen it must have been mesmeric. It is hypnotic. At times you can't see much because of Clift's shoulder which rises in the shot with the beautiful slow motion of a fan unfolding. Elizabeth's face becomes cut off, so all you see are eyes, eyelashes.

But what's wonderful is when Elizabeth says suddenly, looking directly into the camera - 'They're looking at us!', (meaning everyone at the dance they're attending) and they break out of the clinch and go out onto an outside balcony to continue kissing.

'You can be my pick up. Come to mama.'

That moment when she looks directly into the lens is pure cinematic magic. (As are the series of shots arranged round it, some of the most sumptuous and erotic shots in the history of cinema.)

She revealed later that it was only the second time in her life she had had a long erotic kiss and she said the on-screen kiss, of the two, was the better.

This is Hollywood gossip, I know.

But I so wished there was a cinema somewhere that could throw George Steven's A Place in the Sun back on the silver screen so we could all lose ourselves in that mismatch between faces the size of a two-storey house and ourselves just fading in the dark to a heartbeat.... 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell Liz the Great

I always listen to the 7am news on the radio. It's what wakes me up. This morning the seventh or eighth item was the news that Elizabeth Taylor had died. The commentator seemed to have trouble deciding why she was famous. She was the star of 'National Velvet' but her eight marriages got equal billing. 

By 8.30am the news bulletins were starting to get it right. Elton John called her ‘a giant of Hollywood’ but more importantly, ‘an amazing human being’.

It seemed fitting that a gay man should be the one to hit the nail on the head. Elizabeth Taylor was a lot of gay men’s (imaginary) best friend. This was for a number of reasons. She was both magnificent and tragic in some senses, in that she never ‘found true happiness’. (Cliche.) She starred in huge camp vehicles like 'Cleopatra' but tore the screen apart in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ . Yet it was the isolation of her bravery in advocating support for men with Aids that made her immensely popular. 

You have to remember she did this when Aids was ‘a death sentence’ as newspapers delighted in saying. There was no cure and young men all over the world suddenly became old, then died, usually of an appalling mixture of complaints. Television talked in terms of plague and a whole stigmatising wave of puritanism swept round the world.

It was a brave woman who stood forward at this time and said that people had to relearn how it is to be human in face of an unknown and terrifying disease. She appeared at rallies. She spoke to vast sullen crowds energising them. 

This was not a Hollywood gesture. It was not fake or serendipitous. She wasn’t doing it ‘for a good cause’. She had seen her friend Rock Hudson lose his name as well as his life when he suddenly ceased being a Hollywood star and became ‘a contaminated Aids victim’ in media feeding frenzy.

She showed incredible guts.

For this I could forgive her just about anything.

And then there were the films.....

I went with my brother and our tomboy friend to the Plaza Cinema in Queen Street which had been redecorated specially for the premiere of 'Cleopatra' in about 1962.  

'Cleopatra' was a news event film ‘the most expensive film ever made’. It was also the most boring. Our best’s friend’s chair was broken and the length and boredom of the film only made the wrecked chair more tortuous.

The next time I was aware of her I was an out gay man at university being educated by friends who seemed so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than me. They said ‘I had to see’ Liz as we all called her in ‘Virginia Woolf’ as we called the film. 

There, dishevelled, alcoholic, fat and magnificent she came alive as a consummate screen actress. The words ‘clink clink’ as she wandered drunk across a night time lawn (after the ice in her empty glass) became a favourite term.

It meant: I’m lost but found. I’m wandering in a fog. Is there anyone else out there?

It was the kind of semaphore you love when you’re in your early twenties and worry alot about falling in love.

Next in my education was 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.  You have to see that. 

This was probably my definitive Elizabeth Taylor film. She was ravishingly beautiful - probably never more gorgeous. Her white dress was a classic. And her paradox - the most beautiful woman in the world married to a gay man who doesn't find her desirable - seemed evocative, full of tristesse. 

There was also that thin high note in her voice when she got mad. She was completely winning.

So when I heard she’d died I thought quickly of all those personal memories and felt a little sad. 

On the other hand, she was memorable and in some senses magnificent.

(I wish I had a photo to post of her because that really says it all.) 

Farewell Liz the Magnificent.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On being Squeezed

This month has been Book Month which is a laudable venture at a time when books seem under such challenge. There have been talks all over the country. I went to one myself, when Dame Fiona Kidman talked in Hastings. It was a personable talk, one of those events where readers get the chance to encounter a working writer and try to work out the strange strategyms that a writer takes over the long distance journey of a work.
Because books do take time. Even the fastest written books take about three to eight weeks to actually just physically write. And authors who manage this feat usually have years behind them in preparation, pre-thought - a kind of stopped up energy which, once released, fleets away like a hare.
Most books usually take two to three years, a fact which astonishes most people. This is why authors are generally not rich people. It takes so long and the financial results are so poor that - if you were being paid by the hour - it would be cents rather than dollars.
But that is what you put up with in order to have the intense pleasure of a work which involves long consecutive thought.
It is like going on a journey - a long and exciting exhausting journey to an unknown destination.
I mention all this because on Friday I heard something which really disturbed me.
It was on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand, which is generally an information-rich programme which takes a certain level of intelligence for granted. If that sounds snobbish, sorry, but that’s the truth and the beauty of it. Every society needs such forum if a society is to progress.
  What disturbed me was that Charlotte Randall’s latest novel Hokita Town was being reviewed. As a fellow-novelist I was interested, maybe even competitively. I respected Charlotte. After all, she had won the country’s top fiction prize, which made her the equivalent of an All-Black. 
  Unfortunately the review was squeezed out by the kind of story which clogs up the stratosphere. This was a moving story of someone who had had a double lung transplant and who had ended up being, we were told, an opera singer
Good on her. 
There are uplifting stories on people like her in women’s magazines (usually with horrific photos), on 20/20, on just about every format you can think of.
The story obviously had such legs that she was allowed to talk for much longer than her alloted time. (She was meant to finish at 10.30am. She was still talking at 10.42am)
Then we had to hear the evidence that she was actually a singer, which meant a not very convincing voice singing not very good lyrics which took up even more time.
As I say, good on her, it’s uplifting and maybe we all need good news at the moment.
But the outcome was a disgrace.
A book which would have taken one of the top writers in the country several years to write was very quickly - and I’m afraid - inadequately reviewed.
(The reviewer knew alot about gold rushes on the West Coast but didn’t realise you never reveal major plot points, let alone all the plot points and outcomes of a novel.)
After all, narrative tension depends on not knowing what comes next.
Katherine Ryan seemed distracted and didn’t leap in to stop him. And then suddenly it was all over.
A major work by a major New Zealand writer had been dustbinned in a few minutes. (I hasten to add, he basically gave the book a thumbs up.)
Radio New Zealand and Nine to Noon is one of the most important marketing venues for literate New Zealanders.
That it happened in Book Month just revealed the way books get squeezed out in our society.
I know it was, to a degree, unavoidable. The opera singer’s story was too good not to be juiced half to death.
But I ask you: surely in Book Month isn’t it just the time every book lover expects the whistle to be blown and for a little bit of respectful coverage given to one of the serious contenders in book culture in New Zealand premiering a new work?