Archive for Dangerous Liaisons

The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

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Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by dcairns

For reasons perhaps related to the ideas dished out in a previous post, Stephen Frears decided to set his version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, MARY REILLY (based on a pretty good book by Valerie Martin) in a version of Edinburgh… I say a version, because in this Edinburgh everyone has an English accent (Glaswegians might argue this is quite accurate) and the city is populated by distinguished English character actors such as George Cole and Michael Gambon.

Nevertheless, the fogbound metropolis is surmounted by a recreation of the Greek Parthenon (tricked up in the studio) and Frears and his unit decamped to the actual Edinburgh for a week of location shooting. Basically none of this material made it into the movie, which is mostly studio-bound and none the worse for it.

But due to the Edinburgh connection, and the fact that Scot producer Iain Smith oversaw the production, I gleaned a little on-set gossip.

Brown was called to Julia Roberts dressing room one day. It seemed her then-husband Lyle Lovett (remember THAT beautiful affair?) was going to be in New York that weekend. “Isn’t that great?” beamed la Roberts. “So he’s going to be in New York, and I could fly out and meet him, and we could spend the weekend together! In New York!”

Brown replied that this was indeed great, although he couldn’t quite see what it had to do with him. He left. By the time he got back to his office, his phone was already ringing. It was a sweary agent. “You are ****ing going to ****ing buy Julia Roberts a first-class ****ing plane ticket to New York, you ****ing ****!” he swore. “Fuck!” Sorry, he sneaked that one in past the asterisks while I was talking to you.

Brown refused, the agent swore at some more producers, and eventually the studio caved and met her demands, which she never had to actually even personally voice…

Anyhow, the shoot goes on. John Malkovich is playing Jekyll and Hyde (with resulting confusion as to which is which) and he’s not getting on too well with the Roberts. Malkovich has been known to be difficult himself, in fact — hold everything — here’s a story about him —

This one’s from DANGEROUS LIAISONS and it’s literally too good to be true — ie it’s probably made up. But not by me. Malkovich is doing DANGEROUS LIAISONS for Frears, and Frears visits his dressing room.

“John, I want to talk to you about your character.”

“Well, sure. Valmont is a very complicated guy –”

“No, John, you don’t understand. I want to talk to you about YOUR character.”

Flashforward back to whatever I was talking about. Oh yeah. MARY REILLY wraps, and Malkovich approaches Julia R. “I just wanted to say…” and here he tells her, essentially, that she’s an arrogant, stuck-up bitch, no professional, and he’s by no means enjoyed working with her and looks forward to never having to meet her again.

Three months later they’re back, re-shooting the climactic scene where she weeps over him as he dies in her arms…

The film itself? Some good work, the feeling of unease at the start is effective, suggesting that Frears could make a genuinely scary horror movie if it didn’t cost $50 million, but the novel’s conceit — the story told from the point of view of a chambermaid — is somewhat resistant to visualisation, since her POV is so limited: she misses the most dramatic events of the book. It could probably be done, but it would need greater talents. Christopher Hampton did a fine job adapting DANGEROUS LIAISONS but his subsequent films tend to the disastrous.  He seems to embody the more deleterious effects of the literary-theatrical tradition on British film. The fact that three endings were shot gives a sense of how lost the filmmakers became.

Worse, Frears usual intelligence seems to have operated only fitfully. There are bizarre mismatches of word and image. When Roberts describes her brute of a father as having an odd walk, “not quite a limp,” it’s a surprise to then see Michael Gambon hobble wildly up like Long John Silver on a pub crawl, walking on one ankle.

War of the Colossal Midgets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.