Archive for the literature Category

Unkind Cuts

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2015 by dcairns

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Daniel Riccuito, main author of The Beauty of Terror, with Jennifer Matsui and myself, is incandescent with rage about changes Fangoria magazine made to the piece without consulting us. I’m slightly more philosophical, having been really horribly rewritten several times during my film and TV career. A shout-out here to the giftless bastards at Tern Television and to so-called director Crispin Whittier Whittell, whom I would like to shoot with a gun.

The people who butcher creative work are usually friendly, smiling people. They totally don’t get that they just mutilated something you cared about, and stole something that was rightfully yours. “Think of me as the kindly torturer,” Sid Sheinberg told Terry Gilliam while doing his best to rip the guts out of BRAZIL. These people look hurt when you tell them they destroyed something they didn’t understand. They look confused when you say you wish they’d asked. They made everything better without bothering us, so why aren’t we delighted? Of course, they only enjoy such freedom from doubt, such artistic carte blanche with other people’s labours because they are totally bereft of any creativity themselves.

Fangoria’s changes are tone-deaf, clumsy, anti-intellectual, humourless, and mostly unnecessary. But what makes them completely unacceptable is that they didn’t send a copy of the proposed alterations during the months the piece was waiting to see print. This kind of consultation ALWAYS happens. When I write for Electric Sheep, which is an online publication, the very thoughtful and precise editorial changes are always offered up to me to see if they’re acceptable. With Sight & Sound, or with Criterion liner notes, the same thing happens. Apart from being courteous, this is also efficient: if a writer has expressed themself unclearly, the editor’s attempt to fix the problem might not work — it may well take the writer’s input to clarify what the piece intended to say.

The GOOD NEWS is — you can read the original article at The Chiseler, here.

This is possibly of interest only to Daniel, Jennifer and myself, but I thought I’d run through the more egregious changes, just for the record.

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A minor example: “Of course, the answer is partly grounded in Steele’s unique physical equipment” becomes “The answer is partly grounded in Steele’s unique physical attributes.” This is typical of the changes, where an interesting word choice is replaced with a mundane, hackneyed one.

A more complex one: “Steele’s beauty is no accident of nature, even if she is, but a virtuoso performance by an artist in full command of her talent summoning and banishing it in equal measure in her dual role as mortal damsel in distress and undead predator released from her crypt.” This becomes, in Fangoria’s blood-smeared hands, “Steele’s beauty is no accident of nature, even if she is, and Sunday showcases a virtuoso performance by an artist in full command of her talent, summoning and banishing it in equal measure in her dual role as mortal damsel in distress and undead predator released from her crypt.” Which is hard to understand, as it seems to say that Steele is summoning and banishing her talent, using it to play the damsel and abandoning it when she plays the revengeful revenant. This is not only not what we meant, it’s not even what Fangoria means to say.

We wrote, “Where Steele’s Italian films are concerned, we are watching silent movies of a sort.” This is following a reference to Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon, making the argument that Steele’s appearance has something in common with his hand-tinted special effects. Clearly the reference was deemed too obscure for the magazine’s public (though encouraging people to go look something up never struck me as a disservice to the reader). Chopping the Chomon line, Fangoria makes do with, “Where the actress’ Italian films are concerned, the experience is like watching silent movies of a sort.” The “of a sort” becomes bizarre and ungainly since it’s the first mention of silent cinema, and it’s not even really clear what is meant by “the experience” — the experience of watching them, presumably, but if so, why not say so?

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The phrase “molded by Italian cameramen into disquieting and sudden plasticity,” which referred to Steele’s entire Italian career, is folded into a sentence about BLACK SUNDAY and forced to serve as a description of that film, which had only one cinematographer, Mario Bava.

Here’s one of my own sentences: “While Italian movies robbed Steele of her voice, they liberated her from what it had meant in Britain.” This becomes “they liberated her from the constraints of Britain,” which is a different point, one less related to the beginning of the sentence, and the overall point explored in the next two paragraphs, which is about class.

My line “Omninational, omnisexual, but definitely carnivorous” just gets chopped altogether, leaving the section to widdle out lamely. That was my best sentence!

Even a quote from the star herself is not safe from the editors’ “creativity” — “There was a tremendous feeling of respect, whereas in my earliest roles at Rank I always felt shoved around, practically negated by the pressure of production.” “Negated” is replaced with “ignored.” As Matt Damon complains in THE INFORMANT! “How is that OK? That’s NOT OK.”

