The Zero With a Thousand Faces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Terry Gilliam ought to, by rights, be exempt from criticism — he’s done enough great work and suffered enough appalling misfortune and interference to merit being left in peace — a mighty Prometheus regularly torn apart by vultures ought to at least be spared mosquito bites. Noble as these sentiments are, I’m not going to abide by them, since when was the life of the film blogger a noble one? I would place THE ZERO THEOREM abaft TIDELAND (2005), belonging in that category of undiluted Gilliam films, unscarred by tragedy or disaster (of the external kind, anyway) which nevertheless feel a bit insubstantial.

Beautiful, lively and as eccentric as you could ask for, TZT is also somewhat familiar — I remember at the time of THE FISHER KING, Michael Palin remarking that it was a little disappointing when someone as wildly original as Gilliam repeated himself even a little — he was thinking of the Black Knight — and in this case the disappointment is a little greater since quite a bit of the movie derives from BRAZIL, and even a key image that isn’t in Gilliam’s 1985 masterwork is actually the source image Gilliam had for that film — a man on a beach with a song playing. There’s a dream girl who is also real, and floats nude in the sky at one point, there’s a threatening fat-one-thin-one duo, a needy manager, a limp desk jockey hero, vast bureaucracies, plagues of commercialism, weird nuns, sideways monitors, tubing, homeless persons as set dressing, and a multinational cast that gives the movie an Everywhere quality. Welles’ film of THE TRIAL hovers somewhere between the director’s eye and his viewfinder.

Gilliam also has to contend with the generation or so of filmmakers influenced by him — when Tilda Swinton turns up, chuntering through a wig, false teeth and an extreme regional accent, it irresistibly recalls SNOWPIERCER, whether or not Gilliam’s film did it first.

And what do you do when your best film, BRAZIL, has since come true? Gilliam has suggested suing Dick Cheney for plagiarism, but that doesn’t solve the artistic problem.

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Freshening the mix somewhat are the dayglo colours, which give the movie a unique, painfully intense look, and a vein of porno sexiness/sexism which is at times difficult to make sense of. Well, in fact the whole movie is difficult to make sense of, whether because Gilliam has obfuscated the narrative with excess decoration, or because it never was clear, is impossible to say. So the pleasures have to be snatched from incidentals, or rather the incidentals become central — David Thewlis’s desperate bonhomie, Melanie Thierry’s accent (putatively French but seeming to have made a tour of every major European country and a few of the municipalities), and the way Matt Damon’s suits always match his background precisely. Also the ways in which Christoph Waltz’s home has been adapted from a church.

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Most of the film takes place in that church, which is the film’s solution to the problem of a low budget. Apart from having to confine itself to its quarters, and a slight tendency to repeat its computer animations on Waltz’s screens, it never betrays signs of cheapness. But a film stuck in one place needs some other form of momentum to compensate for the limited ground covered geographically. We never seem to be getting anywhere, in terms of narrative, character, theme or anything else. This inertia means that the movie can actually end with a sunset and still not feel like it has a proper ending.

 

Take My Life — Please

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2014 by dcairns

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TAKE MY LIFE (1948) is Ronald Neame’s directorial debut. As you might expect if you know of Neame’s background as cinematographer for David Lean, the film is often very beautiful. And as you might expect if you’ve seen other Neame directorial jobs (eg GAMBIT, HOPSCOTCH), it’s a mildly diverting thriller — though of course he had other strengths (THE HORSE’S MOUTH, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE).

What stops it from reaching the Hitchcockian heights it presumably aspires to (it’s a wrong-man thriller, after all) is perhaps a shortage of truly tense scenes, and a slightly dodgy structure, where it seems to be missing most of a second act. It’s based on a novel by Winston Grahame (MARNIE) and inventively folds its set-up into a summing-up by portly prosecutor Francis L. Sullivan with illustrative flashbacks, the last of which reveals that arrested man Hugh Williams is not the culprit — instead, joy of joys, we get Marius Goring, aged up with some grey streaks to his hair and face, as a Scottish schoolteacher secretly married to the victim. Now, Williams’ wife must investigate for herself, locating and somehow incriminating the sepulchral Scotsman.

