Archive for the Theatre Category

The Death of the Arthur #1: Le Bore D’Arthur

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2023 by dcairns

First in some kind of a series on Arthurian adaptations.

BEFORE THERE WAS SPAMALOT…

Is that how they’d advertise a re-release of the Joshua Logan CAMELOT, the first all-non-singing, all-non-dancing musical? I suppose it’d have to be.

Bunged this one into the Sony because it seemed like the right kind of holiday fare: dull, spectacular and vaguely diverting when you’re feeling dozy. And it certainly fit the bill, from overture to end credits, clocking in at around three hours which I don’t want back unless you promise I can spend them doing something else.

But it’s rather beautifully and inventively designed — it’s a big Vanessa Redgrave fashion show, a contest to see how much money the various departments can spend. Enormous, miscast and poorly staged, but splendidly mounted.

A friend once dismissed Richard Harris as an unpleasant, preening fellow, and I now suspect he must have been introduced to RH in this film (have confirmed this — he’d seen MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY but didn’t make the connection) — our regal star is curiously repellant in blue eye-shadow and the worst hairpiece of his career, simpering and mugging right at us, the fourth wall in smithereens around him. I have a suspicion he’s somehow seen Burton in the role (800-plus perfs on Broadway, plenty of opportunity) and is turning in an impersonation, but this shit plays differently if you’re a proper baritone, I guess. Burton couldn’t seem fey if he wanted to, which became its own problem in the jaw-dropping STAIRCASE.

Harris’ other role-model is surely Rex Harrison, which leads him to believe he can get by without being able to sing. He can sort-of sing, and act-sing, and all that, but can he really sell a song? Again, sort of. Vanessa Redgrave can just about sing, and Franco Nero is dubbed by a singer, so he’s OK except that he has an Italian accent only when he’s talking, which is peculiar.

The design is fab — costumes and production design by John Truscott, but with Edward Carrere as art director doing some kind of uncredited assist on the massive sets. Sometimes things are disconcertingly sixties, but this isn’t any kind of historical realism. There is no mud whatsoever. Everyone rides about in suits of armour even when they’re not going into battle.

Richard H. Kline photographs it — as he did THE BOSTON STRANGLER, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, THE TERMINAL MAN. A good man to have on your team. It’s 1967 so he does rather pour on the soft-focus, but only in flashbacks, and the zoom lens is slightly too active. And his director is no help, I fear. But he’s got lots of great stuff to photograph, and it’s EVERYWHERE, so he can hardly go wrong. Dig those snowy forest sets!

Apart from the direction, the editing seems like the weak spot, and not just because of the interminable length (long film’s aren’t badly edited, they’re just LONG). Poor continuity on facial expressions between wides and close shots, which you can’t really get away with — what else are we supposed to be looking at? That fireplace? Well, possibly, it’s very nice. I don’t rate continuity as supremely important — pre-codes tend to be very dodgy in this dept, and I love those — but it’s an issue here, and lets down the splendiferous effect the other departments are striving to achieve. Harris crosses a room, monologuing insufferably, without moving his lips. There’s one nice bit, where Redgrave is intercut on a swing, a see-saw, and bouncing on a blanket, which is proper sixties cinema.

Cutter Folmar Blangsted did RIO BRAVO, and a lot of other films for a lot of other big directors — too many, in fact. One notices that none of them asked him back, and one has to wonder why not? Why do the titles play over a misty forest, then fade to black, then fade up again on the same scene?

Alan Jay Lerner’s misogyny problem is ongoing, so Guinevere is a horrible character who not only cuckolds Arthur (who can blame her?) but provokes a bunch of jousts to get Lancelot hurt, before she even knows him. Merlyn (sp) is Laurence Naismith, which is fine indeed, but is given the biggest delayed entrance in screen history — except they bugger this up by throwing him into the first scene, with his ball-bearing eyes and shoulder-owl. Madness.

