Archive for the literature Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Intrigue

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2019 by dcairns

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film THE FAVOURITE has intertitles! Or at any rate chapter titles. This poster gives you an idea of the adventurous use of type. They’re all lines of dialogue we haven’t yet heard, so it’s a rather literary use of foreknowledge. They say things like THIS MUD STINKS. Or ~

A bit like the book illustrations in BUSTER SCRUGGS, in fact. This could be on its way to being a new stylistic norm, the way starting a story near the end, at a crisis point, has become something of a cliché.

The film’s other stylistic ideas are adventurous too, though one can see where they come from. The candlelight and low angle tracking shots and slow dissolves are from Kubrick (as is one music cue, via BARRY LYNDON); the perriwigged foppery and arch sexual cruelty is pure DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT. The plot, as Fiona pointed out, owes plenty to ALL ABOUT EVE. The spirit of the Marquis De Sade is not far away either, though he’s locked in a closet so all he can do is shout suggestions through the keyhole.

Dave Ehrenstein, via Facebook, has already attested to a hearty dislike for the film, due to its encouraging the audience to feel superior to the characters. Which is a good reason, and if my feelings waver between cautious admiration and squeamishness it’s probably because I didn’t read the film’s signals quite that way. I had quite a lot of sympathy for Emma Stone’s character all the way through: she’s pushed into doing evil because, Sade-style, there are no rewards for being good. It’s possible we’re meant to regard her as having been a schemer from the start, but even then, she’s got good reason for wanting to attain power: her position without it is desperate.

Stone is good, and Rachel Weiss is really good, which hasn’t always been the case. Her attitude to the offscreen war — tax the farmers to starvation and fight until the soldiers are all dead — is as uncompromising as her abuse of Stone’s character. With similar results, nearly: if the underlings realise they’re in for it no matter what, rebellion becomes their logical recourse. So the art of governance is the science of knowing what you can get away with.

Nicholas Hoult, as the Whig leader opposed to the war, is deliberately written as vicious as everyone else, so that his apparent political compassion doesn’t make him a kindly bore: and so it can be read as him simply trying to preserve the status quo. He’s very good — he has something of Hugh Grant’s light comedy skills, Fiona suggested.

She also remarked that all these characters are after power as a means to happiness, but the character who has all the power, the Queen, is the most wretchedly unhappy of all. (If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.) Fiona did a bit of digging into Queen Anne and found a strange historical obsession with her gouty body, which this film connects to directly. It’s hagsploitation, of course. Olivia Colman is excellent in a very showy part requiring an abandonment of all vanity and an ability to reconcile, at least to her own satisfaction, the character’s innumerable contradictions: she’s alternately cunning, stupid, heartbroken, vicious, kindly, mad, confused… plus she keeps suffering destructive neurological events (too much cake is bad for you).

The script is by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, and it’s quite witty — often in a very basic way, surprising you with sudden brutality or swearing. But that can be witty. It can also get tiresome. Sympathy is the enemy of drama — but some tiny, homeopathic dose of it may be needed to keep the audience engaged. I had to work a little to find any sympathy, and in the end I found it in myself, by an effort of imagination, not so much in the film.

I’ve neglected Yorgos Lanthimos, along with the rest of modern cinema. The only thing of his I’d seen is this short, courtesy of a student, but I can feel a bit smug because the IMDb doesn’t even know this exists (it does, but it calls it a documentary) ~

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An Odyssey in Pieces: The Dawn of Man, Day 2, Day 3

