Archive for Fred Schepisi

Holiday Affray

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2021 by dcairns

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

The Spielberg Transition #2

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2019 by dcairns
Bana hulks out.

MUNICH is one Spielberg I hadn’t seen until recently. I still haven’t managed to steel myself to run THE TERMINAL or THE BFG, but I guess I will at some point. They’re sitting on the shelf opposite as I type this, looking at me with their big puppy-dog eyes.

But MUNICH seemed like it was at least an attempt to do something interesting and different, so I felt vaguely ashamed of not giving it a shot. And I recall an interview from the time of production where Spielberg was talking about how the movie was going to make EVERYBODY angry. The great crowd-pleaser, going out of his way to be unpopular. This seemed worthy of attention.

Well, in a way the film’s refusal to firmly endorse or condemn the Israeli assassination programme depicted (targeting those responsible for the Munich Olympics atrocity) is standard Hollywood hedging, but Spielberg is right too, in that the film isn’t going to satisfy anyone with an entrenching position on the Palestine question. You can probably position Spielberg, based on this film and his other work (notably the penultimate scene of SCHINDLER’S) as a Zionist with qualms.

Fine, I’m a Zionist with qualms too. In that Israel exists and is here to stay, and you can question whether its creation was a good thing, but that’s wholly academic because what acceptable action would dissolve the state at this late stage? You can’t be genuinely anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, because what’s your non-genocidal solution to Israel’s existence?

On the other hand, I’m opposed to practically everything Israel is doing in the name of self-defense. It’s apartheid, it’s a slow-motion genocide, it’s not even in any sane conception of Israel’s own best interests.

My problem with MUNICH started with my inability to accept the arguments Golda Meir, or the film’s version of her, puts forward in favour of the assassinations (or “executions,” as Kevin Macdonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER disgustingly calls them). So, although the film tries to take you on a journey from accepting the mission to questioning it (without ever arriving at a definite position), I was never on board to begin with. So, although I found the film “interesting,” I wasn’t INTERESTED, apart from when Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale showed up (“Things always get better when the good actors show up,” said a distinguished produced friend once, talking about Bob Hoskins as a dwarf, but the point stands).

Spielberg described his influences as European thrillers, and one thinks Costa-Gavras, or Melville, but Lonsdale suggests a more Hollywood influence: DAY OF THE JACKAL. And it’s all very loud and impactful and bloody and explicit. It has the first, I think, full-frontal nudity in a Spielberg joint, both male and female, but predictably the straight male audience wins out with a voluptuous enemy honeytrap (Marie-Josée Croze) while everyone else has to content themselves with Ciaran Hinds’ small dead cock.

The image up top is Bana, near the end of the film, having sex with his wife but seeing images of terrorist massacres, and the machine gun fire from his fantasy (a flashback to events he didn’t witness?) illuminates his face in the present tense reality — I found this ludicrous, but I’m actually going to semi-allow it because it’s certainly BOLD.

But earlier in the film, while travelling by plane, Bana has another flashback to events he didn’t see, the Munich massacre itself, and that has two fantastically horrible transitions. First, we move into the aeroplane window as Bana gazes at it, and the terror attack becomes progressively more visible. I’m reminded of the supremely eggy moment in Polanski’s BITTER MOON where Emmanuelle Seigner’s face appears in the plane window as a Romantic Vision. I think that film is a grotesque comedy (Polanski’s funniest film?) so the moment kind of works, even as it makes me cringe. And I guess both filmmakers were thinking of a kind of in-flight reverie and trying to evoke that sort of boredom-distraction-fantasising. But, you know, it doesn’t WORK.

But the really bad one is the end of the fake flashback (he wasn’t THERE!), when automatic rifle fire rakes a poor Israeli athlete and Spielberg shows bullets tearing up a blood-spattered wall, then dissolves/morphs to little pink puffy clouds seen through that aeroplane window.

I have no words. Except these ones: What. The. Hell?

Well, all really impressively bad ideas have something good going on in them. As with the eros + massacre up top, the idea of something attractive being infected by a vision of something murderous isn’t a terrible one. Nic Roeg would probably have made a hard cut here, and left the audience the option of seeing a connection between the bloody, perforated plasterboard and the sunrise sky, or of seeing the things as merely contrasting. Spielberg is more controlling, so he can’t bring himself to leave that to chance.

