The films of Woody Allen

Woody is 79 (b.1 December 1935), has made well over 40 films (as well as writing all those books and plays and TV scripts), and is still making them at a prodigious rate: last year Cate Blanchett won best actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine and he has two more films scheduled for release this year. Woody Allen filmography. His has been an extraordinary career, packed with amazing achievements in a range of forms – standup, TV, movies, theatre, books.

My kids bought me a big box set of Woody Allen movies, I bought a few more, and set out to watch as many as I could in chronological order:

1965 What’s New Pussycat? OK, it’s dated, and Allen wanted it removed from his oeuvre – but with loads of great scenes and with Peter Sellars and Peter O’Toole and that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Richard Burton, and Ursula Andress parachuting into a sports car, come on, it’s great! My son loved the climax at the go-kart chase. I loved Peter Sellars’ half hearted attempt to give himself a Viking suicide on the banks of the Seine until Woody turns up with a midnight feast.

‘Get a sports car!’
‘But I can’t drive.’
‘So you knock down a few people – but you’ll get the girl!’

  • 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
  • 1967 Casino Royale
  • 1969 Don’t Drink the Water
  • 1969 Take the Money and Run

1971 Bananas (Colour) A series of great sketches loosely tied round the story of chaotic nerd Fielding Melish who winds up helping guerrillas overthrow the dictator of a fictitious Latin American country. When he makes love to his girlfriend as Melish, she always says’There was something missing’. A lot later, he bumps into her on his US tour masquerading as the great Latin leader, they to go bed, he eventually reveals who he is and she says: ‘I knew there was something missing’. the film climaxes with an excruciatingly unfunny scene where they get married and go to bed and a real US boxing commentator commentates on their pantomime love-making. Amateurish, endearing. (82 minutes)

  • ‘I love leprosy, cholera, all the major infectious skin diseases.’
  • The spoof ad with the Catholic priest: ‘New Testament cigarettes. I smoke ’em. [points up to heaven] He smokes ’em.’

1972 Play It Again, Sam

1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) Every bit as cringeworthy as the title suggests, it’s a set of sketches cobbled together rather like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and just as uneven. The standout sketch is the one of Gene Wilder as a serious NY doctor who… falls in love with a sheep! (86 minutes)

1973 Sleeper (Colour) Very funny comedy about Miles Monroe who wakes up from a coma to discover it’s 200 years in the future and, as a reawakened sleeper, he is wanted by the Police State which now runs America. The giant banana skin, the orgasmotron. Diane Keaton with her kooky charm (or lack of it) plays the brainwashed woman who holds absurd art parties until she sees the light and becomes an ardent revolutionary. (88 minutes)

  • Face the fact that everyone you knew has been dead for nearly 200 years.’
    ‘But they all ate organic rice!’
  • ‘Hello I’m Rex. Woof woof woof.’

1975 Love and Death (Colour) Spoof on all those Russian novelists. Diane Keaton is the woman Boris Grushenko (Allen) loves but can never attain. Starts with hilarious satire on the doltish Russian family, mutates into what must have been very expensive battle scenes with thousands of extras in costume, before becoming a bedroom farce as they try to assassinate Napoleon. Bit painful. (85 minutes)

‘You remember how to have sex, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time practising, when I’m alone.’

1976 The Front Long one about a 1950s cashier (Howard Prince – Woody) who is approached by one of the scriptwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era to act as a ‘front’ through which they can continue to sell their work to the TV networks. The film is in a worthy cause – ie reviving memories of this bitter time – and the credits mention that many of the producers and actors in it themselves experienced blacklisting only 25 years earlier. But the emotional core of the piece is (presumably) meant to be the Zero Mostel character who is hounded to his death by the McCarthites. Unfortunately, Zero is, alas, a poor or very stylised actor, whose predicament evoked embarrassment rather than sympathy in this viewer. Similarly, the love interest – Andrea Marcovicci – is (presumably) meant to represent a serious strand in the film: she falls in love with Woody the writer and is inspired by his integrity to resign her job from the network – only to discover he is a fraud. Unfortunately, she is acting opposite the essentially lightweight Allen and so these scenes, also, do not gel.

One of the rare Woody movies which he didn’t write; an interesting attempt to be a dramatic actor in someone else’s script – which doesn’t really come off. And the payoff line, where Woody tells the committee to go —- themselves? In the real world you don’t get the last laugh against people like that. And certainly not in a ‘serious’ movie. The film fails to convey the real sense of fear and helplessness which the memoirs of the period reek of. (95 minutes)

1977 Annie Hall (Colour) Apotheosis of Diane Keaton and a film which wonderfully balances inventive, funny sketches (the scene on the balcony where their nervous conversation is subtitled with their real thoughts) with something a little deeper about relationships and love. In retrospect, the whiny, needy Allen character (Alvy Singer) is becoming irritating. Nausheous, as he would say. (93 minutes)

  • ‘There’s an old joke: there’s two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills and one says, Isn’t the food here disgusting? and the other says, yes and such small portions!’
  • ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t do teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
  • ‘It’s OK I’ll walk to the kerb.’
  • ‘I’m due back on planet earth now, Dwayne.’
  • ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I really love.’

1978 Interiors (Colour) Brave failure. Attempt to show a WASP family disintegrating, but the acting is strangely stylised. I don’t believe the paterfamilias at all, and much if not all of the dialogue is wooden. Maybe it’s meant to be as stylised as the empty, heartlessly immaculate interiors of the big family house by the sea where the intensely unhappy drama plays out. The father has abandoned his middle-aged wife who is breaking down as a result. Their three adult daughters struggle to cope and argue spitefully with each other. A deliberate attempt by Diane Keaton, and Allen, to shake off the kooky image of Annie Hall. (99 minutes)

1979 Manhattan (Black and white) Brilliant. The idea came from wanting to film Manhattan to the music of George Gershwin and it succeeds spectacularly. OK we’re back with Allen playing the needy, whiny, self-obsessed, amoral lead character, a man with no restraint or self-discipline who cruelly manipulates his 17 year-old lover. But it looks great. Meryl Streep is powerful as the venomous, humourless lesbian ex-wife who is writing a warts-and-all account of their marriage. (96 minutes)

1980 Stardust Memories (Black and white) Brilliant. The account of a famous film director at a weekend festival dedicated to his work in a faded holiday resort. He’s whiny, needy and wildly erratic in his pursuit of multiple women, who include his neurotic wife (Charlotte Rampling), a French woman, a foxy student. Those scenes highlight the rather tiresome Allen needy narcissism. What makes the film it visionary is the portrayal of the circus freaks who populate the rest of the film, his agents, the Hollywood producers, his fans, and the characters in his persuasive nightmares. And Rampling’s performance as the neurotic wife going mad has rare power. (88 minutes)

1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Colour) Brilliant. Touching, funny, beautifully shot in upstate New York countryside. The 1910s setting is great. The house in upstate New York is wonderfully picturesque. Jose Ferrer as the pompous professor is greatly funny. The use of Mendelssohn’s music throughout is inspired, the obvious counterpart to Gershwin in Manhattan. And the Allen character – for once not too whiny-needy – is a crackpot inventor who gives the movie a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feel, a real magical realism tone to what is at core a familiar story of characters all being in love with the wrong person. It’s the first of a run of 13 movies which feature Mia Farrow, his muse in the 1980s as Keaton had been in the 1970s. (88 minutes)

1983 Zelig – disappointing. Black and white spoof documentary about fictional character Zelig, an odd patient who turns into the people he’s with ie believes he’s a doctor among doctors, becomes black among blacks, Scottish among Scots and so on. The film tries to persuade us he became a phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s with songs and dances and movies about him. Allen persuaded Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Bruno Bettelheim to take part, giving interviews as if about a real man. But the central premise isn’t strong enough to carry any of this. ‘He just wanted to fit in.’ Is that it? I was hoping it would say something about the politics or society of the time. Instead it said nothing at all and dwindled down into the love affair between Zelig and his pretty doctor, played by Mia Farrow. (79 minutes)

1984 Broadway Danny Rose (Black and white) Love the setup of a tableful of middle-aged comics who get round to reminiscing about the heroic loser agent of the title played by Allen. Manages to be dramatic and very funny as the Allen character (Broadway Danny Rose) has to go to great lengths to get the trashy mistress of his one and only decent act to attend his breakthrough singing opportunity – but his efforts draw the attention of the Mafia. It’s worth it for the scene of the party sad Danny has in his crappy apartment with his terrible acts, the blind xylophonist, the bird act with one dead parrot etc. The role of Tina Vitale, the trashy tramp tied up with the mob is, maybe, Mia Farrow’s best performance, because so unlike her usual thoughtful, timid characters. (84 minutes)

  • ‘I don’t want to badmouth the kid – but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse, and I say that with all due respect.’
  • ‘Lou you’ve got a wife!’
    ‘Yeah, but this is different – I’m in love!’
  • ‘He’s cheating with you. He has integrity. He only cheats with one woman at a time.’

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Mia Farrow is married to a wife-beater in some crap industrial city during the Depression, whose only solace is going to the movies. Until one day the romantic lead steps down from the screen and woos her, leading to all kinds of comic scenarios. Eventually, the actor who plays the errant character flies out from Hollywood to confront his alter ego. Good example of an Allen movie which feels like an extended sketch and runs out of steam well before its (surprisingly downbeat) ending. ‘I’m married. I’ve met a wonderful man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.’ (82 minutes)

Some thoughts Many of these movies begin to flag about 40, 45 minutes in. I read he had trouble completing sketches for Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex and one or more of the others. It shows. So many of these films begin brightly with interesting setups and characters and the first few developments being funny or dramatic… but then run out of steam. Most of them struggle to last an hour and twenty minutes and that’s with numerous musical interludes. Take the music out and they’d be closer to an hour ten. At which point you wonder whether, with a bit of tighter editing, they’d make really punchy hour-long dramas…

1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Colour) The first one which feels like an ensemble piece, with the dramatic plotlines shared among four or five characters, each given a fair share of development. And which features an English male actor. I remember liking this a lot in the cinema when it came out, it seemed like a breath of fresh air, tackling the real lives of realistic people. Now it feels dated. Michael Caine is not convincing as a financial advisor who develops a crush on his wife’s sister, inveigles her into an affair, and then is overcome with regret. His voiceover narrative is stifled and unnatural. Max von Sydow, who we revered in his Continental films, is wasted as Barbara Hershey’s older, artist, husband. (106 mins)

1987 Radio Days (Colour) Excellent. A reversion to comedy, a lovely memoir of childhood in Rockaway, New Jersey during the Depression in a big Jewish family full of characters and love and arguments, all neatly threaded round the theme of the radio programmes and songs they loved to listen to. The strand devoted to Dianne Wiest as ditzy Auntie Bea, always unlucky in her endless quest for a husband, is wonderful. Heart-warming. (85 minutes)

‘When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about classical music: I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’

1987 September (Colour) Couldn’t be more unlike the above: it is shot almost exclusively inside one house in the country where Mia Farrow’s character has fled after a suicide attempt, with a would-be novelist for a lodger who she adores but who has fallen in love with her best friend, Dianne Wiest’s Steph. The film covers the long weekend when her overbearing mother, a former starlet (Elaine Strich), comes to stay with her current boyfriend. More like a Tennessee Williams drama with scenes of real intensity, and a wonderful performance by Dianne Wiest, miles away from ditzy Aunt Bea of its predecessor, showing real range and ability. The token English actor in this one is Denholm Elliott touchingly (but wildly improbably) in love with Mia Farrow. (82 minutes)

1987 King Lear – can’t get hold of.

1988 Another Woman (Colour) A wonderful study of Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) a successful philosophy professor who, through a freak of acoustics, can overhear the therapist next door from her workroom, and one particular patient (Mia Farrow) whose frank discussion of her failing marriage, worries about life etc strike an unexpected chord and, along with other revelations, lead Marion to reconsider her whole life. Not really an ensemble piece but all the other characters have real depth and development and it builds to a warm and glowing conclusion. Wonderful. Adult. Life-affirming. The token Brit is Ian Holm, more at home than Michael Caine was in this milieu, as Marion’s successful but distant cardiologist husband. (84 Minutes)

1989 New York Stories What a great idea: a story each by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody about the city that never sleeps.  What a stinker it turns out to be! The Scorsese one is sustained by Nick Nolte’s performance as a big shot, loudmouth artist, but suffers from typical Scorsese technical tricks and a whining performance by Rosanna Arquette as the tiresome Muse. The Coppola one is dire, presumably meant to be a charming tale of New York rich kids which hangs on the central performance of a 12 year-old girl who, unfortunately, proves Coppola’s gift for heroic miscasting. It was co-written with his daughter, and the music was provided by his wife. Uh-huh. Dire. The Woody Allen piece – Oedipus Wrecks – is the least bad, as Allen plays a middle-aged Jewish man harassed by his overbearing mother who, after a freak accident, becomes a vast figure in the sky telling the whole of New York about her son’s bedwetting. Genuinely funny and touching.

