Archive for Dune

Damn this sand! When will it ever end?

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2021 by dcairns
Dave Bautista

I fondly recall my sister telling me about seeing David Lynch’s DUNE with her boyfriend of the time, who was the worst at following movie plots, and kept up a constant stream of “Who’s that again?” throughout. DUNE is, I guess, fairly challenging to the narratively-challenged.

No such issues when Fiona and I traipsed over to the Vue Ocean Terminal (former the Ster Century, or Monster Sanctuary as we called it) to see Denis Villeneuve’s version. Just a sigh of “That was so BORING, I thought I was going to fall asleep,” from Fiona at the end.

When DV’s BLADE RUNNER sequel came out and tanked, I think I said “I guess we won’t get to see his DUNE then.” But maybe the contracts had already been signed and couldn’t be broken? Or maybe those strange people at Legendary Films just wanted to see what he’d do with it.

For purposes of this article I will, like everyone else, pretend John Harrison’s TV miniseries doesn’t exist, even though I met JH and both his stars and they were all very nice. Haven’t seen the show.

Stellan Skarsgard

The new DUNE suffers from Roman Epic Syndrome, where you have a very far-off culture to portray and it makes it hard to humanize the characters so we can get involved emotionally. It’s not actually a problem for the culture to be very different from ours, but it’s a problem for the characters to lack recognisable behaviour. In Old Hollywood the denaturalising of the performances was actually a deliberate policy, born of some kind of crazed belief that ancient history and/or the Bible require a particular performance style, declamatory and wooden, exemplified, indeed apotheosised, by Chuckles Heston in DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS. So that when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in, was it QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what era, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” asked Ustinov, reasonably. On BEN-HUR, there was a lively screenwriter’s debate about which was better, “Is the food not to your liking?” or “Don’t you like your dinner?” The former won out. It is not any more genuinely ancient-world than the alternative.

Lynch’s DUNE is plagued by several problems: by taking no heed of the demands of running time when he wrote it long, and then allowed for further improvisations when shooting, lengthening it more, Lynch saved up a problem for the edit which slammed him badly. The rough cuts of ERASERHEAD and THE ELEPHANT MAN had been very long, so he thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but those movies have pretty sparse plots. DUNE has all these damn FACTIONS. If you cut one scene you have to shoehorn the exposition it once contained someplace else. Hence all those internal monologues, where even comparatively minor character like Max Von Sydow whisper their thoughts to their chums, the audience. Going hand-in-hand with this is a palpable panic and loss of confidence, so that some of these VOs are spectacularly redundant, insulting and alienating: Francesca Annis leaves the room, thinking her son will be killed; she comes back and sees him alive; looks relieved. And her voice on the soundtrack helpfully remarks: “My son — LIVES!” Which is also an unsayable line.

Villeneuve’s DUNE, like Lynch’s, begins with an info-dump, and it’s a far less charming and arresting one than Virginia Madsen’s starfield piece-to-camera in the Lynch. It throws in some battle scenes (one day we’ll see a version of Frank Herbert’s book where we don’t see Arrakis until Paul does) and I bet most audiences don’t absorb a tenth of the info dumped on them, too busy admiring the pictures. But, generally, the new film is less anxious for us to understand things, which is good. “As writer, you must deliver your story points,” said Herr Wilder, “but the elegance with which you deliver them is the measure of how good you are.” Or words to that effect. The Villeneuve doesn’t fall prey to Lynch’s clumsinesses.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have ANY of his eccentricity, which is what makes the Lynch film lively and engaging. I found myself missing Kyle MacLachlan’s bluff heartiness. I really felt, even though it was oversold, that his Paul Atreides really LIKES his buddies in House Atreides. With Timotei Shalamar, I’m not even sure he likes his mom.

