Archive for Beatles

Once Upon a Time in Dreamland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by dcairns

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Last night I dreamed about Star Trek. There was a big alien who communicated by twiddling his fingers like the Rock does in SOUTHLAND TALES (okay, the Rock doesn’t actually communicate by twiddling but he does twiddle, prodigiously). I think in the end Captain Kirk or whoever shut the alien in a giant pressure cooker, baked him into a pie, and ate him. It was a very unusual episode.

But I still haven’t dreamed up a way of celebrating the one-year anniversary of this blog, which falls due on December first. Suggestions welcome. When the time comes I guess I’ll probably just drink some vodka and write something.

But I do have an idea for next year: the 110th anniversary of Hitchcock’s death. There are 52 surviving Hitchcock feature films (more or less). There are 52 weeks in the year. So I’m going to blog about each film, one a week, for the whole year.

Just putting this idea out in advance in case anyone else thinks of it (and is dumb enough to do it).

Apart from being a chance to catch up on all the early Hitchcocks I haven’t had the pleasure of, it’ll add some much-needed STRUCTURE to this place. Although some weeks my posting might be only tangentially related to the Hitchcock film du semaine. We shall see.

Dreams are also on my mind as I just finished a two-part class on Sergio Leone (it would have been one-part, but the first class was interrupted, DISCRETE CHARM-style, by the arrival of five hundred students demanding the use of the lecture theatre for another subject). And there’s a theory of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that sees the entire 1960s section as a dream: Noodles (Robert DeNiro) is lost in an opium haze, having betrayed his friends, and he fantasises a future where his best friend lived, the betrayal didn’t really happen, and everything turns out differently. This is the explanation for the film’s ending, in which Noodles is seen in the opium den again, this time grinning.

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This interp kind of bugged me at first — I don’t usually like huge chunks of narrative turning out not to have happened: there’s a sense in which you can feel cheated. But the more I’ve considered it, the more it works for me, and it explains a number of oddities in the 1960s section of the movie.

1) Deborah doesn’t age. Elizabeth McGovern turns up, thirty years on, looking just as she did in the middle section of the film. I thought at first this was because the makeup artist must have thrown down his brushes in despair upon seeing McG’s perfect, smooth countenance. He couldn’t bear to disfigure her with latex wrinkles (Leone’s massive closeups expose the artifice of the prosthetics on Fat Moe in some shots), and the unlined expanse of face gave him nothing to work with anyway. “She looks like a beautiful balloon,” Fiona remarked. But maybe this is a dream, and Noodles simply couldn’t imagine his beloved transfigured by time. “Age cannot wither her.”

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2) Forgive and forget. Deborah doesn’t mention the glaring fact that Noodles raped her, twice, at their last meeting. But then, she wouldn’t, because this is part of what Noodles is trying to forget. It would be thoughtless of her to raise the subject during his dream. Fiona gave up the film in anger at that scene, not because of the rape itself, but because DeNiro turns up at the railway station the following day to see her off. This, Fiona contested, was rather tactless of him. I have to admit she’s right. But at least we can see that the strange scene between Noodles and Deborah is how it is due to Leone’s artful evocation of dream-logic, and not because he’s a misogynist boor whose incapable of thinking his way into a female character’s head. Certainly not.

3) Plot nonsense. For DeNiro to be unaware that a friend has risen to high political office while he’s been hiding out “in the asshole of the world”, he would have had to have been quite literally hiding out “in the asshole of the world”. You can’t get a TV signal in there, you know. But this objection ceases to carry any force if we view the whole scenario as dream-hallucinations. Those things never make sense. I mean, Captain Kirk would never eat somebody.

So it’s definitely a way of looking at the film that reveals new possibilities, and so it’s a good tool to have when examining Leone’s vast and shallow epic. There is, however, as Columbo might say, one thing that still kind of bothers me…

If (as in the post-Viet Nam fantasy world of JACOB’S LADDER) the 1960s of OUATIA is a construct of the protagonist’s mind, it should not contain any references that would not be available to a character from that protagonist’s era, the ’30s. The political scandal DeNiro emerges into is explicable enough, since there was at least as much bribery and corruption in ’30s American life as in the ’60s.

