Archive for April 27, 2008

Geology, litigation, gender, cinema: my Saturday night.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by dcairns

The Rat-Infested City of Glasgow

The glamour of film-making — the unit assembles for ROUNDING UP DONKEYS.

Just back from the rat-infested city of Glasgow, which I plunged into in order to attend some birthday celebrations. I was also on the look-out for info that might help me land another film or TV job, though it was unlikely that anybody at this party would be able to grant me one directly, and I was also looking out for any little items of interest for the blog.

The 40th birthdays belonged to Travis and Helen Reeves, whom I know from way back. They are that rare phenomenon, non-identical twins who look alike, though not so much now. I shall explain — while not genetically identical, they have a strong facial resemblance and similar build. But not so much now, since Travis, who used to be Helen’s sister, is now her brother, which makes a fair difference.

It’s all prefigured weirdly in my film CLARIMONDE, I think, where Travis, then outwardly female, provided the voice for a male character (a ghost). The same scene featured another male ghost who was actually a woman in drag, looking like a cross between Ringo Starr and a Mexican bandit.

Along with his gender reassignment, Mr. T has also changed careers — apart from his writing and directing, he used to be a production designer, arranging objects within the three-dimensional space of a set, and is now a sound designer, arranging noises within the three-dimensional space of a cinema (or TV viewer’s lounge). This comparison between the two jobs originates with Walter Murch, and it’s the reason he invented the job title “sound montage designer”.

Helen Reeves is a “diminutive antipodean singer-songwriter” who used to duet with Travis under the unofficial heading “The Twindigo Girls”, though Travis’ deepened voice has made their harmonizing trickier, and rendered the nickname inaccurate.

I did find out a few things that might prove useful in my film-hustling, and caught up with several old friends, such as Bert Eeles, editor of CRY FOR BOBO, and John Cobban, sound designer of same. I also picked up fascinating insights into forensic archaeology from Travis’ friend Friga (sp?), with whom I also co-invented a futuristic dwelling space (the kind of thing I tend to do after a few pints). Friga was bemoaning the fact that geological drill cores, which are basically cylinders of rock, are often very beautiful, what with the interesting laminations in sedimentary stone, but if you’re a geologist you get too many of them to keep. I suggested building a house out of them. Friga initially thought this impractical, since the cores are cylindrical, not brick-shaped, until we jointly realised they could be assembled into a STONE LOG CABIN.

So when you find yourself spending your retirement years in an edifice constructed from little cylinders of laminated sedimentary rock, you’ll know it’s my fault.

The night was spent in Morag McKinnon’s spare room. Morag is fresh from directing her first feature, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, but I can’t tell you much of anything about that because it’s all at a sensitive stage, rough cut and all. I’m still very much psyched to see it, but there’s a no-DVD policy in force at the moment to stop unfinished edits falling into THE WRONG HANDS, i.e. probably mine.

I can tell you about the LAWSUIT though, because that’s been in the papers. As I mentioned before, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS is the second film in a trilogy, following on from Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD. While the films are supposed to deal with the lives of a common group of characters, the fact that each movie is the work of a different writer and director means that this was never likely to have the uniformity of Kieslowski’s DECALOGUE. In fact, screenwriter / mad god Colin McLaren refitted the characters to suit his dramatic purposes, giving Kate Dickie a new daughter, and having her meet Martin Compston for the first time, even though she meets him in RED ROAD. So it’s an alternate universe sequel to RED ROAD. (There should be more of those!)

Following in the same spirit, Morag recast a minor character in RED ROAD — Dickie’s dad — since he’s the major character in ROUNDING UP DONKEYS. James Cosmo, a distinguished player who also embodies a dad in TRAINSPOTTING, takes the role. This has upset the actor from RED ROAD, Andrew Armour, who apparently feels that by taking the part in film 1, he was effectively contracted to play him in all subsequent films, should the character appear. I don’t think he has a legal leg to stand on, but there’s a terrible pathos to his position: he’s said that this is his only chance at a leading role, which is tantamount to admitting nobody would ever cast him in a star part except by accident.

I like Armour in RED ROAD — he seems like a real old guy who’s kind of wandered in front of the camera, rather than like an actor, which is surely a good thing. But the character written by Colin is a new person in all but name, and requires a different sort of player to bring him to life. It’s just one of those things.

If you want a really sad casting story, consider the case of the actor originally cast as Sonny in THE GODFATHER. In order to get Paramount to agree to cast Al Pacino (an unknown who had underperformed in screen tests), Coppola had to agree to take James Caan as Sonny and let the original guy go. Not only had the guy already celebrated getting the part with his family… I can’t remember his name. Because he’s not famous. He never got another break — that was his shot.