Timotei Shalimar and friends

Lynch’s gallery of grotesques pop out of the screen: only the Emperor is a stiff. Kenneth McMillan (who we recently enjoyed in Salem’s Lot), Paul L. Smith, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Alicia Witt… When Sting, who was quite prepared to play his shower scene nude, was asked to wear a golden eagle codpiece, he refused. They wore him down, but he eventually agreed to paste the bird to his junk only if he could play the part as the kind of guy who WOULD wear a crotch-accipitrid in the shower. And they LET him. Patrick Stewart, one of the less lurid performers, nevertheless goes into battle clutching a tiny pug. Freddie Jones has a scene, only included in the various unsigned extended cuts, has a scene at the end that’s heart-breaking and bizarre. Nothing in the new film stirs the empathy.

Villeneuve likes underplaying, and casts good underplayers, and attains a consistency Lynch doesn’t even seem to value as a goal. With the result that, though we get a Paul who’s convincingly teenage (he’s around the same age MacLachlan was, but slighter), we don’t meet anyone we’d like to eat dinner with. Rebecca Ferguson gets some actual emotion into it, and Javier Bardem shows actual star intensity, briefly waking things up. Stellan Skarsgård, a sort of grudging, inward-aiming actor, is a very dull substitute for the illustrious McMillan, who made intergalactic scheming while unplugging the hearts of twinks look like THE BEST FUN.

“I was so bored by those dream sequences…” Fiona complained. And they are boring, in the Villeneuve, even though they’re full of ACTION. But it’s action that doesn’t mean anything to us yet. I wouldn’t have thought prophecy could be as tedious than backstory, but apparently it can amount to the same thing. The Lynch film’s prophecies were shot by Frederick Elmes, his ERASERHEAD and future BLUE VELVET DoP. “We had one of those crisis meetings and I told them,” said Freddie Francis, DUNE’s veteran cinematographer, “that if Freddie Elmes shoots another frame of film I’m quitting. They didn’t fire him, though, they kept him around shooting drops of water.” But, with all respect to FF, who was old-school experienced and super-talented, Elmes’ epic drips are among the film’s most memorable images.

Villeneuve’s future dreams ultimately cheat the audience by NOT coming true, not really. It’s a bigger swindle than the time-shift of ARRIVAL, which works emotionally but is dirty pool, playing with the audience for no reason except to kick us in the heart.

Villeneuve’s big advantage over Lynch is that he gets a longer runtime to tell half the story, so he’s not forced into the damaging compressions that occluded his predecessor’s vision. He doesn’t always use his time sensibly, though. The character of Shadout Mapes appears in both films, and her entire role is to get nearly killed by a flying needle, then genuinely killed by a big knife. Oh, and in this version she gives Paul’s mom another knife. Why is this cleaning woman included? I sort of like the democratic instinct that would make a cleaning woman a character in a space epic, but you might as well also feature an Arrakis dogcatcher, the House Harkonnen’s PR guy, a Fremen dishwasher, and I’ll commend you for it IF you find anything for them to do.

Lynch’s DUNE, like most of his movies, looks awfully white, and Villeneuve corrects that in multiple ways, though most of the POC are dead by the time we’re told “This is just the beginning.” His film has scale (although the ornithopters can’t help but look tiny), great design (though tending to the monochromatic), it’s beautiful to look at. But I find I prefer most of Lynch’s faults to most of Villeneuve’s virtues.

It’s a Gas!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is BOUNCING at Mutual. If THE RINK is just riotous misbehaviour with a fig leaf of farce plot, EASY STREET, with its mostly-parody temperance theme, a “reformation melodrama” as David Robinson calls it, is tightly plotted and the rambunctiousness is sort of ABOUT something.

It’s a very simple plot — simplicity is working well for CC at Mutual, by concentrating on one strong narrative line, or intercutting a couple, he’s been drawing back from the slightly random cutaways he’s apt to use: Character X is asleep. Here he is asleep. Here he is STILL asleep because we needed to trim a bit out and didn’t want to cause a jump cut. Here he is waking up, which is important, but we’re seeing it now because we had another gap to fill, and you won’t actually see him do anything for another five minutes.

This kind of thing was no doubt common in other comedies, but Chaplin does it A LOT. Whichever nouvelle vague fellow (Rivette?) said that Chaplin was the greatest editor only has a case to make once you get further along in the career.

