Monday, June 03, 2013

on some aesthetics of Behind the Candelabra

Some of what has made Behind the Candelabra, the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Scott Thorson's book about his life with Liberace, stick with me is the poignant universality of the story: Matt Damon's vulnerable, sometimes heartbroken face as Thorson as he goes from naif to betrayed, jittery ex. Damon is wonderful. Some of it is a longtime fascination with stories of the old and closeted – or just those aging and trying to live their lives with glamour – in Hollywood. Many times this movie reminded me of scenes in Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City (1982), in which the protagonist Michael visits the Beverly Hills house of a character based very obviously on Rock Hudson (named "_____"). In one scene Michael is talking to the knowing houseman, Guido, as "twinkies" show up for a welcome-home pool party for _____:
One by one, the young men began arriving, long-limbed and Lacosted to near perfection.
"What is this?" asked Michael, hovering near the kitchen. "The summer spread of GQ?"
"They wish," said Guideo, frantically fluffing the parsley on a tray of deviled eggs. "They're anybody's spread at this point . . . and honey, when you've been in this business as long as I have, you see them come and you see them go. Mostly come . . . ya know?"
"They're so gorgeous," said Michael. "Are they actors or what?"
"What, mostly. Starlets. Harry Cohn knew all about it, only he did it with girls. Same difference. Same dumb dames standing around the pool."
But a big part of how Behind the Candelabra has stuck with me, it turns out, is how it was made. To this story, which in some ways is not a new one, the film brings precise and artistic movie craft, including a few qualities that really stuck out.

One great effect was the marriage of all the Liberacean "palatial kitsch" to pervasive yellows and glowing, often blown-out light that saturates the film – something I think of as a Soderbergh hallmark. There is yellow and gold all through this film – hair, walls, cars, houses, jewelry – but most of all: light. Light radiates back from Behind the Candelabra, from the shining yellow incandescence inside Liberace's homes and dressing rooms, to the the whited-out glare of the Palm Springs sun, to the colder but still bright-burning stage light. The light hits ominous objects like the never-ending pile of prescriptions Dr. Startz (Rob Lowe) hands Thorson, turning them into pretty luminous squares. From the very first shot – at a gay bar with Damon's back to camera – to Liberace's deathbed scene near the end, as the gaunt Michael Douglas lies on gold satin sheets that shine at the camera, the film glows with Soderbergh yellow.

All this light – which doesn't blur or obscure detail – it tends to make things sharper, even as it creates excess – does one important thing for the movie and its depiction of life inside the jewel box: brings it closer. It animates the insane interiors and spaces Liberace lived in. When you look at old photos – long shots – of Liberace's mirrored rooms and crazy gilded furniture, they can have a kind of bluish, dated feel. I mean, they would, by just virtue of age, but images of the kitschy and ornate decor of his homes – of his self – can feel kind of overwhelming and cold. The light creates focus, lets you marvel at the baroque spaces without getting lost in them. The scenes when the film's palette departs from the warm glow – at the glory holes, lit in purple neon, or the greenish light of the operating rooms during the plastic surgery scenes, or the flat white light in Damon's drug buddy Mr. Y's (Nicky Katt) house after the breakup – tend to feel disorienting, hint at discord. The yellow tends to animate the closest parts of Damon's and Douglas' life together; the other tones often fall outside of it.

The sound in Behind the Candelabra is wonderful, with subtle but sure, judiciously-chosen changes in ambient noise that put happenings in precise place, such as the distant barks of Liberace's dogs in other rooms, or a shot of an an announcement from the Palm Springs coroner (note: more blistered sunshine), which arrives with the sudden buzz of the cicadas that immediately reminds you these opulent Palm Springs interiors actually hide inside desert bunkers:

And the score was great. I have thought a lot about what it means that all the years of Liberace's life he spent playing the piano – decades – and creating his defanged, glammed-up versions of classical music, might make the most sense these days as snipped-off bits in a movie score. (I don't know what it means – I've just been thinking about it.) Soderbergh had amazing riches to choose from – music to undercut, to underline, some of it actually really beautiful. Off-hand the only time I remember hearing any other kind of music in this film is the opening scene, which is scored with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." The song choice – and the way the song goes from straight soundtrack to sounding like it's being played in a club – makes it clear right from the beginning where this young man is coming from, in every sense.

There are no opening credits in this movie. The scene at the gay bar opens it, after just a card with the year on it:
...which for me (I don't know about you) immediately puts me in mind of 70s to mid-80s album covers. (The type is Sante Fe, designed by David Quay in 1983.) It harkens to diner script and neon signs, and to earlier 20th century script typefaces, but in my mind it feels firmly connected to 70s/early 80s deco. That open join in the "9" immediately dates it, as do the rounded ends of the monolineal characters.

