Archive for Chimes at Midnight

The Death of the Arthur: Wilde and Crazy Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by dcairns

Blame the original Arthurian legends — a bunch of unrelated and mainly Welsh bits of history and legend that got gradually balled up together — for the aberrant spellings. But maybe blame TH White for repopularizing the aberrations just when things were settling down. By the 50s, everyone “knew” how to spell Merlin, so White made it Merlyn and somehow added a veneer of historical authenticity to his books, which otherwise rejoice in whimsical anachronism. The authenticity — White is very learned about everything from castle construction to falconry — makes the whimsy possible.

Anyway, here’s “Modred” in Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT, monologuing to his tiny shoulder-pal. Is it technically a monologue if he’s talking TO someone, even if that someone is an intense-faced feathered shrimp perched on his anatomy? It definitely is.

“Modred” is imagined along the lines of Edmund in King Lear, an illegitimate son conspiring against a legit competitor, though here his rival is as yet only a gleam in Arthur’s eye. Having him here to plot helps push the guilt away from Lancelot and Guinivere, though how successful this will be as narrative poly remains to be seen.

“Modred” is played by Michael Meacham, who gets the kiss-of-death credit “And Introducing,” despite the fact that he’d been appearing on TV since 1952. He’s as close to the end of his screen career as to the beginning. Meacham voiced the role of Demetrius in the English dub of Jiri Trnka’s puppet version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, long with prestigious types like Richard Burton, so I assume he had Shakespearian experience. Modred is conceived in villainous terms, but he doesn’t have Edmund’s depth or dialogue.

Anyway, Modred has hired an entire army of brigands — decidedly un-merrie men — to kill Guinevere, and Wilde delivers a nice atmospheric tracking shot across their latex-scarred faces lurking in the greenwood. So, just like in THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD, we’re kind of grafting Robin Hood imagery into Arthuriana, but because the Arthur myth is authoritarian or arthuritarian, the outlaw-bandits have to be bad guys. It’s fine — you can do this, just as you can give Arthur a jester — it all fits in with the movie idea of medieval times, even if the legends go back to the Dark Ages.

After knocking the bandits for six — Guinivere lends a hand at the head-cleaving — the party arrives at the big village set. Camelot itself is a matte painting or photo pasted into the top right corner, a good distance off. As TH White explains early on in The Sword in the Stone, a village/town/city was always just outside the protective castle, and if a serious attack took place everyone just moved into the castle walls. Citadel as mini-city. Putting them this far apart serves no purpose. I get to see this principle inaction every time I take the bus into Edinburgh city centre: the High Street, the city’s first thoroughfare, descends the slope from the Castle Rock, the only avenue from which the Castle can be approached. Easy to beat a retreat inside and slam the gates, and you only have one side to defend. Unfortunately, not everyone has a bit of extinct volcano to build on.

Lancelot reassures the nervous king that G is eager to be his queen. Which he knows isn’t true as L&G have already fallen for each other. There’s that very striking line of Merlin’s in EXCALIBUR: “When a man lies he kills a part of the world.” A good line, it always made me feel that chivalric honour was an alien concept from another age — Is that true? I thought. It doesn’t FEEL true. But it’s striking.

Mark Dignam’s Merlin gets to present G to A. His is a thankless task in this film — if he can’t have any magic, what’s he good for? He knows about soap, this is the extent of his power. TH White’s Merlin seems to have almost unlimited power, but he has scruples that tell him when it’s appropriate to wizard things up. Boorman’s Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson, breaks his own rules, which seem to establish the seeds of Camelot’s fall before it’s even begun. I think the best use of magic in fiction makes it clear that this shit is dangerous, to your health or your soul. But it’s better to HAVE magic in a mythic tale than NOT have it, surely? Do we want to have fun or don’t we? I was upset about TROY leaving out the gods, which are central to Homer, even if they’re very hard to render onscreen without cheesiness obtruding.

