Archive for Christopher Challis

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.

Steam Heat

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2010 by dcairns

Special Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean offers this entry to THE LATE SHOW: THE LATE FILMS BLOGATHON –

Steaming is notable for being the last film made by three of its collaborators; Joe Losey, Diana Dors and cinematographer Christopher Challis.  I’m happy to report that Challis is still alive at 91, but Losey and Dors, who were both in poor health at the time of the shoot in early 1984, died shortly afterwards, she in May of that year aged only 52 and he a month later at 75.  It’s sad therefore that this talented team should have produced a work of such disappointing quality and that their careers ended on what must be regarded as a low note.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start.  Casting problems, wrangles over nudity, crew changes and an inflexible set all played their part but the root of the film’s failure seems to lie in its unsatisfactory script, adapted from Nell Dunn’s stage play by Losey’s wife, Patricia.  She and Losey had seen the play together and his biographer reports her as saying “I was so enthusiastic and certain about it that I asked Joe that night to let me do the adaptation.” Losey was apparently anxious to launch her screenwriting career so she would have a means of support after his death and, although others had a hand in it, the script is mostly her work and the inexperience shows.

Even an unrepentant second wave feminist like me finds it hard to watch films from the period such as Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’autre Pas and  Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman without a slight wince of embarrassment but Steaming had me groaning aloud with my head buried in my hands.

Set in a women’s bath house in East London and with an all-female cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, it’s crudely put together, full of puzzling non sequiturs and riddled with stereotypes.  They’re all here – the abandoned upper class wife and mother regretting her years of domesticity, the successful career woman longing for a child, and the working class victim of domestic violence who goes back for more.    Why two wealthy women should meet regularly at a shabby east end baths with threadbare towels and cracked tiles instead of an upmarket spa is inexplicable, except for the purposes of a plot that requires them to complete the film’s social class jigsaw.  What unites them is, predictably, their suffering at the hands of men and, for much of the film, the trio sit around in various stages of undress relentlessly bemoaning male shortcomings until even Andrea Dworkin would shout “Enough!”

The manager, played by Dors, is aware of a plan by the local council to close the baths but script and editing blunders result in her not mentioning it to her customers until about half way through the film.  The emphasis then shifts to their campaign against the closure. Unlike the play, the film gives us a happy ending in which the baths are given a temporary reprieve following an impassioned speech to the council (delivered off screen) by the working class woman who – yes, you’ve guessed it – has finally found her voice.

Apart from these four characters, and a rather baffling widowed mother and her daughter whose problems are never fully explained, there is only one other speaking part and we see little evidence of the hundreds of women who, the manager asserts, use the baths every week.  This means the cast have to adopt the kind of frantic mugging that is called for whenever a few people have to convey the impression of being many. An excruciating party sequence requires them to become over excited by a few balloons and sandwiches, and leap to their feet and start dancing manically and badly to undanceable music, invariably a hallmark of a bad film.

Acting styles are far from consistent. Vanessa Redgrave (abandoned upper class wife) and Sarah Miles (career woman) attempt to inject a note of screen naturalism into a theatrical script. As the working class woman, Pattie Love (who played the Sarah Miles part in the original Theatre Royal Stratford production) engages in that style of stage acting that, to quote Quentin Crisp, “embraces us with semaphore gestures and tells us her secrets in the voice of a town crier.” Only Diana Dors manages to look at ease in front of the camera.

If more effort had been made to address the play’s shortcomings, it might have been a better film but it does nothing to transcend its stage origins and they differ very little.  Pages of dialogue are lifted verbatim and there are no exterior shots, the set being made up entirely of a series of rooms within the baths. Losey did not see this as a problem, or chose not to, and told his cast and crew “In my experience cinema can be used in many ways: one of them is to increase enclosure rather than the Hollywood cliché of ‘opening up’.”

Christopher Challis, who was brought in at the last minute after Douglas Slocombe turned the job down, had previously worked with Losey on Blind Date. In an interview with David Caute (Losey’s biographer), Challis described the set as a disaster. “We repainted it, but nothing would float, you couldn’t move anything.  It was wedged in with backing.  The script described atmospheric weather outside, but it was impossible to get it from inside.” One outcome is that there is no sense of the passing of time and it’s not at all clear if the events take place over days, weeks or months.

