Archive for Dune

Posh Spice

Posted in Dance, FILM, Interactive, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Science, Television, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by dcairns

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On Friday night I had a conundrum — Jane Gardner, possibly my favourite silent accompanist, was doing a live score for STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, starring Buster Keaton and Edinburgh man Ernest Torrence (pictured) at a lecture hall by the Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, my friend and collaborator Alex Livingstone had written Dune: The Musical, which was playing for one night only at the exact same time. Ultimately, my decision was based on repeatability — I hopefully will get another chance at the Keaton-Gardner collaboration (though I still haven’t caught her rendition of THE GENERAL). Dune seemed like it might be a one-off opportunity — but, given it’s literally roaring success, now it might come back in the Edinburgh Fringe…

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The event, hosted at a church hall not far from where Fiona and I live (OK, that was another factor — the trip to the botanics is always a hassle and the weather was freezing), started late, and started with support acts — the horror! But they were good — we learned that Jonnie Common has “folded space all the way from Stirling to be here tonight,” and Prehistoric Friends played a very nice set, but of course they were not Dune: The Musical — although it was then fun spotting them turn up IN Dune: The Musical.

This, I had heard, was to be a proper panto, a peculiarly British Christmastime phenomenon,  in which pop songs are repurposed with their lyrics changed to fit some story which traditionally has nothing to do with Christmas, men dress as women and vice versa, and audience participation is violently encouraged. If you’re not British but you’ve seen THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW with an audience you may have some notion, only the panto is nominally for kids. ROCKY HORROR isn’t and neither was this — I counted one kid. Then I counted him again to make sure. Yep, definitely one kid.

Also, in pantos, not only can the audience talk to the cast, the cast all have the power to address the audience, which is a bit like all those internal monologues everybody has in DUNE the movie to explain the tangled plot, if you think about it. (I think those little VOs are entirely responsible for the otherwise unfounded perception that DUNE is a bad movie. They make it bad. Paul’s mother, who has been fearing for his life, walks into a room and finds him alive. She looks relieved. “My son… lives!” she thinks at us. Awful.)

Another thing about pantos is that they usually feature a combination of proper actors doing improper acting, and people who aren’t actors at all — clapped-out pop stars, reality TV nobodies, and sports “personalities”. So it may be that the casting of Sting in the Lynch film was the inspiration for this whole event. Impressively, Sting was the only actor from the movie to reprise his role at St Paul’s Church, Pilrig…

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Curiously, David Lynch touched base with the panto right before making his DUNE (the musical is mainly based on the film, with a little of the book and maybe a little of the abortive Jodorowski dream, but nothing from the Sci-Fi Channel show, which is a shame because I’ve actually met the director and both stars of that, all very nice) — THE ELEPHANT MAN ends with one. But that’s more like a proper Christmas Play than a trashy panto. It’s also mainly the work of editor Anne V. Coates, since Lynch actually shot an entire mini-play (which I’d love to see — maybe something like his later RABBITS shorts?) and then knew that wasn’t right and got her to turn it into a miraculous montage. As she said, in a voice a bit like the Queen, “It can be quite hard to get inside David’s head. And then, once you’re there, it’s quite a strange place.”

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“A beginning is a very delicate time,” says Princess Irulan in both the David Lynch and Christmas panto versions, and so it was with real joy that we greeted the sight of Bartholomew J. Owl in the Virginia Madsen role, poking his head through the curtains and into a spotlight to do the floating head narration from the start of the film. In a Northern English accent. A genius touch that told us all that this was going to be every bit as good as the concept.

Then the curtain opened and Princess Irulan shuffled off, never to be seen again (although Owl would return), and we met Liam Chapman as the Emperor, and the Guild Navigator, made out of cardboard and played by two people (more Lynchian tactics? No — two people AT THE SAME TIME, the show’s answer to a pantomime horse).

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And then a recurring gag, which, for me, never got old — during the long, clunky scene changes, a hand at the front would hold up a sign saying TIME PASSES. I think this would have been a useful device for Lynch to have used in his film.

