Archive for the Politics Category

A Matter of Life and Depth

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , on January 25, 2020 by dcairns

Fiona’s always intended to see Wolfgang Petersen’s DAS BOOT but somehow never got around to it. She’s not to keen on confined spaces, water, watery graves or icy death, so I reckon she had to steel herself a bit. Thirty-eight-odd years after the film was made, she felt more or less ready, so we popped it in the Panasonic and for the next two and a half hours her face was a horrified rictus.

It’s still far and away the best things WP has made — now, I haven’t seen the full WP filmography, but would it be fair to say that apart from IN THE LINE OF FIRE he hasn’t made anything remotely defensible? I wonder what his early stuff’s like.

We were reminded that the film was sitting there unwatched when a friend mentioned it and remarked on the crappy music and special effects. I had totally forgotten this aspect of it. In fact, I had a fairly specific memory of the very beginning and the very end, and in between just a general, but very sensorial impression of crawl-out-of-your-skin claustrophobia and creaking bulkheads that want to kill us all.

The special effects are, in fact, sort of adequate: everything underwater is kind of OK (no giant bubbles the size of weather balloons), the stylised depth charges are pretty cool actually, the process shots of Jurgen Prochnow and his chum up top are unconvincing but we just went with it, and there are some periscope views and other stuff that fall short of what’s needed.

The music is a different problem: composer Klaus Doldinger has furnished a stirring main theme, which we hear a lot. Maybe TOO stirring? One of the film’s interesting discomforts is the way it makes you root for the wrong side, kind of, but to do this just by putting the audience in their position is OK, but actively manipulating us with a romantic naval-martial score is pushing it a bit. It’s also cheap and synthy in its execution, something that never works. Despite the film being set in the forties, an actual shameless synth score could have worked — think DARK STAR — since we spend so much time in an artificial, dieselpunk environment. But synths trying to sound like orchestras never work, as I’ve learned to my cost in the world of no-budget short films.

The miracle is how little this all matters, since Petersen’s big choice, to eschew flyaway walls and treat the U-boat as a real location, or even a huge, film-engulfing prop, makes everything so solid and real and tactile, and the rushing shots that race the length of the ship, Jost Vacano’s camera operator risking a fractured skull at every hatch, somehow never get tired. And, having just endured 1917, I admired the way Petersen just cuts when he feels like it, even breaking up what were evidently sustained single-takes, short inserts dropped in as required. No long-take fetish, but I can see why David Lynch picked up the captain for DUNE — he must have loved the hissing, dripping, pinging industrial hell of this environment.

DAS BOOT stars Duke Leto Atreides; Robert Schumann; Faber; K, the psychopath; Fritz Knobel; and Guy of Gisbourne.


Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2020 by dcairns

I’m reading Most Secret War by RV Jones, a wartime memoir about British Scientific Intelligence. It’s quite brilliant and contains also several anecdotes of dubious relevance but high entertainment value. I’ll be quoting at least a couple.

Jones tells the story of a couple of Danes who, unhappy with the Nazi occupation, decided to escape the little island they lived on. One of them happened to have an old WWI two-seater plane in his barn… in pieces. They constructed the flying machine, using bits of wire and scrap to substitute any missing parts. Since there were Germans in the immediate vicinity, they were going to have to open the barn doors, start the engines, and hope the thing flew.

They saved petrol for ages. One problem was that the fuel tank would not hold enough fuel to get them to Britain. So, they packed cans of fuel and, having miraculously taken off, they had to refuel in midair over the sea, which required one of them to crawl onto the wing with a hosepipe between his teeth while the other simultaneously piloted the craft and funnelled petroleum down the tube.

They got to Britain alright and were immediately arrested as spies, as their story was not credible. The undeveloped film they’d taken of German radar emplacements was given to a lab who managed to destroy all but a couple of frames (which did prove useful).

They were eventually believed and released. After the war, they went back to Denmark and were extremely unpopular, as they’d rather shown everyone up.

Anyway, by coincidence, we watched FLYING DOWN TO RIO this week. It’s not a great film (not enough Eric Blore), but the really good thing about it is that Fred & Ginger are by so many miles the coolest people in it. Ginger is a lot less ladylike than she would be later — she grasps that fuselage between her thighs like it really belongs there. Fred isn’t as gentlemanly as he would be later either. What’s great is that most of their stuff involves them expressing contempt for the film’s main plot, the Gene Raymond/Dolores Del Rio romance, and since we share their opinion of it, we’re very much thrown in with them.

It’s also neat that the movie ends with them looking up at the leads departing by flying boat (or would you call it a seaplane?). Yeah, those guys are leaving, but Fred and Ginger will stick around for a while.

Bully Beef

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by dcairns

There are some big spoilers further down.

To the Vue Ocean Terminal with its good cheap prices and recliner seats, to see a bunch of car commercials (the Peugeot one unusually inept for this day and age) and 1917, the fabled long take WWI epic from Sam Mendes.

Now, I haven’t watched a Mendes film since AMERICAN BEAUTY. I’ve half-watched his James Bonds. It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, I had some problems with AB but I thought aspects of it were good and he stole from the best (that BIGGER THAN LIFE shot). I just had too many precodes and giallos and 70s scifi movies to watch to find room for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The one that would have been interesting for comparison purposes is JARHEAD, I guess.

What drew me this time was the long take conceit, and folks saying you had to see it on the big screen. Possibly true — I might have drifted off as I did with SPECTRE if this had been at home.