Per IMDb, filming on this was divided between Pinewood and Divčibare, Yugoslavia. There are some good castles in Serbia, for sure, but nothing I’ve seen so far looks like you’d have to leave the UK to find it. There’s a huge church interior for the wedding that somehow looks like a sound stage (overlit) but surely can’t be. Our cameraman is Harry Waxman, famed for THE THIRD MAN, although he probably only shot two-thirds of it, He hasn’t done anything atmospheric with light so far.

The script makes much of Guinevere’s youth, which is a little hard on Jean Wallace, who’s been in movies for more than twenty years. Medieval brides were often what we’d consider children, but you can have a forty-year-old Guinevere if you don’t keep insisting she’s a youngster. Of if you start the story later. I respect Wilde for sticking with his Mrs. though.

Hmm, the church is also the throne room and banquet hall and I guess they slide the two bits of round table, with its refectory chairs, in and out as needed, so it makes more sense that they might build it at Pinewood. Art director Maurice Carter also did BECKETT, and bits of those sets got recycled in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, probably to better effect. And THESE sets supposedly got turned into Grand Fenwick in THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, Richard Lester’s unmemorable second film. I must do a comparison… (Lester’s challenge was to make the big sets look pokey and cheap, as befits the world’s smallest duchy. Later, he would turn down the chance to use Anthony Mann’s ROMAN EMPIRE sets for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.)

Good news — Adrienne Corri is Lady Vivian, Modred’s romantic interest. Her characteristic red hair (Corri was Scots-Italian) dyed black, she brings a touch of lustiness.

Then Lancelot has to go off and battle an army of Viking invaders. Again, I see no reason why you can’t have Vikings, since it’s never been really clear when Arthur’s story is meant to be set. And of course your movie Vikings should and must have horns on their helmets, even though horns is the one thing Vikings never wore. The battle is large, impressively mounted I guess, but somehow not ACTUALLY impressive. Editor Thom Noble would go on to cut FAHRENHEIT 451 and WITNESS. It just doesn’t get near the visceral feel of Kurosawa. But at least we don’t have extras catching spears with their hands and stomachs like in ZULU. The arrow hits are achieved by straight cutting: archer goes twang! — victim has an arrow in him and falls over. THRONE OF BLOOD has not been studied. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT has not yet been made, to teach the lesson: get off the tripod, allow a little shake. It’s all expensively adequate.

But the shock cut from the full din of battle to a corpse lying in red muddy water is VERY strong. I tip my visor to Wilde once more. The water eats away at the man’s outline, making him look dismembered, and the contrast from LOUD to QUIET is even more striking than doing it the other way around might be. It forces the audience to catch its breath — each one of us becomes afraid of drawing ridicule with a sudden embarrassing noise.

It’s not certain that this sequence has any effect on any other part of the film’s story, however.

I should be able to finish the film in one more blog post. Sorry this is taking so long.

Towards a 3D Aesthetic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2022 by dcairns


“The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions,” said Erich Von Stroheim, probably adding, “and everyone will wear authentic period underwear.” First, let me say that Von’s well-documented knicker fetish may have been in operation when he insisted on his extras wearing the right undies, but the right underclothes affect how the outer clothes appear, and so he wasn’t being crazy or perverse to insist on absolute authenticity. I imagine in 3D it would be even more important. Oh yes, 3D, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about.

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there’s an action sequence in which one of the youngsters is pursued by an alien shark-thing. What makes it particularly effective is the way our cyanated hero hides amid coral outcrops which the predatory fish tries to bash through. Whenever 3D is particularly effective, it gives us a clue as to what it might be FOR. Here, we have a situation in which at least three visual layers are dramatically activated — the hero’s, the shark-thing’s, and the intervening coral, for starters. The far distance is a passive element but does add immersion. Also, we’re literally immersed, underwater you know — so there’s the possibility for floating particles and smaller fish to decorate the frame and keep our eyeballs excited, And, as the hero swims backwards away from the threat, the camera moves with him and so new coral outcrops come heaving into view, surprising us.

Two things are happening — the concept of DEPTH is important to the action — the distance between blue boy and shark-thing is an actual matter of life and death — and the excitement is enhanced by a lot of foreground and midground activity.