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As lit by Guy Green, star Greta Gynt displays Norway’s most alluring complexion. Her character’s career as opera singer allows for some nice visuals early on, and her artistic temperament ultimately triggers the circumstance that gets her husband incriminated (strict structuralism demands that this temperament return to play a role in the plot later, but it doesn’t). Hugh Williams, being imprisoned for much of the plot, can only look guilty — of what, we never know, since we know he’s not the murderer, but with his oiled beetle-shell of hair and somehow untrustworthy fleshy features, he is physiognomically incapable of projecting innocence.

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After the stylish and moody opening, the film has to rely on the threat to Williams to supply all dramatic tension, since Gynt’s efforts to clear his name do not put her in peril, do not give her problems she can struggle with, and rely on a wild and lucky coincidence to come to their resolution. Only when Goring is reintroduced and comes face to face with her can some proper suspense be created (Didn’t Goring ever play a vampire? He should’ve.) Apart from the ageing makeup, which looks fine in medium shot and goofy in close-up, he seems to have elongated the shape of his face, I think just by putting the tips of his teeth together rather than clenching them. At any rate, sometimes you can’t quite believe it’s him.

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The film’s other pleasant surprise is the darkly beautiful Rosalie Crutchley, whom I normally associate with her gloomy housekeeper role in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING. Here she gets to be a bit glam, and makes me wish she had gotten leading roles exploiting her slightly Latinate charms. An impossibility in the British film industry of the time, I fear.

 

Not a Director

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 16, 2014 by dcairns

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It was kind of sad that TRANSCENDENCE didn’t find an audience, excited almost no interest, it seemed. An unconventional, ideas-based sci-fi film should be of interest, and you’d think the Christopher Nolan connectuon would be enough to ensure it opened. But no.

So it seems unfair to pick on it, especially since I couldn’t actually bring myself to sit through it all. Writing about a film you haven#t watched is extremely bad form. I can’t offer a review of its merits as a film, but it did strike me that one early scene indicated fairly clearly that Wally Pfister, an able cinematographer, was uncomfortable in the director’s chair, like a man in very slidey silk pantaloons.

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Cillian Murphy asks to see Johnny Depp’s supercomputer. So they go to see it. Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall come along too. In an establishing shot, with the camera creeping slowly forward down an aisle of humming technology, we see the characters enter.

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And then… nothing. Murphy advances, hits his mark, and stops. The others do the same, arranging into a laundry line composition which can then be cut up into a couple of two shots. The most interesting aspectis that Murphy’s body faces away from the other characters but he turns his face towards them. This is only because the computer interface is in front of him, but we never get a very clear sense of this.

What’s strikingly wrong is that Murphy has come to see something, yet he seems remarkably incurious. He doesn’t look around, he just stops, almost as if there were a chalk mark on the floor, and talks, failing to find a seat or a wall to lean against, or else to walk around and see what’s what. It feels stiff and unnatural. (This is the first film ever in which Rebecca Hall has struggled to bring a lively sense of natural behaviour to a character.)

We also get a couple different sized shots of a computer terminal which Murphy talks to. One shot includes a bit of foreground shoulder, which helps us figure out where it is, but if this is part of a whole wall that Murphy is looking at it might be nice to see more of what he sees.

Others, including David Bordwell, have given precise analyses of the Nolan style, which has only a few strategies for filming talk — the characters stand or sit still and we cut around them, or we track around them, or we track in on one of them as he says something ominous/bad-ass. Those might, on the face of it, seem like the key ways a camera can look at a subject, but if you actually allow the characters to go where they might choose to go if they were real people, a whole wealth of opportunities open up, visually. Or, you could say, a whole wealth of problems, which is how the fearful or inexperienced director might see it. Maybe if Pfister had more experience with other really able directors, he would be freer and more versatile. It’s notable that whenever his shots don’t feature actors, he’s much more inventive.

I wouldn’t give up on him ye, even though I gave up on this film. But I did say on Facebook, “Many films fail the Bechtel test. This is the first to fail the Turing test.”

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