Archive for Don’t Look Now

Battle Dress

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 15, 2021 by dcairns

In my experience, it’s quite hard to watch Nic Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW *without* spotting some new and fascinating detail. Certainly I had noticed that in the openings sequence the little girl is playing with a military doll — it looks like an Action Man but it has one of those drawstrings used for talking dolls, which I’m not sure the Action Man ever had, and bizarrely the male doll has a posh female voice. I’d also noticed that, in a bit of grotesque black humour, the doll says “Fall in” shortly before little Christine fatally does just that, in the pond.

What I’d missed is that Christine has dressed the male figure in an ankle-length dress, made I think of shiny textured plastic. With a sort of brick pattern on it. Maybe because her dad’s an architect. So we can extrapolate a whole backstory — Christine has latched onto her big brother’s toy, and made it her own. For some reason the doll spoke to her, as it were, but needed to be rendered feminine. But it’s not likely that she was able to operate on it and alter its voice-box, replacing it with a female robo-larynx — after all, her approximation of a dress is pretty crude. But maybe the voice is heard by us as female because that’s how she imagines it?

There is odd, undeclared subjective stuff going on in this sequence — Christine’s father, John (Donald Sutherland) gets a paranormal vision of Christine drowning before he can rationally be aware of it, a point most viewers (well, me, anyway) miss on first viewing. It also just occurred to me that it’s rather cruel that his second sight doesn’t give him the tip-off in time for him to do anything about it.

But no — I’m wrong again. The first reaction shot from Sutherland, indicating that something — we know not what, asides from his hair, but it’s a presentiment — is going on in his long, permed head, occurs well ahead of the accident. If Baxter had been able to act upon his impulse, to acknowledge the possibility of his psychic foresight, the tragedy might have been averted, just as it might have been at the end of the film.

Incidentally, Julie Christie is smiling at the movie’s conclusion. She asked Roeg, sensibly enough, why Laura Baxter would be smiling at her husband’s funeral. “Because it’ll be too sad, otherwise,” Roeg told her. Which is a silly version of the real answer, which is that Laura has faith, and so neither Christine nor John is really dead.

(It’s a very good film about the painful gulf existing between those who have faith and those who don’t, and it ultimately seems to take the side of the former group — well, maybe not “take the side” — but the movie seems to think they’re correct — and I wouldn’t agree with that, myself — but the movie has compassion for both types of person, which is nice.)

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.