Archive for the Mythology Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Fictionized

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2021 by dcairns

Errol Flynn movies are highly intertitular. After enjoying THE DAWN PATROL so much, and particularly the Flynn-Niven byplay in biplanes, we ran THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Fiona wasn’t sure she’d ever seen the whole thing, shock horror), THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Nothing came up to the satisfaction of Goulding’s flying saga, but ROBIN HOOD is of course huge fun.

Scattered impressions: Eugene Pallette really can’t swordfight. He just waves his longsword about, but struggles to do that at anything like an impressive speed. I think his problem is he’s trying to mimic the anachronistic rapier-work displayed by Flynn et al. The film is full of undercranking but he’s the one who needs it. Also: Flynn and Rathbone had a fight arranger for their fantastic duel. Pallette just seems to have been shovelled into a cassock and left to fend for himself.

The music! The sets! The film is only half Curtiz (William Keighley had it taken away from him for being too slow and not dramatic enough — Curtiz came on and was even slower but much more dramatic). The closeup of Rathbone dead! The Curtiz sadism always finds an outlet.

CHARGE is described in an opening title as “fictionized” and the same curious word is used by Hal Wallis in memos (Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), Rudy Behlmer) so I guess maybe he coined it. It actual makes more sense than “fictionalised” maybe. Anyway what he means is it’s a ludicrous farrago, but Curtiz is still prowl-tracking through sets with lots of intervening props and characters that glide past between us and the action, a 3D filmmaker avant la lettre.

The “British fort” is wonderfully hilarious. Utter phallocracy. It was clearly felt that a British fort in India should have an Indian aspect, a sense of minaret to it, despite the fact that colonialism is rendered visual in the way the coloniser builds in his own style structures in the land of the colonised. So this Flash Gordon fairytale palace is based on nothing, it’s as unreal as the light sources from below designed only to cast dramatic shadows on walls, a real Curtiz trope visible in both these Flynn movies he directed.

The fictionized end battle is unbelievably massive. Lots of horses, both full and empty. In some wide shots they seem to be tripping the horses with pits (the Italian method, more humane) but mostly they’re using the crueller Running W tripwire approach and lots of horses were maimed and killed. Niven and other cast members complained. It’s all right up there on the screen. The BBFC has a history of censoring such scenes but if they started on this one I don’t know what’d be left, the Valley of Death as a shredded string of blipverts and ellisions.

Incredible decision to cast Flynn and De Havilland and have her in love with his brother, the nonexistent Patric Knowles. And with Niven standing around with nothing to do! There’s a memo about casting proper posh Brits in the posh roles, and beware because naturally Curtiz can’t tell cockney from Received Pronunciation, and then we have E.E. Clive (“‘E’s invisibule, that’s wot’s the matter with ‘im!”) as a diplomat. He’s talking respectably, but diplomats are about nine shades posher than mere respectable, they’re so posh you can barely understand them.

I wish I’d seen this and BOOTS when I was younger and more into silly fun. But BOOTS would probably still have outraged me because its mangling of history is more pernicious (though one wonders at Hollywood’s man-crush on the British Empire. I guess we were an important market). Yet, despite its glorifying Custer, not a good man, the movie is quite sympathetic to the Indians for a work of that time.

Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse!

Plenty of forthright rambunctiousness for director Raoul Walsh to get his teeth into. The crazy disregard for fact resolves into a much more coherent story than CHARGE, even though they’re stringing things out across Custer’s entire career from West Point to Little Bighorn. As with CHARGE, the trick is to disguise a strategic blunder as a cunning plan, and remould horrific defeat as stunning victory. Using Tennyson but altering the entire significance of the battle is a striking bit of Hollywood chicanery, besides which BOOTS’ repurposing of Custer’s Last Stand as a diversionary move to save another unit pales, seems almost respectable.

This one has a proper and really good romantic relationship (marriage!) for Errol and Olivia. And really good use of Arthur Kennedy, the Anti-Flynn.

Flynn’s historical, or historized, films, are crowded with intertitles. It’s as if Warners felt the use of this old-timey narrative technique would bestow a suitably archaic feeling to the action.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD stars George Armstrong Custer; Melanie Hamilton – Their Cousin; Sherlock Holmes; Dr. Jack Griffin; Dr. Frank Mannering; Alexander Bullock; Mr. Pike; Gerald; Theseus – Duke of Athens; Minnie; Albert Miggles; Colonel Weed; Mr. LeBrand; Greystoke’s Nephew; King Charles II; Man in 1780 Sequence (uncredited); The Burgomaster; Crunch; Dr. John Lanyon; Loana; Old Tramp; Louise Finch; and Trigger.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Will Scarlett; Lord Willoughby; Dr. Watson; Battling Burrows; Sir Charles Lytton the notorious Phantom; Dr. Cream; Lt. ‘Queen’s Own’ Butler; Chingachgook; Bertha Van Cleve; Constable Jaffers; Chief Sitting Bull; Princess Baba; Monsieur Taffy; and Dr. John Lanyon.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Jackson Bentley; Grandpa Joad; Sheriff Hartwell; Paul Gauguin; Professor Siletsky; Carson Drew; Oliver Larrabee; Kasper Gurman; Arvide Abernathy; Queenie; Augustus Brandon; Alan Winters in Photo (uncredited); Babe Dooley; Wolf Larsen; Mrs Stark – Jim’s Grandmother; Mr. Cope in Fantasy Sequence; Porthos; Detective Dickens; Inez Laranetta; Duffy; and Cueball.