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors (Colour) the tale of a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau), his brother the rabbi who is going blind, and his other brother, the no-goodnik who consorts with criminals. His mistress (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. When she threatens to also spill the beans about his embezzlements, Landau mentions his plight to his rough brother, who promptly arranges for Anjelica to be murdered. Threaded through is the comic strand of Woody as a failed arthouse documentary director, in the shadow of his super-successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, sheepishly falling in love with Mia Farrow’s assistant producer. I remember liking this in the cinema. On the small screen it didn’t quite ring true. The scenes where Landau revisits his childhood home and sees himself as a child listening to the big family discussions about God and the Meaning of Life are clever and should be touching. But ultimately I didn’t believe it, any of it, didn’t believe Angelica Huston as the weepy vengeful mistress, didn’t believe Landau could seriously countenance her murder. It was too schematic, the actors felt too much like puppets being manipulated to bring out Woody’s familiar obsessions: is there a God or is it all just meaningless random suffering. There are quite a few, more sophisticated, less black-and-white, ways to look at the world… (104 minutes)

1990 Alice (Colour) Satire about an upper-class New York wife of a super-rich banker (Mia Farrow), their sterile, pampered life, and her awakening triggered by bumping into an attractive musician at her children’s prep school, this coinciding with her starting treatment with an unusual Chinese herbalist. In the end her conventional life falls to pieces and she has to confront her freedom, which she uses to become a ‘charriddy’ worker with foreign kids. Just as Mia Farrow has done in real life. (102 minutes)

Magical realism In Alice the heroine is given potions by her Chinese practitioner which make her invisible, let her see ghosts, and fly over New York. It’s undermentioned in the reviews – which always reference Woody’s gags, his Jewishness, New York, his love of jazz, the devotion to Ingmar Bergman etc – that there’s a transformative magic in many of these movies. It’s there in the earliest sketches, which are frequently fantastical or non-realist eg the scenes in Annie Hall where he talks to figures from the past. (This scene – the relived Jewish childhood – dominates Radio Days and features in even such a serious movie as Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Oedipus Wrecks is obviously light-hearted but the way his mother appears as a giant presence in the sky is magical, visionary. The entire premise of The Purple Rose of Cairo is that the characters in a film can climb down out of the movie screen, an entirely magical scenario. Zelig is magical in that Zelig changes anatomy to fit in with his contexts. And, charmingly and wonderfully, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy features not only Andrew the inventor’s flying machine but his strange device for seeing ectoplasm, for visualising ghosts and memories. In Mighty Aphrodite the Greek chorus punctuate the action, appearing in New York settings and having knock-down arguments with the Allen character, a dead man talks to him, fiction confusingly infects ‘real life’ as stories he’s written are dramatised and interact with the situations and people who inspired them. In Deconstructing Harry various characters the writer has created come to life and talk to him in a thorough interweaving of fact and fiction and, strangely, visionarily, Robin Williams’ character becomes blurred, soft, out-of-focus in real life. In Shadows and Fog Armstad the Magician drags Kleinman into the mirror before capturing the murderer in a magic cage. One character coments: ‘Everyone loves his illusions.’ ‘Loves them? They need them – like the air.’

Magical realism is a strong, wonderful, redemptive strand throughout Woody Allen’s movies.

1991 Scenes from a Mall (Colour) Poor. Woody only co-stars in this, the first film he hadn’t written, produced or directed since The Front. The screenplay is by Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky and directed by Mazursky, so we’re at liberty to find it much more conventional than a Woody movie. No magical realism, for example. Just a straight account of sports lawyer Woody married to relationship counsellor Bette Midler in LA, they see the kids off on a holiday, and go shopping to the mall on their 16th wedding anniversary where he confesses to having an affair – and the sheepdip hits the fan. This really isn’t funny. No laughs at all. Just a spoilt American couple behaving like fickle 12-year-olds and mistaking their callow superficiality for emotions, for life. (89 minutes)

1991 Shadows and Fog (Black and white) This is really odd. An hommage to the black and white Expressionist films of Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, set one night in a fantasy Mitteleuropean city between the Wars – not unlike the Transylvania of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) – all set to the lively Weimar music of Kurt Weill. A murderer is on the loose and Kleinman (Woody) is woken from a deep sleep into a Kafkaesque nightmare where mobs of humourless vigilantes at first recruit him for their unspecified plan and then, inevitably, come to suspect him and then chase him. Why? And what is the subplot about Mia Farrow and John Malkovitch as performers in the circus who split up and have various adventures on this ill-fated night? The film is trying to be three different things: a hommage to intense European movies (fail); a nightmare of antisemitic Kafkaism (some moments of real menace); but throughout it the Woody character wisecracks as if in one of his earliest slapstick efforts (occasionally funny, sure, but mostly wildly out of place, badly undermining the previous two themes.) And, surreally, the pop star Madonna appears as the vamp at the circus. Random. Unsuccessful. (85 minutes)

  • ‘Misky is a craftsman. He performs wonderful circumcisions. I’ve seen a lot of his work.’
  • ‘They found me earlier in a whorehouse.’
    ‘Well, I’m not one to knock a person’s hobbies.’

1992 Husbands and Wives (Colour) Supposedly a serious look at two couples, played by Woody as a literature professor and wife Mia Farrow, and their best friends played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. JD and SP having a trial separation during which they experiment with inappropriate partners (Liam Neeson and Blythe Danner) with lots of shouting at each other, before reconciling at the end; whereas Woody and Mia genuinely split up as he flirts with one his students and she falls in love with tall, dark, handsome Liam. The affairs aren’t even about life-enhancing sex, as all the characters experience some kind of sexual problem. The whole tedious farrago appears to be an unintended advert for how emotionally incontinent a certain kind of rich, American, East Coast liberal is. If I hear one more character say, ‘I’m so confused,’ I’m going to throw a brick at the screen. With adulthood come responsibilities, duties, and lots of work. These characters in gilded cages have pretend jobs which are window-dressing for the same endless, agonised dialogues of the deaf. ‘I think I still have feelings for Michael.’ ‘I think I have feelings for you/you have feelings for me/we all have feelings for the sofa/do you still have feelings for the shower-curtain?’ I couldn’t wait for it to end. Technique: shaky handheld camera throughout, copying its introduction into TV series in the late 1980s. (108 minutes)

Mia and Woody Vast amounts have been written about the breakdown of Woody and Mia’s relationship. This timeline establishes a few facts. For some people the revelations about Woody’s behaviour expose him as a bad guy, as fundamentally immoral. I am slow to condemn the artwork because of the ‘morality’ of the artist. Whose morality? If we systematically applied the ‘moral standards’ of 2014 (whatever they are) to artists of the past, who would escape a whipping, etc? Nonetheless, for me, in a more limited way, they undermine the claim so many of the movies make to be serious analyses of morality: even in the funny early ones the narrator is agonising about what is right, what is true, what should I do? The revelations about his private life which emerged at this period introduce the fatal doubt that Woody’s entire oeuvre is not about one auteur’s quest for wisdom, insight, moral certainty or whatever – it is in fact one long demonstration of the director’s inability to understand morality. Husbands and Wives, which was received as a peak of his mature style, now looks like the latest iteration of the tiresomely repetitive, self-centred, narcissistic inability of all most of his main characters to demonstrate any backbone, sense of duty or decency. Again and again the characters screw up their lives through a basic inability to think and behave like responsible adults. Eventually it gets tiresome.

1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery Not in the box set.

1994 Bullets Over Broadway (Colour) Very funny premise. Not quite such a funny movie, in practice. – It’s the 1920s, Prohibition and gangsters. John Cusack’s nerdy, angsty playwright (now who could that be based on?) is convinced he’s written a masterpiece. To get it performed his producer taps a gangster for funding, which comes with the string that the gangster’s useless girlfriend must be in the cast. Gangster assigns bodyguard Chazz Palminteri to chaperone her. Frustrated by the endless rehearsals he has to sit through, Chazz starts offering his own suggestions. To everyone’s amazement, they turn out to be really good. Meanwhile, Cusack is seduced by legendary Broadway actress (another great performance from Dianne Wiest) who persuades him to beef up her role. As the movie hurtles towards its violent climax, Cusack realises he’s not an artist after all, he is in love with his poor girlfriend, and he wants to return to the simpler countryside where they grew up.

1994 Don’t Drink the Water TV movie.

1995 Mighty Aphrodite (Colour) Woody is married to Helena Bonham Carter. The movie opens with them arguing about whether to have a child just like Woody and Mia argue about whether to have a child in Husbands and Wives. They adopt one, but Woody’s curiosity gets the better of him. He tracks down the birth mother, who turns out to be a sweet-natured, dim call girl (Mira Sorvinho). Woody wisecracks all the way through as if in one of his early films, while everyone else has to be stone cold straight –

‘Be more like the brave Achilles!’
‘Achilles only had an Achilles Ankle, I have a whole Achilles body.’

Poor Helena is thrown away in an underdeveloped sub-plot as she has a sort of fling with the rich backer of her new art gallery. Radiant Claire Bloom apears in a couple of scenes as the mother. Only Mira brings real warmth and depth to her role and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The magical realism/big concept is that from start to finish the movie is punctuated by a full-on Greek chorus who comment on the action, pop up in scenes in New York offices and apartments and, at key moments, burst into cheesy Broadway musical numbers. It’s sort of a good idea but, along with other elements, feels like it was made out of bits of earlier films. Comedy should be funny. This is schematic, a diagram of what should be funny but not funny in practice. And if I see one more married couple ruminating on why their marriage is no longer as passionate as the early days, or hear one more adulterous adult say, ‘I’m so confuuuused,’ I’m going to scream. (95 minutes)

1996 Everyone Says I Love You can’t get.

1997 Deconstructing Harry (Colour) American professional upper-middle class couples being unfaithful to each other. Who cares. As the content of these later films becomes more repetitive and who caresy, the casts become more and more starry: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams appear in this one! Harry Block the eponymous hero betrays every relationship by exploiting it in his fiction. More than once it’s crossed my mind to compare Allen to American supernovelist Philip Roth: both New York/New Jersey Jews, both famous for their neurotic/angsty/Jewish characters and milieu, both trying to escape their early reputation for comedy and aspiring to European seriousness, both staggeringly prolific (Woody 40 movies; Roth 28 novels and five or six story collections) and both getting into trouble for using their real-life relationships in their work. And with both, after reading/watching a few works consecutively, you feel like saying, “Can we open a window? Can we just get some fresh air and sunlight in here?”

‘Your life is nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.’
‘You know in France I could run on that slogan and win!’

A lot of scenes in this film feel reheated. The main plot is Harry’s roadtrip to his old college to get honoured, just as Woody travels to a weekend festival of his films in Stardust Memories. His therapist wife Kirsty Ally rages at him during a therapy session she is running – to the comic distress of the poor patient – just like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives leaving the room to swear down the phone at Woody, before returning to her bewildered date. His roadtrip pal dies in the car and then reappears (dead) in the prison cell:

‘Is it better being dead?’
‘Is it better being dead? Well, you don’t have to do jury service.’

