Archive for the Politics Category

Sacrifice

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2016 by dcairns

quit

Regular Shadowplayer Mark Medin sent me this 1926 ad/announcement by one John McDermott who, true to his word, never lifted megaphone to mouth again. Harold never called. I thought it would make a nice little item for The Late Show which, characteristically, is running past its alotted week…

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We also watched THE 300 SPARTANS, believing it to be the last film by cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté. It isn’t, but it’s a very late one, followed briskly by SEVEN SEAS TO CALAIS, ALIKI MY LOVE, and a massive coronary. I’d had quite good reports of SPARTANS via chum David Wingrove, who characterised it as an unusually literate and intelligent peplum. True — that doesn’t quite turn it into a wholly dignified, proper film — it’s still a peplum. But a peplum with pep.

Lots of Brit acting talent to give it “class” — David Farrar of all people plays the dastardly Xerxes, and for once seems to be enjoying himself. “He’s a terrible actor,” pronounced Fiona, which is pretty severe but pretty true. I have to acknowledge that the one film he’s genuinely good in, THE SMALL BACK ROOM, could still be improved (great though it is) by the casting of any other Brit leading man of the era. Kenneth More wouldn’t be any worse, though less handsome. Dirk Bogarde would be better, David Niven would be better, Roger Livesey would be totally wrong but vastly better…

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But anyway, he’s a decent pantomime villain here, and then there’s Ralph Richardson, who has evidently shot all his scenes in the studio, necessitating overdubs to explain why he’s somehow always indoors. After hearing Ralph debating Laurence Naismith (whose presence along with Kieron Moore and certain Greek locations gives it all a very Harryhausen feeling) it’s a shock to have yank Richard Egan dumped in our lap like a giant concrete bicep.

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But as the movie develops, you get used to him. I can’t say I ever worked up any kind of rapturous pleasure at his screen appearances, but I grew accustomed to his face, to the extend that I would have been sincerely sorry if, say, Donald Houston had bitten it off or something.

The story itself is martial, stirring, hawkish stuff, but it slightly soft-pedals the brutality of the Spartans and does a goodish job of presenting them as characters we should support (although the emphasis on Persia being a “slave empire” is undercut by young Barry Coe, i think it is, promising to bring back a flock of Persian slaves for cutie Diane Baker. Face it, everyone in history is awful).

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“About your Immortals, sire. We might have to change the name.”

The whole time I was watching, I was imagining little Frank Miller seeing this innocent, rather noble entertainment, which even manages a bit of emotion, as an awestruck kid, and then years later giving us his comic 300, and thence the movie 300, which dehumanizes, brutalizes and stupidifies the original on every level. The remake LOOKS nice, in its way, but it’s a horrible, fascistic, mean-spirited thing. A film for our times. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zack Snyder becomes Trump’s Riefenstahl.

Guillotine Spirit

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2016 by dcairns

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I am seriously way behind in my viewing of the late Andrzej Wajda’s work, to the extent that I’m too embarrassed to even tell you. But last time I was in New York I got to rampage through the Criterion Collection’s famous cupboard, and emerged clutching a DVD of DANTON (as well as a sack of other stuff, of course: I’m Scottish, I like fee stuff). Then all that remained was to watch it, which of course took a very long time indeed to get around to (also embarrassing). But I finally did it, and was not disappointed. Catching up with the film seemed even more belated since I can remember it coming out in 1983. I can’t remember why I didn’t see it then — maybe I only heard about it in a review of the year’s best films, or something.

Amusingly, the film begins where Rex Ingram’s SCARAMOUCHE ends, at a Parisian checkpoint at the time of the Revolution. We’re thrust into an alien world, a society in inexplicable turmoil, an effect created largely by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle’s costumes and Jean Podromides’ music. The costumes transport a lot of real French locations back in time, as well as contributing to a sense of the grotesque, of puppet-show. The music transports us – where? Into a kind of nightmare.

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I love tarpaulins. The sight of Madame Guillotine under her hood makes, on the one hand, a fairly bold and obvious form of Dramatic Foreshadowing when Gerard Depardieu’s Danton looks wistfully at it at the start. But it’s also just a beautiful image, ominous and shrouded and made unfamiliar. See also THE DEVILS for the best tarp ever, and the sheeted heap of furniture in LAST TANGO IN PARIS. We used a tarp for budgetary reasons in my recent short but we got it wrong, hanging it like a drap rather than bulking it out with underneath stuff to make it a mystery. A hanging curtain adds mystery, but a hanging tarp looks like a cost-saving device, which it was.

Ancient wheelchairs and printing presses and briefcases and other action props!

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You have to get over the fact that some of the cast is acting in French and some in Polish, dubbed. Wojciech Pszoniak (dunno) plays Robespierre, the other half of the drama, and it’s in the scenes with Depardieu that you most notice lip-flap. The actor dubbing him is great, you believe it’s his voice, but clearly the facial shapes made by Polish do not resemble those made by French and so the mismatch of plosives and fricatives is pretty glaring. But it’s a small irritation in a grand scheme.