Harder to explain is the frisbee that flies over DeNiro’s head at one point. I don’t think they had those in the ’30s, although the aerodynamic principles under which they operate were presumably already in force. Did Noodles, like Norville in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, invent this hand-held flying saucer before its time? How ironic that he should try to make his way in the world through the dangerous practice of bootlegging, when he could have made a fortune marketing his plastic disk to the children of the Great Depression!

Also, when DeNiro first arrives back in ’60s New York, he hears the Beatles song “Yesterday” playing as muzak. But, unlikely as it seems, there is a reasonable explanation for this. That song, as Paul McCartney has testified, came to him in a dream. So it’s not implausible that, floating around in the dream-stuff waiting to be discovered and jotted down by a receptive songwriter, the melody should insinuate its way into the opium-vision of a fugitive 1930s gangster.

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Is it?

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Bewitching

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2008 by dcairns

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Arch Oboler seems to have been an American radio demi-god, but having missed out on this cultural golden age, and having failed to take advantage of most of the good stuff available online, my experience of his work is going to come from films, at least initially. Oboler, as writer-producer-director, authored several movies, and was notable as a pioneer of 3-D (“A lion in your lap!”). It says something that he came from a medium devoid of any images at all (except the all-important ones in your head) and then felt he had to have images WITH DEPTH.

He’s also noteworthy for having a Beatles song written about him — Oboler Di, Oboler Da. But then, many Beatles songs commemorate great filmmakers: Straub/Huillet Fields Forever, I Am the Walsh, I Wanna Be Your Mann, Penny Lang, Polythene Pabst, Savoy Truffaut, Some Other Guy-Blaché, The Fuller on the (George Roy) Hill, The Long and Winding Roeg, and of course the concept album Sandrich Perry’s Losey Herz Kluge Brahm.

Having finally sorted myself out with a Napier University staff card, I am at last free to plunder their library, which contains many interesting off-air recordings snatched from the jaws of time. BEWITCHED looked interesting, although I didn’t know what it was, and it shared a tape with CARDINAL RICHELIEU, which I also didn’t know what it was. Turned out to be Roland V. Lee directing the Iron Duke himself, George Arliss. Save that one for another day.

BEWITCHED is a 1945 psycho-noir — unrelated to the cutesy TV series or its ghastly movie spin-off — starring Phyllis Thaxter, who had hitherto escaped under my radar but is now firmly on it. She’s in things I’ve seen, like NO MAN OF HER OWN, but what chance did she have in that, with a few minutes screen time dominated by Barbara Stanwyck? Here, in only her second movie, she’s terrific in what amounts to a dual part. Because Joan Ellis has TWO MINDS IN THE SAME BODY!!!

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This is essentially a Hollywood psycho-babble loony film, slotting neatly into the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating us about psychiatric illness, use terms associated with sorcery and magic and religion in their titles? I bet there are more like that.

Oboler’s film, like Bernhardt’s, is emotive and seductive and evocative of psychological disturbance so long as it’s showing it in action, and then amusingly cheesy when it tries to explain it. Here we get amiably rubbish psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn as Dr (Henri?) Bergson, dispensing nonsense but nevertheless saving the day with a delightfully preposterous conclusion.

Oboler’s great! He begins with thrilling music (from the inventive Bronislau Kaper, whose stuff always stands out from the Hollywood norm) over a big clock, and we learn from Doc Bergson’s V.O. that a strange case is baffling him — but then an independant V.O. takes over, for this is going to be like a narrative relay race, with different storytelling approaches picked up and then discarded whenever Oboler gets the urge.

The God-V.O. dumps us into Phyllis’ past history, and we learn of her love affair with gruesome teen Hank Daniels, whom she will later gratify us by murdering. This stuff is all told with a degree of subjectivity, as we have access to Phyllis’s thoughts, and thus to the voice in her head. Evil Phyllis wants Good Phyllis to ditch this “boy” and get a “man”. Evil Phyllis is clearly horny.

