Archive for 1900

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

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Falling Don

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head” — statue outside the Church of St Nicholas in Venice, where DON’T LOOK NOW was filmed. Forty years on and they STILL haven’t got a head on that thing.

A story from Philip Kaufman’s commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — he was filming the climax, with Donald Sutherland gamely staggering around a catwalk high in the air in a big greenhouse, and a mutual acquaintance approached. “Is that Donald Sutherland up there?” Kaufman affirmed that it was, and his friend, with a note of panic, cried “Don’t you know he’s The Clumsiest Man Alive?”

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This makes Sutherland’s cameo as “The Accident-Prone Waiter” in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE much funnier, but adds a frisson of terror to DON’T LOOK NOW and several other Sutherland films. As Sutherland described it to Mark Cousins in a TV interview, the scene in DLN where he dangles from a rope at ceiling level in a cavernous Venetian church was originally going to be performed by a stunt man. But, he says, rather apathetically, the stunt man “wasn’t happy about something” and in the end Sutherland volunteered and did the dangling himself. He had a kirby wire running down his sleeve to a harness, securing him so he couldn’t actually fall.

Years later Sutherland is talking to another stuntman, who congratulates him on the awe-inspiringly dangerous sequence. Sutherland demurs: “I was quite safe, I was fastened to a kirby wire…” “But you were going like this,” says the stunt man, making a twirling motion with his index finger to indicate the way Sutherland spun helplessly on his rope. “Yes, I was.” “Well, when you go like that on a kirby wire, the kirby wire breaks.”*

Sutherland actually had premonitions of doom on the movie, feeling that it was such a tragic and death-haunted tale, somebody might actually have to die while making it. Fortunately for him, that was silly.

But one of the strange pleasures of re-watching the film with students — and it unlocks fresh pleasures each time — is the number of times poor Donald falls on his ass, or nearly so, during the show. Nic Roeg has him staggering along beside canals, blundering over barges, and straddling ledges fifty feet up… It’s all a touch ungainly. Julie Christie, meanwhile, negotiates rowing boats and the like with the grace and dexterity that only the Rank Charm School can instill.

What else — ?

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Odd framings, like this shot which picks up a sinister sign-post as a plank glides across the lower edge of frame like a shark’s fin.

Constant communication trouble: Sutherland speaks fluent Italian to his work crew, but whenever faced with an emotional question or a conversation with a woman, his language deserts him. “English… English…” he pleads abjectly.

Julie Christie sees a police sketch of one of the two sisters (vacationing from Scotland, though their accents are VERY English) — “It doesn’t really look like her.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Inspector Longi (how I’d love a whole series of films about his unsuccessful cases! Maybe he could team up with Harvey Keitel’s Inspector Netusil from BAD TIMING to fight crime ineffectually across Europe). He means, “It doesn’t matter since no crime has been committed and we’re no longer seeking her,” but what Christie understands, from her nonplussed expression, is obviously “It doesn’t matter if our sketches don’t resemble the people we’re looking for because that’s not their purpose.” Whole worlds of mystery open up at that thought.

The first view of Julie —

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This prefigures the film’s climax, which hinges on that uncanny lurch you feel when you approach somebody you know and they turn around and it’s not them. I first got this with a woman who wasn’t my mum in the supermarket when I was small. (“His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed.” ~ Chickamauga, by Ambrose Bierce.)

I was in Venice recently, making a side-trip from Pordenone on a free day after the Silent Film festival had ended, and I visited Donald’s church. It’s still there, looks the same, but doesn’t have any mosaics that I could see. They don’t let you take pictures inside as they fear the camera will steal away the Holy Spirit, I guess, but I snapped away outside. And no, I didn’t see any little figures in red macs. Fiona suggests the Venice town council should hire little people to dart about and peak from round corners wearing the appropriate plastic attire. She’s right — I think you’d only need about seven at a time to cover the city. You wouldn’t want them to become commonplace or anything.

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Donald sees a glove on a window ledge. I saw a segment of orange.

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*Sutherland has another great story about shooting Bertolucci’s 1900 which left him with concussion and a half-severed ear. I can tell it in the comments section if there’s interest.