Then — this may be out of sequence, but I think we met Baron Harkonnen (Rose McConnachie in flaking tinfoil codpiece). Played with floor-shaking gusto and a lot of angry, angry laughing — one of the show’s highlights. Obviously, in the tradition of both pantos (Peter Pan) and Lynch, it would have been good if he/she were flying about on visible wires, but you can’t have everything. But, in terms of enthusiastic playing, you had more than everything, and you also had the return of Mr. Owl as the Baron’s son, Sting, wearing the identical tinfoil crotch-eagle he sported so memorably in the film.

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(Sting has said — for real — that he was quite prepared to go nude and was horrified when presented with the metallic penis bird, but that after huge discussions he finally agreed to glue the thing to his privates only if he could play the role like somebody who would take a shower while wearing a bird of prey on his old fellow. “So from that point on, I was as camp as knickers.” Sadly, Sting can’t really act so nobody realised that’s what he was trying to do.)

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Oh, and Michael Craig (not the one from MODESTY BLAISE) appeared as the cleaner who gets his heart unplugged by the Baron. I’d forgotten that character was a cleaner — he does push a broom, doesn’t he, or a space squeegee or something. Mentally, I had him down as some kind of stray boy band member, a death-twink for the Baron to get his rocks off on, killing. In the musical it’s a bit more PG-certificate, the Baron just likes unplugging hearts to let off steam. The Baron’s theme song was to the tune of Mr. Boombastic.

Anyway, by now we’d been laughing so hard and so constantly that Fiona was complaining of new wrinkles developing on her face, and we were grateful for the intermission-long scene changes, which provided some relief, although they were pretty funny too.

(I sussed early as a kid that the best time to see a panto was opening night, as things had a better chance of going wrong. You hoped, at best, for a scenery jam which would lead to dialogue being helplessly improvised in front of the stuck backdrop, or else a new scene being played in entirely the wrong setting. Dune: The Musical, being a one-nighter and ambitious to boot [I never saw a panto with so many monsters and planets] was obviously tempting fate, “It went a bit wrong — I don’t know if you noticed,” said the author afterwards. We noticed, and loved it.)

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Then – or maybe it was previously — we finally met the shows hero, principal boy Paul Atreides (Hannah Shepherd), a proper grinning, thigh-slapping naif, and her dad, Duke Leto (Neil Pennycook) and Jonnie Common again as the traitorous Dr Yueh. I had spoken to Alex previously about my enthusiasm for this concept — “Nothing spells Christmas like ornithopters and mentats!” “We have cut the ornothopters and mentats, In fact we have cut most of it.” So there was no Freddie Jones or Brad Dourif equivalent, but their unique acting styles seemed to have gotten into most of the cast via osmosis, so there was a lot of good eccentric playing going on. The swingeing cuts to the text also showed clearly how much further Lynch could have gone to get his narrative down to a manageable length (we love Linda Hunt, but her character makes no difference to anything). Alex also cut Yueh’s entire motivation and made a great joke out of it, and added a song, Poison Tooth, to the tune of Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, which totally works. And a running gag about Mint Imperials which had seemed purely formal, turns out to have Major Plot Significance.

Oh, but there’s also the fight using shields, which in the movie looks like this —

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Very impressive visual effects AND sound effects, I thought at the time. But the theatrical extravaganza goes one better —

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And then there’s a really sweet performance by Clarissa Cheong as Lady Jessica, and a zesty one by the sandworm.

Then Alex himself appeared as Stilgar, in a bravura performance based entirely around Everett McGill’s cough in the film. With earphones up his nose. The scenario here improved on the book, where Paul’s new name, Muad’Dib, based on a lunar shadow, means “the little mouse,” which is obviously a crap name for a principal boy. So here it means “the cock and balls.” The dialogue around this part went quite strange, with forgotten lines and missed cues and hastily inserted prompts, giving it  a surreal, circular quality that was distinctly pleasing.

Then it was time to “Worm Up” to the tune of Word Up, and everything was rounded off in a more than satisfactory manner with a singalong rendition of Arrakis, to the tune of Africa by Toto, which of course has a strong thematic connection to the Lynch film, for which the band failed to produce a workable score.

