Quote of the Day: A glass of water illuminates the world.

During another immensely complicated take lasting four and a half minutes, and involving horses, tumblers and trapeze artists, and with the camera moving on an endless complicated track, spiralling and dipping, I, as the ringmaster, sent a dwarf off for a glass of water, which was not part of the meticulous planning. Surprised, the dwarf ran off to fetch it. Since he didn’t know where to find it, it took rather a long time, and my irritation increased, as did the hoarseness of my throat. At last he brought it, I drank it surreptitiously while shouting out my lines, like a head-waiter having a secret nip, and gave the empty glass to the dwarf, drying my mouth with a large silk handkerchief which was part of my costume. It was as relaxed as the rest was formal. At the end of the take, Max Ophüls expressed both the quality of his despotism and of his magnanimity. Taking me aside, for once rather sad, he said, “Peter, the one thing I regret is that I didn’t tell you to do that.”

~ Peter Ustinov reminisces about the making of LOLA MONTES, in Dear Me.

17 Responses to “Quote of the Day: A glass of water illuminates the world.”

  1. That’s amazing. it testifies to both Ophuls’ brilliance as a director and Ustinov’s as an actor. Lola Montes is a staggeringly compelx piece of film craftsmanship, moving mise en scene to a dizzying height reached by very few. That the ringmaster should need a glass of water, and order it in the midst of his spiel is both “natural” and magisterial. Ophuls ability to both encourage and accomodate Ustinov is breathtaking.

  2. One thing I always liked in Ophuls is his ability to accommodate mistakes and improvisations in the midst of apparent perfection. Truffaut writes about the many instances where actors appear to stumble on their lines in Lola Montes, which maybe isn’t so obvious to us English speakers. But Ustinov is great at the highly artificial, pre-planned use of apparent hesitations and mistakes.

    There’s an adorable line fluff from Barbara Belle-Geddes at the start of Caught, during a substantial long take. It’s simultaneously a noticeable error, which the actress corrects for herself, and a naturalistic moment of uncertainty in speech by the character.

  3. ——————–
    There’s an adorable line fluff from Barbara Belle-Geddes at the start of Caught, during a substantial long take. It’s simultaneously a noticeable error, which the actress corrects for herself, and a naturalistic moment of uncertainty in speech by the character.
    ———————

    Is Barbara Belle(as opposed to the grammatically accurate Barbara Bel) a typo or an intentional conceit in your argument discussing the use of mistakes.

    Truffaut’s piece on Ophuls death talks in extent about Ophuls’ technique. He says that many people keep misunderstanding Ophuls’ use of camera movement, tracking shots and long takes in thinking that Ophuls is obsessed with technique. He says that Ophuls loved actors to a great deal just like Renoir(the two of them being in real life good friends and having many similarities between them) and that Ophuls command of cinema was driven by a need to work with and bring the best out of his actors all the while being the total auteur of his films and giving some of the best performances in film for his cinematography.

    That must be(slightly OP) one reason why the Cahiers clique were so disenchanted with Stanley Kubrick who is very Ophuls inspired but obviously isn’t particularly interested in actors as such.

  4. A very important point. Ophuls loved to see his actors play out “in full” which made long takes necessity. So did Cukor, particularly in A Star is Born (made a year before Lola Montes also in scope and covering a great deal of the same material. In fact Garland was one of Ophuls’ inspirations for L.M.) And then there’s Rivette, whose penchant for the long take reaches its apogee in Out 1.

  5. The fine new Region 2 DVD of La Ronde from Second Sight features a startling statement from film academic Alan Williams. Supposedly Marcel Ophuls has stated that his dad had trouble distinguishing left from right, to the point of sometimes wearing buttons engraved with L and R engraved on them. The implication being that part of his fondness for long takes was a difficulty in matching angles. Williams claims that Liebelei, for instance, features some spectacular line-crossing mistakes (I have to watch my new copy to see if this is true).

    It’s intriguing idea, as long as we don’t get carried away and let it detract from the other benefits Ophuls derived from his technique.

  6. And then don’t forget the fact that he got some of the greatest performances in all film history in his work. Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Vittorio DeSica in ”Madame de…”, ‘Joan Bennett in ”The Reckless Moment”, James Mason in both his films and the like. I can go on but I’ll stop so that you can add…

  7. Arthur: I tried Bell-Geddes, which didn’t look right. So I settled for Belle-Geddes. It was a genuine screw-up.

    I disagree re Kubrick. He’s definitely interested in actors, and gets extreme and grotesque perfs from George C Scott and Jack Nicholson that were unprecedented in those actors’ work. Nicholson decided to carry on in that vein, Scott reverted a slightly more muted mode. Not everybody likes Kubrick’s use of actors, and I can see why, but I think it’s demonstrable that he cared about the kind of performances he got: hence all those takes. He also cited James Cagney as an influence, which may explain a lot: the emphasis is on a powerful ATTACK on the role.

  8. But Jack Nicholson’s performance in ”The Shining” is the weakest in his career upto that time. Nothing near his work in the 70’s with Polanski or Antonioni. And ”Dr. Strangelove” was more a case of the material and good casting than great work as a director-of-actors. His only good work with great actors was in ”Lolita”(which seems to be a Ophuls homage what with James Mason and all). He actually did better with actors of limited range, Ryan O’Neal is beautiful in ”Barry Lyndon”, restrained, subtle and yet totally in tune with his character to the point that his last scenes are all the more moving.