Fade-up on Charlie asleep in an exterior corner of the New Hope Mission. He evidently hasn’t read the sign or got the message. He’s just been billed as “The Derelict” and then an intertitle calls him The Lost Sheep and the first image confirms those words in strong terms. I’d argue that basically only the first and last shot of this brilliant short are serious, the rest is playful and parodic even when it seems melodramatic or sentimental.

A thing I hadn’t realised before is that Chaplin preceded his attempt as sentiment by making fun of sentiment, and this is how he slowly dripped it into his work.

Charlie awakens and hears Edna Purviance singing. She must be singing beautifully because her hair is all backlit. She’s so good, Charlie goes into the church to investigate. Some mild comedy is produced from his uncertainty how to behave. Chaplin has produced some quite caustic commentary about churchmen (the opening of POLICE) and some flat-out contemptuous slapstick (the rotten egg in the hymnbook in THE TRAMP) so this seems at first a big change of viewpoint. But there’s still something lightly satirical — Charlie is only interested in religion because he’s interested in Edna. His feelings for her are quite tender and chivalric, rather than the impish and impudent flirtations of yore, but they’re romantic not religious.

Charlie’s change of character is signalled by him returning the collection box he’d planned to steal, which takes the curse off any preachy quality. Rather than being touched by his reformation, we gasp at the perfidy he’s moving on from.

There’s a comedy drunk in the mission played by John Rand, which means we get to see him without a big black moustache. Later he’ll play a kop and the cookie-duster is back on for that.

Also: the dramatic close-up, expertly used. Closeups in early Chaplin were usually just shots of the girl with a puppy or something. A bit of cuteness for variety, one of those slightly random cutaways. This is strong filmmaking.

There’s some tasteful humour with a baby — Charlie only THINKS its micturated on his leg. The baby, no trouper, stole Charlie’s moustache, perhaps intent on becoming a Pubert Addams avant la letter, an outtake that seems not to have survived.

We cut from this backlit, religiose idyll to the startling contrast of Easy Street itself. The T-junction becomes a Chaplin meme — it looks like a London street, as everyone has by now pointed out (I read it in Robinson first). But the shape is a useful one because it gives the impression you’re seeing a lot more than you are. A surrounding city is implied but unshown and unbuilt. In fact, we’ll see later that if you run off one end of Easy Street you find yourself in an LA location shot, and if you keep running you wind up back on another end of Easy Street.

The scene is of indescribable chaos. A bunch of thugs is beating up a bunch of kops. Eric Campbell, “the bully,” is leading the thugs. Beardless and shaven-headed, he’s discarded his usual air of an overinflated melodramatic villain of the moustache-twirling variety, and is now a figure of terrifying strength and violence, and at the same time a comic exaggeration of that idea.

Now Charlie has to choose to become a kop, something almost unthinkable. In THE CURE, Chaplin would delete a scene where he acts as unofficial traffic cop to a lot of drunken (dis)orderlies and their bathchair-bound clients, and the assumption by Brownlow & Gill, who use the clip in the priceless doc series Unknown Chaplin, and David Robinson agrees, is that Charlie can’t be seen to impose order out of chaos when his whole personality is based on the reverse of that. Well, in this film, he does little BUT impose order out of chaos, but at least he does it by hitting people on the head.

The police station interior seems to have been shot during or after a shower of rain, and indeed bad weather did delay filming on this one. Mostly Chaplin just waited for the weather, but he seems to have decided to compromise on this one shot. Since his studio was open-air, he couldn’t very well have shot the mission interiors with rain pouring down.

The reason the kops are desperate for men is that Big Eric keeps mangling them, sometimes so badly that they are transformed into floppy dummies. We love a good floppy dummy here in the Shadowplayhouse, and this film has some terrific substitutions, performed without the aid of the jump cut. Charlie doesn’t know any of this, however.

