Archive for January, 2016

The Sunday Intertitle: Quaker Boats

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I was reminded of 1922’s DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS by a Guardian article about whaling in the movies, prompted by Opie’s recent HEART OF THE SEA. There is a great deal of whaling — actual whaling, with actual whale death, in DTTSIS, which is not surprising I guess since it’s produced by the Whaling Film Corporation. Not, I’m guessing, a hugely prolific outfit. Though the intertitles quote Moby Dick (accurately, unlike those of THE SEA BEAST, an official adaptation with John Barrymore s a sexy Ahab, later remade as an even more ludicrous talkie), the company never even got as far as doing Melville. Perhaps they could have tried adding a whaling component into popular stories of the day?

Mass cetacean snuff footage is not the only thing that makes this hard to watch in places. The movie has a part-Chinese villain, “Samuel Siggs” (Jack Baston), a yellowface stereotype who goes undercover in whiteface to seduce the heroine while defrauding her father. So it’s about the yellow peril and miscegenation nightmares in Massachusetts.

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The other reason I’d heard of it is the presence of the juvenile Clara Bow, and here at least the film isn’t appalling. Bow is a screen natural from the first, shown scrapping with a little boy, and though she doesn’t apparently know how to make a fist when fighting (that would be unfeminine), she throws herself into the action in a blur of flailing arms, porcelain features contorted in feline snarl. Hooray!

Also — Clara in drag!

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By the end she’s properly girl, in summer dress in a field of flowers, but still untamed — popping up from the petals to startle her beau and make him break all his eggs. New Bedford’s first flapper is about to be formed.

I provoked hilarity n Facebook by reproducing the credit “Personally directed by Elmer Clifton,” a branding which even seems comic when used by Griffith or Stroheim. On the forgotten Elmer it’s ludicrous. But in fact Clifton’s work is very able, setting up the life of the Quaker whalers with ethnographic precision, expressive detail shots and elegant wides. He can’t find a way to reconcile the vigorous naturalism of young Bow with the slinking melodramatics of Baston, but then the whole concept of Baston’s character is a ghastly mistake anyway.

And here’s Mr. Clifton’s name again ~

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Everybody’s a Critic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 30, 2016 by dcairns

Dead Critics D Cairns from David Cairns on Vimeo.

So, I may have mentioned that I directed twenty seconds of the bottom right-hand corner of CLOUD ATLAS…

The filmmakers wanted a fast montage showing the book Knuckle Sandwich by Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks, in maybe the best of the film’s many makeups) becoming a runaway bestseller after Hoggins murders his only reviewer by chucking him off a tower block. Tom Tykwer seemed to find the idea of killing a critic highly amusing, so I went along with that when I took the job of directing

I think enough time has passed that I can post the video of my bit. If you see the movie, the splitscreen goes by so fast and in a babel of sound that you wouldn’t really know it had happened. Looking at the piece now, I don’t like it too much — the “satirical” tone is unconvincing and it’s not clear what kind of show this is meant to be. It totally lacks the satirical authenticity of a Brass Eye, for instance. I do think we could probably have done something in between our minute-long first cut and the twenty-second final version, which might have played better, but a job’s a job.

There was a suggestion that all the split-screen segments might turn up as extras on the Blu-ray but I don’t think this ever happened — correct me if I’m wrong.

Jo Gil and Nelisa Alcalde were my ace team.

The Knuckle Sandwich plotline of CLOUD ATLAS also features Niall Fulton as one of Hanks’ brothers, marking a pleasing connection with LET US PREY, NATAN, CRY FOR BOBO and THE NORTHLEACH HORROR, in which he also appears, playing, respectively, a psychotic GP, a papier-mache film producer, a Keystone cop and a Nazi officer.

My review of CLOUD ATLAS, posted from the Dublin International Film Festival where NATAN was also showing, is here.

Blind Spots

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Ray Walston, an unsatisfactory substitute for the indisposed Peter Sellers, and Cliff Osmond, an unsatisfactory substitute for the area of wall he’s standing in front of, in Billy Wilder’s arguably-still-great KISS ME STUPID.

One kind of directorial blindness is obvious — Quentin Tarantino giving himself the job of lisping narrator in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I suppose the idea that he’s a recognizable voice and he IS the director could be said to justify that one, if the idea worked. But Tarantino casting himself in PULP FICTION is harder to excuse — an actor with Tarantino’s limited manner and range and skill set could never hope to get cast in that movie, with more lines than Rosanna Arquette, if not for the fact that he was the guy who could give him that part.

And then there’s someone like Jules Dassin, working with his wife Melina Mercouri, and evidently convinced that everything she did was sexy, adorable, funny and convincing. I like Mercouri, but she does get carried away sometimes, and Dassin was evidently not going to be the man to rein her in. I don’t think it’s because he was afraid to do so, I think it’s because his critical eye relaxed unduly whenever he gazed upon his tall thin Greek wife.

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But, excepting such obvious cases of prejudice, what are the cases where someone who really should know better casts badly and fails to notice? I think the most inexplicable case on record is that of Billy Wilder’s affection for Cliff Osmond. Wilder, who had talent and knew talent, did not know that Osmond lacked talent. Not totally lacked, just lacked it enough to make his presence problematic when surrounded by really good people with really good material. Wilder went on the record saying that Osmond might be the new Laughton. And Wilder had worked, very successfully, with Laughton. Interestingly, he had planned to have Laughton play the character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE, but Laughton became terminally ill. According to Maurice Zolotow’s unreliable Wilder bio, the director carried on meeting with Laughton, pretending that the actor was going to recover and play this comic role for his friend, thus comforting the great star on his death-bed. Lou Jacobi eventually took the role — but Cliff Osmond is in the picture too, as a policeman, making his first appearance for Wilder, and it is perhaps this connection that set in Wilder’s mind the curious idee fixee that Osmond was in some way Laughtonish. True, he was fat, and true, he wasn’t handsome, but many people are fat and unhandsome. Only Laughton is Laughton. Wilder might as well have cast me.

Osmond went on to prominent roles in KISS ME STUPID, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE FRONT PAGE. He’s in more Wilder films than Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Erich Von Stroheim or Audrey Hepburn. He’s level with William Holden.

I’m curious — who else do you think represents a blind spot in an otherwise talented director’s career? And more importantly, why?