Archive for Eyes Wide Shut

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

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The Plot Coagulates

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

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.

655321

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Malcolm McDowall’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is known during the film’s middle act as Prisoner 655321, but as he enters prison he gives his name as Alexander De Large, same as in Anthony Burgess’ novel. But when he’s released from the stripy hole, the papers give his name as Alex Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic nomenclature in THE SHINING (he’s either Charles or Delbert Grady, depending on who’s talking).

Such peculiar slips aside, this is probably the most seventies sci-fi film of them all, its look playing like a kind of caricature of the fabulous ugliness of British hair, fashion, architecture, interior design and speech in that dark decade. The BLADE RUNNER idea of “retro-fitting” had not been invented yet, so movie visions of the future tended to work on the assumption that our dystopias will consist of all-new clothes and architecture and furniture. Ridley Scott’s team visualised the truth: the future will have all of our crap, only older and more broken-down and badly repaired. (The big exception to old stuff not surviving into movie futures is the Statue of Liberty at the end of PLANET OF THE APES).

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Speaking of apes, Fiona pointed out how this image recalls the primordial tribes of 2001. And then the soundtrack album of 2001 turns up in the record store Alex attends to pick up Gillian Hills and friend for a threesome (having presumably seen Hills’ threesome in BLOW-UP.) “Kubrick didn’t go in for in-jokes, did he?” Oh, but he did! Fiona has never seen EYES WIDE SHUT…

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I first saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE during the period when Kubrick had withdrawn it in the UK, on a fourth generation VHS dupe, with attendant fuzziness and flaring colours that bled off their subjects in shimmering auras. Then, on a college trip to Paris, I saw it in the cinema that played it non-stop, and it looked a lot better, although a splice robbed it of its final line, which was a real pain. (Terry Southern’s idea, floated in his novel Blue Movie, of a site-specific movie, made by a Kubrick-like master filmmaker, which you would have to travel to see, making it a kind of tourist attraction, had come true, at least for me — my main motivation in visiting Paris was to see this film.)

The film did not inspire me to any acts of criminal behaviour, though I may have tried to talk like Patrick Magee afterwards (“Trrry the WIIIINE.”

Random thoughts —

The novel is short and seems to me FAST, though I guess that depends on your reading speed. Having to look up the nadsat dialect words, or else strain to remember the last time they were used, does slow you down, but I always felt the prose demanded a certain celerity. Kubrick’s pacing is… well, deliberate would be a polite word. It seems to loosen up in the final stretch, somehow — McDowell even seems to be improvising in the scene where he’s psychologically tested with a caption contest, which had Fiona in hysterics. She’d forgotten what a funny film it is, if you can take it.

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“Cabbages… knickers… it hasn’t got a… a beak!”

SHOULD you take it? There are multiple issues at stake. Firstly, the written word becomes something quite different when visualised. Even Ken Russell said that the word must be censored by the artist when he films it. Mad Ken was mooted to direct CLOCKWORK ORANGE with Terry Southern on script and the Rolling Stones as stars — if he had, it would probably still be banned. Everywhere.

It’s pretty clear from John Baxter’s flawed but informative Kubrick bio that the director was treating the movie as an opportunity to ogle naked girls. The sexual violence has a role in the story, but is obviously important to the filmmaker for other reasons. Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t on. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?” “Tough.”

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(The two became quite friendly. She gave him red socks as a present, her costume when last seen in the film.)

Kubrick also got Cheryl Grunwald to mime being raped as her audition, a fairly pointless exercise that seems more like power-play than legitimate creative process (auditioning for DEATH WISH, Jeff Goldblum had to rape a chair. He got the part). Oh, and the scene Kubrick gave his rapees was very much like the encounter between the girl and the soldiers in FEAR AND DESIRE, suggesting that his violent fantasies were of a long-standing nature and informed earlier work.

If the director’s intentions aren’t pure, does it matter? Pauline Kael thought so. She pointed out that the relatively few alterations to the novel all had the effect of making Alex a more appealing character. She was right, but the matter bears further consideration. Kubrick could clearly have gone further — Alex is, by any reasonable estimation, a monster. But his crimes are photogenic — he beats up ugly people and rapes attractive, nubile women, not the other way around. Kubrick admitted that the character’s frankness with the reader/viewer made him appealing, in the same way that Richard III is appealing — a scheming dissimulator who flatters us by taking us into his confidence.