Wasn’t Love and Death full of lines like that? Admittedly, not all of them worked in those early movies, but now hardly any of them do – they seem strangely adrift. Most of these actors are good, serious dramatic actors who bring depth and power to their roles but Woody drifts among them wisecracking and undermining the plausibility and credibility of their scenes. He has a duet with Elizabeth Shue where she’s saying she doesn’t love him any more and is marrying his rival; she plays it straight; he is wisecracking and kvetching all over the place: it’s jarring. It makes you not believe the characters or their dilemmas. Which makes you not care. Which makes it boring.

The scene with Billy Crystal as the Devil in Hell is like a sketch rejected from Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex. They joke about the girls they’ve had sex with: ‘Blind girls, they’re so grateful.’ Ha ha if you’re 15. It’s tired. For a few minutes you’re watching Woody Allen – a man who writes lines which sound as if they’re funny but aren’t – trade gags with Billy Crystal – a man who looks as if he’s being funny, but isn’t.

Technical experiment: there are loads of jump cuts and the deliberate repetition of key shots eg the film opens with Judy Davis stumbling out of a taxi half a dozen times between titles. Presumably this is to emphasise the fictionality, the contrived and created nature of film. (96 minutes)

  • 1998 The Impostors
  • 1999 Sweet and Lowdown
  • 2000 Company Man
  • 2000 Small Time Crook
  • 2000 Picking Up the Pieces
  • 2001 The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
  • 2002 Hollywood Ending
  • 2003 Anything Else
  • 2004 Melinda and Melinda

2005 Match Point (Colour) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ selfish tennis coach character kills his mistress played by Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I don’t find killing pregnant women an agreeable form of entertainment. It’s set in London. What happened to the whiny New York intellectuals locked in their claustrophobic apartments? The settings are bright and shiny and the characters repellent.

  • 2006 Scoop

2007 Cassandra’s Dream (Colour) Again in London. Did Match Point signal the end of Woody movies set in America? South London brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are persuaded by rich uncle Tom Wilkinson to kill an inconvenient business associate. They carry it off, but are racked with guilt. — The script is strangely thin: in particular the dialogue is oddly baroque and stilted. I love Ewan McGregor but found him, like all the other characters, thin and unbelievable. Hundreds of better films have been made about naive young men persuaded against their better judgement to commit murder and then unable to bear the guilt. Didn’t Hitchcock milk this to death in the 1940s and 50s? (110 minutes)

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Colour) Spain. From interviews I gather Woody thinks American no longer appreciates or understands his films. They do better in Europe and he also finds it cheaper and more interesting to film in Europe. And so the thin story of Vicky and Cristina who come to spend two months on vacation in Barcelona, ‘finding themselves’, as so may gap year students before and since have set out to do. Though the main plot is meant to be about art and the artistic temperament, the film is solidly based in a world of very expensive hotels and investment bankers and in almost every scene the characters are drinking wine or cognac from enormous wine glasses. It reeks of luxury and money. Although some characters mention their jobs no-one is shown working – it is a fantasy dreamworld where people just talk about their emotions and feelings and failed marriages and agonise over what love is. As usual. Plot: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) fly to stay with their super-rich friends in Barcelona and are almost immediately propositioned by manly Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He beds the aloof rational Vicky, thus throwing into jeopardy her plans to marry solid, safe investment banker, Doug. He then beds the romantic Cristina which leads to an extended affair during which Juan’s estranged wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz) returns to stay in the house after a suicide attempt. Cristina brings peace to their relationship, both artists flourish, Cristina learns how to become a talented photographer (the directionless woman’s art form par excellence cf Annie Hall) and there are threesomes and lesbian scenes. Eventually Cristina realises this chaotic lifestyle is not for her and, in a climactic scene, Juan is seducing uptight Vicky again when Maria Elena bursts in and starts firing a gun. Both girls realise the error of their ways. The Americans return to their big, rich, stable country leaving the Europeans to their rackety lives.

Like EM Foster’s young ladies returning chastened from Florence or Henry James’s Americans recoiling stung from European imbroglios or any number of well-off people dabbling in Bohemia for thrills and then returning to their secure middle-class existences, this feels like a very old story. Beautifully shot, well acted and completely insubstantial. It won Allen and Cruz a clutch of prizes, critical plaudits and has become one of Allen’s most profitable films.

  • 2009 Whatever Works
  • 2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

2011 Midnight in Paris (Colour) France. Another promising conceit. Owen Wilson is in Paris with his spoiled fiancée, and her corporate executive father and wife. Luxury hotels. best of everything. American money. Owen is a successful Hollywood writer but, of course, believes he has a great novel in him. He goes wandering the streets of Paris and, at midnight, a piece of magical realism occurs: a vintage car from the 1920s appears and invites him in and drives off into 1920s Paris where he goes to parties and bars and the flats of his heroes: in a daze he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Salvador Dali and so on. It is 6th form reading list, it’s like the shelf of an undergraduate from the 1960s come to life. Except. When he meets his heroes – all Owen (the surrogate Woody figure) can talk or think about is – being unfaithful to his fiancée by falling in love with the beautiful young mistress of Picasso. He’s soooooo confuuused. Eventually he realises what was obvious to every viewer after the first few minutes – he’s not suited to his fiancée and they split up; and he meets the gorgeous young woman who owns a second-hand shop on a bridge over the Seine as it starts to rain and they walk off to start a love affair. Like a cliché of the American tourist, Allen has a check list of the artists and writers he has to ‘do’ – and here they all are, carefully chosen for their resemblance to their historic originals – but once he’s there, meeting them, er, what shall we talk about. Questions of technique, history, philosophy, art? Nope. My fiancée doesn’t understand me. I’m soooo confuuuuused.

  • 2012 To Rome with Love
  • 2013 Blue Jasmine
  • 2014 Fading Gigolo
  • 2014 Magic in the Moonlight

Personal favourites

Sleeper, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, Another Woman.

Thanks Woody

Despite the limitations and repetitions which a sustained look at his work tends to bring out, it’s worth paying tribute to an extraordinarily varied and ambitious body of work, and one which contains so many thousands of funny lines, so many powerful scenes, so many visionary flights of fantasy, so much imagination and creativity. Thank you, Woody.

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The Lady in The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

Fictions offer escape. Through figures in the story, through their actions and thoughts, we readers live vicariously, acting out lives and experiences we’ll never have in our ordinary safe existences. In the crudest genres male readers identify with triumphant heroes, with James Bond or Jason Bourne, while women maybe project themselves into attractive heroines or strong clever women like VI Warshawski or older shrewd figures like Miss Marple etc. In fact the range of characters we can identify with is vast, endless, and our attention can wander within any given text, sympathising now with one character, now with another, maybe with many at the same time, maybe dramatising conflicts in our minds and arguing now for one side, now for another.

It used to be argued that the humanising, civilising effect of reading fiction is precisely the way it can help us empathise with others, giving us insights into other lives and beliefs and experiences, opening our hearts, making us better members of an ideal liberal, tolerant, multicultural society. Maybe…

Authorial competence

But we readers not only identify with characters. Implicitly we identify with the author, or the narrator, or the text, while we are reading it. We ‘immerse’ ourselves in a text. We ‘lose ourselves’ in a book. An aspect of this pleasure is savouring not only character and plot, but the skill of the author or narrator and their ability to describe, to evoke in language, to ‘paint’  descriptions of landscape and setting, along with – if it’s that kind of book – their opinions, insights, reflections about life… To identify with what has been called the ‘implied author’ the picture of the person telling the story that we build up as we experience the text.

One distinguishing feature of the crime novel or thriller as a genre is its uncanny precision. The narrator, even if they don’t know everything that’s going to happen, nonetheless situates events in a world dense with precision and certainty. (A symptom of this is the way so many post-war thrillers give precise timings to their narratives. ‘CIA Headquarters Maryland, Thursday, 8.07am‘ is the kind of datestamp you meet in thousands of thrillers.)

Seems to me this precision does at least two things:

  • Its immediate purpose is to give pace to the narrative, a sense of speed and momentum.
  • Just as importantly but maybe less obviously, it offers a deep consolation and reassurance to the reader. Someone is in control. No matter how grisly the events described, the text is policed and ordered (from this perspective the datestamps I mentioned are one of the ways that control is signaled at regular intervals). In a world more than ever beyond the control of us little people, where huge forces seem to overwhelm the average citizen, the precision of the thriller gives the reader a spurious and consoling sense of order and control.

Setting the scenes

There are no datestamps in Chandler, who was writing before their introduction (by whom and when? I wonder). Instead, Chandler’s control is signaled at every point of his prose by its tautness and precision and understatement – qualities which are emphasised by the his occasional deployment of the opposite, the highly-wrought poetry of the similes and metaphors which light his prose like flashes of lightning. This paragraph demonstrates this quality of control – the precise and thorough description – which leads up to a boom-boom punchline.

I went past him through an arcade of speciality shops into a vast black and gold lobby. The Gillerlain Company was on the seventh floor, in front, behind swinging double plate-glass doors bound in platinum. Their reception-room had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner. On tiers and steps and islands and promontories of shining mirror-glass it seemed to contain every fancy bottle and box that has ever been designed. There were creams and powders and soaps and toilet waters for every season and every occasion. There were perfumes in tall thin bottles that looked as if a breath would blow them over and perfumes in little pastel phials tied with ducky satin bows, like little girls at a dancing class. (Ch 1)

Fact, fact, fact, then a dinky – essentially comic – and textbook Chandler simile.

Chandler’s descriptions of interiors

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of eyes in Chandler. In The Lady In The Lake I was struck by the precision of his description of interiors. Of rooms.

The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its grey venetian blinds half-closed to keep out the July glare. Grey drapes matched the grey carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in a corner and a low row of filing cases that exactly matched it. (Ch 2)

He describes every element of the room with factual accuracy and precision. The mess we sloppy unpredictable humans make of our lives may be full of shocks and surprises but the universe in which it all takes place isn’t. It is defined and placed and solid.

I followed him up a flight of heavy wooden steps to the porch of the Kingsley cabin. He unlocked the door and we went into the hushed warmth. The closed-up room was almost hot. The light filtering through the slatted blinds made narrow bars across the floor. The living-room was long and cheerful and had Indian rugs, padded mountain furniture with metal-strapped joints, chintz curtains, a plain hardwood floor, plenty of lamps and a little built-in bar with round stools in one corner. (Ch 6)

During the plots Marlowe likes to emphasise his fallibility, point out his mistakes in managing a case, ‘Curses, why didn’t I realise sooner…’ etc. This has always struck me as being a blind, a convention of the genre. There are no mistakes when he sizes up people or, as I’m emphasising here, when he sizes up a room and its contents.

The Peacock Lounge was a narrow front next to a gift shop in whose window a tray of small crystal animals shimmered in the street light. The Peacock had a glass brick front and soft light glowed out around the stained-glass peacock that was set into the brick. I went in around a Chinese screen and looked along the bar and then sat at the outer edge of a small booth. The light was amber, the leather was Chinese red and the booths were polished plastic tables. (Ch 30)

He is a camera, he is a set designer placing all the elements just so, he knows the provenance and brand and material of every object in the room. He is an early example of a technique which would become epidemic in American fiction by the 1980s of itemising and listing every detail of every brand of what a person is wearing or driving or owns, as American life (in fiction at any rate) became more hollowed out, more psychologically empty, more a consumerist shell.

In 1940s Chandler these set-piece descriptions create:

  • A clearly visualised, well-defined universe in which the events can unfold.
  • The sense of a profoundly reliable narrator whose judgement, whose knowledgeability, whose sheer savvyness about the world, is blazoned forth on every page. He never hesitates. He never sees something he doesn’t understand or can’t put a name to. His all-seeing look and his all-comprehending mind give him (and us, the reader) a god-like omnipotence and this omnipotence is a big part of the pleasure to be got from Chandler’s texts.

