Archive for Alan Pakula

The Frozen Moment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

I was looking at THE DEVIL’S OWN, the remarkably non-excellent late Alan Pakula thriller, which has a very impressively staged, if overblown and morally indefensible, street battle at the start. Amid all the mayhem, Pakula (and editors Tom Rolf & Dennis Virkler) freeze the action with a quick, beautifully-composed shot of a corpse. It fractures the all-movement flow of the edit and injects an icy feeling that partially redeems the scene from its gung-ho pyrotechnics.

It also rang a bell with me, and I found myself trying to figure out whether Pakula had pinched the idea from some other film I’ve seen.

The first thing that came to mind was this shot from John Milius’s DILLINGER ~

It has a similar look, but it appears at the end of the scene so it has a different, less disruptive effect. I had an instinctive suspicion that there was a common source both Milius and Pakula were swiping from, and I knew that I KNEW that source, if I could but remember it.

I started wondering if, given Milius’s tastes, the answer might be Kurosawa. I remembered these shots, in RAN (another late-ish film, and one ABOUT lateness, old age) ~

Kurosawa intersperses the apocalyptic battle that occurs midway in this film with static snapshots of the slain, their busy, living former comrades hurrying past them in foreground or background. He takes you out of the desperate action and briefly drops you into a more contemplative, restful space. Called death.

But RAN was made some time *after* DILLINGER, so couldn’t be the influence. THE SEVEN SAMURAI seemed a possibility, reminding me that it’s been far too long since I watched it. But I couldn’t actually remember such a shot used in such a way, so that couldn’t be the specific thing I was remembering.

Then I did a class on Orson Welles for my 1st year students, and there it was, in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT ~POSITIVELY the shot I was trying to remember, coming as a sudden, shockingly still interruption of the hand-held chaos of the celebrated and influential Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. By coincidence, the appearance of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND reminds us that Milius and Welles apparently knew each other at least well enough for the latter to parody the former as a character in his movie-world movie. And I can well imagine Milius and Pakula admiring CHIMES enough to borrow an effect without particularly paying attention to what the effect was FOR.

Welles actually pulls this trick twice. Each time, the shot contains furiously racing characters but our eye goes to the face of the fallen man, and the camera’s stillness puts us in sympathy with him, not those running about madly behind him.

But it’s still possible that this touch is to be found in earlier battles by Kurosawa OR — a distinct possibility, this — Eisenstein. If anybody knows for sure, point me in the right direction.

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A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993), Alan J. Pakula’s second-last film isn’t interesting in itself. It shows its director revisiting the past glories of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with Washington locations, crusading reporters, underground car parks, conspiracies. It’s very glossy and well shot and cut, but John Grisham’s book, at least as adapted by screenwriter Pakula, is diffuse and ineffectual. Splitting the action between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington’s characters for the first half undercuts any forward thrust, and we keep cutting away to other characters on top of that. The movie also begins way too soon, with the assassination of two supreme court judges… it then has to tread water for half an hour before the assassination of another character who’s actually a character, as well as being someone connected to one of our protagonists.

The comparisons to ATPM just show up how unexciting the thriller became in the nineties (I don’t think it’s recovered, either). Here’s a movie where we know exactly who will be alive at the end, who will be dead, and who will be disgraced (Robert Culp, I’m looking at you). You don’t know that for a second in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, even though it’s a true story and you literally know how it turns out. It feels full of uncertainty and possibility.It’s nice that Pakula was still working at this stage, but unfortunately the cinema of the era didn’t tend to allow the interesting choices that enlivened his ’70s work (THE PARALLAX VIEW would surely have been impossible), so he was walled in by artificial genre and commercial constraints. I’m looking at my cat right now, who is lying very happily in a shoe box that’s much too small for him. Cats like confined spaces. Artists, not so much.

The plot gets underway with Supreme Court justices being murdered. President Culp doesn’t really want to the truth to come out (Culp is culpable) and tells his intelligence men to lay off — the scene with the most contemporary relevance. Law student Julia Roberts cracks the case with a bit of research (in fact, all she finds is a possible motive). She’s sleeping with her professor (Sam Shepherd) — and this is quite normal and OK in the world of this film — so she tells him, he tells a friend in DC, and is promptly assassinated. Julia goes on the run and has to enlist crusading reporter Denzel Washington to help.

The story is a bit implausible, but also a bit boring, which is a terrible combination. It’s all very well made, with the occasional nice touch, but it can’t transcend its Grishamite limitations. But here’s a nice dissolve from assassin Stanley Tucci leaving the site of one SCOTUS killing, disguised as a jogger, and entering a porno theatre disguised as a big old gay homosexual to kill another SCOTUS ~ Later, Robert Culp gets maybe the best closeup of the year 1993 ~Features Erin Brockovich, Malcolm X, Chuck Yeager, Alex Cutter, Frank Boggs, Caesar Flickerman, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Emilio Lizardo and Death.

I’ve never seen Pakula’s CONSENTING ADULTS but for some reason I saw PRESUMED INNOCENT at the cinema when it was new. It seemed sexist, and Pakula seemed to be stuck making John Grisham and Scott Turow adaptations, which seemed slightly worse than directing episodic TV. I feel he could have had more fun on The X-Files, which he practically invented with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.THE DEVIL’S OWN got terrible reviews in the UK (Hollywood films always get Irish political things horribly wrong; Pakula’s late works, being generally inoffensive, got fairly forgiving notice usually, but not this one). Like TPB it has an overblown, schmaltzy James Horner score, where early Pakula benefited massively from the subtlety of David Shire and the aptly-named Michael Small.

