Archive for Bigger Than Life

Bully Beef

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by dcairns

There are some big spoilers further down.

To the Vue Ocean Terminal with its good cheap prices and recliner seats, to see a bunch of car commercials (the Peugeot one unusually inept for this day and age) and 1917, the fabled long take WWI epic from Sam Mendes.

Now, I haven’t watched a Mendes film since AMERICAN BEAUTY. I’ve half-watched his James Bonds. It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, I had some problems with AB but I thought aspects of it were good and he stole from the best (that BIGGER THAN LIFE shot). I just had too many precodes and giallos and 70s scifi movies to watch to find room for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The one that would have been interesting for comparison purposes is JARHEAD, I guess.

What drew me this time was the long take conceit, and folks saying you had to see it on the big screen. Possibly true — I might have drifted off as I did with SPECTRE if this had been at home.

Here’s the thing — the behind-the-scenes ads tried to sell this as an actual single take, which you could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be. But it doesn’t even PRETEND to be a single take — we cut to black around the midpoint when our hero is knocked unconscious, and fade up hours later. I could have asked for my money back at that point, couldn’t I?

(I did actually take my seat thinking, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like ROPE, this had one or more absolutely blatant cuts in it? Well, we never cut directly from one image to another but we do go to black and change scenes, so it ain’t continuous.)

The next two questions I had to satisfy were whether the long take thing was effective, and whether the joins were skillfully managed. I feel like you can sense something off about some of the fast pans in THE REVENANT, a feeling that digital jiggery-pokery is being worked to tie separate images together. Would this be like that?

No, in fact. This is more like in ROPE when John Dahl walks into the camera, blocks the lens, and then walks away again. Ridiculous. I mean, it’s not quite like that, the image isn’t totally obscured, but Roger Deakins’ camera goes wandering around people and objects and lets them more or less occlude the image and a digital join is effected, and I was very conscious that the camera had no reason to be circling back there other than to make that join easy to manage.

But the first question is the key one: what effect does the long take have? Is it immersive or distracting? That may depend on how shot-conscious you are, and that in turn may be effected by how convinced you are by everything.

JARHEAD was written by a veteran and I gather it succeeds in terms of convincing detail, both environmental and behavioral. Obviously WWI is much further away historically than the Gulf War, which is where research comes in I guess. And talent. This film is written by Sam Mendes, who is not a writer, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns who I imagine must be a distant relative of mine.

I think, on a positive note, the film shows that the walk-and-talk shot can be sustained without loss of interest almost indefinitely. With continuous movement, there may not be something new to look at every second, but there’s always GOING to be, and we sense that.

On the other hand, I’m very picky when it comes to realism. Seeing soldiers pissing against a wall, it made me wonder how long the protagonist was going to go without relieving himself. When he gives away his canteen to a needy civilian, I was skeptical, especially seeing the milk bottle in the background into which he could easily have decanted its contents. How long is it going to take the army to issue you a new unbreakable bottle, Lance Corporal? And do you realise you can be court-martialled for losing army property?

The test of the single-take (or, in this case, two-take) illusion should be, does it make the film better? I’m fairly sure this movie could have done its job better as a series of long takes, using cuts for dramatic effect and thus obviating the need for transforming the hero into a CGI puppet when he goes over a waterfall, or having boulders pass through frame close to camera, from behind which he will emerge in a totally different position.

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Oh, but there are guest stars! I didn’t feel it while watching, but afterwards I came to think of these bits as the cut scenes in a video game — a sort of First World War second person shooter. The only actor to make a real impression on me, besides our protags, was the ever-tricksy Andrew Scott, who seizes on his single character trait like a ravening terrier and worries it to death, but he brings the entertainment and isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome. He’s very funny and arguably wrong for the film but I’ll take what fun I can get, thanks.

Some good things: effective use of offscreen space, some non-white characters, very beautiful night scenes.

But I think the film makes some peculiar choices which fly in the face of its own aesthetic. The wall-to-wall music — my impression was it coated around a third of the film — gets in the way of any “realistic” or “immersive” approach. Music is good for many things, but it doesn’t make things more REALISTIC. I would love to have heard what some of the film’s evocatively ravaged landscapes sounded like, without Thomas Newman’s very modern score.

