Archive for Chris Fujiwara

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.


One-Way River

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2020 by dcairns

SHOW THEM NO MERCY! was originally going to be directed by Otto Preminger and star Wallace Beery, until Beery announced that he refused to be directed by anyone whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

RIVER OF NO RETURN was Preminger’s first Cinemascope film and a biggish hole in my Preminger viewing. Watching it on the Toshiba, I wished I’d been to see it restored in Bologna — the widescreen scenic images have a fantastic grandeur even on DVD, and on a big screen must be overwhelming.

Anyway, it’s a good film: Preminger’s long take sensibility is immediately a good match for ‘Scope, and he does a lot of impressive work with tricky elements like rafts, horses, etc. How many suitcases did they have to send downriver for this famous shot?

There’s a horrible scene, though, where Robert Mitchum’s character tries to straight-up rape Marilyn Monroe’s. He’s interrupted by a cougar attack, and then by two guys who show up and think about killing him, and what with one thing and another the incident is never referred to again. There are more moments when they seem on the verge of discussing it, but it turns out this was merely projection on our part.

As always with Otto-related questions, the answer is to be found in Chris Fujiwara’s critical study The World and Its Double. When Preminger finished shooting, Fox boss Darryl Zanuck was dissatisfied with the film, which he felt was unnecessarily cryptic about its characters’ goals, relationships, motives. He insisted on adding three scenes.

(His ally in the dumbing-down is the soundtrack, which helpfully embarks on Calhoun’s theme tune whenever anyone discusses him. Elsewhere it’s stirring and atmospheric, and Cyric Mockridge and an uncredited Leigh Harline are apparently responsible.)One was a conversation between Monroe and Rory Calhoun near the start, which explains why they’re together. Unfortunately, this information had already been covered extensively by later dialogue from Monroe to Mitchum, so screenwriter Frank Fenton (OUT OF THE PAST) ends up shoving paraphrases into the actors’ mouths, rendering the later scenes dangerously repetitive. (He gets away with it only because Monroe justifying her relationship in the words Calhoun has previously used is new material as far as her dealings with Mitchum is concerned.)

Another was a scene where Mitchum massages Monroe after a particularly exhausting stint on the rapids (the process photography on the raft is the film’s weakest point other than the following scene: the POV shots going downstream are terribly grainy and I’m guessing the background plates were shot “flat” in 1:1.33, because they’re grainy, everything seems too big, like our heroes have sailed into Land of the Giants, and there’s a lot of Anamorphic-mumpsy rubberwalling, as the scenery bends, as if trying to wrap itself around the leads (and who could blame it?).The third scene is Mitchum’s sudden, out-of-character attack on Monroe. These three bits were directed by Jean Negulescu. So, you see, Monroe and Mitchum couldn’t discuss the matter afterwards because the footage wasn’t shot.

Going by Zanuck’s comments, the massage and the attempted rape were both inserted to make the characters’ relationship clearer. But they don’t really do that, at least for a non-rapey modern audience. I suppose the massage scene could be there to suggest sexual attraction, but although it works as a sexy treat for the audience, it’s presented in the story as a practical answer to Monroe being freezing cold and exhausted.

And Mitchum pouncing on Monroe… this seems to be Zanuck’s idea of showing that he’s attracted to her. I suppose the character point is that he doesn’t respect her, regards her as a good-time girl who will submit to a rough embrace, and when she doesn’t, he just carries on because he can’t figure that out. But it’s rubbish. Mitchum isn’t dumb or brutish anywhere else in the movie. And they never mention it again.I don’t know of any evidence that the scene ignited any controversy at the time. For me, it hurts the movie’s ending quite a bit: Mitchum takes Monroe away from her saloon-singing life, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This is already a bit too caveman for us modern folks. But Monroe ditching her sparkly shoes shows that she is a fully consenting partner in this change of lifestyle. The filmmakers were balancing out the audience appeal of Mitchum’s he-man stuff with the requirement that the leading lady have a mind of her own.

