Archive for the Television Category

Three Three Mens

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2017 by dcairns

To say nothing of the dog.

So, the first of my book fair purchases to be consumed was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which proved extremely rewarding. I love the film of JKJ’s THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, and this has some of the same peculiarity. As with a lot of literary works one hasn’t read, perhaps especially comic novels, one forms a false impression of what to expect. Here, the slapstick, bickering, stupidity, falling-in-the-water stuff and the good-old-days Victorian atmosphere do make up aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of surprising material alongside it, and anyway the expected content isn’t quite how you expect it: the novel was a contemporary work, so the period detail, in a sense, isn’t; and the slapstick, being delivered by words, gains subtlety. None of the boating mishaps seem like they’d be particularly amusing to actually watch, it’s all in the telling.

And the film adaptations bear this out, dreadfully. I haven’t been able to see 1915’s HANGING A PICTURE, produced by and starring one Eric Williams, which adapts one episode of the book, nor the 1920 full adaptation, which seem interesting chiefly because they’re so close in period to the novel. As with Wodehouse, making a lot of effort to create a period look seems antithetical to the easy charm of the source. (I’m not certain if either of these films survive.)

So the 1933 film, directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s old bête noir, has a certain advantage. As the opening images unspooled — a phantom ride floating down a sun-dappled Thames — I thought, “Well, this is the right mood.” That lasted as long as the credits. In the spirit of the misbegotten JEEVES films starring Arthur Treacher, which turned Wodehouse’s super-brain into a bumbling duffer, Cutts’ film proceeds to get everything perfectly wrong.

The actors are sort of capable, but the decision has been made to make one of them the straight man hero type, always having the horse-laugh on his pals. Which isn’t like the book, but also isn’t an appealing dynamic. Jerome, democratically includes himself in most of the acts of silliness in the novel, and though he regards himself as less fatheaded than his pals, a lot of his humour is about reading between the lines, so that he can show that he’s capable of being just as foolish as his travelling companions, and also that they each have the same false sense of superiority. This is so much more wittily ironic than the movie’s approach.

The novel has no plot save its journey. The film tries so hard to have a plot, it forgets to have a journey. The hapless holidaymakers basically park their boat, get out, and have misadventures with a pretty girl, her bad-tempered uncle, the local constabulary, and the truculent locals. This all makes a liar out of the title. In fact, there isn’t much to recognise from the novel — a man sits in butter and has to have it scraped from the seat of his trousers, and there’s the bit where three fishermen claim credit for a big trout hung on a pub wall. And there’s a dog, but it’s the wrong breed, belongs to the wrong man, and is used for cuteness. The disreputable Montmorency of the book, a memorable literary dog, is nowhere to be found.

The language is interesting: George (Edmund Breon — never heard of him) says “You arse” and “stop arsing about.” When he and Harris (William Austin — nope) get on their faces, the charming leading lady (Iris March — I know, there shouldn’t BE a leading lady) says they look “like nigger minstrels.” The N word does appear in the book once, also, in one of those moments that makes you pause a bit.

Purely because it’s 1933, which nobody involved really deserves credit for, this terrible film feels a bit more “right” that Romulus Films’ 1956 version, directed by Ken Annikin. The choice of composer, John Addison, is the smartest thing about it. Let’s state the obvious: to film Three Men in a Boat, first choose your three men. With care.

So here we have Jimmy Edwards as Harris, which is the wrong man — George is the fattish one. But that doesn’t really matter, except — WHY CHANGE IT? But Edwards had his own handlebar moustache, and a sort of music-hall tang, and looks good in a blazer and straw boater. He’ll do.

David Tomlinson is cast as Jay, which again is the wrong person for him to play. He can play the silly ass just as well as Edwards, and might have made a good Harris. But he can’t suggest Jay’s soulfulness, he can’t suggest that this man might write this book. The film “solves” this by removing the book’s strangeness (the bits that mark it out as by the same author as The Passing of the Third Floor Back), its historical asides, its poetry. Everything that leavens the dicking around in boats, in fact.

