Archive for Bernard Herrmann

Twomorrowland #4: Warning from Space

Posted in Comics, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2018 by dcairns

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is another example of classy, big-budget sci-fi, though less luridly fun than FORBIDDEN PLANET. Its casting does suggest that the slightly flat acting of previous entries in this series was a deliberate choice, as if character quirks would be too much for an audience to take in a movie whose whole premise is quirky. This is the A-picture version of bad B-movie acting, so it’s not actually inept, just kind of flat. Except Patricia Neal, we can agree about that.

Michael Rennie arrives from space to deliver a warning to all of Earth, but all of Earth can’t agree on a meeting place to listen to him. It’s a film about stupidity. Rennie’s Klaatu has a high-handed, “What fools these mortals be” attitude, a loftier version of George Reeves’ Superman, characterised by tiny ironic smiles whenever any of us says anything stupid, which is most of the time.

This is, arguably, mainly a film about stupidity. This makes sense of Snub Pollard appearing as a cab driver. Planet Keystone. There’s potentially a good comedy to be made about an alien visitor thwarted by our dumbness, but somehow I don’t think VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET is going to be it.

I think as a kid I was riveted by the opening of this one, and I still am — it has very good FX work but it’s primarily an achievement of editing — Robert Wise shows his cutting-room origins in all his best sequences, whether the film is WEST SIDE STORY or THE HAUNTING or CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Though the three speeded-up shots of fleeing crowds are TERRIBLE. I think I was a little bored by some of the talkie bits, and some of the running around backlot streets, but perked up for anything involving the UFO and the robot. I still feel the same way. It’s a lovely flying saucer, especially the interior (motion-sensitive controls!) and Bernard Herrmann’s throbbing, electronically-enhanced score feels literally part of the control room’s feng shui. Maybe because a theremin, like this saucer, can be operated without touch. Also at times the score sounds exactly like CITIZEN KANE’s approach to Xanadu but with added electro. I want to bathe in it.

Fiona recalls being unimpressed by Gort, the titanic robot. A highly critical eight-year-old, Fiona. “I didn’t like the way his joints creased.” I would defend that by saying that if you coat your robot in a kind of flexible metallic skin, which seems to be what Gort’s got, you have to expect it to fold at the joints. But I agree there’s something not quite pleasing about the look of it. He’s a character who works great as a still image, on the poster, and indeed he spends much of his time as a menacing sentry, even immobilized in a plastic cube at one point. His first entrance is unseen — everyone looks up and he’s simply THERE, in the hatchway, like Mrs. Danvers. Wise shoots around awkward movements like picking up a fainted Neal, and pulls off effective forced-perspective illusions to make him seem bigger than he is.

   

Gort is dressed for the swimpool: shorts, goggles and wristbands — to store his locker-room keys — he needs two because he’s big. It would be interesting to see what he wears when he’s not going swimming.

Michael Rennie has a lovely broad-shouldered jumpsuit, cinched at the waist, with a helmet like a sea urchin, even though he can breathe our air fine. This is just so he can go on the run and be unrecognized later. Did he know he would need to do this? Incognito, our saucerboy goes by the name “Carpenter,” emphasising the Jesus effect — he checks into a boarding house like Conrad Veidt’s Christ-figure in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK  Later, he will rise from the dead for an unspecified interval before ascending to the heavens. On the other hand, I don’t recall Jesus having a hulking robotic sidekick who disintegrated his foes. And though Christ may have made the sun hide its face, he didn’t make the earth stand still. (Me as a seven-year-old, feeling cheated: “So it’s not REALLY standing still?”)

Crown of thorns?

I think the filmmakers may have missed a trick by not having the big outage occur at night, so you could at least have a dramatic blackout. Wise cuts to different countries around the world but it’s daylight everywhere. So all you get is stalled traffic and a stuck elevator.

Somehow the global power cut doesn’t kill anyone, but Fiona was sure some of the little animated figures in the park were directly UNDER Klaatu’s saucer when it landed — smushed to patê, the poor beggars, never to be seen again, their feet presumably curling up underneath, Witch of the East style.

Apart from Klaatu, Gort and Snub Pollard, the film features Dominique Francon and the High Lama.

Weird how other movies used this as an ur-text, even plagiarising the cast. Patricia Neal romances a space invader in the inferior STRANGER FROM VENUS (aka IMMEDIATE DISASTER, which is hilariously apt). Little Billy Gray, fifteen years later, is staunch in THE NAVY VERSUS THE NIGHT MONSTERS. Hugh Marlowe, Neal’s awful boyfriend, stars in EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, which is like the lamebrained twin of this movie — instead of visiting Washington monuments, the saucer-people disintegrate them. Despite my love of Harryhausen I’ve never really been able to love that film, it’s too much of a militaristic counter-response to TDTESS. I should also mention that this is really Gort’s second appearance in this season: Lock Martin, minus his robot costume, plays a circus giant in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He’d also be a mutant in INVADERS FROM MARS.

I feel like Gort is also an important figure in terms of the whole look of Marvel Comics, somehow.

Ultimately, it transpires that Klaatu is here to deliver a blood-curdling threat, essentially treating the Earth the way the US treats other nations with regard to nuclear weapons: We’re allowed to have them because we’re civilised. You’re not, so you’re not. And then he buggers off.

The abruption of the ending is great — scifi/horrors that bring up their end titles as soon as the threat is dealt with are usually lousy — no subtext, no characterisation, hence no coda. But here, we don’t need any discussion as the climax of the film is actually a speech — it’s one of the few films outside of THE GREAT DICTATOR to go that way, and it feels like there’s a slight relationship between Chaplin’s anti-fascist film and Wise et al’s anti-nuke one. What worries me is that, having seen the way human beings think and operate in this film and in real life, we can be reasonably sure they’d immediately start trying to find loopholes in Klaatu’s unambiguous ultimatum, leading to potentially the shortest sequel in Hollywood history: THE DAY THE EARTH BLEW UP.

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Phantom Ride

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , on July 4, 2018 by dcairns

  

There are reasons, beyond the eerie effect of Bernard Herrmann’s last score, why these shots in TAXI DRIVER became iconic (and much-copied).

Attaching a camera to a vehicle is an old idea, common long before purpose-built dollies existed. Do the car chases in D.W. Griffith movies count as tracking shots? Kind of.

But in all that time, I’m not aware of anyone using the car clamp to photograph details of the car itself. You film the road from the POV of the car, or maybe cheat with a lower angle to add dynamism. You film the people IN the car. But the bumper, the wing mirror, this is unheard-of. Scorsese has a real thing for unusual detail shots. He wants us to see things in a new way.

Scorsese had previously attached his camera to Harvey Keitel for the Rubber Biscuit drunk scene in MEAN STREETS. This is similar: Travis Bickle’s cab is, in a sense, an extension of him. The effect is not the natural one of a traveling shot through a city, or a view of a man in a vehicle. We’re aware of how the cab seems solid and fixed, the city transitory and fleeting. A similar effect to that created as an accidental by-product of the rear-projection in older movies, where the moving background is a film within a film, slightly diffuse compared to the solid hero and the half a car he’s driving.

THIS kind of shot is pretty common in modern cinema — the extreme shallow focus — but very rare in the seventies or earlier. Like with Travis’s autistic fascination with a glass of Alka-Seltzer, we get a dissociated, alien view of a familiar surface, stretching away like a metallic landscape seen by a myopic fly. The old idea of “making strange” used to assist the feeling of alienation.

TAXI DRIVER, in fact, is one of very few films where the montages of time passing are among the most striking and emotionally effective sequences. There’s the music and VO, of course, but also the fact that Travis’s feeling of drifting through time, unanchored by social ties, one day seeming like another, is a big part of what the film deals with, and montages are ideally suited to expressing this sensation. Normally, having to show time passing in between the dramatic scenes is a burden on a film, breaking up the narrative and deflating tension. Here, the glimpses of Travis’s hacking life, “drifting through an open sewer in a metal coffin,” as Paul Schrader once put it, give you the strongest feeling that all this is indeed heading somewhere. Somewhere worrying.

Joined at the Hip

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2018 by dcairns

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.