Zanuck’s raunchy intrusion upsets that quite badly. Monroe is now being carried off by a man who previously tried to force her into sex (while his young son, and, as it turns out, a cougar, were mere yards away). We’ll probably make some allowance since after all it’s Mitchum (and he’s not in Max Cady mode… rivers seem to bring out the worst in him, though), but damage is certainly done.

(I would quite like to see a director’s cut of this offered, perhaps as a bonus on a Blu-ray. (I think you always need to keep the original around to illustrate the historical record: THIS is what audiences saw upon release…)

 

In a jam, alright

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2017 by dcairns

All I knew about LADY IN A JAM is that it was a late one from Gregory La Cava — at the Edinburgh Film Fest retrospective, Chris Fujiwara declined to show it but said it had elements which were defensible, unlike its follow-up, LIVING IN A BIG WAY. I feel bad for La Cava, finishing his career, more or less, with Gene Kelly. A great talent, Kelly, but a vulnerable alcoholic shouldn’t have to work with a man like that.

I guess elements of LIAJ are defensible. I expected, based on the vague description, that it would start strongly and go off the boil — a number of La Cava’s great films have slightly shaky endings — but in fact it only simmers throughout, with an occasional gleeful bubble. The movie never seems to know what it’s about, and it’s a very strange case of casting Irene Dunne as a ditzy heiress but making her bitchy too — she’s a horrible person. The idea that she has no sense of money, and therapist Patric Knowles is trying to cure her of this irresponsibility, is a potentially appealing one. But she has no sense of people either, and basically tried to trample all over anyone in her path. She’s like Katherine Hepburn in the early scenes of BRINGING UP BABY but removed the comedy.

Knowles as therapist is a kind of machine-man, so the idea should be that he’s humanized by Dunne and maybe she gains a bit of orderliness from him, but La Cava can’t seem to get anywhere with this, so they’re still the same half-persons at the end that they were at the beginning, and we can never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, repressed aspects of the character.

Ralph Bellamy comes along as a cowboy doofus, a grating exaggeration of his Okie dope from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Mainly you feel embarrassed for the actor. Eugene Pallette is his reliable self, but hasn’t been given any comedy to play. Queenie Vassar is pretty great and there’s an unconventional little blob of a child actor, Jane Garland, who’s a nice presence. But it’s all predicated on nothing.

It reminds me of IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, an early screwball in which millionaire Herbert Marshall, if I’m recalling this correctly, takes a job as kitchen staff. We were about half an hour into it when we asked, “Wait a minute, WHY is he doing this?” Similarly, why does Knowles abandon his research work to masquerade as Dunne’s chauffeur (a plot thread which goes nowhere as she immediately loses her car) and then head out to a desert ghost town and help Dunne strike gold? He complains often enough about having to do it, but we couldn’t see why he has to do it at all. That kind of thing certainly matters.

Still, the bossy heiress recalls FEEL MY PULSE, the earliest La Cava shown at Edinburgh, which had Bebe Daniels in the role. The interest in psychotherapy reminds me of PRIVATE WORLDS — La Cava had spent time in at least one sanatorium and I think his interest is genuine — he just doesn’t understand anything about it. Still, Knowles here communicates in psychobabble and stuff about represssed feelings, which is a bit better than Joel McCrea’s Horatio Alger homilies in PW. The earlier film is still far superior, though.

Maybe what kept La Cava from resolving this one (apart from the hooch) is that it’s not MY MAN GODFREY. A butler reforming the family he works for is an amusing conceit. A therapist reforming anyone isn’t, because that’s his job, after all. FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was able to use the reform plot, because Ginger Rogers was a low-status character who turned out to have more smarts than the millionaires she moved in with. SHE MARRIED HER BOSS did it with Claudette Colbert marrying into the family, which was less amusing on the face of it, but the clue is in the title — she’s still kind of an underling. But she can win too easily, and there’s nothing absurd about it, so the film starts relying on broad drunken knockabout towards the end to distract from a certain flatness which up until then we haven’t felt, thanks to La Cava and his cast’s skill.

So La Cava does all he can with Knowles, which is drive him to distraction. Which makes his half of the picture fairly amusing, but you never saw a less agreeable Irene Dunne. Her talent is working overtime, but it’s been aimed in the wrong direction.

After this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING IN A BIG WAY…