Archive for the Theatre Category

Teardrops

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.

Swapsies

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2021 by dcairns

I’m sure I referred to the amusing titles of Peter Ustinov’s VICE VERSA years ago, but I can’t find the reference and so I’m guessing neither can you. Here we go:

The titles are presented as a slideshow complete with clunky transitions and mistakes. Ustinov’s celebrated wit is much in evidence, and it’s all very charming as well as funny. Better than the film, in fact, which is also good.

It used to be a truism that film’s with brilliant opening titles were always disappointing. This one is only a tiny bit disappointing. The pace is a little off and there are almost too many comic ideas to do justice to. Master Anthony Newley the child wonder is amazing though.

This is almost certainly Ustinov’s finest film as director — the year is 1948, possibly the peak of British cinema’s post-war creative boom, when even the minor filmmakers were often doing amazing work, as if creativity was in the air and they were breathing it in. The wild impulses of people like Powell & Pressburger were mainstream, part of the accepted stylistic palette directors and writers were expected to dip into. If you’re a British filmmaker today, you kind of have to be an outsider to be of any interest because the palette around you is hopelessly muddy. If you’re an American filmmaker, the problem is more to do with the acceptable story structures and character arcs, which have a way of turning even really interesting aesthetics into junk, because even a really inventive audiovisual idea at the service of banal material is going to come off as mediocre.

The other golden period for British film is circa 63-73, a remarkable run. There ought to have been another good bit in the intervening years but I’m not sure I can identify it. Suggestions welcome.

Back to VICE VERSA. Here’s a gallery:

Asides from Newley, James Robertson Justice makes a great early impression (all his previous roles since ’44 are small ones), Petula Clark is winning, Peter Jones as a superannuated school bully is great, a fellow named David Hutcheson is a great cad. Roger Livesey, who we worship, is maybe part of the pace problem, but he supplies a strong set of Blimpish characteristics for Newley to mimic (the plot is the old one about father and son switching places, this time via an Indian idol’s eye stolen from North of Kathmandu).

We double-billed it with the comparable retro-farce of ON APPROVAL, which is REALLY good.

Veevers muffs it

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2021 by dcairns

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957) shows director Lewis Gilbert coming into his own, has possibly Kenneth More’s most subtle and effective performance, and an entrancing star turn from Diane Cilento. Also, it’s a good adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, and Cecil Parker as Lord Loam brings the entertainment.

But I want to trash-talk Wally Veevers’ special effects.

The film was shot on Bermuda but there are some faked-up shots done back in the studio, for unknown reasons. Either weather/schedule difficulties prevented everything from getting filmed, some shots didn’t come out right, or Gilbert missed something he should have captured.

But first, here’s a rather good effect — a model ship founders on real sea and rocks.

It’s not immediately obvious how Veevers has achieved this. I had to cogitate a bit, which I’m not as good at as I once was. I worked out that the model was filmed against the real sea and rocks, mounted on a device that allows Veevers to move it forward and tilt it. The rocks it hits are actually far behind it, but the camera can’t see that because it photographs flat. Also, the bottom part of the frame would be masked off, removing the underside of the boat, the simple machinery moving it (a track and a hinge, and Veevers’ hands), and all the background below that line.

Then WV would re-expose the film with the top half masked off. This time he’s just photographing the sea, which will now appear to cut off the bottom of the miniature boat, creating an optical-effects version of a waterline. Voila!

Really clever. But this next one’s really stupid. I’m not sure why this shot of the ship, run aground, is slanted in a “Deutsch tilt” — I get why the boat SHOULD be tilted, having hit the rocks. But there seems no reason why the waterline should also be at a jaunty angle. There are no other Deutsch/Dutch angles in the movie. It’s nutty. I think, having positioned the ship at a suitably slanting angle, Veevers discovered that a horizontal ocean (matching the horizontal clouds) would either cut off too much of the ship on the left, or reveal too much on the right, so he had to angle it nonsensically.

The other horrifically bad job is a set of reaction shots of our extended Swiss English Family Robinson Loam looking out to sea. This is one of those shots which for some reason was not filmed on location, so it’s been recreated in the studio using blue-screen. Whenever an effects shot like this was called for in Britain, it seems the rear projection man and the blue-screen man would get into a fight about which technique was best. I tend to side with the rear projection man because I like those old process shots, and matte lines always strike me as ugly. Admittedly, rear-screen projection is a lot more glaring in colour, though.

The trouble is, only one background plate has been used for three angles.

The wide shot doesn’t create an immediate problem because there are cutaways in between it and the closer angles which follow.

But the closer angles share the exact same background, so that when Gilbert cuts between them, it doesn’t look like two angles — it looks like one character has effected a Melies-like teleportation and another has apported in to replace them. It’s strikingly goofy.

Even if there were only one background plate available, Veevers COULD have enlarged and reframed it to make a slightly different bg for each shot. I suspect the compartmentalisation of filmmaking practice, and some poor communication, was involved. Say Veevers is supplied with the blue-screen shots and simply told that they all require a rocky island shore background. He perhaps isn’t told that the shots are going to be directly cut together. Meanwhile the editor (future James Bond style-setter Peter Hunt) has assembled an edit using what he has at present, the shots of characters against blue screen. He doesn’t get to see the finished effects shots until the film is basically complete. then, ouch.

Gilbert is forced to use this lone plate again and again, but at least he never cuts directly between different characters stuck onto it again. Still, that rock assumes a Beckettian inescapability.

I’d love to be able to blame the foul-up on Sony Pictures who have released a pretty shoddy DVD of the film. But I just can’t see them recompositing the effects shots — the ugly matte lines are pure 1957. So I think we have to chalk this one up to the anti-genius of the system, and budgetary limitations which prevented fixing a bizarre-looking screw-up.E

Even weirder — we do briefly glimpse a SECOND PLATE showing a different bit of scenery. But it’s not used anywhere that makes sense or helps anything.

This makes me wonder if maybe the lab screwed up. It’s always the lab, isn’t it?

Still, I’m sure everything will be all right, children, if we all shout just as loud as we can, “I DO believe in Wally Veevers! I DO! I DO!”