David Hemmings turns up after the intermission to liven things up — so we get a preen-off between him and Harris, which is entertaining, and if you don’t find it so, you can pass the time counting the highlights in DH’s hair. Mordred is from Scotland in this version, but we’re not worrying about accents. If we started doing that, Lancelot would be screwed. But he gets some natty outfits, leather trousers and jerkin, and a sort of highland rogue cossie in which the taran is replaced by streaks of charcoal. If you get bored counting the little squeaks his trousers make, you can count the different highlights in his dark ages hair.

The stunts are good — I usually find jousting tedious until the participants are unhorsed and can get the maces out, and even then, they’re scarcely nimble. But here we have the Canutt brothers, Joe and Tap, devising a series of spectacular falls. Not well shot, but the best tournament outside of THE COURT JESTER and Bresson’s flashy off-camera business in LANCELOT DU LAC.

In common with a lot of Arthurian romps — EXCALIBUR, for one — no sooner has the round table been carpentered into existence than things start falling apart. The story of happiness is written in invisible ink, and probably the best way to treat the glory of Camelot is to skip it, either ending the story when it’s founded, or starting as it ends, but here we’re trying to do the whole legend, with flashbacks of a sort to Arthur’s boyhood as Wart. A principle rule is being broken: NEVER try to tell the whole story. T.H. White did, more or less, but he had the sense to spread it across three books. Incidentally, they don’t deign to credit him here.

There are some surprising moments approximating cinema — Harris rides a camera crane, like Gene Kelly or the kid in IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, either of whom seems a possible inspiration. Harris matching his costume and posture with little Arthur is arresting. So are Merlyn’s silver eyeballs, but they totally prevent any screen relationship forming between Laurence Naismith and his regal charge. Logan failing to ever put them in a set-up together is also a contributing factor.

It’s not even a good PLAY, at least for screen purposes — servants are continually introduced as a series of Basil Expositions, so we get alluring moments of Estelle Winwood and the like flashed across the screen, only for them to vanish forever leaving us with the mismatched leads.

Did Vanessa Redgrave invent ugly-crying? She does it all through one scene here, and it’s a blast of the New Realism but maybe that doesn’t belong in this MYTHOLOGICAL MUSICAL? And even if we welcome it in, it could stand some modulation. Looking at someone gurning wetly for minutes on end is rather a strain.

You have to respect the scale of a production that can even manage to get Richard Harris out of bed before dawn.

For all that — and more, much more — the film at least does have some idea of what the idea of Camelot means to it — peace and civilisation and that — which comes to clarity in the final scene, “for one brief shining moment,” the rather mad ending where Harris does the latest in a long line of reprises — none of Lerner & Loewe’s songs is that catchy but that one got earwormed into me like a corkscrew through sheer force of repetition — and Arthur gets his inspiration back and the film abruptly STOPS. One would usually expect a battle or something, but I suppose that wouldn’t work here, after a song about peace and civilisation.

“Too much beauty is disgusting,” said Bresson, brilliantly, a filmmaker who also tackled this story, or a chunk of it. I didn’t get that surfeit-of-pudding nausea, though, maybe because the gorgeous design was the only thing to hang onto.

CAMELOT stars Dumbledore; Isadora Duncan; Django; Dildano; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Argos; Hold Me Touch Me; and Miles Gloriosus (uncredited).

Shrew Business

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2022 by dcairns

Last time I saw Zefferelli’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW it was on VHS, so when I found a DVD cheap at my favourite charity shop (St Columba’s Bookshop) I acquired it for my Z shelf.

I hadn’t realized that FZ’s career was so odd — something called CAMPING in 1957, lots of theatre and TV, and then SHREW as an abrupt superproduction, produced by the Burtons, cinematically speaking coming out of nowhere.

Having made an extra on THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD I could see where Burton had scooped up the English-language script contributor for his first film as co-producer, ex-black ops commando trainer Paul Dehn, and where he’d recruited Michael Hordern. But I figure Zeffirelli had also seen A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, as proof that Hordern could do farce — both movies have scenes of characters rehearsing their plans in parallel alleyways, with the director cutting back and forth. And both use houses with big central spaces surrounded by a gallery with a stair, staging action on both levels…

Victor Spinetti also comes from Lester; Alan Webb from Welles (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, “Jesu, the days that I have seen.”)

