You Go Girl

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by dcairns

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Kind of impossible to write anything about GONE GIRL without spoilers. I can try not to be gratuitous with it but if you haven’t seen or read it, you should stop right here. And go see it, it’s entertaining! David Ehrenstein has compared it to a certain forties melodrama and he’s right, but even naming it would give too much away if you like to experience plotlines with newborn innocence.

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David Fincher used to make two kinds of films — interesting ones like SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB and not-so-interesting ones like PANIC ROOM, but they were all stylistically indulgent and visually enjoyable. Then he made BORING BASTARD BUTTON which was kept afloat entirely by technological and stylistic excess, and then he kind of stopped being flamboyant and started doing television. Though ZODIAC had some extravagant visuals, it also ushered in what has become more typically the Fincher look — cool, snappy, dark, bluish, classical — traditional enough in framing and movement that he could use it to set up House of Cards and then pass it over to other directors who were mainly able to continue the style seamlessly.

So for GONE GIRL, Fincher marshalls the performances and Jeff Cronenweth lights things in his attractively chill manner and no excesses obtrude. Ben “low affect” Affleck has the right blend of everyman and doofus, is blank enough to potentially harbour dark secrets, and his puppyish aspects contrast nicely with Rosamund Pike’s more feline quality. When the movie needs more energy, Tyler Perry brings it as a celebrity lawyer. All the supporting cast are strong, and there’s a particularly pleasing mix of women — Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens deserve special mention.

The film GONE GIRL owes most to is (as acknowledged by author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn) 1945’s LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, in which (last chance spoiler alert) Gene Tierney commits suicide and frames her husband for her murder. But instead of coming as conclusion, in GONE GIRL, this is the whole set-up, revealed as a mid-film turning point — since the suicide itself is deferred, the rest of the film can play out the consequences and complications, which are legion. Like a 40s women’s picture, the movie evokes a pleasurable response of condemnation mixed with admiration. The woman is bad, and we should want to see her punished, but she’s also very impressive, and we find ourselves rooting for her. At a certain point in the story, we are rooting for both man and wife — maybe this is what Fincher means by calling it a perfect date movie.

The idea that the film is in some way anti-woman strikes me as dumb, since it contains several other female characters besides the wicked (yet quasi-justified) wife. Affleck’s sister and the detective investigating the case seem to me wholly or largely admirable people, just imperfect enough to be human and interesting. There is another female monster, the representative of tabloid television, who is just this side of caricature — but really, tabloid TV is by now impossible to treat unjustly — it’s a monster about which anything you say is likely to be true.

I may have to make an exception for Emily Ratzkywatzky Ratajkowski as Young Woman With Large Breasts, who fulfills the job description but doesn’t add much to it. The character, amusingly called Andie Hardy,  is a lust figure for males (in the audience and behind the camera and onscreen) and is regarded with contempt by the women in the film, and obviously their assessment that she’s not super-bright has some basis, but if played by an actor rather than a model (and not in the Bressonian sense) the part could possibly have been more, ahem, fleshed out. “The other woman” character is often a problematic one, but she’s still a human being.

 

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I can’t say for sure if the plot twist would have worked differently if I hadn’t had a tip-off. (This is why “serious” criticism may need spoiler alerts too — how to assess the impact of a plot if you know what’s coming? Some movies don’t care if you know — Orson Welles had a fondness for beginning at the end — but some very much do. GONE GIRL is somewhere in between.) It seemed to me that Rosamund Pike’s narration was less than gripping in the first half — the romance stuff was fine but the slow deterioration of the marriage felt under-imagined, which I gather is not the case in the book. In part 2, the urgency of her flight and Affleck’s plight are intimately entwined and reinforce each other, but in the first half her soap opera can’t compete with his thriller.

But when the twist is revealed, the movie moves into high gear — we now have no idea how it’s going to fill its running time, but there is certainly a dangerous situation in play and we’re going to have to find out. Here is where a spoiler could be really annoying. The movie’s solution involves more melodramatic elements, some possible plot holes (video evidence that may contradict Pike’s account) and a really interesting suspended anxiety ending, which is the movie’s boldest stroke.

It’s the kind of film which seems exceptional in the modern movie culture, but could conceivably be the norm if only movies enjoyed the same conditions as quality TV. In other words, it’s a good, edgy thriller. Liberate the filmmakers and this kind of thing could be the median level for Hollywood.

 

 

The Man Who Painted the Park

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by dcairns

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The death of production designer Assheton Gorton (last month, but I just recently learned of it) got me thinking about his unique contribution to sixties British cinema. Joe Massot’s WONDERWALL (1968), above, was an early sign of the new decadence, a film made almost entirely to spend the Beatles’ money before the taxman got it, which is not the noblest artistic purpose, but clearly everyone involved wanted to create something beautiful — more beautiful than a hospital ward or a torpedo bay (even a really nice one). And they succeeded.

