Archive for the Television Category

Home Theater

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 5, 2014 by dcairns

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The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, is a ten-part TV show which may be the best thing Steven Soderbergh has ever done. Since I haven’t always liked Soderbergh’s films, this may seem like faint praise, but on the other hand I like a bunch of them plenty, and really this show would stand out as a high point on anybody’s filmography. It can’t be because Soderbergh is suddenly allowed greater freedom by TV, even though he complained about the way film directors were being treated (it’s probably true that directors are afforded less respect today, are regarded as “presumptively wrong” during any discussion — but it could be that it’s Soderbergh’s status that had fallen) — but Soderbergh chose his own projects, sometimes wrote and produced them, always photographed and edited them, and would seem to have a certain amount of clout. Nor can it really be that the lack of control in TV, traditionally a writer’s medium, is constraining Soderbergh in a favourable way. It just feels like he has an incredibly good set of scripts and has risen to the challenge.

As I hinted when discussing Parade’s End, period dramas on TV have started trying to seem modern and feisty and to throw off the musty mantle of “quality” and “classic” — in the UK, this has mainly resulted in bizarre and inappropriate directorial choices which seem overly self-conscious and artificial (the blatant swiping from JULES ET JIM in Michael Winterbottom’s JUDE can serve as a warning here). Soderbergh gives us a 1900 New York with electronic music (Cliff Martinez), hand-held camera and wide lenses, freeze frames and a shots taken with the camera strapped to the actor (a very effective drunken brawl in ep. 3) and all manner of modernistic flourishes, and it all feels JUST RIGHT. (However ultimately successful his films, Soderbergh’s stylistic choices have always been smart, and only in THE GOOD GERMAN did he prove not equal to achieving them — turns out the b&w classic Hollywood aesthetic is about the hardest trick there is).

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Partly the unusual visuals work because they are supported by really impressive visual detail in the set design and costumes, and also in the script, which shows all the evidence of a tone of research not only performed but digested and then transfigured into solid drama. So we have a living, breathing world full of unpredictable and unfamiliar-but-credible characters, and so almost any filming choice would work — Soderbergh’s just happens to be interesting.

I can illustrate this idea — that a credible world trumps any stylistic choice — using the words of Jim Sheridan (as I recall them). The MY LEFT FOOT guy is one of the most entertaining raconteurs in cinema, at least in small doses, and he said, approximately: “The first question a novice director wants to answer is ‘Where do I put the camera?’ which is dead wrong, because your job is to create a moment of emotional truth, and if you do that right, it doesn’t matter where you put the camera. You might not even need a camera.”

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Like all the Great Truths, this is only true sometimes, but Sheridan was able to neatly illustrate the most boggling [art of his assertion by pointing to the documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, in which a crucial, emotionally renching scene occurs after the camcorder has been knocked to the ground — the entire scene is delivered as audio only, and it’s devastating.

Of course, one of the things I like about films is when a composition or a movement or a cut makes visible an underlying truth — you can see it in the frame above, snatched almost at random from the first episode.

Anyway, The Knick was shot with a camera, for which we can be grateful — many medical atrocities are thus presented in graphic detail, but also:

Matt Frewer sterilising his beard; André Holland teaching a laundress to sew chicken skin; a beautiful girl with no nose; a novelty striptease entitled “The Busy Flea”; the wonders of cocaine.

Kidstuff

Posted in Comics, FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by dcairns

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Click to enlarge. And then it all happens.

I was always dimly aware of The Kin-Der Kids, in a collected volume of newspaper cartoons by Lyonel Feininger, lurking on a shelf in Edinburgh College of Art library, but something had kept me from taking it out. Now I realize it was probably the unreadable text — Feininger, like his near-contemporary Winsor McCay, believed in drawing the artwork and speech balloons first, before writing the dialogue, and then would cram whatever he had to say into the available space (McKay sometimes goes the opposite way, finding his balloon to capacious for the plotline, he’ll bung in random cries of “Oh!” until the bubble is snugly used up) — also, the original broadsheet-sized hugeness has been shrunk to half its original scale, meaning that I had to dig out a green magnifying glass I found in the back yard to read it (I can’t think what I did with the nice steel magnifier I bought for M. Natan to use in the documentary “reconstructions” of NATAN).