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“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred Fremen or more could ever do/I bless the rains down in Arrakis/Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” This slight alteration carefully preserves, you will note, the semi-literate garbage quality of the original lyrics.

The only slight disappointment of the evening was provided by fate. At various points during the support acts, small pieces of curled paper, like those pigs’ tails you made out of paper strips at nursery school, would be dislodged from the rafters by the sonic blasts of synth-pop. I strongly suspected that these were residue from some  aeons-gone shindig, rather than perhaps foretastes of a special effects deluge that would climax the evening’s production. But I was kind of hoping that one of them might drop down, unscheduled yet with awesome aptness, during the final number, symbolising the Arrakis climate change and Paul’s ascendancy to the role of kwisatz haderach, although Alicia Witt’s role had been entirely cut from this production so there would have been no one to point that out.

However, at the critical moment, no paper fell. I think the only sensible way to tackle this omission is to keep performing Dune: The Musical, at venues up and down the country or around the world, until a bit of paper falls from the ceiling at the right moment. The crowd would go WILD.

Admittedly, we did go fairly wild anyway.

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The author and his wife.

Nearly all the other pictures here are stolen from Paula Cucurullo, with her kind consent, because my pictures were crap. I got the sandworm though.

Charles Aznavour’s Sex Dungeon

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by dcairns

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From THE ADVENTURERS (1969).

I’d read about this movie in two places — one was Robert Evans’ autohagiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, where he blames Paramount CEO Charlie Bluhdorn for choosing to make this bloated, old-fashioned Harold Robbins adaptation with untested star Bekim Fehmiu, much against his wishes. The movie tries to compensate for its dated approach by pouring in sex by the bucketload, with decorous nudity provided by the gorgeous Delia Boccardo and Leigh Taylor-Young, but to no avail. There’s a rather zany, zoomtastic sex scene with the former and Fehmiu which must have been startling stuff in ’69.

The other place I read of it is Lewis Gilbert’s autobio, All My Flashbacks, where he bitterly bemoans being removed from his dream picture, OLIVER! and forced to make this pile of tat. The fact that Carol Reed won the best directing Oscar for OLIVER! in his stead perhaps has something to do with the intensity of his regret: if Reed could win for the rather tired job of work he put in, surely an eager hack like Gilbert could do likewise.

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Gilbert seems to have put all he could into the turkey he was handed, stuffing it with orgies, battles, proto-disco fashion shows (with UV lighting and splitscreen) and star cameos. Claude Renoir shot it and Anne V. Coates cut it and it still sucks. “It was a bullshit story,” is Gilbert’s own, accurate, description.

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Also included — Charles Aznavour’s sex dungeon, a groovy, queasy palace of porn. Tony Masters, who had just designed 2001 (and would go on to DUNE), created the sets, and one feels Kubrick must surely have been watching. In fact, Masters creates an even more stylish, beautiful and sinister objectification parlour than John Barry (not the composer) would achieve for CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Both designers must surely have been influenced by the kinky sculptures of Allen Jones (in fact Kubrick admitted it and initially tried to buy Jones’ work) but Masters’ versions are BETTER — they throw in a Hans Bellmer influence, merging body parts and furniture together in a way HR Giger would approve of (the HR stands for Human Resources, in case you wondered).

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The groovy entrance hall gives way to a more dungeon-like stage, with soft screens hilariously distorted by mannequin breasts which press against them from behind, making pseudo-erotic bulges in the fabric. It’s a ludicrous and tragically mechanistic parody of sex, and fills one with pity and revulsion for Aznavour’s character — the thought of anyone going to all that trouble to so little effect. I have no idea if that was the emotion we are supposed to feel, but there it is. I don’t mean the red room with the white sculpture furniture, which would suit an erotomaniac Bond villain — we’d all like one of those. I mean the green-tinged dungeon stage set with the titty wall.

THE ADVENTURERS may be three hours of mainly tedium, and an embarrassment to everyone who worked on it (certainly to Evans and Gilbert), but you have to admire this one setting. Or maybe you don’t. I’m not you.

All My Flashbacks

The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Hollywood Life

The Adventurers

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

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