I still don’t know how a pharaoh talks

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2021 by dcairns

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is this giant Ridley Scott biblical epic and although it’s not ludicrous it somehow doesn’t impress either. You don’t know what’s real and what’s just pixels until finally you assume it’s all pixels. In fact they built quite a lot. It’s all colour-corrected to within an inch of its life, or beyond. Watching the extras was a breath of fresh air, suddenly things had their own colours and existence, of which they’re deprived in the movie itself.

The cast seem either clinically depressed or else just underused. Aaron Paul is introduced as a man who feels no pain, and then this never comes into play again. Sigourney Weaver has nothing to do. Christian Bayle — does he exist? His lack of personhood really comes across onscreen: maybe his best casting was VELVET GOLDMINE, which imagined its Bowie-figure as a shapeshifter with a void at the centre. In his interviews in the extras, Bayle speaks with the same gruff mockney accent he uses for Moses and which Russell Crowe used in GLADIATOR.

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses is based not on the Book of Exodus or Yul Brynner but on Joaquin Phoenix in the earlier hit. Phoenix’s confrontation with his father, Richard Harris, already echoed BLADE RUNNER’s meet-up between replicant Roy and his progenitor Tyrrel. It’s hard to decide if the echoes are deliberate, a recurrent theme as beloved of auteurists, or simply a case of Scott repeating a commercial formula that worked.

The movie is dedicated to Tony Scott, who took his life in 2012. As a tale of brothers, E:GAK is an odd tribute. Firstly, they’re not really brothers. Exactly as in GLADIATOR, the pharaoh (John Turturro)/emperor (Richard Harris) has a young warrior he wishes were his son. His natural son is a twisted egomaniac, lacking the competence of Moses/Maximus. The script’s only addition to Biblical lore that seems to resonate with the Scott brothers’ lives, in a way that isn’t grotesque, is Moses/Ridley trying to save Ramses/Tony from the annihilating Red Sea tsunami, which in this context would represent whatever depression or despair led Tony Scott to jump. But I don’t know if this was a conscious echo.

I also don’t know to what extent the film is deliberately right-wing. Scott films often seem to land in such terrain, but you can never get a sense of intent. Still, the movie is more concerned with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, rather than their founding of their own land, so the film’s semi-namesake Preminger film is not evoked, and the film stops just short of being nakedly Zionist in a modern sense.

Scott in interviews appears tongue-tied, unfamiliar with basic figures of speech, at sea in anything resembling abstract concepts. His brains only work at full capacity when directed through his eyes, and then his design sense and imagery are often dazzling. But his colour sense, which always tends towards filtration, desaturisation, monochrome, has overlaid everything in a deadening glaze. Admittedly, this would be less of an issue in 3D, and I ought to have gone to see it on the big screen, if the lovely dimensional-environmental work in THE MARTIAN is anything to go by. But THE MARTIAN was far more involving on a human level.

The dialogue is functional. They avoid making the past seem like another country, they’re trying to make it seem like wherever we are now. I’m not sure this is a good call. I feel shortchanged — like I paid for a holiday and the plane never took off. The characters don’t feel like people you could know, which would be the advantage of robbing them of ancient world alienness. They just feel like movie cliches.

The real false good idea — apart from remaking De Mille, which apparently didn’t inspire the public with the desire to submit to spectacle — is the idea of demythologising the good book. The plagues of ancient Egypt are presented as natural phenomena. Moses communes with God via dreams, and even then, the burning bush doesn’t speak. Somebody stands in front of it and speaks. The dreams are quite scary and Lynchian, but devoid of magic. And the parting of the Red Sea is a tsunami where the tide goes out and rushes back in. Well staged, but you don’t get suspended walls of water. I think, just as the public wasn’t particularly drawn to Sir Rid’s dowdy ROBIN HOOD, a dowdy, unswashbuckled version with a chunky Robin, they weren’t enchanted by the idea of a Red Sea that doesn’t part, but just goes away.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS stars Patrick Bateman; Tom Buchanan; Barton Fink, Jesse Pinkman; Orson Krennic; Lucrecia Borgia; Ellen Ripley; Mahatma Gandhi; Halliday 7 Years Old; Freysa; Maya; Shansa; Saladin; Selyse Baratheon; Qotho; and Spud.

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.