Archive for Frank Perry

The ’68 Comeback Special: Trilogy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2013 by dcairns


Cannes in ’68 had, or would have had, only two American films (as opposed to three Hungarian). And one of those, PETULIA, was the work of mainly British filmmakers. The other was, essentially, a TV movie…

However, if PETULIA is partly a British picture in a way, Frank Perry’s TRILOGY is a TV movie by a cinema practitioner. At times it looks and sounds very much like small screen stuff, and then it’s in thrall to a literary source, three short stories by Truman Capote. It’s arguable that mainly what we get is short stories + acting. But it’s very good acting.

Episode one, MIRIAM, is possibly my favourite, because unexpectedly it’s a kind of horror movie. The great Mildred Natwick plays a retired nanny, living alone with a canary and her memories, avoided by her former charges whom she fondly imagines still somehow need her. Then she meets Miriam (the uncanny Susan Dunfee in her only film role), who shares a first name with her and insinuates herself into nanny’s life for some inexplicable but surely malign reason. Very early on we suspect that something is very wrong about Miriam, and we’re right, but we can’t figure quite what it is — rather like Anthony Harvey and Amiri Baraka’s DUTCHMAN, the terror comes from the not knowing. Meyer Kupferman’s insistent and unsettling story prods the unease into every corner.


Part two, AMONG THE PATHS OF EDEN, is the least of the three, a two-hander with Maureen Stapleton and Martin Balsam meeting in a graveyard, but the two leads are so good they elevate it. Stapleton is looking to meet an eligible man and is targeting widowers by frequenting the cemetery. Balsam is laying flowers on his wife’s grave but politely and gently adamant that he isn’t looking for any more attachments in his life.

In the movie, Balsam’s wife died from a heart condition. I was reminded of Balsam’s own death, decades later: he checked into a hotel in Rome, remarked to the clerk how happy he was to be in his favourite place in the world, went up to his room, lay down and died. Heart attack.

“I’d like to die alone in a hotel room, the way people used to,” said Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom.


Episode three, A CHRISTMAS MEMORY, is the longest and I guess most substantial. It has a wonderful performance from Geraldine Page and a story which is largely autobiographical — Capote narrates it in his distinctive manner. It’s extremely moving — the relationship between a boy and his older female cousin encapsulated by the baking of cakes and the preparations for Christmas. A weakness is perhaps that the strongest scenes are delivered largely by the voice-over — again, we wouldn’t miss much just by reading the original story. But when something is good, it’s good, and maybe worrying about whether it’s “cinematic” is a waste. It’s certainly ungrateful.

Perry made other, better films, with more cinematic life in them — PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and MAN ON THE SWING and THE SWIMMING POOL (can we have an Eclipse box set of these neglected works?), and Capote had a hand in some genuinely electrifying movies, from IN COLD BLOOD to THE INNOCENTS to BEAT THE DEVIL. Their collaboration here is perhaps hampered by Perry being too respectful of his source, but on its own terms it’s beautiful.


In other news ~

DALLAS VIDEOFEST 26 Juried Award Winning Films:

Documentary Feature Winners

Winner: NATAN by Paul Duane and David Cairn


“NATAN breaks new cinematic ground on many levels and is innovative both in subject matter and its eclectic stylistic approach. The film twists and turns its way through a complex story filled with powerful revelations.”  – Jurist, Ben Levin, professor of radio, television and film, UNT.

Inappropriate Smiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by dcairns

Inappropriate smiling is a recognized symptom of psychiatric disorder. It’s also a useful tool for an actor, since in that profession one must appear not only truthful but interesting (a tall order: name one modern politician who succeeds at both).

Christopher Walken is the master of the I.S. Check out his reaction to the news that his condition may be terminal, in THE DEAD ZONE. No wonder Herbert Lom looks alarmed. And in A VIEW TO A KILL, he grins in disbelief at the exact moment he realizes he’s about to plunge to his death from a helicopter. Suave.

I’m getting seriously into Frank Perry now — with MAN ON A SWING he demonstrated an ability to make the policier genre jump about in unfamiliar ways, while PLAY IT AS IT LAYS manages to make most of the New Hollywood of the 70s seem rather generic and adolescent. TAXI DRIVER is brilliantly made and fascinating to watch, but it’s not terribly mature compared to Perry’s film. That shouldn’t invalidate it, in a sense the film is about juvenile frustration raised to a pitch of psychosis, and a more considered or distanced stance wouldn’t put us in the driver’s seat, as it were. But Perry is dealing with less extreme people, while still following them into the darkest imaginable places.

DOC is a different matter, in that it’s a western, albeit a revisionist, method-actor-driven, psycho-political western. Stacy Keach is Doc Holliday (not as skinny as the other characters say he is, but nevertheless perfection), Faye Dunaway is Kate Elder, Harris Yulin is Wyatt Earp.

