Archive for Funny Games

The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2016 by dcairns

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.

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Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

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Bring Me the Head of Fred C. Dobbs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2014 by dcairns

humph

Spoiler alert — this is a key moment from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and I’ll be discussing it in detail so turn aside squeamishly if you haven’t seen this film in the 66 years since it was made ~

At 2.33 Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) brings his machete down on Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). At 2.34 he takes a step back and looks at his messy handiwork. At 2.35 he kills Fred all over again, in what looks to be the exact same shot or a different take of the same.

At 2.37 he gets momentarily distracted by something to his lower right.

At 2.39 there’s a high angle shot in which we can see a pool of water with a rippling surface and a trace of darkness.

According to regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook, this sequence was originally supposed to show Bogie’s decapitation and his head rolling into the pool. In Robert Rossen’s draft screenplay we find the sequence described thus ~

“THE REST WE SEE REFLECTED IN THE BRACKISH WATER OF THE POOL: The stroke of the machete, then the figures of the three bandits standing, eyes downward, looking at something on the ground. The water in the pool begins to darken. Gold Hat looks up from the ground to the machete in his hand. He touches his thumb and forefinger to the tip of his tongue, then he tests the cutting edge of the blade. The waters of the pool are growing darker and darker.”

Huston, being a director, would probably have ignored the stuff about reflections in a pool. Anytime a screenwriter describes a camera placement, you can be sure the director will do something different. Then again, Rossen’s script was an adaptation of Huston’s pre-war draft. Huston, I think, subsequently adapted it back.

Randy suggests listening to Max Steiner’s typically emphatic score, which accompanies the action closely, a style known as “mickey-mousing.” If you close your eyes at the moment of the first mighty chop, you can easily picture the score accompanying the bouncing of a prop head into a pool. Thump thump splosh.

“Huston had seen terrible things in the war and may have thought the time was right to show something like this,” suggests Randy. “Also, as we know from the ending of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING that he found severed heads funny.”

Bogart reputedly complained, “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”

So what was deleted? Also – there are plenty of shots of makeup tests of Bogie for this film — he wears various lengths of beard and wig, courtesy of Perc Westmore and his team. So why has no prosthetic head of Humphrey Bogart turned up?

I’m trying to mentally reconstruct the sequence as it originally stood.

As originally edited, the second chop would not have existed. The shot at 2:37 would have run longer, making it clear that Gold Hat is following the movement of something close to the ground.

The high angle showing the pool to Gold Hat’s right would have started a touch earlier, showing the splash, and lingered as the blood started to srain the pool. No severed head need be shown, since the splash could be produced by any heavy round object. Maybe a weighted canteen containing dark dye.

This explanation strikes me as credible — Huston may have expected to get away with such a sequence, introducing a grisly idea using suggestion and enlisting the audience’s imagination. Then Jack Warner would have choked on his cigar or Joe Breen would have had a conniption, and the sequence would have had to be re-edited. To make things cheap, they didn’t want to change the length of the scene because that would mean rescoring, so they rearranged some shots and added a second death-blow from Gold Hat, ironically making the scene MORE violent, although measuring such things is very subjective. Steve McQueen doesn’t think his 12 YEARS A SLAVE is particularly violent as it only contains, to his mind, six instances of violence — fewer than any PG-rated action film. But the effect on an audience has little to do with the number of violent moments or even how explicitly they are presented — most of the violence in FUNNY GAMES occurs just off-camera, but I think it’s laughable to claim that makes it more pure or decent.

This debate won’t be settled probably ever, but I’m glad to say I may have settled why Humphrey Bogart’s severed head hasn’t turned up on eBay.

BUT — nothing is settled. There are accounts that swear there was a severed head, and there is this ~

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Proof that Bogart’s face was cast for a life-mask at about the right time. He does wear a lot of different beard and hairpieces in the film, so it could have been for that. If Humphrey Bogart DID have a spare head, what’s become of it? Maybe it was water-soluble. Maybe Bogie got drunk and dropkicked it off a cliff. Maybe it was carried off by a gila monster. Maybe Warren Oates found it years later…?

Twang

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2011 by dcairns

ARROWS OF UNDESIRE

Fiona had to drag me to see WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN due to my phobia about Scottish cinema. I know this is an American-set story with some British money involved, but the director is Lynn Ramsay, wunderkind of Scottish miserablism, a genre I never had any sympathy with. All through my early years trying to find some entry point into filmmaking, the movies that got backing seemed impossibly glum and unappealing — it was only after I scored a success with my short CRY FOR BOBO that I realized the movie’s subtext was pure autobiography: a character trapped in a world that demands earnest gloom when all he can offer is silliness.

That said, in certain ways Ramsay was a ray of cinematic sunlight, from her own early shorts to her first feature, RATCATCHER. Although she deployed the working-class settings of social realism, her films occasionally departed from the old songbook, notably when a mouse is carried to the lunar surface by balloon in RATCATCHER. And, as a former stills photographer, Ramsay trusts the image, and can serve up strikingly beautiful shots, some of which look like, as she once put it, “the photos you wish you could take,” while others transcend the striking frame to get into the poetry of movement. And added to this is some striking sound design, pointing to a very different artistic ambition from the social realist Ken Loach school (Loach can never do anything interesting with music or sound because he’s committed to an observational style — Ramsay’s weird mix of subjective and omniscient narration allows her to get into quite psychedelic soundscapes).

