Archive for Arthur Penn

A Mess o’ Flowers

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by dcairns

Was talking to my first year students about editing. Showed them a robbery scene from BONNIE AND CLYDE. Probably didn’t say as much as I could’ve, but the clip was well received, and the first question, from two separate sources at once, was “What’s the name of that film again?” because they immediately wanted to SEE the whole thing.

Which has to be good. And if you’re shocked that they didn’t already know it, remember they’re young, they haven’t had the chance to see everything.

(If you want to get angry at anyone, the BBC and Channel 4 would be suitable targets for their willfully falling down on the job of introducing their audience to great cinema.)

I introduced the film’s stars with their names and the words “And the Oscar goes to…” because that is likely to remain the principal recognition factor for those actors for a little while, but they WILL live it down…

Why this scene? Well, Dede Allen’s cutting of the robbery itself is masterful, with the tautness of each movement, the sparse soundtrack a series of steps and clicks and thuds with dead air between, creating a sense of a tense but very METHODICAL operation being undertaken.

(Gene Hackman was recognised as someone who was grumpy to Wes Anderson.)

And then the car chase — the music being an existing recording rather than a specially made score, simply dropped into place and cut in and out of as required. The fast-and-loose continuity, designed to get a sense of life and jeopardy and velocity into the ponderous movements of aged vehicles. I didn’t have to point out the moment when one camera operator jerks sideways as a jalopy gets a little TOO close for comfort (Objects in Wide Angle Lens May Be Closer Than They Appear).

And the recklessly bold interruption of the chase with cutaways to the bank where witnesses are being interviewed by the papers: sudden silent static shots interrupting the flow of the chase with TOTAL RUDENESS, bringing things to a momentary standstill, seemingly slamming the brakes on every aspect of the tone and pace the sequence is otherwise trying to achieve. And yet, it’s absolutely right. Because the filmmakers have decided, for the sake of the story, that robbing banks is exciting and fun. And the bank scenes are hilarious.

“There I wuz, staring into the face of DEATH.”

“All I can say is, they did right by me, an’ I’m bringin’ me a mess o’ flowers to their funeral.”

By the second interruption, it’s no longer an interruption but part of the peculiar rhythm of the piece, which behaves like a game of musical chairs. The brutal treatment of the music is probably the main survival of the early notion of Jean-Luc Godard directing the picture.

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Warren Beatty’s biscuits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Warren Beatty’s biscuits are brought to you by MICKEY ONE, successfully bringing you Warren Beatty’s biscuits since 1965.

It’s a fascinating piece. The opening sequence, which unfold like a really great fashion spread of the sixties, only with moving parts, had me convinced this was going to be great before the director credit. And then I got progressively less convinced, but still impressed.

Mickey One titles from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Arthur Penn, fabulously squandering the goodwill generated by THE MIRACLE WORKER, goes all out to create an American art film, which is not a form native to America. I think the ultimate cargo cult art film may be Frankenheimer’s STORY OF A LOVE STORY, which dutifully assembles a bunch of talents with impeccable arthouse credentials and then sits back, well pleased with itself, while the already-sparse audience shuffle out. Penn likewise has a leading lady and a cinematographer with nouvelle vague references, and an actor from THE SEVEN SAMURAI (I was thinking I know that guy for the longest time, simply assuming he was Japanese-American, but NO, they imported him), but to his credit his film is also 100% American, with a particularly strong sense of time and place.

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The very young Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comedian on the run from the mob — in the third act he reverses his course and tries running TO the mob, which is the main bit of plot development. There’s intriguing support from Franchot Tone (looking like he’s been in another fight), Hurd Hatfield and Jeff Corey. Alexandra Stewart is the Cahiers-approved leading lady.

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On the minus side, Beatty’s material isn’t funny, and he isn’t funny doing it; the plot is paper-thin but not really meant to be otherwise; the film wants to be Felliniesque but only Fellini could pull that one off (is there any other great filmmaker whose influence on US film was so overwhelmingly negative? Fellini has an especial appeal for filmmakers who don’t want to do the work of telling a proper story — I think it’s significant that just as Picasso knew how to draw a credible realistic human figure, Fellini was a master storyteller who moved beyond storytelling); the attempts to do quirky, ludic filmmaking with undercranking and stuff are mainly a bit embarrassing.

On the plus side, fabulous imagery is thrown up all the time, working best when it arises naturally from the settings rather than being some kind of surreal conceit. And the movie has the most glorious dissolves: scenes melt into one another, frequently resulting in Beatty sharing the screen with himself (which I’m sure he loves). One time, driving a car, Beatty turns his head as if reacting to something, and a second landscape bleeds through in just the spot he’s looking at, followed by a second Beatty, peering uncertainly from the back of the first one’s head. The brilliant editor was Aram Avakian, later a fine director.

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Two Beattys #1: ethereal foreground Warren looks at background Warren seemingly walking through fire.

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Two Beattys #2: Warren 2 looks out the back of Warren 1’s head.

(In his autohagiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans says he fired Avakian from THE GODFATHER for manoeuvring against Coppola, trying to steal his job. It may be true, But Avakian had worked with Coppola before [YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW], was Coppola’s guy. Evans, on the other hand, was manoeuvring against Coppola (it’s kind of what some producers see their job as — stop the film from being too individual a creative expression) and I suspect him of simply trying to weaken Coppola’s band of followers. He couldn’t easily fire the cinematographer, but editors are easy to snip out of the picture, privately.)

More acting with himself: it’s kind of hilarious the number of scenes Beatty plays with other actors who won’t talk to him. Little Kamitari Fujiwara never speaks at all, and Tone and Hatfield and the rest spend long scenes just staring balefully and refusing to answer Warren’s impassioned questions. “Why does nobody want to talk to Warren?” I asked.

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The ending is a would-be Fellini trope that rather irked me, but there’s a bit where Beatty tries to perform his act in the spotlight’s glare with the strong sense that he’s about to be killed — he performs to the light, as if meeting his maker, and it does achieve the existentialism the film is clutching for. The trouble is, it happens TWICE, at roughly the two-thirds mark and at the end, which rather dilutes the effect. But I could see the potential — Micky’s Kafkaesque contract, which may or not exist, makes him a man under obscure sentence of death, like the whole human race. Pompous and self-serious, maybe, but evocative, especially in black and white.

Town without pity

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)

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None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —

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Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.

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Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~

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The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.

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However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.