No Excuse

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2014 by dcairns

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In the first film I directed, I was lucky to have a Distinguished Thespian, from whom I learned crucial stuff (“Never ask for effects, because if you do, that’s all you’ll get”). And I heard some good stories, though alas I missed a lot of them while setting up shots. I would walk in to fetch our star and catch him in the middle of a sentence like “The crookedest film I was ever in was A TOWN CALLED BASTARD.” One time I caught the line, “Of course the best films to be in, for drugs, were the Disney films.” Some surprised looks. “Because you got these cool Californian guys coming over…”

But no chemical intoxicant can really excuse this — a broken-down toy robot with the voice of Slim Pickens. I like Slim Pickens, but make him play a cute robot with sympathetic cartoon eyes and you really are thumbing my vomit button very hard indeed. Stuff like this makes you actually respect how restrained George Lucas was — his cute robot was essentially a fat bullet with legs. No anthropomorphism at all, and no voice. The audience does the humanizing.

If rampant hallucinogen abuse can’t excuse the film’s robots (Roddy McDowell voices the other one, FFS), it may at least explain the deeply bananas ending, probably the most batshit crazy ending to a kids film ever — even more disorienting than TIME BANDITS. As the heroes plunge into the titular singularity, TV director Gary Nelson spins his cast in a tumbrel, replays their dialogue at them through an echo chamber, dilates them with an optical printer and otherwise confuses the young audience, Maximilian Schell floats by in dreadlocks as if attempting a very special James Bond title sequence, seemingly mates with his hulking Gort-substitute robot henchman, then finds himself INSIDE the robot looking out, then he’s on a papier-mache promontory in heavy metal Hell — the weirdness is so extreme it even wakes composer John Barry from his movie-long slumber to offer up some swooning arpeggios, as he does.

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And then it’s Heaven, which is of course far more skeletally imagined, and then there’s more normal outer space and the cast look very confused and then the movie kind of stops.

Obviously they were thinking of 2001, and obviously they weren’t able to handle the visual abstraction and so needed to show some kind of solid imagery. And their ideas were thoroughly confused. I think Professor Hawking would refute their depiction of an event horizon.

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It couldn’t happen now, and it shouldn’t have happened then. But, after a movie that just recycles 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in space with a sticky STAR WARS paste slathered over everything, an ending so batshit crazy has to be welcomed. They tried something, finally.

 

It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

Love is Forbidden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Hey look, it’s Pierre Blanchar! For realz.

Despite being directed by a German, Pabst’s MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR is extremely French — for much of its running time it’s essentially a romance in which a variety of secret agents and double agents fail to do their patriotic duty because they’re all in love with members of the enemy sides.

When I started watching, I was quickly confused, owing to the less-is-more approach to subtitling. The fan who subbed it seems to have left out bits he found boring, and other bits he found too difficult, and with my concussed-schoolboy French I had no way of knowing which was which. And the plot seemed to be leaping arpund all over the place. Pierre Blanchar is introduced in prison, being recruited to betray his own side (the Germans, I think — it seems to be WWI) but then disappears for so long that when Jean-Louis Barrault turned up, with his similarly razorsharp cheekbones but looking otherwise not much like Blanchar, I thought it was him. Barrault buys a slice of melon from Louis Jouvet in an unusually intense manner and then disappears from the story completely.

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Romance! 

Everybody is in love with the wrong person — as in The Sea Gull or LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. Viviane Romance loves Pierre Blanchar and betrays fellow agent Dita Parlo (the masterspy of the title) because she suspects he’s smitten with her. Blanchar is supposed to betray Parlo to the French but doesn’t because he IS smitten with her. Parlo is supposed to steal the secret plans from Pierre Fresnay but doesn’t because she’s smitten with him. Fresnay is completely in the dark about Parlo being an enemy agent so at least his being smitten with her isn’t treason, but it is undeniably a security risk. Jouvet alone remains uncompromised.

So with Topic A on everybody’s minds, I could relax about whether the Bulgarians were negotiating a separate peace — an impossible thing for anyone to get worked-up about, I’d have thought — and just enjoy the romantic angst amid seamy and exotic settings, as each of the cast attempts to out-louche the rest. Blanchar, sporting a fez, has an unfair advantage.

(Eric Ambler on loucheness and the art of spying.)

The rules of poetic realism demand that love end in tragedy, and by making everyone political enemies, most of them on the losing side in a global apocalypse, Pabst and his army of writers have stacked the deck admirably. We can’t predict just how it’ll turn out, but it is utterly impossible for it to end well for anyone. Still, the last scene’s entirely unromantic bleakness took me by surprise. You can either end up shot by firing squad, insane and mumbling, or lying dead in a heap of melons. C’est l’amour.

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The gang of writers, asides from the alluringly-named Irma Von Cube, include Herman Mankiewicz, and I’d love to hear the story behind THAT. Pabst had just returned from an unsuccessful stab at Hollywood*, so I supposed he made the future KANE scribe’s acquaintance while there. The thing hangs together pretty well despite the multitude of chefs, though somebody should have noticed that if Parlo needs Fresnay’s help in Act I because she can’t drive, it stretches credulity to have her nearly beat him an exciting car chase in Act III…

*Unsuccessful? A MODERN HERO features Marjorie Rambeau as an alcoholic one-armed ex-leopard trainer**. That one fact puts it ahead of Lewis Gilbert’s entire filmography.

**An ex-trainer of leopards. Not a trainer of ex-leopards. Because that would be stupid.

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