I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (Ch 16)

A Fitzgerald room

Compare and contrast the description of a room by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon:

The meeting took place in what I called the ‘processed leather room’ – it was one of six done for us by a decorator from Sloane’s years ago, and the term stuck in my head. It was the most decorator’s room: an angora wool carpet the colour of dawn, the most delicate grey imaginable – you hardly dared walk on it; and the silver panelling and leather tables and creamy pictures and slim fragilities looked so easy to stain that we could not breathe hard in there, though it was wonderful to look into from the door when the windows were open and the curtains whimpered querulously against the breeze. (ch 6)

Fitzgerald’s description is more imaginative, softer, more compromised by authorial comment, by emotional context. It is done in the gushy voice of the naive 25 year-old young woman narrator Cecilia. It is one of the many scenes or events whose main purpose is to convey the psychology of the characters or narrator as much as to depict the ‘reality’ of the ‘external world’. It is these accumulating insights, the succession of scenes conveying nuances of personality and attitude, which gives Fitzgerald’s characters, and the novel as a whole, the layers of depth which might be what we refer to when we say ‘literature’. It is not intended to make us feel in complete control, as the Chandler does.

The Chandler room

Back to the hard, well-lit world of Chandler:

I went in. There was a pot-bellied stove in the corner and a roll-top desk in the other corner behind the counter. There was a large blue print map of the district on the wall and beside that a board with four hooks on it, one of which supported a frayed and much-mended mackinaw. On the counter beside the dusty folders lay the usual sprung pen, exhausted blotter and smeared bottle of gummy ink. (Ch 7)

Chandler’s descriptions are immensely enjoyable, like watching the perfect technique of a world class sportsman. It is like reading off the spec of a luxury sports car, as flash, as impressive but, arguably, as superficial. They tell us is that Marlowe is a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a reassuringly superhuman grasp of a space and all its details. And, as readers, as we read, we partake briefly in that very American super-confident knowledgeability.

The room contained a library dining-table, an armchair radio, a book-rack built like a hod, a big bookcase full of novels with their jackets still on them, a dark wood high-boy with a siphon and a cut-glass bottle of liquor and four striped glasses upside down on an Indian brass tray. Beside this paired photographs in a double silver frame, a youngish middle-aged man and woman, with round healthy faces and cheerful eyes. They looked out at me as if they didn’t mind my being there at all. (Ch 33)

You have to admire, to marvel really, at the ease with which he can conjure a space and an atmosphere in just a few strokes.

I went into the club library. It contained books behind glass doors and magazines on a long central table and a lighted portrait of the club’s founder. But its real business seemed to be sleeping. Outward-jutting bookcases cut the room into a number of small alcoves and in the alcoves were high-backed leather chairs of an incredible size and softness. In a number of the chairs old boys were snoozing peacefully, their faces violet with high blood pressure, thin racking snores coming out of their pinched noses. (Ch 17)

The subtlety, the nuance and the doubt, the sense of human fallibility which comes over so strongly in Fitzgerald, is absent in Chandler. But different genres, different texts, different aims, call for different techniques. Is it this lack of investigation of human psychology which has limited Chandler to genre fiction and makes Fitzgerald worthy of study at college? Maybe. But it doesn’t stop you feeling, as you read Chandler’s effortlessly commanding prose, that you are in the hands of a master.

The consolations of the crime novel

My point is that it’s paradoxical that a genre which prides itself on being so tough and harsh and realistic, in actual fact produces in its readers an infantilising sense of comfort and reassurance and security. These texts produce the opposite of the anxiety and worry we experience all too often in or own lives. They continue to be so popular because they are so wonderfully reassuring. Freud said he couldn’t offer his patients what they all wanted, which is consolation. That is precisely what these novels offer in spades. Wipe away your tears. Daddy Chandler is in complete control.

The Rossmore Arms was a gloomy pile of dark red brick built around a huge forecourt. It had a plush-lined lobby containing silence, tubbed plants, a bored canary in a cage as big as a dog-house, a smell of old carpet dust and the cloying fragrance of gardenias long ago.

The Graysons were on the fifth floor in front, in the north wing. They were sitting together in a room which seemed to be deliberately twenty years out of date. It had fat overstuffed furniture and brass doorknobs, shaped like eggs, a huge wall mirror in a gilt frame, a marble-topped table in the window and dark red plush side drapes by the window. It smelled of tobacco smoke and behind that the air was telling me they had had lamb chops and broccoli for dinner. (Ch 23)

The Master of Prose knows and understands everything. And he is on our side. He is our Master.

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Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Cover of a pulp version of The Lady in The Lake

Pulp images and reality

All the talk of hard-boiled attitude splashed all across the blurb and metatexts on Chandler seem to me baloney. Marlowe is a sentimental slop, the shop-soiled Sir Galahad who goes out of his way to help his clients and protect the innocent or vulnerable. It is a feature of pulp that – like the Hollywood Chandler cordially detests – it simplifies and sentimentalises. It’s not really fair to involve the book cover over which Chandler probably had little say, but this paradox is typified by the pulp-style cover of this book, above. How ethereal and attractive to the (male) bookshop browser is the tastefully-dressed blonde floating dreamily in the water, fully clothed with her eyes still tastefully made-up. Here’s Chandler’s description of the body as he and the local caretaker recover it up in the mountain lake:

The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak. Then the face came. A swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. a blotch of grey dough, a nightmare with human hair on it. (Ch 6)

The Last Tycoon by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1941)

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940. He was just 44 years old. He left unfinished his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was published posthumously in 1941. He had shot to fame aged just 24 with the super-romantic This Side of Paradise (1920), followed two years later by The Beautiful and Damned, and a steady stream of short stories about the bright young things of Manhattan which helped define the Roaring Twenties, a brittle doomed mood he captured in with his best-known book, The Great Gatsby (1925). A difficult decade followed as America was hit by the Wall Street Crash and Depression, Fitzgerald’s partying slid into alcoholism and his marriage to Zelda hit the rocks as she experienced increasingly severe psychological problems. It was nine long difficult years before he published his last completed novel, Tender Is The Night, in 1934, to mixed reviews.

The Last Tycoon

The 1941 edition of the novel was assembled from surviving manuscripts and fragments by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson and, 70 years on, is the version still published by Penguin. It is a short 150 pages long, divided into half a dozen chapters, themselves spliced together from short scenes, before the text breaks down in mid-paragraph, and the remaining 40 pages are made up of a synopsis of the rest of the plot pieced together from various sources, a letter to an agent sketching the plot, a diagram Fitzgerald left, and then increasingly fragmentary bits until it is just individual sentences from the notebooks.

In 1994 Cambridge University press published a version which included significantly more scholarly apparatus, more fragments, reordered part of the text and restored Fitzgerald’s preferred title, The Love of The Last Tycoon.

Plot

The plot is simple as a fairy story. It is 1935 (not long after the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s) and Monroe Stahr (based on the film executive Irving Thalberg) is the boy wonder executive at a big Hollywood studio. Stahr is phenomenally capable, supervising numerous films simultaneously, handling moaning actors, incompetent directors, drunken writers. All the while he nurses the hurt that his beautiful film star wife, Minna Davis, died and abandoned him. And another secret: two different doctors have told him that his time is limited. He has heart disease. He is going to die.

Stahr closed his eyes and opened them again. Zavras’ silhouette had blurred a little against the sun. He hung onto the table behind him and said in an ordinary voice.
‘Good luck, Pete.’
The room was almost black, but he made his feet move, following a pattern, into his office and waited till the door clicked shut before he felt for the pills. the water decanter clettered against the table; the glass clacked. He sat down in a big chair, waiting for the benzedrine to take effect before he went to dinner. (Ch 4)

(‘Clacked’? A characteristic Fitzgerald touch.) One day, during an ominous and allegorical earthquake which causes some damage on the sets, he sees the spitting image of his lost wife. The rest of the fragment describes his pursuit of her, variously named in the fragments Kathleen or Thalia.

Point of view

Interestingly, there are two points of view: the opening chapter and some subsequent episodes are told through the eyes of the daughter of one of Stahr’s business partners, Cecilia or Celia Brady. She loves Stahr from afar and takes a passionate interest in his doings but, though only ten years or so older than her, Stahr is in a different stratosphere, with inconceivable pressures and problems. All the other scenes are told by a traditional omniscient narrator. The only other novel I can think of which does this is Dickens’s Bleak House. Fitzgerald doesn’t handle the switch with subtlety: ‘This is Celia taking up the narrative in person…’

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937 and, although he continued to make most of his income from short stories he went to get involved in the film industry. He spent some time working on scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including some unfilmed work on Gone with the Wind, a project about Madame Curie, a complete script titled infidelity and so on. In 1939, MGM ended the contract and Fitzgerald struggled on as a freelance screenwriter.

Like Chandler, Fitzgerald is aware of the depth to which movies enter people’s souls, affecting their thought patterns and behaviour: entire generations have modelled their hairstyles, clothes, look and dialogue on the super-sharp figures on the silver screen. Thus Cecilia, fantasising about getting Stahr to love her, realises her deepest ideas about love might themselves have been formed by the man she is pursuing:

I still like to think that if he’d been a poor boy and nearer my age I could have managed it, but of course the real truth was that I had nothing to offer that he didn’t have; some of my more romantic ideas actually stemmed from pictures – 42nd Street, for example, had a great influence on me. It’s more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was. (Ch 1)

Though a fragment, the novel paints a vivid, detailed and persuasive portrait of a wunderkind Hollywood studio head. Stahr is seen from all angles and portrayed as a demi-god, the last of Fitzgerald’s sequence of hero-worshipped leading men.

Though Stahr’s education was founded on nothing more than a night-school course in stenography, he had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him. (Ch 1)

The omniscient narrator places him in numerous professional situations, managing directors, designers, actors and actresses and writers. He is described as, and we see the evidence that he is, a master of his trade.

Stahr was a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age. (Ch 3)

Celia is important because she adds a different angle and point of view from the omniscient narrator. Because she has a passionate crush on the great man she allows Fitzgerald to indulge the Ivy League golden boy tones of his early work, mixed with Ayn Rand-like admiration for the superman. She is the device which allows Fitzgerald freedom to write at his most gushing:

Stahr had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously – even frantically – and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth. (Ch 1)

These two points of view, plus the sheer number of scenes in which we see him in action, build up a fascinating portrait of an American mogul. The steady accumulation of detailed descriptions of the minute-by-minute work and decisions and the decisive management of people and deadlines and material and technology are the reason people still call it the best novel ever written about Hollywood.

The first dictagraph messages blew in through the warm morning. While he shaved and had coffee, he talked and listened. Robby [the studio fixer who put in a full day the day before] had left a message: ‘If Mr Stahr wants me tell him to hell with it I’m in bed.’ An actor was sick or thought so; the Governor of California was bringing a party out; a supervisor had beaten up his wife for the prints and must be ‘reduced to a writer’… There was early snow on a location in Canada with the company already there – Stahr raced over the possibilities of salvage, reviewing the story of the picture. (Ch 3)

In fact chapters three and four consist solely of a prolonged account of one day in the life of the head of a Hollywood studio and make fascinating reading.  Raymond Chandler made his bitter hatred of Hollywood and its lousy morals abundantly clear in his sequence of Philip Marlowe novels. But Fitzgerald, despite his own adverse experiences, has nothing but admiration and respect for the talent and skill and hard work that went into the movies. Although he sounds a little world-weary, he is never cynical.

Style

Fitzgerald’s early style was a wonderfully starry-eyed youthful romanticism. The first two novels tell the story of very young men and women falling in love in the privileged world of East Coast Ivy league universities. But it was always an uneven style, with the odd use of words and bumpinesses of phrasing. Nowhere near as simplified and mannered as Hemingway, nor as curt and crisp as Chandler’s pulp style.

In this, his final, text he combines practical A to B prose, with romantic phraseology, and a stream of wonderfully expressed psychological insights, especially about love. He is old-fashioned. He uses ‘whom’ a lot, twisting sentences round to fit it. Various things are brought ‘forth’. Chandler would puke.

