Finally, A Film Worth Seeing: Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”

May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir”

Note: This post contains plot spoilers.

Normally I see scores of movies in theaters each year, so it was odd to realize I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen one on a big screen. Comfort and convenience were part of my reason for staying in, but mainly there was nothing I wanted to see. Superhero movies bore me; horror isn’t my thing, and the rest of the offerings were far less compelling than HBO’s “Barry,” or any number of shows streaming on Netflix and Amazon.

ArcLight Hollywood, for many years my second home, apparently took note of my absence. In March I got an email reading, “We notice that you haven’t used your ArcLight membership recently,” but their offer of a discount in the cafe wasn’t inducement enough to return when there was nothing to see.

Then last week, as I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever go to the movies again, a film opened that actually interested me. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” about a doomed first relationship, is a romance like no other, an autobiographical story layered with documentary footage and stills, historical and cultural markers and echos of earlier psychological dramas. The result is a far richer and more complex film than the well-trod story line–naive young woman gets involved with older, troubled man–would suggest. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

Set in England in the early to mid-1980’s, “The Souvenir” follows Julie, a privileged, unworldly young film student, through a multi-year affair with Anthony, a worldly, decade older art historian (and Foreign Office employee, or so he says) who casts himself as her intellectual and sexual mentor. Anthony is pompous toff imbued with the confidence of a first-class education (Cambridge and, before that, Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school whose silver-buttoned blue uniform coat he ostentatiously wears as a robe around Julie’s fancy Knightsbridge flat). Despite his generally condescending attitude, Julie is smitten.

As weekend visits to their families make clear, Julie’s background is considerably wealthier than Anthony’s, but her lack of confidence and sophistication make her his social inferior. Though 21 or 22, Julie is so green that she tries to make a film about a subject she knows nothing about: an impoverished, soon-to-be orphaned boy in Sunderland, a northern city hollowed out by the demise of its shipbuilding industry. Her cluelessness extends to Anthony, whose deceit and drug addiction Julie fails to notice even after seeing track marks on his arm. Not until a friend of Anthony’s explicitly says so does Julie realize her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and even then she seems in need of a diagram.

From that point, things go from bad to worse before reaching a predictable conclusion, but Julie and Anthony’s dysfunctional love story is not what makes “The Souvenir” remarkable. Rather, it’s the details: snippets of radio broadcasts that firmly place the film in the Thatcher years; the archival footage and stills of London and Sunderland, shot by Hogg herself; Julie’s brief punk rock interruption of Anthony’s classical music; the IRA bombing of Harrod’s, whose lighted facade Julie can see from her window. At other times, “The Souvenir” skillfully evokes past eras: in London Julie and Anthony dine among older couples in elegant rooms untouched by time, and travel to Venice by train. In the beautiful Venetian sequence–which Hitchcock would have loved–Julie wears a custom-made silk travel suit and a taffeta ballgown straight out of the 1930’s.

The other reason to see “The Souvenir” is the acting. Though Tom Burke is excellent as Anthony, he’s outshone by Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie in a watchful, nuanced way that is all the more impressive given her lack of previous acting experience. While it’s true that she is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Swinton Byrne doesn’t resemble her mother physically or technically. She is distinct, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.

Yet the greatest revelation of “The Souvenir” is Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind. When I last saw her, in “Suspiria,” Swinton played three major roles: a Pina Bausch-like dance teacher, an elderly male psychiatrist and the monstrous un-dead founder of the German dance company where the story takes place. In the latter two roles she was completely unrecognizable, but in “The Souvenir” Swinton plays a character from her own aristocratic world: a wealthy wife and mother with beautiful manners, a large country house and a London pied-à-terre. She’s kind of woman who, when she comes up to London to visit her daughter, casually brings along one of her dogs. With her ladylike voice, gently curled grey hair, cashmere sweaters and tartan skirts, Swinton transforms herself into someone we haven’t seen her play before: the woman she was brought up to be, and whom she rejected. In a career full of acting feats, Rosalind might be one of Swinton’s greatest creations.

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It’s in the Genes: The Importance of Hollywood’s Multi-Generational Film Workers

May 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

Jessie Giacomazzi (top), Bill Hader and Stephen Root in “Barry,” Season 2, Episode 5

In the 1990’s, as studios and networks moved productions from Los Angeles to cheaper locations in other states and abroad, I asked an actress friend how she liked shooting in Vancouver. “Everything takes so much longer,” she sighed. “In LA the crews have worked in movies for generations, but there everyone’s new to the job.” She went to explain that a grip or cameraman whose father and grandfather worked on movies, often in the same job, had an inbred knowledge of the craft that a first-generation worker didn’t. Less efficient sets and longer workdays were the latter’s result.

I was reminded of this conversation last Sunday night, while watching the latest installment of Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO. A brilliant, almost entirely action-oriented episode, “ronny/lily” depicts Barry’s attempt to persuade the Tae Kwon Do expert he was blackmailed into killing to flee to Chicago instead. After pretending to agree to his would-be assassin’s scheme, Ronny attacks Barry in an extended fight that ends in Barry snapping his windpipe. Bloodied and reeling from the struggle, Barry is then confronted by Ronnny’s daughter Lily, a martial arts fighter so fierce that she stabs Barry and later takes a chunk out of the cheek of Fuchs (Stephen Root), his business manager. “What are you?” screams Fuchs, as Lily scampers up a tree. The girl then leaps onto a roof where she crouches like a gargoyle, snarling at her terrified victims.

The next day I read Hader’s account in the New York Times of discovering Jessie Giacomezzi, the young actress/stuntperson who plays Lily:

Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, told me: “Hey, if you ever need a little girl to do stunts, I know this girl Jessie. Her parents are both stunt people, and she’s amazing. I just worked with her on a commercial, and she can do fights, and she’s a gymnast.”

It didn’t surprise me that both of Jessie’s parents did stunt work; in fact, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. In an industry filled with multi-generational experts, stunt people are most likely to follow their family’s occupation. In doing so, they carry not only their forebearers’ talent and experience but also the history of filmmaking.

The first stuntmen were Silent Era equestrians and high fallers who went on to execute feats with cars, planes and explosives. In time they passed on their skills to their children and grandchildren.The most famous example is the Epper family. Its patriarch, a former Swiss cavalry officer, supplied horses for Silent Era movies and did riding stunts for Gary Cooper and other stars of the 1930s and 40s. His six children, including three girls, grew up to ride, drive, fight and jump in movies, and include the most famous stunt people of their generation. The current crop of Eppers is the fourth generation to work in movies; presumably there will be a fifth. Incredibly, given their numbers–approaching twenty–no Epper has died in the workplace. (Not as lucky were scores of other film workers whose injuries are detailed here: spreadsheets.latimes.com/film-set-accidents/ )

TV and movie production was lured away Los Angeles because Canada and other countries–as well as states like Georgia and North Carolina–offered significant cuts in taxes and labor costs. These savings came a price. Lighting and dressing sets, setting and operating cameras and executing stunts are painstaking, laborious jobs that require expertise and experience. By discounting the importance filmmaking tradition, Hollywood bean counters reaped short term profits at the expense of many, including the very families whose work built the movie industry–and, by extension, Los Angeles.

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