Archive for Mishima

Duet for harpsichord and bongos

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2009 by dcairns

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When graphic designers go odd…

So, a puzzled Keir Dullea, surrounded by antique-style furniture, turns around and sees himself as an old man. What film are we watching?

Award yourself 10 points if you answered “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”, and eleventy million points if you added “or DESADE.” Since DESADE is a film about a man trapped in an infinite time loop, the sense of deja vu Dullea must have experienced from his work as astronaut Dave Bowman may have helped him get into character.

Donatien Alphonse, Marquis de Sade, embodied by Dullea, is on his death bed, adrift in visions from his past life (it doesn’t so much flash before his eyes as trundle) in this late work from blacklistee and ZULU helmer Cy Endfield, produced by AIP. One wonders what must have gone wrong with Endfield’s career to bring him to this point — and thence to the horrors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? After 1965′s SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, he didn’t work for four years, and when he did…

…he got a project already rejected by Roger Corman. Corman told his bosses at AIP that this movie wouldn’t work, since the censors would let them show what they needed to show in order to make a respectable life of Sade. He also voiced concerns with their choice of replacement — there was some doubt that Endfield would be able to bring himself to include the exploitation elements the film needed in the marketplace. The whole thing was a balancing act between the censors and the box office. Endfield faithfully promised to shoot a spicy yarn, but seemingly chickened out when it came to the crunch, so Corman was roped in to shoot some extra skin.

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How we laughed. Pouring hot wax on prostitutes — I guess you had to be there.

You can pretty much identify the Corman interpolations: he shoots the orgies in slow motion through a thick red filter, just like Hazel Court’s satanic rite in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It pretty well robs the scenes of erotic potential, since we lose the flesh tones, and gain only the opportunity to observe jiggling cellulite at 100 fps. Also, everybody’s laughing in Dullea’s orgies. The relationship between sex and humour is a complex one, but generally speaking, if you’re throwing an orgy (does one throw orgies? Or organize them, like posses?) and the “guests” or “participants” or “fuckers” or whatever you call them, are in a constant state of hysteria, is anything going to get done? Is anyone going to get done?

Leaving aside the sex, we have the story, at least in theory. It’s a kind of biography-by-hallucination, comparable to Raoul Ruiz’s more recent KLIMT, only written by Richard Matheson. I admire Matheson’s work, and his contribution to cinema is as fine as his contribution to genre fiction, but I have to admit his bad-guy dialogue is inclined to the fruity. He really needs Vincent Price to get away with some of these lines. A few years later, acting in a TV version of Huxley’s Brave New World, Dullea would display the camp chops necessary to pull off a Vincent, but here he lacks full confidence in his flounce and pout, so it’s left to older hams to relish the rich flow of Matheson’s verbiage.

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Darling Lilli — still porcelain-perfect, but huge black eyes like mouseholes.

Lilli Palmer is in fine fettle as Sade’s mother-in-law (and WHAT a mother-in-law!), and John Huston has disruptive fun with the part of Sade’s wicked uncle, the Abbé. He even plays his first scene with some kind of stage Oirish accent, just because he’s John Huston and nobody can stop him. He also gets the most disturbing scene, the primal scene, if you will, where Sade as a boy spies on his uncle molesting a maid, and then gets caught and punished. The future arch-pervert’s young mind forms a lasting association between sex, cruelty and voyeurism. It’s all very dollar-book Freud, but it’s passable as motivation, and the sequence is genuinely distressing. I’m not sure you could even film it nowadays.

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Eyes Wide Crossed.

Complicating the psychodrama is his love for his sister-in-law. He’s forced to wed plain-jane Anna Massey (in the middle film of her sadeian trilogy, sandwiched between PEEPING TOM and FRENZY) despite being hopelessly in love with glamourpuss Senta Berger. This embitters him and sets him on his path of sexual turpitude, if turpitude is the word for it.

vlcsnap-854234Senta’s little helper.

