Archive for the FILM Category

The Origin of Speeches

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2015 by dcairns

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A filmmaker donated a big box of DVDs to the Art College so I took a few home. One was CREATION, directed by Jon Amiel, produced by Jeremy Thomas, telling the story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write his magnum opus in the face of his deeply religious wife’s opposition, and while reeling from the death of his eldest child. I thought it might be terribly middlebrow, and in part it is, but it’s also well worth a look. I knew Fiona would be interested because it has Bambidirk Counterbath Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones in it, both of whom rick up in the same carriage at one point, and Jeremy Northam for good measure. We don’t get enough Northam these days.

Chas. D. is played by Paul Bettany, in a succession of unattractive wigs (the very first shot of him displays an unwise amount of cheesecloth), who’s very good in a tough role. The character is anguished more or less throughout — Darwin was plagued by horrible, possibly psychosomatic discomforts during the writing of his famous book , and Bettany has to display suffering in every scene without getting monotonous. He just about succeeds. His real-life wife, Jennifer Connolly, plays Mrs. D, with impressive toughness, never apologising for the way the character is or trying to win excessive favour from the audience.

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Jeremy Thomas is attracted to classy literary adaptations and subjects that can easily seem middle-brow and uncinematic, but when he’s working with a Bertolucci or a Cronenberg the risk is obviated. Jon Amiel isn’t in that league — he benefited from working with the inherently idiosyncratic Dennis Potter in TV, bringing a restless, kinetic pizzazz to the proceedings. Here, adapting a novel himself along with John Collee, his style seems merely commercial, over-eager to keep things moving and be big and fancy. Slow motion shots, hand-held, steadicam, crane shots, jump cuts — everything is thrown at it, and not everything sticks. Fiona complimented the film for the moments which seem simplest — in fact, there’s a lot of craft and cunning going on even in these moments, but the quieter tone WORKS in a way that the more hectic and pushy style doesn’t. You can’t tart up a middlebrow think piece and pass it off as slam-bang entertainment.

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The one really disappointing element of the disc was the extras, which all sounded really interesting but were horribly made — the thing called Debating Darwin wasn’t a debate at all, but a series of statements, filmed separately, by a pro-evolution guy, another pr-evolution guy who was also a Christian, and a creationist. Giving that guy a platform and pretending that he was a proper scientist on an equal footing with Lewis Wolpert was a travesty. Like inviting a holocaust denier to take place in a piece called Debating Hitler. People with these views exist, regrettably, and it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge this, but putting them on an equal footing with actual intellects who actually respect the facts is irresponsible in the extreme. Deduct ten points.

Fiona thinks further points should be deducted for the fact that the baby orangutan who appears costumed in Victorian garb as Jenny the Ape receives no screen credit, despite being prominently featured even unto the movie poster and DVD cover.

What sorcery is this?

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2015 by dcairns

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A great good friend having sent me one of Twilight Time’s lush Blu-rays of SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, we decided to watch it. This was the first Harryhausen film Fiona and I saw on the big screen, but we had already had our minds invaded by his imagery, via TV screenings of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. I hid behind the sofa from both Talos and the cyclops, while Fiona, made of sterner stuff, pressed her barely-formed eyeballs against the cathode ray tube in order to squeeze more detail out of those fascinating, fluttering harpies. Only decades later were we told that the models used were so tiny, they basically didn’t HAVE any more detail than you can see in long shot.

S&TEOTT being the penultimate Harryhausen, the inspiration is a little frayed in places. None of that bothered me as a kid — I didn’t find the giant walrus preposterous, for instance. For their sequels, Harryhausen and regular scenarist Beverley Cross basically re-used the story of their first SINBAD film, and did it a little less effectively each time. In all three films, someone close to Sinbad is bewitched and he must travel to a mythical land to cure the victim. In film 1, it’s Sinbad’s bride-to-be who’s miniaturized, rendering any future nuptials a grotesque rather than romantic prospect. There’s no improving on that, although maybe giving Sinbad a kid and having the kid bewitched would ramp the emotion even higher. Instead, a couple of faceless rulers we never even meet properly get the whammy put upon them, and we’re duly unengaged.

But as a kid I didn’t notice the writers’ repetitive strain injury, nor did I notice the crummy direction in the human-centric scenes. Sam Wanamaker was supposed to class up the acting, but he shoots inept coverage and can do nothing with the pasteboard characters. The editor gets bamboozled into frantic cross-cutting to try to escape each terrible shot as soon as possible, but he has nothing better to cut to. Editors — when stuck with two bad angles, pick one and linger, since you can’t motivate a cut to a new shot that doesn’t show the action any more clearly or attractively.

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Thankfully, the direction improves whenever a monster appears, since for reasons of economy such sequences have to be storyboarded in advance, so Haryhausen is directing those. Suddenly the angles are lucid and dramatic. A couple of years after I saw the movie, my Dad brought a copy of Harryhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook home from the library, and I was able to read all about his film-making and his thinking. It was at that point that I realized that several of the set-piece scenes in S&TEOTT were conscious reworkings of successful bits in earlier Harryhausens. Notably the ghouls attack is a rip-off of the skeleton fight in JASON — Harryhausen thought it could be improved by setting it at night. In fact, the bug-eyed skeletoids are pretty spooky, and the scenes in the tent are excitingly colourful. When it devolves into muddy day-for-night outside though, it’s a disappointing drop in intensity.

Trog still fascinates. The most characterful of the creations (“They’re not monsters, they’re mythological creatures”), even with a silly horn on his head, Trog is charming and uncanny. The film lingers on his un-subtitled exchanges with the baboon prince (yes, there’s a baboon prince) for great stretches, autistically mesmerised by their monkey discourse.

As a kid, I *was* disappointed that Trog never fought the Minaton, Harryhausen’s brass automaton version of the minotaur. I suspect I may have already been exposed to Godzilla double features at the Odeon, Clerk Street, and could imagine nothing better than two humanoids battering hell out of each other, especially in Dynamation. Instead we had to settle for Trog’s battle with the rather fluffy sabre-tooth tiger (you may have noticed that none of these animals have a whit to do with the Arabian Nights) while the putative heroes of the film stand around scratching their underpaid arses.

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Children have terrible taste and great taste at the same time, so I admired Pat Wayne’s shirt. Otherwise, human interest was confined to the glimpses of Jane Seymour’s skin, and a chance to see Patrick Troughton, whom I knew had been Doctor Who, but before my time. He plays the stupidest wise man ever put on celluloid — watch how he interrogates his arch-enemy and contrives to tell HER everything she needs to know, while learning nothing and then allowing her to escape and almost getting himself killed. All of that would have been lovely if the film had established its genius “Melanthius the Greek” as doddering and senile, but the writers seem to want to accept his behaviour as merely unfortunate. Still, the giant hornet he creates successfully freaked Fiona out.

What’s this? I don’t know! Or maybe I DO know and I’m not ready to say? Maybe that’s it? Hmmm…

A Bridge Too Soon?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by dcairns

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1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.

By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.

During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.

Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”

Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”

Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”

Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”

Fiona: “That’s terrible!”

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The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.

Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.

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What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.

Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.

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Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.

The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.

The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

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What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.

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Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.

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