Archive for Peter Brook

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.

Frankenstein Must Be Unemployed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2008 by dcairns

The end of an era: 

Terence Fisher’s last film, and Peter Cushing’s last turn as Victor Frankenstein, now calling himself Dr. Carl Victor, having used up every last syllable of his name in his previous pseudonyms. Remember how there’s always a character called Karl? Now Frankenstein himself has fulfilled his destiny by becoming that Karl.

After the splashy big-budget (by Hammer standards) production of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, with it’s actual night-for-night photography and fiery denouement, F.A.T.M.F.H. is something of a chamber piece, confined after its first scenes (featuring the beloved Patrick Troughton as a grave-robber) to a lunatic asylum (The Ingolstadt Booby Hatch for Stereotypical Nutters), where the Baron has been confined, before basically taking over the place by means of blackmail.

Fiona was surprised and pleased by the film, having previously judged it by the standard of Dave Prowse’s rather O.T.T. makeup. Why hire a muscleman and then coat him in a fake muscle suit? It is a rather overdone neanderthal effect, although I’d argue only slightly more extreme than that guy in THE KILLING.

A weirdness: Madeline Smith plays a hysterical mute (screenwriter John Elder shamelessly plagiarising his own work on EVIL OF F), cured by a second trauma. Director Fisher made some of his best work after being hit by car during an inebriated stroll — his work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was some of the best of his career. But between those films and this one, he got drunk again, and got hit by a car again — a second trauma! — and relapsed into the more sedentary style of his early ’60s work.

Fisher wasn’t the only team member to have suffered. This is the only time Cushing played the Baron after the death of his beloved wife, Helen. Much has been written about his devotion to her, and he spent the remainder of his life in a state of mourning, requiring persuasion to emerge from seclusion to make films. To the end of his days, he would sign letters “Peter and Helen”.

Big Victor.

There’s more to this, and the first hint came from actor Brian Cox, who starred with Cushing in an episode of Hammer House of Horror. “I think there was a bit of guilt involved in all that, because he had an eye for the ladies.”

The full story, apparently: Helen Cushing was unable to enjoy sex, and told her husband that it would be alright if he wanted to seek satisfaction elsewhere. This understanding was gradually stretched until Cushing was rogering girls in the bedroom upstairs while his wife did the housework downstairs. Then, on her death bed, she told him he’d broken her heart and she could never forgive him.

Ulp.

Leaves From Satan’s Book.

The film begins: clumsy slapstick grave-robbing, grubby hamming from Troughton (he kept two families, you know), dim lighting and cramped sets and framing. Then, hope: prettyboy Shane Briant, who Hammer were grooming for stardom, plays Dr. Simon Helder, an aspiring Frankenstein who’s read all the Great Man’s works, is arrested for sorcery, although as described by the judge it sounds like something even more unspeakable: “You have been found guilty of one of the vilest of crimes. How a man of your breeding and education could fall so low as to contaminate himself with this disgusting performance…”

Actually a pretty GOOD performance!

Thrown into the nuthouse, Briant becomes Bosie to Frankenstein’s Wilde, helping the Baron with his latest bodybuilding project. Screenwriter Elder, having played fast and loose with series continuity in the past, now makes amends by giving the Baron those injured hands last seen in CREATED WOMAN, and having him attribute the injuries to “a fire… in the name of science.” Of course, regular viewers will recognise this as a little white lie, or at least a grotesque distortion. But it allows us to conclusively place MUST BE DESTROYED earlier than CREATED WOMAN, although a case could then be made for CREATED WOMAN coming after this one, but let’s not go there.

Why doesn’t the Baron have Bryant replace his hands? A mystery.

(I’m reminded why I must NEVER FORGIVE John Elder: that subplot of EVIL OF F about the Baron trying to win back his stolen furniture.)

Since he can’t operate with his scorched mitts, Doc Vic has been assisted by mute Madeline. This is a departure for Smith, since she was basically cast as an ambulatory bosom in most films of the era. Here, both her mammoth bust and tiny voice remain unexploited for most of the film (she gets a few lines at the end). It’s a touchingly inept performance, seemingly modelled on the facial expression you get on a young Springer Spaniel, all big wet eyes, but it’s powerless to mar the film. It’s kind of RIGHT. Smith seems a lovely lady in interviews, although she has a strange tendency to denigrate feminism (I guess a lot of feminists denigrated her and her work), suggesting that the entire women’s movement was the work of flat-chested viragoes jealous of her gigantic attributes (Am I distorting her argument here? Well, a bit).

