Archive for A Clockwork Orange

The Sunday Intertitle: Feeding Time

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2022 by dcairns

Before Charlie can have his full-fledged breakdown, he is subjected to an experimental lunch administered by feeding machine. I’ve dealt with this sequence before but there’s always more to say. This rather chilling CLOCKWORK ORANGE sequence is introduced by another talking machine, a recorded sales pitch setting up the idea of the device that lets the worker eat hands-free, so he can continue to labour on behalf of his employer while ingesting the required protein.

As usual when a meal is portrayed in Chaplin’s films, it’s a strange series of courses, chosen for their slapstick potential rather than their adding up into a square or even oblong meal. Soup, corn and pie.

Of course, the machine wouldn’t work unless the worker could operate without seeing what he’s doing, since the metallic dinner table of the feeding machine comes between the hired hand and his hands. But since the machine never gets adopted — “Not practical,” rules the boss (regular unfunnyman Al Ernest Garcia), after Charlie has collapsed — this needn’t bother us.

I had forgotten that the test takes place at the conveyor belt — low angles showing the technician fiddling with the sparking apparatus also reveal Charlie’s hands, their spanners reflexively and uselessly tapping up and down at the stationary belt.

What makes the sequence perfectly cruel and funny is Charlie’s dismay at the whole thing — when the machine is working perfectly, it’s a distressing ordeal. He views each mouthful with alarm, is continually terrified by the mouth-wiping arm. When the thing starts malfunctioning, the horror escalates. In THE CIRCUS, Chaplin revived the comedic impact of the banana peel by laying it on a tightrope. Here, he attempts to breathe fresh life into the custard cream pie by having it delivered robotically. It’s not quite as brilliant a conceit because the mechanical aspect doesn’t make the pie especially more degrading than it normally is, and the prop, otherwise so elegantly designed and smoothly (dys)functional, is unable to deliver a pie into the kisser with the skilled splurch of a Keystone pro — Chaplin has to deliberately smear his face around in the plate to get gooey enough. Progress has yet to supply us with an android Conklin.

But the sequence has this wonderfully chilling aspect to it, partly because the nature of the operation dictates that the scene be played in close-ish medium shot. The usual comic distance is shortened, the suffering is intensified. The whole thing is a torture machine worthy of Kafka’s penal colony anyway, but the victim’s dismay and suffering are brought close to us. Even though we now can see the actor’s eyebrows aren’t real, his distress is. With the cream pie adding another painterly effect (impasto), the tormented subject takes on the aspect of a Francis Bacon pope.

A standard complaint about MODERN TIMES is that it’s episodic, without a strong link between sequences of the kind found in Chaplin’s previous features. “A bunch of two-reelers spliced together” is the complaint. But I’ve never felt this to be a problem. It’s a picaresque yarn, like O LUCKY MAN! — it takes advantage of Charlie’s Tramp status — though he has to DISCOVER that freedom in this movie, starting off as a wage slave — the Tramp becomes our guide through different aspects of modern civilisation. Well, perhaps not a guide, since it’s all so strange to him. He’s no Virgil, nor does he have a Virgil equivalent to show him the way, unless we count the “Gamin.”

Anyway, you could in theory remove the whole eating machine from the film without wrecking the story, but its inclusion does add more of a reason for Charlie to go mad, on this particular day. Maybe a restful lunch hour was the only thing allowing him to hold it together. We know how THAT feels.

Return to Dunsinane

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2022 by dcairns

Fiona wanted to do a direct comparison between Joel Coen’s and Roman Polanski’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, so we ran the Criterion Blu of the latter, and my opinion of it rose considerably. (The picture upgrade on that disc, over the DVD my frame-grabs are from, is massive: Gilbert Taylor, who had previously shot REPULSION, was one of Polanski’s finest collaborators.)

The Coen film is a rather compelling blend of film and theatre — everything it does with its visual approach seems to me just right, building on Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Welles and Kurosawa. It does take some textual hints from Polanski and Tynan’s adaptation, building on the idea of Ross as a schemer and traitor to both sides, something not specified in Shakespeare but which makes sense and allows him to grow from a Basil Exposition kind of attendant lord into a proper dimensional character.

