Archive for Marlon Brando

Hair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2014 by dcairns

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The Mayans, we are told, had an incredibly advanced civilisation, despite never developing the wheel or metalwork. So they had to construct their dialogue and performances out of wood. And thus, alas, their dialogue and performances were no match for the leaden dialogue and performances of invading armies.

I really ought to watch TIGER BAY or YIELD TO THE NIGHT or the original CAPE FEAR as a palate cleanser, but my trawl through obscure J. Lee Thompson films instead led me to KINGS OF THE SUN in which Mayan king George Chakiris discovers Louisiana only to discover Indian chief Yul Brynner is already living there.

Of course nobody in this film can talk convincingly, the thick-ear epic dialogue seeming to choke on the miasma of brown face-paint (Shirley-Anne Field is excused fake tan, inexplicably). But if you can’t have good talk, you can at least have good hair.

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Chakiris leads the way with his giant quiff and pony tail look, similar to Tony Curtis’s magnificent quiff-and-pageboy cut in THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH. George could stand on the spot and rotate slowly and you’d get a complete history of human hair from the early hunter-gatherers to the latest in singing Puerto Rican street gangs.

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This dude opts for an innovative Mr. Whippy look.

Yul Brynner is excused hair, and gets a very funny introductory shot.

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Yul is the whole show. He can’t fare much better than anyone else with the dialogue, although he puts it over better. It’s his movement, his snake-hipped prowl, his snapping jaws in the fight scenes. We have to wait half an hour for him, and waiting for Yul is like waiting for Groucho in a movie as wooden as this, but when he does turn up he walks like really good sexual intercourse would walk. EVERYTHING gets better when Yul is around — the lighting goes from TV movie-of-the-week flat to vivid and modeled (Brando was impressed, on MORITURI, by how Brynner roped the lighting in to aid his performance) — the camera moves go from big swooping crane shots, spectacular at first but quickly tedious since the actors stand around like a forest, spouting duff verbiage that sounds like it’s been auto-translated from the original Mayannaise, to striking mobile POVs and dynamic following shots showcasing the best of Thompson’s style. His cameraman is Joseph Walker, who shot Capra’s stuff. Capra usually worked multi-camera (perhaps as a holdover from the early sound days?) which seems to have helped him get all that life and bustle going. For all its cast of thousands, this movie has zero bustle, and seems incapable of imagining convincing activity for more than one character at a time. Brynner makes damn sure that when he’s on screen, he is that character.

My favourite Yul story is from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. To Steve McQueen: “If you don’t stop playing with your hat, I’ll take off my hat, and then we’ll see who they look at.”

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by dcairns

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How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

And Still They Dance, To The End of Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2012 by dcairns

NOTE: The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon is not over — as befits its title, I accept (nay, welcome!) late entries, and have a few of my own lined up. Starting here:

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I sort of recommend watching A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG on a double bill with THE SHINING. As Kubrick’s spooky hotel seems time-warped back to the twenties, housing a whole temporally displaced dead population from that era, who eternally party, so Chaplin’s tuxedoed waltzers at the start and finish titles seem like refugees from the past — Chaplin wrote the treatment in the thirties as a vehicle for then-squeeze Paulette Goddard — presumably with himself in the Brando role. Now Sophia Loren is the Countess and times have changed, or have they?

Intermittently mildly funny, but mostly just damned odd, this isn’t, to me, an unpleasant watch, but it’s a very queer one. Brando seems to have entered the picture with high hopes that this would finally be his successful comedy (with a master like Chaplin in charge, how could it not?). In fact, he’s funnier in BEDTIME STORY — also, Brando’s sense of humour is that he’s a goof, a face-puller, a prankster. Deadpan sophisticated farce isn’t quite his thing, but he enjoys his few moments of silliness — panicking at the door buzzer every five minutes — and the brazen vulgarity, of which there is much — belching, gargling, sea-sickness, and the unspeakable threat of toilet noises.

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Loren, who can do anything and is VERY funny in YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW, is similarly patchy, managing some good physical stuff in a succession of outsized pajamas and dresses which deliberately recall her director’s baggy pants. But the film also veers into melancholy melodrama and she seems slightly more comfortable there.

Brando apparently grew to hate his director, focussing his outrage on Chaplin’s perceived mistreatment of son Sydney, who’s quite good in an undercharacterized supporting role. Syd didn’t feel bullied at all, and thought Dad was just trying to help him be good. It feels like Brando withdraws a bit as the film goes on: he did have a tendency to stop trying when he didn’t feel appreciated or lost enthusiasm for a project.

The same can’t be said for the magnificent Angela Scoular, who is consistently funny regardless of whether she has any comedy material to work with. Sadly, she only makes three little appearances and her role goes nowhere, plotwise. It’s Chaplin’s last film but her first, proving his eye for talent (and the ladies) had not deserted him. Also present, supporting Margaret Rutherford’s all-too brief turn, are Monty Python muse Carol Cleveland and a trio of Chaplin daughters, including Geraldine, who nails her cameo and gets a laugh with a lot less obvious caricature than the ebullient Scoular.

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(Scoular could and should have been the sexy version of Joyce Grenfell.)

The movie isn’t spooky like THE SHINING but there is something a bit disconcerting about its time-warped wrongness. It feels a little like a tribute to TRADE WINDS, the film Tay Garnett was shooting location stuff for when he bumped into the Chaplins in Hong Kong. I’m almost convinced Garnett blabbed about his plot and Chaplin made a mental note to swipe it. By the time he got around to it, the story had moved on but so had the world, and in opposite directions.

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