Better Never Than Late

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 4, 2021 by dcairns

No Late Movies Blogathon this year? I’m always late in announcing it and attempting to round up participants, and this year I’ve been pleasantly busy with three video essays for three different companies at various stages of (in)completion, so basically nothing got done. But I do hope to write something on the theme myself. It having been twenty years since I actually watched EYES WIDE SHUT, I figure maybe I should look at that — a late film, a final film, a posthumous film and a Christmas film all in one.

My previous impression of it, for the record, was that it was enjoyable and pretty but sort of inept. Long-winded, heavy-handed, unconvincing on every level. I was fairly convinced Kubrick would have tightened it later had he lived, as he did with 2001, BARRY LYNDON and THE SHINING quite late in the process (the last-named was pruned after its US release, resulting in a shorter UK version). But the news headline declaring LUCKY TO BE ALIVE would still have been hilarious. It’s a very funny film, but it’s the only Kubrick film where I can’t always decide if I’m laughing with or at it.

But I should put that opinion in the past tense because who knows, everything could change. It would be nice to think I’ve evolved. Or that the film has.

It would make sense for me to get the film watched and written up by the seventh, the usual closing date of the blogathon. And then I need to get back to Chaplin — A WOMAN OF PARIS is next, another film of would-be sophistication, decadent parties and improbably melodrama, another film whose director rather baffled his usual audience…

Acquisitions and Murders

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2021 by dcairns

Recent purchases from The Bookworm and the All You Can Eat Bookshop.

The flat is lousy with Marxian biographies now, and since I’ve made two video essays on a box set of their Paramount works, I’m not sure I’ll ever have cause to do the research and actually read the things. I just get a warm glow from owning them, and for having bought them cheap, and from not being able to move in the hideously cluttered Shadowplayhouse. Books as insulation.

Sexual Stratagems is full of essays by writers I like on filmmakers I like (Guy-Blache, Dulac, Deren), and the giant Selznick is as lavish as the man himself could have wished. Karl Brown’s memoir of camera assisting for Griffith HAS to be essential. I remember his vivacious appearance in Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood, wildly enthused yet still properly sceptical of his former boss. The reason I might not get around to those in a hurry is John D. MacDonald.

These are the ones I’ve read. About five more I devoured are on loan to my mum, who is now similarly addicted. Only a few more Travis McGee’s to go. I’m consuming them out of sequence, based on having cleaned out the Bookworm’s supply and then grabbed whatever was cheap on AbeBooks. One will have to be a Kindle edition for economic reasons. I’m saving the last in the series till last.

The bad things about the series are closely connected to the good things: the independence or inconsistency of MacDonald/McGee’s sociopolitical positions keeps you guessing. Conservative with progressive flashes, romantic with cynical underpinnings or vice versa. The occasional ugliness — McGee is a roister-doisterer who respects women as people except sometimes he doesn’t — works as a frictive element. The fact that there’s a perceptible formula McDonald writes to — McGee will get horribly injured before the end, he will lay at least one beautiful woman, he will refuse another to show he has standards — adds a cosy element to the mayhem. The plotting is mostly unpredictable and exciting, the prose is beautiful in an unflashy way. Occasionally McDonald will write something that just isn’t plausible, in such a way that you wonder how a smart guy could slip up so badly. There’s one where the mystery solution is that three formerly (sorta) law-abiding citizens in a small social circle independently turned into murderers. Shades of A SHOT IN THE DARK, but McD doesn’t see the funny side.

But generally the crafting is good, and the research or life experience — probably mostly the former (McDonald mostly sat and wrote, I think) but cunningly disguised as the latter is constantly diverting. Never a dull spot.

McGee is a great series character — he takes his licks and emerges basically unchanged at the end of each novel. So he’s not quite suited to the movies. Could have worked on TV. I guess we got Magnum P.I. instead. Ugh. But that had John Hillerman. I was about to call him America’s greatest living actor, but it turns out I missed his death in 2017. I bet the Oscars roll call of the dead missed him out too. Damn.

Enough Rope

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2021 by dcairns

Um. This is the first time I can remember feeling the pressure that I suspect broadsheet reviewers suffer from. The way they seem to go in lock-step so much of the time, even remarking on the same points in the films under discussion. Occasionally you’ll get a “look at me” review where someone will defend a movie that’s been trashed by everyone else. Rarer to get a lone negative review. One feels like one is missing out on something perceived readily by others.

So it feels vaguely sacrilegious of me to be writing that I found Jane Campion’s film THE POWER OF THE DOG a little… dull. Incredibly lovely-looking. Good performances. But neither Fiona or I felt the dread that others have talked about. We felt a notable lack of tension, actually. It may be because Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a natural tough guy. I’m not sure tough is something you can act. Though certainly a lot of movie tough guys were probably not so tough in reality, they looked it on the screen, and Benedict doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with his acting. He’s clearly committed to the physicality. His character is nasty — Fiona wanted someone to hit him, immediately. It wasn’t clear why nobody did, because he didn’t seem like the kind of fellow they’d be scared of.

Kubrick reckoned that intelligence was the only quality that couldn’t be acted, which sounds good, but doesn’t seem true to me. If the actors learn the lines and how to pronounce the big words, they can make it seem like they’re thinking them up — that’s what actors do. OK, maybe Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist is pushing it, but usually the illusion is achievable. As John Huston cruelly observed, in FREUD, Montgomery Clift makes us believe he’s thinking.

So I think a certain kind of danger, toughness, hardness, is the unactable quality, it’s a matter of physiognomy and essence. If R. Lee Ermey can’t make Matthew Modine look like a killer, what chance does Jane Campion have with the lovely Mr. Cumberbatch? In fact, BC may have the opposite problem: he can’t hide his intelligence. So he can’t say “It’s time she faces up to a few — whatchacallum? — facts!” and make us believe he’s that inarticulate. The solution would be for him to get so furious he starts to lose his language, but does he have that kind of anger in him?

Without the fear seeming real, the movie becomes a succession of attractive scenes of people who don’t communicate. Which is of only mild interest, until things get strange with Kodi-Smit McPhee.

THE POWER OF THE DOG: KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

We did get really excited about the bit with the dog though. There’s a shape in the hills — a barking dog — and only two of the characters can see it. It’s a shadow. The hills themselves vaguely resemble crouching animals, but when they talk about the dog, it took me ages to see it. And then I helped Fiona see it. It’s good and subtle. Imagine what a scene we’d have made in a cinema. (We watched on Netflix.)

Can you see the dog?

I guess I’m doing something human and stupid — assuming that because I wasn’t bowled over by the film, others who say they were are being insincere. I guess also if I felt my opinion had any chance of affecting Campion’s employment prospects — it’s been too long since her last film, and the climate is not favourable to anyone making dramas without people getting punched through buildings — I would bite my tongue. And if I were interviewing Campion and she started talking about getting Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons to waltz together so they would learn each others smell and feel like brothers, I might not suggest getting them to wrestle instead. But I would think it.