Archive for Bunny Lake is Missing

Otto Destruction

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2020 by dcairns

Luke Aspell jumped in at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour to offer me a piece on Otto Preminger’s ROSEBUD and I naturally jumped at the opportunity, as reading his thoughts would be quicker than reading the making-of book, which I still hope to get around to one day.

Meanwhile, look —

The first line of dialogue in ROSEBUD is “Am I glad to see you!”, said by one Palestinian to another. The American colloquialism of this line has been mocked, but heard in the accent of Moroccan actor Amidou, its incongruity is perfect. In the opening sequence, we’ve followed Yosef Shiloach’s journey to meet him. Now, as both men carefully navigate their way through a casual, friendly chat in English, their vulnerability makes us warm to their characters before we know who they are. The alternatives would have been English dialogue that tries to sound translated, clichés of Arab speech, or subtitles, all of which would imply that we already know all we need to know about these people. Preminger begins by acknowledging his, and our, distance. Our sympathy increases when we meet their traumatised allies. Mme. Tardets is in shock after a car accident five months ago. Kirkbane talked about liking “action”, and Tardets mentioned not having seen Hacam “since Algeria”, but Kirkbane’s description of the collision and its aftermath is the film’s first mention of violence. The perpetrator was “some idiot”. This senselessness, irrelevant in plot terms, is the first indication of the horror with which Preminger regards the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The camaraderie of Hacam, Kirkbane and their comrades is distant from the solitary fanaticism of their leader, just as the friendship of the women they kidnap has nothing to do with the corruption and greed of their parents; the reunion of the Palestinians in the kitchen at Tardets’ farm is echoed in a scene of the women in the galley on the yacht. Such moments of interpersonal warmth are brief, but frequent; there’s a lot of jolliness, pleasure in each other’s company, in ROSEBUD. The tone is exemplified by the child-like grin of achievement Hamlekh (Cliff Gorman) gives his colleague when he finds the right lever to stop the yacht’s engine, or the reaction of Helene (Isabelle Huppert) when Martin (Peter O’Toole) and Shute (Mark Burns) are fooled by the disguise she adopts for the return to Corsica – a disguise which turns out to be completely unnecessary. Plainly, the educational aspect of airport thrillers was what most interested Preminger about them; the way their writers decant technical information into page-turning prose. Cutting away from unnecessary action to make time for explanations action directors would skip, this film is so expositional as to become abstract; free to show us something or have a character describe it, Preminger frequently opts for description, but the description is always also an explanation. An explanation of a yacht’s automatic pilot is a narrative event. The characters move through a world that itself moves around them, and every task they plan and accomplish, every mechanism they understand and explain, is an island of reason in a sea of chaos. This isn’t a metaphysical chaos, but a multiplication of human unknowability.

(On the subject of pleasure in each other’s company, Erik Lee Preminger was aided in writing the screenplay by Marjorie Kellogg and a British writer called Roy Clarke, whose career Preminger chroniclers have yet to bother to look into. My keen hope is that it will turn out to be the Roy Clarke who wrote Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours.)

In the 34 years since his death, the world has had time to catch up with the challenges of Otto Preminger’s late period. HURRY SUNDOWN remains difficult to process, but it has its admirers, and each of the other last films, from BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING onwards, is someone’s idea of a masterpiece. Except, of course, ROSEBUD. In his obituary of Preminger, Andrew Sarris wrote that “Since Laura, the only film he has made that seems utterly beyond revisionist redemption is Rosebud.” Chris Fujiwara has called it “without doubt the hardest of Preminger’s films to defend”. Why? Yes, it’s Munichsploitation, one of its most famous images appears to combine gratuitous female nudity with the racist implication of a threat to white womanhood, half of the cast are non-native English speakers who have to play scenes to each other in English, one of the French actors can’t handle it and is dubbed by That Bloke whose non-specific “foreigner” accent was a fixture of 60s thrillers, the climax is two fingers to anyone who thought they were watching an action movie, and the last scene is an expression of despair guaranteed to depress or offend viewers of all political persuasions, but apart from that?