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Or, there’s this: “amid the groundswells of fog, lifeless trees and gloomy dungeons, Steele is an absence impossibly concretized in penumbras and voids.” Fangoria couldn’t cope with such richness, apparently, so we get “amid the groundswells of fog, lifeless trees and gloomy dungeons, Steele is a walking shadow.” Pity the poor hack who, throwing out a complex phrase, must try to invent something of their own to replace it. I know, Shakespeare! That always works!

“Dark Barbara comes back as a very corporeal revenant, hair occluding one profile, like Phil Oakey of the Human League.” References to British new wave bands of the eighties are another thing Fangoria’s readership are not expected to be able to cope with, so the sentence is lopped. “Obscuring” is subbed in for the too high-brow “occluding,”

This, I thought, was one of my more useful paragraphs. “Almost indescribable in terms of plot, character or dialogue, the film looks stunning, as chiaroscuro as Steele’s coal-black hair and snow-white skin. Apparently the product of monkey-typewriter improvisation, the story serves as a kind of post-modern dream-jumble of every Gothic narrative ever. You might get a story like this if you showed all of Steele’s horrors to a pissed-up grade-schooler and then asked them to describe the film they just saw. As a result, the movie really takes what Dario Argento likes to call the “non-Cartesian” qualities of Italian horror to the next dank, stone-buttressed level.”

“The story may be a kind of postmodern dream-jumble of countless Gothic narratives, but its visuals are stunning, as chiaroscuro as Steele’s coal-black hair and snow-white skin.” Shorter, yes. But better? Any good at all? “Visuals” are always “stunning,” aren’t they?

Another line from Barbara gets rejigged: “…and faces that are like spells they look so informed,” becomes “and faces like spells.” Minor, but completely unethical unless you add the dreaded […] to make it clear you’re monkeying with a direct quote.

A mild speculation on why the Italians embraced Steele and she them: “a shared gloomy zest for life, fatalism and pasta” hits the cutting room’s sticky floor.

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“And yet we’ll never know quite how seriously the filmmakers approached these farragoes. They fuse the kind of outrageous plot twists pioneered by Psycho and Les Diaboliques with all the gothic trappings familiar from The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, and Poe’s morbid, overheated imagination with the new sexual liberality of sixties cinema, already curdled into something icky and sadistic and necrophile, as if decades closeted by the censor had fermented some kind of fetid corruption infecting every glance. The dialogue is always unspeakable in any language (hence, perhaps, all that dubbing, as a kind of disinfectant/alibi), while the plots collapse with the impact of a single breath of air, and characterization is strictly puerile. But the potent sex-death brew is nevertheless intoxicating, the visuals sleek and seductive, and the eyes follow you about the room.”

This gets rendered down into:

Freda and his contemporaries fused the kind of outrageous plot twists pioneered by Psycho and Les Diaboliques with all the gothic trappings familiar from The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, and Poe’s morbid, overheated imagination with the new sexual liberality of sixties cinema, already curdled into something icky and sadistic and necrophilic, as if decades closeted by the censor had fermented some kind of fetid corruption infecting every glance. […] The potent sex-death brew is nevertheless intoxicating, the visuals sleek and seductive […].”

““Oh, Riccardo Freda! We had our own private opera going,” Steele recalls.” This becomes “Riccardo Freda and I had our own private opera going,” which is, on the one hand, less exciting and expressive, and on the other, not what Barbara Steele actually said, ever.

“A desperate thing to do – like fighting a war – so everyone became emotionally invested on-set, and the atmosphere translated quite powerfully; yes, I’d say the results of all that apparent chaos wound up registering in the movie.” This gets chopped down to a couple of phrases, which is permissible in principal, but why would you want to lose all that good stuff, coming straight from the star’s mouth?

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“The villain’s demise is superbly absurd, as he’s sealed within a cartoonish effigy, which makes him look like the lost, Goth member of the Banana Splits (original line-up: Drooper, Fleagle, Snorky, Bingo and Scabies).” By now I’m sure you can guess what got cut here.

“Despite a Scooby Doo/psychological ending eschewing the supernatural, this is one of the most extreme, delirious Italian Gothics, and despite a plot that doesn’t ultimately make a lick of sense, it comes closer to being a proper film than any of them – Francesco de Masi’s beautiful score lifts it out of pulp territory altogether at times.” I think that’s fair comment, though admittedly I should have fixed those two “despites,” bundling the provisos together. That’s just the sort of mistake a good editor can help with. But the final version is weirdly weak: “…this is one of the most extreme, delirious Italian Gothics and Francesco de Masi’s beautiful score lifts it out of pulp territory at times.” Without the “altogether” at the end, that’s a very watery statement to end a paragraph on.