Or, as Fred Schepisi advised Spielberg when he heard about SCHINDLER’S, “Don’t do it, Steve. You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.”

I think SCHINDLER’S LIST works, or works well enough overall. But I think there’s a transition in there that might be worth talking about…

Au Hasard, Joey

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2018 by dcairns

Since WWI finally ended on Sunday, I thought I’d watch something suitable. Unfortunately, the film that leapt out at me was Spielberg’s WAR HORSE, which I’d picked up cheap on DVD and never watched. I had just been picking out clips to show students to illustrate the art of scene blocking, which Spielberg has a real gift for. So I was feeling positive, even though friends had described WH as a right load of old guff.

I have smart friends.

The Spielberg fireworks display goes full blast in this one, and there’s much to admire from a technical standpoint. But this was a children’s book, turned into a play that used technically impressive but stylised theatrical techniques, now turned into a big budget film with a Hollywood-real aesthetic. So it’s like somebody adapted Tom Sawyer into Equus and then into GONE WITH THE WIND. The qualities of the children’s story which were perfectly acceptable in a storybook — the naiveté and sentimentality and romantic implausibility — all become glaringly obtrusive on the big screen with real people (well, actors) and a real horse (when it’s not CGI).

“Don’t do it, Steve,” said Fred Schepisi when he heard Spielberg was going to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. “You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.” An immortal line. To the extent that Spielberg did not fuck it up, we can credit his success to the decision not to storyboard and to go handheld when possible. Handicapping himself. His decision to shoot the start of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN like a documentary also helped stave off problems. But since WAR HORSE is about long-ago events more remote than the forties, he evidently decided to let himself go full David Lean. There are some beautiful images ~It is, in fact, absolutely pornographic. The famous debate about the tracking shot in KAPO is very relevant here. But imagine ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT crossed with LASSIE COME HOME and that gives some idea. But don’t forget that, on top of all that, it has a thick coating of John Williams poured all over it. And Richard Curtis on script.

(All the nice WWI art is, in a sense, sickening. The giant display of poppies (sponsored by the British weapons trade) spilling like blood from a wound was striking, but what it accomplished was the transformation of something raw and bloody into something pretty and inoffensive. As effective a pro-war statement as you could wish for. I’ve seen people saying “Dulce et decorum,” on social media, leaving out the fact that Wilfred Owen used those words with savage irony.)

Despite the skill and effort put into it, it’s insulting. Horses charge a German camp. Stylish mayhem. The machine guns open up. Charging horses. And then suddenly horses are leaping over the guns. And we realise they’re all riderless. A clever cinematic idea, but the empty horses gag simply couldn’t happen, because you can’t shoot a man off a horse whose riding right at you because the horse’s head would be in the way. Any effective shot would also fell the horse. Now, you might get away with that kind of impossible illogic in a kids’ book or play (but it’s an inherently cinematic idea, you have to give it that) but its an absurdity here. I wouldn’t accept it in an Indiana Jones movie, but it wouldn’t bother me much.There’s one scene that manages to apply a bit of restraint: Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann (I think) underplay a scene where they rescue the titular horse from barbed wire in no man’s land. The restraint pays off and the dialogue is less on-the-nose. And in reality, soldiers did sometimes risk death for their horses… generally to put a bullet in their brains as a mercy. So there’s a basis in reality… except here the horse lives and it’s all combined with a bit of Christmas Day Armistice sentiment. Can I have an extra rum ration, sir?

To take the taste away we had to run Losey’s KING AND COUNTRY. In order to FEEL something moderately genuine. The war horse in that one is a dead donkey full of rats.

WAR HORSE stars Swanney, Jackie Du Pré, Professor Lupin, Loki, Alan Turing, César Luciani, Koba the bonobo, Inspector Lestrade and Davos Seaworth.

KING AND COUNTRY stars Dr. Simon Sparrow, Billy Liar, Gerald Arthur Otley, Klang, Bob Rusk and Dinsdale Gurney.