Archive for the literature Category

Dead Mann Running

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2015 by dcairns

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I was all set to see something called KAFKA’S THE BURROW, but first I saw BRAND NEW-U, a new science fiction arthouse thriller thing, which rather exhausted my will to live — not bad, exactly, but devoid of tension, which made it tiring. I wasn’t sure I could face Kafka after that, so I did a ticket swap and opted for THE JERICHO MILE, an early Michael Mann TV movie released in UK cinemas in 1979 and screened at Edinburgh as part of the retrospective of vintage TV movies. I figured that even though I usually don’t like Michael Mann, this would at least by basically engaging.

(My Michael Mann history: walked out of THIEF at school film society, aged 17 — been meaning to give it another try. I think THE KEEP tricked me into staying for the whole thing but then I felt cheated. Like quite a bit of MANHUNTER but it goes utterly wrong in the last third. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS screws up its story and makes the wrong call on every single photographic decision. HEAT is extremely silly, the more so for being so serious. THE INSIDER has an appalling soundtrack assembled apparently at random. ALI is quite watchable but doesn’t quite add up. Skipped a couple, and then PUBLIC ENEMIES is a snooze.)

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Answering his critics.

But THE JERICHO MILE is now my favourite Michael Mann film. I could be all backhanded about it and argue that the stylistic constraints of the television format kept Mann from making erratic stylistic choices of the kind he loves, but actually by filming in Folsom with real inmates as supporting cast, he’s pushing the boat out about as far as any network would allow. His big stylistic idea this time is to interweave documentary footage into the melodrama, and it works like a charm. The movie looks and feels like a proper product of 70s New Hollywood, except the inmates don’t swear. And this doesn’t seem to matter — although the proceedings do get corny in places, quite a few places in fact, the story is compelling and the performances are mostly very fine — we get Brian Dennehy and Geoffrey Lewis and Ed Lauter and in the lead, Peter Strauss is excellent.

Strauss plays a man doing life for shooting his father (multiple times — but with extreme provocation). It turns out he can run a four-minute mile, and the prison authorities bend over backwards to get him to the Olympics. I hate films about sporting activity. Sporting activity is the worst kind of activity there is. But like all good sport films, this isn’t really about sport. The possibility of an inmate succeeding in something energizes and ultimately unites the prison populace, and then the straight world steps in to shut this down. The movie can’t allow itself to be quite as depressing as that sounds, but it still makes its point. And I like films with grim messages that don’t actually depress.

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Geoffrey Lewis turned up again after I’d seen part of MAGGIE (Arnold Schwartzenegger has a zombie daughter) — the 11pm film was SALEM’S LOT, in the chopped-down theatrical release version, which doesn’t entirely make sense but goes like a train. Lewis is magnificently creepy, as is everyone who gets vampirized. Found myself intrigued by David Soul’s acting — very much School of Shatner, which is both good and bad, I dug how SCARED Soul looks at the climax. Reggie Nalder, of course, is a brilliant living special effect, wearing more makeup than he actually needed. James Mason is delightful, especially sharing a scene with Kenneth McMillan. When Humbert met Harkonnen.

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This must be the gayest Stephen King adaptation ever. Most movies exist in order to partner up the hero and heroine — this one disposes of the heroine (a lovely, if bony, Bonnie Bedelia) offscreen (in this cut) so David Soul can drive off with a teenage boy. A teenage boy escapologst who keeps urging his dad to tie him up. And the whole plot is kickstarted by the arrival in a small town of two antiques dealers, Mason and his “partner” Nalder, who cause a plague of unusualness to strike down the citizenry. Mason flaunting his Very Queer Gentleman status in front of a baffled McMillan is a treat. There are no Chris Lee type scenes of vampiric male-female seduction, but lots of man-on-man and boy-on-boy action.

There was plenty of evidence that straight-up traditional vampires in a modern setting can’t be made to work — David Soul making a crucifix out of tongue depressors streteches the concept as far as it can safely go. But there was also surprising evidence that vampires are hardier creatures than you might think, despite their vulnerability to light, running water, wood, cruciform structures, garlic and rational analysis — a set of allergies that ought to land them all in oxygen tents.

Every scare came with its own bad laugh, but Tobe Hooper clearly knew how to SOME stuff really well, so that there were more alarming moments and stylish scenes that were ever the case in other US shows. A man jumping out to surprise David Soul in his bedroom made Fiona squeak in terror. She reports that when this screened in the UK in 1980, kids at her school were so freaked they took to wearing crosses round their necks.

Now we have to watch the full-length version to find out what the hell happened to Bonnie Bedelia.

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I’m pretty sure whatever it was, wasn’t good.

 

Hatchet Job

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2015 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s TV play, Noon Wine, based on the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, occupies a legendary position in his oeuvre, because it turned his career around when he was at a low ebb, making everything afterwards possible (although it’s THE WILD BUNCH which created his unstoppable momentum in the next decade), and also because it’s been almost impossible to see.