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When we meet a French civilian, she gets subtitles, which I found EXTRAORDINARY. If we’re meant to be sharing the experience of our protag, who doesn’t speak much French but helpfully speaks aloud his translations of the words he understands, how are subs going to help put us in his boots? (This film is really anxious for us to understand everything — when we enter the German trenches and somebody finds a brazier with still-hot ash, he helpfully remarks, “Not long gone.”)

That French civilian is initially afraid of our hero, but she relaxes when he explains that he’s British. Because we’re the good guys. Now, it’s not impossible that this might happen, I suppose. But if I were a French civilian, especially a young woman, I’d probably be a bit nervous of ANY lone soldier, whatever their country of origin. And I think it would make a more dramatic and convincing scene if the hero had to PROVE he meant no harm.

But the film is very committed to its goodies-baddies binary. One protag is stabbed to death by a German pilot he’s just rescued from a burning plane. Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say. The film’s frame of reference — follow two, then one, British soldiers, staying close — means it has limited opportunities to humanize the enemy. The rigor with which it rejects those opportunities is jawdropping.

It’s fine that the protags are pissed off that the Germans have left tripwires and explosives in their path, and killed the livestock and chopped down the cherry trees. We don’t need our characters to be even-handed about things.

The only other German we “meet” is the young soldier our hero throttles. First he claps a hand over the guy’s mouth and tells him to stay quiet. But when he un-gags the guy, he calls for help (he doesn’t get any subtitles though). What an absolute swine.

I *think* the subsequent strangulation was intended, along with the Hun’s youth, to make us think about how horrible hand-to-hand murder must be, but it’s staged in silhouette with another German pottering about obliviously in the background, so the primary emotion is suspense — we’re hoping our man doesn’t get caught. We’re rooting for him to soundlessly asphyxiate this Hun.

In the end, you’ll be glad to know, our chap successfully extinguishes life in his opponent AND delivers his message in time to stop the futile attack (because in WWI, it’s important to know, futile attacks were called off um lemme think for a second NO) AND thus saves the life of his friend’s brother. Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch being a bit grumpy, and his friend being dead, it’s all been a ripping success.

I had my doubts about this war but do you know, I think everything’s going to be fine.

Bigger Than Ever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 8, 2010 by dcairns

From the lustrous new Criterion DVD of BIGGER THAN LIFE. Startling how widescreen those widescreen images are. As the curtain opened, did the screen gradually extend all the way around the auditorium until the curtains met in the back and vanished into the nth dimension? Did the audience have to burrow in through the floor? Did they have to spin the projector very fast in the centre of the theatre? Did anyone ever try bending the screen around to form a Möebius strip and destroy space-time?

“God was wrong!”

This disc is cause for rejoicing on fifteen levels and an additional fifty-three meta-levels, not least because of the booklet essay by friend of Shadowplay B. Kite. It’s not often the Brooklyn Brahma can be tempted from his secret headquarters orbiting 9,000 miles above the Earth’s core, to come forth and startle the world, but whenever he does, the world is duly startled. Apparently I also get a mention in there, which means the throbbing, burning sensation I feel may be my cockles warming, and not angina after all.

Buy from US Amazon here —

Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Bigger Than Life (Criterion Collection)

We Can’t Have Nice Things

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by dcairns

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Images m Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe. Showed this one to a small but appreciative batch of students at Screen Academy Scotland on Wednesday night, and it was interesting to discuss it afterwards. Since the film is both magnificent and flawed (note that I don’t say “but flawed”), a lot of the discussion was about things that didn’t quite live up to the high standard set in the movie’s best scenes, and in particular I got to thinking about the weird fight scene that climaxes the film.

I first encountered the movie in Scorsese’s American Cinema series, where as I recall the clips shown consisted mainly of (a) the broken mirror, (b) the PTA meeting that Mason almost turns into a fascist rally, (c) the scene of James Mason home-schooling his kid, his giant shadow looming on the wall, (d) the dinner scene with Ray tracking relentlessly in on the kid as he listens to pop berate mom — the move swiped in AMERICAN BEAUTY, and (d) the climax with Mason planning to “sacrifice” his son. I think his reading of the Bible, and the line “God was wrong,” may be the reason Eddie Izzard uses James Mason’s voice whenever he “does” God in his stand-up act.

