Archive for Freddie Francis

Damn this sand! When will it ever end?

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2021 by dcairns
Dave Bautista

I fondly recall my sister telling me about seeing David Lynch’s DUNE with her boyfriend of the time, who was the worst at following movie plots, and kept up a constant stream of “Who’s that again?” throughout. DUNE is, I guess, fairly challenging to the narratively-challenged.

No such issues when Fiona and I traipsed over to the Vue Ocean Terminal (former the Ster Century, or Monster Sanctuary as we called it) to see Denis Villeneuve’s version. Just a sigh of “That was so BORING, I thought I was going to fall asleep,” from Fiona at the end.

When DV’s BLADE RUNNER sequel came out and tanked, I think I said “I guess we won’t get to see his DUNE then.” But maybe the contracts had already been signed and couldn’t be broken? Or maybe those strange people at Legendary Films just wanted to see what he’d do with it.

For purposes of this article I will, like everyone else, pretend John Harrison’s TV miniseries doesn’t exist, even though I met JH and both his stars and they were all very nice. Haven’t seen the show.

Stellan Skarsgard

The new DUNE suffers from Roman Epic Syndrome, where you have a very far-off culture to portray and it makes it hard to humanize the characters so we can get involved emotionally. It’s not actually a problem for the culture to be very different from ours, but it’s a problem for the characters to lack recognisable behaviour. In Old Hollywood the denaturalising of the performances was actually a deliberate policy, born of some kind of crazed belief that ancient history and/or the Bible require a particular performance style, declamatory and wooden, exemplified, indeed apotheosised, by Chuckles Heston in DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS. So that when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in, was it QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what era, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” asked Ustinov, reasonably. On BEN-HUR, there was a lively screenwriter’s debate about which was better, “Is the food not to your liking?” or “Don’t you like your dinner?” The former won out. It is not any more genuinely ancient-world than the alternative.

Lynch’s DUNE is plagued by several problems: by taking no heed of the demands of running time when he wrote it long, and then allowed for further improvisations when shooting, lengthening it more, Lynch saved up a problem for the edit which slammed him badly. The rough cuts of ERASERHEAD and THE ELEPHANT MAN had been very long, so he thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but those movies have pretty sparse plots. DUNE has all these damn FACTIONS. If you cut one scene you have to shoehorn the exposition it once contained someplace else. Hence all those internal monologues, where even comparatively minor character like Max Von Sydow whisper their thoughts to their chums, the audience. Going hand-in-hand with this is a palpable panic and loss of confidence, so that some of these VOs are spectacularly redundant, insulting and alienating: Francesca Annis leaves the room, thinking her son will be killed; she comes back and sees him alive; looks relieved. And her voice on the soundtrack helpfully remarks: “My son — LIVES!” Which is also an unsayable line.

Villeneuve’s DUNE, like Lynch’s, begins with an info-dump, and it’s a far less charming and arresting one than Virginia Madsen’s starfield piece-to-camera in the Lynch. It throws in some battle scenes (one day we’ll see a version of Frank Herbert’s book where we don’t see Arrakis until Paul does) and I bet most audiences don’t absorb a tenth of the info dumped on them, too busy admiring the pictures. But, generally, the new film is less anxious for us to understand things, which is good. “As writer, you must deliver your story points,” said Herr Wilder, “but the elegance with which you deliver them is the measure of how good you are.” Or words to that effect. The Villeneuve doesn’t fall prey to Lynch’s clumsinesses.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have ANY of his eccentricity, which is what makes the Lynch film lively and engaging. I found myself missing Kyle MacLachlan’s bluff heartiness. I really felt, even though it was oversold, that his Paul Atreides really LIKES his buddies in House Atreides. With Timotei Shalamar, I’m not even sure he likes his mom.

Timotei Shalimar and friends

Lynch’s gallery of grotesques pop out of the screen: only the Emperor is a stiff. Kenneth McMillan (who we recently enjoyed in Salem’s Lot), Paul L. Smith, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Alicia Witt… When Sting, who was quite prepared to play his shower scene nude, was asked to wear a golden eagle codpiece, he refused. They wore him down, but he eventually agreed to paste the bird to his junk only if he could play the part as the kind of guy who WOULD wear a crotch-accipitrid in the shower. And they LET him. Patrick Stewart, one of the less lurid performers, nevertheless goes into battle clutching a tiny pug. Freddie Jones has a scene, only included in the various unsigned extended cuts, has a scene at the end that’s heart-breaking and bizarre. Nothing in the new film stirs the empathy.