After being shut out of the editing room on the troubled MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston wondered why Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, so charming to their actors when they wanted to be, could not turn that charm on the moneymen; Peckinpah wrote to his producer, “You are a well-poisoner, Jerry, and I damn you for it”), and after being fired from THE CINCINATTI KID after allegations that he tried to shoot hardcore pornography on the MGM lot (screenwriter Terry Southern claimed, plausibly, that it was his idea of adding an interracial love scene that freaked out the suits; but see also Susan George’s allegations about Peckinpah’s initial plans for the rape scene in STRAW DOGS, which tends to support suspicions about the director’s enthusiasm for what might be termed “sexual realism”) — anyhow, after all that, nobody was willing to touch Peckinpah.

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This low-budget TV play demonstrated that Peckinpah could be trusted to turn up, shoot to schedule, and get great reviews. What’s weird is how shonky Noon Wine is. Admittedly, the source material screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival, supplied by UCLA, may not have shown the film at it’s best — though this may be the best surviving material. It looks to have been shot on tape, filmed off a TV screen, and then dumped back onto digital, but it’s hard to be sure. The colour is streaky, the image sometimes displaying a tubular edge distortion, and the resolution is low, and there’s also the unpleasantly smooth, HOBBIT-like video movement, though one soon gets used to that.

The piece is obviously cheap as chips, with laughable production design in the courtroom scene — blank stage flats painted in streaks to try to add a spurious sense of detail. But much low-budget TV still impresses, due to story and acting and framing. Noon Wine is erratic in all of these aspects.

Technically, the piece is below the standard of most TV of the period, with music unconvincingly papering over gaps in the soundtrack where Peckinpah seems to have shot mute. The only visual sequences which don’t look flatly televisual are the frequent montages, layerings of lap dissolves to show time passing. Generally, whenever Peckinpah mucks about with lap dissolves, wipes, freeze frames, ripple dissolves or accelerated motion, I cringe. These examples aren’t outright offensive, but they get a little embarrassing sometimes.

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Olivia DeHavilland is good, naturally. Jason Robards SHOUTS all the time, just like Steve Martin in THE JERK. Per Oscarsson is outstanding. Whenever I see him, I always think, Who is this strange man, where did he come from and what’s he doing here? I even saw him in a Swedish film, DR GLAS, and thought the same thing. So he’s perfect to play what the script calls “a stranger in a strange land.” Theodore Bikel essays a range of characterful tics including a Magoo chortle, and seems to have strayed in from another, more amusing but far worse film.

The story seems predicated upon an ambiguous event (an unseen axe murder) like the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, but Peckinpah struggles to make the unclear clear. His use of monologues, internal monologues, expository dialogue and more montages is frequently awkward. I realized that Peckinpah’s movies are almost never solo writing jobs, though his work on The Rifleman and The Westerner on TV showed he could get the job done OK when he had to. But he never had to solve all the narrative problems of a feature script without help.

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It feels almost ungrateful to get a rare chance to see something like this projected, and not like it better. But that leaves the enduring mystery of how Peckinpah’s career got rebooted by a tiny TV play that isn’t very good. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was that the film, so little seen but so significant in its repercussions for Peckinpah, is like the offscreen murder itself — it is responsible for everything that happens afterwards, but in itself it is unknowable, unseeable and impossible to understand.

I was just thinking, “Now all we need is Nick Ray’s The High Green Wall” — and then I thought to check YouTube and here it is! Hope it’s good.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bad Vats and Jeroboams

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2015 by dcairns

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There are TWO intertitles in Kevin Allen’s new film of UNDER MILK WOOD, screened at EIFF in advance of its general release this autumn. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of the film to frame-grab these from, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. And I can’t remember exactly what they say. The Fest is becoming blurry.

As is the film — frequent smearings of digital vaseline to rub the image into a glassy glaze, along with multiple other tricks and tics — it’s a hugely resourceful film, visually, as it needs to be. The challenge of matching pictures to Dylan Thomas’ “Play for Voices” which don’t overwhelm the text or blandly illustrate it must have been daunting. Allen, who reports that he spent the intervening decade since his last feature working on a pig farm, seems to have grown immensely in stature as a director — this was a proper Ken Russell phantasmagoria.

Allen burst on the scene with TWIN TOWN, producer Andrew MacDonald’s follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING, which I think suffered from the sense of letdown that it wasn’t as assured and entertaining as its predecessor — but it did give us Rhys Ifans. Ifans, who seems to be in every film in the Fest, is back here as both First Voice and Captain Cat Complimenting his Jekyll-Hyde dual role in THE MARRIAGE OF REASON & SQUALOR), along with the estimable Charlotte Church, all lusty smile and lascivious jiggle as Polly Garter.

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Allen decided to treat the film as ALL DREAM, with scenes flowing together and surreal and bawdy rupturings of reality pushing through at every turn. It’s frequently delirious and only occasionally deleterious — when what the text calls a “shaving glass” is represented by a wall mirror in a shop, I couldn’t see what was gained by the mismatch. And maybe there are too many phalluses. But it’s all livelier and more evocative than the earlier Richard Burton job, I think. In that one, the line “circling her nipples with lipstick” is illustrated by a busty wench drawing rings round the outside margins of her bosoms, as if about to turn them into pink-nosed smiley faces. Allen persistently seems to have a better idea of what Thomas was on about, and aided by Mark Thomas’ epic, sumptuous score and Andy Hollis’ gorgeous photography, has created something rather intoxicating.

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