And then, because it’s a Romulus production, and producer James Woolf was hopelessly in love with him, we have Laurence Harvey. Maybe the worst piece of casting in history. I can actually imagine Harvey as Jay, underplaying the soulful bit. But here he’s George, no longer fat, now an unreformable babe-hound (and the film supplies a roster of babes — Jill Ireland, Lisa Gastoni, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri), and he overplays horribly, as he was wont to do when the material was unsuitable.

Chasing girls is very much not a theme of the book. Both these movies regard that as a problem to be solved. And so here’s Shirley Eaton stepping from a bath, offering a peekaboo glimpse of her sodden fleshings. You couldn’t go anywhere in Britain in the late 50s/early 60s without tripping over Shirley’s damp body stockings or her gilt breast-cones from GOLDFINGER. All of which gives hammy Laurence even more to get excited about.

So there’s a lot of shouting with these three (the book has a restful feel of “perspiring bluster recollected in tranquillity”), and a repeated tic of having them DESCRIBE whatever supposedly funny thing has just happened (“You’ve DROPPED it in the WATER!”) that certainly doesn’t help anything. And although this one reproduces several of the events of the novel, it misses the tone completely, and although unlike the 1933 film it DOES centre on a journey into the Heart of Lightness, Annikin pretty well forgets to drift downstream — that opening shot of the b&w movie is never evoked by his stodgy, static, Cinemascope shots.

(In fairness — the 1933 MEN survives only in a very jumpy, spliced print, while the 1956 one can be seen on Youtube but in a wretched pan-and-scan, which certainly can’t help.)

The best English-language adaptation (there’s a 1961 German transposition which sounds pretty bad) is certainly the 1975 BBC version, scripted by Tom Stoppard, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Tim Curry (Jay), Michael Palin (Harris) and Stephen Moore (George). They should have chased up Vyvyan Stanshell, I feel, but this is a fine trio. Best of all, they’re all deadpan — Curry plays it like Brideshead Revisited, Palin plays it like Ripping Yarns — and he’s a marvellous actor for using the frame in comic ways, as scene in the Hampton Court Maze scene, staged properly as a flashback here. He’s also the best at falling over, and he makes sure to do this a lot.

One of the few laughs in the Annikin film is the pineapple tin bit, reproduced from the novel, but this limply rendered, based solely on the idea of three idiots without a tin opener trying to get at the sugary fruit with blunt instruments. JKJ gets FAR more comic value out of it than that ~

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast.

There’s this odd pre-Lovecraftian sense of the uncanny in English comic writing — think of Bertie Wooster’s reaction to the cow-creamer.

And Stoppard goes still further, setting up the slapstick with a set of wonderfully precise tributes to the desirable qualities of tinned fruit ~

“Nothing quite like tinned pineapple.”

“Puts fresh pineapple in the shade.”

“It’s the juice.”

“It’s more of a syrup, really. It’s not exactly sweet. It’s not exactly bitter.”

“It’s the way it’s not exactly crunchy, and yet it’s firm, and clean-tasting.”

“Where’s the opener?”

Poignant!

The TV version isn’t perfect. It truncates a few things that would only have really worked if done whole, includes a few things it could have done without, and of course has to leave out lots. But it’s sensibly short, at just an hour — plotless things being trick to sustain for longer. And Stoppard is the only one of the various writers to have tackled the book who can not only adapt ready-made bits, but make up new material that feels JKJ-ish (while also being pure Stoppard, as when the careless heroes collide with an anachronistic Percy Bysshe Shelley). And of course he includes some of the strange bits of poetry and tonal shifts.

It’s pretty well worth watching, but not so much as the book is worth reading.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister — conversing of mighty mysteries too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god the have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

 

My blog saw something that night

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2017 by dcairns

We very much enjoyed the first episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return. But what was it we were enjoying? I suspect we won’t know until the full eighteen episodes have aired, and maybe not even then.

What is Dr. Jakoby (Russ Tamblyn) going to do with all those shovels? And what answer to the question could possibly satisfy us?

I guess don’t read this if you haven’t imbibed the first four episodes and are concerned about spoilers.