    —————————–
    He also cited James Cagney as an influence, which may explain a lot: the emphasis is on a powerful ATTACK on the role.
    ——————————

    Except Cagney was a highly subtle and nuanced actor. His ATTACK on his roles is remarkably convincing only because of his total mastery. Just like James Dean, his latter day successor in the Kazan and Ray film. Kubrick only based it on the Cagney of the prison nervous breakdown in ”White Heat” not the Cagney of ”The Roaring Twenties” or ”The Strawberry Blonde”.

  9. Kubrick’s use of actors is as idiosyncratic as Bresson’s. Sellers, Mason and Winters in Lolita are beyond praise. And he does some very striking things with Sue Lyon — who’s scarcely in their league but more than holds her own. After Strangelove he’s really only intersted in actors as objects. Keir Dullea (“Gone tomorrow,” as Noel Coward famously quipped), Gary Lockwood, Ryan O’Neal and That Mapother Creature all aquit themseleves quite well. But as Kubrick has no interest in character psychology as it’s usually treated in drama he doesn’t ask for anything of depth out of them. This is especially the case with a truly powerful actor like Nicholson, who’s utilized solely to create a surface effet of on-stop menace. Shelley Duvall said one of the reasons why she was so happy to do Altman’s Popeye (outside of the fact that she’s been destined since childhood to play Olive Oyl) was “I was crying and screaming for months on The Shining and I knew that with Popeye there’d be lots of laughs, and I really needed that.”

  10. Altman said Duvall’s whole personality had changed after the Shining experience.

    You don’t have to like Nicholson’s perf in that film to see that it’s a different performance from those he had been giving up to that point, so obviously some attention went into that. It may well be worse, depending on taste, but it’s something Kubrick cared enough to go for (all those takes!), and Nicholson credits SK with driving him towards it. So I think the charge that Kubrick didn’t care about performance is refuted.

    The observation that he’s disinterested in psychology as it’s normally understood is more credible. 2001 shows human nature as the product of evolution and Clockwork Orange takes a reductively behaviourist view. Elsewhere, people are dehumanised by the institutions they belong to. But even that isn’t universally the case: the Cruiser in EWS seems to be at the mercy of recognisable drives and emotions.

  11. Well then I’d modifiy that to say that he wasn’t interested in perfomers per se. Obviously with Nicholson he had a major actor/star who had wirtten and directed films hismelf, so it was a collaborative effort. O’Nel and Cruise are lightweights — and cast as such. Both Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut are resolutely non-heroic, as is A Clockwork Orange — and considering McDowell’s obviosun intelligence he was as in on the construction of his character as Nicholson was. It all boils down to a “look.”

    At the same time character performers have more sides: Adolph Menjou in Paths of Glory</i. and his Even More Evil Twin Sydney Pollack in Eyes Wide Shut have a soupcon of depth the leads have no access to.

  12. Speaking as a “Caught” fan, I’m ashamed that I no memory of the Bel Geddes line-fluff. Nor can I check it against an available DVD. Anybody want to describe/quote it?

    I’ll also remark, as a Kim Newman fan, that Smith Ohlrig puts in an appearance in one of Newman’s stories.

  13. Most of the characters in paths of Glory have some kind of humanity, which is why it’s a favourite Kubrick film for people who don’t like Kubrick. I like Kubrick immensely, and also like that film.

    Caught — BBG says “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if… if after I graduate, I start working in the model– modelling in the store like you for a few weeks…” It’s clearly not scripted, since it’s a meaningless correction, but it’s quite charming and natural.

    Which story is Ohlrig in? He’s my favourite screen Howard Hughes!

  14. After a little double-checking, I learn that it was “Smith Ohlrig Jr,” the *son* of the Robert Ryan character, in Newman’s story.

    It’s in “Castle in the Desert: Anno Dracula 1977” (cf. the Charlie Chan allusion in Newman’s title).

    The story can be found here:

    http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/newman/

  15. Thanks! I read all the Anno Dracula novels, which are diverting in an exactly Charlie Chan kind of way.

  16. Well I am not too big on Bresson either. I much prefer all his films upto and including ”Diary of A Country Priest” over his other films which are obsessed with that strange style of acting of his(which are still interesting and great but not like his first films).

    Kubrick’s use of actors in any case don’t show anything as deliberate as that, just seems some weird case of making an actor part of his canvas.

    ———————
    Altman said Duvall’s whole personality had changed after the Shining experience.
    ———————

    I wouldn’t be surprised. The way Kubrick “directed” her on ”The Shining” is just awful. But then Kubrick never did know what to do with actresses. Just compare her work with Altman in the 70’s to that film and you’ll see the difference.

    ———————–
    So I think the charge that Kubrick didn’t care about performance is refuted.
    ———————–

    Maybe not “good performance”. Are you some devotee for J. Hoberman’s fondness for “bad acting”.

  17. Oh, bad acting is fun. And we should probably credit Jack Smith with first appreciating it.

    The difference between “good” and “bad” acting is not clear-cut. Context is all important. Most actors I know are fans of bad acting too — I think because it’s helpful to study others’ mistakes, but also it’s a source of ideas. The people who are memorably bad usually tried something.

    Kubrick wanted hysteria from Duvall — he wa sno doubt thinking a bit of Lillian Gish at the end of Broken Blossoms — and he got it. My criticism is more that he had an idee fixee that any woman who stayed with a man like Jack Torrance must be weak and pathetic. That’s not really true. But Kubrick is quite entitled to base his interpretation of the characters on that idea. And it sure works better than the TV movie remake approach.

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