From where he stood (and though he was not a tall man, it always seemed high up) he watched the multitudinous practicalities of his world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day had never mattered. (Ch 1)

Fitzgerald persistently uses words oddly, almost as malapropisms. ‘Multitudinous’? Not wrong, just unexpected. He has a strangely-angled vision of the English language and I can see why he might have struggled to produce the straight-shooting dialogue which movies require and Chandler covers whole pages with. In the ‘Stahr had flown’ quote, above, the use of ‘tenaciously’ and ‘frantically’ are not quite right and yet the force of the image overcomes the slight hesitancy of its expression. That sense of something not quite expressed right occurs on every page. But at the same time these slight unexpectednesses, the possible malapropisms, work to create odd insights:

‘Mr Stahr’s Projection Room’ was a miniature picture theatre with four rows of overstuffed chairs… Here Stahr sats at two-thirty and again at six-thirty watching the lengths of film taken during the day. There was often a savage tensity about the occasion – he was dealing with faits accomplis – the net results of months of buying, planning, writing and rewriting, casting, constructing, lighting, reshearsing, and shooting – the fruit of brilliant hunches or of counsels of despair, of lethargy, conspiracy, and sweat. (Ch 4)

‘Tensity’?

Something else again happens in the central sections of the text, the marvellous scenes where Stahr drives Kathleen, the image of his dead wife, up to his half-built millionaire house near the sea and there, in the half-built house, their souls meet and mingle, and then they go down to the shore to watch a local phenomenon, the night-time inrush of silver fish, and have a strange midnight encounter with a black man who is capturing the fish. That the star-crossed lovers might find themselves on a romantic outcrop over the sea is Hollywood ie expected. The strangeness of the mood, and the very strange but intensely memorable scene with the black fisherman on the beach, has all the weirdness of real life and a pregnancy of meaning which makes it literature. The next day Stahr wonders if it even happened:

Was it a trick? As the whole vision of the last night came back to him – the very skin with that peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it – he thought whether it might not be a trick to reach him from somewhere. Not Minna and yet Minna. The curtains blew suddenly into the room, the papers whispered on his desk, and his heart cringed faintly at the intense reality of the day outside his window. If he could go out now this way, what would happen if he saw her again – the starry veiled expression, the mouth strongly formed for poor brave human laughter. (Ch 4)

The papers whispering, his heart cringing… these phrases are slightly heckneyed – but they come from a more innocent time, a less knowing time, a more forgiving time. Right to the end Fitzgerald wasn’t afraid to be starry-eyed, romantic.

Probably because I’ve been reading him recently, the love scenes remind me of DH Lawrence, specifically the way the thing that passes between Stahr and Kathleen is seen as a force bigger than them, and is identified with Life. Lawrence died in 1930 but his influence was immense among intellectuals looking for a purer life of feeling and freedom. This is from the scene where Stahr tracks down and meets the woman who he had glimpsed the day before, and whose likeness to his dead wife haunts him:

There she was – face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Minna’s face – the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs – and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation.
With a leap his heart went out of him as it had the night before, only this time it stayed out with a vast beneficence…
Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.
Stahr interrupted… but there were no words for what he really said. She listened closely without shame. Life flared high in them both… (Ch 4)

 ‘With a vast beneficence’? ‘Slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call’? You can hear his friend Hemingway chortling at the clumsy phrasing, his rival Hollywood hack Chandler sneering at Fitzgerald’s naive romanticism.

We’ll never know whether the finished novel would have hung together – and in his surviving outline the latter part of the plot becomes surprisingly convoluted – but this unfinished text contains numerous powerfully written scenes which shine with Fitzgerald’s undying sense of awe and wonder.

There is never a time when a studio is absolutely quiet. There is always a night shift of technicians in the laboratory and dubbing rooms and people on the maintenance staff dropping in at the commissary. But the sounds are all different – the padded hush of tyres, the quiet tick of a motor running idle, the naked cry of a soprano singing into a nightbound microphone. Around a corner I came upon a man in rubber boots washing down a car in a wonderful white light – a fountain among the dead industrial shadows. (Ch 2)

Cover of 'The Last Tycoon'

Cover of ‘The Last Tycoon’

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The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

1. The artificial world of films and acting

Previous Chandler novels referred to their characters putting on acts, behaving like they’re in a B-movie, copying mannerisms from mobsters in the movies and so on. The Little Sister takes this theme to a new level.

This was the first novel Chandler wrote after a spell working as a Hollywood scriptwriter and he puts his insider information to good use. The key figure, Mavis Weld, is a Hollywood actress and the plot involves Marlowe in encounters with Hollywood agents, actors and wannabes, and even takes him onto the set of a movie being filmed. (Wikipedia informs me that aspects of the character of Mavis’s agent, Sheridan Ballou, were copied from Chandler’s writing partner, Billy Wilder, who he cordially disliked.) Accordingly, the incidence of acting similes and metaphors – along with references to contemporary actors (Orson Welles, Lillian Gish, Maureen O’Brien, Cary Grant) – shoots through the roof.

‘Aren’t you going to wrap it up in a handkerchief, the way they do in the movies?’ (Ch 27)

His finger tightened around the trigger. I watched it tighten… This was happening somewhere else in a cheesy programme picture. It wasn’t happening to me.’ (Ch 14)

‘I ought to slap your face off,’ I said. ‘And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I slap.’ (Ch 15)

‘I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.
‘That’s just an act,’ I growled.

‘But you’re not in any jam. You’re right up front under the baby spot pulling every tired ham gesture you ever used in the most tired B-picture you ever acted in – if acting is the word -‘ (Ch 12)

‘I come up here to get co-operation,’ he told French… ‘You’ll get co-operation French said. ‘Just don’t try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.’ (Ch 24)

And despite – or because of – his experience working in the Dream Factory, Chandler is not a fan of Hollywood. At least, Marlowe is not a fan of Hollywood. Throughout the novel Hollywood movies and their cheap gimmicks and mannerisms and corny dialogue, the sleazy sex-obsessed lifestyles of its stars, the corrupt greedy aspirations of people who want to get into movies, and the lowering of standards of behaviour which both the movies and the stars who populate the movies have encouraged among the population are the target of explicit diatribes, implicit in numerous descriptions of directors, agents and stars, and scattered in numerous throwaway remarks.

A long way off through trees I could see the lights of a big house. Some Hollywood big shot, probably, some wizard of the slobbery kiss, and the pornographic dissolve. (Ch 28)

And then there is the quality of the films themselves. In this novel Marlowe goes to see one and give us his disgusted commentary:

So I went to a picture show and it had to have Mavis Weld in it. One of those glass-and-chrome deals where everybody smiled too much and talked too much and knew it. The women were always going up a long curving staircase to change their clothes. The men were always taking monogrammed cigarettes out of expensive cases and snapping expensive lighters at each other… The leading man was an amiable ham with a lot of charm, some of it turning a little yellow at the edges. The star was a bad-tempered brunette with contemptuous eyes and a couple of bad close-ups that showed her pushing forty-five backwards almost hard enough to break a wrist. (Ch 13)

But his withering worldview is much wider than that. Marlowe’s tiredness comes from one man setting himself against the entire world, a world fallen catastrophically far from some fantasy prelapsarian Eden, in which men are performing apes or preening dandies, almost all women are sluttishly available, in which the bookish hero makes jokey references to Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights or Samuel Pepys which only emphasise the vast gulf between his literate and high standards and the gutter morals of the pond life he consorts with, in which the cops are corrupt and justice doesn’t exist and the bad flourish and the good die horribly.

2. The Fallen World of Philip Marlowe…

Once, long ago, it must have had a certain elegance. But no more. The memories of old cigars clung to its lobby like the dirty gilt on its ceiling and the sagging springs of its leather lounging chairs. (Ch 8)

I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around to it. (Ch 13)

In fact chapter thirteen is one long cynical plaint of disgust about the contemporary world, the ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’.

‘I used to like this town,’ I said… ‘A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverley Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers.Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used ot sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either… Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit – and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riff-raff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped on the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pidgin English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.’ (Ch 26)

… in which all women are biddable…

 She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her. She pushed her mouth hard at me for a long moment, then quietly and very comfortably wriggled around in my arms and nestled. (Ch 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes… She had a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel. (Ch 8)

She slapped me delicately across the tip of my nose. The next thing I knew I had her in my lap and she was trying to bite a piece off my tongue. (Ch 12)

She hauled off and slapped me again, harder if anything. ‘I think you’d better kiss me,’ she breathed. Her eyes were clear and limpid and melting. (Ch 12)

‘You always wear black?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But it is more exciting when I take my clothes off.’ (Ch 23)

‘Will you make love to me tonight?’ she asked softly.
‘That is an open question. Probably not.’
‘You would not waste your time. I am not one of those synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts.’ (Ch 26)

… everyone behaves like B-movie tough guys…

 ‘Don’t get tough with me,’ the man said. ‘I’m a bad man to get tough with.’ (Ch 4)

I reached over and pressed down the riser on the phone. Held it that way while I fumbled around for a cigarette. I knew he would call right back. They always do when they think they’re tough. They haven’t used their exit line. (Ch 7)

‘Do you smoke that piece of old rope because you like it or because you think it makes you look tough?’ (Ch 8)

‘I got business to attend to. Beat it and keep going.’
‘Such a tough little guy,’ I said. (Ch 11)

 … jokey highbrow references are wasted on ignoramuses…

 ‘Never the time and place and the loved one altogether,’ I said.
‘What’s that?’ she tried to throw me out with the point of her chin but she wasn’t that good.
‘Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’re prefer the automatic.’ (Ch 12)

A male voice called: ‘Here, Heathcliff. Here, Heathcliff.’ Steps sounded on a hard walk.
‘That’s Heathcliff,’ the chauffeur said sourly.
‘Heathcliff?’
‘That’s what they call the dog, Jack.’
Wuthering Heights?’ I asked.
‘Now you’re double-talking again,’ he sneered. (THW Ch 5)

‘Maybe the printing was just a little game he played with himself.’
‘Like Pepys’s shorthand?’ I said.
‘What was that?’
A diary a man wrote in a private shorthand, a long time ago.’
Breeze looked at Spangler. (THW Ch 16)

…  and ironic references to the genre only emphasise everyone’s entrapment…

‘That didn’t have anything to do with the Stein killing. Steelgrave was under glass all that week. No connection at all. Your cop friend has been reading pulp magazines.’
‘They all do,’ I said. ‘That’s why they talk so tough. (Ch 16)

3. The exceptionalism of the private detective

Or, Why the single private investigator regards himself as above the fray, an exception to the fallen world – an exceptionalism which is particularly clear in the contrast between the PI – allowed great leeway to follow his own conscience in the pursuit of a personal vision of Justice – and the agents of the Law, the police, constrained by procedure and the limitations of bureaucracy.

From the start of the crime genre the detective is placed in opposition to the plodding feet of the official enforcers of the Law. As early as the three Edgar Allen Poe stories (1840s), which are generally thought to have founded the genre, the freedom of action and incisive insight of independent detective C. Auguste Dupin is set against the plodding hapless efforts of the Parisian police. Conan Doyle 50 years later echoes exactly the same tropes: Holmes the brilliant outsider and loner is effortlessly superior to the bumbling Grigson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Watson observes him frequently not telling the police the full story and suppressing facts to ensure his own freelance version of justice prevails.

Chandler has the same fundamental structure – as a freelance private detective Marlowe uncovers and encounters all kinds of aspects of a crime or ‘case’ which the police never see. But there are several interesting differences:

  • the cops are not just ineffective, they are sometimes actively corrupt
  • Marlowe is not superhuman; he is deeply fallible

His fallibility is emphasised throughout, it is a leitmotiv that he only realises twists and deceptions too late, a point rammed home in the final chapter where he sees the sinister Dr Lagardie entering the hotel Van Nuy and calls the cops but, between them they’re too slow to prevent Lagardie killing the unpredictable nymphomaniac Dolores Gonzalez.

For some reason it’s the police from Bay City neighbouring Los Angeles who come in for stick in Chandler’s novels. In Farewell, My Lovely Marlowe is beaten unconscious by two corrupt Bay City cops who then dump with a ‘doctor’ at a ‘clinic’ who shoots him full of ‘dope’ . In this novel the thuggish Lieutenant Moses Maglashan from Bay City sits in on an ‘interview’ with Marlowe and makes it quite clear that his techniques include beating suspects unconscious or permanently damaging their kidneys.

