Archive for David Hemmings

Page Seventeen II: Cruise Control

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2021 by dcairns

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Thalberg was awestruck with Universal City. It was a virtual world unto itself, a self-contained municipality devoted exclusively to making motion pictures. There were restaurants and shops and even a police force, but most impressive were the production facilities. Universal’s largest shooting stage was 65 feet by 300 feet–roughly the size of a football field–with another stage at 50 by 200 feet. Both were enclosed and electrically equipped; in fact, a dramatic moment during the studio’s dedication in 1915 had been the activation of the electrical system by Thomas Edison, Laemmle’s former nemesis, who supervised the wiring of the plant. Besides the enclosed and open-air stages, the street sets and “back lot” for location work, there were extensive auxiliary facilities, from film processing labs and cutting rooms to prop and costume shops, construction yards, and even a zoo to supply supporting players for some of Universal’s more exotic productions.

The various government departments were unable to agree on either the details of what had taken place or an explanation for it. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, announced at a press conference on 25 February that the raid had been a false alarm. He admitted that the west coast of America was now vulnerable to enemy attack and suggested that any vital factories or other manufacturing facilities by the sea should be moved inland.

Only way to protect yourself against this horrid peril is to come over HERE and shack up with Charybdis… Treat you right kid… Candy and cigarettes.

So what I am, is a photographer: street, holiday park, studio, artistic poses and, from time to time, when I can find a client, pornographic. I know it’s revolting, but then it only harms the psychos who are my customers, and for the kids I use for models, they’d do it all down to giggles, let alone for the fee I pay them. To have a job like mine means I don’t belong to the great community of the mugs: the vast majority of squares who are exploited. It seems to me this being a mug or a non-mug is a thing that splits humanity up into two sections absolutely. It’s nothing to do with age or sex or class or colour–either you’re born a mug or a non-mug, and me, I sincerely trust I’m born the latter.

Superficially, there seemed little to it — the story of a young photographer, obviously successful, who has become detached from reality. Happening on a pair of lovers meeting in a deserted park, he snaps them. The girl chases after him, desperate to have the film, but he refuses her and takes it home. As he develops the shots, and progressively blows them up, it appears that a murder may have taken place, what looks like a body is lying beneath some bushes nearby. It is never made clear whether this is reality or illusion — a dichotomy which is the central enigma of a flimsy plot.

After saying all this, my grandmother heaved a gentle sigh, but it was enough of a sigh to make the uniforms ask what there was to sigh about. She nodded towards the fire, meaning to say that she had sighed because the fire was doing poorly and maybe a little on account of the people standing in the smoke; then she bit off half her potato with her widely spaced incisors, and gave her undivided attention to the business of chewing, while her eyeballs rolled heavenwards.

Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from different books lying around my house. I was excited to discover that the first page of chapter one of my battered Bleak House lands on page seventeen, because I love that opening and page seventeen is my page of choice here. And of course it was high time Burroughs made an appearance, since he and Brion Gysin pretty much invented this kind of thing.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens; The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-making in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz; Unsolved Mysteries of World War II by Michael Fitzgerald (not the producer); The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes; Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations by David Hemmings; The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.

Night Sweats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2015 by dcairns

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A Phantasmagoria of Fright! bawled the posters. FRAGMENT OF FEAR (1970) just about lives up to that, but it’s a more subtle, creeping paranoiac fear that you’d think. Richard Sarafian directs, right before he made VANISHING POINT, and David Hemmings stars, accompanied by wife Gayle Hunnicutt and every familiar face that could be collected into a British/European feature at the time — Philip Stone and Dave Prowse are about to do CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne are both fresh from THE BED SITTING ROOM, Wilfred Hyde-White is fresh from everything else, and Flora Robson, Yootha Joyce and Roland Culver may not be exactly fresh but they’re certainly familiar.

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Hemmings, who was yet to put on the pounds and develop his eyebrows into great cavorting caterpillars, is at his height as a leading man, looking as he always did, like a cross between Michelangelo’s David and a waxwork rabbit. He plays — with consummate skill — a recovered addict and author whose beloved aunt (Robson) is murdered in Italy. As Hemmings investigates the murder, a conspiracy is uncovered which seeks to discredit him and drive him mad — or is it all in his mind? Unlike in BLOW-UP, there definitely, definitely is a body, definitely dead, but everything else falls into doubt. Hemmings receives a threatening letter typed on his own typewriter and hears a menacing laugh recorded on his own tape deck. The criminal organisation which offed auntie has tentacles everywhere, and has a very nasty way of dealing with those who attack it.

