Archive for Blue Velvet

The Eye of the Duck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 17, 2014 by dcairns

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I’ve just written a feature script with Alex Livingston(e), a very talented guy, who pointed out to me that you can see the eye of a duck in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET. (above)

And this was significant since Lynch has a whole theory about the eye of the duck, which he explains below.

The clip I really wanted to show was Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview, where he brings up the duck-eye theory again and gets a typically detailed elucidation of it, and we learn that movies are like ducks and each movie has a scene which is equivalent to the eye of the duck. Mark asks Lynch what the eye of the duck scene is in his latest movie, THE STRAIGHT STORY. Micro-pause. “I haven’t thought about it.”

Brilliant comic timing, but unplanned. The difference between being a comedian and simply being comic, and aware of it. At a certain point, Lynch realized that he could be a comedy character. I don’t think I understood this slightly performative, yet sincere, aspect of Lynch in the first few times I saw him speak, but looking back on them, it was always there.

Of course his recent ice-bucket challenge displays this brazenly.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2013 by dcairns

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Last we saw, Fiona and I had trudged up Leith Walk, observing the many defunct cinemas along its length. Just after the top of the Walk, we come to the city centre, home to numerous bygone screens. Here’s one site ~cine2 018

Just before Princes Street, we entered the city’s Georgian New Town — well, technically we stopped for a scrambled egg roll, a latte and a scone the size of George Wendt, but we entered the Georgian New Town immediately after that, albeit walking slightly slower. The Queen’s Hall on Queen Street was until recently the home of the BBC’s Edinburgh offices, but in 1897 T.J. West’s Modern Marvel Company held sway with their Analyticon, projecting stereoscopic transparencies on a ten foot screen. Some kind of movie show was common there until 1915.

Where the St Andrew’s Square bus station now stands, there was once The St Andrew’s Square Cinema, seating 1,500. It opened in 1923 with Harold Lloyd in A SAILOR-MADE MAN, and converted to talkies in 1929 with KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES. In 1952, after screening Basil Dearden’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN with Dirk Bogarde (never seen it, but I must!), the cinema burned to the ground.

Princes Street (“the most beautiful street in the world” ~ William Goldman) is the capital’s main shopping street, with the Gardens and the Castle on one side and a steadily growing number of empty retail facilities on the other. Apart from shops, the street was once home to three big screens. Leading from east to west, they were –

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The Palace (a popular name) was at number 15, in a Georgian-fronted building which still stands, the North British Hotel building. It opened on Christmas Eve 1913, with a cafe and smoking rooms following a few months later. One of the owners also owned the Powderhall dog track, and a film of the Powderhall Sprint was shown in 1914. The cinema delayed converting to sound until late in 1930, when it reopened with the Janet Gaynor musical SUNNY SIDE UP. (Click for musical interlude: play eerie warbles in background as you read on.)

During WWII, the cinema was a garrison-Sunday cinema, according to Thomas, but he doesn’t seem inclined to explain what that was. Movie shows for the troops? It closed in 1955 with ON THE WATERFRONT and THE MATING OF MILLIE starring Glenn Ford.

At number 56 stood The New Picture House, yet another cinema that opened a hundred years ago — 1913 was obviously a huge year for cinematic expansion. It aimed at refinement and gentility, with marble walls and pillars and elegant tea rooms. It sat nearly 1,000. Now the whole building is gone. An ugly Marks and Spenser’s store stands in its place.

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The first movie screened was HAMLET with Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, a film so popular the star remade it just two years later.

In 1929 the New screened Edinburgh’s first talkie, Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL, which didn’t impress Sidney Gilliatt but did clinch the success of talkies overall. The cinema closed in 1951 with PAGAN LOVE SONG and Tay Garnett’s exhausting thriller CAUSE FOR ALARM.

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The New lobby.

