Archive for Dean Spanley

Here come the waterworks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by dcairns

What the hell is wrong with me? I never used to cry all the time — well, I was a crybaby kid up to the age of about 16, but that was bawling for entirely selfish reasons. I fell down, grazed a knee, wanted attention. Eventually got that under control — if you’re bullied at school, you don’t also want to be a hysteric — and didn’t cry once until the age of about 28, in which I had a dream my mother died and woke up teary. Floodgates opened? I then became somebody who might blink furiously at a moment of high emotion, suppressing the urge to blub with manly dignity — actual weeping was still practically unheard of.

But lately I’ve been more and more a soft target for sentiment — this was brought home to me spectacularly when I screened THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK for students. Now, Sturges uses schmaltz almost shamelessly, that is he ladles it on with barefaced cheek, but he also peppers it with humour, declaring that he’s really above that sort of thing. When I first discovered his work, I felt like he was making fun of the sentimentality of Hollywood movies, and I was completely with him on that. Any set-up to a moment of emotion in a Sturges film is likely to be savagely punctured by the pinprick of laughter.

There are exceptions in the noirish crime stuff in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the social conscience stuff in that same picture (a social conscience film parodying the impulse to make social conscience films), and certainly in the screenplay of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, maybe my favourite Christmas film, and THE GREAT MOMENT, but neither of those were executed by Sturges alone: the first was directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, who was compelled to shorten Sturges’ script, and the second was subject to egregious studio interference by Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva, whose talents as songwriter did not transfer to his productorial or narrative activities.

I still feel that, in a major sense, Sturges’ use of pathos is all part of the set of tricks he uses to bum-steer the audience before hitting them with gags. And yet there I was, blinking back great salty globules of eye-water as Trudy Kockenlocker and Norval Jones are brought together by an outrageous narrative contrivance which ought to achieve the heights of Brechtian alienation by virtue of its sheer implausibility.

It’s a very real problem. If this goes on, I may require a Perrier drip just to stop me dehydrating from the leaking of clown-spray eyeballs. A dog-weepie like the terrific DEAN SPANLEY would make me shrivel to Angelo Rossetti size, a wailing wrinkled dwarf saved from complete desiccation only by the fact that I would be unable to see over the heads of anybody in front of me in the cinema. If I attempted to watch Jack Clayton’s sublime THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE again, I would probably dry up and blow away like so much dandruff. As it is, handkerchiefs may soon become hopelessly inadequate, as if one stood in the path of a bursting damn or DeMille’s Red Sea, holding up a tiny swatch of fabric before the tidal onslaught. I would need to carry a couple of buckets everywhere to wring my face out into. Or attach suction pumps to my tear ducts to drain off the excess fluid into a plastic bag strapped to my leg, maybe. Perhaps a Fremen stillsuit, as modeled by Kyle MacLachlan in DUNE, would be the ultimate answer.

Can you see me in one of these?

What’s more worrying about this than the idea of evaporating mid-sniffle is what it may do to my critical acumen, such as it is. It seems to be quite hard to take against a movie that makes you cry, and if all movies make you cry, where are you? I’ve had conversations with people who cried at DANCER IN THE DARK, and they seemed to think that proved it was a good movie, or at least suggested that it might be. I wanted to say, Your emotion is real, you had a genuine emotional experience, and I don’t intend to belittle it. But that movie is a turd, a giant unspeakable shit, as thick as a kettle, taking 140 minutes to emerge into the light, unspooling on the floor in great drooping coils, hissing noxiously to itself the while, reeking of effluent and paraffin. No wonder your eyes watered. But I didn’t say that.

I felt coolly superior to those saps then. Not anymore. Not anymore.

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My Life as a Dog

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2010 by dcairns

I hadn’t heard of director Toa Fraser but I was drawn to DEAN SPANLEY, his film, for a variety of reasons.

1) The cast is excellent, with the underrated Jeremy Northam, the always excellent Sam Neill, and the indefatigable Peter O’Toole. Plus Bryan Brown (it’s been a while) and Judy Parfitt.

2) The screenplay is by Scottish writer Alan Sharp, who penned ROB ROY, whose resemblance to a classical western is easy to understand when you take into consideration his authorship of ULZANA’a RAID and BILLY TWO HATS. Cinephiles probably prize his screenplay of NIGHT MOVES most dearly of all.

