Archive for Charles Manson

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2022 by dcairns

This piece contains spoilers and in fact they’ve already started.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel identifies the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Sword, famine, Wild Beasts and Pestilence but in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations their names are given as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But here’s Lucio Fulci to settle the debate: they are Stubby, Bunny, Clem and Bud. As played by Fabio Testi, Lynn Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird. The judge’s decision shall be final.

We really enjoyed FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… (1974). It’s unusual. Alex Cox is fairly dismissive of it, as he is of all post-1970 spaghettis. He points out that with its pop music soundtrack and soft-focus, backlit, long lens cinematography, it strongly resembles a TV commercial of the period. I’d Like to Buy the World a Gun. This is true, and the songs are fairly diabolical, though they do add to the weirdness which is one of the film’s key virtues, and Fulci’s love of diffusion is evident in his horror movies too. Giving a romantic gloss to hardcore prosthetic gore is agreeably perverse.

The violence has a point, which coincides with what I take to be the point of Fulci’s horror films, which aren’t scary but deal with a disturbing idea — human beings are composed of meat. Fulci being a doctor (!), like George Miller (!), he seems to have had a sense of mission in teaching us this valuable if depressing truth. (The sadism in Fulci is clinical and lacks joi de vivre, it’s more squalid and abject.)

The colour-supplement beauty may have a point too, but at any rate for those who don’t enjoy the Leone aesthetic — orange makeup, clogged pores in massive close-up, dust — here’s an alternative. Scenic beauty and spouting rubber appliances.

As with his previous (1966) western, MASSACRE TIME (haven’t seen it yet, but going by Cox’s report), Fulci stages a lot of squib-splatter effects, not otherwise seen much in the Italian west. If he was doing that in ’66 he was really ahead of the curve — ahead of Penn and Peckinpah. I’ll check that one out and report back.

Fiona christened these guys “the notorious Elephant Man Gang.”

This one begins with multiple “explosive bullet hits” spurting red, red vino in an opening massacre largely unconnected to whatever plot the film has (arguably, it has none). While it’s going on, our main characters are spending a night in the jail, which introduces them. Fabio Testi (literally “Fabulous Balls”) is a smooth gambler, Lynn Frederick, soon to marry Peter Sellers, is a pregnant hooker, Michael J Pollard is passed-out drunk (and, in reality, apparently high as a kite) and Harry Baird is a gravedigger who sees dead people. While the town’s other undesirables are being slaughtered by white-hooded vigilantes, and the sheriff stuffs his ears with bread, Fulci crash-zooms in on Baird’s frightened face…

Run out of town on a cart, our ill-matched quartet head for the next town — and never get there. That’s the closest thing to a plot. Also, they meet up with outlaw Tomas Milian, who carves inverted crosses carved under his eyes and is basically a wild west Charles Manson, an idea I suppose someone was bound to explore at some point. Manson’s actually living on a wild west movie set makes it inevitable.

Milian, much less appealing than in DJANGO, KILL! (a Christlike Yojimbo) or THE BIG GUNDOWN (a scrappy underdog), is a horrific villain. His arrival triggers a spate of actual animal killing, in the Italian cannibal movie vein: he’s a one-man REGLE DE JEU hunting party. Getting the foursome high on some ill-defined peyote or something, he stakes them out in the desert and rapes the stoned Frederick. This is staged in a very spaghetti western manner — a lingering build-up with a startlingly sudden conclusion. It’s at once highly exploitative and slightly squeamish, as if Fulci wanted to get the sadists aroused and then leave them high and dry.

The four, having briefly become five, are now reduced to three, two, one. Pollard, a veteran of the European western, having played romantic lead (!) in LES PETROLEUSES/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING, dies (too soon!) from a gunshot wound. Baird goes fully schizo and serves Pollard’s severed buttock to his friends as a meal, then capers off. ALWAYS ask what the “large animal” your crazy friend found and butchered actually is.

Frederick gives birth, and dies. Her baby, born in an all-male town of eccentric outlaws, is adopted by the whole community, and christened “Lucky.”

“What’s the surname?” wondered Fiona.

“Bastard,” I suggest.

The slender thread of plot running through the latter half has been a revenge quest — Testi gets his revenge, in a messy and unpleasant manner, and walks off, crying.

