Archive for Don’t Look Now

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Wirework

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by dcairns

1910’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (Otis Turner) is a very sound example of those earlies that almost seem to be built around their intertitles. The system is simple: reduce a famous book everyone sort-of knows to about eight sentences. Insert shots illustrating those sentences in between thee titles. Film done!

Dorothy is blown to Oz along with a cow and a donkey and a scarecrow (he’s not an Oz native in this version, so we’ll have no mucking about with dreams at the end). The animals are men in costumes — I’m assuming they’d be men, in which case the cow is also a drag act. The loose-limbed Scarecrow is pure Ray Bolger, a welcome link forward to what we all feel is the authentic OZ film of ’39.

On touchdown, most of the characters are shown already in situ, just sort of ACTING as if they’ve been dropped by a cyclone, but the Scarecrow drops from a great height, falls gently to earth, then rolls over several times before getting his bearings. This worried me, rather. I’ll explain.

When Mark Cousins interviewed Donald Sutherland, the Great Man talked about doing his rope-dangling but in the church in DON’T LOOK NOW by himself because “The stunt-man, at the last minute, didn’t want to do it for some reason.” (If it were me, I’d be very curious about the reason.) Years later, Sutherland was complimented on his bravery by another stuntman. “Oh, it was quite safe, I had a Kirby wire on.” “Yes, but you were going LIKE THAT,” [rotates finger to indicate spinning] “Yes?” “Well, when you go LIKE THAT [rotates finger] on a Kirby wire, the Kirby wire BREAKS.”

So I hope that scarecrow didn’t do too many takes.

Anyway, turns out Dorothy is played by a tiny, nine-year-old Bebe Daniels and the Scarecrow is future director Robert Z. Leonard. He would have been on the MGM lot when they were filming the ’39 version! He could have said, “Remember, play him LOOSE-LIMBED!” I’m fantasising — Ray Bolger never in his life needed THAT bit of advice.

Oh, Momba the Witch (Winifred Greenwood) also enters by wire, and it’s a real coup de cinema, as she soars over the heads of a throng of Ozites, who scatter as she lands, centre-screen and resplendent. Glinda the Good (Olive Cox) pops from the undergrowth on a wire that just elevates her a few inches off the ground for a moment, but gives her rise a fluid, effortless grace. Amazing what you can do with wires. When you consider the actors who have done their most popular work on wires (Chow-Yun Fat, the entire cast of THE MATRIX) it’s surprising we don’t attach all our actors to wires all the time. We might not choose to yank Tom Hanks twenty feet in the air to emphasise a dramatic moment in THE POST, but the facilities would be on hand if we did.

The Lion is a man in a costume, but he wears a great big lion head, so he doesn’t have Bert Lahr’s expressiveness. (You know that W.C. Fields nearly played the Wizard? He went so far as to annotate his script with additional dialogue. The best line read, “Remarkable! He even smells like a lion.” The friend who told me this added, “It would have been a whole. Different. Movie.”)

The Tin Woodsman, looking just like Jack Haley, is surrounded by a bleak landscape of massive deforestation. Leave him rusty! Seeing him referred to as The Woodsman got me thinking about David Lynch, a big fan of the Victor Fleming version. And bang on cue, a winged frog shows up! Coincidence? I think not!

Momba’s house has an evil face. I wondered if, like Baba Yaga’s domicile, it could get up and walk. But it doesn’t bother.

Momba’s fatal dowsing doesn’t make her shrink through the floor, she just fades away, like Graf Orlok in NOSFERATU.

The Great Oz himself is Hobart Bosworth, who would direct what may have been America’s first feature film, THE SEA WOLF, a few years later. It’s lost now, swept away on the great cyclone Time.

Into The Psyche.

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Dante: The Divine Comedy –  ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.’ – Inferno Canto 1: 1-60. The Dark Wood and the Hill.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
You are not alone
No one is alone

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Fiona here.

I was not expecting to become a sobbing mess during Into The Woods.

Truth be told, I am in a very delicate place. The blasted landscape of Grief. My brother died under traumatic circumstances this year and my response was to go into ‘coping/organisational’ mode, then numbness then dissociation. Something had to give eventually and after many months the reality of the situation started to seep into my bones and finally my brain, where it’s presently wreaking havoc in the a form of a PTSD like condition.

Into The Woods is a clever confabulation of classic fairy tales, which hearkens back to their dark origins. The end of the film is a virtual holocaust, with many characters dead and others bereaved.

Fairy tales, the old-fashioned kind, are very potent. They represent the shadowiest recesses of the human mind. Our hopes. Our fears. Everything that makes us human, including unimaginable pain.

Just watching this film version of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s remarkable piece, pierced my very thin defenses and touched the rawest nerves in my being. At this moment, that is perhaps a very easy thing to do. Films can be cathartic and healing in an odd way. Through this film I was able to release some of the pain I’d been holding onto for decades (losing both parents very young), along with my present pain. The old and the present pains are of course connected.

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Here’s a temporary thesis – Good Fairy Tales are about teaching us to deal with loss and impermanence. Bad Fairy Tales are saccharine things full of lies that merely distract and teach us nothing. The Fairy or Folk Tale is of course, closely aligned to dark fantasy writing and horror fiction/movies. Horror is primarily a young person’s genre as the undeniable truth that we will all die has not yet fully penetrated the developing mind. Fairy Tales are created for even younger minds. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial Of Death (1973), he outlined the thesis that the human personality is formed around the process of denying death so that we can continue to function. The downside is that this belief obscures self-knowledge and is responsible for much of the evil in the world.

43 years later, The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski actually verified this theory using psychological testing (over many, many years). They called it terror management theory.

Let’s go back to my Good/Bad Fairy Tale hypothesis. I think we can now see that MOST Fairy Tales and horror movies, although they include the idea of mortality, also deny it by having characters rise from the dead. How about Snow White and Michael Myers? In fact very few horror movies and film/theatre adaptations of fairy tales deal with bereavement, ageing and death in any meaningful way, apart from possibly Don’t Look Now and Into The Woods, which both riff on Little Red Riding Hood.

TMT combines existential philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and proposes that the avoidance of the idea of death has far-reaching consequences into how we manage our personal lives, our society and more disturbingly, our politics. In fact it penetrates to the very heart of humanity. It has existed since we became self-aware and has molded how we have conducted ourselves through history. It probably led to the invention of spirituality, religion – and art, and has helped us build the world we now inhabit. A sometimes beautiful but mainly monstrous, warring planet overwhelmed  with an obsession with fame, social injustice and unimaginable cruelty towards our fellow kind.

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It’s not all negative however, despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted. We have ART; the desire to represent the world around us and the feelings it provokes. Hense story telling. It’s unclear whether spirituality encouraged story telling or vice versa. At any rate we NEED story telling, much like terror management theory, to navigate our lives. Stories can act as guides. Unfortunately our own lives do not have clear cut beginnings, middles and ends. The narrative can be cut off by sudden death. Most people do not like ambiguous endings. They need resolution. Usually a happy one. Very young minds are very similar to older minds in this regard. What the best Fairy Tales and Into The Woods provides is something different. ‘Good’ wins over ‘evil’, then everything falls apart and becomes as chaotic as the real world itself. Characters have to make tough decisions that don’t chime with their original desires. (‘I wish. I want’) They then have to adapt to an imperfect world. I think this is a good message for children. A good message for all of us.

Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn