Archive for Intolerance

Masquerade

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2013 by dcairns

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I was predisposed to like CLOUD ATLAS because I directed part of it. Not a large part — not as much as Tom Tykwer or Andy or Lana Wachowski. Just around five seconds of the bottom left hand corner.

Around a year ago, our friend David Brown, who was line producing the Scottish section of the shoot, got in touch with me and asked if the students at Edinburgh College of Art might be persuaded to shoot material for a big split-screen montage showing the media sensation caused when London Irish gangster throws a literary critic off a rooftop for dissing his book. I volunteered my own services and produced a short TV segment debating the merits of murdering critics, and was joined by a number of students, all of us seizing the chance of a decent payday and an exciting CV entry.

It’s possible that the DVD contains the unexpurgated versions of our films, I’ll get back to you on that.

The trailer for the movie was kind of a wow, but did worry me with its VO pontifications. Happily, the movie digests all the philosophizing a lot better than the MATRIX sequels, and struck me as that rare phenomenon, a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. Following in the path of DW Griffith and INTOLERANCE, Buster Keaton and THE THREE AGES and Bill Forsyth and BEING HUMAN (only the middle movie was a real success), the movie tells six stories in different historical periods, and connects them mainly thematically and with a few little motifs — the gimmick of David Mitchell’s source novel, in which the characters from one story read others, or see movies based on them, isn’t as central here, which means the script has to work to establish why exactly it IS telling so many apparently unrelated yarns. I liked the effect.

We’d heard that the script was around 180 pages and rumours hinted that the rough cut of the first half of the movie came in at three hours, but the finished product, though long, never felt it. Multi-narrative things can drag easily, as it takes longer for each narrative strand to get started, interrupted as it is by others. The team here are buoyed along by the sheer puzzlement of what all these stories have to do with each other. It’s a very different plan from the book’s nested narratives, but a pleasingly perverse one.

It’s also fun trying to figure out the literary and/or cinematic influences behind each story, and which sources inspired Mitchell versus which influenced the filmmakers, something I’m not smart enough to do. But here are some guesses –

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South Pacific 1849

No idea where this derives from, but it’s another take on the slave trade, which suddenly seems the topic du jour. It’s quite moving, and improves on DJANGO UNCHAINED with its pseudo-science phrenology monologue from Leo DiCaprio, by giving its slave-owning characters philosophical self-justifications that aren’t just nonsense — they have a particular kind of self-serving pseudo-logic.

Best perf: Jim Sturgess is lovely. I saw THE BROWNING VERSION back in 1994 so I guess I saw him as a kid, but this was my first real exposure. Keith David is also great, but I most enjoyed Tom Hanks grotesque fancy-dress turn.

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Cambridge and Edinburgh 1936

The amanuensis set-up made me think of Ken Russell’s TV play Song of Summer, but like all the storylines, this one turns into a thriller. I would have liked to see more of Edinburgh, of course.

Best perfs: Ben Whishaw is very affecting.

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San Francisco 1973

Seems to channel bits of SILKWOOD, with its nuclear industry whistle-blower plot. Funny seeing West George Street in Glasgow, situated on a steep hill, standing in for San Francisco. Likewise, a Scottish bridge forms the approach to the power plant, which has been digitally painted in to the shot.

Best perfs: This is Berry’s chance to shine, but I also loved Brody Nicholas Lee, and Hugo Weaving as hitman Bill Smoke, a variant on his MATRIX nasty.

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Niall Fulton, who plays The False Natan in NATAN, is standing just offscreen on the right, playing one of the diabolical Hoggins Brothers.

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Tykwer’s comic relief episode (to which I contributed my few seconds) ties into the theme of the struggle for liberation, as Jim Broadbent tries to escape from an oppressive old people’s home. I guess it has some antecedents in the English comic novel, but I don’t know what. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST certainly seems relevant though.