W.H. Auden said that works of art are not divided into the good and bad (and ugly), but the interesting and boring. This movie is, I submit, interesting. Lots of implausible, childish stuff, but Fulci for once seems to actually care about and like his characters, or at least made us do so. Everyone is post-synched but apart from Testi, their real voices have been used — Frederick’s combination of wild west saloon gal and stage school brat is rather adorable, and Baird just plays it with his Guyanan accent. Revenge is an imperative, but it’s main value is, it seems, to allow the hero to grieve.

The acting is, as Cox might say, “a certain kind of acting.” Or certain kinds. Frederick strives to condense as many facial expressions into as short a space of time as possible. It’s strange to see such a porcelain doll countenance moves so much. Her line readings are frequently incomprehensible, even though she has perfect elocution — it’s that opera singer thing, where everything is enounced beautifully but has no relation to natural speech and so the brain stumbles over it. The protean features, however, are the natural uncontrolled expressiveness of a child, something Frederick never offers in any other performance. Pollard is just out of his face, agreeably so. Baird is given a lot of conflicting stereotypes to contend with (singing spirituals AND cannibalism) but his character’s craziness is benign, and atypical. Rather than being afraid of spooks, he likes them. Testi’s character arc is, on one level, the retrieval of his shaving kit, on another it’s the classic revenge motive, but on some other unstated level it’s an attempt to become involved with humanity. It’s not at all clear if this is a good idea for him.

Maybe the film’s unusual sentiment and humanity comes from the Bret Harte stories it purports to adapt; maybe from Ennio de Concini, co-writer, whose varied credits include DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE and Bava’s likeable THE EVIL EYE/THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Maybe Fulci was in an unusually sympathetic mood: perhaps DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING had a brief purgative effect on his toxic sensibility.

There is, as usual with Dr. Fulci, a lot of unpleasant imagery, and the prosthetics are as usual gloated over until the seams show. But there is very attractive imagery too. The sense of the west as a nightmarish world of anarchic violence, in which our protagonists are defenceless innocents, is touching and scary and unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s like if you digitally erased Clint from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and left the weak and the bad to get on with it. The title is hard to parse, since these four are not powerful destructive forces, and do the 1880s count as an apocalypse? One is forced to conclude that, in Fulci’s universe, the apocalypse is happening ALL THE TIME.

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… stars Zorro; Tatiana Romanoff; C.W. Moss; Big William; Provvidenza; Tatum, the killer; Agente della Pinkerton; and Dr. Butcher.

One scene, three times (2) Polanski

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2022 by dcairns

Polanski’s approach to Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III in his 1971 adaptation is, we have to think, informed by the fact that, unlike almost anybody else attempting the scene, he had lived it. A man receives the news that his wife and child/ren have been murdered while he was out of the country. What’s that like, Roman?

Polanski is, quite understandably, extremely annoyed by critics who try to impose a simplistic autobiographical reading onto this film, and his work in general — my friend Mark Cousins walked boldly into this issue when he interviewed RP for the BBC. It was a pretty lively, rebarbative chat — some of the most feisty stuff got cut out, but Mark wrote about it for Sight & Sound: Polanski doing a big snore noise when he didn’t like a question, that kind of thing.

RP has said that he chose Macbeth to adapt precisely because critics couldn’t claim he was making a film about the Manson murders, since all the violence is already in the text. A naive supposition, admittedly. The only way to have escaped the armchair shrinks would have been to make a film with no violence whatsoever. Instead, Polanski and co-scenarist Kenneth Tynan created a world where bloodshed is the norm, so that it arguably loses much of its moral dimension, becomes all-pervasive.

While Welles repurposed Ross as the Holy Man, Polanski & Tynan work some character redesign of their own. Rather than being a sort of Basil Exposition figure who turns up and delivers information, their Ross is a two-faced traitor, making nice with Macbeth while meeting his enemies on the sly. In this film’s world, honour is an illusion (it ends with another betrayal, another thane* off to meet the witches). Shakespeare typically ends his tragedies with (a) a bloodbath but (b) the restoration of order, which is to be viewed as stable, balanced, good. Not so in Polanski’s films, where the natural order IS chaos.

