Archive for Biographical Dictionary of Film

Correspondence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2008 by dcairns

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‘interesting fact: if you google “david cairns”, shadowplay comes out at the bottom of the page; if you google “christina alepi”, shadowplay is the first result. (!) Typing my own name is the quickest way to get to your blog (after bookmarking, but it can’t beat googling my OWN NAME!)’
~ Christina Alepi, via Facebook.

A few things happening with the old email and Facebook, which I just joined in a spirit of “Why not?” Maybe once I year I do something daft like that: about a year ago I started a blog. Yep, Shadowplay celebrates her birthday on December 1st. Will have to think of some special way to mark it. Suggestions welcome.

Some time back I got one of the few bits of negative commentary I’ve had here, after reviewing a depressing British horror “comedy” called THE COTTAGE. I’ve tended to avoid trashing stuff most of the time, since it’s nice to be nice and it seems more interesting to find the exciting or strange bits of films and pare away the dull stuff, but when it comes to modern British cinema I sometimes get a bit upset. Anyhow, the piece attracted an irked comment from someone pretty obviously connected with the movie, but I never knew who. But when I joined Facebook, it swept through my emails looking for contacts, and suddenly identified the commenter as actor Reece Shearsmith, one of the stars of the film. Mystery solved!

Not sure how I feel about this, since I’m a fan of the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, and would have said at least some nice things about THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE, which seemed an honorable attempt to do something interesting in British cinema. So it’s not like Shearsmith was ever on my shitlist. (Do I have a shitlist? Note to self: compile shitlist.) I may have said something about his performance in THE COTTAGE not quite working, but that’s kind of the same as calling him a flawless genius, since the rest of the film doesn’t work the way a dead horse doesn’t work as an air freshener.

More pleasant correspondence: after the excellent Charles Drazin suggested I contact David Thomson and let him in on The Great Duvivier Giveaway, my scheme to reshape the movie canon, in hopes of getting him to change his mind about Julien Duvivier and maybe rewrite his rather critical piece in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, I wrote to Thomson with a disc of LA FIN DU JOUR, and received this very charming reply:

Dear Mr Cairns,

I was touched to receive your letter and the DVD of La Fin du Jour.  On the spot, I proposed you to the House of Edinburgh Saints (your only fellow there is Mark Cousins – maybe you know each other).

[We do.]

As it happens, yours is not the first plea on behalf of Duvivier. The other one came from no less than Stephen Sondheim (at the Telluride Film Festival). So I am re-examining the matter, and I am very grateful to you for the prompting.

More to come, I’m sure.

All good wishes

David Thomson

So I seem to be in good company. I wonder, if you’re David Thomson, if you’re constantly getting grabbed by bloggers and composers and bums off the street who want to convert you to the cause of John Ford or Tony Richardson or William Wyler?

Makes me think I’m lucky I only have the cast of THE COTTAGE to contend with.

In other news: I was vaguely thinking of starting Borzage Week in a week’s time, but since I have a number of pieces all ready and nothing else to post of any substance, I’m bringing it forward to Monday 17th. That’ll still give us time to invent something suitably exciting for December 1st.

The hearth moved

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2008 by dcairns

Ground-breaking sexual shenanigans from Jules Dassin’s PHAEDRA. Faced with the challenging task of manufacturing sexual chemistry between his wife, Melina Mercouri, and Anthony Perkins, Dassin pulls out all the stops. The result is like a MOVIE MASH-UP of love scene clichés — soft focus; roaring fireplace; clenching hands; rain battering on window; the sweeping music of Mikis Theodorakis on the gramophone (there will be NO remarks about Anthony Perkins and Greek love in this post. Apart from this one). By the end it’s a wonder there’s a stick of furniture intact in that apartment.

David Thomson in his BioDic of Film, writes, “In good company, and a little drunk, HE WHO MUST DIE, PHAEDRA and 10.30PM SUMMER might cure would-be suicides.” I’ll allow that Dassin skirts the edges of absurdity in 10.30, and PHAEDRA looks like it plunges headlong into a basin of ludicrous pomp, but I still get a kick out of this scene. The effect is overdone but the individual elements are orchestrated with great skill — I like the compositions and editing and music.

I heard of an English teacher one time who would object to purple passages of sexual action in DH Lawrence with the words, “But it’s not LIKE that!” which is a good argument, though not necessarily one that should take precedence over all other concerns. I don’t think it applies to Dassin — taken metaphorically, his sex scene could be seen as quite authentic. Unless what you’re after is complete authenticity (which would mean SOUND EFFECTS, and none of us wants THAT) evoking the corny (there’s rarely anything ORIGINAL about sex) but overwhelming emotions of what General Ripper calls “the physical act of love” seems reasonable, and doing it without fear of looking silly seems at least commendable.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment that the exhilerating and goofy William Tell Overture time-lapse threesome in CLOCKWORK ORANGE was in part a reaction to the way movies tend to solemnize sex, and he had a point there, but sex is very often quite humourless. There’s plenty of room for giggling at the start, but there comes a point where that could be  OFF-PUTTING.

