Archive for Gangs of New York

Like clockwork, like magic

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by dcairns

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”

The Bowery Inferno

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2008 by dcairns

I’d wanted to see Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY for ages, but it’s not easy to come by. I knew it was a big influence on THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, and from the sound of things, an influence on the good bits. I also knew it was racially controversial. I wasn’t quite prepared for how it would feel to watch it.

As with BIRTH OF A NATION, it hurts. You know there’s historical distance, and with a lot of things you can watch with an ironic laugh and think “Thank God we wouldn’t dream of saying THAT anymore,” but some films break right through modern irony, bypass standard-issue offense and land in a very unpleasant place where you just feel a bit ashamed of being human.

Walsh’s film is lots of fun, or nearly, and with one scene removed it might fall into the category of ironically enjoyable political incorrectness, but with that scene, the whole film is poisoned. I don’t suggest censoring it, by the way: as a historical document it’s invaluable. (My copy turns out to come from Channel Four, which means it had an uncensored UK TV screening within the last twenty or so years…

Walsh starts as he means to go on:

But this being a tale of the Naughty/Gay Nineties (inspired by the success of Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG), we can allow this crass but period-accurate detail. Walsh follows this intro with a montage of outrageous behaviour on the streets and in the drinking dives of the Bowery, and it’s energetic, fun stuff. One can see how the creation of a sort of urban wild west influenced Scorsese’s period crime epic.

When Wallace Beery shows up like a big cartoon character with a joke accent — “I takes care o’ dat meself: poisonal!” — we warm to him. When his young ward Jackie Cooper turns up, fleeing a group of “chinks” whose window he’s smashed, it’s possible to take the racial attitudes as belonging to the characters, not the film. B. Kite once observed to me that much of Walsh’s appeal lies in his strange ability to make loutish behaviour appear charming, and he generally manages it. Sometimes the characters go too far, and this adds a bracing tinge of malaise to the fun. But Cooper’s fondness for breaking windows does seem like real racism, rather than an innocent, impish desire to destroy stuff. His ballsy, pugnacious performance, pitched to the same muggish level as Beery’s, is interesting at first, so perhaps judgement is suspended — besides, there’s plenty of time yet for character development. Give the kid a chance.

“It was only a chink’s winder.” “I know, but a winder’s a winder.”

Some good clowning ensues as George Raft turns up and begins sparring with rival Beery. Oddly, this film is the only one I can think of where both stars coincidentally have character names the same as two other stars of a later era: Beery plays Chuck Connors, and George Raft plays Steve Brodie. It has the same discombobulating effect as that bit in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when Robert DeNiro uses the pseudonym “Robin Williams”.

And now comes the apocalypse from which this film never recovers. A fire breaks out in a Chinese-American tenement, and Beery and Raft’s rival fire teams compete to put it out (this scene was recreated very closely in GANGS, only without the racial element). It turns out Cooper is responsible, his flung rock having smashed a lantern. As Raft and his men arrive, Cooper is sitting on a barrel which he’s positioned to conceal the fire hydrant until Beery’s gang arrive. But when Beery and co get there, the would-be rescue devolves into a riot as the opposing fire teams take to battering each other senseless. Meanwhile distraught “chinks” gesticulate from a high-up window of the blazing building. This is becoming uncomfortable.

Dissolve to later, and both fire teams have been punched unconscious, and the building has been burned to the ground — presumably with everyone inside. It would have been very easy to have shown the denizens escaping the inferno, even if they had to jump onto an awning, or something. I mean, the joke is these firefighters who are more concerned with status than with fighting fires, so the distressed victims make a point — but the joke, for me, is ruined if anybody gets killed, and the central characters totally lose sympathy. The sequence is clearly funnier if we don’t think anybody’s been seriously harmed. But the film thinks so little of these characters — they’re basically not regarded as human beings — that it can’t be bothered with an A-Team style “mercy shot”. Furthermore, Cooper is now a mass-murderer, but this is never addressed. We’re supposed to find him loveable and not be worried about his psychopathic behaviour. Although THE BOWERY has much to commend it, and I love pre-code Hollywood filth and nastiness, I’m afraid I stopped enjoying the film at this point…

Am I losing my sense of humour here?

Bowery Boy

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2008 by dcairns

I was in Glasgow — city of the stars! — last Thursday to meet with T.V.’s Ford Kiernan (comedy shows Chewin’ The Fat and Still Game), talking about possible writing and directing work (highly speculative at this stage) and just generally getting to know him. We discussed our fondness for Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, and Ford told me you can see Buster breaking character at the end of LIMELIGHT, which I must go and check RIGHT NOW.

(Just looked. Have no idea what he means. Is this some DVD extra I don’t have? Apparently when Claire Bloom dances through the frame at the end of the big pull-back, you can see Keaton saying, “Right, she’s gone,” but you can’t, not in my version.)

Anyhow, I had to get the story of Ford’s appearance in Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK, which I’d been hearing accounts of for ages. I wanted to get it from the man himself, and share it with you.

There was a lot of casting in Scotland — my friend, Shirley Clarke retrospective curator Niall Fulton was up for a part, and Gary Lewis of course ended up in a plum role. Ford was auditioning for the part of P.T. Barnum, who had a big meaty speech. He hired a scooter and zoomed around the Glasgow University campus, rehearsing his lines until he had it down COLD.

“Now, there’s a part I play on Chewin’ The Fat, ‘Ronald Villiers, the world’s worst actor’. I went into audition and turned into that character. Couldn’t remember ANYTHING.”

Here’s Ford as Ronald (40 secs in):

Despondent, Ford went away and regrouped. Getting a friend to aim a camcorder at him, he created his own audition tape in a “Noo Yawk” accent. “Say, Marty, what’s the story? Who’s ass have ya gotta kiss to get a part in dis movie?” Scorsese liked the tape and Ford was now cast as the Black Joke fire brigade chief.

“It was just a cough and a spit, but I got four days in Rome out of it. For my scene, we had two mobs armed with cabbages, a burning building kept alight by a hundred tonnes of propane, and Jim Broadbent and me exchanging lines. Now, I’d just come off seventeen weeks on MY show, where I’m kind of at the centre of it…”

The scene starts, the cabbages are hurled, and Ford dries. “The camera wasn’t even on me, it was over-the-shoulder on Broadbent, but I lost it and just went ‘Cut.'”

Everything stops. Scorsese puts his hand on the A.D.’s shoulder and the A.D. leads him through the throng to Ford, “marching like Roman soldiers,” and Scorsese says, very softly, “First half was good. Second half was shit. And don’t say ‘cut’ again.”

The scene got done, and afterwards Ford was able to chat with Scorsese and learned that he was basically playing Wallace Beery in Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY. Which is pretty cool.

Ford is part of that aspect of the film that WORKS — the vision of Old New York as a hellish den of vice and criminality. The background, essentially. The plot going on in the foreground doesn’t hang together because the protagonist has a goal but doesn’t pursue it, and DiCaprio and Diaz are the least interesting characters in the movie, which is a bit of a problem. I suspect it all goes back to the book its based on and Scorsese’s reasons for making the film. I guess the vengeance thing is there to provide a spine which can hold together all the fascinating fragments of Scorsese’s hallucinatory history, but really what he’d have preferred is a non-plot like SATYRICON’s. Sadly, you can’t mix the two.