Unlike Welles, Polanski has a bit of a budget, though it’s still quite tight. But he can afford locations — Wales being closer to the UK production centre than Scotland, he shoots there. So the meeting of Malcolm and Macduff with Ross can happen on an actual road, in an actual valley. This is a film full of production values and realistic detail (Polanski spat a mouthful of breadcrumbs onto a dining table to illustrate the level of authenticity — and grunge — he required) so we open on the sight of what appear to be refugees fleeing their terrible lives north of the border. Pan onto Malcolm and Macduff.

They can afford horses, too, so Ross comes trotting over the horizon line, suitably mounted for the trip. (We’ve just seen him in Dunsinane with Macbeth, so he’s had to travel at least a hundred miles to get here.) Welles’ rebels would have been lucky to get coconut shells.

Instead of saying “My countryman; but yet I know him not,” Malcolm says “Our countryman who seems a stranger to us,” a line NOT IN SHAKESPEARE. Pure Tynan, intended to suggest that Malcolm and Macduff don’t quite trust Ross, feel he’s been a bit too pally with the usurper. This seems somehow like cheating to me. You can impose a personal interp on the play, even if it means distorting some scenes. But just making shit up seems sort of… not legit. Still, Macduff arrives in a wide and dismounts into medium shot all smiles. He is John Stride, and he is a sly one. (Stride is a fine, underused thesp, excellent as the unctuous man from the ministry in JUGGERNAUT.)

Ross bows to the pretender to the throne (we have to call Malcolm that: for now, he’s just pretending) and greets Macduff with a manly hug. As his horse gets led off to presumably have some hay put in it or something, Stride/Ross makes his report on the state of the nation. Said state being absolutely dreadful.

The three walk off into an encampment. Ah-hah! This isn’t a random meeting by a roadside, but a visit by Ross to the enemy’s base. As we get a long shot, a huge swathe of text is conveniently cut, allowing Macduff to cut to the chase and ask after his wife and kids. Still in the wide shot, Ross says they’re fine.

This is a weird choice. Ross knows full well that the whole Macduff household has been put to the sword or worse. As a tiny rear view, Stride can’t inflect the lie with any kind of psychology, so we’re left at a loss as to why he does it. And I do think, even if we’d seen his face, seen a sneaky or uncomfortable look cross it, we’d be a bit puzzled by this behaviour. On his trip from Scotland he’s had plenty of time to think about what to say to Macduff.

I suspect Polanski covered this dialogue with the next shot, but then lopped a big speech out and overlapped some lines to pick up the pace, with the unfortunate result that part of the scene’s meaning becomes a bit blurry. But speed is usually your friend, and he can get over the problem by just rocketing forward to the next good bit.

With the bigger budget for extras, Polanski can show what they’re talking about, vis-a-vis the plans for invasion, so Malcolm stops to have a look at two warriors having a practice bout. The younger one is the film’s brilliant fight arranger, Bill Hobbs. Polanski covers most of the dialogue here with a handheld shot following the men through the mud. Polanski had developed this neat approach to handheld, using the trudging figures to, in effect, stabilise the shot. The actors and camera wobble as one. John Alonso talked about quarrelling with the director on CHINATOWN about whether handheld was appropriate, and found Polanski winning him over with this effect.

Continuing on through the camp, towards where the archers are doing target practice, Ross now decides to tell the truth about Macduff’s family tragedy. We don’t know why he lied before, and so we can’t really understand why he changes tack now. Never mind, onwards! as Boris Johnson is always saying. Leave your calamities in the rear view mirror then blame your critics for fixating on the past, while you line up a fresh disaster.

Polanski’s theory about casting, as expressed to his PIANIST screenwriter Ronald Harwood (in David Wilkinson’s excellent interview book), is that you basically choose actors for what they look like. This is bananas, and dumb, but also true. You can’t get away with useless actors, you need far more essential qualities than appearance, but still, an actor who is the correctly carved block of wood will get you a lot of what you need. It’s essential that they photograph right, that their look suggests the character. I guess Polanski gets the rest of the way by screaming at them, by doing lots of takes, by showing off his karate chops (he was taught by Bruce Lee).

Stephan Chase, then, as Malcolm, has presumably been cast for his long, noble, sensitive, rather sorrowful face, because Malcolm is always at the scene of bad news. John Stride is playing a sneak, but he has to appear trustworthy because on the whole people trust him. He has a bland, mild, round-edged face.