Here’s the thing — the behind-the-scenes ads tried to sell this as an actual single take, which you could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be. But it doesn’t even PRETEND to be a single take — we cut to black around the midpoint when our hero is knocked unconscious, and fade up hours later. I could have asked for my money back at that point, couldn’t I?

(I did actually take my seat thinking, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like ROPE, this had one or more absolutely blatant cuts in it? Well, we never cut directly from one image to another but we do go to black and change scenes, so it ain’t continuous.)

The next two questions I had to satisfy were whether the long take thing was effective, and whether the joins were skillfully managed. I feel like you can sense something off about some of the fast pans in THE REVENANT, a feeling that digital jiggery-pokery is being worked to tie separate images together. Would this be like that?

No, in fact. This is more like in ROPE when John Dahl walks into the camera, blocks the lens, and then walks away again. Ridiculous. I mean, it’s not quite like that, the image isn’t totally obscured, but Roger Deakins’ camera goes wandering around people and objects and lets them more or less occlude the image and a digital join is effected, and I was very conscious that the camera had no reason to be circling back there other than to make that join easy to manage.

But the first question is the key one: what effect does the long take have? Is it immersive or distracting? That may depend on how shot-conscious you are, and that in turn may be effected by how convinced you are by everything.

JARHEAD was written by a veteran and I gather it succeeds in terms of convincing detail, both environmental and behavioral. Obviously WWI is much further away historically than the Gulf War, which is where research comes in I guess. And talent. This film is written by Sam Mendes, who is not a writer, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns who I imagine must be a distant relative of mine.

I think, on a positive note, the film shows that the walk-and-talk shot can be sustained without loss of interest almost indefinitely. With continuous movement, there may not be something new to look at every second, but there’s always GOING to be, and we sense that.

On the other hand, I’m very picky when it comes to realism. Seeing soldiers pissing against a wall, it made me wonder how long the protagonist was going to go without relieving himself. When he gives away his canteen to a needy civilian, I was skeptical, especially seeing the milk bottle in the background into which he could easily have decanted its contents. How long is it going to take the army to issue you a new unbreakable bottle, Lance Corporal? And do you realise you can be court-martialled for losing army property?

The test of the single-take (or, in this case, two-take) illusion should be, does it make the film better? I’m fairly sure this movie could have done its job better as a series of long takes, using cuts for dramatic effect and thus obviating the need for transforming the hero into a CGI puppet when he goes over a waterfall, or having boulders pass through frame close to camera, from behind which he will emerge in a totally different position.


Oh, but there are guest stars! I didn’t feel it while watching, but afterwards I came to think of these bits as the cut scenes in a video game — a sort of First World War second person shooter. The only actor to make a real impression on me, besides our protags, was the ever-tricksy Andrew Scott, who seizes on his single character trait like a ravening terrier and worries it to death, but he brings the entertainment and isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome. He’s very funny and arguably wrong for the film but I’ll take what fun I can get, thanks.

Some good things: effective use of offscreen space, some non-white characters, very beautiful night scenes.

But I think the film makes some peculiar choices which fly in the face of its own aesthetic. The wall-to-wall music — my impression was it coated around a third of the film — gets in the way of any “realistic” or “immersive” approach. Music is good for many things, but it doesn’t make things more REALISTIC. I would love to have heard what some of the film’s evocatively ravaged landscapes sounded like, without Thomas Newman’s very modern score.


When we meet a French civilian, she gets subtitles, which I found EXTRAORDINARY. If we’re meant to be sharing the experience of our protag, who doesn’t speak much French but helpfully speaks aloud his translations of the words he understands, how are subs going to help put us in his boots? (This film is really anxious for us to understand everything — when we enter the German trenches and somebody finds a brazier with still-hot ash, he helpfully remarks, “Not long gone.”)

That French civilian is initially afraid of our hero, but she relaxes when he explains that he’s British. Because we’re the good guys. Now, it’s not impossible that this might happen, I suppose. But if I were a French civilian, especially a young woman, I’d probably be a bit nervous of ANY lone soldier, whatever their country of origin. And I think it would make a more dramatic and convincing scene if the hero had to PROVE he meant no harm.

But the film is very committed to its goodies-baddies binary. One protag is stabbed to death by a German pilot he’s just rescued from a burning plane. Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say. The film’s frame of reference — follow two, then one, British soldiers, staying close — means it has limited opportunities to humanize the enemy. The rigor with which it rejects those opportunities is jawdropping.

It’s fine that the protags are pissed off that the Germans have left tripwires and explosives in their path, and killed the livestock and chopped down the cherry trees. We don’t need our characters to be even-handed about things.

The only other German we “meet” is the young soldier our hero throttles. First he claps a hand over the guy’s mouth and tells him to stay quiet. But when he un-gags the guy, he calls for help (he doesn’t get any subtitles though). What an absolute swine.

I *think* the subsequent strangulation was intended, along with the Hun’s youth, to make us think about how horrible hand-to-hand murder must be, but it’s staged in silhouette with another German pottering about obliviously in the background, so the primary emotion is suspense — we’re hoping our man doesn’t get caught. We’re rooting for him to soundlessly asphyxiate this Hun.

In the end, you’ll be glad to know, our chap successfully extinguishes life in his opponent AND delivers his message in time to stop the futile attack (because in WWI, it’s important to know, futile attacks were called off um lemme think for a second NO) AND thus saves the life of his friend’s brother. Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch being a bit grumpy, and his friend being dead, it’s all been a ripping success.

I had my doubts about this war but do you know, I think everything’s going to be fine.