Archive for Dennis Potter

The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2015 by dcairns

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h44m08s31

Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h48m39s178

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h43m13s3

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h43m28s156

The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h46m21s103

There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.

vlcsnap-2015-12-03-20h45m47s251

Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

The Late Show Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by dcairns

THE LATE SHOW: THE LATE FILMS BLOGATHON is here. I’ll keep this post at the top of the page, presenting all the participants’ work, while my own entries will appear immediately below it.

Links!

Arthur S., over at This Pig’s Alley, files a confidential report on Eric Rohmer’s TRIPLE AGENT.

The latest Shadowplay post, on Cukor’s RICH AND FAMOUS, is right below this one.

Brandon keeps it coming with an illuminating scan through Orson Welles’ ONE-MAN BAND.

Eric at Sporadic Scintillation plays THE MUSIC, curtain call of the great Yasuzo Masumura.

WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE, the last film from Shohei Immamura, which provoked mainly perplexity upon release, is sympathetically showcased at Serene Velocity.

Flickhead makes a very welcome contribution, bringing a documentary flavour to the proceedings with a look at Varick Frissell’s THE VIKING.

More from Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr, exploring the tragedy and hope of Mizoguchi’s final opus, STREET OF SHAME.

Gareth’s Movie Diary rides with THE COMANCHEROS, the last movie from golden age giant Michael Curtiz. And a handsome piece it looks, too!

55 DAYS AT PEKING, arguably the final completed feature from (in part) Nicholas Ray, is under the microscope at Mr. K’s Geel Cornucopia. And it takes us into quite a lovely place!

My own new entry is right below this one. NOT an appreciation of LOLA MONTES, merely a sidelong observation or two.

Arch-Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein, over at the Fablog, presents Pasolini’s 1966 anthology piece CHE COSA SONA LE NUVOLE?, in which giant puppets enact Othello… in a Late Show first, you can not only read about the film over at his place, but watch it too.

Brandon again (don’t stop, Brandon!) at Brandon’s Movie Memory explores Jimmy Stewart’s last theatrical feature, an odder-than-odd Japanese nature film shot in Africa.

Ed Howard at Only the Cinema takes on RIO LOBO, a sad note for Howard Hawks to end on, but certainly a recognizable variation on his usual themes and characters. Beautiful screen-shots, making me regret seeing it on an old VHS. A revisit might be in order: I remember enjoying Sherry Lansing’s unlikely turn as a vengeful Mexican.

C. Jerry Kutner writes for Bright Lights Film about James Whale’s difficult-to-see final project, HELLO OUT THERE. Anybody got a copy of that movie?

There’s a new post by yours truly, right below this one.

John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows examines THE LEFT HAND OF GOD, a late Bogart movie directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia revisits FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, the last film from Terence Fisher, the last Hammer Frankenstein, the last Peter Cushing appearance as the Baron, and one of the last Hammer releases altogether.

Brandon’s Movie Memory absorbs late works by Lindsay Anderson, Charlie Bowers, Buster Keaton, Osamu Tezuka (yay!), Norman McLaren and Joseph Barbera. Wouldn’t they make a houseful?

At Pussy Goes Grrr, an excellent analysis and appreciation of Eric Rohmer’s THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON can be found. A new discovery for me, this blog promises riches!

Jaime Grijalba looks at the last films of Bunuel and Ozu in a Spanish-language entry at Exodus 8:2. Thrilled to have something non-English-language here, even if I can’t read it myself!

At Deeper Into Movies, Brandon’s Movie Memory connects with COLD LAZARUS, the last teleplay of Dennis Potter, starring the frozen, severed head of Albert Finney, and executed “under the strictest writing deadline: to finish the story before his imminent death.” A terrific piece which exemplifies the virtues of this fun, intelligent blog — a sympathetic account which acknowledges the flaws in a film even while seeing beyond them to possibly hidden virtues.

At Boiling Sand, Doug Bonner delves into Herbert Wilcox’s THE LADY IS A SQUARE, exploring how a somewhat stilted film can nevertheless serve as a touching farewell to a star and director. A really beautiful piece.