It’s a shame that the talkie scenes in ATWOW are so choppy and random, because it seems to me that at least some of the same principles could be enlisted for dramatic dialogue sequences.

Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER tries to keep its long expository scenes lively by enlisting the foreground — there are more shots from behind lamps here than in THE IPCRESS FILE, and with seemingly less reason. TIF was a spy film, so the camera behaved like a spy. DMFM is a filmed play, and so Hitch settles for reminding us of the 3D to get a “you are there” quality, suggesting but not actually recapturing the thrill of live performance. But in the standout scene, the murder attempt on Grace Kelly, again depth becomes almost a character — the would-be strangler lurks behind her, murderous sash in hands, but she’s holding the telephone to her ear and he has to wait until her hand’s out of the way.

I promise this isn’t just a list of cool 3D sequences. It IS that, but each of them is nudging us towards an appreciation of what the form can do. I’m also going to mention some flat scenes that seem like they might work really well with the added dimension.

The AVATAR film has a lot of forwards camera movement. This is pretty effective in a forest, but sideways movement — as I pointed out regarding FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN — can be better. (I tend to suspect the film’s visual pleasures derive more from Antonio Marghertiti than from credited helmer Paul Morrissey.) The thing about forward movement is that it already feels three dimensional, because of the way the perspective changes. An exponential zoom or trombone shot might look really neat though. In Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a sudden lateral tracking shot in a forest sets of a shimmer of captivating motion, because the foreground trees are passing the camera rapidly, the midground ones more slowly, and the far distant ones slower still. The different layers overtaking one another. It’s rapturous. I don’t want upscaling to 3D, but I do want filmmakers to borrow the right kinds of scenes for new 3D movies.

(Welles doesn’t NEED 3D, his films are so lively, dimensional, vigorous in all their pan-focus deep staging, but it’s fascinating to imagine what he might have come up with. The Michael Redgrave curiosity shop in ARKADIN would be momentous in depth.)

The Wim Wenders production CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE dealt with “the soul of buildings” — lots of tracking shots down hallways, none of them very effective — until we got a curved hallway, and then things got interesting. So it seems that straightahead single vanishing-point shots of the Kubrick variety are less effective than oblique, curving approaches. Ophuls would be the guy to look at for inspiration, or the Italians.

“The best inside-a-mouth shot I ever saw was in JAWS 3D,” said Martin Scorsese in Edinburgh, “A shark eating its victim, filmed from the inside, in 3D — a new low in taste!” And I believed him, until a friend told me it was the one effective spot in the film — a diver is swallowed whole and trapped in the shark — if he tries to swim out, he’ll be bitten in two. It puts you on the spot. And apparently Cameron’s seen that one, because he has a protag swim into a whale-thing’s mouth in ATWOW, there to mind-meld with its Day-Glo epiglottis.

My favourite shot in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is when a kid lies on his back and throws a baseball in the air, catching it, re-throwing it. The camera is overhead, so the ball flies towards us, runs out of momentum, pauses, and drops away again. It provoked a gleeful reaction from the audience. It’s sort of decorative, I guess, but it’s not only permissible but desirable for a filmmaker to explore the visual possibilities of a situation. 3D seems to kick in on the second or third film, once the filmmakers’ have gotten used to it and have worn out the obvious ploys. Dante had shot a stereoscopic funfair ride prior to this one. Other filmmakers who have paid more than one visit to the third dimension are Cameron, Fleischer, Oboler, Arnold, Ridley Scott. Not sure Zemeckis ever improved. One issue is that the medium, if that’s what it is, hasn’t always been in the hands of the most expressive or adventurous filmmakers. William Castle! Lew Landers! Pete Walker! Harry Fucking Essex!

Throwing things at the audience has never really been the best way to get an effect. In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the best stuff tends to be slower — the slo-mo explosion at the start is exciting because you have time to appreciate the balletic motion of the rocks tumbling at you through space — it looks forward to the joy of GRAVITY, still the best 3D movie I’ve seen. All the same, I feel sorry for the creature.

