Archive for April 27, 2009

Zee and Co.

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2009 by dcairns

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James Mason is Hendrik van der Zee, the Fying Dutchman, in Albert Lewin’s PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, which we were inspired to watch by the passing of its cinematographer, the great Jack Cardiff. And I quickly remembered the words of my late friend Lawrie: “We were all so excited when it came out. And then we were all so disappointed.”

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A viewer sinks into lassitude. Or Lassie-tude?

It’s easy to see why members of the British film community would have high hopes for the movie — here was British talent like Cardiff, designer John Bryan, and actors Nigel Patrick, John Laurie and Marius Goring (South African by birth, but who’s counting?) united with Hollywood talent like Ava Gardner and Brit expat James Mason, in a film by the maker of the much-admired PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. In fact, with his aspirations to self-conscious literary and painterly effects, Lewin was the kind of filmmaker perhaps more admired by Brits than Americans. 

And the disappointment is easy to understand too. While PANDORA is beautiful, with stunning images served up on a regular basis, the ponderous script and lack of dramatic tension make it a wearying experience. It’s tempting to blame the framing structure for giving the end away, but there are plenty of movies that get away with that. There’s the fact that the film is stuffed full of nightclub singers, race drivers, archaeologists and matadors — nobody seems to have a proper job. And yet there many movies that throw together impossibly glamorous or eccentric characters and we love them. Certainly it’s a problem that everybody talks in a ponderous, pseudo-poetic way. When they quote scads of verse from memory it’s actually a relief — it sounds more natural. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in this movie being basically an original story, “inspired” by the legend of the Flying Dutchman — Lewin’s best films are adaptations, and he was an elegant and respectful conveyor of other people’s stories.

There are moments when the dialogue becomes so windy and carbohydrate-rich that it almost works, in a MARIENBAD kind of way. The trouble is, although nobody seems like a real person, they don’t quite attain mythic status, which is presumably the intent. With the rich colours, florid verbiage and striking of attitudes, the proceedings ought to stand a good chance of attaining camp, but nothing doing. Maybe because the prosaic narration, delivered by antiquarian Harold Warrender, an actor who looks like he could aspire to drollery if the script permitted it, flattens the mood like a giant fly-swatter made of print. Even the “exciting” attempt at the land-speed record gets broken up by Lewin’s unending prose. Action scenes are not usually aided by voice-over exposition.

It is a tale told by an archaeologist. Devoid of sound and fury, trying to signify everything.

Only a few moments at a wild party in the middle show Lewin’s surrealist streak, and allow the intrusion of a welcome gust of humour ~

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Still, even as we felt the life oozing from our frames, we would be moved to declare,”That’s beautiful!” every few minutes. It was a kind of dispassionate declaration, since if there’s one thing above all that the film isn’t, it isn’t moving. But beauty like this is uncommon.

RIP, Jack.

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