Archive for February 11, 2023

Invasion of the Avant-Garde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2023 by dcairns

It was high time I revisited THE RIGHT STUFF, a film from my hot youth I remember fondly — I watched it a lot on VHS after having the big screen experience at least twice, but I haven’t screened it since I had the great pleasure of meeting director Philip Kaufman in Telluride.

I thought it held up very well — there’s a lot of bold filmmaking in it, including things that maybe don’t quite work, but I felt that, as Gavin Lambert said of Michael Powell’s occasional missteps, “it mattered that he did them.” I couldn’t regret them.

I also shored up the event by reading Tom Charity’s excellent BFI Modern Classics monograph on the film, which was fun and informative. It provides a corrective to William Goldman’s complaints (in Adventure in the Screen Trade or a later one?) about his disappointment in not getting to be the writer. While this sorrow was surely sincere, Goldman’s complaints about the Kaufman version (he didn’t find it patriotic enough) look bizarre in the face of the very inspirational film (I guess we would have to read the Goldman document to make any sense of them). I guess the main point Goldman wanted to make was that writers are always second-class citizens in Hollywood — the producers hired him, convinced by his vision for turning the Tom Wolfe book into a structured screenplay — cut out all that sound barrier stuff — but when they hooked Kaufman to direct, Goldman’s ideas were immediately binned. It’s a little churlish of Goldman to complain, though, since he was paid for his services more money than God got for creating the universe. Possibly more than Kaufman would get for writing AND directing.

(Speaking of churlish — Tom Wolfe got a lot of credit, it seems to me, for not dissing the disaster that was the movie of his BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. He said it would be ungentlemanly to accept the Hollywood lucre and then say the resulting film was a piece of crap [my phrasing]. But by saying this, he was of course saying that the film WAS a piece of crap. Such a gent!)

Kaufman’s decision to keep test pilot Chuck Yeager in the picture, and some other idiosyncratic choices, result in his film following quite a peculiar structure, for a movie. The “climax” is the Apollo astronauts shooting glances at one another while Sally Rand does a fan dance to Clair de Lune, intercut with Shepard trying to fly an aeroplane into outer space. We don’t know it’s the climax while it’s happening, as the film lacks the conventional milestones that let you know how far into the three hours you’ve gotten. You only realise it when the film suddenly stops a few minutes later. But it works!

(We would have more films with delightfully off-kilter shapes if Goldman hadn’t banged on so vociferously that “Screenwriting is structure!” in Screen Trade, without explaining what he meant, and then Syd Field etc rushing in to lay down the law.)

One thing Charity’s monograph is great on is the film’s VFX, which had intrigued me since I was a kid. The sound barrier stuff was done by chucking model planes about, or running at them with an Eyemo on bungee cords, or vibrating a telefoto lens with a variable-speed massager. The flights are made up of lots of quick shots like that, using different camera speeds (from 12 to 110 fps), blasts of fire extinguisher, and models thrown from third-floor windows with a large-scale canvas painting of the desert stretched down the building’s side.

Cameraman John Fante is the man responsible, and when cut together by Kaufman’s team, this is the stuff that generates the tension, along with the inventive sound design which buries a pig scream in the mix for added alarm (borrowing it from the man-dog noise in Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?)

But the stuff that had really intrigued me was the weird abstract imagery. When Yeager nears the sound barrier, a weird deep-blue black hole opens up in the centre of his POV. It’s not obvious whether this is some kind of physical phenomenon or a purely subjective one. It does feel like a nice visual substitute for the sensation of being on the brink of blacking out. Instead of the realistic grey-out effect (which I’m very used to on account of low blood pressure) which would be hard to portray in a dramatic and photogenic way, it offers a partial blacking-out.

The man responsible turns out to be experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. I’m something of an ignoramus when it comes to experimental film or whatever you want to call it — a part-time airhead as David Raksin described Marlon Brando — but I sought out his stuff and now I really like it.

The way this one — PHENOMENA — keeps fading out reminded me strongly of James Stewart’s restless night in REAR WINDOW — which so perfectly captures the sensations of a disturbed sleep — little bursts of consciousness you’re conscious you probably won’t remember.

Kaufman had sensed that the Industrial Light & Magic approach wasn’t right for his film — he sensed it after working with them for a year, it’s true, but he did sense it. The high-tech stuff with the STAR WARS connection was all wrong for a film set in the past, mostly on or very near the earth. There’s a little Lucas-type VFX but it’s mostly integrated with Belson’s abstractions, so that we can have an animated space capsule turning, matted into a blurry, revolving blue sphere which FEELS just like NASA footage but isn’t, or at least not all the time.

Print dirt and damage gives away the amount of actual NASA film used (why couldn’t they look after their negatives better?) — TRS may be my favourite stock footage movie. I can usually spot it and I usually hate it. I think it works better here than usual because, in part, of Belson’s homemade miracles providing a third kind of material to blend with it, so the film can be a proper patchwork quilt rather than a quilt with a few disfiguring patches.

Now that I’m familiar with some of Belson’s style and effects, it feels like THE RIGHT STUFF is a Hollywood commercial movie being invaded or infected by experimental ones. And that feels fair — think of all the times Hollywood movies have wormed their way into avant-garde ones, from the solarized bits of JUST IMAGINE in LUCIFER RISING to the hideously colorized Fleischer cartoon soundlessly flashing up in MURDER PSALM.

Kaufman would have known Belson as a fellow San Franciscan, I’m betting. All of THE RIGHT STUFF was shot around SF, an astonishing feat. Designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, a genius, joined Goldman in walking off when told he had to find all the locations locally.

There’s a fair bit of Jordan Belson’s stuff on YouTube.