Episode 3.5: An Old Hope

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2017 by dcairns

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Spoilers in this one — don’t read it if you’re ever planning to see ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had some kind of vestigial appeal for me because I was ten when STAR WARS came out. But it was also frustrating because, like most JJ Abrams joints, it was just a remake and remix of its original. Another, even bigger Death Star? Again? Are ideas so scarce?

This new one didn’t awaken the same sentimental warmth in me because there were fewer of the original actors and less of the original John Williams leitmotifs. I enjoyed all the design and the environments (though two rocky planets in the first act was a mistake: should’ve differentiated them more). They picked up the best designs elements of the Lucas-Kirschner-Marquand trilogy, ditched the dodgy bits, added a bunch more that were stylistically in keeping and of a high standard. But the characters and plot and dialogue — ugh. OK, dialogue was never the series’ strong suit, but one does remember a few lines. There’s basically one good line in this, from the blind guy.

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Just one of the many exciting action sequences in ROGUE ONE.

I think it’s maybe a good thing that this one was less good vs. evil, black-and-white. There’s more conflict within the Rebel Alliance. But the story is very fragmented. After the first sequence we flash forward fifteen years or so. Then we start following several plotlines at once — quite different from the neat, WIZARD OF OZ like linearity of Lucas’ first effort. We meet the hero quite late in that one, because Lucas realized he had to use the robots to guide us through the story — as memory serves: when the droids meet Princess Fisher, we can then follow her and meet Grand Moff Cushing, and from then on we can intercut between droids, Fisher and Cushing. Then the droids meet Luke Hammillwalker, and we can intercut between his POV and the others (but sparingly). Luke meets Alec Kenobi, and then they meet Harrison Solo and Mayhewbacca. We don’t meet anyone before the droids meet them, except the baddies, who we meet via a kind of relay with the Princess.

Here, we just meet people all the time, whenever the committee in charge of the film feel like it, so it’s a jumble. And though the threads do intertwine more tightly to bring us to a climax on one planet, it still results in one of those horrible intercutty all-at-once climaxes that became a problem around RETURN OF THE JEDI. (STAR WARS has one climax, EMPIRE has two, JEDI has three). And it features the most ludicrous data retrieval system ever conceived, basically based on that arcade game with the claw where you try to pick up gifts.

(I think the awful inefficiency of the filing system must be why the cloned Cushing blows up the Empire’s entire records office at the end, along with the planet it’s on. There is no other possible explanation. I mean, it can’t have been in order to get the two surviving rebels, can it?)

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WARS and TREK both tend to deal in a mixture of one-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. Monsters and robots are mostly one-dimensional. C-3PO has one characteristic, he’s prissy. Chewbacca is large. Yoda is wise. The flesh-and-blood actors who show their own face-skin have slightly more facets, partly because Lucas realized they needed more, but also just because human beings tend to bring additional messiness to anything they play. Harrison Ford tends to sound bored, so his character becomes cynical and also crooked but also bored. Luke is noble and naive but also shrill and whiny.

In ROGUE ONE, the blind guy believes in the force and his pal is defined entirely by his faithfulness to the blind guy. The actors bring a little more to the table with individual line readings, but really that’s all they get to work with. It’s hard to say what makes the nice English girl in this different from the nice English girl in FORCE AWAKENS, other than backstory. The robot sounds like C-3PO only an octave lower, to which is added Chewie’s signature character trait of largeness. I can’t put any names to any characteristics of Diego Luna except he’s brave and a little ruthless. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance but it’s a miracle, since he has almost nothing to work with. Fairly early on, his brain gets tentacle-raped by Forrest Whitaker’s fat squid, and he’s a bit traumatized for the duration of a scene. Letting his combat shock last throughout the movie would have actually given him a part to play. What we get in the end is a pretty magnificent example of an actor bringing an empty outline to life by sheer force of commitment to inhabiting it with his humanity.

And then there’s Forrest Whitaker’s cyborg guy — a one-dimensional character with a two-dimensional head.

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Elsewhere we have the CGI Carrie Fisher about which all one can say is it doesn’t work, and the CGI Peter Cushing which doesn’t work and is an insult to a fine actor’s memory. I don’t care that his secretary gave permission. The idea that a bunch of nerds at computers are going to turn another thin actor into Cushing is preposterous and offensive and the results bear that out. Martin Scorsese said that as a kid seeing Hammer movies, he admired Cushing and “the precision of his movements within the frame.” The clone version certainly moves precisely — but the result is just “cut scenes” from vidgames only with a more detailed complexion.

