Archive for Edward Gorey

The Verdoux Defence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 2, 2013 by dcairns

loth couple 1

“I’m as pragmatic as a soldier or a politician […] You don’t see any regret from Tony Blair, in fact he’s making a fortune from his war crimes.”

So, 60s serial killer Ian Brady is in court (or anyhow a mental health tribunal), trying to get moved from a secure psychiatric hospital to an ordinary prison. And he describes his actions (torturing and murdering several children) as “petty crime,” and points to Tony Blair as the true criminal, since the politician’s actions have caused, at a minimum, tens of thousands of deaths.

“I’m a comparative petty criminal to global serial killers like Blair and Bush.”


This, of course, is the same argument used by Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux in the film of that title to justify his career murdering widows for their money. “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify…”

(The real Bluebeard, Henri-Desire Landru, used his trial as a public forum to prove himself smarter than his prosecutors, rather as Brady is doing. I.B. has referred to his apparent insanity as “a Stanislavskian performance,” explaining the term in detail in case they’re not familiar with it.)

“It’s all about identifying with the heart and soul of the character or symptoms you are trying to portray.”

Brady may be a psychopath rather than insane, just like Landru and maybe Verdoux. But Chaplin keeps the murders offscreen, never allows Verdoux to kill anyone likable (even monstrous lottery-winner Martha Raye is spared, and rightly so), and shows Verdoux being merciful, as well as being kind to animals, children, and his disabled wife. Chaplin’s homicidal tendencies are a plot device and a philosophical conceit rather than a true condition, which is fine for a work of fiction. (But how do Verdoux’s wife and son end up dead? The only solution barring a messy and random act of God would be for Verdoux to euthanize them when he can no longer afford their upkeep, but I’m far from convinced this is the intended inference. I guess Chaplin simply eliminated from the plot rather than have them around to confuse things at the end.)

“‘I’m not interested in being analysed. Some of the psychiatrists I have encountered, I would throw a net on them. I wouldn’t allow them on to the street. They are worse than patients.”

What do we think of the Verdoux/Brady defence? Tony Blair is undoubtedly a safer person to leave your kids with (though maybe not your much younger wife) than any serial killer, but is responsible for far more suffering. And he’s unquestionably a criminal — leading a country to war under false pretenses is seriously treasonous. Any intelligent defence would have to argue that Blair didn’t know he was lying, such was his almost religious faith in his own infallibility. It could further argue that Blair honestly believed his actions were for the best, but that would still make him guilty if he consciously lied about the evidence for war. I think Blair’s own, divinely-inspired personality disorder might just be extreme enough for him to swear that there was incontrovertible evidence of WMD in Iraq, confident that the facts would turn out to support his lies. How could God allow it to happen any other way?

“Most people don’t recognise the fact that Britain is a psychopathic country. It’s been invading countries for the last 300 years.”

When I interviewed Mike Hodges, he made the same point about Blair’s lack of remorse — Blair said he felt nothing about the deaths in Iraq. Blair later said he was forced to take that stance because the papers would have leapt on it if he had expressed remorse or doubt. Which suggests he’s saying he actually lied to the Chilcot Inquiry.

“Most prisoners are perfectly mentally healthy compared with the paranoia of prison officials.”

Anyway, we watched MONSIEUR VERDOUX again. Uneven in places, but worth it for the moments when Chaplin drops the charm and stands unmasked and Satanic.


The hasty dissolve from Chaplin’s sinister grin here puts me in mind of the cross-fade from Norman Bates to his mother’s smile…

Does anybody know the precise nature of Robert Florey’s contribution to this one? He’s billed as “Associate Director” along with Wheeler Dryden (a bit-part actor who was also AD on THE GREAT DICTATOR). This job title has no standard meaning, so I’m curious, as Chaplin wasn’t anxious to share credit and seems not to have used a co-director behind the camera like Keaton, probably relying on cameraman Rollie Totheroh and the luxury of viewing his rushes and reshooting anything which didn’t please him.