The Princes Cinema opened at number 131 in September 1912, with a continuous programme of shorts which patrons could walk into at any time. It came with a tea room and smoking room, could seat around 600, and had a six-piece orchestra to provide live accompaniment.

The Princes closed in 1935 with British comedies starring Stanley Holloway and Jack Hulbert, but then reopened as The Monseigneur, a “news theatre” dealing exclusively in newsreels. It acquired a wide screen in 1953 to show the film of the Queen’s coronation, but apparently nobody on the staff understood about aspect ratios, and audience’s complained that the top and bottom of the films was being cropped out.

The Monseigneur became The Jacey around 1964, becoming what one manager termed “a specialist kinky film cinema,” with mainly European product. Chabrol’s LES BICHES was translated as THE BITCHES. The last movie shown was the bluntly titled I AM SEXY.

The facade of this, the last of Princes Street’s cinemas, remains largely unaltered, I’m pleased to report.

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Shandwick Place, at the end of Princes Street, contains the former Albert Institute of Fine Arts, conceived as Scotland’s answer to the V&A Museum. The building quickly became moribund, and in the early 20th century cinema shows were one of the ways it was used. BB Pictures used it for films on a religious theme, but in 1913 it reopened with DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (with James Cruze) and WILD BEASTS AT LARGE (a Vitagraph comedy). It converted to sound but the cost eventually bankrupted the business in 1932, when VENGEANCE with Jack Holt became the last feature to play there. The building is now largely converted to flats.

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The Caley is the first of Lothian Road’s many cinemas. The building still has a lot of retro style (see top). In opened in 1923 with THE GAME OF LIFE, starring Lillian Hall-Davis and directed by G.B. Samuelson, whose son Sydney found the UK’s top movie lighting company. In the fifties, the cinema installed CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, and treated locals to THE ROBE. Edinburgh-set THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE played there for six weeks. This was also the base of the Edinburgh Film Guild, the world’s longest-running film society, which now operates out of Filmhouse across the road. At the time of Thomas’s book (1984) The Caley was still showing films as well as concerts, but it turned into a horrible disco shortly after that — it’s now an attractive music venue entitled, aptly, The Picture House.

poolesynodUp Castle Terrace is the Saltire Court, a big space age building — when it was new and unoccupied, me and my pal Morag McKinnon shot part of a film in there with Stratford Johns. What we didn’t realize was that it was previously the site of a legendary Edinburgh cinema, Poole’s Synod Hall. Originally a theatre, then a church, it was cursed with sixteen entrances, which made it easy for schoolkids to sneak each other in to the popular horror shows of the fifties and sixties (“good, wholesome, creaking door entertainment”). My pal Lawrie told me that Poole complained to the local headmaster about this practice, and the head responded by placing the cinema entirely off-limits. Not the result Poole had hoped for.

Edinburgh Council forced the Synod to close in 1965, but it went out on a high, with Losey’s THE DAMNED doubled with Polanski’s REPULSION.

A little further up Lothian Road we have The Usher Hall, which shows a movie every Halloween, using the mighty organ as accompaniment, and the Traverse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum which, according to the Scottish cinemas website, have shown movies at some point.

But over the road we have a proper, working cinema, Filmhouse, converted from a church (whereas several Edinburgh cinemas have become churches) and rumoured to be haunted. Well, Diane Ladd sensed something strange when she visited with WILD AT HEART at the Film Festival.

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Further up is The Odeon, formerly The ABC, The Cannon, originally The Regal. The frontage is more or less original, but the contents of the building have been ripped out, with one screen making way for three, then five. The ABC chain of cinemas was for years one of only two major exhibitors in the country, and it may have begun in Scotland. John Maxwell, a significant figure in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, may have started his movie career with the Scotia in Dalry Road, according to Thomas. More on this later.

