Archive for Gavin Lambert

Invasion of the Avant-Garde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2023 by dcairns

It was high time I revisited THE RIGHT STUFF, a film from my hot youth I remember fondly — I watched it a lot on VHS after having the big screen experience at least twice, but I haven’t screened it since I had the great pleasure of meeting director Philip Kaufman in Telluride.

I thought it held up very well — there’s a lot of bold filmmaking in it, including things that maybe don’t quite work, but I felt that, as Gavin Lambert said of Michael Powell’s occasional missteps, “it mattered that he did them.” I couldn’t regret them.

I also shored up the event by reading Tom Charity’s excellent BFI Modern Classics monograph on the film, which was fun and informative. It provides a corrective to William Goldman’s complaints (in Adventure in the Screen Trade or a later one?) about his disappointment in not getting to be the writer. While this sorrow was surely sincere, Goldman’s complaints about the Kaufman version (he didn’t find it patriotic enough) look bizarre in the face of the very inspirational film (I guess we would have to read the Goldman document to make any sense of them). I guess the main point Goldman wanted to make was that writers are always second-class citizens in Hollywood — the producers hired him, convinced by his vision for turning the Tom Wolfe book into a structured screenplay — cut out all that sound barrier stuff — but when they hooked Kaufman to direct, Goldman’s ideas were immediately binned. It’s a little churlish of Goldman to complain, though, since he was paid for his services more money than God got for creating the universe. Possibly more than Kaufman would get for writing AND directing.

(Speaking of churlish — Tom Wolfe got a lot of credit, it seems to me, for not dissing the disaster that was the movie of his BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. He said it would be ungentlemanly to accept the Hollywood lucre and then say the resulting film was a piece of crap [my phrasing]. But by saying this, he was of course saying that the film WAS a piece of crap. Such a gent!)

Kaufman’s decision to keep test pilot Chuck Yeager in the picture, and some other idiosyncratic choices, result in his film following quite a peculiar structure, for a movie. The “climax” is the Apollo astronauts shooting glances at one another while Sally Rand does a fan dance to Clair de Lune, intercut with Shepard trying to fly an aeroplane into outer space. We don’t know it’s the climax while it’s happening, as the film lacks the conventional milestones that let you know how far into the three hours you’ve gotten. You only realise it when the film suddenly stops a few minutes later. But it works!

(We would have more films with delightfully off-kilter shapes if Goldman hadn’t banged on so vociferously that “Screenwriting is structure!” in Screen Trade, without explaining what he meant, and then Syd Field etc rushing in to lay down the law.)

One thing Charity’s monograph is great on is the film’s VFX, which had intrigued me since I was a kid. The sound barrier stuff was done by chucking model planes about, or running at them with an Eyemo on bungee cords, or vibrating a telefoto lens with a variable-speed massager. The flights are made up of lots of quick shots like that, using different camera speeds (from 12 to 110 fps), blasts of fire extinguisher, and models thrown from third-floor windows with a large-scale canvas painting of the desert stretched down the building’s side.

Cameraman John Fante is the man responsible, and when cut together by Kaufman’s team, this is the stuff that generates the tension, along with the inventive sound design which buries a pig scream in the mix for added alarm (borrowing it from the man-dog noise in Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?)

But the stuff that had really intrigued me was the weird abstract imagery. When Yeager nears the sound barrier, a weird deep-blue black hole opens up in the centre of his POV. It’s not obvious whether this is some kind of physical phenomenon or a purely subjective one. It does feel like a nice visual substitute for the sensation of being on the brink of blacking out. Instead of the realistic grey-out effect (which I’m very used to on account of low blood pressure) which would be hard to portray in a dramatic and photogenic way, it offers a partial blacking-out.

The man responsible turns out to be experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. I’m something of an ignoramus when it comes to experimental film or whatever you want to call it — a part-time airhead as David Raksin described Marlon Brando — but I sought out his stuff and now I really like it.

The way this one — PHENOMENA — keeps fading out reminded me strongly of James Stewart’s restless night in REAR WINDOW — which so perfectly captures the sensations of a disturbed sleep — little bursts of consciousness you’re conscious you probably won’t remember.

Kaufman had sensed that the Industrial Light & Magic approach wasn’t right for his film — he sensed it after working with them for a year, it’s true, but he did sense it. The high-tech stuff with the STAR WARS connection was all wrong for a film set in the past, mostly on or very near the earth. There’s a little Lucas-type VFX but it’s mostly integrated with Belson’s abstractions, so that we can have an animated space capsule turning, matted into a blurry, revolving blue sphere which FEELS just like NASA footage but isn’t, or at least not all the time.