“Why are we still talking about Jack the Ripper over a century on? Because of the dramatic background: the fog, the cobbled streets … it fascinates them. With the Moors it’s the same: Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles, that sort of thing.”



Harry Potter and the Gashlycrumb Tinies

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by dcairns

We went to see THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Fiona’s urging, because the book’s a modern spook classic, the Nigel Kneale TV version has one of the greatest scares ever (even if it otherwise borrows a bit too freely from THE INNOCENTS), because it’s from the revivified Hammer, and because advance word was good. Didn’t know it was from James Watkins, director of the acclaimed EDEN LAKE (which I haven’t seen because it sounded too nasty for my squeamish side) but that’s good too.

The film, in which Daniel Radcliffe is terrorised by some other small children, as well as by the titular funereally clad lady, is proper scary. Admittedly it gets by on powerful BOO! gotchas rather than dragging the suspense out for as long as it might, but fans of Slow Creeping Terror will nevertheless  find much to be freaked by here. One shock moment — “That’s the sort of window faces appear at!” to quote Mr Withnail — made me scream like a woman, while another caused our friend Mr Brown to practically shoot vertically from his chair. I felt sorry for our dates, who were relying on us for manly protection.

The Victoriana is terribly vague — when is this supposed to be happening, exactly — but serves its atmospheric purpose in the best Hammer manner. Lots of vine-covered mansion, rattling carriages, puffing locomotives. Since this is a ghost story rather than an out-and-out horror, we’re deprived of what Philip Larkin approvingly called “tit and fang”, but I expect Hammer, still in the early days of new management, are limbering up for that.

Jane Goldman, the go-to girl for genre entertainment in the UK today (KICK ASS, STARDUST) pads out the slim plot with borrowings from Mario Bava’s KILL BABY KILL, inventing a rule that each sighting of the dreaded Woman causes… well, I won’t say exactly. In fact, spoilers are hard to come by here, since the plot is so slight and one-track. In a way it’s refreshing that it avoids major twists and reversals of the “He’s not who you think!” variety — it’s more like J-horror, and indeed the vengeful ghost is pretty much out of THE GRUDGE — she’s not open to negotiation.She takes a Hard Line.

Weakest element, as you may have guessed, is the man Radcliffe, who is never less than, well, physically present, and assumes a suitably worried expression throughout, but one can’t help, afterwards, imaging what a more substantial actor might have brought to the role.

Those who have seen THE ARTIST will recall the BANG! intertitle which serves a neat double-purpose (the film’s cleverest touch), seeming to mean one thing but instantly recontextualized by the following shot. Here, at the ending, of which I plan to give away NOTHING, there’s a similar switcheroo, with an image rather than a word being the ambivalent junction between two Schrodinger’s cat style possible outcomes to a single event. One solid, unambiguous image somehow serves as a signal-change shifting us from one reality to another… hard to describe, but I think you’ll dig it when you see it.

Festival Round-Up, June 18th

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2008 by dcairns

Escaping the round of conferences at work I took in a round of movies at Edinburgh Film Festival, but since I was celebrating with graduating students last night I awoke with the proverbial “sore heid and a pocket full of sticky pennies”, too late to attend the press screening of Lucky McKee’s RED, starring Greatest Living Scotsman Brian Perfect Cox.

(The name Brian Perfect Cox derives from a graffiti on a big wooden gate at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Ferry Road. Reading simply “BRIAN’S PERFECT COCK”, it managed to be both obscene and yet oddly moving. The anonymous author simply wanted to exult in one of life’s rare perfections, and since actor Brian Cox often seems like another of those splendid anomalies, the two have become linked in  my mind.)