I do get a ringing alarm bell in films about fantasy versus reality where the filmmakers can’t resist making the reality just as lovely and strange as the fantasy — MIRRORMASK, or THE CELL could be chosen as examples. WONDERWALL has this problem very badly — it plays a little like THE ZERO THEOREM, with its mundane protagonist twisted so far into eccentricity as to become insane and alienating, depriving us of our Dante or Virgil in the labyrinth. Some might argue that BRAZIL is oppressively fantastical too, but that’s the point for me — the reality is desaturated and bluish and oppressive and insistently real, and the fantasy can do its job effectively in such a context. If everything is fairytale, there’s no contrast, and movies love sharp contrasts.

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Whatever the opposite of an everyman protagonist is, Jack MacGowran is it. A kind of “no-man protagonist,” or “notagonist,” if you will. An actor whose quirks and accent and 24hr inebriation can make him fascinating at the same time as incomprehensible and utterly opaque. Apparently on KING LEAR he had no idea what he was saying. The trouble is, neither do I. Whereas, oddly, he seems to totally get Beckett, and makes me feel I do too.

Still, Gorton did a gorgeous job, though some shots are actually little more than beautiful actors in beautiful fabrics and patterns, beautifully lit, with not a wall or piece of furniture in sight.

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Obviously it was BLOW-UP, on which A.G. served as art director, that got him WONDERWALL. I suppose the job title is correct because Antonioni appears to have built no sets, but he transformed locations, painting a street various shades of gray, and even the people in it, so that David Hemmings’s skin becomes the only thing telling you the movie isn’t b&w. Elsewhere, colour is insistent and striking, though Antonioni still prefers a sort of metallic pastel palette, distinguishing his work from the screaming psychedelia that was beginning to explode in reality.

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Famously, Antonioni had Gorton paint a park, because the colours had changed since they location-scouted it and it no longer fitted the scheme. I couldn’t say for sure that the park looks different from a natural one, but I certainly FEEL it does — it seems flatter, more uniform and graphic.

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Aided by overcast English skies, the park becomes a gray-green silhouette — sure, the shrubbery has shadows and weight, but it doesn’t sem to have ENOUGH.

I always felt that, in scenes like the non-sequitur cross-talk purchase of a propeller from an antique shop, Antonioni was influenced by THE KNACK and its Ann Jellicoe-via-Charles Wood script, in which language becomes a kind of infestation, scrambling the characters’ brains and even pouring from their heads in the form of subtitles. Antonioni, working in an unfamiliar language, had the help of Edward Bond, but neither man is what you would call zany and so their attempts at a comedy of word soup floundering tends to fall rather painfully on its keys, but the very discomfort and flatness of it kind of suits the picture.

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In Jellicoe’s play, Tom, the Donal Donnelly character, repaints his room, stripping it of furniture and, I seem to recall, painting the shadows on the wall. And then he drives in a few nails so he can hang the chairs high off the floor. He doesn’t get that far in Richard Lester’s film, and he paints the room a featureless white, so that the various shapes look embossed, like MARIENBAD’s title sequence (Lester was a fan). Certianly Antonioni, who had been repainting reality in THE RED DESERT (1964), must have felt that Gorton was a kindred spirit. He just needed to THINK BIGGER.

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Cold Readings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by dcairns

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Another thing about THE HEIRESS — Montgomery Clift’s first lines, spoken before we see him, are delivered in a shockingly blue-collar fifties New York tone. Very mookish. particularly the words, “How ya do, Miss Sloper?” I wondered why. It could be that director William Wyler, being of Alsatian origins (in the sense of being from Alsace, not a son-of-a-bitch) wasn’t sensitive enough to nuances of accent and let the line slip by. But it may be that he thought, Clift is obviously going to stick out next to Olivia and Ralph and Miriam, better let the audience get over their discomfort as soon as possible — shock them into accepting it. Let’s make sure they notice it on Line 1, so they’re not wondering all through the scene, Is there something funny about his delivery? And his hair?

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(Incidentally, this is the first time I saw the film and read Monty’s character as a fortune-hunter from the off, which he clearly is. On previous viewings, partly because I like Monty and partly because I’m dumb as Olivia, I always found him quite sincere — that uncertain smile! [Which really signals: Do you believe me so far?] Of course, I knew after the first time that he was after her loot, but I never could read it that way. This time at last I came to my senses, the scales fell from my eyes — he feeds her a line about always feeling he could say the right thing when he’s alone in his room, but in public the words desert him — which they clearly DON’T. It’s a classic fake psychic’s cold reading, a line that everyone can relate to and say is true of them, and it’s not even that cold because he’s had a chance to observe her and see how tongue-tied she is. Also, though, I do think Monty likes her a little, or at any rate doesn’t find her as unbearable as the guy who’s forced to dance with her earlier, whose eyes roll clean up into his head as if pumped full of helium after a few minutes of her conversation.)

The other great ludicrous first speech is Mark Hammill’s famous “But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters,” in STAR WARS. Knowing the importance of setting up your “Hero With a Thousand Faces” right away, George Lucas worked hard to establish Luke Skywalker as a hysterical, adenoidal homosexual caricature with his very first line. The dialogue itself was not sufficiently evocative of these qualities, but dialogue was never Lucas’s strong suit. Finally, the correct effect was achieved by getting Hammill to loop the line while jumping blindfolded off a high diving board, his arms making little circular flailing movements as he plummeted helplessly towards the unheated water below. After the third take, it was perfect.

The Heiress [DVD]
The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics)

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