The Regal opened in 1938 with Charles Laughton in VESSEL OF WRATH, and visitors over the years have included the Beatles and Laurel & Hardy. The three-screen complex opened in 1969, and it’s this incarnation I remember — we were weirded out as kids by LOGAN’S RUN, but screamed with joy at the verboten bosoms of Victoria Vetri in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. I remember the big, dark foyer, 1970s decor and colours, and the little windows through which you could peek at the screening you were waiting to end. I remember screen one with its curving, cinerama-type screen.

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Carrying on up the road to Tollcross, we find a cluster of cinemas in various stages of existence/non-existence. The Cameo is a beautiful bijou indie/arthouse with a noble history. It’s also a tale of hope — the cinema was closed when Thomas’s book was written, but re-opened a few years later and has been with us ever since. In my student days, this was a favourite for its late-night double-bills: a grindhouse-level scratchiness marred THE DEVILS, but the chance to see LISZTOMANIA projected was not to be sniffed at. The persistent pairing of BETTY BLUE and BLUE VELVET puzzled me at the time — they seemed very different movies. As I acquired a more questioning attitude to sexual politics in the movies, I could see that BETTY BLUE was the kind of “romance” Frank Booth might have made.

Across the road is the King’s Theatre, a variety theatre still specialising in popular fare — we recently saw a fairly wretched Agatha Christie piece there, as guests of the delightful Lysette Anthony, who was appearing in it.

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And here’s the only picture I could find of the long-vanished Tollcross Cinema, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1947 with one of those looong programmes auld folks still remember — the remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Emlyn Williams in yellowface, MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT with, um Lyle Talbot (oh, and a reliable Hollywood Scot, Alec Craig), a supporting western, and Popeye.

Also in Tollcross stand the Methodist Central Halls — apparently the site of occasional film shows in years gone by.

Up on Lauriston Street, near my workplace (Edinburgh College of Art) The Beverley, or Blue Rooms, hung on as a crumbling warehouse for decades. I used to pass it daily and wonder what it was. And yet — maybe I’m misremembering, because Thomas has the building demolished for a pub much earlier than my memory of it. Maybe what I saw really was the  ghost of a cinema? I never thought to ask anyone else, “That building there: do you see it too?”

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The Blue Halls opened in 1930 with WHITE CARGO, a part-talkie converted to sound alongside Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, and as The Beverley it closed in 1959 with CAROUSEL and YACHT ON THE HIGH SEAS, a TV play starring Nina Foch (and written by Lenore Coffee) which evidently got a cinema release over here as a B-picture.

We finish our jaunt with Fountainbridge, site of Sean Connery’s milk round, and present home of the CineWorld multiplex. My only interaction with that place is when it’s used for the Film Festival. It’s metallic chill is a bit of a buzz-killer, but I’ve had some good times there, usually with the onstage interviews with stars or technicians.

The Palladium, a circus that slowly morphed into a cinema between 1908 and 1911, no longer remains. Though it converted to sound using the unusual Edibell Talkie System, it didn’t survive for long, and a 1931 double bill of MISCHIEF (a Jack Lynn comedy) and SKY SPIDER (thriller directed by Richard Thorpe) closed its doors. It became a Bingo Hall, then became derelict, then got knocked down.

Closer to Lothian Road, The Coliseum looks to be going the same way. It opened as a skating rink, was converted in 1911, but closed in 1942 with NAVY BLUES (Jack Oakie) and ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA (story by Sam Fuller). I actually visited the building during its subsequent incarnation as a Bingo Hall, as some of my students were making a short documentary about the place. It was vast — in its heyday it sat 1,800. Such auditoria didn’t do well in the sound era. Though kept clean and shiny for bingo, the place had a palpable aura of sadness, either because it was full of pensioners filling their last hours with pointless (but pleasantly sociable) activity, or because it had once reverberated with the sounds of youth. Look at it now –

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Part 2 of this epic piece will take us from the old Odeon Clerk Street, haunt of my youth, down to the Bridges and then down the High Street to the Calton Studios. After that — Portobello, Stockbridge, and beyond the infinite…

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile –

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door –

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

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