Archive for March, 2009

The Place of the Skull

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2009 by dcairns

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Look — it’s Jesus!

Since Easter is approaching, we decided to watch a man get nailed to some timber.

To say that Julien Duvivier’s GOLGOTHA — a big budget, star-studded life-and-death-and-life of Christ movie — falls into the trap of the biblical movie, is to not say nearly enough. Duvivier’s film flings itself headlong into that trap, with the crazed abandon of Joe Cocker, if Joe Cocker were a film about Christ. It’s not the best metaphor in the world, but you get what I mean.

To clarify: a common complaint about Hollywood epics is that they lack real people, or at any rate people we can relate to. Part of the trouble is dialogue. “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” as Howard Hawks put it, is a brilliant encapsulation of the problem of presenting characters from an age and culture very different from out own, who would have spoken a language different from the one we’re presenting them in.

(Sidebar: Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic flogathon THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST cuts this Gordian knot with the classic simplicity of the true moron: it doesn’t matter that the languages used in Gibson’s s&m porno Christ are not the right ones for the period. All that matters is that the vast majority of modern viewers don’t understand a word of what’s being said, thus accurately recreating the effect of being present at the real crucifixion.)

The result of all these difficulties with speech and characterisation is often a certain wooden quality, often reinforced by the scale of these productions. Recreating life in ancient times can be very expensive, and filmmakers sometimes see this expense as a goal rather than a result. Plodding, monumental epics naturally tend to diminish the human element, encouraging the actors to declaim and strike poses, so the whole problem is exacerbated.

And then again, it’s an artistic challenge to imagine what people were actually like in earlier times. We can err by making them too like us, but also by making them too different. When Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age,” he inquired, “did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?”

Duvivier’s movie, a super-production of the kind more associated with Hollywood than France, was filmed amid giant sets, with a ceaselessly gliding camera. Since the days of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, filmmakers have recognised that camera movement allows for the celebration of vast scale, although they have likewise struggled with the fact that such movements, when motivated by a desire to explore space rather than follow characters around, can tend to minimise the people still further. Duvivier, like George Lucas, built his fantasy city in Tunisia, although his gigantic Jerusalem — a combination of massive sets, existing structures and special effects — easily beats the crap out of Mos Eisley Spaceport.

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“There never was a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The restless tracking shots with which Duvivier examines this vast arena call to mind Michael Curtiz, with whom Duvivier is often compared. Such an analogy often does a disfavour to both men, by implying that they’re impersonal artisans, capable of turning their hands to any genre, and devoid of personal trademarks. Curtiz certainly has a signature style, which involves a high-gloss visual surface, a roving camera, and an avoidance of thematic obsessions, apart from a tendency to linger on moments of sadism. Duviviershares some of the visual concerns, but was also usually involved in the scripting of his films, which do cover a wide range of territories, but feature recurring themes and character types too. In this film, however, he could almost be a parody of Curtiz, ignoring the people and story and concentrating most of his attention on design and cruelty.

But the devotion to the look isn’t 1005 consistent. Although most of the characters are chipboard stereotypes — grumbling pharisees, a shifty Peter, an angsty Judas — a few touches give humanity (of a degraded kind) to the Roman soldiery, who are heard grumbling about the weather and laughing as they poke a blindfolded Christ with a stick (“Which one of us was that, eh?”), in a variation on the arse-kicking game played by Hugh Herbert in FOG OVER FRISCO. And while Christ himself is weirdly de-emphasised as a central character, rendered more as icon than personality, Pontius Pilate and Herod each get moments when the film slows its pace right down, and Duvivier pays rapt attention to the faces of his actors. Of course, since the actors are Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, this kind of star treatment is to be expected, but it’s nonetheless startling when Duviver holds on Baur’s great face for second after second, as Herod sizes up an off-screen Christ. (Christ is frequently off-screen, even in scenes where he’s present. It feels like Duvivier wants us to be startled whenever we do actually get to see his main character: a commendably mad idea.)

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This is a remarkable scene all round, since it has become invested with the grimmest of all possible ironies. Herod is played by an actor later tortured and murdered by the Gestapo. Jesus is played by an actor who was a fervent collaborationist and Nazi sympathiser, Robert Le Vigan. To see Baur passing judgement on Le Vigan is quite weird, melancholy and disturbing.

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Then comes the flogging, which Duvivier does not show, instead slowly closing in on the faces of witnesses gazing through a barred window. “We want to see!” someone cries, but Duvivier does not let US see. There’s a sly, cynical wit here that Mel Gibson could learn from, if it were possible to put the words “Mel”, “Gibson” and “learn” in the same sentence without the sky falling in. There’s also the famous “blood libel,” which brought Gibson some criticism — as I understand it, the line is in the bible, so Duvivier (or even Gibson) including it is defensible on grounds of fidelity to the source, but it’s still unfortunate.

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Which it does, right after they nail Jesus up. The traditional death mass (AKA “the theme from THE SHINING”) gives way to an insane xylophonic freakout as the firmament pours past at time-lapse velocity, rent asunder periodically by the most convincing SFX lightning-flashes I’ve ever seen in a ’30s movie.

