By Crom

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2014 by dcairns


Caught the end of John Milius’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN on TV last night, a movie I saw when it came out. If my arithmetic is correct, it was an AA certificate and I was slightly too young. Saw it with my dad. I’ve seen bits of this movie on TV over the years but not the ending, because I usually decided it wasn’t good enough to watch. I still think that’s true, probably. (I’ve seen practically nothing of CONAN THE DESTROYER but am actually interested because it’s Fleischer.)

It would be ludicrous to say Schwartzenegger ever became an actor, but seeing him in this and RED SONJA (Fleischer again, and a favourite line reading from Ahnuldt, the casual, friendly “Yer sister’s dying,”) it’s striking how he just couldn’t do it at all to begin with: couldn’t say a line, couldn’t react, couldn’t move, couldn’t stand still.

Even accepting that, the film has problems — Milius’s Nazi fetish is apparent in the Riefenstahl firelight parade at the end, on a Fritz Lang set. Oliver Stone’s script was rewritten to heck by Milius, which is perhaps why, having offended Cubans (SCARFACE), Chinese-Americans (THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON) and Turks (MIDNIGHT EXPRESS), Stone’s barbarian epic wasn’t picketed by Cimmerians. But Milius has a problem of his own, and once you recognize it, everything he’s trying to do collapses like a camel — Milius is corny.

Compare his APOCALYPSE NOW script with what was filmed — Brando’s windy improvs are vastly superior to what was scripted, long, hawkish monologues that have the feel of being typed with Milius’s free hand while his other was busy down below. Incredibly, Milius practically steals Coppola’s ending, which Coppola stole from Jack Hill (spoiler alert) — Conan kills the evil ruler, the followers bow down to him, and the temple is set ablaze (as in some versions of APOC).

There’s also THIS –


Still, Milius’s film has a distinct personality — fascistic, bellicose, thuggish in its humour and humourless in its heart — which can’t be said for most modern fantasy films. And the modern guys haven’t looked at Kurosawa enough. Milius certainly has, and in addition is nutty enough to think he can actually BE Kurosawa. And why muck about with THE HIDDEN FORTRESS when you can muck about with THE SEVEN SAMURAI?

What I wish I could talk about is the reason the Ritz in Madrid to this day won’t allow filmmakers to check in. It has to do with Milius, and it’s a good story, but it’s gossip and I can’t prove it and it might be actionable. I find it quite believable though. Anyone else heard this one? I can only imagine the reason it doesn’t appear in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is that Milius was Biskind’s top informant and got an easy ride…

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns



For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?



I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.



Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).


Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.



Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.


Posted in FILM with tags , on April 10, 2014 by dcairns

new 023

A batch of screeners on a distressed floor.

Just finishing, belatedly, my spring job — as submissions editors for Edinburgh International Film Festival. There’s a bunch of us, and what we do is, we look at the films submitted and classify them from A to D, A being something that should definitely be considered higher up, D being something that’s been considered enough, and B and C being in between, worthy of being seen by another submissions editor for a second opinion. No system is perfect, but this one seems fairly fair. I hope we catch all the masterpieces and reject all the disasterpieces.

Of course, most of the films shown are ones that the EIFF has chased down, rather than ones that have come chasing after us. So even after I recommend not accepting 90% of the films I see, a good 50% AT LEAST of the films I do recommend don’t get accepted either.

We submissions editors like to moan, but the truth is, the job has major perks. Working for the Film Fest gets you a pass to the Film Fest, and working before the Fest is on means you have free time to USE that pass. You might also say that the job itself consists of watching lots of films, which is a perk, but you would mostly be wrong. I would have failed as a regular film reviewer, gone catatonic down the back of a chair with the chewing gum and popcorn crumbs, since being compelled to watch any one film cuts off most of my pleasure receptors. Fortunately I always have a stack of screeners when I’m submissions editing, so the illusion of choice is there — an 85 minute Turkish film or a 123 minute Canadian film? That’s typically all the info I have to make a choice on, and so there’s a pleasurable element of pot luck that holds good until the first image actually appears on the Toshiba.

A fellow SubEd told me, “It’s the middling ones that get you down,” and she was bang on. A really putrid film evokes a kind of awe, and you can kick back, giving it a fair shake while also basking in its dreadfulness. A great film, or a really nice one let’s say, shines out and is an obvious pleasure I needn’t attempt to explain. The tiresome stuff is the films which seem like they have a shot at being OK, so you give them your best attention all the way through, and are rewarded with a squib fizzle thin beer long sigh. And such films constitute the majority of films submitted to film festivals.

(The majority of films programmed at film festivals are not submitted at all, but headhunted by programmers who find them at other film festivals [where maybe they were submitted] or via sales agents, distributors, whatever. I have no role in that side of the Fest.)


Our judging panel.

Maybe it’s worth me putting down some thoughts about what might help a submitted film stand the best chance of acceptance, or at least further consideration.

