Archive for Dangerous Liaisons

Grift to the Scaffold

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — THE GRIFTERS stands up well. I was maybe a little underwhelmed in 1990, though I saw Stephen Frears do a Q&A on it and that was fun. In fact, it’s excellent. Stylistically, Frears was probably at his most assured — the opening split screen should go further, I feel, and the magnificent blocking in the hospital waiting room confrontation isn’t quite as dazzling as the way the characters prowl around each other in DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but it’s still hugely effective, and the three stars are tops.

I was very slightly sceptical of David E.’s assertion that the film presciently captures the state of America now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties. Though I think the word GRIFT may soon be replaced by the word GRAFT, which seems really useful in today’s emulumental world.

Frears, as I recall, affected a complete disinterest in John Cusack’s previous career — “I gather he was in some sort of teenage things” — THE SURE THING, for one, is excellent, as I recall — Cusack has got IT, in the best Elinor Glyn sense of the word. Frears talked about auditioning various people for the role of Lilly, and sensing how the film would be good, but entirely different, depending on who he chose. With Sissy Spacek it would have been about class, and white trash aspiration, but with Anjelica Huston it was going to be Greek tragedy. Complete with descent into the Underworld.

He acknowledged that the last but one scene — AH descends in a Fatal Elevator — was a hommage to her recently-departed father and THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t understand, watching it now, why the film doesn’t end on this sensational pair of shots, instead of frittering out into a routine car on road fade-out.

He talked about the horrifying oranges scene, with Pat Hingle, and how watching Huston’s devastatingly convincing pain was “one of those days when you wonder why you do this job,” because it was so distressing to watch.

Annette Bening is interesting — I think she can seem kind of phony-saccharine, but here she’s phony-sexy and it’s perfect. Fiona did question why she had to be naked so much and was the only one doing it, but I guess she’s the one who uses sex as a weapon so there’s SOME justification.

I can’t, damnit, remember any discussion of screenwriter Donald Westlake.

Cute in-joke in the signage, which references two of Westlake’s many nommes des plumes. He does quite a bit of this winking in his pseudonymous novels.

There was some chat about OA Jim Thompson and how, though he wrote about low-lifes, he was very happy to see big movie stars cast in his stuff.

Delirious from his stomach injury, Cusack hallucinates a see-through mentor — like Obi-Wan? Or maybe the reference is to the tormentingly translucent Julie London in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose co-star Henry Jones appears in this movie.

I think maybe I expected more twists, but I was glad it didn’t try to fool us too much. I always thought HOUSE OF GAMES was an awful piece of junk, depending for its success on the audience, and the lead character, never suspecting that the con artist characters might be orchestrating a con. So really THE GRIFTERS is about character, not convoluted tricks of narrative or “big store” schemes.

I also really like the way it’s set in a contemporary 1990 world with chunky computers and everything, but manages to feel much older, 1940s maybe, without this coming across as affectation or anachronism. Very hard to do. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to do, I think, without coming off all arch. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big part of it, as are the costumes, the dialogue, the performances…

THE GRIFTERS stars Morticia Addams; Martin Q. Blank; Supreme Intelligence; Mousie; Commissioner Gordon; Baxter Wolfe; John Ehrlichman AND Bob Woodward; Mr. Pink (uncredited); and the voice of Vincent Van Gogh.

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.

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.