Archive for David Cronenberg

From a clear blue sky

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2017 by dcairns

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Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.

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Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.

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Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”

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As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.

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Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).

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I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.

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I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.

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As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?

Director’s Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by dcairns

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When I first heard about Lucio Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN it was something to do with it having been banned in Britain, which always makes things sound enticing. The description suggested that the movie, in which Fulci plays himself, a director of horror movies undergoing a breakdown in which he’s losing the ability to distinguish between fact and bloody fiction, used highlights from many of Fulci’s previous movies in order to ramp up the gore quotient. This sounded both cheap and nasty, but also oddly meta. It sounded like the last gasp of the giallo, and it was pretty close to being Fulci’s last film (but the tireless Dr. F. managed a couple more, and was set to make WAX MASK when he died).

But the movie doesn’t actually cannibalize the Fulci back catalogue for its gratuitous bloodletting — to give credit where it’s due, pretty much all the unnecessary bloodletting has been staged especially for this movie. Still, by casting himself as stocky, nervous leading man, Fulci is attempting some kind of career summation, making this his TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS, only with considerably more arterial spurt (when Cocteau gets a spear through his nice V-neck sweater, there’s no leakage of the Blood of a Poet).

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Much of the time, Fulci seems to be playing Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME game — “If violent movies made us violent, THIS is what the world would be like.” But Fulci is not smart like Cronenberg. It’s interesting that he was a doctor, because (a) “Dr. Fulci will see you now” is not reassuring and (b) his films are routinely preposterous about psychology, behaviour, basic cause and effect — they seem to have made by an idiot who’s good with the camera. Now, you can be smart enough to get a degree and still be an idiot when it comes to creating believable characters. Fulci seems to be one of those smart-dumb guys. I don’t accept that the people in his films are ridiculous because he doesn’t care — if you’re able to appreciate good characterisation at all, it would just KILL you to write such crappy dialogue and action for the people in your movie.

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I really hate this asshole.

The neurotic Fulci on-camera seeks the help of a shrink, who hypnotises him and sets about framing him for some murders he’s committing, just because. So this is an unusual giallo where we know the killer but we don’t quite know how serious our director’s derangement is. Now, Fulci was a comedy director before he got into horror, and maybe the stupid, ugly way he portrays the world has something to do with the lowbrow world of Italian sex comedy (I haven’t much of this genre, but I’m imagining it to be a bit like British sex comedy but with slightly more attractive photography and girls — Edwige Fenech trumps Sue Lloyd — in other worlds, depressing). All the women seem to have stepped out of bad pornos. Fulci sexualises them without bothering to cast particularly attractive girls, get performances out of them, or photograph them in a flattering way.

Some earlier Fulci gialli might muster a passable misogyny defense by virtue of their all-pervasive misanthropy, something the genre seems to thrive on (I would love a good theory as to why this element seems so central). Here, the violence towards women, not so much gleeful as laborious and plodding (“Don’t enjoy it anymore. Bad for me,” narrates Fulci, talking about smoking but probably meaning cinema), served up to us with a disapproving scowl, seems to have no meaning at all.

We’re left with the stocky, ill-at-ease director (more dyspeptic than psychotic) trudging from bloodbath to bloodbath, depressed by his own films and this metafictional take on them, and enthused only by his white Mercedes, which he films parking at Cinecitta with great care and attention, for what feels like minutes on end. I think he must have been very fond of that car.

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The ending is almost quite good. But as Fulci, saved from madness, evil hypnotists, the long arm of the law, and movie-making, sails off into the sunset, he still doesn’t look very happy.

 

 

Dreaming the Shot List

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on November 21, 2015 by dcairns

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“For a long time, I tackled each shot as if it were the last, as if someone would be taking my camera away just after I finished shooting with it. Therefore, I had the feeling I was stealing each shot, and in this state of mind it’s impossible to think in terms of “grammar” or even “logic.” Even today, I prepare nothing in advance. In fact, I try to dream in my sleep the shots I will be shooting the next day on my set. With a little luck, I’m able to do it. If not, when I arrive on set in the morning I ask to be alone for a while, and I roam around the set with my viewfinder. I look through it and try to imagine the characters moving and saying their lines. It’s almost as if the scene were already there, invisible or impalpable, with me trying to seek it out and give it life.”

Bernardo Bertolucci interviewed in Moviemakers’ Masterclass by Laurent Tirard. Reminds me of Buster Keaton’s, “By God, when we was making movies, we ate, slept and dreamt ’em.” My problem as filmmaker, in common with many others, is that I’m an insomniac whenever I travel or whenever I make a movie (the two processes are related). My theory is that directors are usually grouchy for this reason, and films are usually bad for this reason. They’re made by people who haven’t slept and can’t think clearly.

Tirard’s book is enjoyable and informative and he has rounded up an amazing array of talent — Woody Allen, Almodovar, Boorman, the Coens, Cronenberg, Godard, Kusturica, Lynch, Pollack, Scorsese, Wenders, Wong Kar-Wai… I wish he asked a wider range of questions, more tailored to his subjects. I think Bert, above, is the only guy with a really good answer to the boilerplate question “Does film have a grammar?” Most of those asked say it does, but you can break it, but you have to know it to break it, blah blah. Listening to Cronenberg, who, for all his wild imagery, has never really done anything with the interplay of shots that broke with the tradition of Griffith, coming out with this pablum is mildly irritating. He could give a better answer to a better question.

Still, it’s a great array of interviewees. Some of them give slightly more practical advice than Bertolucci, too.