Archive for America

The 4th of July Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by dcairns

Happy Americaday!

I thought I’d look at DW Griffith’s AMERICA, as it seemed like both a good source of intertitles and a good patriotic American movie. After watching five minutes of it, however, I revised my plans and thought I’d look at it while drunk. One large vodka and tonic later (I’m a total lightweight), I thought I’d stop looking at it and write this.

I’ve long had a theory that Americans don’t like movies about the American Revolution. Actually, that’s not a theory, it’s a fact — from AMERICA to High Hudson’s wretched REVOLUTION to Mel “Mr Sensitive” Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, films dealing with this conflict have proved, slightly weirdly, even less popular than those detailing the current middle eastern embroilments. OK, so my actual theory is that Americans don’t respond to those films because they’re bored of hearing about the subject in school. At least the Civil War has a tang of controversy about it, especially if Griffith is the one revising the history. And if the filmmaker isn’t a bona fide racist nut, then you have the entertainment value of watching them tiptoe on eggshells for fear of offending the red states.

But my theory collapses slightly in the face of the fact that AMERICA, like Hudson’s snore-o-rama epic and Gibson’s British-as-Nazis exercise in bellowing understatement, is quite a weak film. Of course, my copy comes from the Killiam collection and hence has a weird voice-over declaiming woodenly all over it, which enhances the flavour of the history class which imbues the  proceedings. So that doesn’t help. But the movie is dramatically leaden and devoid of the passion which animates BIRTH OF A NATION, which at least had on it’s side the fact that Griffith was anxious to convince his audience of something. Here, universal agreement is guaranteed from the outset. Though ironically, this version is a restoration of a film available for years only in a “British” version, produced by Griffith for UK distribution, which omitted the more severe attacks on George IV III and the Brits. Typical of Griffith, a man who made anti-war films in peacetime and propaganda films in wartime. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others.”

So no theory of scholastic overkill is needed to explain AMERICA’s failure at the box office. Still, on a kitsch level I enjoyed the way George Washington was introduced as a periwig rising majestically over the back of an armchair. Such reticence reminds me of the treatment of Christ in BEN HUR, or the way some Indian audiences were reluctant to see Gandhi played by a flesh-and-blood actor. One concerned citizen wrote to Sir Richard Attenborough suggesting that the great-souled one might be portrayed by a moving light. Sir Dickie did not follow this thoughtful advice: “I’m afraid I wrote back saying I’m making GANDHI, not bloody Tinkerbell.”

Later in the movie, David Wark Griffith overcomes the scattershot schoolroom approach of the opening mass of expoz, and gets a bit of drama going by falling back on old tricks. Not content with an entire nation of dandified fops to traduce, Dave forges a satanic bond between the Brits and the American Indians. You can sense his confidence growing once he has a proper crew of dusky-hued rapists as bad guys. The climax shamelessly reruns the eleventh-hour rescue from BIRTH, with redskins insread of blackskins. Wicked Captain Walter Butler (a nubile Lionel Barrymore) is shown cavorting with half-dressed Indian gals who kiss his boots in fawning ecstasy. It’s fascinating how reactionary rage can be stoked by scenes of taboo sexuality, forming a seething cocktail of anger and erotic response…

All of which seems an entirely appropriate way to celebrate today. Doesn’t it?


I drank with a zombie.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2007 by dcairns


My partner Fiona and I were extremely lucky, a few weeks back, to have a pint with John Harrison, who was gearing up to direct an adaptation of Clive Barker’s THE BOOKS OF BLOOD (or one story from that collection, anyway) here in my native Edinburgh.

Putting aside all thoughts of “The SWINE! It should have been ME!” I settled down to my Guinness Extra Cold and found J.H. to be a very affable and interesting sort of chap indeed. I haven’t heard yet if his film has the final go-ahead, but I wish it the best.

Interesting stuff: John talked about his mentor, the literally towering George A. Romero, and how funding had been secured for G.A.R.’s latest zombiefest, DIARY OF THE DEAD, from an unusual source, the private fortunes of a sneaker heir. I think it was Reebok. The training shoe descendant asked how much a film would cost, they told him $20 million, he hemmed and hawed and said he didn’t think he could afford that, so they resourcefully suggested $2 million, and he consented. Fiona asked John if they’d had to product place sneakers on their zombie.

“We didn’t have to, but if we’d had to, WE WOULD HAVE.”

John, it turns out, in addition to scoring DAY OF THE DEAD and directing CREEPSHOW II, played the part of the zombie in DAWN OF who gets a screwdriver embedded in his lughole (censored in the U.K.). Fiona shook his hand. I texted my friend Sam Dale:

i just had a drink w the zombie who gets screwdrivered in dawn ot dead

He texted back:

r u at some kind of horror convention or r u just THE LUCKIEST MAN IN THE WORLD?

