Dirty States

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2020 by dcairns

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In ALTERED STATES, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Ken Russell, Dr. Edward Jessup (a name suggesting both Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde) enters a tank of water, doped up on weird Peruvian broth, and emerges as an ape.

In DIRTY WORK, directed by lemme see Lloyd French whoever he might be, Professor Noodle (a name suggesting that which he he is off) fills a tank with weird broth,  possibly Peruvian for all I know, and tries to entice his butler to bathe in them. But before this can happen, Oliver Hardy (for this is a Laurel & Hardy short) falls in and emerges as an ape.

The name of Professor Noodle’s butler is… JESSUP.

The Jessup connection strikes me as significant, given the fact that ALTERED STATES in so many respects is a remake of DIRTY WORK, only with less chimney sweep slapstick. Chayefsky undoubtedly would have seen the L&H film, so he had that in his brain and the whole premise of his script is that nothing is ever lost, all that information is still inside us.

Jessup is frequently pictured STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD.

I’m not aware that Ken Russell was a particular fan of the boys but that’s OK because what’s exciting about the film is what was so displeasing to Chayefsky — Russell’s audio-visual attack comes from a very different direction from Chayefsky’s philosophical science fiction story. Russell’s influences are, in the main, Fritz Lang silents, Busby Berkeley musicals, and bits of Welles and Fellini.

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Here, he’s also merrily sourcing stock footage from Oxford Scientific Films and Fox’s DANTE’S INFERNO and I’m not sure what-all else. Anyone know what the massed ranks of crucifixions are from? I checked SPARTACUS but nope. A shot of twin chargers at a gallop suggested the hallucination from the ’40s JEKYLL where the horses turn into Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, but it’s not from there — but maybe the shot was SUGGESTED by that sequence, whose surrealism and sonic assault do suggest Russell’s visions and John Corrigliano’s brilliant, bruising score.

Intelligent design by Richard MacDonald: the squawk box Jessup communicates through when he’s in the tank is shaped sorta like the tank. And has a funny face!

Fiona: “I would KILL to see this on the big screen!”

Me: “It’s one of the tragedies of this life that if you kill someone, you are in fact LESS likely to get to see ALTERED STATES on the big screen.”

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“I have nothing to say!”

The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by dcairns

1927! The coming of sound sends sonic shockwaves through Hollywood. When Al Jolson throws open his hideous face and emits the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” the screen’s first audible double negative shatters box office records as the public rushes to hear the rules of grammar nakedly flaunted by a charcoal-smeared buffoon.

Rival studios rushed to compete with Warner Bros’ twin innovations of synchronized sound and discoloured actors. MGM tries painting Norma Shearer with a kind of luminous wode and filming her in pitch dark sets to save money, but the experiment is judged a failure and Shearer gets an unpleasant rash; at Columbia, they go one step further and paint everything black, actors and sets alike, or so the publicity goes. An expose reveals that the cameras were loaded with black leader and that no sets were built at all.

A sound.

Stars who had been happily moving their lips attractively without a care for dialogue, suddenly had to undergo terrifying sound tests to ascertain their suitability for the microphone. “In the old days, we used to just say ‘Elbow elbow elbow,'” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “Because lip scientists had ascertained that the word ‘elbow’ creates the most attractive lip movements of any word in the English language. Of course, poor old Lars Hansen had to say ‘armbåge’ because he was Swedish, which didn’t look half as good. For my part, I’d gotten so used to elbowing that I found it hard to quit. I’d be looking into Clara Bow’s eyes and I’d say ‘I’m absolutely elbow about you,’ and then next thing you know William Wellman’s coming at me with big stick, and that’s how the mic boom was invented.”

Of course, as the legitimate cinema moved to sound, the nascent porn industry had to follow suit. Promoters raved about the slapping and squelching sounds that could now be enjoyed for the first time, and THE JIZZ SLINGER was advertised with the slogan “You ain’t heard fuckin’ yet!”

During the silent era, adult movies had enjoyed steady popularity, often following the hits of the day with pornified versions, like ORPHANS OF THE SPERM starring the Gash sisters, Lillian, Dorothy and Jenna, LITTLE ANAL ROONEY with Mary Prickford, and ROBIN NUDE with Douglas Bareflanks. With the coming of sound it was found that John Gal-butt squeaked like a dormouse at the moment of climax, ending his career, while the heavily accented pantings of He-male Jannings in the “grunty” remake of THE LUST COMMAND sent the star packing back to his native Milwaukee.

