Archive for Charles Burnett

Marvelous Hairy About the Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

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The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

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Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

Listing slightly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2012 by dcairns

“Oh no… can you imagine how sarcastic that coroner’s going to be THIS time?”

I try to avoid writing lists, mainly. I used to make to-do lists, but it seemed to be a way of putting off doing things. And I used to make lists of favourite films, which is perhaps an OK way to start thinking about films, but runs out of value pretty quickly.

But for some reason I bought Sight & Sound specially for the Critics’ and directors’ poll this month. Actually, more the directors’. A good list there works as a sort of map of the filmmakers’ head. Just agreeing or disagreeing with the choices isn’t enough, I want to learn something about the person. That’s why my favourite last time was Bryan Forbes, because he included his own movie, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. Tells you a lot about him.

Forbes wasn’t asked back, but my favourite lists were those Guillermo Del Toro (FRANKENSTEIN, FREAKS, LA BELLE ET LA BETE), Mike Hodges (all thrillers, all on the verge of noir but not quite typical), Richard Lester (visual comedies and period movies), Edgar Wright (from DUCK SOUP to THE WILD BUNCH) and especially Terence Davies (lots of cineastes listed SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and one doesn’t doubt their sincerity, but with him it really means something). Also Bong Joon-Ho (CURE and TOUCH OF EVIL and ZODIAC) and Abel Ferrara (A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, THE DEVILS).

I also like the mysteries: Charles Burnett is the only filmmaker to list Henrik Galeen’s THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE and doesn’t amplify; does Rolf de Heer really like FEARLESS that much or did he feel the need to list a film from an Australian (the film is good, but is it that good?); Andrew Dominik’s list is all-English language and all post-1950 — his choices are all great, but doesn’t he feel any embarrassment?

Atom Egoyan claims to have listed ten films that have had “the most dramatic impact on the artform,” as if his personal feelings didn’t come into it.

I find myself in favour of goofy lists. I don’t want the overall top ten to change that much, but it gets boring to see the same names again and again. In the critics’ poll, Ian Christie lists RW Paul’s THE “?” MOTORIST, Geoff Dyer has WHERE EAGLES DARE, and they’re obviously quite sincere, and the Ferroni Brigade has PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (“We don’t believe these are the ten best films of all time, but we are convinced it would be better if they were,” begging the question, WHAT would be better?). One of Alexander Horvath’s choices, NOISES (anon, 1929) cannot be located using Google or the IMDb (“While it should be pretty obvious that these are the ten greatest films of all time, I still wonder if anyone will agree”). On the other hand, Slavoj Zizek, as always, tries a bit too hard to be interesting.

Creating an alternate list to the top ten ought to be fairly easy — just sub in an alternative choice from the same director or era or country or movement or genre. But in fact, the list is pleasingly stuffed with sui generis oddities — no other Dreyer film really compares to JOAN OF ARC (some may be better, but none are like it), CITIZEN KANE stands unique in Welles’ oeuvre even if one prefers CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, VERTIGO is a uniquely strange Hitchcock, LA REGLE DU JEU a uniquely strange Renoir, and Vertov offers only one obvious candidate. Ozu, Ford and Fellini made enough masterpieces for credible substitutions, though 8 1/2 still seems summative.

I know my favourite film: HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (ten years ago, Mark Cousins listed this: now, I don’t think anyone has). And then PLAYTIME and 2001 are the most amazing films I know. Beyond that, I’d surely have to have Powell, Welles, Sturges, Kurosawa, Keaton, Hitchcock, Russell, Lang, Fellini… oops, that’s eleven already. This is a silly game, I’m not playing.

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