Archive for David Watkin

Whoever Speaks the Truth Must Die

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-01-16-10h12m55s29

GIORDANO BRUNO (1973) is by Giuliano Montaldo, whose CLOSED CIRCUIT I enjoyed, and wrote about for Sight & Sound (possibly the only article in that organ’s history to be written in the form of a police interrogation). I then ran GRAND SLAM, his 1967 Rio heist flick, which totally lacked the elaborate, hypnotic choreography of cast and camera which entranced me in the TV movie (about a spaghetti western that kills audience members!). Most of the filmmakers effort seemed to have gone on unconvincing special effects to convince us that ailing star Edward G. Robinson was on location.

But GB sees the return of the elaborate camera blocking, and a fantastic set of collaborators in DoP Vittorio Storaro, composer Ennio Morricone, and star Gian Maria Volonte as the lapsed priest persecuted by the Inquisition for preaching “heresy” (such as stating that the earth orbits the sun and that there are other worlds which may be inhabited.

vlcsnap-2015-01-16-10h04m33s154

I get the strong impression that Montaldo and Storaro had seen THE DEVILS and been impressed, though their approach is less hysterical than Ken Russell’s, leaving out the camp and staying pretty sombre even during the hero’s debauches. Just as with Ollie Reed, though, Volonte undergoes a sharp transition from unsympathetic hedonist to Christ-like martyr at the hands of politicians and the church. Storaro even borrows lighting cameraman David Watkin’s trick of using out of focus and over exposed backgrounds where the light actually eats into characters’ profiles, an eye-catching effect indeed, turning people into frayed cut-outs.

All through the story, Volonte in his cell is associated with light (Storaro does love his symbolic effects), blasting in from narrow windows and given a sculptural shape by subtle application of smoke, whereas his papal persecutors inhabit realms of wealth and opulence and formal symmetry. Venice street scenes get a handheld, loose treatment to contract with the elegance of the wealthy.

vlcsnap-2015-01-16-10h11m05s212

 

Morricone seems capable of far more nuanced work when the film is in Italian, and his score here is, of course, beautiful, but also cunning. Divine music accompanies the pontiff’s crisis on conscience as he ponders whether the man he’s having stretched on the rack may have more in common with the apostles than with common criminals. He seems a sincere, thoughtful and worried man, anxious to hold onto the reins of power but with the intention of using them to do good. But the church is, in fact, a power structure, and self-preservation is its only priority, and this essentially weak man must either ride this juggernaut the way it wants to go or be crushed by it. And so the apparently decent, cautious pope becomes quite easily the film’s biggest villain, and Morricone’s sacred accompaniment is revealed as an elaborate bluff and a black joke.

Volonte is a fascinating choice here as he’s rarely a very sympathetic actor, often cast as heavies by Leone, Petri, Lizzani, and the late Francesco Rosi. His vaguely disagreeable features and unsentimental scripting help stop Bruno becoming a plaster saint, so that by the end, when all vanity has fallen away and he has, in best Howard Beale fashion, “run out of bullshit,” he can attain a kind of secular sainthood by standing up to a vast power which can destroy him without the slightest trouble. An affecting portrait of intellectual heroism, particularly pertinent in the light of recent events (ALL this week’s posts seem pertinent in the light of recent events).

vlcsnap-2015-01-16-10h03m44s172

Oh, and we also get a little role for my favourite floundering detective, Renato Scarpa, the sickly chubster from DON’T LOOK NOW… And a couple of sequences of Charlotte Rampling, including one weird one where she becomes sexually aroused by GB’s philosophy. Is there a perversion, known or unknown to human practice, that Rampling hasn’t yet ably embodied? I’m not sure this one even has a name.

Advertisements

Walloping About

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-16h17m40s93

Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.

Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another,  into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk,  who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.

The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).

The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.

Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-15h46m39s174

Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…

Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”

Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-16h09m26s18

What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).

You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.

Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.

Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.

The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~

“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-16h11m07s4

During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.

Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~

SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-16h19m02s145

Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.

Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.

Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”

vlcsnap-2014-03-22-16h23m00s19

Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.

Wendy Light

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-07-30-16h30m28s149

By sheer chance, the assistant technician in the Edinburgh College of Art film department happened to be in a bookshop in her native Brighton one day when she stumbled upon a reading by Oscar-winning cinematographer David Watkin, who had just published a limited-edition memoir under the title Why Is There Only One Word For Thesaurus? She picked up a copy, and that’s how I got to read this very rare book about one of my favourite film-makers.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, and Richard Lester generously lends me the second volume of that book, a greatly expanded rewrite, Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag? “He certainly had a gift for titles.”