Terence Bayler is Macduff. He’s very dark and baleful of countenance, rather like Welles’ choice of Dan O’Herlihy, in fact. His eyes peer out of a black scowl. Very effective, and little to do with acting. He has a mobile mouth, which is common to classically trained British thesps with good diction. The American mumblers make better tough guys. Ken Campbell worked out that to be threatening on stage or screen, you have to be as good a ventriloquist as possible. You scare the enemy by saying things without seeming to. Bayler is fiery and baleful but doesn’t seem convincingly tough here, because of his flapping, twirling lips. He more than makes up for it in the final duel through sheer physical exertion.

Billy Wilder, asked if he was going to go see ROSEMARY’S BABY, replied “I wouldn’t touch it with a five foot Pole.” But Polanski apparently bore no grudge because he follows Wilder’s dictum about not showing a character’s face when they get bad news. Or almost. He has Bayler turn quickly away as Malcolm mutters “Merciful heavens,” all so quick it’s possible to get confused about who spoke. It’s quite a weak effect, I think. The bold and effective way would be to have his back to us because they’re walking, and then have him stop. Or he turns away to brace himself and we just see him stiffen. Anything direct, anything requiring an expression, an action, or a line, is kind of doomed to be inadequate to this awesome moment. Giving him an expression an action compounds the inadequacy.

But when Bayler trudges off into the middle distance to deal with the shock alone, that works very well, I think. From here on, by sticking to the script more or less, Polanski & co are on firm ground. Macduff keeps asking if his wife is dead too? And his kids? And his wife? It’s absurd and nightmarish and true.

When Polanski throws us a reverse angle, going from three back views to three frontal ones, it’s very effective, and Malcolm’s “Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows,” is occasioned by a very effective stance from Baylor. In the Welles film, Macduff doesn’t have a hat so he can’t pull it upon his brows. Polanski’s adaptations always take blind fidelity as their starting point: assume that everything is there for a reason, and assume you’ll find it out by sticking to it. He apparently filmed ROSEMARY’S BABY exactly as written in the novel, then had to reshape the film to get it to be a releasable length. His OLIVER TWIST includes characters and bits everyone leaves out of their adaptations. The bit about the hat, a strange line which is hard to picture, becomes THE BEST BIT. A psychologically true displacement activity.

(The other filmmaker who had this sort of experience for real was the late Peter Bogdanovich. His response to the news of his partner’s death was to fall to the floor and attempt to claw his way through it. Now there’s a displacement activity. The right actor might be able to do that in a scene, but probably the majority wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was also very impressed by Abbie Cornish’s performance in BRIGHT STAR: sudden, shattering grief. It’s a difficult thing to show, and your audience may shrink or even giggle. Which is why artifice could be your friend. When the truth works, it’s better. When it doesn’t work, it’s much, much worse.)

When Malcolm proposes revenge as the cure for this tragedy, Baylor’s flat rendition of “He has no children,” is magnificently despairing. You can’t repay Macbeth for this. Revenge doesn’t actually work. But sometimes it may be essential anyway.

Macduff staggers about. He gets into a solo shot, viewed from the side, and when he wonders if heaven looked down at his family’s slaughter, he looks up at the bleak, bleary Welsh clouds.

The rest of the scene plays out in a continuation of this shot, as Macduff sinks to his knees and then, offered a sword by Malcolm, rises to his feet again. Despair is followed by the urge for justice which propels us forward into the next part of the story.

Surprisingly, Malcolm’s cynicism in using Macduff’s bereavement for his own ends isn’t greatly stressed here. He seems genuinely sympathetic.

The offering of the sword, however, seems to echo Macbeth’s earlier encounter with the phantom dagger. This is emphasised by the fact that Polanski frames him as headless, making the sword seem less attached to a person. Fate, or witches, or kings, are always handing us weapons and telling us to get busy. Macduff/Baylor’s fighting stance at the end seems less aggressive, more defensive and wary — he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the coming battle. But he seems to be trying to hallucinate it into being.

(The next scene, fittingly, shows Macbeth riding in long shot from right to left, as if towards Macduff and his vengeful sword.)

One thing Polanski and Tynan do that Welles oddly doesn’t: they end on a line and a moment and a command to go forward, rather than on an EXEUNT, which Shakespeare absolutely had to do in order to bring on the next scene, and which Welles chose to retain. Cutting Shakespeare is absolutely essential for the screen (and quite often necessary or advisable on stage), both to eliminate description of things that we can’t avoid SEEING, and therefore don’t need described, and to propel us forward with a cut.