What Scorsese does with these clips is create a miniature version of the film that’s even more brilliant and intense than the real thing. Although Ray’s film, unlike Scorsese’s, gets to build up more momentum, and sets up more nuances and resonances and themes and social critiques (like ripples in a pool, the narrative starts from a single point — a teacher gets sick — then spreads out to cover EVERYTHING), it also contains leaden moments and implausibilities that maybe work against it’s overall success. Or maybe not.

That fight — the Scorsese edit (not a version of the film, I know, merely a sort of helpful precis) ends with Mason, on the point of carrying out his child sacrifice with a pair of scissors, literally seeing red: after all the spots and splashes of red in Ray’s meticulous colour scheme, the entire screen is now engulfed in a sort of blood maelstrom, causing Mason to collapse and his son to escape. The full version of the film then has good old Walter Matthau come to the rescue, resulting in a kind of western brawl, with James and Walter crashing through a banister, smashing furniture to matchwood and tumbling over the couch, a sequence which rather reminds one of the incongruity of casting the slope-shouldered, bow-legged Matthau as a fitness-obsessed gym teacher. Yet the actors seem to struggle through without a lot of obvious stunt-doubling.

Now, once Mason has had his disabling fit of redness, and the kid has escaped, the worst-thing-that-could-happen (that event all stories are heading for) has been averted. So arguably the movie should climax there, without the domestic donnybrook that follows, proceeding directly to the reconciliation scene, with its shades of King Lear, at the hospital, and thence to fadeout. I couldn’t see the purpose of the big punch-up, and found it a bit… embarrassing. But, wrestling with it, I did come up with a sort of explanation for its presence.

Of the several Big Themes weaving their way through the narrative (a story shouldn’t really be able to handle this many, but somehow this one manages it), one of the most prominent is that of the lifestyle that causes sickness. At the film’s start, Mason is holding down two jobs, one of which is kept secret from his wife. To maintain a home befitting a middle-class pillar of the community, Mason must work part-time in a cab company, but he cannot admit to this, because the job itself is beneath his dignity. His illness is brought on by overwork.

Hospital bills then damage the family’s security even more, so that by the time Mason is discharged, under the influence of a miracle drug, he can no longer afford to be ill. This means that when the drug’s side effects start to cause psychosis, Barbara Rush, as Mason’s wife, tries her best to pretend nothing is wrong. Mason’s erratic behaviour at work cannot be excused by illness, because his employers mustn’t suspect he’s not fit to teach. Rush’s desire for the best of everything even emerges when she’s pleading for her son’s life: showing Mason a baby photograph, she reminds him of the “terrible second-hand buggy” they used to push Little Richie around in. It’s a touching, disturbing, and dreadfully funny moment.

All through the narrative financial concerns drive Rush to go along with Mason’s madness, while Mason’s first, and most consistent, symptom of insanity is an utter disregard for money. He buys new dresses for his wife, a bike for his son, quits his part-time job, and plans to go and live in a hotel, embarking on a lifelong educational project (“An entirely new kind of television programme”) that will be completely unpaid. He’ll even go to the hotel in a cab.

So, financial pressures make Mason ill, and madness allows him to escape financial pressures. The cause of these pressures is the family home, a spacious two-storey house with a TV and a boiler that constantly needs fixed. Ergo, the house is the villain of the piece, a sort of symbolic Amityville Horror home. When Mason is taken to hospital after collapsing, he has another attack at the threshold, causing him to clutch the door-jam and make the bell ring for seconds on end. I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m sure it means SOMETHING.

As the domestic conflict and insanity deepens and darkens, property damage mounts, with Rush ironically causing the first smash-up, when she slams the bathroom cabinet and breaks the mirror (uh-oh!). Mason causes further spillages through over-enthusiastic playing with his son, and then the final battle with Matthau produces an ecstasy of destruction — for once, nobody cares what the fixtures and fittings cost, everything can be sacrificed as long as the maniac Mason is subdued.

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“An entirely new kind of television programme…” Incredibly enough, it looks very much like little Christopher Olsen is standing in front of a set that’s showing a scene from THE TARNISHED ANGELS, a film in which he will appear two years later, trapped in the fairground ride we see and hear during this sequence. Weird.