Fleeing to New York via speedy montage (so much more comfortable than train), Phyllis falls into the hunky arms of attorney Stephen McNally (a real-life former attorney, which is a pretty nifty casting coup, especially for wartime — everybody in this movie is presumably 4F, but McNally is an A1 leading man), but this brings on another attack of the Evil Phyllis: when McNally takes Phyll in his arms, Evil Phyllis takes over and cops the kiss. So frustrating when that happens.

This part of the film is the smartest, since Phyllis’ problem seems not so much schizoid as schizophrenic: the nasty, critical voice in her head feels like a suppressed part of her own being, the part with sexual desires she can’t admit to. In fact, voice-in-the-head syndrome (as I’m now calling it, in defiance of all medical procedure) doesn’t necessarily signify schizophrenia or any kind of mental illness, although it can be annoying. Actress Zoe Wannamaker (daughter of actor-director Sam) has managed a very successful stage and screen career despite the irksome disembodied commentary running through her brain like ticker-tape: see here for more info if you have this problem.

Then there’s William Blake and Dickens and Freud and Ghandi, and all those hardcore Christians who think they’re having conversations with God, but whom I submit are actually conversing with discrete portions of the main-brain. Often the voices may convey thoughts censored by the overmind. Worth listening to, but not necessarily worth acting on. Most psychiatrists say that what the voices are on about is of no importance, the main thing is to smush them with drugs, but I tend to think there’s a significant difference between a voice saying “You suck,” (self-critical voices are something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree) and one saying “Kill your boyfriend.” If you acknowledge the voices as stemming from your own mind, you learn something about yourself you may not like, but which you can now tackle.

Phyllis gets this slightly wrong by stabbing her small-town boyfriend to death when he comes to take her back home, and now refuses to help lawyer-lover McNally help her mount a defense. Her reasoning is that if Good Phyllis goes to the chair, Evil Phyllis will perish also. The beast must die… etc.

Re-enter gentle Gwenn, who hypnotises Phyllis in front of the Governor (“Hocus-pocus!” he splutters) and separates out Good and Evil Phyllis into transparent astral projections. Say, this guy’s GOOD. Evil Phyllis looks a bit like Lil in FIRE WALK WITH ME, only without the Cindy Sherman trappings.

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“Lil had a sour face.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Her face… it had a sour expression on it.”

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Gwenn announces to the skeptical Gov that “the execution will take place as scheduled,” and sentences the phantasmal Phyllis to death. If only Multiple Personality Disorder were that easy. One problem being that experts don’t even agree if it exists — it seems to have been diagnosed almost exclusively in the United States, which is certainly suggestive of… something or other.

Based on this cracking film, which throws out interesting compositional or narrational or sound ideas in paractically every scene, I’m uber-intrigued to see Oboler’s other work — and hear it too. Next up from the library will be FIVE, his post-atomic survival yarn, and I’ve downloaded THE TWONKY, which had me whooping with glee within twenty seconds: more on that later.

Euphoria #15

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2008 by dcairns

My old cyber-mucker Benjamin “Lucan” Halligan unhesitatingly chose this extract from Michael Cimino’s film maudit HEAVEN’S GATE as his moment of Cinema Euphoria.

But I’m not sure exactly what it is in the scene that affects him so — he hasn’t spelled it out for me. Let’s not worry about it, and just enjoy Miss Huppert and Mr. Walken (who has a winning way with a hat) and sleepy Mr. Kristofferson and Cimino’s slow, methodical pacing and elliptical style, which so upset the suits at United Artists (along with his going MASSIVELY over budget, admittedly).

My favourite story in Stephen Bach’s exasperated account of the film’s making, Final Cut, is the one about how Cimino’s perfectionism would obey its own perverse rules. When ace producer Denis O’Dell’s first name was misspelled with two Ns in the film’s credits, Cimino refused to have the title re-done. I’m inclined to agree with MC here: Dennis should have two Ns, damnit!

O’Dell, who worked alongside John Lennon on HOW I WON THE WAR, is also name-checked on the song You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), a Goon Show style comedy song which is the B side of the last ever Beatles single. He is referred to on it as “Denis O’Bell.”

Better luck next time, Dennis!