Archive for the literature Category

A Man Called MacGuffin

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2015 by dcairns

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A movie that starts on my birthday!

THE RIDER ON THE RAIN (in French, the equally alliterative LE PASSAGER DE LA PLUIE, 1970) began the last phase of René Clément’s career, the twisty thriller circle (though this is clearly anticipated in earlier movies like LES FELINS and PLEIN SOLEIL). The large-scale failure of IS PARIS BURNING? (which I like a lot — but you have to see it in subtitled, not dubbed, form) effectively closed the door on period movies for the director and he plunged whole-heartedly into the Now, with stylish seventies crime films, both this and LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS stemming from the pen of Sebastien Japrisot, that master of the insanely convoluted, switchback narrative.

Both films open with quotes from Lewis Carroll, which I think is more of a Japrisot trope than a Clément one, though the director’s fascination with childhood is a recurring motif, and he DID make a film called KNAVE OF HEARTS (more commonly known as MONSIEUR RIPOIS). The opening shot here seems to be a river, surface momentarily cratered with raindrops, until a bus drives through and we realize it’s a wet road — thus preparing us for whatever fantastical transformations M. Japrisot has in store.

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Our star is petite Marlene Jobert, with her adorable sprinkle of freckles and appealingly odd voice — surprisingly, she’s the real life mother of Eva Green. Jobert’s husband must have had massive tits. Jobert’s character rejoices in the name of Melancolie Mound, but get your sniggering over with because this is serious stuff — her character is horribly abused by all the men in the film, and her mother isn’t that sympathetic either. The intense bouts of psychological torture dissolve away in an oddly sweet ending, played out by Francis Lai’s hip, lachrymose soundtrack.

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The story proper begins when Jobert is raped by a terrifying, masked bald guy (disturbing male-pattern baldness that gives him an alien look — his name will turn out to be MacGuffin or MacGuffyn), and then kills him when he threatens her again. She disposes of the body, but then Charles Bronson shows up — yes, Charles frickin’ Bronson! — as a mysterious stranger whose hot on the trail of the loot her assailant had stolen (a paltry $60,000 — Bronson wouldn’t even get out of bed and spray himself with Mandom for that, surely?). Jobert’s struggle with her walnut-faced interrogator brings out her inner strength and the audience pleasure comes from seeing her fight back, growing up and standing up for herself. The sheer unpleasantness of every male character feels like a feminist point sometimes, but then the Stockholm Syndrome romance kicks in and we’re not so sure.

French trailer gives a pretty fair idea of the movie’s mood — more melancholic and mysterious than action-packed or horrific.

The US trailer is farcically dishonest, painting Bronson as a rescuer rather than what he really is for most of the film, a threat. It also commits the unpardonable sin of threatening its audience with sexual assault, which doesn’t strike me as a formula for success. The connection of Bronson with rape would be cemented by DEATH WISH in 1974 — I’m wondering if this trailer was made for a later release, capitalizing on the idea of Bronson as vigilante protector? The irony is that Mr. Buchinsky looks more like the kind of stereotypical car-park lurker than most of the “street trash” he summarily executed. But I think this worked in his favour: the rape-rescue fantasy is a kind of rape fantasy in disguise: the attraction is sexual threat safely neutralised/alibied.

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Anyway, Clément uses Bronson neither as sexual bully nor rescuer, but as a mysterious, tormenting authority figure — given scenarist Japrisot’s propensity for mad plot turns, I even wondered momentarily if either Bronson or the dead rapist might be a hallucination. The narrative is just elusive enough for that to be a possibility.

Clément, determined not to seem old-fashioned, directs the hell out of this, an object lesson in what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity,” with Dutch tilts, handheld lurches, zooms and propulsive tracking shots, swoony focus pulls and every kind of fancy-schmancy Sid Furie composition, filming through foreground objects as if cameraman Andréas Winding (PLAYTIME) were hiding from the authorities while shooting the picture.

It’s twisted and peculiar — naturally I loved it. For whatever reason, despite the international stars in his later films, Clément’s career fizzled out during the seventies, and he spent the last twenty-fur years of his life not making any films.

My Paris pal Lenny Borger interviewed Francois Truffaut one time, and the former critic repeated his dislike of Clément’s work in general and FORBIDDEN GAMES in particular. But then he called up and asked Lenny not to print the bits where he badmouthed his fellow director: “He’s having trouble getting films made.” Lenny doesn’t know if that was sincere concern or just Truffaut trying to look like a nice guy, but it’s a decent gesture either way.

The odd thing about Truffaut is that his French Occupation drama, LE DERNIER METRO, which was showered with awards in France, is a rather stodgy, old-fashioned affair, the kind of thing Clément would have turned into a taut, dynamic, visually sensational thriller-melodrama, and I believe even if he’d made it when he was seventy-seven, it would have looked like a young man’s film.

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Nobody Knows

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on February 28, 2015 by dcairns

hollywood

“In America, ‘crunchy’ is a compliment,” said Quentin Crisp, lamenting the quality of supermarket bread in the United States (he approvingly likened the consistency of British sliced bread to that of a flannel), the only thing he didn’t like about his chosen homeland.