Really, I shouldn’t joke. None of these faults registers as a fault while the film lasts, and many exhilarating moments have gone undiscussed for far too long. Within its own terms, ROSEBUD is perfect, and to call a bad movie is the least imaginative thing we can do with it. Even if it constitutes a failed attempt at commercial filmmaking — and I don’t think it does — surely everyone knows by now that one of the most revealing insights into a film-maker’s world-view is what they do when they think they’re being commercial and get it wrong? SKIDOO wasn’t the social unifier it was so clearly intended to be, but by now everyone admits it’s (intentionally) hilarious. ROSEBUD is full of things we can laugh at, but they’re more funny peculiar than funny ha ha, and to respond with nothing more than laughter would be to waste the kind of opportunities that viewers of late Preminger are accustomed to taking. In almost every scene, we find him complicating, opposing or ignoring the conventions of the thriller, and replacing them with something more interesting. This is an action thriller with the action (ie. violence) removed, whose climax is aggressively anti-climactic: the kidnappers and their victims are knocked out with a gas, and the jihadist mastermind Sloat (Richard Attenborough) is kidnapped while praying, his men, facing east, neither seeing nor hearing the commandos seizing him behind their backs. Only if Preminger was merely George P. Cosamatos or Andrew V. McLaglen would this be the failure that even Erik Lee Preminger has condemned it as; its ludicrousness, and our disappointment, is the point. As he did with the interminable padding of the prison break sequence in EXODUS, Preminger defies our expectations, but the concision and clarity of the ROSEBUD sequence makes the effect invigorating and provocative rather than tiresome.

In truth, ROSEBUD’s status as Preminger’s most despised work seems ascribable to a mixture of political history, cultural history and political fashion. EXODUS, regarded by many Premingerians as one of his greatest films, is far more gung ho in its Zionism, and far more self-deceiving about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, but it was made before 1967, and therefore isn’t right-wing; ROSEBUD was made in 1974, and therefore is. EXODUS dramatises the debate within Zionism between those who sought to achieve Israel by peaceful means, and those who sought to achieve it by violent ones. Jewishness and Zionism are totally equated; while their means may differ, everyone’s end is the same. Each scene states and restates the desperation of the settlers, the justice of their cause, the magnitude of their suffering, and no honest dissent is conceivable. The scale and production values of EXODUS, despite its rough edges, make it an auteurist’s dream, a director’s film with the resources of a producer’s, but its long stretches of unalloyed propaganda are so obnoxious, and so contrary to Preminger’s best qualities, that to forgive or overlook them, while condemning ROSEBUD for far less, is a scapegoating more perverse than any of the later film’s eccentricities. As Preminger’s films demonstrate, identity is inseparable from circumstance, perspective and experience; a change of circumstances reveals, or may induce, new facets of an individual’s personality. Making a propaganda film with the support of a nation’s government may give one limitless opportunities for expansive mise en scene, but what happens to Preminger’s personality in EXODUS is a greater loss than any spectacle can make up for. Only in its last minutes does the film acknowledge what lies ahead; in ROSEBUD, Preminger regards the predicament of Israel and Palestine with a sense of unassuageable desolation. To expect Preminger to make an anti-Zionist film would be unreasonable, yet ROSEBUD is more humane and balanced than its reputation would suggest. ROSEBUD is most usefully compared not with Palestinian and pro-Palestinian films like THEY DO NOT EXIST (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1974) or Godard (and Gorin) and Mieville’s ICI ET AILLEURS (1976), but with mainstream American thrillers like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) and THE BLACK WINDMILL (Don Siegel, 1974), both of which were reference points during production, or BLACK SUNDAY (John Frankenheimer, 1977), which amounts to a prescription for Palestinian extermination.

