Archive for Repulsion

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

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“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

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4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2013 by dcairns

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Last we saw, Fiona and I had trudged up Leith Walk, observing the many defunct cinemas along its length. Just after the top of the Walk, we come to the city centre, home to numerous bygone screens. Here’s one site ~cine2 018

Just before Princes Street, we entered the city’s Georgian New Town — well, technically we stopped for a scrambled egg roll, a latte and a scone the size of George Wendt, but we entered the Georgian New Town immediately after that, albeit walking slightly slower. The Queen’s Hall on Queen Street was until recently the home of the BBC’s Edinburgh offices, but in 1897 T.J. West’s Modern Marvel Company held sway with their Analyticon, projecting stereoscopic transparencies on a ten foot screen. Some kind of movie show was common there until 1915.

Where the St Andrew’s Square bus station now stands, there was once The St Andrew’s Square Cinema, seating 1,500. It opened in 1923 with Harold Lloyd in A SAILOR-MADE MAN, and converted to talkies in 1929 with KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES. In 1952, after screening Basil Dearden’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN with Dirk Bogarde (never seen it, but I must!), the cinema burned to the ground.

Princes Street (“the most beautiful street in the world” ~ William Goldman) is the capital’s main shopping street, with the Gardens and the Castle on one side and a steadily growing number of empty retail facilities on the other. Apart from shops, the street was once home to three big screens. Leading from east to west, they were –

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The Palace (a popular name) was at number 15, in a Georgian-fronted building which still stands, the North British Hotel building. It opened on Christmas Eve 1913, with a cafe and smoking rooms following a few months later. One of the owners also owned the Powderhall dog track, and a film of the Powderhall Sprint was shown in 1914. The cinema delayed converting to sound until late in 1930, when it reopened with the Janet Gaynor musical SUNNY SIDE UP. (Click for musical interlude: play eerie warbles in background as you read on.)

During WWII, the cinema was a garrison-Sunday cinema, according to Thomas, but he doesn’t seem inclined to explain what that was. Movie shows for the troops? It closed in 1955 with ON THE WATERFRONT and THE MATING OF MILLIE starring Glenn Ford.

At number 56 stood The New Picture House, yet another cinema that opened a hundred years ago — 1913 was obviously a huge year for cinematic expansion. It aimed at refinement and gentility, with marble walls and pillars and elegant tea rooms. It sat nearly 1,000. Now the whole building is gone. An ugly Marks and Spenser’s store stands in its place.

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The first movie screened was HAMLET with Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, a film so popular the star remade it just two years later.

In 1929 the New screened Edinburgh’s first talkie, Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL, which didn’t impress Sidney Gilliatt but did clinch the success of talkies overall. The cinema closed in 1951 with PAGAN LOVE SONG and Tay Garnett’s exhausting thriller CAUSE FOR ALARM.

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The New lobby.

The Princes Cinema opened at number 131 in September 1912, with a continuous programme of shorts which patrons could walk into at any time. It came with a tea room and smoking room, could seat around 600, and had a six-piece orchestra to provide live accompaniment.

The Princes closed in 1935 with British comedies starring Stanley Holloway and Jack Hulbert, but then reopened as The Monseigneur, a “news theatre” dealing exclusively in newsreels. It acquired a wide screen in 1953 to show the film of the Queen’s coronation, but apparently nobody on the staff understood about aspect ratios, and audience’s complained that the top and bottom of the films was being cropped out.

The Monseigneur became The Jacey around 1964, becoming what one manager termed “a specialist kinky film cinema,” with mainly European product. Chabrol’s LES BICHES was translated as THE BITCHES. The last movie shown was the bluntly titled I AM SEXY.

The facade of this, the last of Princes Street’s cinemas, remains largely unaltered, I’m pleased to report.

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Shandwick Place, at the end of Princes Street, contains the former Albert Institute of Fine Arts, conceived as Scotland’s answer to the V&A Museum. The building quickly became moribund, and in the early 20th century cinema shows were one of the ways it was used. BB Pictures used it for films on a religious theme, but in 1913 it reopened with DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (with James Cruze) and WILD BEASTS AT LARGE (a Vitagraph comedy). It converted to sound but the cost eventually bankrupted the business in 1932, when VENGEANCE with Jack Holt became the last feature to play there. The building is now largely converted to flats.

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The Caley is the first of Lothian Road’s many cinemas. The building still has a lot of retro style (see top). In opened in 1923 with THE GAME OF LIFE, starring Lillian Hall-Davis and directed by G.B. Samuelson, whose son Sydney found the UK’s top movie lighting company. In the fifties, the cinema installed CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, and treated locals to THE ROBE. Edinburgh-set THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE played there for six weeks. This was also the base of the Edinburgh Film Guild, the world’s longest-running film society, which now operates out of Filmhouse across the road. At the time of Thomas’s book (1984) The Caley was still showing films as well as concerts, but it turned into a horrible disco shortly after that — it’s now an attractive music venue entitled, aptly, The Picture House.

poolesynodUp Castle Terrace is the Saltire Court, a big space age building — when it was new and unoccupied, me and my pal Morag McKinnon shot part of a film in there with Stratford Johns. What we didn’t realize was that it was previously the site of a legendary Edinburgh cinema, Poole’s Synod Hall. Originally a theatre, then a church, it was cursed with sixteen entrances, which made it easy for schoolkids to sneak each other in to the popular horror shows of the fifties and sixties (“good, wholesome, creaking door entertainment”). My pal Lawrie told me that Poole complained to the local headmaster about this practice, and the head responded by placing the cinema entirely off-limits. Not the result Poole had hoped for.