Polanski does something very literal, very blunt — he decides to make Dark Age Scotland as visceral and real as he can. Olivier had considered doing this for HENRY V but worried that the audience would say, “Okay, so that’s a tree and that’s a house and that’s a horse… why is everyone talking so funny?” Polanski’s Horrible Histories visualisation begs that question very urgently indeed, and also creates unnecessary problems out of the asides and soliloquies. Can Macbeth talk to the camera/audience, and if not, what does he do instead.

In fact, we see in ALFIE that an actor can do asides in an otherwise naturalistic film, and it’s a device I’d like to see tried more. (It would have been an absolutely natural thing to try in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, frinstance) Polanski has Jon Finch sometimes do quite long internal monologues, making faces to try to match his dubbed-on thoughts, something I never find satisfying or engaging. More successful, because more playful, are the segues from this device into spoken monologue, the character talking to himself like John McClane in DIE HARD (another besieged warrior with marital troubles). Polanski is always keen to credit Olivier as an influence, so I suspect this is borrowed from the similar tricks in HAMLET. But why Polanski didn’t consider using some of that film’s stripped-down theatricality I don’t know. I guess he’s just more of a realist, and not a man of the theatre like Sir Larry.

But rewatching a film is great for seeing past the things that bother you on a first viewing. Polanski’s whole aesthetic may be sort of counter-productive to doing Shakespeare, but he goes at it very enthusiastically indeed, and if the grit and sharpness are an odd fit for the iambic pentameters, they’re surprisingly close to the sharp focus of outright hallucination — Polanski seems to be using his 60s experience of LSD to give us freak-out visions that render Macbeth’s experiences, particularly with the witches, horrifyingly up-close and alarming.

And the casting of young actors, which was absurdly controversial at the time, seems like a no-brainer now. Older actors have more experience of both life and acting and can often do more than the photogenic youngsters. But what they can’t do is BE YOUNG. I think a middle-aged Macbeth could work if you play him as desperately grabbing what seems like his last chance at success, but the whole question of his wanting an heir becomes academic, an anaemic character motivation, if he has a menopausal wife.

I found myself liking Jon Finch’s performance, bad wig aside, more than before. He’s a star who should have been huge, but his biggest roles, this and FRENZY, didn’t do him the most justice, I always felt. His perf in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, on the other hand, MY GOD that is a star turn. But now I think I was too harsh on his Macbeth: there didn’t seem a single point where he didn’t have exactly the right take on the text.

Francesca Annis is also terrific: she seems readily able to seduce Macbeth into his crimes, as opposed to Frances McDormand’s Lady M who essentially bullies her husband forward. The text tells us she has nursed a baby but has no children now, but there seems no reason why she couldn’t be expected to have more kids and so Macbeth can realistically desire to see his children inherit the throne from him.

Annis looks not much like Sharon Tate but I found myself reminded of her a good deal, maybe because I recently saw Tate standing on a castle tower in EYE OF THE DEVIL.

What everyone used to talk about is the violence, which there is a lot of. It’s very matter-of-fact. The men barely react to someone being hanged or bludgeoned to death in front of them, and for the women and kids there’s always bear-baiting. The play is certainly full of mayhem but Shakespeare’s attitude to it is probably a little different — in Shakespearean tragedy, the normal order of things typically goes awry, and you get fathers against sons, eye-gougings, and so on. At the end, typically order is restored and everyone left alive is happy. A bit sad about all the mayhem but happy it’s over. Shakespeare’s politics are roughly speaking conservative — well, he had a monarch to please. Macbeth seems to have been intended to appeal to King James, who was a big believer in witches — a bunch of women in Scotland had just been tortured and killed for supposedly cursing him. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.

Well, Polanski seems to see the order of things as continuous violence and chaos, which, given his life experiences is understandable (everyone thinks of the Manson killings here, but the Holocaust is at least as important, and though RP has denied that the film was his direct response to his wife’s death, he’s admitted that the behaviour of Macbeth’s henchman when entering the Macduff family home was based on that of an SS officer he witnessed in occupied Poland. So Duncan’s reign is unspeakably violent and horrible, Macbeth’s is maybe slightly worse, then he’s killed and it looks like the witches are going to recruit another patsy so the cycle of carnage can continue. Joel Coen steals that idea outright for his new film. It’s very modern and very unshakespearean, but like I say, Shakespeare’s politics are kind of his least appealing aspect.