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Let’s look at the changes. Firstly, all the underage girls are now older — the “weepy young devotchka” in the casino is a spectacularly buxom adult, and the girls Alex picks up in the record store may not have been assigned a specific, clearly-identifiable age, but if Kubrick had wanted us to accept them as schoolies he needn’t have cast Gillian Hills, who we might remember from another threesome in BLOW UP, or even further back in BEAT GIRL. Kubrick was probably bit concerned about what he could legally show, a little concerned about getting typecast after LOLITA, keen to avoid making the viewer reflect on how old Malcolm McDowell is supposed to be, and he wanted to photograph spectacularly buxom adults.

I believe Kubrick when he says he cut the prison murder for reasons of length. I think the prison scenes drag a little — the story loses forward momentum until Alex can get into the Ludovico Institute, and the scenes are played very slow indeed — arguably to emphasize the stultifying environment and as a dramatic gear shift after the savage opening. I think Kael is wrong to suggest this omission softens Alex, who has already killed a woman in furtherance of theft on top of all his other crimes. As I recall from reading the book, the additional killing didn’t make me like Alex less — I already despised him on a moral level and enjoyed his voice on an aesthetic one.

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Kael gets into the fine detail of it when she points out that Kubes breaks his own rules, departing from the first-person narrative to show the casino devotchka getting stripped by the rival gang BEFORE Alex has arrived on the scene. Kubrick is filming something because he wants to film it, not because it’s a legitimate part of the story. But a defense is quite possible here (although yes, I think Kubrick is salacious). The scene is shot from the vantage point Alex will have when we see him. He introduces the action with voice-over setting the scene. And then he is revealed, stepping from the shadows, having apparently been watching for at least a few seconds.

(Kael doesn’t mention a scene Kubrick invented, showing the Cat Lady phoning the police, another moment not shared by Alex, who isn’t in the building and very importantly does not know the millicents are on their way. This seems to indicate that for all his obcomp meticulousness, Kubes wasn’t that bothered about the purity of the first-person or “closed” narrative.)

I always felt the opening of the casino scene was problematic, though. Or “evil,” might be a better word. The ensuing gang fight is incredibly dynamic in a western brawl way, snazzily cut to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, but the opening, a scene of sexual sadism, interacts with the music in a teasing, smirking way — it’s quite justifiable as a rendering of Alex’s view of this kind of cruelty, but I can’t bring myself to admire it. The music, the voyeurism, the sexually mature victim, can all be explained, but in combination they add up to something exploitative.

The highly fetishized assault on Adrienne Corri is another thing, simultaneously a stunning coup de cinema, an assault on the audience in fact, and a fairly indefensible piece of art-porn/rape-porn. Worth pointing out, though, that just as Burgess identifies himself with the male victim (both are authors of a book called A Clockwork Orange), Kubrick seems to put himself in the place of Alex’s prey. I’m sure Patrick Magee is typing on one of Kubrick’s favourite typewriters. And the cat lady, like Kubrick, lives in a big house full of pets with paintings by Christiane Kubrick on the walls, just like the great Stanley K. Whether the film encourages this kind of reflection isn’t certain: Kubrick deleted the novel’s explanation of the title, which means viewers must accept the phrase as an abstract concept, meaningful for whatever sensations it arouses rather than as a sensible bit of language, and in some ways we may be meant to do the same for the film itself. Kubrick seems divided as to whether the movie is a pure sensory onslaught or a film of ideas, and the tension shows. Which is not to say the tension is a bad thing.

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Burgess’s story seems to suggest that a criminal might be forcibly turned off violence by giving them drugs and showing them films (although it’s uncertain if he literally believed this or just used it as an allegorical device to explore free will). It seems to me the drug used is based on apomorphine, which William S. Burroughs took to help him kick his heroin habit, and which was also used in aversion therapy for homosexuals seeking (or being forced to seek) a “cure” for their orientation. Kubrick’s refusal to engage with the media left a disgruntled Burgess to appear on every TV discussion under the sun, arguing that audiences seeing films (and possibly taking drugs) could NOT be accidentally conditioned to become criminals.

(Burgess later admitted he disliked the film, and no wonder — he wrote the book after his wife was gang raped, and to see that turned into a pervy fantasy by the director must have been rather painful. I don’t know what catharsis he achieved by adopting an assailant’s viewpoint in his novel, but he made it enjoyable as a literary stunt, not as sado-smut.)

Kubrick’s suggestion to Michel Ciment that films MIGHT affect audiences, but only in the same way as a dream might, strikes me as sensible. A well-balanced person does not commit a violent act in response to a dream, though C.G Jung reportedly packed in sculpture as a profession and became an analyst after a dream about being in Liverpool. Whereas I have actually been in Liverpool, twice, and did NOT become an analyst — except of movies, I guess.