Edinburgh Council forced the Synod to close in 1965, but it went out on a high, with Losey’s THE DAMNED doubled with Polanski’s REPULSION.

A little further up Lothian Road we have The Usher Hall, which shows a movie every Halloween, using the mighty organ as accompaniment, and the Traverse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum which, according to the Scottish cinemas website, have shown movies at some point.

But over the road we have a proper, working cinema, Filmhouse, converted from a church (whereas several Edinburgh cinemas have become churches) and rumoured to be haunted. Well, Diane Ladd sensed something strange when she visited with WILD AT HEART at the Film Festival.

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Further up is The Odeon, formerly The ABC, The Cannon, originally The Regal. The frontage is more or less original, but the contents of the building have been ripped out, with one screen making way for three, then five. The ABC chain of cinemas was for years one of only two major exhibitors in the country, and it may have begun in Scotland. John Maxwell, a significant figure in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, may have started his movie career with the Scotia in Dalry Road, according to Thomas. More on this later.

The Regal opened in 1938 with Charles Laughton in VESSEL OF WRATH, and visitors over the years have included the Beatles and Laurel & Hardy. The three-screen complex opened in 1969, and it’s this incarnation I remember — we were weirded out as kids by LOGAN’S RUN, but screamed with joy at the verboten bosoms of Victoria Vetri in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. I remember the big, dark foyer, 1970s decor and colours, and the little windows through which you could peek at the screening you were waiting to end. I remember screen one with its curving, cinerama-type screen.

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Carrying on up the road to Tollcross, we find a cluster of cinemas in various stages of existence/non-existence. The Cameo is a beautiful bijou indie/arthouse with a noble history. It’s also a tale of hope — the cinema was closed when Thomas’s book was written, but re-opened a few years later and has been with us ever since. In my student days, this was a favourite for its late-night double-bills: a grindhouse-level scratchiness marred THE DEVILS, but the chance to see LISZTOMANIA projected was not to be sniffed at. The persistent pairing of BETTY BLUE and BLUE VELVET puzzled me at the time — they seemed very different movies. As I acquired a more questioning attitude to sexual politics in the movies, I could see that BETTY BLUE was the kind of “romance” Frank Booth might have made.

Across the road is the King’s Theatre, a variety theatre still specialising in popular fare — we recently saw a fairly wretched Agatha Christie piece there, as guests of the delightful Lysette Anthony, who was appearing in it.

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And here’s the only picture I could find of the long-vanished Tollcross Cinema, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1947 with one of those looong programmes auld folks still remember — the remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Emlyn Williams in yellowface, MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT with, um Lyle Talbot (oh, and a reliable Hollywood Scot, Alec Craig), a supporting western, and Popeye.

Also in Tollcross stand the Methodist Central Halls — apparently the site of occasional film shows in years gone by.

Up on Lauriston Street, near my workplace (Edinburgh College of Art) The Beverley, or Blue Rooms, hung on as a crumbling warehouse for decades. I used to pass it daily and wonder what it was. And yet — maybe I’m misremembering, because Thomas has the building demolished for a pub much earlier than my memory of it. Maybe what I saw really was the  ghost of a cinema? I never thought to ask anyone else, “That building there: do you see it too?”

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The Blue Halls opened in 1930 with WHITE CARGO, a part-talkie converted to sound alongside Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, and as The Beverley it closed in 1959 with CAROUSEL and YACHT ON THE HIGH SEAS, a TV play starring Nina Foch (and written by Lenore Coffee) which evidently got a cinema release over here as a B-picture.

We finish our jaunt with Fountainbridge, site of Sean Connery’s milk round, and present home of the CineWorld multiplex. My only interaction with that place is when it’s used for the Film Festival. It’s metallic chill is a bit of a buzz-killer, but I’ve had some good times there, usually with the onstage interviews with stars or technicians.

The Palladium, a circus that slowly morphed into a cinema between 1908 and 1911, no longer remains. Though it converted to sound using the unusual Edibell Talkie System, it didn’t survive for long, and a 1931 double bill of MISCHIEF (a Jack Lynn comedy) and SKY SPIDER (thriller directed by Richard Thorpe) closed its doors. It became a Bingo Hall, then became derelict, then got knocked down.

Closer to Lothian Road, The Coliseum looks to be going the same way. It opened as a skating rink, was converted in 1911, but closed in 1942 with NAVY BLUES (Jack Oakie) and ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA (story by Sam Fuller). I actually visited the building during its subsequent incarnation as a Bingo Hall, as some of my students were making a short documentary about the place. It was vast — in its heyday it sat 1,800. Such auditoria didn’t do well in the sound era. Though kept clean and shiny for bingo, the place had a palpable aura of sadness, either because it was full of pensioners filling their last hours with pointless (but pleasantly sociable) activity, or because it had once reverberated with the sounds of youth. Look at it now –

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Part 2 of this epic piece will take us from the old Odeon Clerk Street, haunt of my youth, down to the Bridges and then down the High Street to the Calton Studios. After that — Portobello, Stockbridge, and beyond the infinite…

La Ronde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007′s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.

Dialogue from DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN ~

Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links –

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links –

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)

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