(The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through (The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through and seen, none of them have the heart to really take stock of the situation, which seems somehow apocalyptic.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how Polanski films have a tendency to arc back to their own beginnings, swallowing their tails — from TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE through REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, PIRATES. Even if they don’t literally end in the spot they began at, or near it, often the ending is a call-back in some way — CHINATOWN begins with its main title, and ends in Chinatown. It’s a rather despairing vision of the world, where we always end up back where we started only substantially the worse for wear.

Polanski and his co-adaptor, Kenneth Tynan, have not only moved Macbeth’s decapitation from discretely offstage to graphically onscreen, an almost essential change which nearly every filmmaker has followed, varying only in their explicitness, he’s chopped all the summing-up by the survivors which reassures the play’s audience that the line of kings will now continue in a legitimate way. Most other movie adaptations follow the same pattern, based on a reading of the play’s TRUE subject as Macbeth himself, not the crown of Scotland. When he’s dead, it’s mostly over.

One of Polanski’s most brilliant and alarming touches is the aftermath of Finch’s lopping, with his head whooshing about on the end of a pike, and handheld shots that COULD be his point of view, as if consciousness has not quite fled and he has a chance to take in, in a wobbly sort of way, the scene of his death.

At times, the film’s visual ideas clash with the playscript — when the witches say “Hover through the fog and filthy air, before they exeunt, it’s pretty clear Shakespeare’s suggesting they’re flying, as witches are said to do. Here, they just say it, and don’t even waddle off: it seems to be just something witches like saying. (The Coen film has no broomsticks, but strongly implies that the witch/es can turn into crows.) And the fights are terrifically staged by the great Bill Hobbs, but I don’t quite get why Banquo’s injuries should be so different from what the murderers’ describe in their report to Macbeth. Interestingly, when he sees visions of Banquo, some of them accurately show the axe in the back which he has no way of knowing about. But witchcraft can do that.

Deft little additions make Lady M’s swift descent into madness almost TOO gradual. I chatted with Angela Allen, the film’s script supervisor, who spoke somewhat sceptically about Polanski’s temper tantrums and karate chops (he’d had lessons from Bruce Lee and could snap great beams with the edge of his little hand), and while she was full of praise for Annis, she felt Finch knew the performance he WANTED to give, but perhaps couldn’t quite reach. But he’s physical, brooding, handsome, and he can speak the verse. And he probably gets over more of the character’s slow corruption than the other big movie Macs. “Macbeth is a play about the slow decay of the moral sense,” says Ltnt Kinderman in EXORCIST III. But he practically starts off with regicide, regarded as the worst crime possible in Shakespeare’s day. Say rather it’s about guilt, which destroys Lady Macbeth’s sanity and turns her husband, progressively, into a monster. Because one way of dealing with guilt is to deny it, to keep doing the stuff that makes you feel guilty, trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a GOOD way of dealing with it, but it’s quite popular.

Polanski faithfully stages the spectre at the banquet just as the text suggests (Macbeth doesn’t sit because there’s somebody in his chair, but nobody else can see this person…), only adding some weird special effects so that the ghost is differently horrible each time we see it. And our view of it is tied to Macbeth’s — it’s only seen in his POV shots.

(Important to keep things straight — Banquo’s ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt, which he’s not emotionally smart enough to process. In the Coen film, the ghost is associated with crows, and this with the witches. This is quite, QUITE wrong.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the witches’ sabbat, a Goyaesque bad trip. The mirrors within mirrors, a giddy fast-motion rush of shots spliced together with artful opticals, perfectly visualises Macbeth’s cry of “Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

I’m glad I got over my feeling that Polanski went at this the wrong way. I still think he did, but he went at it so aggressively he basically made it work.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Jerry Cornelius; Lady Jessica; Judge John Deed; The Bloody Barron; Keats; Adolph Bolm; King Vishtaspa; Engywook; Mr. Tupper; Book Person: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (uncredited); and Robin Hood Junior.

