Archive for April, 2009

“You may be wondering where the term originated.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , on April 28, 2009 by dcairns

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.


“One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’


“And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’


“The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’

“‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’

“The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ —


— and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’

“So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”


From Hitchcock Truffaut.


Zee and Co.

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


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.”


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 ~


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.


Intertitle of the Week: Let ‘x’ equal ‘x’

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 26, 2009 by dcairns


Despite my Duvivier advocacy, I hadn’t heard a thing about LE MYSTERE DE LA TOUR EIFFEL until it turned up as a download and I grabbed it. What a treat! Duvivier in playful mode, pastiching Feulliade and Lang in a serial-style caper involving impersonations, disguises, abductions, escapes, secret societies and Siamese twins? What could be better to get me in the mood for the MoMA retrospective (this movie isn’t screening in it — such are the riches in the Duvivier canon, a whole month isn’t enough time to programme them all).

Plot — apart from the Ku Klux Eiffel, a secret society operating out of a sinister castle and the Eiffel Tower — there’s this Siamese Twin dance act, not actual Siamese, or conjoined, or twins, or in fact related, but look-a-likes who dance side by side. When one of them comes into an inheritance (1957 million francs, a tidy sum) the other impersonates him and claims it. But his dastardly act does not go unpunished, as his windfall attracts the attention of the KKE, who start persecuting him, even in his sleep ~


The impostor hatches a devilish plan, hiring the true heir to impersonate him for eight days, assuming that in this time the Klan will kill him. To make their job easier, he warns the true heir that, while he is carrying out his masquerade, he may be subjected to practical jokes by a few friends. Now, like Bill Murray in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, our hapless hero is primed to laugh in the face of danger, simply because he doesn’t recognise it. Also, he’s in the unusual position of impersonating a man impersonating himself. He’s posing as himself and he doesn’t even know it.


What follows is great fun, although there’s nothing to compete with the insane early sequence in which radio broadcasts of popular music from the Eiffel Tower are interrupted by coded signals from the KKE, an effect Duvivier attempts to represent in visual form, with frenetic cutting and strobing intertitles. The castle HQ, with gratuitous labyrinth, throne-room and futurist laboratory, is an impressive Evil Empire, and from there we rush pell-mell to the great tower itself, for a gobsmacking final running battle amid the girders, shot without benefit of special effects. Not for the nervous ~





The shuttling back and forth between Paris and the mountainous castle makes me think of THE DA VINCI CODE, another tale of secret societies, and this Cathar connection also brought to mind Theodore Roszak’s paranoid cine-fantasy novel Flicker. And when the same symbols from the KKE’s coded message started flashing up on the screen around the reel changes, it made me think of Roszak’s concept of the underfilm, subliminal messages woven into the warp and woof of the celluloid to sterilize mankind and bring about eschaton.


And it all somehow ties in, in my mind, with Duvivier’s death at the wheel of his car, 40 years after making this film.