Archive for Abraham Polonsky

An Odyssey in Bits: Keir Dullea and Gone Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks to the acid wit of Noel Coward for the title. Noel co-starred with Dullea (happily still very much here today) in Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

2001’s second superimposed caption appears: it’s not altogether certain that THE DAWN OF MAN has finished (it was apparently in play all through the orbital and lunar ballet) but at any rate the JUPiTER MISSION has begun.What was strange to me, this time around, was how fast this section of the film seems to go by, when you watch it in isolation. The pace of the shots may be slowish, but the narrative is super-economical.1. The Discovery sails past us.

(Various spaceship designs were considered with various propulsion systems, but the final look chosen is less about scientific practicality and more about style. The bony colouring adds to the Discovery’s resemblance to a giant skull and spinal cord. Also a little like a spermatozoa. So it also makes me think of the miniature Spike-creatures in ERASERHEAD.) 2. We cut to inside Kubrick’s giant hamster wheel. Here’s Gary Lockwood jogging, in a whole series is striking shots, including an up-butt angle as startling as the one George Sidney devotes to Ann-Margret in VIVA LAS VEGAS. Bruce Bennett’s citation of TRAPEZE as an influence gets backed up here — not only for the earlier use of the Blue Danube, but for turning the image sideways so it can fill the WS frame. It’s true that Kubrick lingers over these images, but they’re well worth it. My problem with EYES WIDE SHUT was its, to my mind erronious, supposition that Tom Cruise walking down a street or into an apartment was worthy of the same following-too-close attention.

(How does the craft generate its gravity? It’s not rotating in the exterior shots. Is there actually a big rotating wheel inside it for the living space? Seems to be the case. Wild.) 3. & 4. Then we get a couple of video bits — Lockwood’s taped message from home, and the BBC interview with the crew and HAL, which infodumps all the necessary exposition on us in a reasonable engaging and natural way.

Bowman and Poole have i-Pads so they can watch TV as they down their space-chow (from plastic pallettes packed with nutritional coloured pastes. Yummy).5. And then HAL is glitching right away — his mental breakdown is really just as speedy as Jack Torrence’s in THE SHINING. It’s when he says, “Just a moment. Just a moment.” Computers shouldn’t repeat themselves. It feels wrong. Later, he will repeat himself A LOT, so I know I’m right.

Dullea and Lockwood are beautifully blank. GL said they looked at reports on what astronauts were like, and their inexpressive performances reflect the demands that those fired into space should NOT be hysterical, hand-flapping types of furious fist-wavers. Ryan Gosling’s unemotive Neil Armstrong in FIRST MAN makes this a big story point, whereas Kubrick and Clarke and the cast just take it for granted. The fact that HAL is more appealing and warm is certainly no accident — Kubrick liked machines. Unfortunately, the story he’s telling requires HAL to turn homicidal, so this is far from the “alternative Frankenstein myth” he hoped to achieve with A.I., proving to us that our machines might be our heirs, our best hope of leaving something of ourselves behind.HAL trounces Poole at chess.

Clarke thought it a shame that the film didn’t make clear the reason for HAL’s malfunction: mission control had instructed him to withhold the true purpose of the voyage, in effect to lie, which was against his programming. (To lie is already to err.) When he tries to sound out Dullea’s Dave Bowman about the mission parameters, he’s probably looking for a chance to open up and get things off his metallic chest. Bowman brushes him off, and so he has to kill all the damn humans who are clearly going to screw this thing up. Again, his motivation connects him with Jack Torrence’s rant about “MY responsibilities to my employers,” though he expresses himself with a less hysterical tone.

I read somewhere that all Kubrick films are about somebody being entrusted with administering a system, and then screwing it up due to “human error.” Which sounds sort of right, but then you need to get out the old shoehorn to make it fit LOLITA (how not to be a step-parent) and THE SHINING (how not to look after a hotel: a sort of Fawlty Towers with axe murders) and EYES WIDE SHUT continues to be an outlier (the system failing to be administered is what, adultery?). But anyway, mission control has screwed up royally, somewhere in between the Clavius freak-out signal and this sequence, and now our eerily calm astronauts are going to pay the price. 6. The first EVA scene, though we’re our Extra Vehicular Activity is taking place in another, smaller vehicle. Contemporary critics harped on about the heavy breathing here, as if it were a showy and clumsy stylistic touch, rather than a logical solution to the problem of What can you hear in space? Kubrick alternates bold silences with music and subjective space-suit sound, all of which are great choices.

(William Friedkin on the excellent The Movies That Made Me podcast complained of Kubrick’s extreme low angle shot in THE SHINING when Jack talks to the food locker door. “Who’s POV is that meant to be?” But it’s another logical solution: how to shoot a man talking to a door and see all of his face rather than a profile. If you just do very logical things, like a machine would do them, maybe you will develop a striking personal style, because everyone has their own logic. And that’s why there’s so much trouble in this world.)7. HAL can read lips.

(Just like in real life, as soon as somebody goes a bit wrong mentally, everyone else starts tiptoeing around and lying and humouring them and unintentionally but very effectively escalating their paranoia…)

Though his eyeball was a fisheye lens earlier, and I think he even asks Dave to hold his drawings closer, but now he has a zoom and can follow a conversation in which his two pals are plotting to murder him. Which confirms him in his decision to off them first, which presumably he was going to do anyway since why else is he tricking them into cutting off communication with Earth and going E.V.A.?

And at this point, Kubrick goes audaciously to an intermission, and so shall I.Incidentally, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY stars the Marquis de Sade; Sir George; Sam Slade; Emanuel Shadrack; Lord Beaverbrook; Off-camera voice of Jesus; Scrimshaw’s henchman; Commander Ed Straker and Hank Mikado.

Imagine you somehow find yourself watching a sixties Canadian TV play and the off-camera voice of Jesus rings out and it’s instantly, chillingly recognizable as the dulcet tones of HAL-9000.

Also, you should see the 1957 version of OEDIPUS REX directed by Tyron Guthrie and Abraham Polonsky, in which among the voices issuing from behind Greek tragic masks are those of Douglas Rain and William Shatner. Sophocles has never seemed so interstellar!

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The Big Box Set

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2017 by dcairns

Thrilled to be a part — or several parts — of Arrow Academy’s Four Film Noir Classics box set. I have provided video essays on Fritz Lang for SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (House of Lang), and Joseph H Lewis for THE BIG COMBO (Wagonwheel Joe), both in collaboration with editor Timo Langer. Those were huge fun and should serve as helpful intros to the filmmakers work while hopefully providing interest and entertainment even to those who are very familiar with their oeuvres. For the hardback booklet (can a hardback be a booklet?) I wrote a piece on Robert Siodmak and THE DARK MIRROR, which puts me alongside pieces by Tony Rayns, Michael Brooke and Andrew Spicer, which is pretty good company to be in. I feel like a fraud!

This means the only film in the set I didn’t get to talk about is Abraham Polonsky’s FORCE OF EVIL. Awww, why not? I love that film!

Momo the crazy Tonkinese did nose this set onto the floor, but the incident wasn’t captured on camera. You’ll have to take his continuing enthusiasm for my work on faith.

The set is available now ~ here.

Unfriendlied

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2016 by dcairns

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TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

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So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

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A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

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As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

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This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.