Archive for Alan Sharp

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

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Spent Bullet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND doesn’t strike me as a  particularly good film, and credited screenwriter Alan Sharp didn’t think much of it either. It was one of these much-rewritten movies where nobody can really be sure afterwards who was responsible for what, and it’s based on a Ludlum novel anyway so what can we expect? And it’s a Peckinpah espionage movie which puts it in the same ballpark as THE KILLER ELITE, only more tired.

But as I recall, Sharp’s description of what went down on the movie was pretty illuminating — according to him, the film’s producers accorded Bloody Sam every respect and privilege, desperate to make him happy on what could clearly be his last film (he directed it on a drip) and to break the cycle of lousy relationships he’d had with the suits throughout his career. Sam treated them mercilessly.

And so, in post-production, the producers did what nearly every previous Peckinpah producer did — they shut him out of the cutting room and released a version which satisfied them, ignoring his bitter ranting. They did at least preview his unfinished cut — audiences were confused by the opening, which was seriously incomplete, so they decided to proceed with their own version. This is a shame, because a Peckinpah edit, no matter what the director’s raddled state, is automatically going to be superior to an edit by an army of eight execs. Because some kind of guiding cinematic sensibility is needed, rather than committee groupthink.

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Fortunately for us, if we obtain the special edition DVD, the bonus disc contains a director’s cut, mastered on low-res video tape and rescued from a bin. Despite the poor image quality and the rough video versions of optical effects (Sam did love his cheesy opticals, bless his infarcted, drug-addled, misogynistic heart), it makes for interesting viewing.

At the film’s opening, we see hidden camera footage of a sexy tryst between Dr Who (John Hurt) and a naked lady (women in this film are either naked or dead: this one is soon both). While Hurt is out of the room (I presume washing his balls) and the lady is toying languidly with her nipples as ladies always do when men aren’t around, assassins burst in and inject a lethal overdose up her nose. It’s possible that somebody explains why later. What struck the Monthly Film Bulletin critic at the time was that this whole scene is covered from multiple angles, suggesting that not only did CIA head Burt Lancaster have spy-cams planted all over the room, panning and zooming at will, but that he also had Roger Spottiswode or Monte Hellman or somebody in a darkened room vision-mixing this footage live so Burt could always be seeing the best angle on his private espionage snuff film, with faster cutting for dramatic effect in the more exciting moments. It doesn’t really contribute towards an air of verisimilitude.

“Nasty piece of film, Stennings,” says Lancaster, in the film’s most self-aware line, just as the title naming the nasty filmmaker responsible appears (as is usual with Peckinpah, his name appears looong after everybody else’s credit has gone, as if some kind of quarantine was required to keep the rest of the cast and crew from being infected by his beady-eyed mania.

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What we get in the director’s cut is layers of wooziness — shimmering ripple effects as if we’re sliding in and out of a movie dream sequence or flashback (I still can’t believe those eggy ripple-dissolves to flashback in THE WILD BUNCH, like the nouvelle vague never happened). I can’t see any possible reason for this effect. The DVD claims it was intended to show the John Hurt character’s warped point of view, but he spends most of the scene in the shower so it’s not his point of view anyway. But it does throw the question of verisimilitude out the window, leaking from blood capsules and squib damage as it plunges to earth.

The Peckinpah version then segue’s back into the edit we know — Lancaster has just watched the murder on tape, but it’s not implied that the events had been covered from multiple angles. So we can already see that whatever the problems with Peckinpah’s vision (and here I would cite the Lalo Schiffrin soft porn sax accompaniment high on the list), it at least made more sense than what eventually made it to cinemas.

In theory, the fuzzy video version could be used to restore Peckinpah’s intended approach — but that would depend on the original negative rushes having been preserved, which is unlikely. And it would depend on somebody with the money giving a rat’s ass, which is less likely still. I’d settle for a definitive cut of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, whose restoration suffered from a common malaise — a restoration team convinced they knew better than the original director. But at least that DVD also contains two alternative cuts showing what they had to work with.