Anyway, it’s fun. There are matte paintings done in almost renaissance style, beautiful sets, what is known as lustiness, and a nice moment where Michael York’s soliloquizing draws curious stares from Paduan street characters, as if they’ve never seen anyone do Shakespeare before.

The filmmakers’ solution to the plays more noxious qualities is, basically, to say, “Well, we’ve cast the stars of the twentieth century’s greatest love story, so there can be no question that this is a beautiful romance.” All evidence of torture and gaslighting to the contrary. Burton getting Taylor to say the sun is the moon is uncomfortably similar to the way he gets John Hurt, at the far end of the Rich career, to agree with him how many fingers he’s holding up, in 1984.

The script is quite impressive, since it contains several scenes Shakespeare didn’t think to include, and the characters go on talking in them, as if the blank verse was available. I can imagine Suso Cecchi D’Amico just deciding there needs to be a seen where Petruccio destroys Kate’s bed, and leaving Dehn to figure out what they can say to each other while it’s happening. Hordern can rhubarb amusingly while waiting for the next pentameter. Zeffirelli seems to have told him to wave his arms around in an Italiante fashion, which sits oddly on his frame, but shows off his nice long sleeves.

Burton can combine sonorous versifying with low comedy. Taylor’s fishwife screech is textually justified, as it was in VIRGINIA WOOLF. Her violet eyes get a lot of extreme closeups. Her husband’s bloodshot orbs do not rate such inspection.

Zeffirelli the misogynist (in the editing room, he would say “Cut to the bitch”; women who have abortions should be executed) probably saw no reason to question the four-hundred-year-old play’s sexual politics. It’s funny until the wedding, even with the discomfort of it being a forced marriage as far as Taylor’s Kate is concerned, and then not too funny once the torture starts. Taylor is given some quiet moments early on where she can suggest some attraction towards Burton’s brawling drunkard. And when she falls in line eventually she can hint that this is a fun game to play, master and slave. Can’t escape the problem that she’s been forced into it, though. At the end, they at least manage to make some suspense. Maybe one effect of the passage of time is that the servants are now the most appealing characters.

The Fairbanks-Pickford version was mocked for the credit “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” This one has a jokey but far more respectful title:

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW stars Cleopatra; Thomas Becket; Glaucus; Major Grapple; Joe Beckett; Master Shallow; Max Kalba; D’Artagnan; and Foot.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #5b

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2022 by dcairns

OK, I’ll finally be finished with Branagh now.

The second appearance of Old king Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh’s looooooooong HAMLET has a few things I like in it. But is terrible. Let’s see if we can find out why!

I do not hate the intercutting of Hamlet in fast tracking shot with quick cuts of earthly eruptions — it’s kind of an illustration of the text, it creates a visceral excitement. It’s a forced, hammy excitement, in my view, but I can see how other people might dig it. Thrown into the Cuisinart are also quick shots of the big corpse lying in state and so on. Straight-up illustrating what the character’s talking about is the coward’s way out when it comes to Shakespearian cinema, but I will admit, we can follow what Hamlet is on about.

It’s not at all clear that Hamlet Jr. is following Hamlet Sr., or that he has any good reason to think he’s trotting in the right direction. But apparently he is.

Then there’s a spooky moment with Brian Blessed’s disembodied voice, heavily electronically treated, as Hamlet looks around an empty glade. Acceptable, except for the voice — given the setting, a more or less NORMAL voice that cannot be PLACED would be more authentically scary.

And then Branagh attempts a jump scare by having the ghost appear out of nowhere, grab Hamlet, and fling him into a tree. For no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.

The TV sketch show Spitting Image had a strange influence on the world — it may have actually influenced the UK public’s view of its politicians (sadly, not always in the way intended — and it also caused Greta Scacchi to refuse to go nude in THE PLAYER after they did a sketch pointing out how she was always naked, and suggesting (satirically — and quite untruthfully) that she insisted on this. Robert Altman was apparently pretty shitty about her refusal.

