Non-Stop Party Action

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It’s our birthday. We came into this world five years ago today. Did you get us a present? Oh, never mind. You can still come to the party. In fact you can come to a whole bunch of parties. Five of them, one for every journey we’ve made round the sun. We are about to take you along to some cinematic birthday celebrations worth remembering. Let’s go to the first one now. You can have cake – but only one slice. You’ll see why…

Helen Archer on Whistle Down the Wind

Birthdays are either a cause for celebration or a devastating reminder of your own inexorable slide into the abyss, depending on your outlook. Unless you’re a child, of course, in which case they’re just a great excuse for beating a poor innocent piñata to death before eating your body weight in sugar. But darkness can permeate even children’s birthday parties, secrets can be exposed, faux pas can be made. Which brings us to the pivotal birthday scene in Bryan Forbes’ 1961 film Whistle Down the Wind.

It all starts well – overexcited children, high-pitched screaming, party hats aplenty. But then out comes the cake, and the emotion that the sight of it induces leads to an indiscretion which will result in a (symbolic) crucifixion.

The children, you see, (led by Hayley Mills’ Kathy), have been hiding a fugitive (Alan Bates) in a barn. Due to a slight mix-up, they believe him to be Jesus (when they discovered him and asked him who he was, he could only exclaim ‘Jesus Christ!’ before passing out – they took him at his word). These are lovely, innocent kids, filled with faith and trust and goodwill, and they are quick to believe that the son of God has chosen their modest patch of Lancashire for the second coming. They don’t realise they are unwittingly harbouring a man wanted for murder.

Of course, they must keep their Jesus discovery under wraps, though this proves difficult, and before long every child in the village is making a pilgrimage to the barn of the Lord. The adults, however, remain completely oblivious – and the kids know, instinctively, that it is important they keep them in the dark, because adults ruin everything (it’s true).

But, birthday parties being birthday parties, everyone becomes a bit uninhibited. So as the father of the house (Bernard Lee) attempts to bring the unruly youngsters to heel with the promise of cake (“Now it’s cake time. Everyone who wants a piece of cake queues up in front of Auntie Dorothy”), he notices that little Nan (Diane Holgate) has taken an extra piece. Asking why, she lets slip ‘it’s for Jesus’. Immediately realising her mistake, she covers her mouth, and a deathly silence fills the room. It is left to the only sceptic amongst them, Charles (Alan Barnes), to say, with perfect timing ‘it isn’t Jesus, it’s just a fella’, his sad, deadpan expression skewed slightly by the fez he is wearing.

And so their secret is revealed. As suspected, the grown-ups intervene, removing ‘Jesus’ from the barn and sticking him in the back of a police car, though not without the aforementioned crucifixion imagery. Perhaps the children were right all along, though their steadfast faith has been challenged and the loss of innocence it brings is irrevocable.

This was Bryan Forbes’ directorial debut – he went on to make The Stepford Wives, International Velvet, The L-Shaped Room, and Seance on a Wet Afternoon, amongst others. But it’s Whistle which remains his masterpiece, mixing humour with darkness, and childhood conviction with questions of redemption through belief.

Spank the Monkey on Festen


Here’s the problem with birthdays: the more of them you have, the more stuff you forget. Take, for example, Helge (Henning Moritzen), the 60-year-old patriarch whose birthday party is the setting for Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. The celebration of the title gets a little awkward when his son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) gives a speech to the rest of the family, describing how Helge repeatedly raped both him and his sister throughout their childhood. Helge doesn’t remember any of that. Or does he?

I know how he feels. No, not like that. My viewing companion The Belated Birthday Girl generally stays the hell away from the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, but told me recently that she was at least familiar with Festen because the two of us saw the theatre adaptation in 2004. And here’s the odd thing: I have no recollection of seeing the play at all, even though I have email evidence to confirm we did.

The BBG’s justification for catching it on stage was that nothing would be lost in the translation from film, as Dogme 95 is all about avoiding flashy cinematic contrivances. But if that’s true, why are all my memories of Festen (until this rewatch) entirely based around the one time I saw the movie on its 1998 release? Sure, a lot of the film’s strengths map perfectly into a theatrical context, notably the rising arc of hysteria in the plotting: so when Vinterberg feels he’s milked the incest angle for maximum narrative discomfort, he gleefully adds racism into the mix. The cast, meanwhile, are delighted to be playing such appalling people, and it shows in the performances.