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I never knew Judas hanged himself on Skull Island.

As you can probably guess from my description, and from any memories you might have of George Stevens’ beautiful but lumbering arse-marathon THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, Duvivier’s film isn’t exactly moving, just solemn and sweeping, but it’s at least spectacular in creative ways, and follows its own perverse course so blindly that it achieves a kind of artistic grandeur above mere spectacle. It’s exactly the kind of film which might tend to reinforce the usual prejudices about Duvivier as an empty-headed purveyor of glossy production values, but once you’ve seen LA FIN DU JOUR or PEPE LE MOKO or POIL DE CAROTTE or PANIQUE you ought to be inoculated against that kind of poppycock. And there’s an underlying strangeness to the whole approach that seperates it from the monumentalism of Stevens’ much-maligned film.

The False Good Idea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2009 by dcairns

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It’s one of my favourite concepts in film-making, the False Good Idea, and I’m indebted to producer David Brown for introducing me to it. Of course, some would say that a False Good Idea is just the same as a True Bad Idea, which is hardly a new concept, but the beauty of the phrase for me is how it encapsulates the glitter and appeal of the FGI, the thing which is presented as good, accepted as good, and leads us all to hell.

The FGI in Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER is the principle of historical accuracy in costumes (big nappies all round) with bright, crisp, clear sunlight, exposing the full ludicrousness of the proceedings.

The guy who edited the excellent trailer for Stone’s W. identified the FGI in that one as, “Who wants to see a fair and balanced portrait of George W Bush by Oliver Stone?” The neo-con audience would avoid the film because it’s Stone, who is the anti-Christ. Stone’s admirers would avoid the film if they thought it was a whitewash. What was needed was a Michael Moore approach, playing to Stone’s percieved strengths as a maker of chaotic, pop-art satires like NATURAL BORN KILLERS (a film I despise, personally) . With NIXON, the idea of humanizing the Devil was a more interesting way to go, and the greater historical distance obviated any need for messianic urgency, but W. could and should have been a genuinely political film from a passionately held viewpoint.

Accompanying the film’s weakness on politics is an aesthetic weakness — too many scenes of Sedentary Characters in Plush Rooms, without any interesting cinematic angle on what to DO with S.C.s in P.R.s (if Stone can’t create chaos by mixing film stocks and flying around moving characters, he’s rather emasculated as a director) — and a problem of character. Stone has said that he admires Bush for conquering his addictions and the aimless lifestyle of his youth. Of course, an ability to overcome ones demons is admirable, although I do wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off had Bish not drunk himself to death (actually, I don’t wonder: I’m pretty sure we would be). And Stone can relate to Bush’s battle, which is fair enough. But I actually think being harsher on Bush would have been a better course for Stone, since if the film is to some small extent a veiled depiction of his own journey through hedonism to achievement, it doesn’t do to be too indulgent. My favourite character in NATURAL BORN KILLERS was Robert Downey Jnr’s documentarist, mainly because he seemed like a Stone surrogate in part, supplying a degree of distance in a film otherwise jammed much too far up itself.

I watched W. during our teen-watching week. It’s a largely dull film, and a dull script — as in THE DOORS, Stone seems incapable of shame even when serving up the eggiest lines of exposition of the “This is the sixties,” variety. Jumping around in Bush’s life serves no good purpose — it’s not even chaotic enough to serve Stone’s craving for “energy”, especially with explanatory titles supered up to locate each scene in space-time. But there are a couple of pleasures.

The starry cast serves to illustrate the adage that “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people,” — every actor in the film is better-looking than the personage they’re playing. Yet Thandie Newton, transfigured by makeup, does an astounding, terrifying job of embodying the walking madness known as Condoleeza Rice. The other highlight is Toby Jones, whose Karl Rove is likewise a creature of hallucination — in these scenes, Stone sometimes gets close to a kind of Strangelovian nightmare comedy (directly referenced in the war room set — see also WATCHMEN), partly because it’s impossible to evoke those personalities convincingly without tipping the film over into the realms of CALIGARI. And one scene, in which Bush tells his pastor of his intention of running for president, actually achieves a rather magnificent wit — although I couldn’t be sure if this was accidental, given the leaden writing and direction elsewhere.

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Josh Brolin’s GWB is backlit in heavenly fashion during the scene, which isn’t the witty part, although it made me smile very slightly. But Toby Jones, arranging himself in the background like a truncated python that’s swallowed a goat, is. As Bush talks of the God that’s inspired him, Jones’s preening postures and smug expression make us feel that he IS that God. Which puts the candidate’s faith in a whole new light. What’s even funnier is that nobody else in the scene appears to be able to see him.

Equine Symmetry

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2009 by dcairns

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From A BORING AFTERNOON, a short by Ivan Passer, made for the Czech new wave compendium film PEARLS FROM THE DEEP, but omitted from the final cut. Such a beautiful image I had to share it.

Passer has had a wobbly career since the ’60s and INTIMATE LIGHTING. His mate Milos Forman would get him meetings with studio honchos, and Passer would turn up drunk and insult them. Still, I’m thinking I should check out some of his later work and see what’s what.

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