THIS is Peckinpah’s actual last movie ~

And his last day on set, I think, was shooting second unit of a truck crash for his old mentor Don Siegel, on what proved to be Siegel’s own final film, the Bette Middler comedy JINXED! Desperate to re-establish his professional reputation, Peckinpah organized detailed storyboards and shot everything with lightning efficiency. The pyrotechnics department provided him with a blaze of glory in name only.

 The Osterman Weekend – Commemorative 2 disc edition [1983] [DVD]
The Osterman Weekend (Two-Disc)

The Oater Limits

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, so now I know I mustn’t call ULZANA’S RAID an oater. It’s an Indian wars western that’s seen as a Viet Nam allegory, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster and a nubile Bruce Davison.

I always felt Sharp’s writing was a good deal more pleasing and to-the-point than Aldrich’s filmmaking on this one — I first saw it on 35mm at Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a Sharp retrospective, many moons ago. I think what was screened was the European cut, supervised by Burt, whereas the version I just saw was the US release, the director’s cut — there’s about ten minutes of differing material, it seems. I recall a bit where two men, trained not to make a sound even at the point of death, fall from a cliff in stoic silence. Unfortunately, this is represented by the usual rubber-limbed dummies tossed into the void, and without screams dubbed on, a farcical special effect becomes even more laughable. I support Aldrich’s decision to delete this material, if his decision it was. I can see Lancaster including it because it’s conceptually quite strong, and only let down by the filmmaking.

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But Aldrich does let the side down fairly often. His composer, Frank DeVol, assembles a tuneless concatenation of cliches — cut to watchful Indians, cue sinister flute. The film seems to have none of the grace notes of seventies filmmaking — it isn’t visually lyrical or particularly dynamic, though its choppy abruption gives it a vaguely robust quality. There IS a good night scene, notable mainly for avoiding all the half-hearted approaches to desert night — no blue moonlight, no impenetrable darkness, just a good dim greyness. But otherwise it lacks the elegance of golden age cinema without gaining anything from modernity except flashes of violence (I do quite like the way Aldrich makes little of the bloodshed — a good thing too, since the makeup “by Cinematique” consists of crimson paint liberally daubed over cavalry jackets). The direct cutting is often a bit confusing, cutting to one of those watchful Indians and then to his POV, bringing us up short as we realize it’s a new scene and he’s not looking at the preceding action after all. The dissolve-as-scene-change can be useful after all.

But the script is very strong — Sharp was unapologetic about showing Apache atrocities — but he also shows the unenviable plight of those Indians who try to get along with the white settlers and are robbed and mistreated for their troubles. Asked if it would be more powerful to leave the horrors offscreen as in THE SEARCHERS, he said that such an approach could be powerful, but he had rather wanted to show a dead man with his dog’s tail in his mouth. He had a strange wistful expression as he said it. As Lancaster says in the film, “Indian’s got a sense of humour. Just not one you’d recognize.”

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Fiona’s reaction to this horror: “WHAT am I looking at?”

It’s not just the pithy dialogue — Sharp also writes strong situations, crucibles for striking behaviour. The key one is the early scene where a cavalryman rides back for a woman about to be captured by Apaches — and shoots her in the head. Unsaddled by his enemies, he then blows his own brains out. The Apaches are about to chop the dead woman’s fingers off to get her wedding ring, when her young son, whom they disregard (since killing a boy will not impart “power”) rushes up, sucks her finger to lubricate it, and slips the ring off and hands it to the brave, thus sparing her post-mortem mutilation. It’s powerful, upsetting stuff — and imaginative, in a horrible way.

War makes barbarians of everybody, which can certainly be a comment on Viet Nam if you like, but I’m not sure how far the analogy stretches. The mass colonisation of America probably made the Indian Wars inevitable, whereas the “police action” in Viet Nam was a misguided exercise in realpolitik which was wholly avoidable. The indigenous people got it in the neck both times, but Aldrich and Sharp presumably didn’t know that the outcome for the USA was going to be different this time round.

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