Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Gone to Earth: A Conversation With the Self-Styled Siren

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gone to Earth: A Conversation With the Self-Styled Siren

by Tony Dayoub

Sadly, my other gig at Nomad Editions: Wide Screen is finito. I have mixed feelings about this. At times, it felt a bit like an echo chamber writing for it because of the lack of access to reader feedback, the numerous problems that readers encountered in actually connecting to the digital magazine (is it a website, a mobile app, or something else?) and, most of all, what seemed like an almost willful lack of promotion by the management(who's in charge, Bialystock and Bloom?). In the coming year, as contractual limits on what I can reprint come to term, I plan on posting pieces I wrote for Wide Screen here, in full. This will give non-subscribers a chance to read some of my best work (thanks to some actual vetting by the great copy editors led by Susan Murcko—Matthew Zuras and his predecessor, Ruth McCann). I will always remember Wide Screen fondly for being my first paid professional writing position as a film critic. It gave me a chance to work alongside some wonderful writers like Simon Abrams, John Lichman, Kurt Loder, Vadim Rizov, and Karl Rozemeyer. I had the best editor in the world, Glenn Kenny, to shepherd me through the ins and outs of professional film writing. And I was honored to call the Self-Styled Siren—one of my personal heroines and an angel to many film bloggers—a trusted colleague.

Fortunately, the last piece to grace the cover of Wide Screen is a collaboration, my very first, with the Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme). We discuss a relatively obscure Powell and Pressburger film, Gone to Earth (1950). I had never heard of it until she was kind enough to invite me to Miriam Bale's rare screening of a beautiful print at the 92Y in Tribeca. Head over to the Siren's place to read a few extended excerpts. I've posted one after the jump that supplements the ones she selected:

[Tony Dayoub:] ...Much of the charm of [Jennifer] Jones's performance in the Powell version is reportedly (because I've never seen it) lost in [David O.] Selznick's [reworking] The Wild Heart. Why Selznick was unhappy with her portrayal of Hazel is a mystery. Her performance is far superior in Gone to Earth than are her grating histrionics as the similarly wild Pearl in Selznick's much better known Duel in the Sun (1946). I chalk up his Svengali-like interference to the fact that Selznick's affair with Jones was in full swing by 1945, with the two marrying a year prior to the UK release of Gone to Earth.

In any case, Hazel's central dilemma, the subjugation of her wild, feminine spirit by two men — the roguish squire Reddin and Marston, the well intentioned minister — is very reminiscent of ballerina Vicky Page's inner conflict in Powell and Pressburger's more famous The Red Shoes. In that film, the talented Page is forced into a triangle where she must choose between sacrificing her career for her composer husband or leaving him behind to continue her rise to stardom under the direction of the dictatorial director of her dance company. Powell and Pressburger also explore similar themes in Black Narcissus, where a group of nuns living in a convent in the Himalayas start succumbing to the lusty temptations offered by their natural surroundings. As it was with the female protagonists of both of these previous films, Hazel's state of mind is often reflected in the increasingly expressionistic lighting by Christopher Challis (whose camera operator in this film, Freddie Francis, would become a renowned cinematographer in his own right). As Hazel falls prey to the seductive advances of Reddin, who whisks her away to his cluttered, castle-like retreat, the night sky turns a lurid shade of orange, aflame with erotic intentions. This until the milquetoast Reverend Marston summons enough gall to come rescue her from the arrogant Reddin. (At which point Reddin's servant — played by the reliably comic supporting player Hugh Griffith — enters his master's drawing room to needle him, "Will there be three for dinner or one?")

This sequence is perhaps Gone to Earth's most hallucinatory. Hazel's "captivity" in Reddin’s home — the chaotic maleness of the messy house, the dense atmosphere created by the golden light streaming through the windows, and one shot in particular, from inside the fireplace with the flame in the foreground separating the viewer from the squabbling trio — reminded me of Ridley Scott's Legend and a scene in which Tim Curry's demon seduces Mia Sara in a similarly appointed room. That isn't necessarily to say that Scott had even seen Gone to Earth. More likely both Powell and Scott had each seen Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946), which surely inspired this setpiece. Just as the Beauty is held hostage by the Beast in his illusory idyll, so is Hazel kept nearly against her will by her sexual attraction to Reddin. Except that, as Gone to Earth repeatedly makes the point, the animalistic Hazel is both Beauty and Beast.

[Farran Smith Nehme:] Jones is definitely part beast, hunted and bewildered like her tame fox, with whom she is repeatedly linked. There's the line when she looks after the departing Squire Reddin, for whom she feels both fear and attraction, and says to her pet, "He's got the blood of little foxes on him, Foxy." That’s just one of many moments that underline a theme of blood and lost virginity. Another occurs when she goes off with the squire at last, and he treads on one of the red garments she's left behind. As you acknowledge, it's luridly specific in a way that Duel in the Sun, for all Jones' writhing in the dirt in that movie, is not.

The cinematography also makes for an incredible combination of the real and unreal. It's unusual to see such lavish location filming in a Technicolor movie, the process being something I usually associate with sets and the studio. The otherworldly beauty of the color works together with the detail in that print; in close-up the shots were so accurate you could see the makeup breathing on the actors' skin. But the sweeping views of the landscape often suggested a natural world as fantastic and feverish as that in Black Narcissus.

That balance between the spooky and the prosaic plays out in the plot as well. One of the most visually incredible scenes in Gone to Earth has Hazel, who believes in ghosts and witches and the spirit world, going to a Stonehenge-like rock outcropping to divine whether she should leave her chaste marriage with the reverend and let herself be seduced by the squire. There's the all-powerful thrust of a huge rock in the foreground (I know, it's that sort of a movie) and in the background we spy Jones, picking her way barefoot across the pebbles to lay down her shawl on the rocks. She's consulted her mother's spell book, which says that if she hears fairy music, she must go with Reddin. There's an exquisite profile shot of Jones, a harp is heard on the soundtrack, and she turns her face full to the camera in astonishment. But the movie, while it's constantly creating a feeling of a half-pagan world, never fully endorses such notions, and when the camera slowly moves down the hill, we see that the harp music is being played by her father. He sealed her fate in one way when he said she must keep a promise to marry the minister, and now he is altering her destiny again.

TD: When I saw Gone to Earth, this moment where Hazel hears the "fairy music" seemed indicative of a shift from realism to fantasy. But after letting the movie sink in — its lushness is so full-bodied, it initially stopped me in my analytical tracks — it should more appropriately be considered a signal of an escalation rather than a transition. Powell and Pressburger's films almost feel like musical compositions with certain audio cues indicating the start of a new movement. This one launches the dreamlike chapter I discussed earlier...


Aden Jordan said...

I hope you and The Self-Styled Siren write up another conversation again on your website because this is some fine discourse material, just as good as the discussions Scott and Dargis have on Sundays in the Times.

As for Nomad Widescreens, I'm sorry to hear about its end especially since I was just now trying to follow its essays and articles.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for the kind words, Aden. I'm sure I also speak for the Siren when I say your comparison with Scott and Dargis might be an overstatement, but the sentiment is very much appreciated.