The book includes more everything — more excursions into irrelevant but fascinating sidetracks on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Wilhelm Furtwangler and graffiti at Eton — more dazzling insights into the craft on filmmaking — more scandalous gossip and colourful character portraits. These are not really irrelevant at all as they add to the self-portrait of a man with interests outside of cinema. Not having to worry about his editor or his readership frees Watkin to simply write.

I was pleased to see that the second book was out of the closet. Watkin himself was too honest, I think, to ever seriously adopt a wooden shell around his sexuality, but as I remember the first book is deliberately obscure on this subject, though that didn’t stop the author including a chapter about how AIDS was undoubtedly manufactured in a lab to do exactly what it eventually did. Such hiding in plain sight is avoided in WCSAFH? and we get an ode to the virtues of rent boys and a gratifyingly frank discussion of the important men in DW’s life.

Also a glossary, which alternates between opinionated takes on various bits of film kit, and brilliant stuff like this ~

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX Often mistaken as an alternative to something, which it is not. Inside the box isn’t thinking.

And when John Wayne met Noel Coward ~

“Mr Coward, I’m John Wayne.”

Noel seized the outstretched hand and patted it reassuringly.

“Of course you are, dear boy, of course you are.”

Some of the best stuff is on CATCH 22, a gorgeous photographic job by Watkin, and a discomfiting experience for his American collaborators. Watkin was very British, but he also had his own personal way of shooting which didn’t correspond to any known school. Lester has called him a kind of primitive.

This seems as good a time as any to say that from the very beginning I have shot all my films for an audience of one, namely the director (though some of those may be surprised to hear it). It’s natural and I never thought about it — like a girl wishing to please a lover. If she is a sensible girl that does not mean doing everything the lover wants and there again, without needing to think about it, I was protected always by a deep respect for celluloid. Later on the phone Mike [Nichols, director] was telling us who strange he found the Brits. When contemplating my removal, he had asked Alan [McCabe, camera operator] how long it would take the crew to adjust to my replacement.

“No time at all — we’d all be on the plane with David.”

This was incomprehensible to Hollywood.

In fairness to Nichols, Watkin evidently drove him crazy: on the excellent commentary track he recorded with Steven Soderbergh, he reports Watkin creating such a forest of flags and lights for one scene that it became impossible to get the stand-ins out and the actors in. Still, Lester, a notoriously fast director liked Watkin because he could match his pace (and get beautiful and distinctive results).

vlcsnap-2013-07-30-16h25m23s182

The book also explains one of CATCH 22’s most eye-popping special effects ~

Hungry Joe standing on a raft in the sea to photograph McWatt’s plane gets sliced up by the propeller, leaving only his legs standing. It may appear difficult but in fact there is a simple way to do it. A shield with two hand-grips at the back to cover the top half of the body, and covered on the outside with front projection material, could be held by the actor against a waist-band of make-up blood. With a brute positioned just above the camera on the shore the density of the shield could be matched to that of the sky behind it. The actor could then dance a jog for as long as required, provided he kept face-on to camera and fell off the raft backwards. It was safe and effective, its only drawback being that it was suggested by me. The special effects department had built a dummy that could be blown in half by an explosive charge and to my disbelief this method was insisted on. I have never seen anyone cut in half by an aeroplane but I do not believe that their demise would be attended by an orange flash and clouds of black smoke, whatever they’d had for breakfast. I said this with due modesty and diffidence but to no purpose, and several ludicrous attempts were made. Finally a hand from the disintegrating dummy got lodged in the tail-plane and the pilot nearly crashed into the sea. Only then, faute de mieux, was my idea adopted and within twenty minutes the shot was made that is in the film.

vlcsnap-2013-07-30-16h27m12s202

(Actually, Nichols uses the exploding dummy in extreme long-shot, then cuts to Watkin’s effect, which is the amazing bit — the fact that the legs are clearly real and articulated sells the gag with horrific conviction.)

I told Lester something line producer David Brown once told me, that on his later films Watkin would have a return ticket to Brighton taped to the side of the camera. If anybody said anything he didn’t care for, he could simply point toward this, as if to say “I can leave whenever I like, you know.” We agreed that when you’re David Watkin, this is a perfectly reasonable position to take.

Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?: v.2: The Second Volume of an Autobiography Mainly, But Not Entirely, About the Film Business: Vol 2

Catch-22