Matheson may have a simplistic but clear angle on Sade’s psychosexual upset, but he’s forced to short-change us on Sade the philosopher. The do-what-thou-wilt catechisms we associate with Sade’s books are here either ignored, in order to present us with Sade the lovelorn drip, or they’re given to the Abbé, the real villain of the piece. This rather falsifies the story, and is the aspect of the film the Divine Marquis would no doubt have despised the most. In fact, Sade’s writing barely gets a look in.

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape…”

Paul Schrader observed, when he was making Mishima, that the only way to film a writer’s life was by dramatizing his stories. With a composer, you play the music; with a painter, you show the work; but a novelist is unique since you have to actually adapt their art into a whole new medium just to give some (unavoidably falsified) idea of what they do. I’d be interested in a radical solution to this problem that involved lengthy recitations, but I can’t think of one of hand. All I can think of is films that dramatize the work (MISHIMA, DREAMCHILD, GOTHIC) or films that don’t, and fail (IRIS). And oh yes, a third category, which DESADE falls into –

– along with Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH — the films which create a phantasmagoria, the life of the artist merged with their work, or filtered through their style. That’s what Matheson has tried to write, but he’s unable to get to grips with Sade’s pornographic side, and unwilling to get to grips with his world-view (which is arguably even more unpleasant). But at least it gives him an unusual style and structure. Increasingly the film plays like the last act of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, with reality and fantasy cascading together in an avalanche of dream.

How do you solve a problem like the Marquis? I confess I haven’t seen MARQUIS, in which the naughty nobleman’s life is enacted by puppets designed by renaissance man Roland Topor, with the Marquis’s most satisfying relationship being with his talking penis, but that sounds like the most realistic version conceivable. Nor have I seen Peter Brook’s film of his stage success, THE MARAT/SADE. I have scant regard for Brook as a filmmaker, but that might be at least a bit interesting. Saw the play once. It was a bit interesting. Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS falls flat because again, it’s reluctant to admit how nasty Sade’s fantasies were: when it tries to do so, the film’s rather jovial tone disintegrates, which would be fine if it were an intentional effect, but it doesn’t seem to be. Pasolini’s SALO is still the most unadulterated, apocalyptic version of Sade put on screen, and that was promptly banned in nearly every country on Earth. I believe it was legal to screen it on the Moon, but the film came out three years after the last manned flight there. I’m not sure astronaut Eugene A. Cernan has seen the film to this day.

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Their royal lownesses, the King and Queen of Lilliput.

Returning to the Endfield: he directs it with some pictorial flair (although my MGM DVD seems to cut things off at the top), aided by decorous locations, but there’s sometimes a lack of good sense in his shooting: after showing the newly married Dullea and Massey advancing between two lines of people, he cuts to a reverse angle, seemingly a POV, but shot from knee-height as if the protagonists had been abruptly munchkinated. He’s also inclined to masturbate the zoom lens a bit.

Somehow, the film is still a decent watch, maybe because it has enough bad taste  to compensate for its lack of bad taste. It’s not offensive as porn or very upsetting as drama (apart from that one scene), but it’s decorated with enough lapses of common sense to make it amusing. The opening credits, in which Sade is envisioned as a ball-playing winged fish, are ludicrously abstract, and the music by the wonderfully-named Billy Strange chooses to equate decadence with modernity, so that the faux-18th century chamber music segues into bongo jazz or wah-wah guitar whenever anything juicy threatens to happen. Like most bad decisions in films scoring, this approach has a perfectly sound reason behind it: it’s just that it doesn’t work. I expect Michael Mann to try something similar any day now.

Here’s some more sado-erotic action with Lilli Palmer, thirty years earlier in Carol Reed’s pre-make of SHOWGIRLS, enticingly entitled A GIRL MUST LIVE. Lilli’s Scottish opponent is the great Renee Houston.

Lulled and dumbfound

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by dcairns

“I love Irish writers… like Dylan Thomas,” Sharon Stone once famously blurted. Now THE EDGE OF LOVE, John Maybury’s non-biopic of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, opens the Edinburgh Film Festival. Collecting my press pass, I hurry along the sunbaked streets to see it.