(My enjoyment of moving vehicles in ATWOW doesn’t extend to the boat in CREATURE, probably because it’s standing still in front of a rear projection screen — the action feels like a couple of flat layers, something you might see in a toy theatre.)

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic was the first film I ever saw in 3D that actually made me flinch, whenever bits of tiny space shrapnel zinged past. Interestingly, they got the effect by NOT firing them right at me. I was involuntarily blinking, and having more fun doing so than I ever did in a real life experience. But the movie’s true pleasure was in slower action — when Sandra Bullock, spacewalking, is in danger of losing a vital tool, Fiona actually reached up to grab the astro-spanner or whatever it was before it escaped. One again, space and distance were dramatically in play, and the 3D enhanced the fact.

A sequence that would work magnificently in three dimensions is the attack on the big car in Cuaron’s previous CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s already a (fake) long take, an aesthetic that suits the medium, not for the moving camera aspect so much as for the pleasure of looking at depth photography for long enough to appreciate its visual pleasures. And it’s a moving vehicle interior, something that works magnificently in ATWOW for the few seconds Cameron allows us in his helicopter gunships. It’s slightly mysterious already how Cuaron’s long take seems to enhance the terror of the occupants of the besieged car — maybe it has more to do with the fact that we don’t go outside, so we really feel trapped in the situation. The long take becomes an excuse for an excitingly restricted viewpoint. In 3D, we’d have all kinds of moving parts on different planes, mindblowing overstimulation for the eyeball combined with panicky confinement and a lot of urgency from the cast of actors we’re locked in with.

Scorsese may be the most visually imaginative director to use 3D, perhaps next to Godard (I’ve never had a chance to see ADIEU AU LANGAGE in 3D and get the headache JLG planned for me). I love HUGO — maybe it’s seriously imperfect as a film but it gets value for money from it’s visual depth. Lots of cinders and dust motes in the air — lovely. Two great close-ups, one where Sacha Baron Cohen looms ever closer to us, his nose an accusation, another where we move slowly in on Ben Kinglsey, his face becoming more and more dimensionally solid, hovering before us, enormous, like one of those Easter Island jobs but alive and responsive. You get to experience a very very familiar thing, the human face, in a new way — and seeing things afresh is a big part of what art is about.

It’s possible Scorsese was influenced by the opening of William Camron Menzies’ THE MAZE, in which a female narrator talks to camera while slowly advancing upon us. It gets increasingly freaky but also hilarious. It would be interesting to see more deliberately funny 3D — I wonder what could be done with visual gags. Keaton, Lester and Tati sometimes made comedy about the camera’s INABILITY to correctly judge distance: Buster would make mistakes like jumping on the wrong horse which only make sense from the camera’s position, not from his. I wonder what he might do with a genuine sense of depth?

Height may be the dimension filmmakers forget about. The early desert landscapes of Douglas Sirk’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE are breathtaking, because they arrange the action in cascading planes / plains. The scene with the lineman up the pylon in Jack Arnold’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE are similarly thrilling — Arnold, not normally the most inventive filmmaker, was sensitive enough to keep learning, and he got to make more 3D movies in the 50s than just about anyone. Something about these high angles really works for me — a sense of vertigo, dramatic space, multiple active layers.

I’m still cross I never got to see PINA in 3D — I suppose I could have forgone my snobbery and seen one of those other 3D dancing films. It seems like a good medium for dance, though KISS ME KATE doesn’t prove anything either way. It’d be a great medium for scultpure also, but so far the closest thing to that is Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, which gets most of its best effects out of the shallow curvature of cave walls, a lovely and counterintuitive exploitation of the medium’s possibilities. In a flat film, camera movement makes sculpture appreciable, but 3D would work very nicely with or in place of tracking shots. Somebody should have done Henry Moore.

The pornographers were not slow to seize upon the form, but without any distinguished results that I’m aware of. It seems possible that 3D could amplify what Billy Wilder called “flesh impact.” The kind of shot that would work would be Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in DR. NO. A variation on the sculptural principle. Just as good with men — Daniel Craig would do well. And the sculptural approach could enhance physiognomic interest, as we see in HUGO. A long examination of an interesting face — Brendan Gleeson would be a gift to the stereographer. Linda Hunt. A few young actors are also interesting, even if their features lack the distinguishing crenellations: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Or Beany and Cecil?