Print dirt and damage gives away the amount of actual NASA film used (why couldn’t they look after their negatives better?) — TRS may be my favourite stock footage movie. I can usually spot it and I usually hate it. I think it works better here than usual because, in part, of Belson’s homemade miracles providing a third kind of material to blend with it, so the film can be a proper patchwork quilt rather than a quilt with a few disfiguring patches.

Now that I’m familiar with some of Belson’s style and effects, it feels like THE RIGHT STUFF is a Hollywood commercial movie being invaded or infected by experimental ones. And that feels fair — think of all the times Hollywood movies have wormed their way into avant-garde ones, from the solarized bits of JUST IMAGINE in LUCIFER RISING to the hideously colorized Fleischer cartoon soundlessly flashing up in MURDER PSALM.

Kaufman would have known Belson as a fellow San Franciscan, I’m betting. All of THE RIGHT STUFF was shot around SF, an astonishing feat. Designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, a genius, joined Goldman in walking off when told he had to find all the locations locally.

There’s a fair bit of Jordan Belson’s stuff on YouTube.

The Esther Blodgett Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2021 by dcairns

George Cukor’s mutilated musical masterpiece A STAR IS BORN is so gorgeous it makes it hard to choose anything to watch afterwards — such an excess of beauty is hard to top. In the end we went for a Japanese movie, since the aesthetics seemed a good match, but THE MYSTERY OF EDOGAWA RAMPO proved unsatisfying by comparison.

William Wellman “originated” the story of A STAR IS BORN for the Gaynor-March version, but he kind of stole it from Cukor’s earlier WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD, so it seems only fair for Cukor to steal it back. You can argue that it’s a story of male fragility by the very macho Wellman (whose actress wife gave up her career for him): Norman Maine is relentlessly humiliated by his wife’s success, and when he kills himself she responds with self-abnegation: “Mrs. Norman Maine.” But even in the earlier version, though the co-dependent dynamic is clear, the thing doesn’t play as misogynistic or even particularly chauvinistic. And Cukor’s writer, Moss Hart, resolves the one glitch in the earlier version, where Lionel Stander’s press agent suddenly becomes a louse for one scene in order to drive our anti-hero back to drink. As played by Jack Carson in the musical, his behaviour is consistent throughout: he’s merely kicking a man when he’s down, Standard Operational Procedure in the studio system.

Festive Charles Bickford

Fiona did find the film overly long, with too many numbers, but this wasn’t Cukor’s fault. In Gavin Lambert’s interview book GC reports that, even as the studio was fussing that the movie was too long, they were adding the “Born in a Trunk” number, making it longer. Cukor had insisted he could “sweat out” twenty minutes via small trims, but this wasn’t allowed: whole scenes of character development got the chop.

So the restoration, which puts those scenes back, some of them as sepia-tinted stills, some as out-of-sync combinations of different outtakes, is way longer than Cukor ever intended it. A truer restoration would keep “Born in a Trunk” as an extra feature, and the film might play better, but that wasn’t an option back in 1983 when the restoration was done. And then again, that sequence is maybe the most stunning in the film —

(Sadly, Cukor died the night before he was scheduled to view test shots of the restoration.)

Stunning performances from James Mason and Judy Garland, as you’d expect, but more surprising, Cukor gets people like Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Grady Sutton to drop or modulate their usual schtick and approach sideways the portrayal of recognisable humans. It’s amazing to watch: like the moment in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS when Cary Guffey’s toys come to life.

Lambert praises this shot:

Cukor tells him it was essential, since there WAS NO BEACH HOUSE. Just a studio set and a beach location. Artful use of reflections helps sell the illusion. The sound design is also stunning here: as Judy sings, Mason heads into the surf. We expect her voice to grow more distant but remain audible: boldly, the filmmakers allow it to diminish until its being completely drowned by the waves, just cutting through a little in between each roar. Tremendously effective, and, like so much else in the film, atypical of the period.

I was interested in how tended to Cukor keep the various film director characters out of shot. The chap barking instructions to Mason from a boat is cut off at the neck. Garland’s auteurs are shadowy backviews. And then suddenly one of them is seen full-frontal, so I wondered if I were reading too much into Cukor’s stated tendency to “shoot the money.” But then there’s the movie-within-the-movie number with clusters of literally faceless suits, so I’m inclined to think there WAS a deeper plan.

A STAR IS BORN stars Dorothy Gale; Prof. Humbert Humbert; Wally Fay; Black MacDonald; Gus Esmond Jr.; Walt Spoon; Dr. Bulfinch; Sweetface; Coroner Wilbur Strong; Detective Dickens; The Dear One; Coffer; Big Bertha; Johnny Portugal; Wainscoat; and Og Oggilby.

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.