Archive for Breakfast at Tiffany’s

A Delicate Operation

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by dcairns

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

Advertisements

Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by dcairns

 

Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.

 

“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature, that existence begins and ends, is man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came… acceptance. All this vast majesty of Creation, it had to mean something… and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…