I guess it’s the latter.

John directed the TV miniseries of DUNE a few years back, and by strange chance I was at one point planning to work with both the stars of that. Alec Newman, a fellow Scot, who played Paul Atreides, had a nice story about working with Vittorio Storaro.

‘He asked me, “Can you walka downa thees corridor diagonal to the light,  so a-halfa you face ees een shadow, a-halfa een the light?”

‘I said, “I dunno, Vittorio, it doesn’t seem very natural.”

To which the great man replied:

‘”Koh! Alec! MOVIES ees no natural.

You said it, mister.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2007 by dcairns

E.T. The Execrable Talker.

The wit and wisdom of Steven Spielberg:

On William Cameron Menzies’ INVADERS FROM MARS: ‘Whew, that movie just, it just undid my world… because it got to a primal place which basically says that the first people not to trust is your father and mother.’

When Worlds Undo!

‘That’s a shattering, primal attack on all of us when we went to see this movie. But I went to see this movie five times, because I kept expecting the parents not to turn against the kid. Somehow — I was like, eleven or ten years old when I saw it the movie — I thought, “Well, maybe the fourth time I see it the parents will be nice.” I was like thinking that maybe film is like that, film, you know, doesn’t, isn’t a set story locked in cement, but it can actually change.’

Word for the day: primal. Halfway through the above he obviously hits on a silly lie and decides to tell it because it’ll make a ‘great story.’ I don’t believe Spielberg was that dumb at ten. It’s taken him years to get that dumb.

Brechtian Alienation.

‘I think Menzies gave himself the license to do some very Bertolt Brechtian sets, because it was a dream. And only he knew that, the audience didn’t know that.’

He says ‘Brechtian’ when he means expressionistic, or else he doesn’t KNOW what he means. Humm. The time has come for me to point out what I’m sure you’ve all noticed already but just been too polite to say: nothing Spielberg says makes any sense.

‘What really unseats you as a child when you see that movie, at the very end it’s all a dream.’

I don’t recall INVADERS FROM MARS unseating me as a child.

He wasn’t always this incoherent. I seem to recall some sensible utterances in the past, and he can still just about manage a sentence that hangs together when he’s talking about his work, which after all he should know something about, but most of the time he’s just painful:

On THE SPACE CHILDREN: ‘You would just think that if our parents are going to destroy the world, children would never do that, because we really have all the tools of tolerance and, like, global understanding and that’s why we, the children, need to be empowered, to tell the parents what they need to know to protect all of us, as a whole. And that’s what that movie kind of was saying at the end.’

Kind of. It’s like his head is a big tombola and random crap just comes tumbling out.

‘Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, any one that’s worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true.’

Yeah, like remember when 2001 came out and now you can’t move for monoliths?

‘A director is first and foremost a storyteller before everything else. And to tell a story you have got to have, you know, access to be able to move things around in — not just in your world, but in your life.’

Pieces of brain tissue are flaking off with every word he says.

‘What you see is what I can pretty much interpret through me from what the writer writes, because I have always said that without a screenplay, without a story, without a writer we have nothing.’

You said it.

‘Yes, it’s actually good to be a director and not know who the director is.’


‘I do as much homework, I like to think, as the actors do when they come to meet me halfway.’

Halfway? I think S.S. has a tendency to witter on for a bit, then find that one word of what he says intersects with a well-known phrase or saying, so he just throws that in, regardless of whether it actually means anything.

On SCHINDLER’S LIST: ‘I think it’s the most honest acquittal of a subject by taking my own impulses to upstage the subject, and where I force myself into the background of the subject matter. And I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that before and I think it really benefited the movie.’

The last sentence would be fine without that rogue “before” in there, but the first one? I think even he doesn’t know what he means by “acquittal”, and then, if I read him correctly, he starts by saying the exact opposite of what he means, then says something that I sort of get, but which conjures up the weird image of Spielberg in baseball cap standing in the background of SCHINDLER’S LIST, as if doing a Hitchcockian walk-0n.

Nothing on his mind but a hat?

Is it just because he’s so big and powerful nobody in his life can stand up and say, ‘Hang about, Steve, that doesn’t make sense,’? Ifonlyifonlyifonly somebody had said that when he proposed the wretched HAUNTING remake he produced, with the words ‘It’s a great opportunity to use digital effects!’ Is this why all his movies now overshoot their endings and drag on for a superfluous half hour?

He needs a court jester!