Marlowe is split: he is generally sympathetic to the cops, who he sees as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job:

They just sat there and looked back at me. The orange queen was clacking her typewriter. Cop talk was no more treat to her than legs to a dance director. They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in a hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. The dull ready-made clothes, worn without style, with a sort of contempt; the look of men who are poor and yet proud of their power, watching always for ways to make it felt, to shove it into you and twist it and grin and watch you squirm, ruthless without malice, cruel and yet not unkind. What would you expect of them? Civilisation had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust. (Ch 24)

On the other hand, it’s in The High Window that Marlowe crystallises the reason he so often – and so provokingly – doesn’t tell the police the full story, in fact so often goes out of his way to conceal evidence, hide the truth and generally be a difficult customer:

Breeze said: ‘Make your point.’
I said: ‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every times and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may – until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can. Until I’m sure that you won’t do him more harm than you’ll do the truth good. Or until I’m hauled before someone who can make me talk.’
Breeze said: ‘You sound to me just a little like a guy who is trying to hold his conscience down.’
‘Hell,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink…’ (THW Ch 15)

Despite the throwaway context, this is the justification all private detectives make for doing it their way. It is the core rationale of the genre.

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

Related links

Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part. The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or shaping their behaviour to the models they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (THW Ch 10)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (THW Ch 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW 30)

Even the highly self-conscious first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the tough guys he encounters modelling themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction. (Thus the novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (THW Ch 4)

The eyes have it

At the same time, throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc. and have been wondering why he takes so much trouble on what is almost a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes are interconnected.

Concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many if not all the other characters are trying to conceal from him. Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions. They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, how successfully or not all the other characters play a part, they are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES. People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words. Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves. Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’. As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and in cynical Los Angeles the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to mask and cover.

But their owners are weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW Ch 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS Ch 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS Ch 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS Ch 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS Ch 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW Ch 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS Ch 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS Ch 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment. Eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into my mind

But of course it works both ways: their eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liar to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights those third-person liars themselves use to probe our (in this case, Marlowe’s) acts and thoughts. They are not only the means other people use of acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether we are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful. ‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’ ‘Yeah. I understand.’ He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS Ch 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS Ch 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW Ch 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully.. (THW 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW Ch 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS C24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS Ch 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS Ch 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting a the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS Ch 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And sometimes, of course, he is just showing off, taking the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW Ch 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS Ch 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS Ch 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS Ch 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS Ch 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW Ch 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW Ch 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW Ch 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS Ch 24)

You can see from these examples how, in fact, the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. More acting the part.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses. I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. It’s clear what their function is: to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is a physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ ie less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially police) wearing shades because, since we can’t ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. An attitude of invulnerability Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW Ch 4)

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW Ch 22)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS Ch 21)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS Ch 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutrals or people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are out of the game. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW Ch 14)

The irony is that this old geezer, named Grandy, despite his dead watery old man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

6. Marginal eyes

And some final minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give snapshots of characters or emotions, for Chandler the state of the eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS Ch 22)

7. Eyes of the dead

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch 28)

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. Both are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see ie to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true for the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes. For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which, I am arguing, is one of the central defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch 34)


A private eye

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an eye? Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough, he must hire another one.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that its owner is unknown to whoever they’re set on, generally to spy on them. But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting all take place through the eyes and hence any and so, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with more-than-usual meaning and significance.


 

Appendix – a lot of examples

a) Eyes in The High Window

All his novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run of the mill through the contrived to the inspired.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed wth panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch 33)

PS

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans are, at one light-hearted moment, admitted, assessed and admired – their animal devotion possibly a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS Ch 19)

Pulp cover of The Big Sleep

Pulp cover of The Big Sleep. My, what big vacant eyes the doped-up Carmen Sternwood has!

The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

A lot of smart conversation, full of worldliness and sly wit. (Ch 7)

Being a hard-boiled tough guy in these books seems to involve an awful lot of posing, a lot of acting the part, a lot of knowing that you’re acting the part, and a lot of judging how other people are acting their parts. Chandler’s texts are very stagey. All the characters point out to all the other characters how they’re putting on an act. Or watch each other closely to try to assess just how much of an act they’re putting on.

It’s this artful self-consciousness combined with stylish one-liners which continually makes me think of the plays of Oscar Wilde. And, of course, they’re both funny 🙂

Tough guys

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’ (Ch 2: Miss Davies to Marlowe)

‘If you will pardon a homely phrase, your tough guy act stinks.’ (Ch 3: Murdock to Marlowe)

‘In my business,’ he said, ‘tough guys come a dime a dozen. And would-be tough guys come a nickel a gross. Just mind your business and I’ll mind my business and we won’t have any trouble.’ (Ch 17: Morny to Marlowe)

‘What I like about this place is everything runs so true to type,’ I said. ‘The cop on the gate, the shine on the door, the cigarette and check girls, the fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl, the well-dressed, drunk and horribly rude director cursing the barman, the silent guy with the gun, the night-club owner with the soft grey hair and the B-picture mannerisms, and now you – the tall dark torcher with the negligent sneer, the husky voice, the hard-boiled vocabulary.’ (Ch 19: Marlowe to Linda Conquest)

Influence of the movies

In particular, Marlowe complains that various hoods and would-be tough guys he meets have copied their patter and manner from the movies. Since the first talkie is generally taken to be The Jazz Singer in 1927, that’s barely 12 years of talkies by the time The Big Sleep (1939) was published, and since we know the novels are based on short stories published as early as 1933, that’s less than a decade in which actors like James Cagney and George Raft popularised a look and walk and talk which Marlowe complains lowlife crims are consciously copying.

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (Ch 4)

The blonde sobbed in a rather theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham- acting. (Ch 9)

‘Oh Alex – darling – don’t say such awful things.’
‘Early Lilian Gish,’ Morny said. ‘Very early Lillian Gish.’ (Lillian Gish being a very early movie star.)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (Ch 18)

A fallen world

Detective novels and stories are generally written by conservatives. They all-too-easily fall into lamenting the decline and fall of civilisation and the collapse of old-fashioned standards. The tough guy, whose job it is to navigate the lower reaches of society’s pond life, is continually brought up against the so-called collapse in standards of behaviour and is given plenty of opportunity to plaint.

Chandler adds a peculiar wrinkle to this as he had, of course, been brought up in England and attended a notable English public school, Dulwich College, in the pre-Great War years. He is, amazingly, a product of English Edwardian society which we tend to associate with a E.M. Fosterish politeness and gentility. No wonder the rough-house politics, business and underworld of post-War California came as a bitter shock.

The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I don’t know what to call it. (Ch 2)

There are recurring laments that, in these times, when politicians, cops and judges are corrupt, a man can only do the best he can do to carve out a little justice in an unjust world. Laments that would have found an echo with the author of Beowulf, with Shakespeare, with Hogarth, with Juvenal, with the later Dickens, with, er, lots of writers.

The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find. (Ch 32)

This is not a sophisticated worldview. For all pulp’s hard-boiled veneer, it is, in its deep attitudes, curiously simple-minded.

‘A shop-soiled Sir Galahad’

Nonetheless, what makes the novels comedies no matter how many people get killed (and it’s generally only ever 4 or 5 not very nice people) and how many crooks get away, is that Marlowe’s innate chivalry, honour, his sense of justice and morality, are never seriously called into question. Possibly the High Window is the novel which shows this most clearly in that the strongest plot thread is Marlowe’s chivalric rescue of a damsel in distress, the psychologically damaged and exploited young secretary Merle Davis, an act of chivalry which leads his friend the doctor to jokingly call him ‘a shop-soiled Sir Galahad’ (Ch 28).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most Victorian of poets, Tennyson, was brought to mind by some of Chandler’s lush phraseology. And now, again, is brought to mind for his famous or infamous lines about Sir Galahad:

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

It somehow makes sense that, just as the master of such effortlessly lyrical prose made huge efforts to rein it in and keep it simple, so, on the level of characterisation, an author who goes on and on and on about how hard-boiled, tough and cynical his hero is, in fact continually reveals him to be sentimental, principled and old-fashioned. This is the thrust, after all, of Chandler’s most famous piece of critical writing, the short essay about contemporary crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

It is a notion of chivalry as pure as anything in Malory or Spenser or Tennyson.

Contemporary slang

As a side note, Chandler picks up on what were apparently modish and fashionable phrases, phrases we take for granted but which were newer in 1942, and which he is obviously satirising:

The blonde coughed. ‘Sit down and rest your sex appeal.’ (Ch 5)

The online dictionary dates the origin of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ to the mid-1920s and associates it with post-War style of advertising ie it is still relatively new in the 1940s and, like lots of advertising slogans, mainly used by its target audience as material for knowing jokes.

‘She’s a tall, handsome blonde. Very – very appealing.’
‘You mean sexy?’
‘Well – ‘ she blushed furiously, ‘in a nice well-bred sort of way, if you know what I mean.’ (Ch 2)

Was saying ‘sexy’ in this way a relatively new thing? Certainly it was post-War. How widespread did the usage become in the 1920s? Did anyone take it seriously?

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’
‘I’m not tough,’ I said, ‘just virile.’ (Ch 2)

Presumably this is a smart-ass wisecrack and sounds like the humour relies very precisely on contemporary usage. Was ‘virile’ in the news or in certain ads or part of the wave of Freudian psychology (which specifically features in The High Window in the doctor’s diagnosis of Merle Davis’s psychological trauma)? Here and throughout Chandler’s quips clearly depend on a knowledge of contemporary buzzwords, advertising slogans etc, and are taking the mickey out of contemporary culture.

I wonder if there are any plans for the Annotated Raymond Chandler. His novels are getting old enough that they would benefit from intelligent footnotes which go beyond the obvious truisms and help to explicate these buried references. Chandler is a writer of exquisite precision. It would be wonderful to have the precisions we have lost with the passage of time sensitively explained and restored.

Pulpy cover of 'The High Window'

Pulpy cover of ‘The High Window’, costing all of 25 cents!

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British Folk Art @ Tate Britain

This is the third exhibition at Tate Britain based around a loose theme which gives rise to a very varied and miscellaneous set of exhibits. Folk art has the benefit of being a well-established genre (as the numerous books in the shop at the exit testify) – more so that Ruin Art and Damaged Art, the previous two shows. Still it makes for a a slightly confusing experience, having to consider and assess ship figureheads, naive paintings, pin cushions, thatched figures and ornamental jugs.

Definition

The commentary didn’t give a clear definition, more two or three ‘approaches’ to what folk art might be. It is generally made by people who aren’t academically trained artists. It is not defined as ‘art’ by scholars and historians of art. It is not generally bought and sold on the international art market.

British Folk Art | Heart Pincushion. Artist Unknown. Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (Photo: Tate Photography)

British Folk Art | Heart Pincushion. Artist Unknown. Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (Photo: Tate Photography)

The commentary says it was after the Second World War, around the time of the Festival of Britain, that ‘serious’ academic interest first began to be given to these objects. Around the time, in other words, that people stopped making them and that centuries-old traditions of festivals and figureheads and dances and plays were destroyed by the new mass media world of radio, TV, film and rock’n’roll.

My definition would be: artefacts made by (generally anonymous) untrained craftsmen and women which have an obvious non-practical, aesthetic purpose but which, until very recently, were rejected from scholarly consideration by the ‘art establishment’. Of course, in the last generation as neo-liberal capitalism has generated vast surpluses of capital looking for a home, all kinds of things have become vehicles for investment and so I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the hand-made art-works of Napoleonic prisoners of war didn’t now have their own niche and price bubble.