Page Seventeen III: Trinity

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2021 by dcairns

She did have one admirer: her uncle Horace, the husband of her aunt Nina, her mother’s wayward older sister. When the teen-aged Nina had taken to romping with farmhands in the hayloft, George Smith had packed her off to a San Francisco boarding school noted for its Carmelite discipline. On the train she met Horace Robinson, and after a brief tete-a-tete they eloped several stops before San Francisco. Months later they actually were married — or so they told George Smith.

The obsession, found in twins, with dualities–as complimentary and conflicting at once–has been termed twinning by Dr. George Engel (“The drive is always to be two, yet unique from all others.”) This “twinning” motif found expression in a number of Phil’s stories and novels, notably Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), A Scanner Darkly (1977), Valis (1981) and The Divine Invasion (1981).

So we followed him, as behind us the second man–George, apparently–busily transferred all the luggage from the plane to a rough wooden cart. The first man led us to the cliff, and then around a bit to the right, and there was an elevator. Or not exactly an elevator, but a kind of cable car on tracks, a large square room with railroad-type wheels on the outside of its slanted rear wall. When we were all aboard, with the windowed doors shut, the man pushed a lever and we were winched slowly and smoothly up the steeply angled side of the cliff.

They stepped through the door into the main hangar, George pointed to the object in the center, bathed in floodlights planted in a fenced off circle. The ship was not a saucer at all; it was spherical, all gray in color, and about sixty feet in diameter.

There were four of us to six of them, like I have already indicated, but poor old Dim, for all his dimness, was worth three of the others in sheer madness and dirty fighting. Dim had a real horrorshow length of oozy or chain round his waist, twice wound round, and he unwound this and began to swing it beautiful in the eyes or glazzies. Pete and Georgie had real sharp nozhes, but I for my part had a fine starry horrorshow cut-throat britva which, at that time, I could flash and shine artistic. So there we were dratsing away in the dark, the old Luna with men on it just coming up, the stars stabbing away as it might be knives anxious to join in the dratsing. With my britva I managed to slice right down the front of one of Billyboy’s droogs platties, very very neat and not even touching the plott under the cloth. Then in the dratsing this droog of Billyboy’s suddenly found himself all opened up like a peapod, with his bare belly and his poor old yarbles showing, and then he got very razdraz, waving and screaming and losing his guard and letting in old Dim with his chain snaking whisssssshhhhhhhhh, so that old Dim chained him right in the glazzies, and this droog of Billyboy’s went tottering off and howling his heart out. We were doing very horrorshow, and soon we had Billyboy’s number one down underfoot, blinded with old Dim’s chain and crawling and howling about like an animal, but with one fair boot on the gulliver he was out and out and out.

‘I took the opportunity to call upon the Rector, after I had questioned Mr. George Jarnock, who required to my queries in place of Sir Alfred Jarnock, for the older man was in a nervous and shaken condition as a result of the happening, and his son wished him to avoid dwelling upon the scene as much as possible.’

“You mean that you don’t know, George?” Marne gave a low whistle of astonishment. “You have not realised that our time is running out? Haven’t you heard of the Cass River Scheme? Well, for your information, it is being prepared by your own ministry and if the project goes through quickly we may never have a chance of opening the Railstone tomb, because Caswell Hall will be at the bottom of a reservoir. The odds are that Brownjohn will have been enthroned long before that, of course, but we are not out of the wood yet. In fact the trees are closing in on us. I would study the details of the Cass scheme, if I were you. To the best of my memory the reference contains the initials K.V.I.” There was a click and the line went dead.

Seven chaps called George in seven paragraphs from seven page seventeens from seven books distributed around my bookshelves. Why George? He just started turning up a lot.

Anita Loos: A Biography by Gary Carey; Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin; What I Tell You Three Times is False by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Samuel Holt; The Gift of the Gods by Raymond F. Jones from Things, edited by Ivan Howard; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; The Thing Invisible from The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by W.H. Hodgson; Bury Him Darkly by John Blackburn.