Archive for A Christmas Carol

Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER! again) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but his paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

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Autumn Smiles of a Winter Light Darkly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Ran WILD STRAWBERRIES for students. As one might expect, following the plot synopsis I gave them, not as many attended this screening as had shown up for CRISS CROSS. This is a shame, as it’s a cracking film. I hadn’t actually watched it all since I was about eighteen or something, and was relieved to find it as interesting as I remembered it. Also, huge parts of it I hadn’t remembered at all, and I enjoyed those too. Afterwards, one student agreed with me that Bergman can be pretty funny.

(As I recall, I recorded the film off of BBC2’s Film Club on a Sunday night, and sat down to watch it Monday lunchtime with a plate of fish and chips. And something that happened during the dream sequence five minutes in caused me to fling my knife and fork across the room in shock, startling the spaniel.)

They just showed the film in Lyon, too, where I learned that the French call it LES FRAISES SAUVAGES. SAVAGE STRAWBERRIES. Sounds like the kind of film George Clooney might have made early on, just so he could look adorably rueful about it now.

Of course, it’s not that, and nor is it a gloomy art film (Woody Allen, in his praise of I.B,, seems to WANT him to be a gloomy Swede, and doesn’t even notice the comedy in THE SEVENTH SEAL, which is at least 50% laffs) — it’s more like an anthology genre mash-up, beginning with an expressionist horror movie dream, then becoming a road movie, with diversions into teenage romcom and Kafkaesque noir (another dream). There’s even a song. And a car crash. If only it involved the Mercedes of a comedy gay man, Jerry Bruckheimer could remake this.

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The fragmentary, tone-hopping picaresque approach allows the film to segue into flash-forwards to Bergman films he hasn’t even made yet. The protagonist (my man Victor Sjostrom) picks up a bickering married couple locked in a horrible sadomasochistic codependent purgatory. In one dream, a blackboard displays a message in an incomprehensible gibberish language, undoubtedly the same one invented for THE SILENCE.

Another student remarked that the film felt very modern compared to Hollywood films of the same era — which is true. Partly this is because it rejects genre (though as I just said, it sort of drives through a number of them); partly it’s because Bergman wasn’t subject to the same stringent censorship, which meant he could get into the habit of approaching things with a greater frankness (there’s no sex as such in the film, really, but he creates the feeling that if there were, it wouldn’t be coy); and technically, the film does some striking things which seem quite new. In particular, there’s plenty of subtle camera movement during the driving scenes, pushing in on the leads or sliding from one to the other, which of course means it’s done in a studio with rear projection background. But it’s so skillfully done it didn’t make me think of Hitchcock, but of the car scene in CHILDREN OF MEN, which reintroduced the same kind of dramatically-effective artifice.

Strange seeing Max Von Sydow turn up as a garage mechanic, but then it was strange seeing him at the next table in a restaurant in Lyon, sitting with Pierre Richard and other elder statesmen of European cinema. My friend Lenick was able to overhear and translate: “They’re complaining about how things are different now, you can’t have a glass of wine and go for a drive anymore.” And then Dominique Sanda showed up and introduced herself to Max: “My name is Dominique Sanda, I starred in a film with you once.” True, she’s been away from France and may not be as well-remembered as she should be — the modest retrospective at Lyon hopefully has done something to right that — and also, maybe Max has erased STEPPENWOLF from his mind.

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Somehow Victor’s closeup makes me think of Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA.

Anyway, this is basically A Christmas Carol, isn’t it? A mean old man has some dreams about the past, present and future and changes his way of behaving with others. Arguably one reason it seems more sophisticated than that is we never really see Victor Sjostrom being mean, we mainly learn about his emotional coldness via his son. He seems a fairly sweet old stick, and it’s hard to work out why his daughter-in-law is so mean to him. This removes the caricature element of Dickens and replaces it with Bergman’s more nuanced sense of sliding sympathies. It’s a proper grown-up film, so I was pleased that the kids today can still “dig” it, as I believe the expression is nowadays.

Things Roddy said during Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2012 by dcairns

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A specific example of the limits of conceptual knowledge in WMS is from a reported instance of a 21-year-old woman with WMS (Verbal IQ of 69) who was literate and read several books on her favorite topic: Vampires. When this subject was asked what a vampire is, she responded reasonably and clearly that a vampire is ‘‘a man who climbs into ladies’ bedrooms at night and sinks his teeth into their necks.’’ When asked why vampires do that, she thought for a bit, and then said, ‘‘Vampires must have an inordinate fondness for necks’’ (Johnson & Carey, 1998).

Fiona’s brother Roddy is Christmassing with us again, which means we’re watching lots of his favourite horror movies. Roddy has Williams Syndrome, like the woman quoted above, and oddly enough he likes vampires too. (Williams people are often musical, and often seem to have passionate interests, bordering on obsession: Roddy’s love of cranes and digging machinery is very typical of the condition.)

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“I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night. Wonder what would happen if I did?”

