Archive for March, 2010

Bad Directors Made Small #1

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by dcairns

Michael Winner. Astonishing how those simple words transform an innocent baby picture into a glimpse of another and more terrible world, as Bertie Wooster might put it. What we have is purely and simply Michael Winner’s head, exactly as it appears today, transplanted atop a baby’s torso. Jan Svankmajer would run screaming into the night.

And yet, above and beyond the image’s power to inspire revulsion and terror in all right-thinking people, there’s the dark suggestion that this might yet be a nightmare vision of the future: when Winner is even older and more withered than he is now, and his necrotizing fascitis, having used his leg as a mere appetizer, has whittled him down to just a head and spinal column, leaving him with the tragic proportions of a jester’s wand, can we doubt that he’ll have his head transplanted onto a baby and start life all over again? He’s rich enough. The only hope I can see that my scenario might lack credibility is the comforting thought that if Michael Winner had a baby’s torso in his freezer, he’d already have eaten it.

Enough cruelty. For now, anyway. The twins of evil depicted come from Winner’s autobiography, Winner Takes All, which is pretty entertaining. If the standard Winner comedy or thriller always descends into inexplicable unpleasantness (slashed throats in HANNIBAL BROOKS; a bleeding guardsman in THE JOKERS; most of DEATH WISH; all of BULLS-EYE!), infected from within by the man’s irrepressible “personality,” the autobio is actually mostly fun, since the persona is front and centre and never pretends to be anything it’s not. Or if it does pretend, the effort is so slight and the weight of textual evidence so vast, that the transparent tissue of benevolence is rent asunder and dissolved before our eyes.

A pretty remarkable TV discussion — everybody talks passionately and articulately, nobody makes any particularly good points, although of course the TV pundits are correct that DEATH WISH II is an appallingly bad film… One rather respects Winner’s sang-froid, especially when he unexpectedly shoots himself in the foot by asking Anna Raeburn if she has first-hand knowledge of rape, and doesn’t get the answer he was expecting. As any lawyer could tell you, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

Some of the best stuff in the book involves making I’LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME with Orson Welles. A discussion about billing:

Orson said, ‘I want to tell you a story. There was a time when Ellen Terry was acting with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and she said to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, “You know, I think the billing should read Ellen Terry and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. My name should be first because I’m more popular than you are.” Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree said to Ellen Terry, “Miss Terry, unless you stop this nonsense the billing will read Sir Herbert  Beerbohm Tree but Ellen Terry.” ‘ Orson roared that deep throaty laugh. I said, ‘Orson, that’s brilliant. That’s how we’ll do your billing. It’ll be the first film ever to get good reviews for the billing. We’ll say Oliver Reed, Carol White, Harry Andrews but Orson Welles.’

Unfortunately Orson changed his mind, demanded top billing, and got it. Winner, always respectful of his stars (if no one else), didn’t mind.


The Sunday Intertitle: Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by dcairns

NERO; OR, THE FALL OF ROME was a groundbreaking work in its day (1909) –” It’s what I call an epic!” as the lady says in IN A LONELY PLACE. Director Luigi Maggi showered largesse upon his fourteen-minute masterpiece, including producing intertitles in several languages, which is how you can enjoy the movie’s lovely intertitles here in English 101 years later (how time flies!). Incidentally, the Kino copy of this movie on their THE MOVIES BEGIN series is somewhat better preserved than the one I’m taking frame-grabs from here — except it’s missing much of the climactic burning.

We’re in a strange period of film history — most movies are still made in the tableau style, with one big shot per scene, but a few filmmakers are pushing the boat out with interpolated close-ups. Not Maggi! Where he extends the boundaries of film narrative is with his intertitles, which add a layer of sophistication which his gesticulating players cannot attain. But the result is a curiously undramatic form, similar to that in the heavily titled Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Read on…

Maggi’s title cards spell out the basic story beats, which are then enacted by the cast, against a splendid array of multi-perspective backdrops and even an exterior location. This has the effect of making the action of the film a mere addendum to the titles, with the drama a redundant illustration of information we already know. There aren’t many intertitles — the first one tells us that Nero is ditching his wife for Poppea, and then we get three and a half minutes of action showing that this is true. It’s kind of charming, and not like other forms of cinema, but I’m not sure how this innovation could ever be really useful. Trying to find an analogy, I thought of illustrated books, but in a book the sense is carried by the text and the illustrations, perceived by the eye before the text has been devoured, serve as either spoilers or teasers. But Maggi reverses that scheme, with the text as spoiler and the illustration as text.

I’m interested in these Italian epics because they advanced the use of camera movement. Segundo de Chomon, ace innovator, animator and filmmaker, designed the first purpose-built dolly for CABIRIA in 1914, and the Italians used it to explore their gigantic sets. Italian camerawork has arguably been more about exploring screen space than narrative ever since. There’s precisely zero movement in NERO, though. As the films got bigger, the need for the camera to move grew greater. Let’s follow this trend through history over the next few weeks…

Despite featuring no interesting performers, or at any rate no performers who are allowed to register as interesting, and a plot that unfolds in strange spurts of verbiage separated by long passages of unnecessary enactment, NERO is quite entertaining, especially his obscure vision of… what? Hell? The Romans didn’t really have a Hell where the guilty are punished, so I’m not too sure what’s going on here. Maybe that’s Maggi’s greatest, most perverse accomplishment — making a film where everything is explained but major plot points remain quite opaque.

Next week: THE FALL OF TROY!

Film Directors with their Shirts Open

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2010 by dcairns

Ken Russell (centre) shows what he inherited from his mother Jane.

Must confess to being influenced by the oft-vile Victor Lewis-Smith in the above line. He created a sketch out of archive film formulating the notion of a partnership between Bertrand Russell and Jane Russell. It ended with an appearance by the actual Ken Russell, saying “Some say I’ve inherited my father’s genius, but I think I take after my mother.” Pull back to reveal big boobs. It was pretty charming by VLS standards, and nice to see Ken demonstrating yet again his complete lack of “front,” even if paradoxically it meant him wearing an enormous false front.

(This image, however, is from TRAPPED ASHES, a horror-spoof anthology film to which Ken contributed a segment entitled THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN BREASTS. Joe Dante made the framing story. Still to see it.)

Trapped Ashes

Thanks to Brandon.