There was more red on display in Martin Radich’s visceral art film CRACK WILLOW. I have no idea what the title means, and little idea about the film, but it’s a searing, often lurid piece of work. Martin’s photography is even more stunning than I expected, with sodium-lit night scenes looking like scratched copper, and nightmare interiors tinged iridescent red and green. The Bennett’s, father and son, stars of Martin’s first film short, IN MEMORY OF DOROTHY BENNETT, are back, but the years have done their destructive work. One is overweight, the other aged and disabled. The scenes of son caring for father will strike a chord with anyone who has cared for an older person. But a shift has occurred — by moving the Bennetts into a fictional storyline where the father dies and the son undergoes a crisis, Martin has changed the relationship between subjects, artwork and audience. We are no longer getting a window into the private world of the Bennetts, but are seeing them perform for us, and there’s an uncomfortable element of exhibitionism to it. It’s doubtful if the younger man would be lying in his bath and urinating into the air if the camera wasn’t there to capture it. Intimate scenes of human behaviour are interspersed with show-off stunts. While the use of improvisation maintains an air of absolute emotional authenticity to the interplay between the “actors”, some scenes seem added for sensation’s sake. Long and rather nauseating scenes of the pair noisily eating seem to gloat over bodily revulsion, sabotaging the human sympathy which was the hallmark of the earlier short. Some of the nudity and swearing seem forced, straining for shock effect that refuses to come. There is a whiff of the freakshow.

(Publicity gurus please note: when promoting a low-budget film that’s a hard sell, you could at least provide more than one still. Also, “synopis” is not a word.)

More problematic still are the interpolated scenes of stylised photography and theatrical performance, in which an apparently psychotic man capers and cavorts in a tinted apartment space, sometimes thrashing in accelerated motion like that fellow in JACOB’S LADDER. If it weren’t for the more compelling spectre of the Bennetts, this might be disturbing, but it seems both tame and melodramatically contrived by comparison, even though imagery and sound design are impressive in themselves. The guy (credits are unavailable) is a brilliant physical performer though.

Nothing directly relates this action to the main thread of narrative, save a brief scene in which Bennett fils glimpses the twitchy man on a beach. A similar encounter loosely connects Bennett to a woman seen confined in what seems to be a psychiatric hospital (although it doesn’t feel like anybody connected to the production has any experience or understanding of mental illness or psychiatric care in this country), so there are three basically free-floating units of action drifting around in the film, unattached by any detectable structure.

Martin is a graduate of the Cinema Extreme shorts programme, and this is exactly the kind of thing they love — “strong” subject matter, “radical” treatment, uncertain meaning or purpose. It’s nevertheless pretty compelling, due to the skill with which it’s made. Chris Morris’ TV show Jam is cited as an influence in the Film Festival programme, but the mission of that series, to push comedy deep into the disturbing until 99% of humour is suffocated, is not shared here. Perhaps this film is heading in the other direction, driving drama into the realms of the grotesque until empathy snaps and we are left with absurdity and horror. There ARE a few laughs along the way though. The younger Bennett’s brilliant malapropism “I quite like that Allied Llama,” is my first favourite line of the Fest.

Grabbing a muffin for sustenance, I plunged into OBSCENE, a documentary on the life of Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch in America for the first time, battling through the courts to do so. It’s a fascinating story, but such an iconoclastic subject perhaps deserves a less conventional approach. Talking heads were of a high calibre though — I particularly enjoyed John Waters’ dismissal of the once-shocking I AM CURIOUS YELLOW: “It’s a limp dick and an ugly girl and talking about communism.”

A third bout of disturbed cinema followed — FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is a French animated feature anthology, interweaving several short stories written and designed by top cartoonists like Charles Burns and Lorenzo Mattoti. I liked most of the sequences, and was blown away by Richard McGuire’s wordless ghost story in which a traveller sheltering from a snowstorm is persecuted by an avenging female figure in an old dark house. Pellucid darkness (pure b&w without use of gray), tense, gasping sound, elegant movement and design clearly influenced by Edward Gorey but stopping short of the usual wholesale plunder.

Why is b&w animation suddenly so big? First PERSEPOLIS, now this — I wonder if the repulsive SIN CITY isn’t in some strange way partially responsible, in which case, it deserves some credit.