The show also spoofed Brian Blessed as an actor who likes shouting. They had writer John Mortimer, in puppet form, pitching a show where BB would play a very quiet man. “Who SHOUTS all the time? I love it!” roars the puppet Blessed. “No, no, he’s very soft-spoken!” “Then why is he always SHOUTING?”

I have a vague theory that either Branagh or Blessed saw this and thought it would be great to cast BB in something where he only whispers, to show his versatility. Unfortunately (1) Gielgud had beaten them to it and (b) Gielgud gains power by his whisper, he becomes more dominating, and Blessed loses power. Plus the fact that it’s a very enunciated, very loud STAGE whisper, and electronically treated, makes it rather silly. And one-note.

All the theatrics have nothing to do with psychology, or any credible notion of the supernatural and its rules within this story world. And I don’t know, but on a basic level a fat ghost feels wrong. (In the Olivier, the ghost is erect, straight up and down, but Hamlet’s father, in flashback, is a bit rolly-polly).

Brian Blessed for Player King. Charlton Heston as Ghost. There, fixed it.

We are being asked to believe that Julie Christie was married to Brian Blessed and then was won away by Derek Jacobi. These relationships raise a lot of questions the movie/play can’t answer. It’s probably quite helpful if Claudius is a good-looking guy, sexy, and maybe Hamlet Sr. is noble-looking but stern and not so sexy. Hamlet shows his mother miniature paintings of both men, trying to show to her what a bad choice she’s made. When Branagh does this with pictures of Blessed and Jacobi, it’s hilarious.

(The Zeffirelli pretty much nails this requirement.)

I don’t hate the Japanese ghost story trick of the light fading up on BB’s silhouetted face. Though I think that kind of thing works better if the scene is taking its time. I understand how, with a four hour text, they felt the need to rush everything — one more reason not to do the whole text.

Giving Brian contact lenses and ordering him not to blink makes his ghost rather… blank. Basically, all these restrictions turn the Ghost into a bore.

Random angle change! About time we had one of those. In fact, there were lots as Hamlet was haring through the woods, but they came as a cluster and you could call that a consistent stylistic approach. Here we’re in a shot / reverse shot dialogue scene and the abrupt profile at 1.39 is jarring a.f. It’s all about ENERGY!

More bubbling and seething ground, feels like the same footage we had before, now step-printed for some mysterious reason. This serves to distract attention away from the Ghost quoting Bertie Wooster, possibly a good thing. Actually, BB says “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” instead of “porpentine,” which is what we have in Shakespeare’s text. I suppose this is OK. “He clearly MEANT to write porcupine,” says Branagh, rapping his knuckles against the playscript, whap! It could easily be a mistranscription. I favour cutting the line, it’s too amusing post-Wodehouse, and for those of us who know the text somewhat, correcting it is a distraction.

It may be that Branagh felt “I’m doing the WHOLE play” was a USP which alone justified doing this six years after Zeffirelli.

Brian’s “O list!” is just FUNNY. Which isn’t what we’re going for here.

When we get the big Rosebud mouth closeup on “murder” Branagh does something sort of interesting, I will admit — the repeated prosthetic shot of the ear, bulging and seeping as it reacts to the “leprous distillment” recently funnelled into it. The sound effect is interesting too — it’s basically redolent of a speed change, as if the editor is yanking the dial on his Steenbeck. I kind of like it, I think it could be used again in some other context, probably more effectively, but it’s an interesting notion.

Both Hamlet and dad get profile shots now. An ineffective, inexpressive, un-atmospeheric choice which diminishes the performances — perhaps no bad thing in Branagh’s case, but BB is playing this blind, stationary, whispering, and now his face is reduced to a hissing outline. Give the poor man something. Not too much! But something.

Now we get the flashback, the least effective part of the Olivier version, ported over and rendered preposterous by the film’s insistence on making everything Christmassy. Hamlet Sr. sleeps in his orchard, in the snow. OK, he has a fur rug and a fire and a pot of tea. But still, I do not believe it. Also, Shakespeare has him asleep so the poison can be poured into his ear — we have to imagine him lying on his side.