British Folk Art | Bone Cockerel (detail) Artist Unknown. Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

British Folk Art | Bone Cockerel (detail) Artist Unknown. Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Characteristics

Early on a curator usefully describes the appeal of at least some of these hand-made, home-made objects: it’s the way folk art combines physical toughness and robustness and solidity with whimsy and delicacy and inventiveness. Another way of putting this might be that, glutted with the dead ends of ‘formal’, ‘academic’ Art, thrill seekers and aesthetes have turned in the past generation to objects their forefathers rejected as crude and vulgar.

Patchwork Bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52. St Fagans: National History Museum

Patchwork Bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52. St Fagans: National History Museum

Variety

But the key thing about folk art is it is a very broad genre indeed and the show contains only a miniscule fraction of the vast number of artefacts which homes and local museums must contain all across the land; what the commentary describes as ‘an unknowable multitude of objects, events and memories’.

To give you an idea, the exhibition includes:

  • Trade signs – a room full of enormous objects which would have hung outside shops in the 18th and 19th centuries: a giant wooden fish, boot, key, teapot etc
  • Tobacco rolls, looking a little like beehives and representing a tobacconist’s shops
  • Models of sides of meat hung in butcher’s shops for customers to understand the cuts
  • Warning signs of the Trespassers will be prosecuted type: 18th and 19th century signs warning that beggars and vagrants will be prosecuted
  • Pub signs, presumably one of the most enduring forms of folk art
  • naive paintings of 18th and 19th century cricket scenes
  • quilts, lots of quilts made by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons: one of the most intriguing was one made by wounded soldiers during the Crimean War
  • Napoleonic Prisoner of War art, a genre in its own right, was represented by the extraordinary cockerel made from bones (above)
  • naive paintings of scenes of rural fetes, hunting, rural life
  • harvest jusgs and toby jugs
  • the artefacts, woven and quilted, used for well dressing
  • massive ships’ figureheads, a whole room of them, the biggest of which is not, as you’d expect, a busty woman, but an imposing Indian figure actually carved in India from Indian hardwood, heads of lions and unicorns and blackamoors who stood outside tobacconist’s shops and figures of Scotsmen because, apparently, most of the tobacco imported into Britain came via Glasgow
  • decorative pincushions and pincushion covers
  • a small selection for carved slate which was used to decorate fireplaces in cottages built near the slate mines of North Wales in the 1820s-40s

As with the other exhibitions mentioned above, one has the sneaking suspicion that the show was conceived with half an eye to finding a way to display some of the very minor works which Tate has picked up along the way and needs to bring out of the dusty archives. Thus we had sections on a handful of named artists (unusual for generally anonymous folk art):

  • George Smart from Frant near Tunbridge Wells was a tailor with a sideline in creating (and presumably selling) multiple copies of a handful of stock scenes and characters
  • Needlework by Mary Linwood who made a living from fine needlework (in worsted embroidery or crewel embroidery) reproductions of ‘proper’ painted art – her stuff was exhibited at one of the longest-running shows in art history, yet written out of academic art history etc and, to be honest, I walked looked at the half dozen works here and walked on without a flicker of interest
  • Alfred Wallis, the self-taught painter based in St Ives who was ‘discovered’ and taken up by establishment painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood from 1928. His work stands out here, as at the lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery show which is currently running, for the confidence and boldness with which he captures his vision, like a child arranging his ships, the sea, the houses, the pier of St Ives in the picture plane according to their importance, completely regardless of perspective or realism.
George Smart, Goose Woman c 1840. (Image courtesy of Tunbridge Wels Museum and Art Gallery)

George Smart, Goose Woman c 1840. (Image courtesy of Tunbridge Wels Museum and Art Gallery)

All in all more like being at a production of the Antiques Roadshow than a traditional art exhibition. I liked, for example, Wallis’s paintings or the ship figureheads, very much, but I think I’d have got more out of an exhibition dedicated solely to Wallis or to ship’s figureheads.

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Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)

‘For a private dick you certainly have a wandering kind of mind.’ (Chapter 24)

Chandler’s second novel is significantly longer than the first – 41 chapters agaist 32, 200 pages of dense type compared to 160. More happens and a lot of that more is Marlowe getting beaten up: he is knocked unconscious twice, strangled, checked in by unfriendly police to a private hospital where he is pumped full of dope (heroine?), threatened, shot at and makes a number of hair-raising escapes.

There’s the familiar but ever-wonderful mix of smart-arse similes and tough-guy attitude.

Tough guy

I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face.

He lay smeared to the ground, on his back, at the base of a bush, in that bag-of-clothes position that always means the same thing. (Ch 11)

He had a battered face that looked like it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, chequered and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anyone could think of. (Ch 2)

He had a gun in the drawer of course. They always have a gun in the drawer and they always get it too late, if they get it at all. (Ch 27)

This attitude we take for granted. For the seventy years since Chandler’s debut crime fiction, movies and TV have swamped us with images of tough guys, real men, American heroes. The attitude isn’t so new or impressive. What remains immensely impressive is the style and the wit.

Similes

The text is awash with plenty of florid comparisons, including probably the most-quoted one from any of  his works:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula  on a slice of angel food. (Chapter 1)

The big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. (Ch 1)

The handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly. (Ch 8)

The smile fell off his face like a soiled rag. (Ch 27)

Spliced plots

But mostly this greater length gives Chandler an opportunity to try out more and a lot of this more is more plotting, as a series of apparent coincidences intertwine into a really knotty sequence of complications. It explains a lot to learn that Chandler created his novels by splicing together the short stories he’d been writing since the early 30s; Farewell, My Lovely splices together three completely unrelated stories (Try the Girl, Mandarin’s Jade and The Man Who Liked Dogs) and then has fun trying to paper over the joins. The final chapter is devoted to Marlowe and his girl talking through the motives of everyone involved so that they make sense. I’m not sure they ever do. Still:

a) Improbably convoluted plots are a feature of ‘pulp’ fiction (as of opera). Pulp means crude. Everything is cranked up. Broads are in peril. Bad guys reach for their guns. The cops are corrupt. Rich guys can buy anything. Entire cities are owned by hoods. Jewels. Drugs. And, in the same way, plots are garish and vivid, throwing up corpses and gambling dens and spooky private clinics and car chases and gorgeous blondes coolly smoking and lots and lots of scenes in police stations.

b) Not only are the plots improbably convoluted, but they know they are improbably convoluted. The people caught up in them point it out. When Harry Jones is leading up to the revelation he hopes Marlowe will pays him 2 Cs for, he himself says ‘Act One’ and then recounts the build-up; then announces ‘Act Two’ for the important sequence of events. In a tell-tale moment in The Big Sleep, when Marlowe has to find an isolated house near an isolated garage out on some canyon road, Chandler simply has his car get a puncture just around the right place, and remarks, ‘Fate stage-managed the whole thing. (Ch 27)’ No. the author stage-managed the whole thing. There are a number of references to Shakespeare in FML: ‘My God,’ she wailed. ‘You look like Hamlet’s father.’ (Ch 27)

c) In the penultimate chapter (40) Marlowe and his squeeze, Anne Riordan, settle down with a scotch apiece to try and piece together the multiple events and disconnected fragments which make up the narrative we’ve just read. They start by parodying the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ set-up, joking that they ought to be at a dinner party in a country house, surrounded by servants and an odd assortment of guests one of whom is the murderer, until the butler faints and all is revealed!! Except, says Marlow:

‘It’s not that kind of story. It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Except, you know what? It is lithe and clever, very lithe and very clever, the three stories like three snakes which dance around each other, the style very highly-wrought and knowing. And also – not that full of blood. In this long novel five people are murdered (the manager of Jovian’s, Marriott, Mrs Jovian, Moose, the cop in the final chapter) only one of which you actually see, the other four being static descriptions of corpses or remote accounts. So: light on actual murder scenes. Vastly more effort is put by Chandler into his stylish similes and longer, poetic descriptions, and by the character Marlowe into his snappy banter, sometimes so much effort it’s difficult to follow what he and the hood or cop or blonde are talking about.

Style over plot

So it comes as no surprise at all to read this quote from RC:

‘My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.’

It gives the author’s imprimatur to what is clear already from sentence after wonderful sentence throughout the text. Chandler isn’t about plot or even attitude, which is the dime-a-dozen pupl tough guy attitude: Chandler is about style.

The most often noted aspect of his style is the bottomless well of smart analogies:

Clever

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk. (Ch 3)

The voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed. (Ch 5)

The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on. (Ch 13)

To be fair, not all of them work;  sometimes they can come over as cheap and contrived:

Contrived

Then suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully. (Ch 5)

Thick cunning played on her face, had no fun there and went somewhere else. (Ch 5)

He came back softly, holding his pork pie under his arm, debonair as a French count in a college play. (Ch 30)

But other times they can be eerily accurate, saying something deeper than the immediate occasion demands, suggesting the ‘literary surplus’ which I referred to in my previous post, that extra something over and above what the situation requires:

True

Her eyes were a dead grey, like half-frozen water. (Ch 40)

The motor sounded like a small car. It had that contented sound that comes with moisture in the air. (Ch 10)

The boat slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing. (Ch 35)

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of the office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk. (Ch 14)

Stream of consciousness

But it also gives Chandler the opportunity to do more ‘literature’. Not once but several times Chandler treats us to quite a few pages of stream-of-consciousness. Was this ‘invented’ by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf as my teachers told me? Whatever, by 1940 it was common currency, available as a technique to anyone who felt the need. After he has been knocked unconscious in some deserted canyon, chapter 10 opens with a tour de force of internal monologue as Marlowe, confused and disorientated, slowly regains consciousness:

I put my right hand back on the ground and took the left off and swivelled it around until I could see my watch. The illuminated dial showed 10.56, as nearly as I could focus on it. The call had come at 10.08. Marriott had talked maybe two minutes. Another four had got us out of the house. Time passes very slowly when you are actually doing something. I mean, you can go through a lot of movements in very few minutes. Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okey, better men than me have meant less.

OK it’s not Virginia Woolf. It’s more Chandler having fun performing variations on the usually sober linear narrative. Exactly the same happens when he wakes up 50 pages later having been incarcerated in a private clinic and injected with heroine – his disorientation allows Chandler to try out more rhetorical tricks and we can enjoy a master of English prose performing like a seal at the zoo:

Time passed again. I don’t know how long. I had no watch. They don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway… Half an hour of walking and my knees were shaking but my head was clear… I walked back to the bed. It was a lovely bed. It was made of rose-leaves. It was the most beautiful bed in the world. They had got it from Carole Lombard. It was too soft for her. It was worth the rest of my life to lie down in it for two minutes. Beautiful soft bed, beautiful sleep, beautiful eyes closing and lashes falling and the gentle sound of breathing and darkness and rest sunk in deep pillows… (Ch 25)

Part of what makes the books so enjoyable is sharing Chandler’s sense of playfulness. Despite a few corpses these are essentially comic books where the detective comes through just fine and all the loose ends are sown up but the comedy is in the knowing, rich, muscular, always humorous prose. There are numerous passages of pure descriptive pleasure:

I walked on slowly. Beyond the electroliers, beyond the beat and toot of the small sidewalk cars, beyond the smell of hot fat and popcorn and the shrill children and the barkers in the peep shows, beyond everything but the smell of the ocean and the suddenly clear line of the shore and the creaming fall of the waves into the pebbled spume. I walked almost alone now. The noises died behind me, the hot dishonest light became a fumbling glare. Then the lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark. This would be the one. I turned to go onto it. (Ch 36)

And then – in among all the tough guy attitude and hard-cop banter and florid similes and blondes and gats and dope – there is something else peeking through. Something deeper, which finds expression in simple words arranged into haunting rhythms, something I think we’re justified in calling poetry.

It got darker. I thought; and thought in my mind moved with a kind of sluggish stealthiness, as if it was being watched by bitter and sadistic eyes. (Ch 34)

Pulp cover to 'Farewell, My Lovely'

Pulp cover to ‘Farewell, My Lovely’

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Haven’t read Chandler since school. I’d forgotten how very literary he is, how artful and contrived the prose is – from the era between the wars which, after all, saw an explosion of Modernist experimentation with prose.