Which brings us to a small detail – in terms of screen time – that really cinched my affection for this film. There are no title credits in Behind the Candelabra, but the end credits, which represent the film's first major graphic design decision, open with this extremely tasty image. I think I sighed when I saw it:

Edwardian Script, a typeface designed by the legendary Ed Benguiat in 1994, is tricky as hell, I think. I'm almost never happy to see it. Even in 2013, with ever-changing design rules, it is tricky. It looks, at a squint, like a lyrical and strenuously uniform/classically regular copperplate typeface, but the minute you're closer you can see it is also emotional and all over the place, especially for one designed to suggest elegance and formality.

You can see some of it the craziness with an up-close look at the join from O to D and the lower-case R, here:

These are bold and variant shapes within the thicket of more regular ups and downs (they almost look like Benguiat shaded in the loops by mistake, as if the ink in his pen had gushed a little there). The thicks and thins often take their own pace; they are not as uniform as they seem at first look (Benguiat created some amazing brush and script typefaces, which fits with this). And Edwardian has some kooky bulb terminals, as in the S and the X, below – look at those things!

I think it's very hard to use the right amount of Edwardian Script. It's not just formal – but it's not just nutty. All those joins and curves, which almost look like blown-up or close-up versions of joins in other typeface, can both lose their effect or have too much effect – overwhelm – unless administered at correct dosages: amounts that let you see the wacky curves and terminals but not get lost in them. And I'm not even taking on the genuinely florid Edwardian capitals, which are excessive and increase illegibility quite a bit when used more than one a word.

In the time that Behind the Candelabra takes place - at the time Liberace Cooks! (for instance) was published in 1970 – there was, in my memory, a lot of lettering like that. A lot of thick, packed-together, flourish-heavy type of a kind you see echoed a bit in Edwardian Script.
You can see when you look a bit closer that the K has an even bigger bulb terminal than the one in the Edwardian Script "X":

A much more common type of copperplate typeface for the moment – Bickham, for instance – renders letters quite differently:

The thicks are less thick and extend for much longer (and along the longer ascenders and descenders), with less variation, shortening and standardizing the transitions from thick to thin that can be so dramatic in Edwardian Script. It leans at a much steeper angle, feels more full of directed movement, rather than movement held inside the letters in Edwardian Script, which can feel kind of static, as if the letters are cages. The curves in Bickham are shallower, the effect much more regular. To me it's a much more pleasing script to the eye, closer to a hand-written script. Edward Script feels drawn.

The way Behind the Candelabra uses Edwardian Script was genius, though. Weirdly, intensely so. It is perfect for a film steeped in kitsch yet apart from it, and absolutely perfect for Liberace in his particular kind of aesthetic of excess. The amount of Edwardian Script they used was great: small and careful, yet clear (another prob with Edwardian I think – lack of clarity), pushed to the front by the soft focus behind it. The limited use of capitals is good – oh the title card! [top image] It makes me drool a little, with that bitchen backward flourish at the top of the C contrasting with the line of type marching next to it... The flat pastel candy color choices contrasted beautifully with the metallics and shiny golds of the tiny pianos, the scale of which set off the whole effect perfectly. The color was genius, period; it embraced, rather than fought with, this type's inability to quite fit in the box. There was – this was the real key, maybe – enough air around the text to give the Edwardian room to be read, and for all the kineticism within the letters to dissipate, and for the regularity in the letters, which is there, to shine through too, and wrap up the movie – tell us it was over.


It is all very...Liberace. Elegant but cheesy – all those swirls and shapes are cheesy. Constrained but florid and romantic. Kind of crazy. A little geriatric, a little dated, a little fabulous. A little bit Precious Moments, a little bit louche. Little jewels of text, next to the tiny, jewel-like pianos.

Does this sound crazy? I care desperately about letters, but I am in many ways more of a self-taught calligrapher than a designer and don't always know if history and the graphic arts back up my visceral reactions. Or if I'm missing things. All's I know is that this was about the first time I ever had a happy reaction to Edwardian Script. The end titles are just gorgeous, and gorgeous in context.

The movie is worth seeing, if you haven't, and I am guessing, given how strong I found the visuals, would have been much better shown first in a theater. I would have loved to drink them in on the big screen.

p.s. A truly great insult from this movie: "You cock-sucking tenor fuck!"

p.p.s. The poster is great too, with its bejeweled lettering: Poppl-Exquisit, I think, a much better choice for the poster than Edwardian Script, but I wish they'd un-capitalize the T in "The"!


whet said...

dammit, now i can't unsee the capitalized 'The.'

whet said...

...then again, maybe Liberace would capitalize the 'The'...