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Anyway, it’s worth it. The surreal adventures of Daniel Webster (a child with a stovepipe hat and male-pattern baldness), Piemouth, Strenuous Teddy and Little Japansky (a clockwork Japanese boy of unexplained origin) are worth anybody’s time. And not much time is required — the strip was a flopperoo and was cancelled in short order, leaving behind a scant few pages that promised some kind of long-form continuing madness, more eccentric even than Little Nemo and Popeye and the other, later greats. It couldn’t last, but the bold experiment of putting a Bauhaus painter in charge of a piece of mainstream entertainment at least left us with 29 pages of madness (plus another 18 of Wee Willie Winkie’s World.)

A modern-day follower of Feininger’s approach seems to me to be Tony Millionaire, whose Maakies strip, dealing with the adventures of an alcoholic crow and a sock puppet monkey, at sea, have a similar cockamamie picaresque rambunctiousness. There was a TV show which you can watch. It, too, was cancelled. In fact, in its pilot episode, a harpooned sea monster jets blood from its blowhole/s, an image incredibly present in The Kin-Der Kids (children’s entertainment was tougher then). Feininger, apparently sensing that having anthropomorphic animals with their own speech balloons might be problematic when it’s time for them to be killed and eaten, resolves the tonal difficulty by giving his sea creatures crap dialogue, such as, “Who would have thunk it” (no question mark, making it even lamer) and “Drat it all! This is one on me” — the implication being that they are not so much living thinking sentient characters like Daniel Webster and (debatably) Piemouth, as pasteboard caricatures jerked into the simulacrum of life by a quill-wielding kraut.

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To give you some idea of Feininger’s eccentricity, here is his dramatis personae, in which he sees fit to include the Kin-Der family bathtub — which never appears again.

 

03 Giovedi

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Yeah, I haven’t finished trawling through Bologna yet, have I?

One thing about Il Cinema Ritrovato — unlike a lot of good experiences, it isn’t over quickly. Once you hit the wall (which happened to me before I was really halfway through), time slurs to a near-halt like Wendell Corey on a steep slope, accelerating or dissolving away during screenings and conversations — the minutes flit, but the days stretch on, impersonators of infinity. It’s nice!

I had now adopted a policy of seeing things loud enough to keep me awake — other anti-sleep qualities were strong narratives, speed, and familiar faces. This made the early Japanese talkies and the Polish widescreens a bad risk, but I still hoped to catch some (I failed with the ‘scopes).

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Chaplin’s WORK was supposed to begin the day at 9, but I was too sleepy. I think the first thing I made it to was THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK at 10.45. In the intro it was explained that despite valiant efforts by restorers, legal wrangles prevented the movie from being repaired, so the print we saw was somewhat pinked, badly spliced, and missing at least one whole scene. I think it may have been missing more, because although I’ve seen it before I didn’t remember it making QUITE so little sense. But it’s an Italian horror movie so anything’s possible. I wished they’d screened THE GHOST instead.

And then it was lunchtime already — after which (I’m sure it was a good one, but I didn’t take notes) I finally saw one of the Italian compendium episodes that had been getting such raves throughout the fest (Alexander Payne declared one to be the best thing he saw, but nobody could tell me WHICH one). I’d been a touch resistant, since in the compendia I’d seen, only the Fellini episodes tended to be any good. Shows what I know. This one was from Alessandro Blasetti’s TEMPI NOSTRI, the follow-up to his ALTRO TEMPI, which inaugurated the who anthology-film craze in Italy.

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It was introduced by Blasetti’s daughter, a voluble nonagenarian, and I realized why these screenings were all overrunning by half an hour. But the background she provided was ESSENTIAL — the episode starred Vittorio De Sica and was SUPPOSED to re-team him with Gina Lollobrigida, with whom he’d formed a popular couple in the previous movie. But Lollobrigida balked at playing a deceived wife, arguing that it was not plausible that a man married to her would ever stray. Blasetti was forced to recast so Elisa Cignani is on jiggling duties instead (literally, she vibrates her body in every scene, sometimes by bouncing one crossed leg, sending tremors through her torso which assume Vesuvian proportions beneath her blouse), but director and co-writer also rewrote the script, I can’t think why. We can see that Cignani was supposed to be De Sica’s wife, but now she’s his parents’ ward, raised as his sister, and the narrative turns not on her jealousy and his infidelity but on her silent love for him and his blindness, until he realizes he shouldn’t think of her as a sister anymore… It doesn’t quite work, but what’s left is the comedy of De Sica as an ebullient Neopolitan bus driver, with a sour-faced supervisor who wants to sack him. It’s just like On the Buses, in other words, if that 70s sitcom were charming and sexy instead of ugly and repulsive.

