Archive for Richard Lester

The Man Who Painted the Park

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by dcairns

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The death of production designer Assheton Gorton (last month, but I just recently learned of it) got me thinking about his unique contribution to sixties British cinema. Joe Massot’s WONDERWALL (1968), above, was an early sign of the new decadence, a film made almost entirely to spend the Beatles’ money before the taxman got it, which is not the noblest artistic purpose, but clearly everyone involved wanted to create something beautiful — more beautiful than a hospital ward or a torpedo bay (even a really nice one). And they succeeded.

I do get a ringing alarm bell in films about fantasy versus reality where the filmmakers can’t resist making the reality just as lovely and strange as the fantasy — MIRRORMASK, or THE CELL could be chosen as examples. WONDERWALL has this problem very badly — it plays a little like THE ZERO THEOREM, with its mundane protagonist twisted so far into eccentricity as to become insane and alienating, depriving us of our Dante or Virgil in the labyrinth. Some might argue that BRAZIL is oppressively fantastical too, but that’s the point for me — the reality is desaturated and bluish and oppressive and insistently real, and the fantasy can do its job effectively in such a context. If everything is fairytale, there’s no contrast, and movies love sharp contrasts.

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Whatever the opposite of an everyman protagonist is, Jack MacGowran is it. A kind of “no-man protagonist,” or “notagonist,” if you will. An actor whose quirks and accent and 24hr inebriation can make him fascinating at the same time as incomprehensible and utterly opaque. Apparently on KING LEAR he had no idea what he was saying. The trouble is, neither do I. Whereas, oddly, he seems to totally get Beckett, and makes me feel I do too.

Still, Gorton did a gorgeous job, though some shots are actually little more than beautiful actors in beautiful fabrics and patterns, beautifully lit, with not a wall or piece of furniture in sight.

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Obviously it was BLOW-UP, on which A.G. served as art director, that got him WONDERWALL. I suppose the job title is correct because Antonioni appears to have built no sets, but he transformed locations, painting a street various shades of gray, and even the people in it, so that David Hemmings’s skin becomes the only thing telling you the movie isn’t b&w. Elsewhere, colour is insistent and striking, though Antonioni still prefers a sort of metallic pastel palette, distinguishing his work from the screaming psychedelia that was beginning to explode in reality.

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Famously, Antonioni had Gorton paint a park, because the colours had changed since they location-scouted it and it no longer fitted the scheme. I couldn’t say for sure that the park looks different from a natural one, but I certainly FEEL it does — it seems flatter, more uniform and graphic.

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Aided by overcast English skies, the park becomes a gray-green silhouette — sure, the shrubbery has shadows and weight, but it doesn’t sem to have ENOUGH.

I always felt that, in scenes like the non-sequitur cross-talk purchase of a propeller from an antique shop, Antonioni was influenced by THE KNACK and its Ann Jellicoe-via-Charles Wood script, in which language becomes a kind of infestation, scrambling the characters’ brains and even pouring from their heads in the form of subtitles. Antonioni, working in an unfamiliar language, had the help of Edward Bond, but neither man is what you would call zany and so their attempts at a comedy of word soup floundering tends to fall rather painfully on its keys, but the very discomfort and flatness of it kind of suits the picture.

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In Jellicoe’s play, Tom, the Donal Donnelly character, repaints his room, stripping it of furniture and, I seem to recall, painting the shadows on the wall. And then he drives in a few nails so he can hang the chairs high off the floor. He doesn’t get that far in Richard Lester’s film, and he paints the room a featureless white, so that the various shapes look embossed, like MARIENBAD’s title sequence (Lester was a fan). Certianly Antonioni, who had been repainting reality in THE RED DESERT (1964), must have felt that Gorton was a kindred spirit. He just needed to THINK BIGGER.

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The Last Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by dcairns

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My selfies always turn out looking like someone else.

So, I finally get to the end of my Bologna report.

I knew it was likely that I wouldn’t see so much stuff on my last day, since Richard Lester was going to be in town and I wanted to hang with him as much as possible. I wasn’t sure how much that WOULD be possible, but I was certainly going to try to find out.

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I crawled out of bed and made it in at 10.30 am, to see a program of shorts relating to Chaplin’s roots. The 1904 LIVING LONDON pulled together footage of the London of Chaplin’s youth, while films such as L’HOMME QUI MARCHE SUR LA TETE showed the kind of music hall attractions Charlie would have been surrounded by during his early career. This 1909 film documented an acrobat who fulfilled the title role by bouncing along a plank on his head, wearing a protective skull-cap but still presumably jarring his brains loose with every impact. Albert Capellani’s CENDRILLON OU LA PANTOUFLE MERVEILLEUSE was a kind of pantomime, mirroring the popular theatre of Chaplin’s youth, WORK MADE EASY  was a 1907 trick film, KOBELKOFF (1900) documents a limbless wonder, referencing the armless wonder who appears in a deleted scene from LIMELIGHT… the whole show was accompanied by Neil Brand at the piano.

Kim Hendrickson, producer of the Criterion Blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was throwing a dinner and Lester was guest og honour and I got her to invite Neil since he’d interviewed Lester for his magnificent Sounds of Cinema series and I thought it would be nice to have a familiar face.

WANDA’S TRICK from 1918 was a diverting little comedy, part of a sidebar I’d completely missed up until then, celebrating the unknown filmmaker Rosa Porten, sister of actor Henny Porten, who directed along with Franz Eckstein using the pseudonym Dr. R. Portegg.

Having fallen asleep at a Japanese double bill earlier in the week, it was with trepidation that I attempted Yasujiro Shimazu’s SHUNKINSHO: OKOTO TO SASUKE from 1935, an early talkie which proved diverting enough thanks to its sheer, horrifying perversity. A fable of true love and self-mutilation, it did share with the comedies I’d snoozed through a focus on the voice as subject. Most of the filmmaking was staid in the way everybody always expects early talkers to be, even though they often aren’t, but there was one remarkable shot simulating a blind man’s POV. Since it wasn’t just a black screen, but a hand-held movement filmed out of focus, you had to admire the imagination behind it.

At 4.30 pm Richard Lester appeared in conversation with Peter Von Bagh, the festival’s director. Lester was on fine form. When he referred to THE MOUSE ON THE MOON being shot on old sets from a Cornell Wilde picture, David Bordwell, sitting next to me, laughed. “Ahah, someone here is old enough to know how degrading that is.”

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The event assumes a melancholic afterglow now that Peter Von Bagh has been taken from us before his time. His festival is just about the best I’ve ever been to. For location and buzz, Telluride is miraculous. Being an old movies guy, Bologna does it for me.

Photo stolen from David Bordwell’s site, where you can read more on the legendary PVB.

So then we had dinner, which meant missing Lubitsch’s THE MAN I KILLED, and Bimal Roy’s MADHUMATI, and Frank Tuttle’s THE MAGIC FACE — but it was dinner with Richard Lester! What’re you gonna do?

Unfortunately I wound up sat out of earshot, but got a recap at dessert: “I was telling them stories about Telluride,” said Richard, who filmed there for BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS, “where I believe you did rather well.” A reference not so much to my screening, but to my wedding, which was actually held in Glendale Bel Air, LA, but you could say brokered via Telluride.

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And then we strolled to the Piazza Maggiore and watched A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Lester introduced it, and had hinted that he might take off after the first ten minutes, but he stayed to the end. The applause, I trust, was worth it. And the impact of that opening chord, on the big screen, coming as it should after complete darkness, no logos, no anything, was pretty remarkable. The audience applauded that, too, though it took them several seconds to process the startling effect.

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Beatles For Sale — I never noticed the signs to the right of the image, anticipating the title of a Beatles album yet to be recorded.

