Archive for Buck Henry

To Look for America

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by dcairns

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The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.

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We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.

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The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?

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Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.

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Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?

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Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.

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A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.

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The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.

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Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.

Quote of the Day

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2008 by dcairns

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: You mean to say you can actually legally kill someone?

Don Masters, CEA Agent: Yeah, and it bothers me sometimes that I don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t you think that’s psychotic behavior?

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: No I don’t! It explains your utter lack of hostility. You can vent your aggressive feelings by actually killing people! It’s a sensational solution to the hostility problem.

Head shrinker

THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker. Yes, Flicker.

Supposedly, T.J.F. presaged the shoot by telling his crew, “I want to make the most realistic film ever.”

“Well, he failed,” observes Fiona.

“Or… succeeded,” I argue.

Spy Kids

Things that strike me as realistic in this film:

The various American secret services hate each other and are happy to see each other killed by foreign powers.

The American and Russian masterspies each have a cordial, indeed affectionate, relationship with their opposite numbers.

Rampant capitalism is a more enduring threat to freedom than communism.

The president is worried about Libya (in 1967, this idea was humorous — it has since COME TRUE).

A psychiatrist uses his techniques to turn a Russian agent.

Politics cause neuroses, which cause politics.

Flicker’s previous film was a zero-budget comedy co-written with Buck Henry, THE TROUBLEMAKER. Presumably Paramount and James Coburn thought he might have an angle on what the kids were after, so they handed him a big budget spy caper. T.J.F. brought with him some of the actors he’d used in his debut, like comedian/thesp Godfrey Cambridge, and Second City improv star Severn Darden.

Some GOOD GAGS in this film! I like the meaningless joke of all the F.B.R. agents being really short. There’s no obvious reason for it but it’s quietly, increasingly hilarious. And when they’re around, the cutting goes all Dragnet, with that back-and-forth q&a shot-countershot rhythm based entirely on the dialogue, with no reaction shots allowed.

“Oh, it’s the ‘Pudlians,” remarks a hippychick called Snow White with no real enthusuasm, and a rock band with bonnets and mockney accents appear, who turn out to be ruthless operatives from the Canadian secret service. Before we can really anticipate how much comic materiel can be mined from this idea, they’re dead, slain by F.B.R. short-arses.

And then there’s the inexplicably festive ending, in which Lalo Schiffrin trots out the best version of “Joy to the World” ever.

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