Archive for Chinatown

A Hard-boiled Oeuvre

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2013 by dcairns

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For the first half of PEEPER (1976) I was almost convinced I was watching a neglected classic. The script, by W.D. Richter (BUCKAROO BANZAI) from a Chandler pastiche by sci-fi author Keith Laumer, served up a constant sizzle of snazzy dialogue and cynical VO, the latter delivered by Michael Caine in a straight reprise of his delightful manner in Mike Hodges’ PULP. As that film had wound up with a walk-on by a Humphrey Bogart impersonator, so this movie begins with one, narrating the opening titles in a piece-to-camera presentation that’s giddily audacious. Director Peter Hyams seems to be on top form, and his cameraman Earl Rath, who lensed the astonishing proto-steadicam shoot-out chase in Hyams’ earlier BUSTING, steeps the art-deco locations in acidic greens, achieving a distinctly 1970s neo-noir look.

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I had thought that the really hip 70s noirs had either mixed things up by going back further in time, or had updated their stories to the modern day. CHINATOWN does the former, but adds such a wealth of modern attitude — political, sexual — as to seem furiously contemporary, while THE LONG GOODBYE really squeezes every ounce of anachronism to be had from the conceit of Marlowe in modern L.A. Dick Richards’ 1975 FAREWELL, MY LOVELY remake with Robert Mitchum seems a stale exercise in nostalgia by comparison. But then I think of the late Michael Winner’s incomprehensibly Brighton-set version of THE BIG SLEEP, and I have to conclude that there are no rules except that good filmmakers are more likely to make good films. Bad ons, not so much.

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Anyhow, PEEPER starts great, the cast is very nice, Caine has chemistry with Natalie Wood, and then it all somehow goes to pot. Liam Dunn is a great comedy antagonist, but Timothy Carey and Don Calfa, excellent actors and types, are also reduced to stooge status, depriving the whole thing of necessary tension. Necessary even in what’s virtually a comedy. Oh, we also get the wonderful Liam Dunn — Mr Hilltop in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the judge in WHAT’S UP DOC?, as a typically decrepit, wonderfully weaselly character, the only guy Caine can convincingly push around.

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When the climax involved Wood fighting aboard a lifeboat, I got a horrible sense of why the film doesn’t tend to get revived much. But maybe it just isn’t good enough — the plot never reaches an extreme state demanding drastic action, but peters out in some confusing twists. A major sympathetic character is murdered and goes unavenged. The long takes lack the dynamism of Hyams and Rath’s BUSTING work, and sometimes merely looks as if they didn’t have time to get adequate coverage. It’s a shame, since the first half is a real delight. They could make a whole series of sequels to that first half. I kind of regret they made the second half at all.

La Ronde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007′s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.

Dialogue from DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN ~

Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links –

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links –

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)

Ghost Writing

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by dcairns

What to call Polanski’s latest? In America it’s THE GHOST WRITER, a rather pedantic and factual title with nothing evocative or provocative about it. Here in Britain it’s THE GHOST, a title it shares with Robert Harris’s novel, a title reflected in the film, where the nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor refers to himself as “your ghost.” So the shorter title should be the preferred choice, right? But it’s obvious from the film’s artful end credits that THE GHOST WRITER is the name it’s been produced under, and the tacked-on main title at the start betrays Polanski’s obvious intent to start the movie without any titles at all.

Whatever we decide to call it, it’s a very fine film. I’m not sure Polanski would see it as a political film, although the backdrop is politics and it takes a jaundiced view of certain very recognizable real-world figures. Certain qualities, like the savage joke of an ending, can be seen both as evidence of the director’s earnestness or his flippancy. Certainly the behaviour of the hero at the end, and the readiness of the antagonists’ response, do not promote a view of the film as fundamentally realistic, but a movie can enter the paranoid mindset of the genre thriller without abandoning political engagement… I’m just not sure.

None of which hampered my enjoyment of the film, especially the playing. McGregor is having a very good year, and Olivia Williams should rise to preeminence on the back of this. Pierce Brosnan has always been a funny guy, and he’s hugely enjoyable as the intellectually lazy former PM, avoiding any hint of impersonation (we have Michael Sheen if we need a precise copy) and insisting on his character’s reality within the film, rather than depending on Tony Blair’s outside it. None of which is intended as any disrespect to Sheen.

“Don’t grin,” says Williams to Brosnan’s image on TV, and I can imagine Polanski saying the same thing to McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much. Actually, Brosnan on TV is the only wrong note: he’s slurring his words strangely, in what must be intended as his “statesman” voice, perhaps meant to sound like Albert Finney as Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but coming off more like Albert Finney in THE DRESSER. Weird.

The other weird notes I thought were quite good, really. When McGregor finds some old photos of Brosnan at university, the images are pathetically photoshopped and deeply ludicrous, but it seemed sort of apt that Tony Blair should have a past constricted via Stalinist revisionism, retouched photos of a retouched life, something from 1984. And it’s his world we’re living in, so the digital sky replacements, adding smudgy watercolour greys to every background, not quite convincingly, added something too. Blair/Brosnan has brought the English weather with him.

Of course this Blair is called Adam Lang, and the movie begins with a nice swipe from THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, a single unmoving car among many mobile ones signifying the death of its occupant. But generally Polanski avoids Langian flourishes, maintaining the more relaxed, fluid and unshowy style he’s inhabited since THE PIANIST. His actors and slow trickle of conspiracy plot are more than enough to hold the attention.

Back to those actors: an amusing scene with Scotsmen McGregor and David Rintoul both pretending to be English. Irishman Brosnan plays Scottish, Tom Wilkinson plays American (as a sort of sinister Robert Osborne) and the only person who’s unconvincing is Kim Cattrall, playing English — despite the fact that she IS English. I quite like KC, but she does sometimes mismatch the pitch of her perf to what’s going on around her: BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was another case where she was a notch or two more shrill than everyone else, which was a seriously bad idea in that movie. Keep your head down and hope nobody spots you, would be my advice.

Rintoul, who was in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, is further evidence of my theory that Polanski casts Brits he remembers from 60s/70s horror movies. This probably started with Jon Finch in MACBETH, and Finch’s VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Barbara Jefford was in THE NINTH GATE. Not a coincidence, since she makes so few films. Add Peter Copley (OLIVER TWIST / FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), Frank Finlay (THE PIANIST / TWISTED NERVE) and Roy Kinnear (PIRATES / TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and it starts to look like some kind of strange plan

Other welcome faces this time: Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach. Wallach is a special joy. When viewing a very elderly actor, especially one as explosive as he, I generally have two slight fears: that the actor will overplay uncontrollably and embarrass us both, or that he’ll just kind of keel over in mid-sentence. Neither happens here. Result! Better yet, Wallach reminds us how exhilarating and intensely focused a performer he is.

Meanwhile, this is a very fine film, with interesting connections to CHINATOWN (Lang’s oriental servants, the drowning death of a witness…) and a measured control of pace that continually pays off in viewer fascination. My favourite little moment was probably when McGregor pauses midway through the intractable manuscript, looks out the window, and sees the Asian help loading beach debris from the porch into a wheelbarrow, while the wind blasts it out as soon as he turns his back. A perfect analog for the creative process on a bad day.

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