But while Vinterberg is paying lip service to minimalism, two of his collaborators are pushing hard in the opposite direction: it’s telling that both of them have gone on to do more interesting work than anything the director’s done since. One is editor Valdís Óskarsdóttir, whose percussive style gives the film its edgy rhythm. She sets the pace in an early driving scene – the party guests tearing along the road to the hotel, racing to be first to arrive – and then cuts all the dialogue sequences in the same manic fashion, like she’s on a Tony Scott movie.

The other is Anthony Dod Mantle, whose reputation as a world-class cinematographer started here. Happy to work with the limitations of hand-held camera and available light, he hurls himself into the shoot with as much energy as the onscreen cast. And he pulls off a uniquely cinematic masterstroke, simply by virtue of shooting on digital a few years before the technology got any good. If you’ve ever tried using a domestic camcorder at nighttime, you’ll know how fuzzy and blurry the images get. Dod Mantle deliberately uses this as an expressionistic effect: as the night draws in and the family starts to fall apart, so does the quality of the video. It’s like the film is physically disintegrating in front of your eyes as it plays. Vinterberg may have a great story to tell, but it’s Óskarsdóttir and Dod Mantle who make it cinema.

Viv Wilby on Young and Innocent

Between The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock made Young and Innocent, a kind of kid sister to them both, blending the man-on-the-run theme of the former with the larky romance and amateur sleuthing of the latter. Loosely based on a novel by Josephine Tey, the story sees Robert (Derrick de Marnay), a young writer, accused of murder on a set of flimsy circumstantial evidence. He evades justice and hits the road in an attempt to clear his name. Assisting him is Erica (Nova Pilbeam), the chief constable’s plucky 18-year-old daughter. Together with her dog they drive around the English countryside in her open-topped car, following a series of clues and trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

The film is famous for an impressive tracking shot near the end which the reveals the real murderer hiding in plain sight, but its highlight is an extended sequence at a children’s birthday party, at once comic and tense, that comes exactly at the film’s midpoint.

Erica, still young and innocent as the title suggests, decides to briefly call in at her aunt and uncle’s in order to give herself an alibi in case her father worries at her absence and starts calling round. But she’s forgotten it’s her little cousin’s birthday party and is of course prevailed on to stay and play. Robert is subsequently discovered waiting in the driveway and persuaded to join the celebrations (there’s a wonderful bit of comic business with a garden gnome) arousing the suspicions of Erica’s nosy Aunt Margaret (Mary Clare) who fears for her niece’s virtue. The misunderstandings escalate, all against the backdrop of a slightly chaotic kids’ party, until Erica and Robert manage to slip away during a game of Blind Man’s Buff, with the help of an indulgent Uncle Basil (Basil Radford). That Erica sees the party as something to be endured rather than enjoyed tells us everything we need to know about her character. This is Hitchcock: it’s not really a film about solving a crime, it’s a film about growing up and falling in love.

One of the joys of Young and Innocent is its wealth of domestic, almost mundane, detail (albeit in an upper middle class English setting) and it seems children’s parties have changed little since 1937: there’s a conjuror and ice cream and paper hats and games and girls in frilly dresses. In a light and playful mood here, Hitchcock nonetheless tempers the mundane with sex and suspicion.  You can watch it all at the top of this piece. The party starts around 39 minutes in.

Blake Backlash on Ikiru

Watanabe is an old bureaucrat who has been given two presents: a spiffy white hat and clockwork rabbit. He got the hat from a bohemian novelist and the rabbit from Toyo, a young colleague. These are the only two people who know Watanabe is dying of stomach cancer, and the only two people who know how paralysed he is by regret. The things he didn’t do, his failures, seem to weigh on Watanabe like grave-dirt.

Well, now, this is how most of us feel on our birthdays but – despite those presents – it’s not Watanabe’s birthday. Watanabe got the hat on his first and last night out on the lash; him and the novelist indulged in pachinko, sake, striptease, and dancing to boogie-woogie piano.

Watanabe met Toyo the next day; they partook of noodles, funfair rides, ice-skating and pachinko (both the debauched and the pure can find something that makes life worth living in pachinko). Toyo tells Watanabe that her nickname for him is The Mummy. It’s an awkward moment but he laughs and he wants to see her again. And again. Soon Toyo starts to find Watanabe’s attentions creepy but she agrees to meet him one last time.