I’m wary of films about writers, so I should confess to going in with trepidation, but (a) it’s the start of the Fest and there was nothing else on and (b) the sun was shining and I needed to gain the shade of an auditorium before my pale Scottish skin acquired the hue of scalded pork. The Cineworld nestles in the heart of Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge area, once home to Sean Connery’s milk round, but the milk float doesn’t stop here anymore. If they’d screened the movie at the Dominion Cinema in Morningside I could have called this piece “Death shall have no Dominion,” but reality is an imperfect form of poetry.

Why this phobia about writer-films? I *AM* a writer, for starters, and I can’t think of anything less interesting to watch than me, sitting here, typing this and cooking spaghetti at the same time. Can you?

Writer-films tend to boil down into two categories: those that try to capture the white heat of the creative experience (and fail) and those that turn out to be only incidentally about writers. IRIS was a love story with Altzheimer’s as antagonist. SYLVIA was a love story with depression as antagonist. TOM AND VIV (does anybody even remember that one?) was a love story with P.M.T. as antagonist. Really! I’m not joking.

The third category is occupied mainly by Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA which boldly tries to recreate the writer’s fictional worlds in cinematic form. This is risky, in that the filmed versions may not really give a true impression of what is important in a writer’s work (the specific formal qualities of WRITING), but it is probably the only plausible approach that could make filming a writer’s life worthwhile. Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and Soderbergh’s KAFKA take a fourth route, injecting the author into his own fictional world (or a version of it), which seems like an interesting approach even if it fails.

A recent car advert — wait — yes, here we go: THIS recent car advert–

– used Dylan Thomas’ UNDER MILK WOOD, spoken by Richard Burton, as backdrop to some attractive images, attempting to sell you something. Maybury’s film uses the poetry in exactly the same fashion, and what is being sold is a concept of British “heritage cinema”, the kind of stuff The Film Council and BBC Films, in this case, like to make so they can feel culturally responsible. The movie is actually less successful than the car ad, since in the ad we can actually focus on what’s being said. The Maybury drowns out the whispered verse with Angelo Badalamenti’s typically lustrous score and with an overactive effects track.

Yeah, about that… There’s an undeclared war between composers and foley artists which is highly detrimental to any poetic effect in cinema. What’s the point in paying top dollar for Badalamenti’s services if you’re going to let some effects man with a sheet of sandpaper and some loose change widdle all over the soundtrack? Sound effects work can be a tremendous boon, anchoring picture to sound with deftly chosen, unobtrusive little connections, or it can be creative and miraculous in itself, as in the films of Jacques Tati. But there’s a fashion for sticking an effect on EVERY TINY MOVEMENT, and it hacks me off. Sometimes the audio track should be simple.

The other aspect of film fashion that’s tripping this film up is fast cutting. This movie isn’t even a serious offender, but it’s anxious to serve up a new image or angle every few seconds, no matter how sumptuous the current one is (the photography, by Jonathan Freeman, is always very attractive, although the constant smoky shafts of light feel more ’80s than ’40s). When Maybury produces one of his striking visual tropes, like an overhead view of Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley lying head to head on the floor, with Knightley appearing upside-down, which cuts to an inverted version of the same shot so that it’s now Miller upside-down, the effect is diffused, rendered less consequential, by the gratuitous insertion of a side-on wide-shot, providing context, sure, but MEANINGLESS, UNNECESSARY context.

This anxiety about keeping our interest also perhaps explains the superimposed titles announcing that we are in the London underground during the blitz, or in Greece. Of course the first fact is utterly obvious to anybody with knowledge of British wartime history and the ability to see that the shot is of an underground station crowded with sheltering people in ’40s dress, and the second fact doesn’t particularly matter. But the Film Council really wants us to understand what the Film Council wants us to understand.

Maybury, whose experimental films win plaudits and whose LOVE IS THE DEVIL was an art film about an artist that genuinely did justice to the art and the person, while using cinematic language to capture the feeling of Francis Bacon from the inside, seems to be under the close supervision of the Style Police. The Heritage Cinema Goon Squad have their eye on him, and they whisper darkly that he may, of course, use stylised effects, odd angles and CG manipulations of the imagery, as long as –

1) He uses them VERY BRIEFLY.

2) He spreads them thin so that the overall surface of the film is totally conventional.

3) He uses them in a purely gestural way so that they DON’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE.