So, my question is — given the movie’s commendably bold decision to basically kill all its characters, did someone say, “Better not make them too appealing, or people will be upset?” That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s what it felt like when I watched the film.

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Toallow a positive note — when Brian DePalma saw a rough cut of STAR WARS, the ever-obnoxious auteur sneered, “THAT’S your bad guy’s entrance?” as Dave Prowse in a plastic hat stepped into view at the end of a long corridor. This movie does give Darth Vader a much better entrance. First there’s a teaser of some guy living in a glass of milk in a big lava tower — Who lives in a house like this? The lava tower is actually an early Lucas idea for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the partially-glimpsed, helmetless figure is actually a swipe from EMPIRE. A couple more bits. And then he gets a great action sequence at the end which sadly involves to actual characters but is very well staged, although not as good as the comparable fight in OLDBOY. But if you graft this one onto STAR WARS, Darth finally has a really strong, hissable entrance.

Did that make it worth twenty quid of our money? Hell no.

 

Three floral arrangements and a Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by dcairns

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(1) WOMAN IN THE MOON (Fritz Lang)

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(2) PASSING FANCY (Yasujirô Ozu)

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(3) ERASERHEAD (David Lynch)

The necessary background: arrangement one has been destroyed, absent-mindedly, by a distraught would-be astronaut during a telephone call; arrangement two has been destroyed very deliberately by a distraught schoolboy in a horticultural tantrum; arrangement three has not been destroyed. That’s as good as it was ever meant to look.

I touched base with the Lynch again when discussing sound design with students, re-watched the Lang for an upcoming project (Fiona, to my surprise, had never seen it) and the Ozu is part of a programme of viewing designed to make me fit for yet another project. Let’s talk about the Lang a little.

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The colossal, industry-busting size of METROPOLIS must have left the Lang-Von Harbou team in a bit of a bind. They wouldn’t want their next film to be an anticlimax, but they couldn’t realistically top what had gone before. Their eventual follow-up sprang from an abandoned idea for the previous super-epic’s climax in which the heroes would finally blast off into space (THINGS TO COME would eventually follow a comparable structure) and allowed them to make a slightly more modest film with a spectacular vertical ascent. So it was something different anyway. The advent of sound would allow the team to take M in an entirely different direction and not worry about gigantism as a goal.

While some compliment WOMAN IN THE MOON for inventing the countdown, I say it deserves more praise for correctly predicting that the first interplanetary travelers would walk the lunar surface wearing chunky knitwear and jodhpurs.

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Whatever that weird experiment was that Lang was performing with his actors in METROP — a range of emotion starting in a kind of feverish hysteria and ending in complete meltdown — he’s abandoned it in favour of a lighter tone and somewhat more naturalistic perfs. Though Fritz Rasp can never be adequately captured by a word like naturalistic. Germany’s leading Backpfeifengesicht, he seems to really exult in being repellent, this time perfecting his gloating smirk from beneath an askew smear of oily Hitler-hair that seems to have been poured onto his scalp like syrup. A pre-echo of Gary Oldman in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

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Rasp and his hair

The first section of the film has more sweetness than any other Lang of its era, with sentimental sympathy for its outcast rocket scientist and his devoted young chum. (The scientist is introduced hurling an interloper downstairs, just like Professor Challenger in Doyle’s The Lost World.) Then a kind of Mabuseian paranoia takes hold as Rasp and his cohort of shadowy industrialists force their way into the moon mission.

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Complicated intertitular thing: the announcer in the upper left is live action, the rest of the frame is a still image, and the words are animated, flying out from the announcer to vanish bottom of frame: “The spaceship (weltraumschiff) has reached the launch pad.”

Then there’s the launch and the journey — the intentionally juvenile aspect of the story is clinched by the presence of a schoolboy stowaway.

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Then the stuff on the moon, where the team is beset with treachery, cowardice and, yes, lunacy, as well as a violently unstable romantic triangle. Though I’ll never stop boosting METROPOLIS, in its restored version, as a gripping story as well as a historically important epic, a case could be made for FRAU IM MOND as an easier sell if you’re thinking of introducing students or anyone else to German silent cinema.

Talking, No Pictures

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on January 21, 2017 by dcairns

So, we still haven’t finished with CLOSE HARMONY, I’m afraid. The picture may be lost but I am listening to the soundtrack and relaying to you the mental images it provokes, so that this vanished early talkie can live, breathe and jump again.

Now read on…

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This section opens with a loooong silence, broken occasionally by coughing or shuffling noises. It reminds me of the remix of the John Lennon track Two Minutes Silence. The guy who did a cover version had to pay royalties to Lennon for the use of the complete silence, but his “remix” on the B-side was ruled to be a completely new composition because he’d added a few little coughs.

