Archive for September 7, 2008

Heart to Art

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by dcairns

A couple hangers —

Fiona wanted me to point out that the pounding heartbeat we hear as Jekyll transforms into Hyde in the 1931 Mamoulian DR J & MR H, was the first heartbeat heard in a movie. And this leads me to an anecdote. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

My friend Lawrie Knight worked as an assistant on Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of HAMLET. Emulating the well-known Mamoulian technique, which had been much written about and praised, Olivier decided to use a heartbeat sound to accompany the first appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, right at the start of the story. Atypically, the athletic star-director asked someone else, a lowly clapper boy, to do the physical work of running round the sound stage a couple of times in order to generate a sufficiently pounding pulse. The little lad took off, completed his laps, and settled down, wheezing and sweating, in the path of the microphone, which was then pressed to his palpitating bosom.

“Nothing but indigestion!” chortled Lawrie.

Olivier elected to use a drumbeat instead, and brilliantly added to this an optical effect whereby the image pulsed in and out of focus in response to the thumping rhythm.

Fiona also wishes it to be known that Fredric March won the Oscar for his dazzling interpretations of Jekyll and Hyde, the first time an actor won the award for a horror movie, and the last, until Anthony Hopkins scooped up a gong for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Strangely enough, Fredric March as Hyde makes the exact same Evil Sucky Noise that won Hopkins’ Lecter so much attention.

Based on this observation, it would seem almost certain that making an Evil Sucky Noise is the sure path to Academy Award glory. Which explains Tom Hanks.

Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by dcairns

For reasons perhaps related to the ideas dished out in a previous post, Stephen Frears decided to set his version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, MARY REILLY (based on a pretty good book by Valerie Martin) in a version of Edinburgh… I say a version, because in this Edinburgh everyone has an English accent (Glaswegians might argue this is quite accurate) and the city is populated by distinguished English character actors such as George Cole and Michael Gambon.

Nevertheless, the fogbound metropolis is surmounted by a recreation of the Greek Parthenon (tricked up in the studio) and Frears and his unit decamped to the actual Edinburgh for a week of location shooting. Basically none of this material made it into the movie, which is mostly studio-bound and none the worse for it.

But due to the Edinburgh connection, and the fact that Scot producer Iain Smith oversaw the production, I gleaned a little on-set gossip.

Brown was called to Julia Roberts dressing room one day. It seemed her then-husband Lyle Lovett (remember THAT beautiful affair?) was going to be in New York that weekend. “Isn’t that great?” beamed la Roberts. “So he’s going to be in New York, and I could fly out and meet him, and we could spend the weekend together! In New York!”

Brown replied that this was indeed great, although he couldn’t quite see what it had to do with him. He left. By the time he got back to his office, his phone was already ringing. It was a sweary agent. “You are ****ing going to ****ing buy Julia Roberts a first-class ****ing plane ticket to New York, you ****ing ****!” he swore. “Fuck!” Sorry, he sneaked that one in past the asterisks while I was talking to you.

Brown refused, the agent swore at some more producers, and eventually the studio caved and met her demands, which she never had to actually even personally voice…

Anyhow, the shoot goes on. John Malkovich is playing Jekyll and Hyde (with resulting confusion as to which is which) and he’s not getting on too well with the Roberts. Malkovich has been known to be difficult himself, in fact — hold everything — here’s a story about him —

This one’s from DANGEROUS LIAISONS and it’s literally too good to be true — ie it’s probably made up. But not by me. Malkovich is doing DANGEROUS LIAISONS for Frears, and Frears visits his dressing room.

“John, I want to talk to you about your character.”

“Well, sure. Valmont is a very complicated guy –”

“No, John, you don’t understand. I want to talk to you about YOUR character.”

Flashforward back to whatever I was talking about. Oh yeah. MARY REILLY wraps, and Malkovich approaches Julia R. “I just wanted to say…” and here he tells her, essentially, that she’s an arrogant, stuck-up bitch, no professional, and he’s by no means enjoyed working with her and looks forward to never having to meet her again.

Three months later they’re back, re-shooting the climactic scene where she weeps over him as he dies in her arms…

The film itself? Some good work, the feeling of unease at the start is effective, suggesting that Frears could make a genuinely scary horror movie if it didn’t cost $50 million, but the novel’s conceit — the story told from the point of view of a chambermaid — is somewhat resistant to visualisation, since her POV is so limited: she misses the most dramatic events of the book. It could probably be done, but it would need greater talents. Christopher Hampton did a fine job adapting DANGEROUS LIAISONS but his subsequent films tend to the disastrous.  He seems to embody the more deleterious effects of the literary-theatrical tradition on British film. The fact that three endings were shot gives a sense of how lost the filmmakers became.

Worse, Frears usual intelligence seems to have operated only fitfully. There are bizarre mismatches of word and image. When Roberts describes her brute of a father as having an odd walk, “not quite a limp,” it’s a surprise to then see Michael Gambon hobble wildly up like Long John Silver on a pub crawl, walking on one ankle.

Dr. Straight and Mr. Gay

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by dcairns

More unoriginal thoughts. I can’t remember where I read the theory that Stevenson’s The Strange Case of… could be read as a man’s struggle with his sexuality. It was in a collection of essays on Gothic fiction, I think. It seems to make sense, although it’s not the only interpretation available, by any means. Hyde can stand for any repressed impulse.

The essayist pointed to the lack of female characters in the story, for a start. True, Hyde tramples a little girl, and is then assailed by a mob of sharp-nailed women, and a maidservant is heard weeping for the slain Jekyll at the narrative’s end (inspiration for the book and film of MARY REILLY), but apart from that it’s strictly stag.

There’s more, of course. Hyde and his exploits are described as “queer” on numerous occasions, and apparently this word DID have its current meaning back in 1886. The essayist even toted up the number of times the word appeared. The witness accounts of Hyde — that he had some air of malformation about him, but nothing that could be identified — might connect with the sense of difference that can sometimes be felt in the presence of the gay, as it would be perceived by homophobic Victorians. The notorious “gadar” is an elusive and not 100% reliable instrument, and was even more primitive in Stevenson’s day. The early steam-driven gadar available in the 1880s filled an entire room, and needed four qualified men to operate it. Those wishing to deploy it “in the field” had to hitch it to a team of six pack horses so that it could be drawn through the smoggy streets.

It’s tempting to see J&H as a parable, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, of socially repressed sexual cravings finding a supernatural means of expression, but one should not confine either book to a simple, single reading. It’s interesting that some questions have been asked of Stevenson’s sexuality, and the precise nature of his marriage to mannish American widow Fanny, but any such speculations are impossible to confirm at this historical distance.

Virtually nothing has been done to exploit this idea in film adaptations. As I recall, Alan Moore’s comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2 has some revelations about Jekyll’s sexuality — he’s said to fancy little girls or little boys or something — and Hyde does commit a sexual atrocity upon the Invisible Man, but it’s absolutely clear here, as it rarely is in fiction dealing with rape, that this is purely an aggressive act, without any tinge of desire.

Unsurprisingly, the movie adaptation, which anyway deals only with Moore’s first volume (and mangles that), omits any speculation about Jekyll and Hyde’s sexual ambivalence, although Dorian Gray is permitted to describe himself as “complicated”.

“It was the curse of mankind that these two incongruous faggots were thus bound together — that in the agonised womb of consciousness these polar twins should be continuously struggling.”