Archive for the Television Category

Just the Facts

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , on November 14, 2014 by dcairns

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Jack Webb’s TV show Dragnet, which he wrote (?), directed, produced and starred in for something like 300 episodes, is a good teaching tool. The cutting demonstrates a common error, whereby dialogue is snipped up into piece of film showing a series of people speaking: “My turn” — “My turn now” — “Me again.” Overlaps and reaction shots are banished, and the result is a deadening of affect so that even the most showboating of guest stars are crammed into compartments along with the rigid, robotic Webb himself as Detective Joe Friday.

But this is no beginner’s error — the choice is deliberate and it creates not only a distinct staccato style but a helpful effect. Since the show is a procedural, the cutting emphasizes the question-and-answer nature of police work. Psychology is denied. “Just the facts, ma’am.” What Hitchcock might have disparaged as “photographs of people talking” becomes an expressive tool in itself to depict what police work might actually be like — emotions tamped down, conclusions postponed until certitude is arrived at, just the assemblage or raw data gleaned from laborious legwork and mouthwork.

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Question.

Answer.

Question.

Answer.

Repeat ad infinitum.

Bone and Sinew

Posted in literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by dcairns

Boneless

The best episode of Dr. Who this season was called “Flatline”, written by Jamie Mathieson and featuring aliens from a two-dimensional universe, known as “the boneless.” This season has featured an influx of big screen talent — Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of 24HR PARTY PEOPLE); Ben Wheatley (director of A FIELD IN ENGLAND) and Rachel Talalay (TANK GIRL), but ironically these have all been trumped by Mathieson, who has only one cinema credit, and director Douglas MacKinnon, whose several other Who episodes have not reached such heights of atmosphere and excitement. The combination of a lively story full of ideas, both amusing and creepy, and a well-conceived look for the baddies (inspired by 3D printer glitches — this gives them a Francis Bacon quality) brought out the best in everyone.

***

This will all link up in the end. For my birthday, my parents gave me some goodies including Best Movie Stories, a review copy of a 1969 anthology of cinema-themed short fiction. While it was delightful to read Noel Coward referring to “the Beverley Hills” (that definite article still cracks me up, obscurely), the big hits for me were the tales by William Saroyan, O.K., Baby, This is the World, and Gerald Kersh, The Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Passes, which is actually the last part of a novel, An Ape, a Dog and a Serpent.

I resolved to seek out more Saroyan and Kersh.

boneless1

***

More or less at once, a copy of The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories fell off my shelf. Like Best Movie Stories, this was a second-hand bookshop purchase, and it turns out to contain a story by Kersh, Men Without Bones. It’s quite Lovecraftian, with maybe some Quatermass thrown in. It doesn’t make all that much sense but stirs up some creepiness and revulsion, with its armies of small, fat, jelly-like boneless men.

Anyhow, that connects up with Dr. Who, doesn’t it?

***

So now I’ve bought Fowler’s End, supposed by many to be Kersh’s best novel, a black comedy of London life in the early thirties, set around a decrepit cinema showing silent films. Here’s how Kersh describes the central light fixture in the auditorium ~

“From a peeling brass-plated rod fixed in the centre of the roof hung a kind of orange-and-green dustbin made of glass lozenges. If there is such a thing as brown light, brown light leaked out of the top of this contraption, making a shapeless pattern which, when you looked at it, took away your will to live. Looking up as a quicksand closes over your head, you see such a light and such a pattern as the last bubble bursts.”

Like Edinburgh Filmhouse, the Fowler’s End Pantheon is housed in a former church, in this case one created by a sect called the Nakedborners. It’s owned by a grotesque caricature of the Jewish entrepreneur, a vulgar, crooked lunatic called Sam Yudenow, whom the Jewish Kersh has great fun making as flamboyantly repulsive as possible. Kersh is also the originator of Night and the City and London low-life was his metier, though he also wrote sci-fi and horror and journalism and whatever paid the bills.

***

bonel

Addendum: in an old volume entitled St Michaels’ 65 Tales of Horror — published by the shop chain Marks & Spencer in the 70s, and containing a story, The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which I filmed in 1993 (the text still has orange highlighter where I underlined the useful bits), I find another Kersh, Comrade Death. It is astonishing, horrific.

“And then again, gas; I can show you some quite amazing things the Necrogene has done to men. They have twisted themselves into positions — well, I tell you, if they had studied acrobatics all their lives they could never have achieved such contortions! Amazing! One poor fellow bit himself in the small of the back. But you’d never believe. Come, let me show you —”

Brrr.

Harry Houdunnit

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona is on a Houdini kick, so she compelled me to watch the History Channel’s biopic, starring Adrien Brody (authentically Hungarian) as the Great Man.

Scripted by Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME) with numerous fictional flourishes (Rasputin? the bullet trick?) and a tacked on voice-over which works hard to ruin everything, along with an irksome, pumped-up music score, the show is nevertheless diverting, since the facts of Houdini’s existence are remarkable enough and Meyer includes plenty of them. Brody is good, even if he is spectacularly elongated where HH was spectacularly compact. Director Ulli Edel (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN) throws all he’s got at it, and some of it sticks, but stricter organisation of shots would have helped. It’s more like an exciting compendium of effects than a job of organisation.

The real revelation is that Houdini soars whenever it documents the magic act, even when making stuff up. And most of the tricks are followed by explanations, where available (only the vanishing elephant is left as a tantalizing mystery, and indeed the trick as presented onscreen looks quite impossible). It’s the rather clumsy attempts to provide psychological explanations for Houdini’s actions and career and life which drag the two-parter down to earth like multiple balls and chains. So I propose a new approach for the next biopic — try focussing on the career, the reason we’ve heard of the character in the first place, and skip over everything else — leave the motivation as mysterious as the dematerialised pachyderm. If your character is a showman like Houdini, there will still be plenty of drama…

 

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