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My vim somewhat restored, I stayed for TOBY DAMMIT, though the print turned out to have subtitles only for the English bits. I’ve seen it often enough that I could follow it. It was better than the old DVD that dubbed it into French — Fellini’s mulit-lingual melange is essential to the hallucinatory experience.

A spirit of randomness kept me in my seat for OIDHCHE SHEANCHAIS, which looks like I just collapsed on my keyboard but is in fact Irish Gaelic for NIGHT OF THE STORYTELLER. Robert Flaherty’s long-lost movie was the first film in that language, and its apparent loss left a puzzling hole in the tragic record. To everyone’s amazement, a print has turned up in America (it was assumed the film, of only local interest, was never exported) and can now be seen. It’s terrible, but at least it can be seen. A kind of footnote to MAN OF ARAN, it has clear historical interest, but nothing else. My objection is that Flaherty films the whole twenty-minute piece with five locked-off set-ups. Wide shot, storyteller, listener, listener, listener. Utterly inexpressive. Somewhat typical of the approach to early talkers seen elsewhere at the fest (Japan, Wellman) but applied here with a rigorous lack of creativity. Then there’s the storyteller himself: some said they could have closed their eyes and enjoyed the music of his voice without the need for translation (and certainly without the need for pictures) — I found his a snore. Admittedly, I was now permanently sleepy from insomnia and the heat.

Then there were three shorts with Peter Sellers, two of them freshly discovered and the third part of the set. That one ran first. It had a couple of laughs — Sellers attempts to cure his cold by wearing a sock full of mustard round his neck, which ruptures in a disgusting welter — b&w film so it’s like a magma flow of porridge slow-oozing into Sellers’ VERY HAIRY CHEST. Disgusting but sort of funny. But the film wasn’t good, and I only stayed for a few minutes of the first redisocvery, DEARTH OF A SALESMAN (mis-spelled in the program, presumably leading some to expect a proper Arthur Miller piece). When the shorts’ rescue hit the news, I discussed them with Richard Lester, who said “I hope they show more artistic ambition than THE CASE OF THE MUKKINESE BATTLEHORN.” They show less. Though not quite at Flaherty’s level of soporific inertia, what I saw of DEARTH was enjoyable only for the hilariously mismatched angles, with Sellers’ position transmuting instantly between every shot.

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Then there were some Soviet films about Hitler, (“Good evening, Hitler fans”) screened in the Il Cinema in guerra contro Hitler season. Some nice zany shorts — Hitler, for some reason, was always a comedy figure to the Russians — maybe if you’re working for Stalin, you just can’t help laugh at Hitler. The main feature was THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SCHWEIK, a follow-up to the popular WWI comedy, with Schweik (a really irksome clown, kind of a Soviet El Brendel) getting drafted by the Nazis but defecting to aid the partisans in Yugoslavia. Weirdly, the ending, in which Hitler is captured and exhibited in a cage, and somehow mutates into werewolf form (as inexplicable as Cleopatra the Chicken Lady — “Maybe it as the storm?”), directly echoes a passage in the previous evening’s Hitler entertainment, Pabst’s DER LETZTE AKTE, where Adolf has an infernal monologue about how he’ll never surrender because the allies would show him off as a caged freak…

More synchronicity — Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber had just explained to me their theory about the donkey — that ever-golden cinematic axiom which adds lustre to every opus — and SCHWEIK was well supplied with asinine entertainment, including an animatronic donkey hind legs– an ass’s ass — which kicks various characters. This had Olaf swooning with the possibilities. Has the apparatus been preserved in some Russian film museum, fur flaking off to expose the cybernetic fetlocks beneath? If so, Olaf will gladly drop a kopeck in its slot to make it buck again.

Exhaustion was setting in — I had a good dinner, and didn’t feel able to face another movie, but LADY FROM SHANGHAI was showing in the Piazza Maggiore and it was on my way home, so I thought I’d just look in and see how it was looking. It’s not a reconstruction — no missing footage was found — but it is a very attractive digital presentation — and as it turned out, it was just about to start (everything starts late in Bologna) as I appeared. So I sat on the curb, all seats being occupied, and surrendered to the inevitable…

 

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