Roddy says this once during every screening of a Christopher Lee DRACULA film. Lee is his favourite vampire, and we’re pretty sure the attraction is the sexual fascination Lee’s Count is able to exert over every blonde he encounters. Roddy does not exert this fascination, but would probably like to. Wouldn’t we all?

“What’s that he’s doing? Is that a coffin or something? Another victim? Oh my God.”

Roddy himself watches quite hypnotized, becoming antsy and talkative only when the suspense builds. But the boring scenes with Barry Andrews keep him hooked too, since it’s always possible that something more vampiric may happen at any moment.

This movie has a fair bit of tedium, but director Freddie Francis contrives some lurid and Bavaesque colour effects, which seep in whenever Lee is around. Unfortunately, nothing but verbiage seeps in when Barry Andrews and Rupert Davies are around.

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“Is it her he’s looking for? Look! He’s rubbing his face on her face. Oh! He’s a vampire and he bit her.”

“Uh-oh, there he is. What’s happening? Uh oh. Here you go.”

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People with Williams consistently interpret faces as being friendlier than the rest of us.

“He’s smiling, look.”

“Ah-oh, here we go. He got caught – run!”

Here, Roddy seems to be unsure who he’s rooting for, shouting helpful advice to Dracula as well as to the heroes. But he knows pretty well who the goodies and baddies are. The character of the unnamed priest (Ewan Hooper) who gets enslaved by Drac is a puzzle, though. Characters who behave inconsistently are troubling.

“Uh-oh. This is the best bit.” Hooper smashes Rupert Davies on the head. “Hit the wrong man!”

I try to explain to Roddy that no, he hit the man he was aiming at, but he doesn’t understand Hooper’s two-faced Renfield persona. People with Williams Syndrome are extremely sociable and tend to think the world is their friend, until proven otherwise.

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Also, since the spread of cognitive abilities in people with this condition is quite varied, I suspect Roddy has a rather uncertain “theory of mind.” I can explain the concept of theory of mind with a test ~

If you say to a child under three, “A little boy has some sweeties, and he hides them under a bowl, but when he’s away his mummy moves them and puts them under a cup. When the boy comes back, where will he look for his sweeties.” Younger children always say “Under the cup,” because that’s where the sweeties ARE, and they can’t grasp the fact that the boy has different knowledge from them. That’s theory of mind.

When we watched ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, Roddy became frustrated by the character of the policeman, who didn’t know that Lon Chaney was the Wolfman. I tried to explain that the policeman didn’t know that fact, but no matter how I tried to express it, Roddy thought I was claiming that Lon Chaney wasn’t the Wolfman. “I’m sure Lon Chaney is the Wolfman,” he muttered, repeatedly.

“What’s going to happen now? Uh-oh, here comes guess who. Uh oh, he’s got a hold of him now.”

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“He’s not very pleased, is he?”

Tests have shown that Williams people are very attentive to faces, when watching TV or otherwise. This close concentration seems to be connected to a difficulty in interpreting the meaning behind facial expressions. Because the condition involves high levels of sociability, Williams people concentrate very hard on the faces, trying their best to make out what the expressions mean. Concordantly, Williams people aren’t much interested in cartoons. Roddy loves slapstick stuff where people without learning difficulties fall down or bump their heads, thus losing their supposed sense of superiority, but cartoons aren’t interesting, presumably because the faces don’t have enough detail of expression.

Roddy’s generally very good at recognizing people’s faces — that seems to involve a different part of the brain. He did think the CGI Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL was “that man from that programme with the horse” — Wilfred Brambell in Steptoe and Son (but what other real human being ever looked like that?), and he did think Veronica Carlson in this films was a presenter from 70s children’s show How, but that’s not so unreasonable: Jenny Hanley’s appearances in SCARS OF DRACULA did not prevent her co-presenting Magpie on Children’s telly in the seventies.

“For example, adolescents and adults with WMS have difficulty differentiating not alive into the conceptual categories of dead, inanimate, unreal, or nonexistent.” The Neurocognitive Profile of Williams Syndrome: A Complex Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses, Ursula Bellugi, Liz Lichtenberger, Wendy Jones, and Zona Lai, Marie St. George

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“I ken what he’s going to do — I ken what happens!”

Roddy sort of believes in Dracula, and sort of believes in Santa Claus. It’s quite hard to work out how much he believes, though. I think it might be similar to the belief in God a lot of people must have — they would be astonished at any example of divine intervention (of course there are no doubt many people who would accept a miracle as wholly appropriate to their understanding of the world — I suppose…) Roddy doesn’t expect to meet Dracula on a dark night, and he knows that Christopher Lee is an actor. Or at least he accepts that these things are widely acknowledged to be the case. He believes Castle Dracula is a real place and won’t take in any information about special effects that contradicts the evidence of his own eyes. (To be fair, Yvette Mimieux believed the iron sphinx in THE TIME MACHINE was a real structure, and hoped to visit it one day, and she’s in the film.)

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“Watch out! There he goes! Eyes start watering.”