“As soon as we meet the gardener, a hulking near-mute, we anticipate greenhouse shenanigans, given Babs’ history in these things,” — Fangoria drops the “Babs” but replaces it with a blurry “her” despite the fact that Steele’s name hasn’t appeared since the start of the previous sentence. This is exactly the kind of thing — noun/pronoun alternation — that an editor should be able to carry off invisibly.

“Laughter disrupts the dream-flow the picture aims at, but without completely staunching it, so the time passes in hypnagogic free-fall, that too-tired-to-sleep delirium when little jolts keep sparking you into reality, only to slump back to somnolence as the movie drains life and reason from you.” This is cut completely.

“Plywood characters totter through Bava’s puppet theater, crossing from day to night in a single cut, wielding candelabras that cast impossible shadows (how can a light source cast its own shadow?), spouting wooden dialogue from their wooden lips, with only the invading force of Satanism offering any recognizable human vivacity. Steele’s witch is not only fully justified in her revenge, as established in scene one, she’s the only figure with meat on her bones (and we see how it gets there, in a gruesome “re-incarnation” which renders the word literally): getting back into the skin. Exacting her pound of flesh.” Gone: anything that addresses the “flaws” in Bava’s filmmaking is unacceptable, I suspect.

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But enough nit-picking, here’s the response of co-author Jennifer Matsui ~

“Fangoria’s grease pencil doodles on the margins, which somehow made its way into the final draft, failed to deliver either clarity or brevity to the final product. Instead, we get a somewhat clunking, rhythmless hot mess mimeograph of the original. This version has visible Cheetoh stains over the once legible prose, as if some suburban dungeon master was tasked with the editing job after replying to a “Make money at home” banner ad on Craig’s List. Stare at them long enough, and you’ll start to sprout visible shoulder blade and knuckle hairs.”

The Taking of Studley Constable

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by dcairns

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One could wish that author Jack Higgins had invented a Norfolk village with a less silly name than Studley Constable as the setting for his war adventure The Eagle Has Landed, or that Tom Mankiewicz, adapting it, had switched the location to somewhere with more dignity. Scratby, perhaps, or East Runton.

The John Sturges movie based on the book must have seemed a bit old-fashioned in 1976, but as I recall there was a certain market for that kind of thing at the time, as an alternative to the prevailing direction of Hollywood cinema — the IMDb’s list of ten “most popular” films for that year doesn’t feature a lot of romance — things tend to end as they do for Kong and Dwan, or Travis and Betsy, or Sissy Spacek and bucket guy — making Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland — the English rose and the ungulate Casanova — the screen’s sexiest couple of ’76. She even consented to do clothed scenes, but only because they were essential to the plot.

They genuinely are good together. Sutherland plays one of those sympathetic IRA men beloved of Hollywood (in a film crowded with sympathetic Nazis), and Agutter is twenty-five playing “almost nineteen,” a village girl smitten with the romantic newcomer. And she sells it. I don’t know if that was a difficult task — maybe she just defocussed her eyes and imagined chocolate eclairs — but she seems to be spectacularly interested in everything that dribble of a face is doing. Fiona finds Sutherland devilishly attractive, in a deeply weird way. The scene where he orders a bartender to suck his thumb had her all a-tremble.

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While Sutherland has never really mastered an accent in a film, and essays an extreme and wonky brogue here,  he does have fun in the role, grinning satanically and boozing a lot. He’s the only one with good dialogue. And he’s the best Irish Nazi since Stephen Boyd in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. Michael Caine (Jewish Nazi) tries to talk in a slightly clipped way suggestive of being German, and Robert Duvall (another no-hoper when it comes to accents, except for a rather good blue-collar New York which I was surprised to discover wasn’t his native idiom) lays it on thick, though not as badly as he would playing Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION the same year. I would love to see a movie where Sutherland does his FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY English, and Duvall does his Watson, but I think I should go mad watching it.