This is certainly a sequel to Twin Peaks but, like FIRE WALK WITH ME, it doesn’t wholly inhabit the same genre/s. The soap opera aspects are largely absent, in favour of a kind of demented supernatural procedural, spread across various parts of the US and involving various familiar and unfamiliar characters.

So far, nothing much resembling a narrative has emerged in the town of Twin Peaks itself, except for Deputy Sheriff Hawk (Michael Horse) vaguely investigating clues suggested by the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson, one of a number of players who has sadly passed on after filming their scenes). Mostly, the TP scenes introduce familiar characters and let us see what’s going on in their lives 25 years later: Ben and Jerry Horne, James the soulful biker, Shelly the waitress, bad boy Bobby Briggs. These scenes don’t seem to be going anywhere, really, but maybe they are, just very very slowly. They do kind of resembled the MISSING PIECES from FIRE WALK WITH ME, some of which are enjoyable as cameos, but which rightly hit the cutting room floor since they didn’t advance the (disturbing, ambiguous) narrative.

But, while I want those characters to actually get properly involved in the story, at the moment what has me hooked is the adventures of the two Agent Dale Coopers, one a long-haired, permatanned outlaw, possessed by the spirit BOB (it seems), the other a total amnesiac wandering Las Vegas, unable to figure out his purpose in life or even how to go to the bathroom. This gives Kyle McLachlan plenty to do, which is great news.

But my favourite performances so far are Matthew Lillard, playing a Leland Palmerish type — respectable citizen with secret criminal life — who is just electrifying, even while looking strangely like Earthworm Jim in knitwear, and Michael Cera in a throwaway cameo… I guess stop reading if you haven’t viewed episode four, I think it was…

Cera plays Wally Brando, son of beloved regulars Andy and Lucy, who was just a twinkle in the eye back in season 2. He’s envisaged as the lovechild of Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, specifically in THE WILD ONE, and Cera delivers a spectacularly mean takedown of Brando’s more windy improvisatory moments from his late work. That combination of wistful musing on the surface, fatuous pontification by way of content, and an undercurrent of desperate what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-say-next panic. With a convincing copy of Brando’s whistling lisp. We found it rather fine.

A friend said he found Harrison Ford’s appearance in the trailer for THE FORCE AWAKENS kind of dispiriting — “Just a reminder of your own mortality.” I guess because we’d been seeing Ford grow old and that was OK, but our memories of Han Solo were still young. Many of the cast of TP are still firmly associated with their roles in the show and little else — plus three of them have died since filming this. So there’s a certain amount of non-diegetic sadness floating around this show. I’d have been happy if they’d deleted a line of dialogue about Miguel Ferrer looking unwell. If Ferrer tried to act malaise, it didn’t come across, because the poor man looks unwell all the time here. But it’s still good to see him as Albert. Some kind of guardian angel allowed Lynch to make this just before the world lost Albert and Dr. Hayward and the Log Lady.

Between science and superstition…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , on May 19, 2017 by dcairns

Perchance to Dream is a real good Twilight Zone episode directed by Robert Florey, written by Charles Beaumont and starring Richard Conte.

“This is terrifying! This is horrible!” declared Fiona during the first half. And it’s really bare-bones stuff, the cheap sets doing their work, sinking into the background so it’s all just Conte, a terrific, forceful performer, delivering Beaumont’s lines. A typical Zone scenario — an ordinary, innocent man, caught in a nightmare. In this case, maybe literally. The Lovecraft/Machen-like sense that our world is a facade behind which may lurk dreadful things seems to work really well with the pasteboard office environment. The New York we see from the window is a blow-up photograph. But what goes on behind it? Eldritch things, plotting our doom? Or Rod Serling, having a quiet smoke? And which is worse, from the point of view of Conte’s character?

In the second half, we get more of a clear sense of what Conte is so afraid of, and Florey gets to strut his stuff, with Dutch tilts, fancy diffusion, faux expressionist production design — and it isn’t remotely scary anymore. It’s seriously cool. But not scary.

Nevertheless: “That was a really good one!” declared Fiona.

But I had a hankering for the pop-expressionist second half to be grafted onto a whole new opening, and for the stark opening to be given a conclusion equally bleak and dowdy. Then we’d have TWO really good ones.