What this seems to show is that the uses of 3D might be quite specific. I think James Cameron imagines, like Stroheim, that all movies should be 3D movies. But we don’t want to go to the trouble of putting the specs on for just anything (I see they finally invented clip-ons for glasses wearers like me — the medium finally catches up with its audience’s needs, just before it rolls over and dies). I’d say that if a film naturally has a few highlights that really benefit from a 3D approach, it might be worth going that route, and then modifying the script slightly to make sure there are more worthwhile opportunities.

Without getting too silly about it.

Shrew Business

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2022 by dcairns

Last time I saw Zefferelli’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW it was on VHS, so when I found a DVD cheap at my favourite charity shop (St Columba’s Bookshop) I acquired it for my Z shelf.

I hadn’t realized that FZ’s career was so odd — something called CAMPING in 1957, lots of theatre and TV, and then SHREW as an abrupt superproduction, produced by the Burtons, cinematically speaking coming out of nowhere.

Having made an extra on THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD I could see where Burton had scooped up the English-language script contributor for his first film as co-producer, ex-black ops commando trainer Paul Dehn, and where he’d recruited Michael Hordern. But I figure Zeffirelli had also seen A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, as proof that Hordern could do farce — both movies have scenes of characters rehearsing their plans in parallel alleyways, with the director cutting back and forth. And both use houses with big central spaces surrounded by a gallery with a stair, staging action on both levels…

Victor Spinetti also comes from Lester; Alan Webb from Welles (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, “Jesu, the days that I have seen.”)

Anyway, it’s fun. There are matte paintings done in almost renaissance style, beautiful sets, what is known as lustiness, and a nice moment where Michael York’s soliloquizing draws curious stares from Paduan street characters, as if they’ve never seen anyone do Shakespeare before.

The filmmakers’ solution to the plays more noxious qualities is, basically, to say, “Well, we’ve cast the stars of the twentieth century’s greatest love story, so there can be no question that this is a beautiful romance.” All evidence of torture and gaslighting to the contrary. Burton getting Taylor to say the sun is the moon is uncomfortably similar to the way he gets John Hurt, at the far end of the Rich career, to agree with him how many fingers he’s holding up, in 1984.

The script is quite impressive, since it contains several scenes Shakespeare didn’t think to include, and the characters go on talking in them, as if the blank verse was available. I can imagine Suso Cecchi D’Amico just deciding there needs to be a seen where Petruccio destroys Kate’s bed, and leaving Dehn to figure out what they can say to each other while it’s happening. Hordern can rhubarb amusingly while waiting for the next pentameter. Zeffirelli seems to have told him to wave his arms around in an Italiante fashion, which sits oddly on his frame, but shows off his nice long sleeves.

Burton can combine sonorous versifying with low comedy. Taylor’s fishwife screech is textually justified, as it was in VIRGINIA WOOLF. Her violet eyes get a lot of extreme closeups. Her husband’s bloodshot orbs do not rate such inspection.

Zeffirelli the misogynist (in the editing room, he would say “Cut to the bitch”; women who have abortions should be executed) probably saw no reason to question the four-hundred-year-old play’s sexual politics. It’s funny until the wedding, even with the discomfort of it being a forced marriage as far as Taylor’s Kate is concerned, and then not too funny once the torture starts. Taylor is given some quiet moments early on where she can suggest some attraction towards Burton’s brawling drunkard. And when she falls in line eventually she can hint that this is a fun game to play, master and slave. Can’t escape the problem that she’s been forced into it, though. At the end, they at least manage to make some suspense. Maybe one effect of the passage of time is that the servants are now the most appealing characters.

The Fairbanks-Pickford version was mocked for the credit “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” This one has a jokey but far more respectful title:

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW stars Cleopatra; Thomas Becket; Glaucus; Major Grapple; Joe Beckett; Master Shallow; Max Kalba; D’Artagnan; and Foot.