Archive for the Science Category

Plasterworks of the cinema

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2016 by dcairns


Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.

The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.


On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.

Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.

Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.


The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.

But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.


What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.

The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.


Please Switch Off Your Mobile Devices

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2016 by dcairns


After an unremarked-on but presumably traumatic absence, The Forgotten returns to haunt your monitors with a striking artifact from 1916, the Kraziest serial you will ever see, Jacques Feyder’s THE CLUTCHING FOOT.

Over at The Notebook.

A Throat in his Frog

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by dcairns


Chuck Jones (director) and Michael Maltese’ (writer) ONE FROGGY EVENING has one of the lamest titles ever stickered to the front end of a cartoon, but it’s an undying masterpiece just the same. Of its many striking qualities, its uniqueness is a major one — it isn’t like anything else Jones, or Warner Bros, ever attempted. Since I learned in school that you can’t have levels of uniqueness — something is either unique or it isn’t — the peculiar feel of this film must be attributed to its being unique in multiple ways, surely?

It’s wordless. While Hanna & Barbera at MGM were happy to go mute with their Tom & Jerries, but Warners cartoons enjoyed the verbal element, even if the scripts depended less on wit than on speech impediments and abrasive accents. But Jones also made FEED THE KITTY, in which both main animal characters are non-verbal, and the Roadrunner/Coyote series, wordless save for the infinite supply of labelled crates and instruction manuals from the Acme Corporation, and the equally infinite supply of hand-written placards, suited to every occasion, which Wile E. can produce from the limitless expanse behind his slender back, as required. So wordlessness can’t be part of OFE’s individual spark, can it?

But there is a particular quality to the silent-movie approach in this one. The frog sings — the humans make no sound. This inverts the pattern of FEED THE KITTY which, with unusual realism, featured a talking housewife and a bulldog and kitten without the gift of language. The fact that the many words heard in OFE are lyrics, sublimely irrelevant to whatever situation they’re sung in, adds a further absurdity.


Jones began his cartooning career with an obsessive quest for cuteness and sweetness, which the raucous atmosphere of Termite Terrace eventually exorcised from him. He could still access it when appropriate, but it would now be leavened with more abrasive elements — FEED THE KITTY is very sweet-natured, on one level, but scores its biggest laughing sequence with the cruel jape that the big dog thinks his feline friend has been diced up and baked into cookies. It’s maybe the one film that can make me laugh and cry at the same time.

But OFE is set in a world without sweetness. A seemingly contented demolition worker discovers, sealed within the cornerstone of a building he’s razing, a singing frog. He’s convinced this will make his fortune. But the frog sings only to him. All his attempts to monetize the amphibian result in his gradual destruction — humiliation, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration. Finally he deposits the frog within a fresh cornerstone, all set to ruin some poor workman of the future.


Like Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, OFE revolves around a central conceit which refuses to define itself. Neither symbol nor allegory, Michigan J. Frog, as he was eventually christened, remains his own man. It’s interesting to enumerate things he might represent, but his dumb, croaking face stares blankly at us (like Hypnotoad!) as if to dumbly insist that he’s just a frog. When he sings, a Jekyll/Hyde transformation overtakes him, and he is 100% singing! 100% dancing! No thought creases his green brow, the music just pours out of him. I Am A Singing Frog, is his statement during these transformations/performances. He is possessed by some slimy Muse. At other times, not.


One explanation occurs to me and rather appeals: the frog as metaphor for Jones’ own talent. Perhaps he felt saddled with a gift which, though special and, to him, important, was not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, any society where men like Jones, Avery and Clampett are paid less than the president has got its priorities badly wrong. Cartooning was a somewhat low-status job at Warners, though Jones earned a living rather than being rendered destitute by it. But he may have had moments of wondering what good it was to have this talent, when the world may have seemed largely indifferent to it. The nameless demolition man is cursed by his gift as surely as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Bros film. Frog or albatross?

Of course, there’s the Freudian angle, and you know I’m going there. Michigan J. Frog as performance anxiety. The damn thing works fine when I’m alone, springing to its full height and putting on a show. As soon as I try to demonstrate it to an interested party, it crumples up. I manipulate it by hand, trying to show what I know it’s capable of, but it remains defiantly limp, hanging boneless and shrivelled. I think I’m correct in saying Freud would immediately have diagnosed such a nightmare as having something to do with a body part, perhaps the liver.

(The society of OFE is almost exclusively male, apart from some switchboard operators used as scenery in a theatrical agency, a starlet’s portrait on the wall, and a couple of matrons trudging indifferently past the theatre where Michigan is intended to debut. When the show starts, the audience is all beer-swilling men.)


When I first saw the film, I thrilled to its savagery — the relentless cruelty of the film’s one joke, directed at a character who may, it is true, have absconded with a musical animal which did not strictly belong to him, but who otherwise seems blameless (finders keepers being a well-established legal principle). The point seemed to me simply that the universe was hostile, and would reach out, for no reason, to crush an entirely insignificant man using insanely unnecessary force, for no reason. I felt Jones had stumbled upon a large and important and previously almost unrecognized truth. If there’s a slight flavour of Kafka here, that may be why. Finding a singing frog that, with inexplicable non-malice, destroys your life, is as likely and as irreversible as awakening as a giant cockroach: on the one hand, not likely at all. On the other, inescapable. It always happens and it always will happen. It has already happened to you and to me.