I’m trying to get my imagination going to fill in the picture for you here but I don’t have a lot to go on. Acoustically, I’d say it’s an interior. So we’re in a room somewhere, possibly with Charles “Buddy” Rogers shuffling his feet and nursing a slight bronchial condition. Then, dialogue breaks out — we now know we’re dealing with Buddy and Nancy Carroll, but the visual aspect remains mysterious. They could be disembodied spirits floating in an ethereal void. Maybe everyone was dead all along?

Now somebody’s singing scales. Jack Oakie? Buddy’s rival combo seem to be falling out, and this seems to be the result of offscreen activities by Nancy, setting them against each other. I say “offscreen,” but everything in this movie is offscreen. I guess I should say “off-mic”.

Now a brief convo between Oakie and the fifty-foot maid, in which we learn that Nancy has stood him up. This bombshell is followed by another pensive silence, during which to be honest anything might be happening. Oakie might be strangling the fifty-foot woman in a fit of rage, or vice versa, or the scene might have ended and a new one begun in at a deserted dog race, a beached canoe or a bottling plant during a power failure. After some seconds, the aural quality of the nothing that’s happening changes, and we perceive what might be a heavy rainfall.

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John Cromwell brought to you by the miracle of photography

Cutting through the crackling spatter trills a female voice — impossible to figure from the cast list who she is, but she strikes up a chat with a glum Buddy. He thinks Nancy has jilted him because she hasn’t let him in one her plan to sow discord amid the rival band by flirting with each member in turn. WHY she hasn’t simply explained this is mysterious, unless it’s because the plan is so sleazy. Anyhow, Buddy now goes off with this other girl — at 45 minutes in, the plot is finally starting to thicken, to a nice stodgy Charles “Buddy” Rogers consistency.

Sudden loud jazz! We’re at the party where all the rival band are waiting for Nancy. “Wait? I’ll grow a beard!” remarks one. The music stops and what we take to be thunderous applause breaks out, though it sounds like an audience of sea lions. A more gentle tune begins — we’ve heard it before, it’s “All A-Twitter,” the favourite tune of America’s new president.

Buddy’s date is now mentioned by name, so we can deduce that the actor is Greta Granstedt in one of her few roles that actually has a name. The character she made a habit of playing, according to the IMDb, was “minor role,” occasionally branching out into “extra” or “blonde.” And she kept this up for 29 years. Also at the IMDb, a Jim Kalafus supplies some exciting biographical detail for Greta ~

“Greta Granstedt was the San Francisco room-mate of explorer Bessie Hyde, who vanished, under mysterious circumstances, along with her husband Glen, while attempting to become the first couple to navigate the length of the Grand Canyon solo. Miss Granstedt’s parents were aboard the liner San Juan, which sailed between San Francisco and Los Angeles, when she sank less than three minutes after colliding with a tanker. Mr. Granstedt survived, his wife did not. According to the newspapers, they were en route to L.A. to visit with their actress daughter when they were caught up in the August 1929 disaster.”

So that disaster happened the very year CLOSE HARMONY was released. We don’t know if Greta is smiling through her tears as she plays this very scene.

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Greta in something else.

“Ain’t you glad you got me here all alone?” asks Oakie, suddenly, so we’re somewhere else, but not far away — we can still hear music. So I’m guessing he and Nancy have passed noiselessly through the French windows and are maybe out on some rooftop under the moonlight. Moonlight itself makes no sound, unless it sounds like Jack Oakie. I guess that’s possible. Just as, in colour movies, moonlight is portrayed as being blue, when in fact it is colourless and so dim as to render everything else colourless too, perhaps a similar convention existed in early talkies: whenever there’s moonlight, dub in some dialogue from Jack Oakie. So my impression that Oakie is in this scene in person may be a misapprehension. Perhaps Nancy is talking to the moon.

“Gee, it must be great to play on Broadway,” says Nancy, which doesn’t clear things up any. I mean, you could equally well say that to the moon as you could to Jack Oakie. If anything, the moon seems a more plausible listener. Nancy now gets her interlocutor to bad-mouth the character played by Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Oakie’s musical partner. So I’m starting to think he’s not the moon. I don’t see why the moon would have a strong opinion on Skeets. I’m also visualising Skeets listening in on this, his face aflame, ears incandescent. I think such a thing was well within his range as an actor, and if not, well, *I’m* the one visualising this picture now, so I can easily render him capable of furious jealousy worthy of Othello. Though I don’t know if he would find it more natural to project such emotion at jack Oakie or at the moon. It may be there’s no real difference.

To be concluded…