Starting off like weak Agatha Christie — I was never convinced anyone concerned knew anything about drugs or the drug scene (Hemmings may have, but he didn’t tell the writers) — this gets better and better, reaching its crescendo at the point where you really believe there’s a massive international criminal organisation masquerading as a charity and behaving exactly like an acute case of paranoid schizophrenia. It’s good on the vertigo of the London underground escalators and the sarcasm of the British policeman (see also DEATH LINE).

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Ultimately, the story doesn’t amount to that much — but the journey is engaging. It should have been as creepy as THE TENANT, but doesn’t have the grungy visual originality. Serafian’s fish-eye lenses, used to suggest disorientation and dissociation are a rather kitsch trick, and the hallucinations, consisting mainly of substituting one character for another, aren’t that scary. It’s the slowly building sense of reality disintegrating that disturbs, aided immeasurably by Hemmings’ committed perf. The coziness of all those beloved character players crowding in from all sides, like in THE MEDUSA TOUCH or LIFEFORCE, actually blends nicely with the persecution and perspiration.

The Man Who Painted the Park

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by dcairns

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The death of production designer Assheton Gorton (last month, but I just recently learned of it) got me thinking about his unique contribution to sixties British cinema. Joe Massot’s WONDERWALL (1968), above, was an early sign of the new decadence, a film made almost entirely to spend the Beatles’ money before the taxman got it, which is not the noblest artistic purpose, but clearly everyone involved wanted to create something beautiful — more beautiful than a hospital ward or a torpedo bay (even a really nice one). And they succeeded.

I do get a ringing alarm bell in films about fantasy versus reality where the filmmakers can’t resist making the reality just as lovely and strange as the fantasy — MIRRORMASK, or THE CELL could be chosen as examples. WONDERWALL has this problem very badly — it plays a little like THE ZERO THEOREM, with its mundane protagonist twisted so far into eccentricity as to become insane and alienating, depriving us of our Dante or Virgil in the labyrinth. Some might argue that BRAZIL is oppressively fantastical too, but that’s the point for me — the reality is desaturated and bluish and oppressive and insistently real, and the fantasy can do its job effectively in such a context. If everything is fairytale, there’s no contrast, and movies love sharp contrasts.

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Whatever the opposite of an everyman protagonist is, Jack MacGowran is it. A kind of “no-man protagonist,” or “notagonist,” if you will. An actor whose quirks and accent and 24hr inebriation can make him fascinating at the same time as incomprehensible and utterly opaque. Apparently on KING LEAR he had no idea what he was saying. The trouble is, neither do I. Whereas, oddly, he seems to totally get Beckett, and makes me feel I do too.

Still, Gorton did a gorgeous job, though some shots are actually little more than beautiful actors in beautiful fabrics and patterns, beautifully lit, with not a wall or piece of furniture in sight.

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Obviously it was BLOW-UP, on which A.G. served as art director, that got him WONDERWALL. I suppose the job title is correct because Antonioni appears to have built no sets, but he transformed locations, painting a street various shades of gray, and even the people in it, so that David Hemmings’s skin becomes the only thing telling you the movie isn’t b&w. Elsewhere, colour is insistent and striking, though Antonioni still prefers a sort of metallic pastel palette, distinguishing his work from the screaming psychedelia that was beginning to explode in reality.

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Famously, Antonioni had Gorton paint a park, because the colours had changed since they location-scouted it and it no longer fitted the scheme. I couldn’t say for sure that the park looks different from a natural one, but I certainly FEEL it does — it seems flatter, more uniform and graphic.

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Aided by overcast English skies, the park becomes a gray-green silhouette — sure, the shrubbery has shadows and weight, but it doesn’t sem to have ENOUGH.

I always felt that, in scenes like the non-sequitur cross-talk purchase of a propeller from an antique shop, Antonioni was influenced by THE KNACK and its Ann Jellicoe-via-Charles Wood script, in which language becomes a kind of infestation, scrambling the characters’ brains and even pouring from their heads in the form of subtitles. Antonioni, working in an unfamiliar language, had the help of Edward Bond, but neither man is what you would call zany and so their attempts at a comedy of word soup floundering tends to fall rather painfully on its keys, but the very discomfort and flatness of it kind of suits the picture.

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In Jellicoe’s play, Tom, the Donal Donnelly character, repaints his room, stripping it of furniture and, I seem to recall, painting the shadows on the wall. And then he drives in a few nails so he can hang the chairs high off the floor. He doesn’t get that far in Richard Lester’s film, and he paints the room a featureless white, so that the various shapes look embossed, like MARIENBAD’s title sequence (Lester was a fan). Certianly Antonioni, who had been repainting reality in THE RED DESERT (1964), must have felt that Gorton was a kindred spirit. He just needed to THINK BIGGER.

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