(Maybe I’m inclined to depressing tales because I’m hungover. More cheerful stuff tomorrow!)

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What a Shocker!

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by dcairns

Warning: this post contains what the MPAA calls pervasive language.

The mystery film from which the picture-quotes came is pretty obscure: it’s an Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater presentation called CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.

Edgar Wallace was an amazingly popular British thriller author in the twenties and thirties. As prolific as he was successful, he churned out all kinds of “shockers” — at one point it was estimated that a quarter of all books sold in the UK were by Edgar Wallace. Can this be true?

Wallace’s books were popular with the movies immediately — there’s a somewhat well-known film of his DEAD EYES OF LONDON starring Bela Lugosi, and Wallace even directed a couple of adaptations himself. His books are short on characterisation and nuance, long on suspense and action — they play neatly into the B-movie format (though some of the best Bs do have sophisticated characterisation and subtleties of all kinds). Wallace was eventually invited to Hollywood to work on the screenplay of KING KONG, but died soon after arriving. It’s been suggested that he hadn’t written a word of the script at the time of his death, but producer Merian C. Cooper kept his credit on the film because his name was box office.

Wallace adaptations faded from view somewhat in the ’40s and ’50s, then suddenly surged back, with two simultaneous series of films. In West Germany, the popular genre of krimi films most frequently derived from Wallace-penned sources. A clear fore-runner of the Italian giallo, these pulpy crime thrillers, with horror movie elements, were huge in Germany and mostly unseen elsewhere. Fritz Lang’s final film, THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, fits right into this genre — krimi maestro Harald Reinl directed two sequels to it.

At around the same time, British cinemas saw a series of “second features” — ie, B-movies, updated from Wallace novels. Cheaply and quickly made, they used new talent (“New talent works cheap,” — Roger Corman) and relied on Wallace’s name and expert plotting rather than star power. The films were then re-packaged for US TV as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater.

The link between CLUE OF THE NEW PIN and our last Clues feature, GIRL IN THE HEADLINES, is the presence of James Villiers, cast once again as a fey television personality. But here he’s actually the hero, and he’s apparently not meant to be gay, though the way he proposes marriage to the leading lady after meeting her twice would ordinarily make me suspicious.

We begin with a creepy bust of Edgar W looming from studio fog to the sound of some superb Bondian music by The Shadows— I don’t know if it’s an original composition but I suggest Hank Marvin should immediately retitle it The Mystery of the Twanging Guitar. It’s the last hint of modernity here, as we promptly plunge into a 1930s universe transplanted wantonly to 1961 via Merton Film Studios.

The story is a classic locked room mystery with a genuinely smart solution which, unfortunately, we learn half an hour before the end. And since the characters are wafer-thin chipboard effigies there’s not much chance of our keen interest surviving the revelation, so the whole thing trundles to an abrupt conclusion. But Villiers is a joy to behold.

As promised, my James Villiers story. I’ve no idea if it’s true, and I don’t want to be done for slander or libel or blogamy, so names will be changed to protect the guilty.

Villiers, according to this overheard anecdote, is appearing in a movie helmed by unacclaimed maestro Michael Victor (not his real name), director of trashy British comedies and trashy American thrillers. James V is waiting to do his scene when Herr Director appears on the set at the start of the day.

“Good morning Michael!” says a young actress, brightly.

“It’s MISTER VICTOR to you,” snaps the director of DEATH HOPE (not its real title), “and I hope your performance in front of the cameras today will be better than your performance in bed last night.”

At which point the heroic Villiers draws himself up to his full height and intones, “MISTER VICTOR, you are a dreadful cunt and I’m not going to work for you anymore.” And walks off.

Panic. Villiers’ part is unfinished. They need him. Worse, somebody remembers that he’s part of the English aristocracy, not short of a few quid, and he really doesn’t care if he gets blacklisted for breaking his contract. A panic meeting is called. Villiers begins by getting on the phone to his agent.

“Hello? Yes, I’m sitting here with that dreadful cunt Michael Victor. I’m walking off his awful film and you must back me.”

Pleading ensues. Apologies are tended. Feelings massaged. Finally, Villiers concedes, “Alright, I’ll finish your awful film, but THAT MAN is not to speak to me again.”

Victor finishes the film by conveying his directions to Villiers through an intermediary: “Mr. Victor asks if you could possibly…” etc, replied to loudly by Villiers, “Yes, you can tell the old cunt that’s alright.”

There aren’t that many stories of actors avenging themselves on nasty film directors — Robert Mitchum vs. Josef Von Sternberg is the best equivalent I know, but I actually feel a bit sorry for Sternberg. That’s not really possible with the director of THE NAUGHTY LADY and THE ROCK KILLER (not their real titles) so we can enjoy it with a clear conscience.