For a time, film production was dominated by the demands of the sound man. On set, soundproof booths constrained the camera, the director, and the actors. Screenwriters were forced to contrive scenarios which convincingly explained why everybody was in their own individual fridge-like box, staring helplessly from the window and enunciating at one another. William Powell played Philo Vance in THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDPROOF BOOTH MURDER CASE in which the dapper sleuth had to explain how a prominent business magnate had been stabbed to death inside an individual sound-proof box (the solution involved little person Billy Barty in another, much smaller box) and musicals were frankly a pain in the ass.

Inventive directors got around the problem by starting early, before the sound man came to work, and shooting the cast with their backs to the camera to obviate the need for lip-sync. The popular college musical FACING AWAY was shot in its entirety with the cast’s back to the camera. “All singing, all dancing, all looking the other way!” raved the publicity, and studios began giving long-term contracts to the actors with the most attractive craniums. Phrenologists were in demand.

In porn, this innovation proved restrictive on the variety of sexual positions and camera angles achievable: porn musical genius Jizzby Jerkeley’s spectacular overhead shots helped, and everyone agreed that it was better than a porn movie with everyone in individual soundproof booths, helplessly smearing their features, facial and otherwise, against the glass. The only such film made, I’M HERE FOR YOU, BILLY (1930), was not a hit.

From Hindquarters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by dcairns

A fingerprint besmirches the hindquarters of a deco figurine!

FROM HEADQUARTERS is one of William Dieterle’s best pre-codes, and I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. I think I watched it shortly before I started blogging so it got lost in the shuffle.

We screened it as one half of a double-feature in our latest Warren William Weekend, even though the film does not feature WW. By chance, the last time I watched FH, I also ran Dieterle’s THE SECRET BRIDE, which does feature WW and links up in an odd way: in both films, characters look into microscopes and see… the SAME BULLET. How did it get from one film to another and kill Kenneth Thomson in one film and Douglas Dumbrille in the other? It must be one of those magic bullets we’ve all heard so much about.

Warner Bros were into saving money in all kinds of odd ways. “Jack Warner has oilskin pockets so he can steal soup.”

Anyway, THE SECRET BRIDE ought to be exciting and emotional, with what James M. Cain called a “love rack” at its centre, the romance creating the suspense, but the concealed marriage of WW and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role never really feels in jeopardy. When Warners went middle-class, they often lost a lot of their oomph. Also, there can be a big difference between 1933 and 1934 Warners pictures — the Code has come in.

But FROM HQ is terrific stuff — part of Warners’ Great Project to document every facet of American society — here, it’s the life of the police station, so we’re in for a kind of CSI: Pre-Code — plus director Dieterle has suddenly gotten really into elaborate and dynamic blocking, with characters crossing frame at speed alla time, the camera relaying from one busy body to another, and Eugene Pallette jumping into shot like an over-inflated jack-in-the box, bellowing his swollen head off. His character is called Sgt. Boggs and that’s just right.

George Brent is the lead and his sleepy delivery turns out to be just what the film needs, since everyone else is so overwrought. Margaret Lindsay does a lot of elaborate hand-ringing. Hugh “Woo-woo” Herbert is an ambulance-chasing bail bondsman, offering rates “that’d almost surprise you.”

Dieterle also stages multiple flashbacks to the events around a killing, in long-take subjective camera shots, including one that goes from objective to subjective in a oner, his camera discretely tucking itself into a manservant’s head to look out through his eyes, giving us an actual “what the butler saw” or “first-person butler” sequence.

FOG OVER FRISCO has been described as one of the fastest movies ever made but this one could give it a run for its money. Asides from being a murder mystery, it fits snugly into Warners’ Grand Project to document every aspect of American life: this one stars the police station itself, and spends the first few minutes observing the processing of arrestees, before lingering over forensics, ballistics, interrogation, and even the filing system. Punch cards! High-tech stuff.

Dieterle reportedly hated the pace of Warners films and, left to his own devices, would happily crank out slowies like 6 HOURS TO LIVE, which is only 72 mins but feels like it’s in real time. The strange part is that when Jack Warner cracked the whip, Dieterle went just about faster than anyone else. The actors get splashed with his sweat. FROM HQ goes like a rocket, with the same amount of smoke, noise, sparks and sputtering.