Villeneuve likes underplaying, and casts good underplayers, and attains a consistency Lynch doesn’t even seem to value as a goal. With the result that, though we get a Paul who’s convincingly teenage (he’s around the same age MacLachlan was, but slighter), we don’t meet anyone we’d like to eat dinner with. Rebecca Ferguson gets some actual emotion into it, and Javier Bardem shows actual star intensity, briefly waking things up. Stellan Skarsgård, a sort of grudging, inward-aiming actor, is a very dull substitute for the illustrious McMillan, who made intergalactic scheming while unplugging the hearts of twinks look like THE BEST FUN.

“I was so bored by those dream sequences…” Fiona complained. And they are boring, in the Villeneuve, even though they’re full of ACTION. But it’s action that doesn’t mean anything to us yet. I wouldn’t have thought prophecy could be as tedious than backstory, but apparently it can amount to the same thing. The Lynch film’s prophecies were shot by Frederick Elmes, his ERASERHEAD and future BLUE VELVET DoP. “We had one of those crisis meetings and I told them,” said Freddie Francis, DUNE’s veteran cinematographer, “that if Freddie Elmes shoots another frame of film I’m quitting. They didn’t fire him, though, they kept him around shooting drops of water.” But, with all respect to FF, who was old-school experienced and super-talented, Elmes’ epic drips are among the film’s most memorable images.

Villeneuve’s future dreams ultimately cheat the audience by NOT coming true, not really. It’s a bigger swindle than the time-shift of ARRIVAL, which works emotionally but is dirty pool, playing with the audience for no reason except to kick us in the heart.

Villeneuve’s big advantage over Lynch is that he gets a longer runtime to tell half the story, so he’s not forced into the damaging compressions that occluded his predecessor’s vision. He doesn’t always use his time sensibly, though. The character of Shadout Mapes appears in both films, and her entire role is to get nearly killed by a flying needle, then genuinely killed by a big knife. Oh, and in this version she gives Paul’s mom another knife. Why is this cleaning woman included? I sort of like the democratic instinct that would make a cleaning woman a character in a space epic, but you might as well also feature an Arrakis dogcatcher, the House Harkonnen’s PR guy, a Fremen dishwasher, and I’ll commend you for it IF you find anything for them to do.

Lynch’s DUNE, like most of his movies, looks awfully white, and Villeneuve corrects that in multiple ways, though most of the POC are dead by the time we’re told “This is just the beginning.” His film has scale (although the ornithopters can’t help but look tiny), great design (though tending to the monochromatic), it’s beautiful to look at. But I find I prefer most of Lynch’s faults to most of Villeneuve’s virtues.

The Elephants Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by dcairns

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.

TRAILER ONE (1)

This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.

Einstein By Matchlight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by dcairns

You can’t light a scene with a matchstick. The match will convincingly light itself — that is, the flame will photograph as a bright flare. But the light won’t carry any real distance, won’t give much appreciable light on anything else, except for the brief moment when it is struck: numerous films noir have made dramatic moments out of a cigar being lit.

We’re talking 35mm here, but I think even on digital you’d be struggling to get an image like this. Peter Lorre, as “Dr. Einstein,” descending staircase in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Frank Capra is minus his usual camera genius, since he’s now at Warners, where a hard-edged but glossy style prevails. Sol Polito lensed this shot.

In some movies, fake candles have been fitted with fluorescent tubes, shining from one side to give off a glow from roughly the right direction. A cable typically runs down the actor’s sleeve to a power source somewhere. There’s no room for such a contraption inside a matchstick, but Lorre MIGHT have a light in his palm. He might even have a glove to protect him from the heat.

This frame gives away part of the trick. Look at Dr. Einstein’s shadow on the wall on the right. Obviously the match could not cast the shadow of his arm in that direction. So a much more powerful lamp is being trained on Lorre’s face from the lower left, a tight spotlight following him down, trying its best not to hit the back of his hand. They might even have painted the back of his hand black to help the illusion.

Since Lorre turns two corners, it’s possible that more than one lamp was used, in relays, fading up and down to give the impression of a single, continuous roving light, but no trace of this trick is apparent. In some of Freddie Francis’s horror films you’ll see similar tricks, and he didn’t always have time to make it perfect. You FEEL the action of the dimmer-switches.

NO WAY could a match be lighting Raymond Massey, lurking behind Lorre (he does a lot of lurking in the picture).

And it certainly seems like Lorre has something in his hand that’s lighting his jacket and face — but one could still believe it was the match if one didn’t know better.

That’s good stuff. The public doesn’t really think about the cinematographer’s job being, besides making attractive and dramatic shots, the simulating of light sources.