Best perfs: It’s Broadbent’s show all the way, but the other oldsters are terrif.

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Neo Seoul, Korea, 2144

This one has quite a lot in common with V FOR VENDETTA, which the Wachowskis produced, and it makes sense that this section of the novel would appeal to them. An innocent woman is adopted by a seemingly superhuman terrorist to battle oppression in a future society where some kind of holocaust has been instigated — it’s very similar, but the story world itself is very different, incorporated imagery reminiscent of BLADE RUNNER, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, THX 1138 and even SPEED RACER.

Best perfs: Doona Bae and Xun Zhu are both great, but I also loved James D’Arcy’s coolly “sympathetic” interrogator.

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The Big Island of Hawaii 2321

Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, a post-nuclear adventure where everybody speaks a strange patois of degenerated English, must have been the influence here. By coincidence I just reading Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, and since that features the culture clash between those who have devolved to barbarism and those who still have technology, that may also have figured in the mix. The filmmakers’ exploded structure pulls this out from the centre of the novel where it’s the only uninterrupted tale, and allows it to bookend the whole film, while weaving in and out. The last shot is a winner.

Best perf: Tom Hanks gets to do his conflicted hero thing here.

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Asides from the good performances, the film is also full of strange impersonations, as actors are got up in prosthetics and funny voices to play different ages, genders and races, though interestingly the movie squeamishly eschews the blackface that so enlivened O LUCKY MAN!, the last obvious case of an ensemble cast playing multiple roles. Instead we get a lot of yellowface and some equally unconvincing instances of Korean actors playing white. This is all interesting.

I wasn’t offended in the least. I did wonder slightly at the intended effect, since the makeups are elaborate but not convincing at all, and not all of the actors are suited to chameleonic performances. Hanks makes a nicely repulsive quack, and an amusing Scottish landlord, and he does have a knack for the grotesque. Likewise, Hugo Weaving makes a good manly female nurse, and it’s a role which suits drag. I enjoyed Hugh Grant’s old age turn, even though he looks like a Spitting Image puppet under all that latex. (Incidentally, that humiliating arrest of his has really opened up a useful line in villainous sleaze for Grant: all his characters in CLOUD ATLAS are baddies.)

But mostly the film shows that actors are often better playing characters they are a little bit like — and one reason the film works as well as it does is that the more blatant disguises function mostly as novelty turns in storylines centred around characters played by actors roughly the right age, race and sex for their roles. It does add an amusing guessing-game element to the film, and the end credits have a LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER moment of revelation.

The Sunday Intertitle: Let Jesus Fuck You

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by dcairns

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I’m quoting Linda Blair, of course, so that’s alright then.

The profane headline is inspired by recent reading. In Dublin I acquired The Celluloid Mistress: or, The Custard Pie of Dr Caligari by English playwright Rodney Ackland. Ackland’s movie memoir details his involvement in the cinema on such projects as Powell & Pressburger’s 49TH PARALLEL, Brian “The Queen of Ireland” Desmond Hurst’s DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, and Thorold Dickinson’s QUEEN OF SPADES, which Ackland actually started directing until forced out by an unsympathetic producer. (Dickinson looked and the rushes and said, “You’d never think this was a British picture!” “Is there anything wrong in that?” asked Ackland. “No!” said Dickinson, genuinely impressed, and he finished the film in the same style.)

At one point, Ackland documents a meeting with Howard Gaye, who played Christ in Griffith’s INTOLERANCE. Gaye recollected ruefully that when the crew stopped for lunch, he was left crucified for an hour and a half. Griffith, when he returned from his loaves and fishes, was greeted with an outburst of decidedly unchristlike language from his Messiah.