Endnote: Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD isn’t a favourite of mine. It has stunning scenes, but Kurosawa seems to have no particular sympathy for Macbeth, which maybe you need. No sympathy translates into little interest. Anyway, Kurosawa is excused wrestling with the verse because he’s doing it in Japanese, and rather brilliantly he manages to tell the story entirely without Macduff, so this scene doesn’t appear at all.

*Don’t know what it means.

The Do-Over

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2019 by dcairns

Firstly, don’t read this if you haven’t seen ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD yet and are planning to. I will discuss the ending. The first review I read was in The Guardian where they coyly described it as “audacious” and said they could reveal no more, and I immediately flashed on what it could be and was correct.

Oh, potential spoilers for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and GRAVITY also.

Fiona turned to me with her adorable WTF? face when this one revealed its hand, an expression I recall from the similar moment in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (and from GRAVITY, where it seemed, in the moment, impossible that a certain actor could be exiting the picture midway). But she explained afterwards that it wasn’t that her mind was blown by this twist, but that Tarantino was brazenly recycling the twist from IB (“What we must never do,” says Jake Hannaford, that wise and wizened old goat, “is steal from ourselves.”)

“What’s the POINT?” she wanted to know.

First section of movie: skilled recreation of 1969 LA. Some very good lookalikes and performances from people playing Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen (sympathetic here, “an asshole” in Polanski’s opinion, and I take him to be a fine judge of that quality with special insight), Connie Stevens (!), James Stacy (?), Charles Manson, though they needed a Polanski who looks more like a twelve-year-old (though Rafal Zawierucha does good Polanskian grunts of disgust). Product placement of defunct and/or fictional products. An evocation of the plight of the actor on the slide, both sympathetic and skeptical. Numerous lingering and lascivious shots of young girls’ feet.

Paul Duane, on Twitter, seemed to like the same parts of the film I did, and noted: “I was relieved about one thing: no grandstanding QT monologues.” Well, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) gets one grandstanding m., but it’s supposed to make us want to see him get punched, so yes, that does feel like QT has figured something out about the way audiences process the grandstanding m.

Incidentally, this is a very white film. Which makes the casual racism (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”) harder to excuse — sure, I buy it as accurate to the period, but it also means the film can be enjoyed by racists without anything to give them cognitive dissonance and we have TWO scenes of white, fair-haired people defeating Chinese people in fights — Brad Pitt and the actual Sharon Tate in THE WRECKING CREW, knocking out Nancy Kwan. Though I was glad of the cutaways of Lee training the movie’s Tate (Margot Robbie), which allows him to close out his role on a positive note, like Travolta in PULP FICTION, who buts for that film’s playful structure would make his concluding appearance dead on the toilet with an inferior paperback thriller by his side.

For about the ninth time running, I was disturbed by Tarantino’s compulsion to make his characters assholes. His impulse to save the inhabitants of Cielo Drive is sort of sweet, sort of adolescent, but certainly tainted by the way he does it — with an alternate, counter-historical bloodbath, a cathartic outburst of movie violence, performed by a hippy-hating alcoholic actor and a possible wife-killer.

Leo’s character gets an ego-boosting compliment from a child actor — and doesn’t return the compliment. Is it because he’s an asshole and QT wants us to notice that, or because he didn’t think about it? Hard to know.

Tarantino said at the time of NATURAL BORN KILLERS that he hated serial killers and thought the right thing to do was execute them, and he hated them even worse for that because he was in all other respects opposed to the death penalty. I can understand that.

I think what’s going on with these alt histories is maybe that Tarantino hates the Holocaust and the Manson killings because they take the fun out of fictional violence, if you really think about them. So wouldn’t it be nice to replace them with fictional violence, take a fantasy revenge on the perpetrators, numb the pain of the real-world horror? Well, no. The only part of this I can approve of is the undercutting of the pseudo-catharsis with fantastical absurdity (the handy flame thrower in the garage), reminding us, in Bokononist fashion, that we’re being given a comforting lie.

MY version of a happy ending to this story would be one in which NOBODY gets hurt. I can feel the visceral energy of the manic gonzo mayhem but I don’t want it or need it in this context.

I think I can get another post out of this movie’s movie allusions, though… so I will.