Archive for Geoffrey Unsworth

An Odyssey in Bits: Putting the starch back into Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by dcairns

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

So, the second most dazzling cut in 2001 is probably the one nobody talks about. After Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera tracks into the monolith (death), Kubrick hard-cuts to the moon — seen from space or the Earth, we don’t know yet, and dead-centre in frame, like HAL’s eye. He could have dissolved, but the hard or direct cut makes it clear this is continuous action, just like the switch from bone to orbiting missile, the same process continuing.The moon then appears to rise straight up (its prominent role here would be more meaningful, it occurs to me, if we’d ever really seen Moonwatcher, our lead ape, you know, moon-watching. Yes, Kubrick remembered to show him looking up in awe and terror at night-time, but I don’t recall him including a POV shot. Perhaps showing “the outward urge” and John Wyndham called it seemed too on-the-nose to him at this early point). Then the Earth hoves in, and we realise that the choice of “up” is an illusion of camera angles —And the Starchild, Baby Dave, seen previously hovering or lying on Dave Bowman’s bed in its Good Witch Glinda bubble, hovers into view, the shot framed so His bubble is exactly the size of our world.This is the only shot where He looks cute, as opposed to beautiful and divine.

 

There had been a plan for Baby Dave to then blow up all the orbiting nukes, seen earlier, which would have closed the narrative thread of East-West tension established on the orbiting satellite earlier (cut to aghast reaction shot of Leonard Rossiter) but this was dismissed because either

(a) It was too pat, too Peace On Earth

(b) Kubes realised he hadn’t made the nukes obvious enough

(c) It lacked ambiguity, like, totally

(d) He didn’t want to end two films in a row with a bunch of nukes going off

SO we simply see Baby Dave, EVA in ECU, slowly turn until he’s looking right at us, which is disarming in a different way. And chimes worryingly with THIS image:“We’re the start of the coming race.”

What happened between the ending of 2001 and the start of CLOCKWORK to account for the sudden sourness, misanthropy and pessimism? Well, it was always there — look at STRANGELOVE. But if the question has any vestige of validity, we might list: the Tet offensive, covered in FULL METAL JACKET; the My Lai massacre; the Manson murders; and the cancellation of Kubrick’s NAPOLEON. The last one perhaps being the most significant.

Kubrick’s (very) informal science fiction series consists of films that seem to rewrite each others’ messages — in STRANGELOVE, mankind is all-but doomed by the brilliance of its scientific thinking and the stupidity of its political and military thinking — in 2001, space travel offers the possibility of a way out of this mess by contacting smarter beings who may help us — in CLOCKWORK ORANGE we’re on our own: the great achievement of evolution is “man — the killer ape” and the great achievement of science is dehumanisation — politics continues to be totally fucked — if THE SHINING qualifies as SF because it relies on ESP and quasi-explains its ghosts with a version of Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape Theory, then we learn that ESP isn’t very helpful and ghosts are assholes: politics plays no central role but human beings are vulnerable and evil is imperishable — and if A.I. qualifies as a Kubrick film (I’d say only somewhat), it shows his latter-day thinking: human beings are too flawed to survive but we might be able to make something that will outlast us.

(In CLOCKWORK ORANGE scientists produce a mechanical human, organic yet functioning mechanically — what Burgess meant by the title. In A.I. they achieve the opposite, Kubrick’s anti-Frankenstein myth.)

Lots of variety in that “series,” tending towards the somewhat pessimistic. But it’s realistic to say that, since nothing lasts forever, human beings have only a certain amount of time to footer around, and optimistic to say we might get to play a role in choosing our own successors, be they starchildren or Giacometti androids.

I know a lot of people aren’t interested in these questions — it’s all a long way off. But the end of humanity always fascinated and worried me, along with the end of the universe. Maybe it’s not too soon to start planning for the heat death? And in fact, extinction, and not prosperity, may be just around the corner. Kubrick seems like one of the few filmmakers to be seriously thinking these thoughts.

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An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

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It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

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Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

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The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

Queen Christina Rides Again

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2012 by dcairns

Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth!), left.

Anthony Harvey is best known for his James Goldman adaptations, THE LION IN WINTER and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. Both are strong texts with excellent casts, but never felt very filmic to me. Harvey, a former editor, achieved some neat cutting effects but the feeling of “filmed play”, or even “televized play”, hung over the proceedings. I still like them, though.

DUTCHMAN, his first movie, is eminently theatrical but incredibly, electrifyingly powerful in what has to be called a “cinematic” way at the same time, despite being confined entirely to a single subway train carriage. More on that here.

THE ABDICATION, lavishly staged in Italy and shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, CABARET, TESS) takes a play by Ruth Wolff that’s virtually a two-hander, and explodes it with grandiose settings, expressive, almost flashy editing, flashbacks, and a lush Nino Rota score. It could have been overpowering, but I think it achieves a kind of balance.

It’s the story of Queen Christina (“the great Svenska dyke,” as Peter O’Toole put it) after her abdication, as she attempts to convince a cardinal (Peter Finch) that her conversion to Catholicism is sincere. This turns into a sort of psychotherapy session during which she falls in love with her interrogator, tipping her hand with the gift of an inappropriate porn goblet ~

Liv actually seems to be having fun with the material, and the literate script delivers both snappy, rhythmic exchanges of the kind that can feel too artificial onscreen if you’re not careful, and more languid speeches that let things breathe. When Liv has a breakdown in flashback, pressing herself against a wall in terror, we’re close to Bergman terrain, but the style, all widescreen, fog filters, golden lens flare and surging montage, is the very opposite.

Here, Unsworth’s vaseline smears convert the sun’s rays to a weird gold slash, rather unlike anything found in nature — a striking effect, for sure. The movie is almost TOO beautiful, and anybody who has a resistance to David Lean type grandeur would probably find it hard to take. We rather loved it.