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2019 by dcairns

As the sun rises slowly in the east… we fade up pic on a slumbering prelapsarian primate, and simultaneously we fade up a nice, creepy bit of Ligeti on the soundtrack. I don’t know that Ligeti had been used in a movie before, certainly not a mainstream one. He was so off-the-beaten-track that Kubrick didn’t even bother to clear the rights, perhaps assuming that all composers found in the “Classical” section must be safely dead. Ligeti successfully sued, not just for the unauthorised usage, but for the tampering done to his work, particularly at the film’s end.This music is the first “man-made” artificial sound we’ve heard since earthfall, and it accompanies the appearance of the Monolith, the first “man-made” artificial object we’ve seen, not counting Saul Bass’s MGM logo and the credits. The first shot of it is surprisingly matter-of-fact: the towering intruder doesn’t even break the horizon line, being tucked neatly into the landscape so it seems less tall, less celestial, than later. A follow-up shot lets it touch the sky, and it appreciably grows in grandeur. I guess Kubrick is onto a slow build-up thing here — certainly he would have thought about whether we should initially see the slab standing out against his front-projected African skyline.

The composition, importantly, is an exact repeat of a wide shot already used at least twice. And this n’t laziness, it’s the clearest way to make it evident that SOMETHING HAS CHANGED in this timeless desert.I do wonder, realistically, if the ape-men, who have apparently not figured out how to use a rock to hit a tapir (or another ape-man), would really be that curious or freaked out by this new, but obviously inert object. But possibly it’s already doing whatever it is it does to their brains. Certainly the view of the sun cresting its upper side seems significant later.

Chimpanzees can use sticks to get ants out of holes. But they don’t think of picking up rocks and bashing each other’s heads in, so far as I know. Though they do get into murderous battles, and they do sling poop at each other. The real evolutionary breakthrough may be in MANUFACTURING tools, seeing an object and being able to imagine it changed and newly useful.

Still, Kubrick & Clarke’s vision is very persuasive as it unfolds. Our primitive ancestors calm down and are next seen pottering about amid bones and tapirs. A transition achieved by a straight, sharp cut, which runs clean through the soundtrack too, severing Mr. Ligeti’s choral freakout with Godardian abruption. That kind of musical cut was undreamed-of, I believe, before JLG and the nouvelle vague, and it points up the fact that this is the possibly greatest needle-drop soundtrack of all time.And Moonwatcher gets an idea. Kubrick signals this by cutting to the sun-on-monolith shot he used earlier — so this is clearly a mini-flashback as the sun would have moved on from this position. It signals a switch being thrown in Moonwatcher’s brain. I remember when I first saw the film, I’d read a plot synopsis beforehand — I wish I hadn’t! — and I was looking at the screen wondering, “How are we supposed to KNOW the monolith has implanted a thought in the ape-man’s brain? Today, it seems perfectly clear to me.The impossible low angle of Moonwatcher smashing up old bones was shot on an elevated platform outside the studio, with buses going by in the background, according to Arthur C. Clarke, who calls it the only time Stanley went on location. The reason being, presumably, that such an angle, if attempted on a sound stage, would have shot past the top of the front projection screen. Anyway, we get some really funky editing to Also Sprach Zarathustra, along with the slomo — the tapir falling over in a fleshy wobble-tumble (HOW did they make the poor thing do that?) is cut in twice in a way that’s always surprising, and the editing becomes more fragmented exactly as Moonwatcher’s boneyard does. The first closeup of M’s arm with clutched thighbone shows him raising the instrument to strike, but in the second iteration the arm is already raised and descending, despite having been seen at ground level, smashing, one frame earlier. It’s the kind of aggressively discontinuous action cutting Peter Hunt brought to the cutting of the Bond films.

It’s also the great Eureka! moment in all of cinema, and the exception to Billy Wilder’s rule that you should never show a character’s face as he’s having an idea.Keith Moonwatcher.

