Archive for the FILM Category

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

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I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

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Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

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Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

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Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

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Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

 

Timehorse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 31, 2015 by dcairns

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LE TEMPS DE MOURIR (1970) is one I started for Seventies Sci-Fi week but didn’t finish quickly enough. Despite some shaky direction — first timer Andre Farwagi hadn’t learned the 180º rule yet — I was sufficiently intrigued by the basic plot premise to finish watching, and was reasonably glad I did.

Anna Karina starts the movie by riding her horse into a tree, She’s rescued by millionaire Bruno Cremer, who is startled to discover in her possession a video recorder showing him being shot by a man he doesn’t know (but we know him: it’s Jean Rochefort!). Both Karina, who has total amnesia of the kind only available in sensational fiction, and the tape appear to have come from the future. With the aid of bodyguard Billy Kearns (one of the detectives in Welles’ THE TRIAL, speaking execrable French), Cremer tries to find out why a total stranger is apparently going to kill him on camera.

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What nobody, including the writers, explore, is how Karina time-traveled back from the end of the film to the beginning. She’s a one-woman Moebius strip, apparently existing only in this temporal loop, her memory erasing itself as her life circles eternally round. This is actually the film’s most intriguing element, and it’s left to the audience to explore it after the story is over. Nobody in the movie gets a chance.

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Is Anna Karina’s horse a time machine?

I was very taken with Cremer’s home computer, a tinted plastic face, illuminated from behind, set into the wall. I would like a computer like that.

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Farwagi’s career has been quite sporadic. His next production was in 1978, a sexy girl school romp with Nastassja Kinski, LEIDENSCHAFTLICHE BLUMCHEN, which I watched on late-night TV as a teenager in hopes of nudity. I was not disappointed: Farwagi opens the film with a zoom out from a close-up of a tit. Probably influenced by Kubrick.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

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