The Baron is initially quite kindly here, protecting inmates from the cruelty of the warders (Ernst and the inevitable Hans) and the sexual depredations of the Director (fun actor John Stratton, not Terence Fisher). But he’s been using the inmates as a sort of talent pool, harvesting their body parts to create his latest monsterpiece, an eyeless cro-magnon lump of latex in a cage. Body of a genetic throw-back, hands of a master-craftsman, and brain of a musical and mathematical genius, as soon as Cushing can drive the brain’s owner to suicide (hanging by violin string — nasty!).

With Briant now performing the scalpelwork, we get the series’ most graphic and unpleasant operation scene yet, as the chalk-white corpse has his scalp lifted off, a literal skull-cap, and his brain (bigger than we’ve been used to seeing) deposited in the Incredible Bulk. Alone, unshaven and exhausted after the lengthy procedure, Cushing muses to himself, “If I have succeeded this time, then every sacrificewill have been worthwhile.” Add up the body count from the previous films, and those sacrifices could form quite a heap. This is the Baron’s most introspective moment in any of the films, and spoken by the haggard, aged Cushing (always gaunt, but now prematurely shrivelled at 60) it has chilling resonance.

The asylum setting, with its array of novelty inmates (the geezer who thinks he’s God, the cackling lady who spits her medicine out in a scene borrowed, astonishingly, from Kurosawa’s REDBEARD) allows both for echoes of the Val Lewton classic BEDLAM (since we spend all our time inside after the opening sequence, the madhouse becomes the world of the film and vice versa) and the life and work of Sade (and Peter Brook’s film of Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE, which featured future patient of Frankenstein Freddie Jones). It seems apt that a critic suggested a new certificate for REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “The S Certificate — for Sadists Only”.  Although arguably the willing suffering of a horror movie audience is more akin to masochism.

Pathos alert! The monster weeps, as the kindly-yet-demented violinist trapped within the hulking frame is horrified at his new pecs and hirsute appearance. Soon, a Cartesian dilemma presents itself: the body is overpowering the brain, asserting its dominance. Elder could have perhaps explained this with hormones and such, but prefers to mangle his science, as has been traditional throughout the series. But Cushing is undaunted: a more perfect specimen can be created by cross-breeding the artificial man with mute Maddy: “Her true function as a woman can be fulfilled.” This marks a new low for the Baron, who has just been sympathetically recounting the cause of Smith’s traumatic aphasia: attempted rape at the hands of her father. Now he’s proposing to make her brood mare to his orang-utan-man.

Briant, like previous assistants, rebels against this new abomination, resolving to mercy-kill the monster, now descended to subhuman brutishness. But the beast escapes, low-budget mayhem ensues, a past evil is avenged, and then poor Prowse is dismembered by excited inmates, harking back to Cushing’s fate at the hands of the poor in REVENGE. Cushing is injured but undaunted — the monster was a failure, but lessons have been learned. Credits role as he cheerfully sweeps up the debris, planning his next atrocity, with every suggestion that Shane and Maddy will remain by his side, assisting him.

Playful self-reference: Cushing recreates a famous moment from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It’s a little pedestrian in pacing, but after the uncertain beginning, this film is more than worthy of the series. I actually prefer it to REVENGE and CREATED WOMAN. The Monster is preposterous (and not from Hell) but then, Christopher Lee’s makeup was just a lot of silly putty. The Baron’s theory that a beautiful mind would render those features agreeable was never really put to the test, was it?

What emerges most clearly of all in this film is that the Baron’s plans never work because he is incapable, being inhuman himself, of taking into account human behaviour. He never foresees his creations turning upon him, though they generally have sound reasons to do so, and he is likewise blind to his various assistants’ moral qualms. The series charts the decline of a scientific mind into a quagmire of brutishness, due to its inherent blindness to human nature, the very thing it is seeking to master.

Here endeth the Frankenthon.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through — an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

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