Hamfisted

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

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A still image can’t capture the precise quality of this shot, where the men are all clapping, big hands fluttering together, so you have the effect of a miniature city being hovered over by eschelons of lardy butterflies.

Francesco Rosi has been around all my life, but I only just got around to him. I saw SALVATORE GIULIANI, crisply restored, in Bologna, and then I ran my Masters of Cinema Blur-ray of HANDS ACROSS THE CITY. Both are sort of procedural stories, one a fact-based investigation into the life of a bandit/revolutionary, the other an exploration of corruption in the property development business in Naples. It’s natural that the blurb for HANDS should say it’s as exciting as a thriller, but it isn’t, exactly. Rosi doesn’t use leading characters, and his stories don’t hinge on imminent jeopardy — the real risk is the risk that political corruption will devour the democratic system from within, and the films are not so much dramas about the struggle to prevent this, as forensic examinations of the body politic and the various unpleasant processes running rampant within it.

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But in place of the kind of drive and tension a thriller can muster, Rosi uses intense, jampacked compositions — I like the shots that literalise the title in an arguably hamfisted but vigorous fashion — and fills the screen with bellowing whales in business suits. Rod Steiger plays the baddie, in a glass eyrie with a street map on one wall, a marble floor littered with flunkies and newspapers, and the diminutive city laid out outside the window looking like it’s an illustration of Steiger’s map rather than the other way around.

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The casting of Rod Steiger is welcome, even though he needs to be dubbed — everyone else is dubbed too, it’s an Italian film. An actor whose head looks like a baby’s fist made from wet clay, Steiger again brings the title into play whenever he appears. The film’s left-wing politician becomes a bit of a bore through always being right — plaster saint versus clay baby-fist — but as the story concludes, there really IS a kind of thriller quality to the resounding perorations. There ought to be films made like this now, about today’s issues (which are not so different) — intense visuals, passionate arguments, doughy men yelling at each other. The staples of entertainment! (The trouble with most political dramas like House of Cards is there’s politicking but no actual politics. It’s just Game of Thrones with expensive suits.)

Wicked World

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

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Husband-and-wife team Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan have programmed WICKED WOMAN (1953) as part of their mini-season at telluride this year, and their comments comparing it to Ulmer’s DETOUR (a favourite of both Errol Morris and Lucio Fulci) made it sound pretty damn intriguing. I tracked it down.

The comparison led me to expect too much, probably, but the film is at least as interesting as it is dull. It’s the work of writer-director Russell Rouse, who made some OK stuff before he made THE OSCAR (a gloriously wretched multi-car-crash of an all-star epic), with the wordless Ray Milland vehicle THE THIEF as a particular stand-out. Rouse created a sort of silent movie simply by having his leading man alone, at night, with no one to speak to. It creates a particularly bleak, lonely atmosphere.

While DETOUR derives a lot of its impact from forcing shots to extend until they become striking — who was it who said, “There’s nothing in it but genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else?”, WICKED WOMAN has a normal B-movie number of set-ups, and they aren’t particularly inventive. The speed of production didn’t compel Rouse to come up with crazy ideas, it just meant the lighting couldn’t be very elaborate and the camera couldn’t move much. The effect is televisual, with only the griminess of everything and everybody in shot to distinguish it from small screen fare. Apart from the very occasional moment –

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As far as thrills go, the movie is somewhat lacking. It’s kind of a noir, but the biggest crime contemplated is fraud, and the worst violence is when the titular W.W., Beverley Michaels, gets repeatedly shoved to the floor and bed by Richard Egan. But there IS Percy Helton, hump-backed orangutoad from KISS Me DEADLY, blackmailing Michaels into, ahem, being nice to him. If he were George Clooney, this would be distasteful, but he’s Percy Helton, so it’s intolerably skeezy. You have to rapidly assembled a firewall in your frontal lobes to disbar any images of that lipless, foam rubber face contorting in the throes of carnal ecstasy. Quick! Do it! Do it now!

Too late.

My favourite Percy Helton role is in the notorious Mandom commercial, where his fleeting appearance may be intended to remind us of the deleterious effects of not buying Mandom.

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What WICKED WOMAN does have is Michaels herself, a curious presence, six-foot plus and languorous like a moon-walking astronaut (though far less buoyant), her line readings alternating between depressive monotone and venom-spitting fury. Until she speaks, it always feels like the camera is running at 30fps. Just watching her cross a room is like Valium for the eyes.

And then there’s the movie’s vision, in which everybody, almost without exception, is crummy. Michaels, who commits fraud and adultery and sleeps with another guy and chisels and bullies, is just about the nicest person in it. The bar’s co-owner is an abrasive alcoholic, but I guess she’s basically OK. The short-order cook is a loud complainer, but decent. But Egan is a louse, all the bar customers are chubby sex pests, Michaels’ landlady and fellow boarders are vicious, braying jackasses, and Percy goes from being a seedy, needy dweeb for Michaels to exploit, to a blackmailing molester. The sex goblin versus the giantess. We kind of wanted Michaels to go on a killing spree at the end — she looks more than capable for throwing little Percy through the greasy rice-paper walls of her rooming house.

Your Moment of Zen

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by dcairns

This is a short film by Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra — his first, incredibly. Beautiful images woven around a theme so simple it can be stated in the two-word title: EVERYTHING FLOWS.

I like this and I like KOYAANISQATSI. I met Godfrey Reggio in Telluride last year — he was very nice and he was eighty-seven feet high, which is probably what gives his films the lofty sense of perspective. He looks down at us and we are as ants scurrying about the earth. Now, some don’t care for KOYAANISQATSI, and I guess I sort of understand — the Monthly Film Bulletin summed its message up as an old hippy axiom, “Nature good, cities bad.” Which is pretty banal, I admit, but not quite what I get from the film — some of the city images in it are outstandingly beautiful — it is only some ASPECTS of the city that are bad. And that may be banal but it is also true, and it seems unfair to fault Reggio for the banality of the universe, especially when he expresses it so beautifully.

I admit — we have all seen too much time-lapse and heard too much Philip Glass since then.

But seeing and hearing them in such abundance and for the first time made a big impression on me. I was hypnotised. When I showed my college friend Simon he remarked halfway through that he’d just realised he’d been frozen in position for forty-five minutes. Since it large excludes regular people activities in medium shot, the movie offers no cues for the viewer to relax along with the characters.

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So yes, I like KOYAANISQATSI, but the Reggio owes a debt to the Haanstra, which is even more beautiful.

Seeing the film, Pudovkin remarked that he always thought Holland had people in it. Haanstra modestly said he wasn’t quite ready for people.

Haanstra is probably best known for TRAFIC, on which he tried to collaborate with Jacques Tati but got silently elbowed out. SOme of his footage did make it in — by this time, Haanstra had started making observational docs with people in, and his eye for behaviour had convinced someone that he was a natural partner for the great French clown, a man with no partner and no place for partners. Let’s all get to know Haanstra’s own work.

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