Archive for November, 2018

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

By the Numbers

Posted in FILM with tags on November 26, 2018 by dcairns

I hope that makes everything clear.

The Sunday Intertitle: “Eeeeeeeee–oooo”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 25, 2018 by dcairns

Eeeeeeeeeee–oooooooo! ‘Tis the cry of the abominable arcti Paul Wegener in THE STRANGE CASE OF CAPTAIN RAMPER (RAMPER – DER TIERMENSCH aka RAMPER – THE BEASTMAN), and where has this movie been all my life? Daredevil pilot Ramper (Wegener) kisses his dear mother goodbye and promptly crashes his plane in the arctic wastes. Lost in the snows for years, he informs his expiring co-pilot of his intention to KILL HIS BRAIN to prevent himself suffering from loneliness. He becomes a beast — a shaggy, yodeling yeti. Finally captured by the crew of an ice-bound ship (who include Max Schreck among their number, violating the nautical rule about it being unlucky to sail on a ship that has Max fucking Schreck on it), he is brought back to civilisation as a sideshow exhibit, billed as “Teddy, the man-ape”. It could happen to you!

The version of the film I saw is in ragged shape, apparently telecined handheld, with jaunty English-language intertitles and scenes missing. But director Max Reichmann, who was new to me, does wonders with suspense and atmosphere, and Wegener is pretty effective as the hirsute hero. “Teddy” hasn’t actually transmogrified, apart from growing lots of facial hair, and nobody thinks to take off his fur coat, so the world is convinced he’s a “missing link,” or “found link” I suppose we would have to call him.

Another odd thing: between performances, Teddy is kept in a crate, lying prone, vampire-fashion, his fur and whiskers expanding to fill the whole box like styrofoam packing. It’s an odd manner of storage for a sideshow exhibit, although I guess Cesar the somnambulist never complained, but he wouldn’t, would he? There’s no particular historical justification for keeping apes in crates, but interestingly yetis sometimes are: one thinks of that episode of CREEPSHOW…

But can even a world-famous specialist in mental diseases cure a very hairy Paul Wegener who has deliberately KILLED HIS OWN BRAIN? Can you perform artificial resuscitation on a brain? Or maybe you can defibrillate it? Isn’t that what ECT is? Yes, I’m almost positive that’s right. In fact, we meet Professor Barbarzin, clad in all-over rubber insulated gimp gear, pulling the world’s biggest knife switch – Henry Frankenstein would plotz – and performing some strange electromagnetic healing ritual on a slabbed loon.

 

Teddy’s keeper is reluctant to allow treatment: if Teddy is cured, he goes from being a highly profitable beastman to some worthless schlub in a fur coat, a spectacle unlikely to pull a crowd, whatever Flanagan and Allen can prove to the contrary. Still, like all Central European empresarios trafficking in human misery, he has a heart of gold really, and consents readily after being threatened with a slavery charge.

Electrogalvanic brain therapy follows, and reason is restored, but maybe only halfway? Soon, Teddy/Ramper is breaking free from the Barbarzin Institute with the aid of a table leg and standing outside his mother’s door, pleading for admission, unable to understand that fifteen years have passed since he flew off into oblivion and I guess the old lady’s dead. Pretty strong pathos from Paul: he’s not just a golem, he can play other kinds of lumbering halfwits too. I fear I’m not conveying how moving this scene is.

Shown around town by a couple of drunken swells, the more Ramper sees of modern life, the more nostalgia he feels for his desolate glacier. Tragically, the copy in my possession cuts out in advance of the conclusion described in Mordaunt Hall’s contemporary review: somebody seems to have felt that truncating the movie so that it ends with Ramper being discovered in the drunk tank the next morning would serve as a sufficiently happy ending. Which says something about that anonymous somebody.

I would heartily recommend this film to lovers of polar ice, man-beasts, circuses, big Germans, mad science and yetis. Which ought to cover everybody.

Mordaunt Hall, something of a glacial imbecile himself, wrote: “Mr. Wagener’s acting is probably good, but much of the time one can only see his eyes. Mary Johnson supplies the childish beauty, but that’s about all. This picture was directed by Max Reichmann from a story by Curt J. Braun. The stage features include the Sixteen Roxyettes, dancers, and “Peer Gynt Suite.” The Movietone gives part of President Coolidge’s Gettysburg address.”