Branagh’s turn to be ridiculous, as he positively gibbers “Oh my prophetic soul,” a line that demands a certain simplicity (Just Say The Fucking Line is a good direction sometimes) so as not to sound fruity and overcooked. Branagh now cuts away to the uncle on the line “uncle”, which is just unforgivable. Zeffirelli does something similar, later, but at least the uncle is THERE in his version. Branagh is so anxious for us to understand, it’s rather pathetic. This turns into an entire flashback showing the Hamlet family enjoying a game of curling. Floor frisbees. Not indicated in the text. Mad.

“Brief let me be!” (4.28) Brian turns, I would have to say theatrically, from his profile shot to look right into the lens. Hysterical. Yes please, Brian, be brief, if you think you can manage it.

Wrong ear, Brian!

Brian’s death scene, played in fake slow motion. Awful. It isn’t any good in the Olivier, either. A fat guy falling out of his lawn chair is never going to be convincingly tragic. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Elsinore’s Funniest Home Videos.

Among the many reasons this is ineffective is the sheer redundacy of having the story told in blank verse AND show in herky-jerky visuals. But Branagh needs to liven up his totally static exposition scene. Having the ghost walk — as he says he has been condemned to do — would be one way to keep the thing on its feet.

But even if Branagh had kept the scene developing visually by having the characters MOVE, his ghastly flashback are probably necessary because the scene is so damn long. But just showing you the exact thing Hamlet Sr. is saying isn’t a solution. It makes me nostalgic for the curling.

Surprisingly, Branagh chooses NOT to show the glow-worm paling his ineffectual fire, but he does helpfully put a cock-crow on the soundtrack. Visually, the ghost’s disappearance is decent, but Patrick Doyle’s score now comes syruping into the mix, giving everything a solemnity that seems to, I don’t know, FLATTER Hamlet and his vengeance quest. I don’t think you have to see the Prince as a psychopath, though he is definitely adolescent and shitty at times. But this emotion, here, seems utterly wrong.

Branagh has a tendency, in this role, to suggest extremes of grief by making his voice go UP into a sort of timorous squeak, and he does this on “O all you host of heaven!” (6.52) and it’s laugh-out-loud material.

Looking at what this production needs to make it work totally dismantles every salient feature of… this production. Branagh the actor needs a director. The director needs a better actor. The text needs cutting. The cast need swapping around. (In the whole huge crowd, the only one who seems like he could play Claudius is Don Warrington, who would be awesome. He has the nothing role of Voltimand.)

Branagh falling face down in the dry ice, in a Keatonesque flat wide, is pretty funny. Having him say “O earth!” TO the earth is, I guess, a reasonable choice, if a tad literal-minded (“literal” is this film’s keynote). Branagh now builds to a big slobbering climax lying on his gut, spitting into the fake snow. Again, Olivier had all this worked out — when Shakespeare’s text requires an actor to build to a big climax, the camera should move AWAY rather than, in the conventional way, IN. Because we do not which to see the character SPIT. Because a big performance is acceptable only from a certain distance. This was embarrassingly obvious in Branagh’s saliva-drenched HENRY V, and we already had the example of Olivier getting it right in HIS HENRY V and TELLING US ABOUT IT. This is Branagh’s THIRD Shakespeare film.

“My tables!” Branagh briefly gestures here — Hamlet wishes he had his tables on him, but doesn’t. I think that’s OK. You need to do something with the line, if you’re keeping it. I think having him take out his tables and write would be a good choice. That’s what the stage directions say, although we know Shakespeare didn’t write those. It seems plausible that “Writing” was put in there because that’s what the actor playing Hamlet did. When he says “So, Uncle, there you are,” this makes sense if he’s written “Uncle.” Branagh just looks confused when he says the line. As well he might.

Branagh kisses his sword — a swipe from Olivier. But that’s OK. Borrowings which work are a good thing. Better than the multiple ineffective choices, blunders and bad laughs we’ve had in the past few minutes.