The Devils and Miss Jones

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2016 by dcairns

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I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.

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As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.

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Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.

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How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.

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*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.

Hynkel, Hynkel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 26, 2016 by dcairns

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“I definitely don’t have any arms under this vast shirt. You can take my word for it.” Sanjeev Kumar in SHOLAY.

Bollywood movie SHOLAY (1975), a blood-soaked revenge drama, slapstick comedy and vibrant musical, was made by G.P. Sippy and numerous family members, going by the credits. Among its many original touches (an armless man kicking hell out of the man who dis-armed him; a dance number performed amid flying clouds of paint powder) it also depends upon many shameless borrowings — mostly from Leone the heroes (Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan) hatch a scheme to get themselves arrested, then escape and split the reward money with the pal who turned them in (a paraphrase of the scam from THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY), and there’s a ruthless family massacre that owes a very great debt to the R.F.M. in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, only with added freeze-frames for emphasis. If you feel the need to be more emphatic than Leone, it’s a sure sign you’re working in Bollywood.

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But my favourite swipe was the lifting wholesale of the character of Adenoid Hynkel from Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, transplanted to the role of governor in an Indian prison. You know that little stumble Chaplin does a couple of times to undercut Hynkel’s dignity. The comedian in SHOLAY does that in every scene. He doesn’t actually play with an inflatable globe, but they throw in a globe just to say, “We know that you know…”

Canary Row

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2016 by dcairns

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A bit of Warners Islamophobia to balance Disney’s anti-semitism.

I bought a DVD of Porky Pig cartoons because it was only 33p, and seemed worth a punt. I didn’t recognize any of the titles. Well, I doubt Porky is anybody’s favourite Warner Bros cartoon character, and by the time Warners got around to issuing his own collection, it seems all the valuable titles were used up. The disc contained several b&w Porky titles, and a couple of colour cartoons not featuring Porky (doubtless somebody feared the kids the product was being advertised to would be disappointed with only monochrome pig action), and most strange of all, a b&w toon not featuring Porky. But this was probably the highlight of the set.

It seems like the DVD, though labeled KIDS WB, was really intended as CAIRNS WB, because I can’t imagine there are very many more people in this country who would have devoured it with more interest. The majority of the contents were directed by Frank Tashlin, sometimes credited as Frank Tash. Since most of his WB cartoons are b&w, most of them haven’t been made available, and so I haven’t been able to compare his animation with his later live action work as much as I’d like.

Several of the filmlets featured pomo/fourth wall breaking gags, including two separate altercations with some guy in the third row of the cinema in which the cartoons are putatatively being screened. So that was good. Tex Avery is the guy best known for this kind of thing, but Tash was the one who was permitted to carry it over into feature films.

We were also treated to lots of extreme angles and cinematic showing-off, including obsessive play with shadows, so you could see the filmmaker’s ambition.

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Plus — scary villains! Not so much of that in later Tashlin. There are occasional grotesque moments — one could argue that the entire oeuvre is somewhat grotesque — Lindsay Anderson felt like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT had been photographed inside a juke box — but Jerry Lewis is much more disturbing.

Then there’s PUSS N’ BOOTY, with Tashlin credited as “Supervision” (the Director’s Guild didn’t consider these guys to be directors, and I don’t think Warners did either) and Cal Dalton as lead animator — but the whole thing feels very Chuck Jonesian, thanks to the excellent cat animation. True, the mistress of the house appears only as legs and bits of torso, like the maid in Tom and Jerry, and Tashlin shows a more salacious interest in those legs than Hanna & Barbera would at MGM, an interest which is quite typical of his later work. And the cat and canary conflict anticipates Sylvester & Tweety Pie, characters I mostly associate with Friz Freleng. But all this beautifully observed feline stuff is hugely reminiscent of Jones’ Pepe le Pew heroine.

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It’s an eye-popping cartoon — at the start, the cat has just finished off its fifth canary, and is overjoyed when its owner orders a sixth. Sylvester never got to actually kill any of Tweetie’s relatives. And the punchline is pretty remarkable too — the cat finally gets into the canary’s cage, after the expected slapstick failures. A titanic struggle. And when the mistress arrives to investigate — only the canary remains… and then it belches and the cat’s bow flies out of its mouth.

It’s unusual to find a cartoon with real killing in it, and no translucent ghost angel figure to make it unreal. I just know this one would have upset me as a kid. So I admire it greatly as an adult.

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