American paperbacks are crunchier than British ones. I bought a second-hand copy of Richard Hughes’ The Fox in the Attic, and took it to Paris where I was reading it but then I accidentally left it behind. And then I found a copy in the bargain rack at Mercer Street Books, so naturally I picked it up. Distracted by other goodies, such as Mark Harris’ majestic Hollywood history Five Came Back, I laid it aside when home, and Fiona started in on it ahead of me. And the thing began to crumble in her hands, flaking to bits as she feverishly consumed it. “I feel like Rod Taylor in THE TIME MACHINE,” she complained. My copy of Hughes’ sequel, The Wooden Shepherdess, is a British imprint, and it’s appropriately loose and flannelish like a slice of bread from Tesco.

Same thing with another Mercer Street bargain, Gore Vidal’s Hollywood, which I’d been meaning to read for ages, even though the only other volume I’ve read in his history series is Lincoln (which I liked a lot. Richard Lester told me, “Gore Vidal kept trying to sell me the books of his I didn’t want to film, like Myra Breckinridge. I wanted to do Lincoln.”). And on the way home the cover of the book SNAPPED into jigsaw pieces, something I have never encountered before.

Fifteen pages in and it’s GREAT — Vidal has William Randolph Hearst sit in a chair which collapses under him, and then has him anticipate William Goldman’s famous dictum by seventy-odd years —

“But I don’t know anything about the movies.”

“Nobody does. That’s what’s so wonderful.”

I did at first fault Vidal’s prose when he wrote “Like a trumpet, she blew her nose into a large handkerchief,” since the comparison of nose-blowing and trumpetry is a banal one, and he seems to be saying that trumpets regularly, literally blow their noses into large handkerchiefs. But, on reflection, I came to admire the phrase, since it put into my mind the image of a trumpet blowing its nose, and one can’t help but be grateful for such an image.

But my favourite bit so far is the Washington psychic lady ~

“Why did you come to Washington?”

“Fate.” said Madame Marcia, as though speaking of an old and trusted friend. “I was associated with Gipsy Oliver at Coney Island. Mostly for amusement’s sake. But”–Madame’s voice became low and thrilling–“she had gifts as well–worldliness. Dark gifts. Amongst them, the gift of prophecy. I was, I thought, happily married. With two beautiful children. My husband, Dr. Champrey, had an excellent practice, specialising in the lower lumbar region and, of course, the entire renal system. But the spirits spoke to Gipsy Oliver. She spoke to me. Beware of the turkey, she said one day. I thought she was joking. I laughed–more fool I! What turkey? I asked. I know turkeys, and don’t much care to eat them–so dry, always, unless you have the knack of basting, which fate has denied me. Well, lo! and behold the next month, November it was, I was preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for my loved ones, when Dr. Champrey said, ‘I’ll go buy us a turkey.’ I remember now a shiver came over me. A chill, like a ghost’s hand upon me.”

Jess shivered in the stuffy room. This was the real thing, all right. No doubt of that.

“I said, ‘Horace, I’m not partial to turkey, as you know. Just a boiled chicken will do.'” She exhaled. Jess inhaled and smelled boiled chicken, old sandalwood. “‘Why not splurge?’ he said. Then he was gone. He never,” Madame Marcia’s bloodshot eyes glared at Jess, “came back.”

“Killed?” […]

“Who knows? The son-of-a-bitch,” she added, suddenly soulful.

Oo-oo-oo-dunnit

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on February 25, 2015 by dcairns

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THE SECRET WITNESS is a 1931 pre-code with Una Merkel as a crime-solving society dame (I know! Una Merkel?), Zasu Pitts as a hapless switchboard operator (I feel your eyebrows, raised to stratospheric astonishment by the previous bit of casting, burn up on re-entry as they hasten to resume their customary position on your face), and, most excitingly of all, a pistol-packing chimpanzee known only as “the monk.”

We open on a miniature skyscraper somewhere in a sound stage New York, its snowglobe dinkiness so perfect that it’s no surprise to find Clarence Muse as doorman. The movieness of this movie is well-established before a room has even been entered.

Funniest bit is Zasu describing the book she’s reading to her offscreen beau, Elmer, over the phone. “Oh, it’s a book about a… well.”

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When a well-heeled heel played by Hooper Atchley (that NAME!) gets plugged in the gut, a bevy os suspects is drawn into the web of the bumbling loudmouth police inspector played by Purnell Pratt (!), but it will be Merkel who uncovers the culprit. Among the mugs lining up to off Atchley are perennial yegg Nat Pendleton and his intellectual superior the aforementioned primate, a pet of the deceased who is discovered grieving over his slain master (about the only display of emotion in the film (Philip K Dick wrote a space whodunnit where one of the characters suddenly realizes the entire cast is composed of psychiatric patients, this explaining their terrifying lack of emotional response to the slaying — something that would never have struck the reader, who is inured to the calm way supposedly everyday characters in thrillers react to slaughter in their midst).

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Anyhow, later it turns out that “Monk” is more than capable of firing a pistol himself, so he takes his place among the possible assassins. Of course, Fiona and I were rooting for him to be proved innocent. And to get more closeups. We get endless footage of Merkel’s Play-Doh pan, while the versatile and emotive ape is relegated to a couple of reaction shots. I love Merkel’s sullen quack of a voice, but she’s no hairy ape.

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