Archive for Dino DeLaurentiis

The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

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Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

Kong Dies At The End

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2014 by dcairns

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A more accurate title for John Guillermin and Dino de Laurentiis’s KING KONG LIVES! would be KING KONG DIES AGAIN! since that is what happens. I feel no particular guilt at this fairly colossal spoiler, since KKL is not only very terrible, it’s also unusually boring for a terrible film. The action is repetitive — Kong rescues his mate at the end of Act I, then again at the end of Act II — and very generic. The characters are flat — so flat that James Cameron could recycle the hardass military guy in AVATAR, put him in 3D, and he was still so flat he could slide under doors like an envelope.

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“You’ve heard of the Green Berets? We’re the Raspberry Berets.”

Director John Guillermin does achieve one of the most memorable moments of his career — which includes some genuinely interesting, and well-made, films — during the sequence where Kong receives an artificial heart the size of a Fiat 500. Beginning with the hairy monarch lying comatose in a lab is not such an awful idea, if you have to begin such a venture at all (and clearly you don’t, so DON’T) — it allows Carlo Rambaldi to create another forty-foot mechanical ape, one which doesn’t have to do anything, but which human actors can interact with, thus convincing the audience that the gorilla really is as big as he’s supposed to be (a conviction shattered as soon as he gets up and starts ambling around miniature landscapes, but it was nice while it lasted). BUT — not content with staging a scene in which the $7, 000,000 artificial heart (this bionic Kong has to go one million better than Steve Austin) is winched over to the rather restive patient (should he really be tossing his head about like that if anesthetized?) — not content with generating bogus suspense by have the crane nearly break and drop the expensive, heavy organ straight through the slumbering monster’s abdomen — not content with showing us one of those inflating rubgy football things used in anesthesis, and having it be normal size when surely it ought to be a veritable Hindenberg — Guillermin throws in a shot taken from inside Kong, looking out of his thoracic cavity towards the assembled medical team and the descending cyber-pump.

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“A new low in taste,” was the phrase used gleefully by Martin Scorsese to describe the shot of a shark’s prey being consumed, taken from inside the shark’s mouth, in JAWS 3 — in 3D. But can that truly compete with a view from an ape’s thoracic cavity? I see now why Guillermin hasn’t made another film since — how to top this? Perhaps by filming out of Dracula’s arse as he breaks wind while stooping to bite a victim.

Fiona: “Why do they want to save Kong’s life after the mass destruction he caused in the last film?”

Me: “They like him.”

The more interesting aspects of the film’s deep badness are the points where it transcends the moronic and achieves solid stupidity. A stupidity you could walk about on; stupidity that could safely take a man’s weight.

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A kind of madness of stupidity, a mania of the dumb, seizes some filmmakers in the process of telling a genre story. The makers of this movie knew perfectly well that Kong, having fallen off the World Trade Center, couldn’t be alive, wouldn’t be helped by a robot heart, or by a blood transfusion from a giant female gorilla who doesn’t necessarily have the same blood type anyway, and that he wouldn’t have been able to walk even with such curative treatment after spending ten years in a coma. They knew that it isn’t full moon every night, yet it is in this movie, even though the action covers months. They also knew, one hopes, the simple biological fact that animals need to eat, yet “Lady Kong” goes on hunger strike when she’s locked in a missile silo by the army, and when Linda Hamilton asks “How long has she been like this?” she is told “Three or four months.” Yet not only does Lady Kong not die of starvation, she is able to give birth to a child at the end of it all.

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When the Son of Kong is eventually born, he is played by another actor in an ape suit, who is cradled in the animatronic Kong hand built by Carlo Rambaldi. So the Kongs, the fifty-foot ape couple, have a child who is only about six feet tall, if that, and who is as active and agile as an adult (and isn’t covered in icky amniotic fluid and blood.

Linda Hamilton sighs a lot and shakes her head to let us know she’s not happy with the way things are going, most of the time, and who can blame her?

Apart from the various stupidities, the film only really startles one awake when something particularly vile happens, as when Kong snaps a man in two; or some distressing attempt at humour is made, as when he pick a baseball cap from between his teeth after eating a man. And the whole Kong family still keep grinning, having learned nothing from the first go-round.

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Boldly, Lady Kong is played by a man, making this a rather forward-looking same-sex marriage, or at any rate civil partnership.