Caine has a line near the end about no longer driving events but being driven by them, and it’s very apt indeed, but it could apply to everything that happens in this movie from the start. Plot dictates every move, and people keep shifting out of character to allow the plot to get done. Jenny Agutter becomes a murderer — WHAT? Larry Hagman (very amusing) is at least set up as a knucklehead desperate for glory, but that’s an example of a character being machine-tooled and dropped into position to fulfill a narrative function. Spectacular accidents occur in order to move things along more briskly.

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The whole thing is swiped from …WENT THE DAY WELL? which is a much better movie. Higgins even began his novel in a post-war English graveyard, like Cavalcanti’s film, though fortunately the movie dispenses with this pilfered prologue. What Higgins added is the Churchill kidnap plot, which makes it high-concept, and the idea of the Germans as heroes, which is dicey at best. Proving that Caine’s character isn’t anti-semitic in an introductory scene smacks of special pleading, and the efforts to make Duvall’s Colonel likable count for nothing — he would have been just as effective as a bastard, since what the audience cares about is What Will Happen? We aren’t, after all, rooting for the Nazis to win, we are merely concerned by a scheme.

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Higgins reports (in his foreword to the book) that he did encounter resistance to the idea of Nazis as leads, but says that his dealings with German soldiers in the fifties had made it clear to him that “most of them were just like us.” That should worry you, Jack!

Studley Constable (that name!) cemetery is full of gravestones that wobble when anyone touches them.

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The real studly constable (right).

Afghan Rogue

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2015 by dcairns

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Saddened to hear of the death of Omar Sharif, and then bloody annoyed by the BBC obituary, which accompanied the line “as the years went on, the films grew worse,” with a cut to a clip from JUGGERNAUT. JUGGERNAUT is an excellent film, and its director was likely to be watching. You don’t want to hear of the death of a collaborator (the fourth in as many months, counting costume designer Julie Harris, and actors Christopher Lee and Ron Moody) and get insulted at one at the same time.

While the obit stressed Omar’s being more interested in playing bridge than making movies, which he admitted himself, Lester told me he had been convinced, shooting JUGGERNAUT, that Omar would direct something himself, so keen was his fascination with every aspect of the production — not doubt stimulated by the fact that Lester’s process was so different from the conventional approach.

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We marked Omar’s passing by viewing John Frankenheimer’s THE HORSEMEN (1971), also starring Jack Palance, Leigh Taylor-Young and David de Keyser, inexplicably uncredited in a major role originally earmarked for Frank Langella, who got an earful from the volatile Frankenheimer when he opted to do THE WRATH OF GOD instead and sleep with Rita Hayworth.

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More temperament — the great cinematographer James Wong Howe walked off the shoot after disagreeing with Frankenheimer about a lens. The great Claude Renoir took over. Nice to be able to choose and discard great cinematographers as easily as lenses. The film is wonderful looking, with plenty of helicopter shots showing off the unique locations, and inventive diopter tricks to allow Frankenheimer to indulge his passion for deep focus. (The massively wide lenses used for shooting TV plays in the fifties gave him this taste for depth.)

The movie is set — and shot — in Afghanstan and is thus an unusual project for Hollywood — all the characters are Afghans. Probably nobody would have contemplated making it if Sharif hadn’t come along. What we need is more Sharifs. Instead we have one fewer. The main one.

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Sharif’s character is relentlessly unsympathetic and the values all the characters live by quite alien to a western, Judeo-Christian, “civilized” audience. None of the main actors is an Afghan — Peter Jeffrey has been cast because of his big nose, but his plummy accent is a  bit of a shock in this company — everyone else is trying to sound a bit non-specifically foreign. The dialogue is written in that uncomfortably blank, formal idiom used for historical epics. I suspect Taylor-Young has been dubbed, but she’s quite effective otherwise. Screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, from novel by Joseph Kessel (BELLE DE JOUR, ARMY OF SHADOWS).

I do believe animals may have been harmed during the making of this film — not so much the horse falls, though those occur — they’re not of the spectacular and wince-making order of THE LONG RIDERS. But we see all these animal fights — camel wrestling, in which the beastly bactrians snake their long necks round each other and gnaw one another’s humps to hamburger with foaming maws; bird wrestling, where the adorable little chicks have their beaks meticulously sharpened the better to shank each other; and ram-fighting, whereby two sheep-things batter each other into submission. Points are awarded according to the Glasgow coma scale.

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“Say, buddy, are you OK? How many horns am I holding up?”

An odd film, but an absorbing one, and a moving snapshot of an exotic land before the Russians, before the Taliban, before us. Probably still irretrievably messed up, but not as badly as now.

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