3) The story is by Lord Dunsany, whose stuff I haven’t read but have been intrigued by on reputation alone. Pretty sure I’m going to read some now.

I noticed this film just before it came out, and then failed to see it on release. I’m now recommending EVERYBODY see it. To the above reasons, which I knew of before I watched it, I can add these —

1) It’s an intelligent weepy. It creeps up on you and then gently wrings your tear ducts till they squeak. In dealing with our relationships with our pets, and making a connection to our other, human, relationships, it’s skating on some thin ice, with a treacly Tokay of sentiment just below the surface, but I didn’t feel manipulated: instead I felt that the film illuminated something true about these strange “friendships” we form with animals.

2) Don McGlashan’s sumptuous score walks a similarly fine line, and with grace.

3) Leon Narbey’s cinematography is rich and pleasing, and somehow skirts the dangerous waters of “heritage cinema,” which the plush Edwardian decor brings us close to.

4) I confess to mixed feelings about Fraser’s direction: he presides over magnificent performances, and his filming of them is very solid and sometimes quite elegant, but he occasionally attempts a cutaway to a detail or a wide shot of an environment, and it doesn’t always add anything. The piece is so driven by performances that anything else gets in the way — with the exception of the slomo shots of bounding dogs, with which he is on safe ground. Perhaps a more vigorous and imaginative approach could have added layers of cinematic life to Sharp’s typically epigrammatic and thoughtful script, but what is there is more than enough to satisfy.

On reviewing, I found a lot of unobtrusive craft in the subtle way Fraser weaves the camera around and towards his characters, contributing greatly to the film’s unique, solemn-quirky atmosphere.

I imagine Lasse Hallstrom pitched his new movie, HACHIKO: A DOG’S STORY (Richard Gere + dog = dog) as “It’s MY LIFE AS A DOG, only with a dog.” The damn thing probably works, in terms of uplift and sentiment and a good work-out for the old weeping apparatus, but I suspect I would feel used by it. That’s where DEAD SPANLEY scores.

There’s an oddball plot here: Jeremy Northam is frustrated by his stiff-upper lip dad (O’Toole), who refuses to mourn the son he lost in the Boer War, or his wife, who died from grief. “When a thing goes to the trouble of happening, it is best regarded as inevitable,” is his bluff philosophy. Then Northam meets Spanley (Neill) at a talk on reincarnation, and discovers that the cleric is oddly affected by his favourite tipple, Tokay, which causes him to remember his past life as a Welsh spaniel. More remarkably still, it starts to seem that as a spaniel Neill may actually have belonged to O’Toole — his beloved dog, Wag. “One of the seven great dogs. At any one time, there are only seven.”

Where on earth is this going, you ask, and that indeed is one of the pleasures of the film: not knowing. The purpose of it all is carefully concealed until an hour in, but we were hypnotized by the expert playing and the charming insights into canine psychology afforded by the dean’s glimpses of his previous existence. And it’s all the more unpredictable because the film doesn’t appear to be for anyone, in a commercial sense. Which is refreshing. Most good books aren’t targeted in the rather deplorable way that films have to be, after all. I love genre films, but it’s frustrating to me that you can’t, for example, make a horror film with a child protagonist, despite childhood being a great source of fear, because the audience for horror films is perceived to be teenage, and what teenager wants to watch their kid brother or sister in a movie?

Every copy of DEAN SPANLEY comes with a complimentary Dudley Sutton.

So while DEAN SPANLEY may have suffered from being a hard project to situate in the marketplace, I’m hoping to do something to spread word of mouth that will help at least a few people discover it. The movie deserves it. It not only offers an emotional release, it reflects upon the value and nature of that release, which is one possible way to differentiate between what’s repulsively known as a “tear-jerker” (even porno movies don’t get called “sperm-jerkers”, do they?) and a movie which deals with emotion as subject.

Perhaps, I found myself thinking, we keep animals with shorter lives than themselves, in part to practice our mourning. That, after all, is such a big part of what we have to do in life.

Available from Amazon UK: Dean Spanley [DVD] [2008]