So much for style. The film-making is perfectly inoffensive and just interesting enough so that we know a director turned up each day.

The script takes the traditional approach to a writer’s life, ignoring the work and concentrating on the important business of showing that artists are generally shits. One thing that stops this rather traditional approach from seeming immediately boring is a certain lack of focus in the writing — there are four main characters, and absolutely no effort has been made to select from their various stories and relationships a central thread upon which to hang the film. The coda strongly suggests that this is that rarity, a love story between two heterosexual women — but this won’t do at all, since the climax doesn’t actually offer an active role for one of them. But as I say, the confusion works in the film’s favour to some extent, preventing it from becoming a banal piece of poet-bashing.

Dialogue is generally good, avoiding obvious period mannerisms but equally steering clear of anachronism. The film deserves credit for mapping a splendidly twisted set of emotional knots. None of it exercises any real pull on the emotions (I’m a sucker for WWII British stuff, a screen brimming with stiff upper lips will usually have me blubbering, but this movie is all about Celts emoting at each other, so there was no room for me to weep). Acting was first-rate though, and each of the thesps deserves special consideration.

Matthew Rhys, by rights the star, is credited fourth, presumably because he’s less famous than the others. I bet Keira Knightley’s agent bullies Matthew Rhys’s agent, flicking his ears and pulling his tie tight. But this obscurity can’t last, as he’s endearing, gorgeous and interesting (can any other Brit prettyboy tick all those boxes?). His smile has the same repulsive allure as Richard Burton’s, a comparison he’ll probably be bludgeoned with until he takes to drink, but he’s way cuter than Burton.

Sienna Miller, often dismissed in the past, is lusty and sympathetic here. (Odd, with the script being fairly brimming with passions consummated, that the film is so squeamish about the human body. A paroxysm of editing prevents us catching more than a glimpse of Miller climbing into a bath, lest we be turned to stone by presumably the Medusa-like gaze of her backside, and the men remain chastely covered at all times. A needle stitching a wound is the fleshiest image on display. Even the Thomas’ baby son appears to be devoid of genitals.)

Cillian Murphy presents his usual smooth marble countenance and steely blue eyes, and rivets the attention, but his character’s post-traumatic stress disorder is chucked in as an afterthought and never acquires the necessary dramatic force. What should have been a central plank of the drama is reduced to a couple of bits of “avant-garde” doodling from Maybury. You can’t really bring this stuff alive without choosing a P.O.V. character and sticking with him (as in Henry Jaglom’s disturbing TRACKS) or at least showing the disturbed behaviour develop over time, but the film is two-thirds over by the time the script gets around to Murphy’s plight.

Keira Knightley. All too often something of a stick, that girl. A wooden stick. A wooden stick, exquisitely whittled into the shape of another, thinner wooden stick. Here and there have been signs of improvement, and now, like many dedicated pretty girls before her, she has evolved into a proper actress. The difficult Welsh accent (one false step and you’re in Pakistan) is grasped firmly, but even more impressive are the Welsh facial expressions. I, like you, dear reader, was unaware such expressions existed, but they do, and K.K. has mastered all seven of them. For a moment it looks like at least three of them are going to be intensely annoying, but that soon passes as you get to know the character.

Two cameos deserve mention: Jenny Runacre is glimpsed as “Woman in Yellow Dress”, the kind of walk-on that actually makes me slightly cross. Runacre was part of ’70s Britain’s greatest screen couple with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, and she’s the only woman to have won the Alternative Miss World Competition, an event generally favouring the drag queen. She deserves starring parts. I’m reminded of Kathleen Byron standing mutely in a graveyard in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Of course it’s nice to see her again, but it’s a terrible insult to use her as an extra. That’s like hiring Maggie Smith to tend the honeywagon.

Secondly there’s Suggs, in the important minor role of “Crooner”, a slightly distracting presence for those of us who grew up with Madness on the radio, and one that immediately suggests a double-bill of this movie with THE TALL GUY. An air-raid! I immediately fear for Suggs’ safety. A flurry of frantic frames, lit by flailing flashlights, finishes with a frightful fact — Suggs is slain.

Suggs is slain.

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