Archive for Casualties of War

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.

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Going Dutch

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by dcairns

“Where’s your compassion?”

“Nowhere YOU can get at it!”

doubt

The questioner is Philip Seymour Hoffman (a Jack Kirby drawing of a baby) and the answer comes from Meryl Streep (Mrs Doubtfire) in DOUBT, the Oscar-nommed drama from John Patrick Shanley. Way back around 1992 I saw half of Shanley’s JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO on TV and thought it did a very good job of capturing some of the eccentricity of classic Hollywood comedy (Luggage salesman: “May you live a thousand years.”) and it was disappointing that Shanley didn’t continue as a director thereafter.

Now he’s back with a very Oscar-worthy (read: worthy) filmed play which does make good use of his comedic skills, while progressively trundling into darker territory. It’s perfectly good, and exactly the kind of thing the Academy likes, and so do a lot of other people. While it’s been opened out from the stage version, it’s still theatrical/televisual at heart, with characters continually pausing at the door to deliver a parting shot, like Columbo. Top cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots it, but the only real gesture towards “cinema” is the frequent recourse to that old cod-expressionist standby, the Dutch tilt.

I think, in the case of DOUBT, the technique is too obtrusive, too obvious (“The world has slipped off its axis!”) and unsupported by sufficient stylistic ebullience elsewhere in the filmmaking, apart from some nicely coloured walls, so it sticks out as a lone grab at aesthetic awareness. And this is one of the problems of the technique. How and when can you use it?

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MR ARKADIN throws a wobbly.

My friend Comrade K, a sort of Saint Michael figure positioned at the gates of art, deciding which techniques should be allowed through, takes a hard line on the Dutch tilt, allowing its value in the sole case of Orson Welles. I think THE THIRD MAN gets a partial pass by association, and probably he’d allow Raoul Ruiz, since R.R. uses technical language the way a balloon artist uses latex, and who could criticise funny balloon animals? I agree that Welles’ canted angles are beautiful and striking, and his stylistic brio is so fulsome all round that they don’t even stand out as being extreme or eccentric, surrounded as they are by so much creative perversity.

But if anything I find Reed’s THIRD MAN tilts perhaps even more interesting. One distinguishing feature is that they are mostly but not all POV shots, and that they tend to come in clusters. Once one D.T. has been used, a second starts to feel very desirable, preferably going the other way to balance it. So while the first example may have a certain sore-thumb quality, the second will be easier to take, and so on. Also, in the exotic Viennese ambiance of this particular film, askew views seem almost natural, a part of the cityscape. I feel as I watch the film that Vienna must actually look like that, and so it does, if you lean your head onto one shoulder.

I confess to mixed feelings about Ophuls’ use of the D.T.s. While a certain world-out-of-balance vibe is sometimes conjured by Ophulsian slants, sometimes the effect feels more decorative, and since Ophuls pushes the decorative to an extreme, sometimes this feels like perhaps a step too far. I’m not overly bothered, mind you, it’s just an item in his stylistic arsenal that I admire a bit less than the others.

Brian DePalma’s sloping compositions in CASUALTIES OF WAR feel more like the ones in DOUBT. When Michael J. Fox reports a case of rape and murder to his superior officer, and is told not to rock the boat, DePalma capsizes the whole film with a TITANIC-type list to starboard. The meaning is crashingly obvious, but so is the whole film, a sincere yet borderline cartoonish morality play where subtlety has no place and so a moment like this is not only acceptable, but barely distinguishable from the stylistic swagger elsewhere. Good luck to him.

Who else does good Dutch?

“He had the Devil’s own eye.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2008 by dcairns

 you're thinking about a brick wall

Very much enjoyed talking about Jack Clayton to students the other day. First lecture of term is usually a bit shambolic, and the room and equipment didn’t help here, but Clayton’s films are quite accessible and it’s certainly easy to find good scenes to extract: there are so many stand-out moments in THE INNOCENTS and maybe especially THE PUMPKIN EATER that it’s hard to limit oneself to one or two per film.

My CD of Georges Delerue’s original score to SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES just arrived, so I’m listening to that as I write. Pretty criminal of Disney to have fired the sublime Delerue and hired James Horner instead, but I will admit to rather liking the Horner score, which has a pleasingly Halloweeny sound.

Since Disney never throw ANYTHING away, the idea of a restored director’s cut of SWTWC is perfectly practical. Removing the V.O. and changing the score would be very simple, and would already make a bug difference. The only thing standing in the way of this is the fact that there’s no obvious money to be made from such a project — unlike BLADE RUNNER, this film hasn’t grown in reputation since it’s first, unsuccessful release. (I remember waiting for it to play Edinburgh, but it never even came.)

Looking at Clayton’s work as a whole was a pleasure — bits link up in unusual ways. The fly that buzzes on the soundtrack of THE INNOCENTS, presaging the appearance of ghosts, moves onscreen for THE GREAT GATSBY, where it alights on a sandwich mysteriously abandoned in the echoing mansion house.

Woman in Black

The influence of the past on the present, embodied by those ghosts, receives an echo in THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE, when Judith’s drinking friend appears as a shadowy, blurred reflection in the background of a shot, fading up as Judith remembers her.

Clayton’s fondness for overlapping images became more obvious, from the lap-dissolved dream in THE INNOCENTS to the slow mix that takes us from a giant billboard image of bespectacled eyes (the Eyes of God) to the blood-smeared headlights of Gatsby’s car. A slightly overdone effect, maybe, and one that anticipates even more vulgar pictorial effects in Coppola’s DRACULA (Coppola scripted Clayton’s GATSBY).

in the mouth of madness

But despite these interconnections, Clayton’s was such a discontinuous career that one can’t help feeling that vital parts are missing, films that would help make sense of the whole oevre if Clayton had been allowed to make them: projects like CASUALTIES OF WAR and THE TENANT, later realised by other filmmakers; projects never yet realised, like adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, Jessamyn West’s MASSACRE AT FALL CREEK, or James Kennaway’s SILENCE.

(All this from Neil Sinyard’s excellent book, Jack Clayton.)

SILENCE was killed by Barry Diller when he took charge of 20th Century Fox. Diller is rumoured to be the model for Mr Burns in The Simpsons, and the fact that he cancelled the project without even reading the script caused Clayton to throw several chairs through that executives plate glass office window.

The story of a mute black woman known only as “Silence”, the unmade film acquired a prophetic significance when Clayton himself lost the power of speech after a stroke. Re-learning language and re-starting his career was an incredible feat — rather than regretting that Clayton made so few films, maybe I should just be grateful he was able to make as many as he did.

Free Mason

British teeth

Stills from THE INNOCENTS and THE PUMPKIN EATER.