To take Yulin first — former newspaperman Pete Hammill’s script characterizes the marshall as a politician first and a killer second, and Yulin plays the fellow with a steely, psychopathic focus that’s suprising to me, since I only knew the guy from NIGHT MOVES. I’d assumed Yulin was a featured character star in lots of movies, but really this is his biggest role. He’s amazing. There’s this moment, when a Clanton provokes Earp —

— and in a second, Earp will turn round with that expression on his unblinking face, and the guy visibly jumps. Face of a turtle, big eyes like windows into Hell. Counter-type-casting at it’s best.

HOW TO NOT BLINK: while making WESTWORLD, Yul Brynner taught Richard Benjamin how to fire his gun without flinching: you basically play Russian Roulette, spinning the chamber and playing target practice, never knowing whether the gun will fire or not. Eventually you’re brain gives up on being surprised, and you can fire the gun without your face noticing.

Keach is also great at not blinking, which is part of what makes his lizardlike cool so mesmeric. You can’t take your eyes off the bastard. Keach has for too long been a sort of second-string hero type, now slipping into not-too-interesting character parts, when his real talent should have been focussed by the kind of unsympathetic/unheroic lead roles abounding in the 70s. For some reason he got this and THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and FAT CITY and not enough others.

Here’s Keach’s reaction to being warned not to show up at the OK Corral, “Because I don’t want you to get killed.”

A textbook Inappropriate Smile.

Even Faye gets in on the act. Her face is as usual all over the place, she’s so in the moment she basically lets it off the leash altogether and allows the various muscles to run amok over the corners of her mouth and eyes. When she first meets Doc she’s a filthy prostitute in a filthy cantina, being pawed by a filthy Clanton. Doc wins her in a hand of cards, then demands a hot bath. The proprietor says there’s no hot water.

“Then light a fire and heat some!” bellows Doc. “I gotta wash this bitch.”

Dunaway’s reaction:

She likes it!

Perry’s work here is excellent, pretty traditional filmmaking but with direct cuts substituting for every other kind of transition. A scene of Earp campaigning for public office seems inspired by DA Pennebaker’s Kennedy doc PRIMARY — it certainly aims for docu-style jitteriness. And the movie is unflinching in its pursuit of Hammill’s goal, to shave off the myth and give us a sense of ignoble history. In a way, by ascribing psychological motivations to figures who survive only via the record of their actions, the movie is serving up a new myth, but it’s one that does seem plausible. The dust and profanity are only a cosmetic alteration, but the film does have a genuinely radical take on the genre.


“Out there where nothing is.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by dcairns

Frank Perry and Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS is indeed as terrific as David Ehrenstein says it is.

Starring the Eternal Tuesday.

Strange to find a scene shot in a location familiar from SE7EN, and at dusk, too.

“There’s no there, there.” That line about LA is echoed in Anthony Perkins’ line about where he and Weld have both been — “out there where nothing is.” But that’s a state of mind, not a place. The film is agnostic about whether any of the characters are mentally ill. Whatever malaise is eating at Weld and Perkins, it doesn’t have the outward hallmarks of clinical depression — they’re too warm and smiley. Maybe that’s Californian depression. Everyone lying there, smiling.

Is this so-called Paradise Syndrome? I think to call it that would be overly cynical. But with the need to struggle to survive excised from their lives, Weld and Perkins’ characters are floundering in a world of pointless luxury. I guess that’s better than pointless poverty. But it does kind of spotlight what’s missing.

“Nothing applies.”

This is more spiritual or existential (a word the characters throw around but don’t show much sign of understanding). The down-to-earth motelkeeper urges Weld to keep busy, but as she’s sweeping a porch in the desert, the Sisyphean pointlessness of busy-ness is glaring.

None of these characters have what poor people would call “real problems.” But it doesn’t seem like their suffering is self-indulgent. Although if they felt connected to the world outside Hollywood maybe they’d see it that way. But this is life in a bubble.

“I don’t ever wanna be where you are.”

“You don’t wanna be… … … but… … … you will.”

Perkins has some of the great line readings of all time. Weld’s performance could be called brave. Whatever, it’s incredibly compelling. Adam Roarke, as her film director husband “Carter Lang” is good, if utterly unsympathetic. His glasses call William Friedkin to mind, which adds to the suspicion that he may not be the nicest of guys. I don’t know, maybe Sherry Lansing would disagree with me.

The film really wrestles with the idea of adapting an interior novel without copping out. It takes a while just to get the relationships sorted out in your head, and then issues of motivation can go unresolved for the longest time. Feels like I’ll get more out of this each time I see it, like with PETULIA.

Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

Funny coincidence department: in PRETTY POISON (also excellent, in a very different lane) Perkins gets out of the psych ward and meets Tuesday Weld. In PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, Weld meets Perkins and then goes into the psych ward.