1) Sound design. Almost nothing I see has imaginative, rich, interesting sound. The ones that do generally have other virtues, which is the reason I give them As and Bs. Having good sound design — sound that enriches the film and goes beyond what we’re seeing –isn’t enough by itself, but it would totally make your film stand out from the crowd.

2) Duration. A film should be the length it wants to be to be effective, so there are no rules. I see a lot of films that are 75, 85 minutes long, and I sort of like them because I can watch more in a day. Maybe have time left for a J. Lee Thompson flick at the end. But when I get a really slow 75 minute film I may suspect that it’s a padded short, that the filmmaker was fearful of cutting more lest the film not qualify, however tentatively, as a feature at all. As the co-creator of a 66-minute “feature” I sympathise. But I gave an A to a 45 minute film recently — it might not get programmed, being a really awkward run-time, but it’ll get considered, and it certainly wouldn’t have been if the filmmaker had padded it to 90.

3) Pace. I see a lot of slow films, many of them good. I see very few fast films, most of them bad. But I still think that some strategy that allows you to hit the ground running would make you stand out from 90% of your competitors. We love slow films when they’re good, but it is still notable that “slow” can be used as an insult for movies, whereas “fast”, by itself, never is.

4) Tone. I nearly always stay tuned to something that’s intended to be funny, because it’s quite a rare thing. Most submissions I would characterise as sombre. My tolerance for terrible comedy may be higher than some, mind you — it fascinates me. The one tone/genre I would counsel against is parody. It’s unlikely you have the budget to successfully parody a Hollywood genre, unless it’s a 50s B-movie, and why would you be parodying a 50s B-movie in the twenty-first century? The only guy who can do 50s Bs and make it seem reasonable is Larry Blamire. You are not him, unless he’s reading this in which case he is. But not the rest of you.

5) Gloss. This year there was a lot of stunning photography. Not always attached to stunning films, but it never hurts. What hurts is those middling films that have smooth tracking shots and a lot of elegantly-composed medium shots and long shots and no life at all and no focus, no awareness of where the drama is or who the main character is. Those films I guess are doomed anyway because they’re dramas without drama, but the last thing they need is a smooth finish. “Quality” is nearly always a byword for boredom, and these legless wonders could only be rescued, if at all, by stylistic excess and joie de vivre. Try to *have fun*.

6) Lack of tension. See above — it’s probably the one fatal thing. It’s a cliché to say that a good script is one thing a cheap film can afford (and most submissions are low-to-very-low budget) but it is of course true, except that such films usually start by exploiting the writer… Anyway, viewing a bunch of screeners gives you new respect for the screenplay gurus, even if the majority of them are full of themselves, have achieved nothing, and use examples like THE KARATE KID to demonstrate the value of great screenwriting. Here are the “rules” from that camp that might actually be useful –

a) Quickly establish a protagonist with a goal and show her/him struggling to get it. (Exception: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, a huge commercial hit with an almost totally passive lead character.) As Jeffrey Katzenberg would say, “Where’s the ‘I WANT’ song?”

b) All interpersonal  scenes must hinge upon an immediate source of tension such as a conflict around a goal or some problem that must be urgently addressed. (Exception: 2001, a huge commercial hit.) Because films are not plays, we find many exceptions where the purpose of the sequence is just to wallow in an environment or feel time passing or whatever — but some ticking clock probably still needs to be running in the audience’s mind to keep them seated.)

c) Who the film is about, what their struggle is, and what kind of film it is, and what kind of tone it has, should all be established as quickly as possible and certainly within the first half hour. (Exception: PSYCHO, a huge commercial hit.) If you have a brilliant idea for how to fool with us, fine, but it had better BE brilliant.

Lots of filmmakers are secretly more interested in other stuff that has nothing to do with the above. The successful ones tend to smuggle it in while making sure that the crude, almost barbaric demands of the audience for plot (set-up, development, complication, resolution) are satisfied. The frustrating thing is that plot, that crude, barbaric thing, is very tricky to pull off. The high-brow screenwriter can take satisfaction in the undoubted truth that a film which gets plot right and nothing else will have tricked the audience in to sitting through the whole thing, but leave them, along with the disgruntled submissions editor, feeling totally cheated.

7) Theme. In fact, most of the films submitted are about something. Some idea or emotion or truth motivated the filmmaker, and you can at least get a sense of what it is. The film has, somewhere, some reason to exist. But if this isn’t expressed through the film’s form — its story, if it is a story, and its technique in presenting itself on the screen, then this is nothing more than a platitude. A good film makes us feel what it is about poetically, by the beauty of its form. (Exception: none, I think.) You can’t really separate form and content, and THE WIZARD OF OZ isn’t *about* “There’s no place like home.” It’s about everything you saw and heard while experiencing it.

That’s all for now. Break legs!


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