Caute’s book also reports Slocombe’s damning verdict. Not wishing to offend Losey, he made the excuse that his asthma couldn’t cope with the damp atmosphere, but in reality he hated both the play and the script. ‘I thought it was a nasty, cheap thing for Joe to do, and I thought doing this will kill him.  It did kill him.  Sad to end on that note.”

The film’s reputation has not improved over time and, like the play, has attracted more attention for its glimpses of the naked body than for its political intentions.  Looking at the keywords allocated to it by IMDB (always a revealing exercise) we find the following; female full frontal nudity, female nudity, independent film, based on play.  No feminism there, then.   Of the three user comments on it on the same website, one is from a woman who had to decide whether to accept one of the nude roles in a local stage production, the second from a man who describes it as a ‘British nudie cutie film’ and the third from someone whose comments on other films such as Basic Instinct 2, Intimacy, Sirens, Full Body Massage, Showgirls and Love Crimes leave us in no doubt as to where his interests lie.

It’s significant that Christopher Challis’s autobiography does not mention the film at all.  In fact, there’s a strange omission in his filmography that forms an appendix to the book.  For every other film his name appears as either camera operator or photographer, but the entry for Steaming gives only the names of the producer, writer, director and stars.  Was this deliberate?  A proof reading error?  A Freudian slip?  Let’s just hope that in 1984, when he was 65, he was already planning to retire and not driven to it by his involvement in Steaming.

To end on a more positive note, Challis’s book, aptly titled Are they really so awful?, is the most level headed and good natured account of the filmmaking process I have ever read. It tells the story of his rise from trainee to DoP and his encounters along the way with temperamental colleagues with disarming modesty and considerable tact.  Yes, he concludes, they were awful, but he liked them.

References

Caute, David.  Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. Faber and Faber, 1994

Challis, Christopher. Are They Really So Awful? Janus Publishing Company, 1995

Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2008 by dcairns

TLP

Tearing myself away from the Lithuanian baby racing (banged a tenner on a sprog that threw a tantrum on the final stretch) I turn my gaze upon more from Stanley Donen. LATE PERIOD Stanley Donen.

I thought this would be interesting, having recently “enjoyed” his musical parody MOVIE MOVIE, which was a very mixed bag. I remember seeing stills from THE LITTLE PRINCE in old movie mags when I was at school, and discussing it with someone (a Gene Wilder fan, I think) who had seen it and hated it. So I was fascinated (those stills were intriguing!) and also rather wary.

I. Loved. It.

Based on the story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, adapted into musical form by Leopold and Loeb. No wait, not them, the other two — Lerner and Lowe. Much better choice. Still it’s a weird book that I couldn’t get on with as a child, but which I’d probably love now. One of those “children’s books” that’s probably wasted on kids. It’s very peculiar and so is the film.

The Rose

it’s also made in quite a bold style that possibly seemed dated when the movie came out (1974) — Donen uses stylised sets not just for the fantastical otherworldly bits, but also for the desert at night, even though the daylight stuff is mostly shot on real locations (Tunisia). But this isn’t like Billy Wilder using rear projection for car journeys in BUDDY BUDDY (1981), Donen’s choices make sense for the film he’s making. Looking ahead to modern cinema we could even say he was ahead of his time.

In fact, when the central characters pass a giant fish skeleton in the Tunisian sands, and a soft-edged wipe takes us on to the next scene, it’s easy to see George Lucas MUST have seen this before embarking on STAR WARS. Everybody assumes those are sand worm bones in A NEW HOPE, but that would suggest Lucas had read Dune. I’m not even convinced he’s read Joseph Campbell.

Bones

Plot: An aviator crashes in the Sahara where, as he desperately tries to repair his plane, he encounters an extraterrestrial child who tells him his strange story… it’s like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, only with more dancing.

There is quite a bit more to it than that, but describing it would get us into the pernicious realm of spoilery, and I quite liked not knowing what was going to happen in this case. I must say I would NOT have predicted the ending. Crikey.

Graham

Incidentals: travelling through space, our little cosmo-lad encounters several eccentric characters, played by eccentric actors of various type: Joss Ackland from England, Graham Crowden from Scotland, Victor Spinetti from Wales and Clive Revill from New Zealand. Not major stars, but with impressive track records of cult cinema trailing in their wakes. Each embodies some aspect of adult human folly.