When this came out, we’d just had the embarrassing BLOWN AWAY (how’s that for a tasteful title for a movie about a mad Irish bomber?) and the critics reviewing TDO reminded us that the Guinness in BA looked like weak tea, which was a bit unfair because the stout in TDO looks approximately like stout. There were also reports, I seem to recall, of bad behaviour from the film’s stars, particularly in the form of jealousy from Harrison Ford over his young co-star, Brad Pitt. This certainly seems to have left its mark on the film.Pitt plays an IRA man with an enthusiastic go at a Belfast accent. Having seen his father murdered as a boy, and being a fugitive in his homeland after a gigantic, ludicrous gunfight, he’s sent to the US to purchase guns for the cause from gangster Treat Williams. His political sponsor has him billeted as a houseguest of Irish-American cop Ford, on the grounds that this will make great cover. It also irretrievably makes Ford look a sucker, which may have started the trouble with him.

For the next HOUR of screentime, Pitt’s plotline fails to proceed while Ford gets a series of action set pieces showing his unbelievably exciting life as a cop. These don’t progress the narrative, of course, because they have nothing to do with the narrative. Something showing Pitt in danger of being rumbled by his host would have been more to the point. And something showing a developing bond between the characters was surely needed. We do see them play pool and exchange light-hearted racist taunts with some Italianamericans, but that’s all.It’s only when Pitt’s cover is blown and his criminal activities endanger Ford’s family that the film finds its feet again, at which point it promptly shoots both of them, as well as everything else in sight. “I told you before,” says Pitt, soulfully, “this isn’t an American story, it’s an Irish one.”

It bloody is an American story, though. Look who’s alive at the end.

Stars Han Solo, Tyler Durden, Mary Boleyn, Mickey Nice, Critical Bill and Arthur Dent.

A Star is Burned

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2018 by dcairns

Inside Daisy Clover from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’m extremely glad I never watched the pan-and-scan copy of INSIDE DAISY CLOVER I used to own, so I could appreciate the proper super-wide-screen version I have now acquired. That said, there’s only really one scene in it that really comes alive, but BOY does it come alive.

Producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) tackle Gavin Lambert’s novel (with the author himself adapting the screenplay), effectively a Judy Garland roman a clef, with a perfectly cast Natalie Wood as the waif-starlet abused by the system. There’s good, creepy work from Christopher Plummer as her studio boss (though no thirties studio boss was remotely as handsome — you were lucky if you got Darryl Zanuck, “he of the air-conditioned teeth,” as Orson Welles unkindly but accurately remarked) and Katharine Bard as his sinister sister wife. Ruth Gordon plays the crazy mama, a more benign figure than the monstrous stage mother in Natalie’s own life, and Roddy McDowell is rather wasted as a studio factotum.

Robert Redford is intriguingly cast as a dashing drunk, a Flynn/Barrymore composite who also turns out to be gay, something one can’t imagine Redford playing later. Since reading Peter Biskind’s gossip-fest book Down and Dirty Pictures, which characterises RR as, essentially, a passive-aggressive jerk, I can’t help see his characters as passive-aggressive, and it’s definitely a suitable filter for this one. Weird how an actor who’s been criticised for being bland and always playing sympathetic golden boys can be realigned as the movies’ biggest and best portrayer of arrogant jerks.

But the movie fails to catch fire. Wood is energetic and effecting as she always was, but the story’s progress is full of mysterious lacunae. Is it a problem that, in charting this aspirant screen goddess’s rise to fame and heartbreak, we never see her first day on set, meet her co-stars or directors, or see her actually notice her fame or meet her public? It might not have to be, if the lacunae were bridged by consistent narrative development. But Daisy is introduced as a girl who wants to sing, and then her singing drops out of the picture altogether. Sure, there are a couple of musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross, who, as his later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN shows, could certainly pastiche 30s style, but here seems to have been ordered to keep it vague as to period. Edith Head and team’s costumes likewise eschew anything smacking too strongly of the depression, and try to touch lightly on sixties styles. The movie’s planting its feet three decades apart makes for an uncomfortable pose.

It’ a strangely underpopulated film — giant studio barns, inside and out, a deserted boardwalk, a motel in a literal desert, a yacht at sea (always uncomfortable to see Natalie in such a setting, but Redford is there and he’s Mr. Boat) — scene after scene is stripped of extras and period detail, perhaps making a point about the loneliness of stardom, but not as vividly as showing the uncaring mob would.

Then comes the scene quoted above. Outstandingly edited by Aaron Stell, with a really creepy drone from André Previn on the soundtrack, and striking choices with sound editing that make the whole thing modernistically unsettling. There just weren’t Hollywood films evoking this kind of European unease at the time, or damn few: how many American directors really gave the impression they’d seen Godard, Fellini and Antonioni? Mulligan sure has.

I guess this is the pay-off to the character’s initial love of singing, the thing that makes her feel the world isn’t as crappy as it seems. Even that’s been taken from her. But there’s no real middle to that journey. Still, it gets a powerful ending.

The movie ends happily — either a cop-out or an act of mercy. Give Daisy the triumphant escape so few of her real-life counterparts achieved, why not? We also get perhaps cinema’s first instance of what is now a tiresome cliché, the Walking Away From An Explosion moment. Astonishing. Without Natalie Wood, no Wolverine.