Sunday, May 29, 2016

“Without X Films, What Are Exhibitors Going to Show?” Reconsidering Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960)

“Take me to your cinema.”
Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley) to Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom (1960)

“Well, let’s get the wrong people in as well as the right ones.”
Michael Powell on marketing Peeping Tom

One of the most famous scandals in the history of British cinema is the 1960 release of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom by British distributor Anglo-Amalgamated, a company then enjoying box-office success with the "saucy" (i.e., puerile) Carry On comedy series and violent, pulpy horror films such as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  Peeping Tom tells the story of Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a voyeur and psychotic, whose now-deceased scientist father had subjected him to sadistic experiments as a child, including filming and taping his grimaces and cries of fear while torturing him with reptiles and sudden noises in the middle of the night.  As an adult, Mark works as a focus puller in a film studio by day, moonlights taking pornographic pictures, and prowls the street at night with a hidden camera, murdering women with a bayonet affixed to his tripod while he films their faces in final agony.  We later discover that the women are forced to watch their own dying faces in a mirror attached to the camera.  His first two victims are Dora (Brenda Bruce) a street-based sex worker, and Vivian (Moira Shearer), an extra at the film studio.

Mark struggles against his compulsion and takes the first, halting steps toward friendship and romance with his downstairs tenant, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), in spite of the objections of her sightless mother (Maxine Audley), who finds Mark secretive and stealthy.  After murdering pin-up model Milly (Pamela Green) during a photo shoot, Mark returns home to find that Helen has discovered his secret home theater and his homemade murder movies.  As the police frantically attempt to break down the door to his studio, Mark commits suicide in front of Helen with his own weapon as pre-set still cameras record his death throes.  The film ends with a shot of Mark’s now-dark movie screen, while on the soundtrack we hear a taped exchange between the child Mark and his father which ends with the child’s tremulous, “Good night, Daddy.  Hold my hand.”

Powell (left) with Emeric Pressburger
Histories of this greatest of cursed films have emphasized its supposed career-ending effect on director Michael Powell who, two years prior to signing on with Anglo had broken with his longtime Archers collaborator Emeric Pressburger and was no longer supported by the powerful Rank Organization, under whose auspices the team had produced international box-office hits such as The Thief of Baghdad (1940), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Tales of Hoffman (1951).  

The hallucinatory masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947)
Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)

Friday, May 13, 2016

What I Did on Blog Vacation: Topics Course on Hong Kong Cinema

This semester, I was fortunate enough to offer another special topics course on Hong Kong cinema, and a class roster of first-rate Film and Media Arts seniors and other rabid Asian movie fans encouraged me to take a different approach to covering the material and helping students discover more about my favorite national cinema.  For years, I have been telling my film history students that the appreciation and study of modern Hong Kong movies came not from the academy but from a passionate hive mind of fans, bootleg tape (later DVD) collectors, zine publishers, and, eventually, internet discussion boards, blogs, and podcasts. 

For fifteen weeks beginning in January, we recreated the fan culture of discovering Hong Kong cinema:  There were no quizzes, papers, or exams.  Instead, students read Steven Tao’s indispensable Hong Kong Cinema:  The Extra Dimensions and David Bordwell’s equally magisterial Planet Hong Kong as we moved through a chronological survey of Fragrant Harbor filmmaking (see my earlier blog entry on Love Without End for Amazon listings of these two great books).  In lieu of traditional assignments, each student produced five blog entries on separate films.  By the middle of the semester, each student chose a single film on which their research would be focused for the remainder of our time together.  

Expressive human limbs went every whichaway this semester:
Student reports covered Grace Chang in Mambo Girl (1957, above)
and Anthony Wong in The Untold Story (1993, below)

At this point, their weekly reading was enhanced by outside material on their movie from books, journals, websites, and SMU Hamon Arts Library's singular and extensive holdings of Hong Kong International Film Festival program guides and catalogs.  One of their research reports took the form of an extended blog post, each of which will later be published here as a guest entry.  In addition, I conducted an audio interview with them on their film which will be edited and featured on the first eight episodes of the Crawling Eye podcast, scheduled to launch in later summer.  Also, they prepared an extensive, detailed, and sourced Wikipedia article on their movie which will be submitted and published by the end of the summer.  Finally, each student wrote and recorded an audio commentary on a segment of their film.

This open-ended, research-driven approach to the material succeeded beyond my wildest imagination.  But why take my word for it?  Here is the audio commentary on the beginning of Eric Tsang’s Aces Go Places (1982) from senior SMU Journalism major Julie Hight: