Archive for Terry Gilliam

Life and Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2013 by dcairns

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As last films go, Jan Svankmajer’s SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE) is both vibrant and energetic and full of creative juice, and deeply melancholy on a number of levels. It’s sad because the filmmaker has announced it as his last work, and because he’s made it without his creative partner, wife Eva Svankmajerova, who designed for his films and was in every way seemingly his perfect other half.

The film is something of a departure for Svankmajer, deploying a cut-out animation technique (achieved using computers) stolen from Terry Gilliam who stole it from Walerian Borowczyk. The alchemist of Prague even introduces the film in person (as a cut-out) like Gilliam did in TIDELAND. Svankmajer takes the opportunity to explain all the film’s stylistic choices as being solutions to budgetary limitations (using cut-outs saves on petrol and catering), and even explaining the introduction itself as a fix for the film’s short running time (however, it’s not THAT short). A glum apologia that slowly gets funnier the more despondent it becomes.

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The biggest surprise about the film, whose imagery (flopping tongues, bodily functions, bizarre juxtapositions and violations of scale, human-animal hybrids, dream-reality crossovers) and sound design (slurping and slapping and flopping) are absolutely consistent with the rest of the auteur’s oeuvre, is that it tells an old-fashioned Freudian investigation story, like MARNIE, in which nearly everything fits together like a well-oiled plot mechanism out of Hitchcock. The difference which lifts it well out of banality is that the dream analysis and breaking through the barrier of traumatic amnesia is achieved in a narrative in which the distinction between reality and dream is continuously blurred and muddied. The protagonist Evzen (or Eugene — it’s a film about heredity, or eugenics) has his dreams analysed by a shrink, upon whose wall hang duelling portraits of Freud and Jung, but some of what she analyses was stuff we assumed to be reality, and some of her consultations seem to be happening in dreams.  And both Evzen’s waking life and his sleep adventures are prone to disruption by the same surreal manifestations — chicken-headed women, a dog-headed man, giant hands and eggs and apples and falling melons…

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The Oedipal angle is well to the fore as Evzen pursues the woman of his dreams, who seems to be both his anima (female self) and his mother, and at one point bears the name of Eva, at another Evzenie. The whole thing ends with life, catharsis, death, the closing of a loop which may swallow itself like an ouroborous or blossom out into new possibilities depending on your reading.

Actorly Through Air Power

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2012 by dcairns

CONQUEST OF THE AIR is one of Alexander Korda’s experiments, an hour-long dramatized documentary history of manned flight. Typically of Korda, it’s “directed” by whoever happened to be around, especially if they were Hungarian (brother Zoltan is one of the troupe of what I’ll call “nauteurs”), leaving it to editor and narrator Charles Frend to tie the whole shambles together. Frend was later a dependable maker of staunch war dramas, staunch police dramas, staunch Antarctic expeditionary dramas…

What caught my eye was the fact that the film is based on a book by John Monk Saunders, aviator and screenwriter (WINGS, THE LAST FLIGHT), and I’m a bit of a Saunders completist. He’s one of the few Hollywood specialists — his best scripts always hinge on aviation, just as Maurine Dallas Watkins’ always trot out women in prison. As long as the key element is in place, the entertainment is assured.

An experiment such as this could only be put over to a British public skeptical of home-grown product by the deployment of star power, so it’s odd that the jaunt through history throws up so few familiar faces. My favourite grouchy Dundonian of the period, Hay Petrie, pops up as Tiberius Cavallo, and I glimpsed an uncredited and dubbed Francis L Sullivan as Nero, witnessing a spectacular failed levitation. Asides from those, it’s left to Laurence Olivier to impersonate Vincent Lunardi in amusingly showy fashion.

Olivier is a beast of quicksilver, sometimes sluggish, sometimes fleet and sparkling. David Mamet cites his performance as a French Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent in 49TH PARALLEL as the one bad performance in an Archers’ film (he needs to pay closer attention to Bob Arden in AMOLAD). Here, he manages to sound convincingly like an Englishman pretending to be French, which I assume was his intention. Quashing a heckler, he declares his intention to “soar over the heads of groundlings like you,” and flashes a cheeky smile. He’s a star, even if Lunardi’s ballooning lacks some of the dash and derring-do of early flight by virtue of its being conducted safely indoors.

The early part of the film is one long succession of deluded hopefuls crashing earthwards from high places (so few of them seem to have considered launching from a runway, rather than a tower/bridge/wall). Frend seems unaware of how comical this all is — the only unfunny entry is the Scottish one, which fails both as aeronautics and comedy, because the guy lived (although he gets points for landing in a dunghill). This sequence seems like a clear influence on Terry Gilliam’s early toon THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT ~

And a later mention of Baron Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus suggests Korda’s influence on British comedy may be greater than previously assumed.

And then there’s this image of Italian peasants fleeing a stray bag of hydrogen, which seems to anticipate Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Aaargh! It’s the Devil!”

By curious coincidence, Marvelous Mary just dropped in for a cup of herbal infusion and told me about the nineteenth century zookeeper, George Wombwell, whose animals seemed to have spent a lot of their time loose and rampaging. “It’s the devil!” was the cry uttered by a poor housewife, fleeing her home, which had become occupied by a stray kangaroo…

The Cut-Ups

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2011 by dcairns

Weird how Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus always seemed a bit scary, but his titles for CRY OF THE BANSHEE, a Vincent Price horror flick, are mainly just funny.

Weird also how the movie, which is part of AIP/Tigon’s series of period horrors including also WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, is so unlikable. The earlier WITCHFINDER benefited from a realistic approach with no supernatural elements and an admirable seriousness of purpose by its director. The later CLAW has a thoroughly goofy narrative but again tackles it with sincerity and verve — the writer had been influenced by accounts of the Mary Bell case, in which a little girl murdered a little boy: the idea of evil infecting children was taken seriously, even if the filmmakers don’t bring much in the way of sensible ideas to the situation.

BANSHEE is really just a parade of nastiness, most of it directed at young women. The only really interesting thing after the opening credits is the ending, which to my mind was swiped by THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, which could be seen as an unofficial remake in gangster form of BANSHEE. Bob Hoskins may seem an unlikely replacement for Vincent Price, but really he’s not.

Wishing he was back with the Ken Campbell Roadshow.

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