Two of them appear on giant spherical sets, and two appear filmed with a fish-eye lens that folds them into a spherical image. This must be one of the most brazenly stylised devices ever deployed in a mainstream entertainment. It’s pretty alienating and freaky, but so’s everything else. What I actually loved in this film are all the things than probably made it completely unacceptable to my schoolfriend.

Clive of India

Once on Earth, the little guy (a rubber-faced child with albino eyebrows and a fright wig, also a curious flattened delivery) encounters a snake, who offers to return him whence he came by killing him (all in song form) and a fox who wants to be tamed. The snake is Bob Fosse and the fox is Gene Wilder, and they don’t use animal costumes or special effects, just a few jump cuts to equate each with the animal they’re playing. It works marvellously well, but might be a stretch for little kids. Kids would always rather have a talking animal than a great actor or dancer.

(The tacky part of the film is actually the flock of birds that transport our miniature hero through the stars — they’re poorly drawn and animated and clash with the rest of the film. I assume that animation was used only because real doves couldn’t be tied to a child and unleashed. We’re not talking Hitchcock and “Tippi” Hedren here. Maybe, in keeping with the more theatrical approach to the talking animals, the birds should have been invisible, with sound effects only, or something? I actually think they would have sucked even if they’d been better designed and animated.)

The Birds

Fosse is amazing here. Fiona found it disconcerting to see Bob Fosse dance moves actually being danced by Bob Fosse. He’s styled kind of like Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe, and some of his moves and dress sense call to mind Michael Jackson, which is alarming. Both Fosse and Wilder’s scenes involve SEDUCING A CHILD, which obviously complicates our responses to the scenes, but I enjoy a healthy dose of malaise and discomfort in my entertainment so that didn’t spoil things for me.

Fosse!

Gene Wilder is doing his saccharine thing as showcased at the end of WILLY WONKA (he’s wonderfully sinister in the rest of that film) and it’s slightly problematic for me. I prefer Wilder when he’s funny. But he features in one of the film’s most lovely and weird shots:

Gene Wilder, Party Liason

It’s almost like a William Hurt hallucination from ALTERED STATES, as is most of the film. In Ken Russell’s psychedelic sci-fi extravaganza, stoners would famously lurk in the lobby during the talking bits, until a hallucination came on, then they’d rush into the cinema to experience it. In this movie they’d never have to leave their seats.

My biggest problem with the film was leading man Richard Kiley, a baritone voice with legs. At first I misread the credits and thought it said Richard KIEL, the hulking Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which would have been a miraculously brave choice. The kid would have barely come up to his calf. Kiley sings with that rather strenuous, fakey passionate commitment that I associate with the more generic kind of Broadway entertainment, and he kind of acts that way too. But in a strange way he balanced out with the non-acting, non-singing kid. By the end I liked them both. I mean, I liked the kid from the start because he’s a shaggy foetus in a frock coat, and you don’t see enough of those, but by the end I also RESPECTED him. He can pop round for a biscuit anytime.

Kiley and Warner

The songs and music sometimes tend to the sugary as well, but I Never Met a Rose was lovely and Fosse’s number was spectacular (and looooong — Fosse fans will not feel cheated) and any film where you get Joss Ackland singing will score highly on the old Weirdometer. He can kind of carry a tune, but more importantly, he can bulge his eyes like an ill frog.

Having cringed slightly at the stylistic vagueness of MOVIE MOVIE, I was thrilled at most of Donen’s visuals here. He seems confident, imaginative, on close to peak form. There are some very odd camera moves — when the Prince first appears it’s in a little crane shot, descending to earth so the kid sort of grows, which can only be explained in fairly abstruse psychological terms, but works, in some way. A lot of the moves are beautifully counter-intuitive. I get the impression Donen is enjoying himself, which didn’t so much seem the case in MOVIE MOVIE.

Cinematography, favouring the wide-angle lens, is by Christopher Challis, who did beautiful work on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and shot most of the later Powell & Pressburger flicks — films that aren’t as good as the ones Jack Cardiff filmed, mostly, but which are every bit as beautiful. And it’s worth getting his book.

The Planet

I was lucky enough to see Challis introduce P&P’s OH… ROSALINDA! here in Edinburgh. After he’d trashed the film, which everyone involved in considered a total failure, he observed that this was a restored print. “I’m not quite sure what that means, but when I look in the shaving mirror in the morning I do sometimes wish there was a restoration scheme for aging photographers.”

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