Archive for August, 2011

The Sunday Intertitle: Human Behaviour

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , on August 28, 2011 by dcairns

I picked up THE MECHANICS OF THE BRAIN on a whim — it struck me as interesting that Vsevolod Pudovkin had made a documentary about Pavlovian conditioning right at the start of his career, right before the amusing CHESS FEVER.

The behaviorists are our least favourite scientists, really, aren’t they? I mean, discounting Nazi scientists for the moment, the behaviorists got into a reductive view of humanity that extrapolated from successful experiments showing how learned responses can be created and ended up assuming that all consciousness is a purely mechanical stimulus-response affair.

This led to assumptions that the brain could be reprogrammed like a machine. The Ludovico Treatment in CLOCKWORK ORANGE wouldn’t work in reality because that’s not true, but it was certainly attempted. William Burroughs underwent aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality, being doped with apomorphone (acting “directly on the vomiting center of the brain”) while being shown muscle mags. As history tells us, this did not work, although Burroughs credited the drug with weaning him off heroin.

I was sort of interested, though, in the possible connections between Russian montage theory (which Pudovkin wrote about) and behaviorism. The idea of automatic and irresistible responses triggered by certain stimuli is common to both.

In the end, though, I was too outraged by the animal cruelty — hearing in school about experiments to measure the drool produced by a dog is a little disturbing, but doesn’t compare to seeing the poor pup in a harness with a hole bored in its cheek.

In fact, all of the behaviorist experiments on display seem to involve outrageous cruelty to animals, and in addition they’re flawed by an inability to distinguish between automatic learned behaviour (the salivation at the sound of the bell) and conscious learned behaviour (the monkey fetches food at the sound of the metronome) — Pavlov simply drew a line between conditioned and unconditioned (inborn) responses. It’s perhaps significant that this dehumanizing view of biology was so popular in the Soviet Union, though it caught on fast everywhere.

And then we learn that Pavlov, or at any rate his associate, I.N. Krasnogorski, repeated the experiment on children.

Well, on the one hand, you can at least explain to a child WHY you find it desirable to cut an opening in his cheek. But on the other hand, that kid doesn’t look too happy, even if he is getting free breadcrumbs. I have to say —

Fuck you, Ivan Pavlov!

Fuck you, I.N. Krasnogorski!

Fuck you, Vsevolod Pudovkin!


Key Details

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by dcairns

THE KEY is another of these latter-day Carol Reed movies with a shaky reputation: I went in expecting a leaden piece of White Elephant Art, forgetting how much I sometimes enjoy WEA when it’s done with passion and energy. Will nobody stand up for the poor pale pachyderm?

Carl Foreman provides the script, based on Jan de Hartog’s novel, StellaTHE INSPECTOR (aka LISA), also based on a JDH book, covers in some ways similar ground: boats, war, a traumatised girl. This is much better than Philip Dunne’s movie, which was authentically turgid.

Here, things actually build pretty compellingly. The set-up is interesting: tug-boat captains in wartime whose mission is to rescue lame duck ships from the U-boats. Since any ship crippled is written off as a loss, any ship saved is regarded as pure profit, so the work of the tugs is under-appreciated and consequently under-resourced: they have barely any working defenses and no anti-shell plating.

Reed’s dutch tilts look even nicer in widescreen.

The titular key belongs to a flat containing Sophia Loren, and is therefor a highly prized possession, already passed down from slain captain to slain captain several times before its current owner, Trevor Howard, who plays a sozzled old sea-dog not a million leagues from his real-life persona. William Holden plays another captain (he’s enlisted in the Canadian navy before Pearl Harbor) who inherits key, flat and woman when Howard buys it.

The point is, as Holden slowly understands, that this is not a merely commercial arrangement for Loren, but a matter of psychological necessity. After her fiance was killed at sea, she has filled the void with a succession of captains, all standing in for the original. The question for Holden is, can he replace the original loss and be loved for himself? Also, can he avoid going the way of the previous tenants?

If THE MAN BETWEEN served up lots of moody visuals that sometimes felt far more evocative than their surrounding narrative, this movie does build to some powerful dramatic scenes which utilize Malcolm Arnold’s haunting music and Oswald Morris’s astonishing, lambent cinematography to full effect. A scene in which Holden, by now believing himself doomed, seems to see Howard, risen from the grave, gazing balefully at him across the bridge, creates a frisson of true supernatural terror, resolved yet disspelled by a cut which shows the impression to be a trick of the mind —

It’s a trick borrowed from Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, but it’s even better here. That sharp, low-key sunlight hitting Trev!

Loren, of course, is excellent, with a striking ability to suggest trauma, deep mourning, and compartmentalized psychological spaces unreachable by man. And one has to appreciate any film which gives her a scene with Irene Handl. Howard is splendid, if a little uncomfortable to watch when cosying up to Loren: there’s a pulchritude imbalance that feel’s a touch bestial/necrophilic. And Holden unites the show, progressing into the darker scenes very naturally, as he always did: in a way, it’s his strongest territory, despite his undoubted light comedy skills. Give him a marked man to play and he shone.

Only a slightly episodic start, and an inconclusive ending, mar the movie. Reed’s filming of the sea battles is impressive, with just a couple of models and process shots amid the footage of real vessels captured under unpleasant and risky North Sea conditions. Reed’s best bits often demand a multitude of angles, so there was no way to cut corners here, and the director was also working under the handicap of knowing nothing about ships: he would blithely instruct his submarine commander to surface at a given mark, unaware how impossible this was.

Here’s Oscar Homolka’s best scene! A wonderfully compact actor.

Mason jaws

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2011 by dcairns

Another scene from THE PUMPKIN EATER (see previous post here). What a pleasure to see James Mason outfitted with Harold Pinter dialogue. Beats playing a Chinese gangster.

Again, Clayton’s approach is a standard one in dramatic scene construction — he starts by establishing the space with a  mixture of wide shots and details (opening on a detail can become a tired trope if overused — note how tyro director John Sayles does it in every damn scene of RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN — also, has any director ever resisted opening a zoo scene with an animal close-up to take the audience by surprise?) before moving progressively closer as the scene builds in tension.

The difference is, Clayton goes a little further than is usual, until we’re weaving amid Mason’s crooked teeth like druids cavorting round Stonehenge. It’s not a subtle technique, although in Clayton’s hands its rather less obvious than Leone’s use of it in DUCK YOU SUCKER. What it does, of course, is dehumanize Mason, converting him into a giant mouth, spitting venom and vitriol, while adding to his power — the mismatch in shot sizes violates a tradition of shot-countershot filming, where usually each close-up is of a matching scale. The effect, if taken literally, would suggest that Anne Bancroft has sat down to lemon tea with the cyclops from SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Metaphorically, that’s not so inaccurate.

Anytime you start on the path of moving closer (by cuts, or camera moves, or leaning the actors in towards the lens…) you eventually reach a point where you can’t get any closer, so you have to break the tension for a moment and allow us to back off, lest the camera plummet through a skin pore and end up circulating round the thespian metabolism like Martin Short in INNERSPACE. Such breaks can easily be triggered by having an actor move, which is a dying art in modern cinema (Oh, they wriggle around in action scenes, but dialogue two-handers tend to the inert) — here, Bancroft’s panicked exit, in a riot of wildlife dissonance, resolves the fight-or-flight dilemma and allows us to escape the snarling jaws of Mason.