So, if sex is overwhelming, serious, and best treated in a stylised way — Dassin is surely the man for the job. He was dismissed for his “strained seriousness” by Andrew Sarris, but that seems somehow wrong: it’s no strain for Dassin to be serious. His lighter films from this period, TOPKAPI and NEVER ON SUNDAY, seem far more effortful (though I love TOPKAPI and make allowances for NOS).

Dassin was a Sexual Pioneer! The bisexual triangle of 10.30PM SUMMER must have been strong stuff for 1966. I also think there’s enough textual evidence in his work to deduce a keen interest in sado-masochism (whippings abound in THE LAW, RIFIFI…)

Two Ladies

Sex, in the movies, is fraught with difficulty. Maybe because it’s universal but also distinctly personal. There’s a cringe-making story of a well-known actor who, in his first sex scene, grabbed his partner by the hair and began slamming her head off the pillow. “Cut! What are you doing?” He was totally perplexed. What’s the problem? Doesn’t everybody do it this way?

Everybody does it every which way! The first sex scene in a mainstream movie is supposed to be in ECSTASY, in 1933. Director Gustav Machatý attempted to evoke an orgasmic reaction from his star Hedy Lamarr by pricking her feet with a pin. “That would just be really annoying,” says my partner. “Maybe everybody Gustav Machatý slept with found him really annoying.”

a little prick

Another technique — in RED ROAD, an actress appears to receive oral sex. In reality she was holding half a peach between her thighs for her co-star to munch on. Hey, it’s a system!

In SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, Barbet Schroeder wanted to film a more than usually convincing blow-job, so he purchased a dildo for Jennifer Jason Leigh to fellate: the hope was to show she had SOMETHING in her mouth without offending the censor by showing WHAT. But, perhaps fearful of insulting his male lead, Schroeder acquired a jaw-breakingly enormous plastic dinosaur appendage…

DON’T LOOK NOW is justly famous for it’s cinematically beautiful love scene. One story I heard, from former producer/director turned educationalist Brent MacGregor, who heard it from an assistant editor, casts an interesting light on the scene. Supposedly, Donald Sutherland was more “into” the sex scene than co-star Julie Christie, which resulted in (a) her walking off the set after one take and (b) Warren Beatty bursting into the cutting room and attempting to beat up director Nicolas Roeg.

I don’t generally credit such gossip, but a couple of aspects of it at least make sense — if you look at the actual lovemaking, MOST of what you see is consistent with a single hand-held shot. But bits of the shot were unusable as the cameraman was clambering over the bed, etc. With only one continuous take, partly no good, Roeg was forced to intercut, and all he could intercut WITH was neutral material, the couple dressing to go out (which would have to have been shot deliberately for the purpose, later, if we buy this version of events). And thus is born a thing of immense beauty and poetic resonance.

Donald Sutherland reports being locked in that bedroom “for hours” with Roeg, Christie, and an extremely noisy unblimped camera. But what’s seen in the film isn’t consistent with such a prolonged shoot. And what’s been rumoured about Roeg’s swinging lifestyle might be consistent with the desire to go a little further than usual in the name of realism…

Donald Fuck

(Also — looking through the scene for not-too-explicit frame grabs, I realised that it’s quite a bit more explicit than I’d previously thought. Much of the “stronger stuff” is compositionally decentred and hard to spot due to the pace of cutting, but… let’s just say I hope Julie Christie remembered to bring half a peach to the set…)

The Chills #5: What time is love?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2008 by dcairns

The Clock 

Jules Dassin definitely deserves a Shadowplay Chills moment of his own. NIGHT AND THE CITY arguably has several — it certainly has the sweatiest leading man performance, from the atomic-powered Richard Widmark. Somebody recently described his character as a manic-depressive, and I thought that was probably a good diagnosis but it somehow takes away from the film. If Harry Fabian has a medical condition, his mistakes are not really his own. The left-leaning film-makers’ noirs tend to be very consciously about WRONG VALUES, like Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER. They can be taken as a guide to how not to live your life, what not to desire. Maybe the best thing is to simultaneously hold the idea of Fabian as a psychologically tormented victim, and also, contrarily, as a product of a society that values success at any price — and it must be EXTRAVAGANT success.

The Crowd

A society.

Be that as it may, the clip I’ve plumped for is from the amazing 10.30PM SUMMER. Not everyone will approve. David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, recommends Dassin’s European art-house efforts as a cure for depression — he finds them unintentionally hilarious. I think Dassin is courageous for being unconcerned whether people like Thomson snicker.

The Old Crowd

Everybody’s a critic.

He’s attempting to fuse the qualities of European art-house movies — Antonioni, the nouvelle vague, the shade of Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT to come, with the overwrought, operatic effusion of silent melodrama. Catalogue this one next to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and MOONRISE as a headlong plunge into cinema antiquity, coupled with a few paths not followed — it’s a vision of cinema from an alternate universe. OK, maybe it’s a universe where people think Melina Mercouri looks good as a blonde, but with a little imagination we can all go there.

10.30PM SUMMER is available on DVD in France and the USA.

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