The first honest citizen to get a look at Charlie in Kop kostume is convulsed in hysterics. Charlie knocks the guy unconscious with his baton and has him hauled off the the cells. Any worry we may have had that our agent of misrule is going to become boringly civilised is dispelled. He’s going to carry on being a little brute but enjoy his ability have people locked up instead of just thumping them.

As promising as this line may be — or not — the movie has other plans. Charlie is given Easy Street as his beat, which means he’ll rapidly be running into Big Eric. The film has set Eric up as a genuine figure of terror, which is a whole new thing for Chaplin to play with. The hobos in THE TRAMP and the “gypsies” in THE VAGABOND were early attempts at setting the Little Fellow up against vicious characters who don’t know they’re in a slapstick comedy and don’t expect to play by those rules, but this is more intense, because Chaplin has taken the trouble to show Eric being savagely effective against someone other than Edna.

Now we have SUSPENSE — “He’s behind you!” — dramatic irony/poignancy — Eric has been set up as a menace and nothing about Charlie suggests he’ll be able to cope with his hulking opponent. It’s great. Fear is such a useful component in comedy. My mother never liked Chaplin particularly but anything that injects terror into comedy gets her SCREAMING at the TV.

Eric has just played his own game of peekaboo, causing the entire degenerate population of Easy Street to vanish whenever he whirls to face them, so he has been set up as not only a man who can tear the pants off policemen, but one who can terrorise a score of people with a mere look.

This is all impressive because it’s both funny and dramatic, and the dramatic parts — the fear and poignancy — enhance the comic, and vice versa probably.

Chaplin’s slow approach from extreme long shot stresses his tininess compared with Eric. Standing parallel, they’re eye to eye only because of the tall sidewalk, and when Eric steps up onto it, dwarfing Charlie, it’s a little like the big guy emerging, inch by inch, from the sidewalk loading bay in CITY LIGHTS, until Charlie’s bravado vanishes in his shadow.

Also, tracking shots! There are five simple motivations for moving the camera — following characters; showing a moving character’s POV; the psychological reaction intensifier; telling a story by showing things in succession; exploring space. Surprisingly, Charlie’s tentative first moves were of the last-named kind, and they sometimes seemed like distractions. But his pull-back from Edna’s portrait in THE VAGABOND worked as a combination of spacial exploration and storytelling. His push onto the dance floor in THE COUNT is a stab at following characters, but the relationship of dancers and camera was slightly amorphous. Here, tracking along with Charlie and Eric keeps them roughly the same size but also adds importance to them, increases the involvement of our eyes, intensifies our emotional response.

It’s all the more suspenseful because Charlie is simply trying to pretend Eric doesn’t exist — just about the weakest thing he could do.

Charlie wanders around Chaplin’s set, followed by Rollie Totheroh’s camera in a deadpan pan.

As Charlie loiters by the police telephone, trying to get his hand on the mouthpiece without the rest of his body showing any interest — so that Eric will disregard his hand, seeing it as an independent creature for which Charlie is not responsible (this is a good technique if you’re operating a puppet in plain view and you want people to believe it’s alive) — Charlie produces his sickly smile, a Rik Mayall effect not seen on the Chaplin countenance since the cinema scene in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. And that wasn’t even the Tramp character.

Grabbing the phone but getting caught at it, he transforms it by mime into a snake charmer’s flute, to which surely Bully Eric could have no objection? I mean, everybody likes music, right?

This has an unexpected but gratifying effect — Eric, who is not the sharpest lug hammer in the box, grabs the phone and looks into it, to see if it really does have musical properties. I think. The motivations of large and terrible men may be slightly beyond me. Charlie seizes the moment and clonks his new friend on the bristly occiput with his truncheon. No effect.

This may be the first time anyone thought of doing a basic slapstick wallop and having it not work, and using that for comic terror. A technique copied by everyone, or certainly by Roger Moore and Richard Kiel. I think maybe Sean Connery and Harold Sakata also.

Everything Chaplin’s doing is suspense-based, without Hitchcockian editing but with performance that adjusts the audiences focus from character to character in less than the blink of an eye. And it’s all comedy too.