ROSEBUD has also suffered from the success of SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!, Theodore Gershuny’s account of its troubled production. Gershuny, who had made some low-budget exploitation films himself, evidently expected an atmosphere of power and luxury, and instead encountered a working environment like a submarine or the kitchen of a fashionable restaurant. He seems to have blamed Preminger for his disappointment. The book contains some good anecdotes, but Gershuny’s voice is monotonously misogynistic, dividing all the women involved in the production into the fuckable and the unfuckable, and Preminger seems to have discerned Gershuny’s attitude early on, establishing a running joke of calling him an “Arab sex maniac”.

The only film of Preminger’s independent phase to which he didn’t retain the copyright, ROSEBUD was compromised by the demands of Preminger’s production partner. He had originally planned to make the villain a Jewish anti-Zionist, but United Artists made their participation conditional on his abandoning this idea. The solution he found was prescient, and preferable to his original conception: a British Islamist at a time when the rise of Islamism was so unthinkable that critics dismissed him as a figure out of melodrama. His arbitrary quality, highlighted by Richard Attenborough’s performance, which emphasises the smallness of fanaticism, is another bug that’s actually a feature. Edward Sloat (as with Senator Donnovan, you may wonder if this is a typo someone missed) is introduced to the plot halfway through the film, in a shot blocked and framed by Preminger to make the outward turn of Cliff Gorman’s right eye as distracting as possible, and then becomes the pretext for a long interlude in Germany that leads nowhere. The journey is the destination, as a long autobahn sequence excised during the editing would have made even more obvious.

Much of ROSEBUD takes place in transit. The characters travel between countries in the space of a single cut; there’s a sense of perpetual motion. Its villain and its hero — though the film isn’t stupid enough to regard him as a hero — are alike stateless. Larry Martin is a British mercenary who generally works for the CIA, Edward Sloat is a British Islamist who leads an unrecognised offshoot of the PLO. When they meet, we have no sense of them relating to each other as fellow Britons in a foreign conflict. Imperialisms of money and the imagination have deracinated them. Cynicism and idealism are equally apt to drive people from their original identities, and it’s in keeping with Preminger’s long history of reservations and caveats that Israel’s ally is a cynic, and its enemy is an idealist. O’Toole’s contrived pronunciation of “Israel” as “Issrile,” in a manner that suggests he’s trying to keep his tongue as far away from his teeth as possible, can be interpreted either as an excessive gesture of respect or an expression of distaste.

When I saw ROSEBUD for the first time, a few years ago, I had the advantage of having already seen THE HUMAN FACTOR several times. A number of ROSEBUD’s challenges anticipate those of Preminger’s last masterpiece, but the extremity of THE HUMAN FACTOR makes it easier for us to recognise its achievement; we can’t mistake it for an attempt to make a normal film of its ostensible genre, whereas we can mistake ROSEBUD for a botched commercial thriller. While I wouldn’t now say that ROSEBUD is on the level of Preminger’s other 70s films, I would rank it at the top of the second division of his works, roughly at the level of FALLEN ANGEL and WHIRLPOOL. In SKIDOO, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON and SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, Preminger situated disruptive subjective perceptions — hallucinations, traumatic memories, fantasies — within “objective” worlds of debateable naturalism. In ROSEBUD, the subjectivity and the objectivity have mingled indivisibly. The narration perceives and accepts its inventions as inventions. Far from being an “empty” rejection of a world that has become “unreal”, ROSEBUD continues Preminger’s ongoing project of meeting and accepting the complexity of reality, to a degree too profound for realism, liberated and isolated, as he has been since TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON, by the death of the American cinema. (Or, if you prefer, the death of classicism.)