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This brought to mind a long anecdote from the shooting of THE KING OF KINGS, detailed in Lenore Coffee’s Storyline. According to L.C., the crew of the flick set up camp on an island where they could be removed from all modern appurtenances except for those pieces of technical apparatus essential to the actual recording of film images. DeMille was therefore rather put out that his star, H.B. Warner, insisted on leaving the camp for a luxury yacht every evening, still in costume and makeup as the Lamb of God. The nightly appearance of the twentieth century vessel ruptured DeMille’s sense of period and spoiled his enjoyment of the year 33 Anno Domini.

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When Coffee and her husband realized that Warner was meeting a girlfriend aboard ship, they decided that DeMille must be protected from this knowledge, since anything that tainted the feeling of sanctity he had built up around the film would have rendered him unfit to continue. When they further realized that Warner had insisted on keeping on his God the Son attire because his girlfriend was fulfilling some kind of perverse Bride of Christ sexual fantasy, they became even more determined to keep the matter under their collective hat (all writing teams own a collective hat, which they put on when collaborating).

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“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

The Mother’s Day Intertitle: Cradlesong

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by dcairns

I do a lot of Griffith-bashing here and elsewhere — last semester, a student volunteered that he was glad to be able to avoid BIRTH OF A NATION after hearing me describe it in class. I felt slightly bad, because I rather feel the film should be seen, as an object lesson in the importance of questioning the beliefs you’re raised in. There’s its importance in film history too, but students can’t see everything, ours is essentially a practical course, and there are other movies from which film technique can be gleaned more enjoyably.

But here’s the famous intertitle from INTOLERANCE, and I’m moved to say that it’s (in the words of General Oliver North) a really neat idea — tying together Griffith’s sprawling storylines with the observation that all human history emerges from the cradle. It’s where all the trouble starts. Of course, the words come not from Griffith, nor from Anita Loos, nor from any of the gang of people employed to write titles on this unruly epic, but from Walt Whitman.

I bet Griffith liked this line from the same poem: “Up from the mystic play of shadows, twining and twisting as if they were alive”…

Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, whose documentaries introduced me to Griffith, occasionally risked coming off as apologists for Griffith’s sins, unavoidably I suppose, since their documentaries give a voice to people like Gish who WERE unadulterated Griffith-boosters. But they scored a devastating and irrefutable hit when they observed, of INTOLERANCE, that the one aspect of man’s inhumanity to man not treated in the film was racial intolerance. Which means the film cannot serve as an apologia for, or moderation of, the horrific crimes of BIRTH OF A NATION.

My maternal grandmother, Dora, reminded me slightly of Lillian Gish. But she was not a fan — I remember when the subject came up, she mimicked the famous “forced-smile” gesture from BROKEN BLOSSOMS and described how everybody had laughed at it. This confused me: I knew from my reading that the film had been a success. Surely audiences hadn’t mocked such a key scene at the time?

A bit of digging cleared things up. My grandmother seemed very old to me, but she still didn’t seem old enough to have seen and remembered BROKEN BLOSSOMS in 1919. But the film was re-released in the early thirties with a synchronized score (just as, more famously, BIRTH OF A NATION came out with a new prologue featuring Griffith and Walter Huston). And it probably didn’t do Griffith’s reputation any good. Audiences, drunk on the heady wine of talkies, were suddenly exposed to this antique, more than ten years old, before all the developments of silent cinema in the twenties, and partaking of a cod-Dickensian aesthetic and world-view which must have seemed positively primordial. I get the impression that the 1936 remake (by John Brahm) didn’t set the world on fire either.

So for Griffith, struggling to appear current and cutting edge in an industry increasingly thrilled by the New, reminding folks of his past triumphs might actually not have been the smartest move. But that would have left him with no moves at all.

A Griffith innovation which didn’t catch on: note that this print is not subtitled “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages” but “A Sun-Play of the Ages.” Did DW have it in mind of this to become the standard term, replacing “movie”? What a feather in the cap that would have been, to not only (falsely) claim to have invented everything in the cinematic lexicon, but to name the medium itself. I say we bring the term back.

Is HOT TUB TIME MACHINE a sun-play of the ages too?

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