Archive for the MUSIC Category

Art isn’t just some guy’s name

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by dcairns

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We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.

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What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.

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In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.

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THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.

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I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

Pop. Boom

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2015 by dcairns

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The two main films about overpopulation — a much discussed subject in the seventies — are SOYLENT GREEN and Z.P.G.

I have been to one science fiction convention in my life, a thing called Ra Con (cartoon rabbit emblem) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, sometime in the eighties. I was fifteen or so. I didn’t know anyone, so I just wandered around amidst my fellow sensation-seekers, a bit alienated. I went to the film show and saw Svankmajer and Bunuel/Dali and Trnka shorts, which put me in quite an odd frame of mind.

Harry Harrison was a guest, and I believe I was already a fan of his Stainless Steel Rat novels about a master-criminal of the future who is recruited into a crime-busting outfit on the principle of “to catch a thief.”

SOYLENT GREEN was screened and Harrison, an irascible, twinkly, gnome-wizard hybrid, (in my memory a lot like Edward G Robinson in the movie) spoke about the differences between the film and his source novel, Make Room! make Room! He was genuinely exercised by the problem of the population explosion. “People say things like, ‘Oh, she’s been blessed with nine children.’ Blessed! She ought to have her fallopian tubes cut out!”

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HH liked the same bits of the film I liked — the opening montage, which he seemed to indicate had been added at the last minute to rescue the film and make the point clearer, although it could be that it was always part of the plan and they simply didn’t tell him — the scene where Chuck Heston brings some real food home and he and Edward G. Robinson enjoy an actual meal “and Heston does some actual acting,” — and Robinson’s euthanasia scene. He was genuinely honoured to have Robinson, making his last screen appearance, in a film based on his work. And he made a vaguely lecherous remark about Leigh Taylor-Young.

(A year or so ago, Fiona was forced to call up the NHS’s 24 hour help line to consult on what seemed like a health crisis [and was]. The music they played was “light classical” — the sounds Robinson dies to.)

What Harrison didn’t like is the thing everybody talks about (spoiler alert) — “Soylent Green is made of p*****e!” He felt that was an exploitative, gimmicky, icky and unnecessary twist. In a sense it was put in to punch up a movie which was by its nature not so much sensationalistic as steadily downbeat. What would have made it less so, in his opinion, was deleted dialogue between the old folks, where they were to have offered up a solution — not to their problems, which had reached an irretrievable crisis, but to ours. Birth control! The one thing that could stop us reaching the dead end displayed in the movie, where we’re killing healthy old people to make room, and eating “tasteless, odourless crud” from tubes, and shoveling people up with bulldozers. But, afraid of alienating the Catholic audience, the studio chickened out and wouldn’t allow contraception to be mentioned or supported. You can have cannibalism but not condoms.

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I tried to watch ZPG once before and it didn’t take — the movie seemed lifeless and joyless, even more depressive than SOYLENT GREEN (which has Robinson to at least rage against the dying of the light). It seemed quite humourless, though in fact it isn’t…

A more sympathetic viewing in fact showed quite a lot of dry wit, it’s just that the characters aren’t in on the joke. We’re in one of those strangely antiseptic future worlds of the kind SLEEPER makes fun of — everything is ultramodern and plastic and white. BLADE RUNNER really revolutionized that view by making the great leap and imagining that SOME of our stuff will still be around in forty years, it will just have more modern crap accrued on top of it. In ZPG, the future seems like a blank slate, even though the kind of skyscrapers we see are not too different from the kind we have now.

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The details of this dystopia do, as I say, have a slight satiric bite, like the deliberately terrifying child-subsititute dolls (Super-Toys!) and the museum with stuffed cats and couples re-enacting swinging dinner parties of the seventies. The movie twice stages these soirees only to reveal that they’re happening in front of an audience in the museum, and both times I fell for the gag. Delightful. What makes the film seem humourless is that the characters aren’t in on the joke. In this world where childbirth is a capital offence, the broody Geraldine Chaplin and the brooding Oliver Reed have little to smile about, it’s true, but people do have a way of laughing in adversity, and it helps to make fictional character credible if they can step outside the seriousness of their situation and indulge in a joke. This happens precisely once in this movie.

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In defiance of the edicts, Chaplin is up the duff, and canoodles with Reed while enumerating the months, weeks, days, hours minutes and seconds until her blessed event comes due. “Are you sure about the seconds?” he asks, whimsically. “Yes,” she replies, and adopts a robot voice: “A – computer – told – me.” Again, delightful, although maybe a bit Futurama. It feels like Chaplin is making a joke about the fact that she’s a character in a science fiction film. But it’s nevertheless a welcome break from the gloom. Reed would ask directors, “Do you want Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3?” In this movie, he needn’t have asked. But there is something impressive about seeing all that bullish machismo wrapped up so tight in a civilized, repressed carapace. You fear he might burst at any moment, resulting in a dome-shaped explosion of testosterone impregnating everyone in its radius, like what happens in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

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Yay, seventies reptiles!

These two films, SOYLENT GREEN and ZPG, mark two extreme reactions to the population problem. In one, we do nothing about it and suffer dire consequences. In the other, we suffer massive ecological damage and then have to take such draconian action that the cure is as bad as the disease. Of course, only in a true totalitarian state could a “no-child policy” be implemented, and it seems unlikely to me that the rulers of such a state would want to follow the same rules as everyone else. I suspect the human race would passively, in a state of denial, choose extinction rather than submit to such a regime, and our democratic leaders would prefer a popular choice with a high chance of causing extinction than an unpopular one offering a solution. But ZPG can be seen as an allegorical warning rather than a literal one — if we are in danger of heading towards a catastrophe where the only solution is one we would never accept, dramatizing that by showing the solution in action is fair enough.

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And then they end up in The Zone. Great.

Of course the other 70s film about population control is LOGAN’S RUN, another high concept that doesn’t make much sense. WILD IN THE STREETS and GAS-S-S-S! are more plausible, and more fun — maybe one of those explains how this future history without people over thirty came to be. LR works best as cheese, with a single moment of behavioral realism when Jenny Agutter, exposed to nature for the first time, cries “I hate Outside!” like a stroppy child on holiday. Like Geraldine Chaplin’s computer voice joke, it almost breaks the film by allowing a semblance of humanity in.

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I gazed a gazely stare

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by dcairns

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The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.

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SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING

Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”

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SMILING AND WAVING AND LOOKING SO FINE

But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?

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WHEN IT’S BAD I GO TO PIECES

Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.

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HOLLYWOOD HIGHS

Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.

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AND SHE’S HOOKED TO THE SILVER SCREEN

What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.

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