This is the birthday scene. Watanabe and Toyo sit in silence. She’s bored, she looks, with a mixture of envy and longing, across the restaurant, to where a group of young people are gathering and laughing. A crackle of anticipation goes through this group as a waitress brings them a cake.

Toyo tells Watanabe to keep his old man’s infatuation. He tries to explain why he likes spending time with her but that makes things worse. He really does seem like The Mummy: moaning, stretching his hands out to a young woman, talking about how alive she seems, wanting her to tell him some secret she doesn’t know to free him from a curse. All the while, in the background, we see these youngsters preparing for a party, waiting for someone to arrive. They’re playing music.

‘Why don’t you try making something?’ says Toyo, as much to shut him up as anything else, and shows him one of the wind-up rabbits she makes at her new factory job. It stumbles across the table. And something about the rhythm of the moment – the clockwork, the music from the party, what Toyo has told him – helps Watanabe break free. He grabs his rabbit, and walks out. He’s figured out what he needs to make (a children’s playground, but that story will be told in the rest of the film). As he goes down the stairs all those young people gather above him and start singing ‘Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you…’ They’re really singing for the birthday girl, of course, who arrives as Watanabe is leaving – we see her going up the stairs, up into her own life.

Ikiru is usually translated as ‘living’ and I guess Kurosawa wants us to know that Watanabe starts living the moment he decides to make something. The song would be heavy handed if that birthday party in the background wasn’t so slowly established as part of the scene. We notice it bit-by-bit. So the moment is also suggestive of how we see (or are blind to) what’s happening in other people’s lives while we’re living our own. Everyday someone is in despair, everyday someone is trying to do the right thing. And it’s always somebody’s birthday.

Emma Street on Tangled


If would-be abductors of magical princesses can learn anything from Tangled (and to be fair it’s the first place that I would look for guidance), it’s this: remember it’s OK to be economical with the truth when it comes to letting your charge know when their birthday is.

If Mother Gothel had just made up a birthday for Rapunzel, rather than sticking to her real one, she could have saved herself a lot of bother. The whole sorry escaping-from-the-tower-having-an-adventure-and-living-happily-ever-after business might never have happened.

Rapunzel, having been kept inside a supposedly impenetrable tower since she was a baby, longs to escape and see the world. Specifically, she wants to escape and see the “magic floating lights” which appear in the sky every year on her birthday. And with her eighteenth birthday rapidly approaching, she decides that this is the perfect time in her life to achieve that dream.

The fact that the lights only appear on her birthday is obviously hugely important for Rapunzel who mentions it several times. You don’t imagine she’d be all that bothered if they appeared on any other day. And that’s why you should have fibbed, evil sorceress, Mother Gothel because the timing is significant. The lights are actually lanterns which are released every year on the birthday of the lost princess by the King and Queen of Whateveria and their subjects. And wouldn’t you just know it, Rapunzel is that very same lost princess.

Wait a minute, is ‘Rapunzel’ Rapunzel’s original name? She’s only referred to as the “The Lost Princess” in the story’s introduction. I assume that it isn’t because, really, keeping both her name and her birthday the same would be some extraordinarily shoddy Infant Kidnapping work from Mother Gothel.

Happily, for Rapunzel, her whole “Escape from the Tower and See the Lights” plan becomes much more feasible when Thief On The Lam, Flynn Rider takes refuge in her tower. As supposedly impenetrable towers go, this one really isn’t. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from the palace. Rider happens on to it without too much bother. Why on earth did none of the palace’s guards find it when they were scouring the land looking for the missing princess for eighteen years? Honestly, lads, it’s like you’re not even trying.

Rapunzel celebrates her eighteenth birthday by finally breaking free of her prison. Then she charms a bunch of scary thugs, escapes death, saves some lives, sees the lanterns, falls in love, has her first snog, discovers her true identity as the missing princess and has a massive (and ultimately fatal) falling out with the woman she thought was her mother and who turns out to be a lying evil witch who was only ever interested in her for her magical hair.

As birthdays go, it’s certainly a busy one. On my eighteenth birthday, I just got very drunk on vermouth and threw up in a bush.

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