Necktie Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by dcairns

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Talking to Michel Ciment about the thinking behind CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stanley Kubrick gave a summary of the anti-lynching movie which serves as a fairly devastating critique of William Wellman’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (and Fritz Lang’s FURY and the rest). Most anti-lynching movies show an innocent party being lynched or almost lynched, which would never deter a real lynch mob since they are generally convinced, however erroneously, that they have the right person. In CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick chose the guiltiest character imaginable, to show that even in such an extreme case, certain human rights should be considered inalienable.

(In turn, Richard Lester devastated PATHS OF GLORY as a supposed anti-war film by pointing out that the film basically shows some corrupt and incompetent generals: “If Kirk Douglas had been leading the troops we’d all have been able to go out and kill Germans more efficiently.” Neither of these arguments stops PATHS OF GLORY or THE OX-BOW INCIDENT from being great films, though…)

What’s sensational about OX-BOW is the emotional force it builds up, the psychological acuity of its analysis of lynch-mob mentality (I’ve never been part of one but it feels true), the boldly-sketched characterisations and the generous sense of plenty. It feels like nothing was enough for his scenarists –

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Let’s not just show a lynch mob, but let’s crowd the film with characters and situations. Let’s give Hank Fonda a sweetheart who’s jilted him while he was out on the trail and has married a short-arse Napoleonic stuffed shirt; let’s have a religious black guy as the conscience of the film if we can’t actually have a black victim (lynching as a social phenomenon chiefly impacted black people in the south, always); let’s have Jane Darwell as a cackling sadist on horseback (we can hire a matte artist to paint out the rocking chair grafted to her backside); let’s make Fonda a mean drunk who picks fights and kicks a guy in the face; let’s make him totally ineffectual as hero; let’s make the victims widely disparate and not wholly noble (they are sympathetic because Dana Andrews is nice, Paul Hurst Francis Ford is pathetic, Anthony Quinn is unbelievably cool); let’s have a twisted ex-officer and his coward son he’s trying to make a man of; let’s have the coward show more backbone than Fonda.

It’s very RICH, thanks to Lamar Trotti’s writing, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s source novel (a novel is a good source precisely because it usually gives the scenarist TOO MUCH) and Wellman’s direction. At the film’s climax, a quiet scene contrasting with the violence of what would SEEM to be the climax, Fonda reads a letter. It’s a defense of the rule of law, but what makes the scene far more than an eloquent bit of preaching is Fonda’s steady performance — he’s basically re-doing his big speech from GRAPES OF WRATH, and it’s not just the cast that make the film seem very Fordian — and Wellman’s framing. This may be the best shot of his career, even factoring in Cagney’s two (two!) death scenes in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

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It could easily seem contrived. As Fonda reads, Wellman tracks in slightly — no problem with that, since a long speech almost demands some camera movement to keep it alive. Rather than cut to the various listeners, Wellman just retains Harry Morgan, Fonda’s lovable rodent sidekick, in shot, or part of him anyway.

Where we end up is with Morgan’s hat brim occluding our view of Fonda’s eyes, so that Morgan;s eyes, as they listen, have to supply the visual emotion to compliment Fonda’s reading. It’s a very simple reading — Fonda doesn’t pretend to stumble over the words, but he plays it fairly flat, like someone who’s not much of a reader. The delicacy and restraint are more powerful than reaction shots and bluster could ever make it.

The closest equivalent in terms of this identikit shot — one guy’s mouth and another guy’s eyes — is VERY different in tone and effect.

Lynch mobs exist now mainly online: some news story provokes outrage and disapproval, and the public joins in condemning somebody. Sometimes the subject is serious and worthy of discussion, sometimes it’s just a feeding frenzy. The filmmakers have usefully portrayed the behaviour of a lynch mob so that you can tell if you’re part of one. You are part of a lynch mob if you have joined a crusade and ~

1) You don’t really care.

2) The sense of outrage is secretly pleasurable.

3) It’s reassuring to be surrounded by people all het up about the same thing.

4) Appeals for calm seem threatening.

5) Anybody who suggests you’re all hysterical must be an enemy.

6) Your own guilty secrets fade from memory in the warm pleasure of denunciation.

More suggestions are welcome, I’d like to make this definitive and free of wriggle-room.

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