Robespierre: thin hair, thin lips, thin blood, feverish. Contrasting with the fleshiness of Depardieu, who is mid-morph between his early sculptural beauty-or-is-it? period (face like a nest of elbows) to his later bulbous eruption. This is actually his most humanoid phase.

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The slomo decapitations at the end are decently staged, and the powerful score lifts the sequence into the stratosphere, but the inevitability of the sequence works against it slightly — but Wajda has an ace up his sleeve, cunningly planted earlier, allowing the true ending of the film to be a thrilling, terrifying fade to white on a child’s face, as the credits role. This is savagely brilliant filmmaking, sidestepping the literal-minded and taking us into a startling poetry.

Hmm, maybe a slightly worrying film to watch at this particular historical moment: a reminder that stuff like this happens periodically (in fact, always seems to be happening somewhere).

Scaramouche / Scaramouche

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by dcairns

Can you do the fandango?

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All the fops love me. I am down with the fops.

I watched both versions of SCARAMOUCHE, the Metro silent and the MGM talkie. Fiona bailed on both after ten minutes apiece. You have to be in the right mood for fencing and foppery.

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Rex Ingram helmed the 1923 version, starring his discovery Ramon Novarro and his wife Ellen Terry. It’s apparently more faithful to Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which one senses while watching because the plot makes sense and doesn’t depend on outlandish coincidence. Not so the remake.

Lewis Stone (below, left) is in both versions. I like when that happens. He’s the big baddie in the Ingram but is demoted to a lesser Frenchman in George Sidney’s 1952 swashbuckler. (It was seeing and enjoying Sidney’s KISS ME KATE that got me onto this SCARAMOUCHE kick.)

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In the remake, the title character is actually a drunken, disfigured actor who wears a mask to perform. Stewart Granger steals his identity and we never see him again. The makeup, we are told, is created by William Tuttle. “Created,” you note. Not just slapped on. CREATED. Tuttle does that weird thing he does (his brushwork is very recognizable) where the lines of the face seem like whorls, layers of liquid solidified in the act of pouring on like thick cream.

The role is played by Henry Corden, and he’s uncredited. In the title role! Poor bastard. He actually IS Scaramouche. Granger just takes his name and costume, the cheeky sod.

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The leads: in the silent, the cast are all equally decent and equally a bit miscast. Novarro reminds himself to laugh cynically upon occasion to remind us he was born with a sense the world was mad. In the Technicolor talkie, Stewart Granger is required to play the hero as a total dick for quite a lot of screen time. He does it with aplomb. Mel Ferrer is his opponent, and the plot has been rejigged to make their backstory suitable for contemporaries. Now, Ferrer’s character is also a dick, and one notices that he’s more than usually appealing in the role. In fact, either of these guys could have played the baddie, but neither is right for the hero. They have a kind of charisma but not a likability. I never really noticed Ferrer’s charisma anywhere else because the prevailing feeling was that I didn’t like him. Being a villain liberates him.

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Kudos to those two lugs also for committing to the really terrific duels, which Sidney shoots like musical numbers, sweeping crane shots broken up with a few static compositions that pop in contrast. The business looks physically exhausting and a little risky. The final sword fight is supposed to be the longest ever, but doesn’t feel protracted, just satisfyingly thorough. PRINCESS BRIDE fans may notice a bit of business.

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Much of the deforming of the storyline seems to be intended to favour Eleanor Parker as “Lenore,” a role seemingly created especially for her (note the name). The equivalent role in the silent is a fairly small bit by comparison. But the real female lead is Janet Leigh (above), the only American cast who doesn’t bother trying to change her natural accent, and as a result the most natural player in the film (Nina Foch does wonders, though, as Marie Antoinette). Best scene is probably Granger hitting on Leigh and then discovering she’s his long-lost sister. Well-played, Jimmy! (Granger’s birth name was Jimmy Stewart, which for obvious reasons he had to change, but everyone still called him Jimmy. Why didn’t he choose Jimmy Granger?)

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Both movies showcase dramatic glass shots.

As mentioned in comments earlier, the MGM movie surprisingly omits the French Revolution, which is built up to and then dropped as an apparently still-hot potato. Structurally, this is acceptable because it allows the movie to climax with the splendid duel, but it does seem to imply that the (off-screen) King’s democratic compromises were successful in appeasing the people. The Metro version takes the more mature line that the Revolution was good but the Rein of terror bad, but this means that it kind of lacks a strong ending, fizzling out with the hero and his new-found family simply running away. But it finds a more satisfying fate for its bad guy (whereas Mel Ferrer simply evaporates, an odd result in a film driven entirely by the hero’s thirst for revenge).

A new version could be interesting. Neither movie quite joins the dots between the hero’s politics, his revenge quest and his career as a clown, whereas the first sentence of Sabatini’s book already gives me confidence that he’s working on a Unified Theory of Revolutionary Swashbuckling.

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In the 70s, when Richard Lester was having a lot of success with, broadly speaking, this kind of material, Dustin Hoffman, of all people, approached him with the idea of a remake. Part of his obsession with playing superannuated students, I guess. Lester met him and they got on well, but politely declined the job, feeling that Hoffman’s perfectionism and we might call his own kick-scramble-bollocks approach were ill-matched and bound to end in heartache or nervous breakdowns.