And that these books are essentially comedies. The way the plot serves up contrived scenes made of confrontations between extravagant characters who exchange clipped, artful dialogue remind me of no-one so much as Oscar Wilde – when I came across a character actually named Wilde in chapter 18 (Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney) I burst out laughing. Is it a deliberate reference or homage? After all, Chandler references Marcel Proust early in the book (Chapter 11). In their way, the characters and plots are as stylised, as exaggerated and mannered as anything from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Male knowingness

The text radiates post-Hemingway savoir vivre: the essence of this kind of writing is a very male attitude of total knowledge, complete knowledgeability about women, guns, booze, crime, all the tricks and cons of detectives and crooks – the way of the world – or of a certain kind of world. A world of sex, money, violence, drugs which we – as impeccably law-abiding citizens – are thrilled and entertained to enter, and with such a rock-safe chaperone as the artful first-person narrator.

Take women:

It might have annoyed Eddie but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. (Ch 21)

Sure. So many stray blondes, what is a man to do. Or booze:

I unlocked my deep drawer and got out my office bottle and two pony glasses. I filled them and we drank. (Ch 11)

Obviously he has an ‘office bottle’ of booze. It isn’t even specified what type, it’s just general purpose drink whose purpose is to emphasise his manliness. Of course he has an office bottle. Of course he drinks spirits during the day. But what are pony glasses? The narrator knows. He assumes we know. His routine use of this stylised diction flatters us, assumes we know all about hooch and shamuses and gats. That we’re men of the world, too. Sure. No problem.

Or money:

First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. (Ch 20)

Everyone says ‘grand’ now, so reading this doesn’t convey the thrill of the thieves’ argot it originally would have. But ‘a top card and a bunch of hay’, it takes you a moment to realise, must be entertaining jargon for a real dollar note at the top of a wad of fakes.

Since none of us are policeman, or Los Angeles policemen from 1939, none of us can know for sure how much of this was actually the way people dressed and acted and spoke back then – and how much is baroque invention.

‘Hard-boiled’ prose style

You read on the blurb and have the general impression that Chandler invented or is famous for the tough-guy hard-boiled style. And it’s true many of the sentences are ostentatiously clipped, short and understated. Especially around the sensational subjects which are the staples of ‘pulp’ writing (and, let’s face it, of most entertainment), sex and death.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Death, of course, comes in many forms, all of them a combination of the grotesque and the sordid. All of them, of course, observed with the laconic, world-weary eye of the jaded detective.

Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pyjamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (Ch 7)

But almost immediately you realise the clipped sentences are outnumbered by the more artful and colourful sentences. In particular the wealth of deliberately outlandish and vivid similes.

Smart-ass similes

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired, and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. (Chapter 25)

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. (Ch1)

I lit a cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole. (Ch 1)

This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. (ch 2)

Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. (Ch 10)

His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring. (Ch 16)

Then her breathing began to make a rasping sound, like a small file on soft wood. (Ch 23)

The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (Ch 26)

Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house. (Ch 28)

The pug sidled over flatfooted and felt my pockets with care. I turned around for him like a bored beauty modelling an evening gown. (Ch 13)

‘Pug’ refers to the baddy’s henchman and, as with the ‘bored beauty’, conveys ironic superiority, knowing confidence. It denotes the superiority of Marlowe over the situation, and of us, the privileged readers, also – so superior we can observe it with witty detachment. The delicious similes both heighten the comic/grotesque element of situations – and tickle the palate of the jaded reader.

But look again at that sentence and note that ‘with care’. That phrase denotes something extra, something I’ll call the ‘literary surplus’. It isn’t required by either the mechanics of the plot or the pulp injunction to amuse us with tricksy analogies. It is a real precision of imagining, conveyed with a real precision of language. It is this extra ability, which Chandler can turn on at will, which makes his work real art, real literature.

The literary surplus

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel.

‘and… and… and…’ a sequence of simple physical (male) acts described in chronological order with no colour whatsoever and linked only by ‘and’ was invented by Hemingway to give modern tough-guy prose a kind of Biblical simplicity and force. There is plenty of Hemingway in Chandler and he knows it. But then…

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness. (Ch 23)

The poetic, the lyrical side of Chandler’s sensibility is mostly reined in, constrained into stylised similes and tough-guy patois. But here we see it exposed and, therefore, more vulnerable.

Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a blackbird. (Ch 24)

This is repetition, but not and… and.. and repetition. This is repetition with variation of phrasing (‘…growing larger in them, creeping into them…’) which is shading a thought or perception, which takes the reader into the process of thought, her dawning thought and the narrator’s growing perception. It is very far from the definitive thing, the finished smart-arse remark, the Wildean apothegm, served up on a plate for which Chandler is famous:

His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to a corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. (Ch 25)

As the book progresses these more vulnerable poetic moments occur more often.

The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through. But not even the drenched darkness could hide the flawless lines of the orange trees wheeling away like endless spokes into the night. (Ch 27)

Wow. Marlowe comes round after being poleaxed and tied up by Canino, to find himself tended by Agnes Lozelle:

‘What time is it?’ I asked
She looked sideways at her wrist, beyond the spiral of smoke, at the edge of the grave lustre of the lamplight.

‘Grave lustre’. Or the moment when Marlowe enters the silent office to discover Harry Jones’s corpse:

A tramcar bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.

Something very 20th century, very Kafka, very urban alienation, is created with a handful of words. And yet how rich and poetic each phrase is: clanged… almost infinite distance. The microsecond lingering which reading ‘innumerable’ requires reminded me of the lushest of lush poets, Tennyson:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Can it be that there is poetry in this prose?

An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. (Ch 26)

Burst-out is the kind of liberty-taking with the language which the Americans have been doing for a century or more with their much bigger population and diversity of dictions. Weak light is functional but poetic also. A stall fits a horse is a wise-guy, pulp simile. By the time I got to slit across a bunion I am pausing because there is real compassion here. Isn’t Marlowe a super-tough guy, inured to sex and death and old losers. But here an old guy on his uppers is evoking compassion. And then:

On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.

This is far from the Hemingway heritage. This reminds me of Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners where every sentence is weighed and balanced, and the moving of one adverb creates a slightly alien, alerted meaning. ‘On the stool’ should come after the verb phrase, not before (though even in the right place it would read oddly). Placing it before makes ‘miserably’ conspicuous, foregrounds the sentiment, instead of burying it as hard-boiled is meant to, brings out the feeling, the real literary and humane feeling, which underlies everything in the book.

What an artist!

Pulp book cover of The Big Sleep

Pulp book cover of The Big Sleep

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Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Tate Modern has collected some 120 Matisse cut-outs into a stunning blockbuster show. The commentary claims that, due to their fragile nature, we are unlikely to see such a large collection of these works ever again gathered into one place.

Brief resumé

Matisse (b.1869) made his reputation as a post-Impressionist, one of the so-called Fauves, and first exhibited in 1905. Critics and punters laughed at his garish and unrealistically-coloured nudes and portraits. Thirty years later, Matisse was well established as a twentieth century master when, now in his mid-60s, he began to experiment with cutting out large shapes from coloured paper.

The earliest cut-outs were created as aids to composition. The exhibition starts with some of some basic examples, still lifes where Matisse has cut out the shapes of apples and a vase in paper, which he then moved around the canvas until the arrangement looked right. All this was preliminary work, preparatory to creating an oil painting.

In 1941 Matisse almost died after major surgery. He made a will and prepared for death. When he survived it was in a greatly weakened, often wheelchair- or even bed-bound state. He continued to paint in oil but the prolonged periods of standing were beyond him, and painting from a sitting posture was an arduous process.

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 (Download high resolution image 1.61 MB) Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown (1943-4) Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet. © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS.

Oceania

His illness was just one of several streams which came together in the 1940s to make the idea of cutting out coloured paper and arranging the resulting shapes and patterns seem like a new and appealing activity. The privations of war in occupied Paris were another contributory factor.

His assistant tells the story that in 1946, more or less confined to his Paris apartment, Matisse cut out the shape of a swallow and asked it to be stuck over a blotch on the wall. He cut out some more shapes and asked them to be placed next to each other. Eventually the whole wall was covered and that is the origin of the two large cut-out compositions, Oceania: the Sky and Oceania: the Sea.

They consist of cut-out birds, fish, coral and leaves stuck directly onto the wall. As they grew in scope Matisse drew inspiration from a trip he made to Tahiti 16 years earlier. (There is a cartoonish self-portrait of the artist swimming round using primitive goggles to marvel at the undersea world).

Jazz

Matisse had been a favoured artist of the French publishing house Tériade. He had used cut-outs to provide covers for their magazine from as early as 1937. After the war, Tériade commissioned a book of new works from him, and Matisse decided to explore the possibilities of the cut-out which now offered a way of keeping up his creative output.

He began by making variations of fairly small images of figures dancing, done in strikingly bright, pure colours. The exhibition uses one long wall to hang the original ‘maquettes’ or cut-outs directly above the images as they appeared in the large-format art book which was eventually titled Jazz (In fact, most of the images are less to do with hipsters blowing saxaphones in smoky basement clubs, and more about childhood memories of the circus. They are filled with a childlike wonder and awe.)

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946 (Download high resolution image 2.46 MB) Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Icarus (1946) Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz (1947) Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

Jazz represented a tipping point, Matisse’s conscious acceptance that this was a distinct new art form or genre or way of working, and some of the most vivid and imaginative images are in this section of the show.

Ville de Rêve

Matisse moved from Paris to the small village of Vence, near Nice, in the south of France. A great feature of the cut-outs was how quick and light and easy they were to make. Matisse is quoted as saying that making them represented a great psychological liberation from the hard physical labour of painting.

But as well as being easy to create, they were easy to move around. They could also be positioned very flexibly, shifted, re-arranged. They could be used to cover walls, as the Oceanie images began as covering for the wall of his Paris apartment.

Thus the exhibition devotes room 5 to recreating a set of cut-outs which originally covered one wall of his studio at Vence. Eventually they were broken up into individual works – but seeing them all together on one white wall is a revelation. What an amazing wall of art! Twentieth century frescoes of colour and exuberance.

The commentary makes the point that, although we now see all the cut-outs preciously preserved under glass, in the freedom of the studio where they were originally created, even when pinned to the wall, they would flap and move with the wind through the window. Taken down and repositioned, they were capable of infinite adjustments and perfecting. If he could no longer go outside, Matisse could bring the whole world into his studio – his garden, the sea and sky of Oceania, jungles and birds and everything bright and wonderful.

Blue nudes 1952

Matisse made four enormous blue nude cut-outs and they are brought together, here in one room, for the first time since they were created. The room also includes small statues of nudes from earlier in Matisse’s career to compare and contrast.

I loved these to bits when I first saw them in the 1970s and now I realise, with a shock, that they were then only 25 or so years old. They seemed like classics even then. They not only capture the human form but lift it into a new dimension using the roughness, the approximation, at the same time the liberating immediacy, of the cut-outs.

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) 1952 (Download high resolution image 1.99 MB) Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas 106.30 x 78.00 cm Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) (1952) Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas. Foundation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel. © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS

The chapel at Vence

Matisse spent four years (1947-51) using the cut-out approach to create the stained glass windows of the Dominican chapel of the Rosary in Vence. A room here gives you a rather feeble approximation of what is obviously a wonderful, light-filled space and which has now become a pilgrimage destination for art lovers from all over the world.

Bigger and better

In the early 1950s, Matisse expanded the size of the compositions, creating bigger and bigger works which take up whole walls. Big walls. The whiteness of the walls is an integral part of the effect. My favourites were:

I had never seen these before and they made a much bigger impact me than the Blue Nudes or the Snail, one of the prizes of Tate’s collection but which have a little of the over-familiarity of old friends.

The Snail 1953

Henri Matisse, The Snail (1953) Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas. Tate. © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

In the final rooms of the exhibition entire walls are covered by these last creations. They have an astonishing clarity and simplicity and beauty and wonder about them, amazing for man, unwell and in his 80s – an astonishing triumph of the human spirit and imagination.

Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks 1953. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1 Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks (1953) National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1. Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

BBC Culture Show about Matisse’s cut-outs

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