Another Shadowplay entry by guest blogger and regular Shadowplayer Judy Dean can be found below ~

Right city, wrong time

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2008 by dcairns

One of my larger incompetencies during the festival was missing the screening of OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terence Davies’ new documentary, which is serving to remind everybody what a great filmmaker, and personality, he is. But, despite missing the screening and Mr. Davies himself, nevertheless, gentle ShadowplayersI did not fail you.

A Videotheque is a special room designed for watching films under whatever the opposite of “optimum viewing conditions” is. Despite the cool name, there’s usually no dancing. You have a TV and a DVD player and a set of headphones and you’re surrounded by other people similarly equipped. It’s like being at home, only uncomfortable. Actually, home isn’t always comfortable either, especially last night when Fiona, suffering from a killer migraine, accidentally threw a live cat into my face. But there was something strangely appropriate about watching PRIMITIVE LONDON with blood tricking down my chin.

The E.I.F.F. videotheque is located in the shiny bowels of The Point Conference Centre, which looks like an office building out of Tati’s PLAYTIME, all metallic sheen and inhumanity. Adding a welcome note of the organic was regular Shadowplayer Kristin Loeer, who was running the place. Kris and her team sorted me out with various movies I’d been too slack or drowsy to catch on the big screen.

(This is part of why you should never trust professional film reviewers, who won’t tell you if they saw the stuff projected as it should be, or on a poxy monitor inside a strange metal box administered by Germans. And I can’t recall the last time Armond White admitted his viewing of, say, the latest Dardennes brothers opus had been marred by a flying cat gashing his lip.)

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “OF TIME AND THE CITY”

PLAY STREET: ALL VEHICLES PROHIBITED

PURITY

JOYTIME

FUNLAND

PALACE AMUSEMENTS

THIS IS ROUGHWOOD NO GO AREA ENTER AT OWN RISK

GOD BLESS OUR POPE

PNEUMATIC ELEVATOR NO 12

The movie, a portrait of Liverpool mainly through archive material, is very attentive to signs and graffiti. Narrated by Davies himself, whose sonorous, rich voice I’ve always admired (it’s how I remember my childhood G.P. Dr. Robertson sounding) this is a moving, passionate, sometimes angry and always poetic vision of a city I normally don’t care anything about, but which is brought to life like a richly textured yet unbelievably screwed-up movie character — perhaps a cross between Auntie Mame and the bad lieutenant.

The use of found footage, and its relationship to the V.O., is often startlingly beautiful. As Davies muses on the vacuum of the great British Sunday afternoon, in which children of both our generations were bored to distraction by a complete lack of anything to do, he shows a little girl skipping across a patch of waste ground, then abruptly stopping as if she’s just realised she’s surrounded by the bleakest stretch of nothingness in Britain.

The movie’s also often funny, with Davies leavening his aching nostalgia with cynicism re the coronation of Elizabeth II (“Street parties were held to celebrate the start of The Betty Windsor Show”) and the Catholic church, whose influence dominated Davies’ youth (“Pope Clitoris the Umpteenth”). There’s also highly emotive music, both popular and operatic, and many many quotations. CARRY ON fans will be pleased to hear Kenneth Williams on the soundtrack (the camp “Julian and Sandy as lawyers” bit from radio’s Round the Horne: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of out time.”)

The quotes are probably the riskiest strategy, because unlike Godard, Davies is very fond of rather familiar lines, like Ozymandias, and that stuff about the “blue remembered hills”. But it’s such a uniquely personal documentary that this seems fine — Davies “blue remembered hills” are his own, not Dennis Potter’s. And Davies has always been a populist without a popular audience. The sheer misfortune of coming along during a weird bit of British film history has bracketed him amid the artsy, when he desperately wants to address regular folks, to whom he has much to say.

OF TIME AND THE CITY will undoubtedly play many festivals and do well on British T.V. (which should be throwing money at Davies to make dramas — socially accurate, non-aspirational, poetic work has always formed the bulk of quality British television), but the real hope is that it will allow him to make another cinema film.

In its own right, it’s a marvellous example of just that, and hopefully an appetizer for what comes next.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 679 other followers