Eric is apparently taking such pleasure in his work — menacing is fun! — he wants to demonstrate what he’s going to do to his victim on a lamp post — Easy Street is a portal to Victorian London so I’m not saying “streetlight.” It’s like when Withnail attributes imaginary threats to wrestler Jeff Wode:

‘In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. [Starts acting out the scene in his head] “I’m going to pull your head off”. “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off”. “I’m going to pull your head off because I don’t like your head.”‘

Eric can’t tell Charlie because it’s a silent film, so he SHOWS, and Charlie seizes the chance to humanely gas his opponent.

Fiona, like many audiences before, was fairly horrified by this part of the struggle — Campbell, an early progenitor of the mutant chief in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, makes a grisly spectacle of succumbing to asphyxiation. But it’s all done with scientific care and the community’s best interests.

Fiona was twice fooled into thinking Eric was dead. He’s like Michael Myers, only with a face.

Charlie is now a figure of fear like Eric had been, and he reprises the gag where the street’s populace creeps into view behind him then flees in terror when he turns.

When the other kops come scurrying round the corner to see if Eric is really defeated, I unaccountably get an Akira Kurosawa vibe. Certainly Kurosawa saw Chaplin films as a kid, and certainly he became a master of moving actors in groups in wide shots. It’s the way they scatter horizontally upon emerging here…

Charlie lights a ciggie and blows up the gaslight.

Next — the movie just pretends that didn’t happen — he helps a desperate woman who’s stolen some groceries. That is, he helps her steal MORE. He’s an unconventional policeman. Like Special Agent Chester Desmond, he’s got his own M.O.

Modus operandi!

This middle part of the film is somewhat aimless, but Charlie’s good deeds impress Edna favourably. We meet Loyal Underwood, a relatively new member of the stock company, playing a feeble little guy who’s somehow fathered a small army.

Eric regains consciousness at the kop shop, snaps his handcuffs, and initiates a donnybrook. Batons have no effect! He shoves one constable out of shot for an instant, and when he drags him back into view, the fellow has metamorphosed into a floppy dummy, and is used to belabour his fellows. All done with framing rather than the more usual jumpcut.

Meanwhile Charlie is feeding the children as if they were chickens. “I do that because I despise them,” Chaplin told someone or other. Strange, for a man who’d have so many kids himself.

Eric goes home and gets into a Punch and Judy fight with his wife — for a moment she seems like she might subdue him by sheer ferocity, but soon she’s in trouble. Charlie rushes on over to see what’s up, then rushes away when he sees what’s up. Eric follows.

There now occurs a chase sequence as M.C. Escher might have designed it. Charlie runs off the right arm of the T-junction, onto an LA street, turns right onto another L.A. street, then reappears on the left of Easy Street, a journey which looks like this —

It’s a good trick if you can do it. Perhaps a hole in spacetime is involved. Perhaps the same phenomenon that allowed a woman with a cell phone to turn up for the premiere of THE CIRCUS?

Having successfully folded space like a DUNE navigator, defeating Eric should be a doddle, but in fact Charlie struggles quite a bit. He’s chased through Eric’s flat, then winds up back there, then manages to drop the stove on his enemy’s head. I vividly recall my Dad explaining to ten-year-old me exactly how fatal that would be.

Chaplin could presumably have ended the story with Eric’s defeat but surprisingly he keeps going. Edna is abducted by a bearded Henry Bergson and, in a parody of Griffith’s to-the-rescue cross-cutting, he keeps cutting back to The Derelict sitting idly in Eric’s ruined home, relaxing after his busy day.

Edna is imprisoned with a sinister junky who, after shooting up, becomes possessed of rapacious desires. I don’t know what’s in that syringe but when Charlie’s dropped on it, he transforms into a furious Viking berserker. It’s a startling drugs moment, repeated in MODERN TIMES where an accidental noseful of marching powder transforms the Tramp into a fearless and energetic thumper of felons.