A last example of how richly Premingerian this despised film is: Peter Lawford plays Lord Carter, an apparently stuffy, hidebound character, with a feathered hairdo. Preminger seems to have cast him primarily for friendship’s sake and secondarily for his value as a celebrity. This kind of casting is nothing new in Preminger, and not even unprecedented in his use of Lawford; consider his pro-filmic, or metatextual — if we classify Lawford’s celebrity life as another media “text” — casting as Lafe Smith in ADVISE & CONSENT, the faux-insider in-joke who unexpectedly turns into a classic Preminger observation about human mystery — and, indirectly, his being a Kennedy stand-in, about leadership. (From the same film, another example of this approach is the characters’ expressions of respect for Seeb Cooley, which pile up past the point of dramatic utility, and begin to feel more like tributes to Charles Laughton, whose last film this was.) Carter is given what are, by implication, the most Zionism-agnostic lines of the film, advising against negotiation with reference to an experience he had during the Mau Mau Uprising. The thinkability of the comparison — if the Palestinians are the Kenyans, who are the British? — and of putting it in the mouth of the film’s most literally incredible, conspicuous performer (Lindsay being its most conspicuous non-performer), endorses Carter’s thinking, discredits it, and leaves us thinking. That Preminger gives this speech to the actor who represented English anti-Semitism in EXODUS makes it even more remarkable. As always, Preminger’s thinking remains joined-up; the sublime and the crass are indivisible. In BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Cécile’s flashbacks begin as she listens to Juliette Greco singing an original song, also called “Bonjour Tristesse”, which was obviously commissioned and written to serve as a promotional tie-in. In Preminger, every but is an and. Patrice (Georges Beller) errs in expecting Sabine (Brigitte Ariel) to place ideological purity above family affection. She and her friends are sympathetic and funny; Patrice is a prig, but/and Margaret (Lalla Ward) is a reactionary. Kirkbane says he doesn’t want to hurt people when he kills them, but/and expresses satisfaction when his perfect weapon works as planned. The way he told it, Preminger didn’t really begin making Preminger films until he was also producing them; the practical financial considerations that other narratives of film art screen off from aesthetic matters were, for him, part of the same thing; producer-director is one job, not two. His embrace of practicalities went beyond pragmatism to become an ideal in itself; in the opening credits of THE CARDINAL, “and John Huston as Glennon” is followed by “Bobby (Morse) and the Adora-Belles”, an in-joke crediting a fictional vaudeville act as though they were a real pop group. This is seen against the superb, possibly Saul Bass-storyboarded graphic beauty of shots which introduce our protagonist walking alone through Rome. Aesthetics, prestige and tackiness are joined together in economic and artistic reciprocity.


Time Travails

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2020 by dcairns

Chris Schneider returns, with a look at a particularly evocative episode of The Outer Limits.

There’s talk in “The Forms of Things Unknown,” a gorgeous and atmospheric OUTER LIMITS episode which has stuck with me through the years, of overlapping strands of time, of the past intermingling with the present. Which is appropriate, since “Forms” itself is filled with overlapping imagery from different familiar stories.

First “Forms” reminds us of LES DIABOLIQUES, since we’re shown two women (Vera Miles, Barbara Rush) plotting to kill a demonic man (Scott Marlowe). Then, what with the corpse stuffed in a car, it’s PSYCHO — a resemblance accented by the involvement of PSYCHO’s Joseph Stefano as writer. Then, since there’s talk of parallel time tracks accompanied by the sight of Miles looking beauteously vicious, it’s that TWILIGHT ZONE episode with scary Miles entitled “Mirror Image.” Finally, once Miles and Rush have taken shelter from the rain in the rural home of blind Sir Cedric Hardwicke and odd young David McCallum, it’s COLD COMFORT FARM-style tales of “I saw something *nasty* in the attic room!”

Stefano, as we say, wrote it. The director is Gerd Oswald of A KISS BEFORE DYING. The first-rate cinematography is by Conrad Hall — including one of the earliest (1964) examples to come to mind of a freeze-frame in commercial tv storytelling. An additional bonus is the first use by composer Dominic Frontiere of his famous theme for THE INVADERS (“Dah-dah DAAHH!”).

“Forms” has, as one 1930s character once phrased it, “stacks of style” — even though that might mean more atmosphere than, um, clarity. It functions as an “old dark house” story, with distraught Rush seeing flashes of seemingly-dead Marlowe and the possibility left open that this is a product of her hysteria. The uncertainty of it all extends to Hardwicke and McCallum. Hardwicke appears to be the enigmatic butler for McCallum, but it’s Hardwicke who’s the host and McCallum the guest.

To the extent that there’s a coherent plot, it’s this: once upon a time McCallum, while working on his odd clocks-and-strings time-travel device, accidentally killed himself, but … something in the device *worked*, and he was revived. At present, his device has revived Marlowe, but the conclusion is reached that Marlowe is thoroughly objectionable— and Something Must Be Done. We learn, as an afternote, that McCallum began this fiddling with mortality as a child when his mother died and he determined not to return to school until he found a way of bringing her back.

Lots of atmosphere here, be it repeated. The initial murder, which involves Miles and Rush wading fully-dressed in a lagoon — ah, the pervy game-playing! —in order to bring Marlowe his (poisoned) drink looks like it takes place in a debauched Eden. There’s a lot of hypnotized staring, later on, at the mechanical figure of a tightrope walker, accompanied by a Frontiere waltz. And did we mention the WILD STRAWBERRIES-style funeral apparition?

Vera Miles is always more appealing being “evil” than when she’s earnest, and she’s wonderful here. Hardwicke, who’s unsettling, comes within a hair’s-breadth of the camp of Noel Coward in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Rush is ever shrieking and holding up her hands, while running, as if to avoid ruining her nails. Surely some of the comedy of this not-so-young (infantalized?) ingenue and her voluptuous distress is deliberate. Marlowe laughs and looks good semi-undressed. McCallum has a wide-eyed, slightly inbred quality which is not mad and not *not* mad.

The style of “The Forms of Things Unseen” is definitely mid-‘60s — camera zooms included — but style there is, and plenty of it. To be cherished, for the most part.

My urge was to cherish, certainly, the moment I heard Miles mutter “Nobody ever helps a grave-digger …”

*

The cast, as David Cairns would say, includes Lila Crane; Jehan Frollo; Vito Pellegrino; Joyce Phillips; and Ducky.

An Odyssey in Bits: Keir Dullea and Gone Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks to the acid wit of Noel Coward for the title. Noel co-starred with Dullea (happily still very much here today) in Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

2001’s second superimposed caption appears: it’s not altogether certain that THE DAWN OF MAN has finished (it was apparently in play all through the orbital and lunar ballet) but at any rate the JUPiTER MISSION has begun.What was strange to me, this time around, was how fast this section of the film seems to go by, when you watch it in isolation. The pace of the shots may be slowish, but the narrative is super-economical.1. The Discovery sails past us.

(Various spaceship designs were considered with various propulsion systems, but the final look chosen is less about scientific practicality and more about style. The bony colouring adds to the Discovery’s resemblance to a giant skull and spinal cord. Also a little like a spermatozoa. So it also makes me think of the miniature Spike-creatures in ERASERHEAD.) 2. We cut to inside Kubrick’s giant hamster wheel. Here’s Gary Lockwood jogging, in a whole series is striking shots, including an up-butt angle as startling as the one George Sidney devotes to Ann-Margret in VIVA LAS VEGAS. Bruce Bennett’s citation of TRAPEZE as an influence gets backed up here — not only for the earlier use of the Blue Danube, but for turning the image sideways so it can fill the WS frame. It’s true that Kubrick lingers over these images, but they’re well worth it. My problem with EYES WIDE SHUT was its, to my mind erronious, supposition that Tom Cruise walking down a street or into an apartment was worthy of the same following-too-close attention.

(How does the craft generate its gravity? It’s not rotating in the exterior shots. Is there actually a big rotating wheel inside it for the living space? Seems to be the case. Wild.) 3. & 4. Then we get a couple of video bits — Lockwood’s taped message from home, and the BBC interview with the crew and HAL, which infodumps all the necessary exposition on us in a reasonable engaging and natural way.

Bowman and Poole have i-Pads so they can watch TV as they down their space-chow (from plastic pallettes packed with nutritional coloured pastes. Yummy).5. And then HAL is glitching right away — his mental breakdown is really just as speedy as Jack Torrence’s in THE SHINING. It’s when he says, “Just a moment. Just a moment.” Computers shouldn’t repeat themselves. It feels wrong. Later, he will repeat himself A LOT, so I know I’m right.

Dullea and Lockwood are beautifully blank. GL said they looked at reports on what astronauts were like, and their inexpressive performances reflect the demands that those fired into space should NOT be hysterical, hand-flapping types of furious fist-wavers. Ryan Gosling’s unemotive Neil Armstrong in FIRST MAN makes this a big story point, whereas Kubrick and Clarke and the cast just take it for granted. The fact that HAL is more appealing and warm is certainly no accident — Kubrick liked machines. Unfortunately, the story he’s telling requires HAL to turn homicidal, so this is far from the “alternative Frankenstein myth” he hoped to achieve with A.I., proving to us that our machines might be our heirs, our best hope of leaving something of ourselves behind.HAL trounces Poole at chess.

Clarke thought it a shame that the film didn’t make clear the reason for HAL’s malfunction: mission control had instructed him to withhold the true purpose of the voyage, in effect to lie, which was against his programming. (To lie is already to err.) When he tries to sound out Dullea’s Dave Bowman about the mission parameters, he’s probably looking for a chance to open up and get things off his metallic chest. Bowman brushes him off, and so he has to kill all the damn humans who are clearly going to screw this thing up. Again, his motivation connects him with Jack Torrence’s rant about “MY responsibilities to my employers,” though he expresses himself with a less hysterical tone.

I read somewhere that all Kubrick films are about somebody being entrusted with administering a system, and then screwing it up due to “human error.” Which sounds sort of right, but then you need to get out the old shoehorn to make it fit LOLITA (how not to be a step-parent) and THE SHINING (how not to look after a hotel: a sort of Fawlty Towers with axe murders) and EYES WIDE SHUT continues to be an outlier (the system failing to be administered is what, adultery?). But anyway, mission control has screwed up royally, somewhere in between the Clavius freak-out signal and this sequence, and now our eerily calm astronauts are going to pay the price. 6. The first EVA scene, though we’re our Extra Vehicular Activity is taking place in another, smaller vehicle. Contemporary critics harped on about the heavy breathing here, as if it were a showy and clumsy stylistic touch, rather than a logical solution to the problem of What can you hear in space? Kubrick alternates bold silences with music and subjective space-suit sound, all of which are great choices.

(William Friedkin on the excellent The Movies That Made Me podcast complained of Kubrick’s extreme low angle shot in THE SHINING when Jack talks to the food locker door. “Who’s POV is that meant to be?” But it’s another logical solution: how to shoot a man talking to a door and see all of his face rather than a profile. If you just do very logical things, like a machine would do them, maybe you will develop a striking personal style, because everyone has their own logic. And that’s why there’s so much trouble in this world.)7. HAL can read lips.

(Just like in real life, as soon as somebody goes a bit wrong mentally, everyone else starts tiptoeing around and lying and humouring them and unintentionally but very effectively escalating their paranoia…)

Though his eyeball was a fisheye lens earlier, and I think he even asks Dave to hold his drawings closer, but now he has a zoom and can follow a conversation in which his two pals are plotting to murder him. Which confirms him in his decision to off them first, which presumably he was going to do anyway since why else is he tricking them into cutting off communication with Earth and going E.V.A.?

And at this point, Kubrick goes audaciously to an intermission, and so shall I.Incidentally, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY stars the Marquis de Sade; Sir George; Sam Slade; Emanuel Shadrack; Lord Beaverbrook; Off-camera voice of Jesus; Scrimshaw’s henchman; Commander Ed Straker and Hank Mikado.

Imagine you somehow find yourself watching a sixties Canadian TV play and the off-camera voice of Jesus rings out and it’s instantly, chillingly recognizable as the dulcet tones of HAL-9000.

Also, you should see the 1957 version of OEDIPUS REX directed by Tyron Guthrie and Abraham Polonsky, in which among the voices issuing from behind Greek tragic masks are those of Douglas Rain and William Shatner. Sophocles has never seemed so interstellar!