On the minus side, I still find Ramsay’s devotion to misery offputting, and when the misery isn’t entirely convincing I really resent it. If something isn’t enjoyable to watch, it better have some clear connection to life, some truth. I’m talking about the end of RATCATCHER here, while trying not to “spoil” it. Also, Ramsay’s tendency to lift shots from Tarkovsky annoyed me — I don’t object to filmmakers pilfering, but I do feel anybody lifting a shot from elsewhere is obliged to transform it, either by redesigning/improving it, or at least slotting it into a totally different context so the stolen moment is forced to function differently. DePalma’s repurposing of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in THE UNTOUCHABLES is bold plagiarism, but at least there’s creativity in the idea of transforming propaganda into action cinema. Swiping art cinema to make art cinema is too easy: Ramsay’s borrowings from MIRROR, like Peter Mullan’s from THREE COLOURS BLUE in THE MAGDALEN SISTERS, strike me as lazy and unimaginative. When the most striking cinematic effect in your film is stolen wholesale from an easily available source in the same genre you aspire to, that’s a real condemnation of your ambition and imagination.

THE UPSIDE OF MISERY

Happily, KEVIN seems devoid of undigested borrowings — the sound design is trippy and provokes a persistent feeling of dread. Seamus McGarvey’s photography is outstandingly beautiful: long sequences simply follow one stunningly evocative image with another, making strong choices as to focus and framing — visually beautiful in a way that’s neither aimlessly decorative nor obviously illustrative. The movie’s really curious about images. It’s very obvious that this is a film made with an outsider’s eye for Americana, which sometimes leans towards slightly lazy caricature but also provides a strong, individual viewpoint at all times. Interestingly, it’s not the viewpoint of anybody in the film (the protagonists are all native Americans, though the central character is played by fellow Scot Tilda Swinton), so it adds a sense of distance: perhaps the characters are to some extent observing their lives from the outside.

The performances are uniformly strong, with Swinton utterly committed and the kids typically compelling — Ramsay gets results by auditioning massive numbers of kids, anywhere she can find them, and then working VERY hard with them. Ezra Miller is quite a discovery — with those looks and that talent, he’ll go far. The weakest link is probably John C Reilly, just because he has a really impossible role and probably hasn’t received the same support as his co-stars — as the willfully blind father of a dangerous problem child he has to keep his blinkers on in the face of truly inescapable evidence of his son’s disturbing tendencies, and the direction and screenplay are more concerned with painting those tendencies in the most unsettling hues than they are with addressing the plausibility of such behaviour being ignored.

Here’s where you have to distrust me a little, because whenever there’s a film by a Scottish filmmaker (and it’s not made by one of my friends) I can get a bit judgmental — I become the cliché of the bitter film critic whose sore because he can’t do it himself. My problems with this film, which may be trumped up from within, are —

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN”

When Tilda backs into a wall of goods in a supermarket, I guess they could’ve been cute and had Tilda’s Rice, but instead they have tins of tomato soup, referencing both Warhol and the film’s RED theme — blood and red paint and tomatoes are a constant motif. The soup is called Ma Ramsay’s Tomato Soup — a cute in-joke and one that speaks of a certain affection from crew to filmmaker, which can only be good. If you spot it, it slightly deflates the drama of the scene, but it’s sweet.

But at the High School where — and this could be a slight spoiler if you don’t want to know ANYTHING, and the film holds this info back a fair while — Kevin runs amok on a killing spree with a bow and arrows, we get inspirational posters… I suspect such posters DO exist in US schools, but they all say heavily ironic things here like “Aim and Achieve.” I mean, HEAVILY ironic.

This implies that either the film isn’t taking its central massacre seriously — which would be unforgivable only because it takes Tilda’s suffering seriously and turns the other grieving parents into monsters — or it’s trying to imply that Kevin’s nihilistic outburst is a response to something in American culture, which doesn’t work because there’s no follow-through on the thought.

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

I find this kind of ugly, because it’s crude, and it seems like a sick joke. How careful do I require a filmmaker to be in tackling high school massacres? Well, I had no problem with anything in Van Sant’s ELEPHANT — I found the portrayal of the killers to be the least successful or convincing aspect of the movie, but it wasn’t a moral objection and I think the film’s brilliant. And I enjoy all kinds of violent films from time to time, and only really get offended by stuff like FUNNY GAMES that tries to teach me that I shouldn’t.

But the slomo shots of Miller, stripped to the waist, posing with his bow, struck a bum note. Very romantic images. There’s a real feeling of dread created in the movie, but I don’t know why he had to look so sexy there. And arguably Miller’s last scene, facing the consequences of his actions, is intended to strip away that glamour, but if I were a young person on the edge, I know which images would have greater resonance for me. And I have to wonder, am I just jealous of Lynn Ramsay, because “imitable behaviour” is not a concern I’ve raised with any other movie in the years I’ve run Shadowplay

My final problem, hopefully, is in the adaptation of the book — Swinton’s career as travel writer is dropped into a couple of places, and allows for a striking opening sequence (even the film’s evocation of joy comes with slomo dread and crimson splatter), but we’re really allowed to forget about it until it crashes back into the story at odd places. And other plot lacunae are even more striking — WHY is she regarded with loathing by her community after Kevin’s rampage? Because it’s obvious that she’s as much a victim as anybody else. You might think that, as mother of the killer, she’d be regarded with suspicion, but when you see the film this doesn’t work at all, given the particular circumstances. I *guess* maybe the fact that she’s stood by her son, kind of, is the clue to this, but it’s heavily underplayed if so. And I think if you’re going to make a film as bleak as this you need to make it airtight because an audience trapped in its fictive hell is going to look for escape routes with increasing desperation… In a way, that’s how I see the film’s mission: to swathe the viewer in a really despairing narrative and leave no hope of getting out unhurt…

Am I griping because I got dragged to see it, or because I’m a frustrated Scottish director? I flag those possibilities up. Whatever, this is a striking movie, well worth seeing, a “tough watch” intentionally, and my love of entertainment isn’t so overwhelming that I can’t appreciate the value of that sometimes. But do we need more pain?