Pounding and kicking the junky and Henry is a mere nothing, taking a flying drop-kick at eight men and knocking them all out of frame is slightly more effort. Judo throws follow. Henry’s ample belly serves as a kind of trampoline to propel our hero back to (Easy) street level — you can tell Chaplin has someone waiting to catch his arms and pull him the rest of the way. The clinch with Edna is delayed slightly by a pratfall — Chaplin is anxious not to let excitement completely replace comedy.

The ending, with Easy Street transformed by the judicious use of extreme violence into an urban paradise, is obviously somewhat satiric. Eric, who did not die, is now a smartly dressed model citizen. An employment agency, strategically placed, lends some slight credibility to the reformation of the neighbourhood. A new mission is prominent too, and when Charlie and Edna walk towards it arm in arm, all thought of parody has flown.

Chaplin hasn’t stopped bouncing — his next film accentuates the reformation-parody so it can’t be taken seriously at all, and substitutes increasing anarchy for the enforcement of order. And the Tramp takes a breather…

Pretty as Paint

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, I picked up Twiggy’s autobiography, just to see what she had to say about Ken Russell and THE BOY FRIEND. She seems to have enjoyed the experience.

Amusing story ~ they’re restaging the famous girls-dancing-on-plane gag from FLYING DOWN TO RIO and Ken decides he wants the biplane to be silver. This will involve painting it overnight.

But the next morning the plane is white. The man responsible explains that there was no silver paint to be had and so they thought Ken would be OK with white.Ken explodes, which was one of his talents. “Do you know who I am?” Twiggy quotes him as saying. Usually, the answer to that question ought to be “An arsehole?” but here it would be more properly rendered as “Mad genius enfant terrible scourge of the boring and unambitious British cinema,” perhaps adding “and a man who very much wants a silver biplane.” Ken settled for “I’m the director of this fucking picture!”

The man is sent off to get silver paint. He comes back with a lot of little eggcup-sized cans, the kind sold in model shops. About 500 of them, in a van. The only silver paint to be had in London. (The ’70s were crap, in some ways.) You ever used that stuff? Tiny tins, and you can never get it to come out silver. The idea of painting an entire plane with it…

I love the art department, as I may have mentioned before. A can-do art department marks the difference between an efficient, fun shoot, and a slog.

I always remember this story from Ed Naha’s The Making of Dune. David Lynch has invented a scene not in the script (and it’s HIS script!) in which Kyle McLachlan trains his Fremen warriors to destroy a rotating black cube thing with sheer lung power. I can’t, off-hand, recall if the scene made it into the finished cut, which always seemed most lacking in what should be the second half of act 2. Suddenly it’s the climax!(The scene exists, but the “box” Naha describes is a pyramid. Did they reshoot it with a different Platonic solid shape-thing?)

Anyhow, Lynch has twenty minutes left to get the shot when he notices a speck of white on the black cube. He calls for an art department guy. The guy walks up to the blemished space cube and delivers a daub of black paint from a paint-pot.

Lynch is dumbfounded. “Now I have brush-strokes up there!” he exclaims.

Lynch’s eyes dilate even further as the worker returns with a ladder and proceeds to repaint the entire top of the black box… with a brush.

“OK?”

Lynch stares at the box. “No! Not OK! It looks fifty times worse! One hundred times worse! Can anyone see if they can find a can of black spray paint?”

One feels for him. It’s a scenario right out of some Hollywood spoof, with the director (jodhpurs and megaphone) driven to apoplexy by some incompetent underling (Marion Davies, Peter Sellers), jumping up and down and tearing his hair out. Or as Lynch confides in the documentary Lynch, while shooting part of INLAND EMPIRE with an inexperienced team, “You wonder what kinda heavy burden Einstein musta carried. Surrounded by fuckin’ assholes.” It’s also a lot like Lynch’s scenes of Kafkaesque bumbling accomplices: there’s a good filmmaking one in INLAND EMPIRE. The first is probably Paul (a favourite Lynch name: DUNE was meant to be) in ERASERHEAD, the buzzer-happy pencil manufacturer.

A little later, in Naha’s book: “That guy? Our painter? He’s usually very good.”