Now the ape-men all have bloody handfuls of meat and are munching away contentedly. The tapirs continue to graze around them — they can’t adjust, all at once, to the fact that their previously passive bipedal friends are suddenly going to kill and eat them. They’re going to be extinct soon.And so is the neighbouring tribe, judging by what happens next. Although these guys at least have the sense to run away when one of their number is clubbed to mulch. So, gifted with the ability to hunt more effectively, our fore-fore-forebears promptly use their extraterrestrial superpower to commit hominidcide. Great. As a kid, I definitely didn’t catch on to the harsh judgement Kubes was passing on his own species.The pace has increased — we no longer fade gently to black between scenes. Night falls, demonstrated by a single sunset, and then it’s abruptly daylight again and the big monkey ruckus is kicking off, Moonwatcher and his droogs confidently moving in on Billy-Boy’s gang for a Bedrock rumble.

Moonwatcher throws his weapon triumphantly in the air. And Arthur Clarke, in The Lost Words of 2001, describes being on hand, with the buses going by in the background, when Kubrick got the idea, just after he’d filmed the bone-smashing montage. “The shot was repeated so many times, and Dan [Richter, as Moonwatcher] smashed so many bones, that I was afraid we were going to run out of wart-hog (or tapir) skulls. But eventually Stanley was satisfied, and as we walked back to the studio he began to throw bones up in the air. At first I thought this was sheer joi de vivre, but then he started to film them with a hand-held camera–no easy task. Once or twice, one of the large, swiftly descending bones nearly impacted on Stanley as he peered through the viewfinder; if luck had been against us the whole project might have ended then. To misquote Ardrey (page 34), “That intelligence would have perished on some forgotten Elstree field.””

(Robert Ardrey is the author of African Genesis, a source text Clarke drew upon for the Dawn of Man stuff.)I can’t decide how to treat the famous match cut from bone to spacecraft. If I make the next chapter about the Blue Danube sequence, I risk chopping the cut into two sequences and missing what’s great about it, which is the way it unites them (cuts are really joins). So I’m inclined to devote an entire post to it…

Gold Fever

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2019 by dcairns

THE HANGING TREE is a fairly late Gary Cooper movie with “the Montana mule” atypically cast as a doctor treating a gold rush community (a ghost-town-in-waiting) and haunted by a dark secret. His past may not be as shady as in the startling MAN OF THE WEST, but it’s a more convincing fit for the man we see before us — the movie keeps it deniably ambiguous, but it’s pretty clear the Doc murdered his cheating wife and her lover before moving out to the badlands to gamble by night and heal the sick by day.

Since Gary is by now a touch long in the tooth (he’d just had a facelift but still looks rumpled), there’s a young sidekick in toe, a failed thief Coop saves from justice and blackmails into being his indentured servant. Ben Piazza (?) is excellent in this role, and I don’t know why he didn’t get bigger follow-up roles. Maybe because, when Hollywood paired its aging stars with young up-and-comers, the young u.a.c.’s always had to play callow, dopey characters, which isn’t good star-building experience. (The line “It’s nice to meet a SMART kid,” in RIO BRAVO seems to me to be a comment on this tendency.)

Anyhow, Maria Schell, Karl Malden and a debuting George C. Scott are also on hand, playing what you might expect, and Daves shoots the hell out of the thing. I first noticed his almost excessive zeal for getting the most cinematic value out of every scene in 3.10 TO YUMA. I use “cinematic” in its dumbest sense, I suppose: landscape spectacle, crane and tracking shots, looming close-ups, lots of coverage (but smart, impactful coverage, nothing wasteful or sloppy). So the movie is a feast for the eyes: Ted D. McCord shot it, and the compositions are frequently stunning. So although the plot development is mainly predictable, the few genre variations (by way of original author Dorothy M. Johnson, also the source of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE) and the visual splendour kept me riveted, even though one would think some of the cast would be able to predict oncoming plot developments, what with Max Steiner signalling furiously to them with his baton.

 

TERRIBLE song at the start and finish does quite a bit of damage to an intriguing outcome.

Featuring Beau Geste; Helena Friese-Greene; Sheriff Dad Longworth; General Jack D. Ripper; Drunken doomsayer in diner; Morgan Ryker; Jack Belicec; and Darryl F. Zanuck.