Archive for A Matter of Life and Death

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns

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A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.

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I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.

Fun in the Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 25, 2012 by dcairns

Thelma Schoonmaker was in town (yay!), participating in a forum on digital restoration. As a sort of discussion piece (but much more than that), we got to see the 8K restoration of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which has been fine-tuned since its appearance in Cannes (which makes this a world premier, in a way). Which inspired me to make the following geeky observation –

Gasim (I.S. Johar) abandons his belt and gear in the desert as he wanders, lost in LAWRENCE –

David Niven dreamily discards his kit on the beach in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Lean’s contribution to Powell’s films as editor is well known (49TH PARALLEL, ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING), but maybe there’s room for further consideration of Powell’s influence on Lean? Here, the shot height and framing isn’t the same, but there’s a similar feeling of the distracted character being towed along by the tracking camera, as if on invisible wires.

Lean’s camera takes the position of the sun, beaming brutally down on poor old Gasim from on high, whereas Powell’s hugs the earth as if afraid of falling upwards to heaven — the frame positions Niven as caught precisely between heaven and earth, wearing the horizon as a belt.

When Gasim is lost, Niven makes the desert as abstract as possible — there’s the giant painted sun, and shots which lay a featureless blue rectangle atop a featureless manilla rectangle with a straight flat horizon joining them like to slices of cut card. In Gasim’s shot, even the horizon and sky have been mislaid. Yet Gasim is traveling left-to-right, and Lawrence is going right-to-left, so in such a flat world they MUST find each other.

Freddie Young, ace DOP, talked about LAWRENCE containing only one special effect shot, a painting of the sun. And indeed, the commitment to doing everything for real is still awe-inspiring. If a filmmaker tried some of these shots today, the audience would simply assume they were digital effects. But Young didn’t quite tell the truth — there’s also a shot of twinkly stars which is faked up (skillfully), and if we want to really nitpick there are some studio scenes with fake backdrops by production designer John Box and his team. The various solutions to filming at night also involve some trickery –

PROBABLY this whole shot is an interior set, but even if not, that moon is definitely on a stick. Gorgeous, though, isn’t it? MUCH gorgeouser in 8K, though…

Dracula Schmacula

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2012 by dcairns

SON OF DRACULA, “starring” Harry Nilsson, “directed” by Freddie Francis and “produced” by Ringo Starr, seems to have been brought into being solely to disabuse me, decades after its creation, of several of my most long-cherished beliefs. These are ~

(1) The 1970s were cool (THE GODFATHER and PULP can be seen advertised in the background of a couple of shots, but they can’t compete with the awful guff going on in the foreground).

(2) The presence of Dennis Price in a vampire film is always a good sign (VAMPYROS LESBOS).

(3) Ringo Starr is a fundamentally well-meaning man who wants me to have a good time (HELP!, CANDY).

(4) Rock musicals with Frankenstein elements are the key to human happiness  (ROCKY HORROR, LISZTOMANIA)

(5) Keith Moon was exclusively in very great films (TOMMY, SEXTETTE)

(6) T Rex had alchemical powers which transmuted everything they touched into gold.

(7) Jenny Runacre can make anything cool (THE FINAL PROGRAMME).

(8) Dracula films with motorbikes are cool (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA).

(9) Freddie Jones is the kind of guy you can depend on to learn his lines.

(10)  Shakira Caine was only ever in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and never made any films where she turned into a housecat.

All of these self-evident truths, previously held to be inviolate, are thrown into question by this shambling travesty — how shall I go on in a world where NOTHING is certain?

Harry Nilsson is a new kind of Dracula — quiet, authoritative, ginger. He plays the whole thing straight, which might have worked if everybody had gone along with it. After all, the script, by actress Jennifer Jayne working under a pseudonym (wisely), doesn’t actually provide any gags — apart from Dracula Jnr being called Count Down, for no reason. Ringo, as Merlin (what’s Merlin doing in this???), is Ringo. The rest of the rock stars just play music, which is a bit of a waste. The way to redeem this farrago would have been to play it absolutely straight, cutting all the “comedy” which would have taken about three minutes of script revision, and casting inappropriate musicians in all roles. THEN it might have been funny. Freddie Jones as Baron Frankenstein tries, apart from the aforementioned difficulty with the lines (which are often unspeakable sci-fi gibberish, to be fair), but think what Keith Moon could have done! Seized the role by the throat and worried it to death, I should think. And Dennis Price as Van Helsing? Sure, he seems to have sobered up for the day’s work, and Francis shoots him as if he was actually there, in the scene with the other players, which must have been a bewildering change for Price, who was usually filmed to  look as much like stock footage as possible (see HORROR HOSPITAL if you don’t believe me), but this has the effect of depriving Peter Frampton of the opportunity to wear a goatee and operate lab equipment. It’s a terrible injustice.

I was slightly surprised that this seriously obscure film, lost in the mists of time and hard drugs, features songs I recognized — that echoing yelling number (Jump into the Fire) that plays during Ray Liotta’s last day as a goodfella in GOODFELLAS, and this

Extra points for recognizing the space footage swiped from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. At least Freddie Francis worked on AMOLAD. Did David Niven feel raped? Probably not — he was too busy making VAMPIRA.

Francis apparently had a horrible time on this film — not the world’s greatest director (but one of the greatest cinematographers, as THE INNOCENTS and THE ELEPHANT MAN testify), he found himself employed on a rock folly tax dodge, where the professionalism which was his main attribute as director was not respected or required. He says it led him to give up directing, although one notes that he had not hit bottom yet — he made CRAZE the same year, with Satanist Jack Palance trolling for sacrificial victims in the Raymond Revuebar. The following year’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF are shoddy, but mark a slight step up.

The Revuebar is glimpsed here too, in a Swinging London travelogue which actually contains the film’s only moments of visual felicity — a girl walks past and a neon light flicks on offscreen just as she catches the vampire’s eye, causing her to flare red — and the Coke sign’s red wave lights up from top to bottom EXACTLY like a pool of blood flowing downhill.

One odd thing among many — SON OF DRACULA is actually set in the future. An opening title gives the date of Dracula’s staking as “the 1880s” — which is strangely vague, as if the writer is unsure of her facts — and Count Down’s coronation, which takes up most of the plot, is set “a hundred years later” — also, he gets from Transylvania to London via the Channel Tunnel, which did not yet exist in 1974 (it’s represented by an underground car park — this is, after all, a film which boasts of being made “entirely on location”). Yet despite all this, Piccadilly Circus still boasts ads for THE GODFATHER.

Francis would show this blithe disregard for setting again in THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, Dylan Thomas’ Burke and Hare script, belatedly filmed in 1985. Relocating the story to London would have been a perfectly reasonable action, since the characters are all re-named anyway, but Francis inexplicably keeps the Edinburgh locale (with a single location shot of Arthur’s Seat) but has everybody talk in cockney accents. I can understand him not wanting to give himself a migraine by reading the SON OF DRACULA script too closely, but when Dylan Thomas is involved, I think a little more care would be welcome.

I am indebted to Shadowplay informant Danny Carr for reminding me that S.O.D. (“an Apple Production”) existed, thus prompting me to obtain a copy. Remind me to stab him in the forehead next time I see him.

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