Archive for George Stevens

filming and films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2019 by dcairns

I admit it, Mark Cousins’ collection of films & filming is better than mine.

August, 1970, Charles Walters on shooting SUMMER STOCK with Judy Garland: “I remember, at one point, I was on the boom and we were moving in for a giant close-up. Judy looked up with those great liquid eyes of hers and it was the most fantastic shot in the world. ‘Cut,’ I yelled, “Will somebody please hand me a towel, I’ve just come.’ Now that might be thought indelicate, but Judy loved that sort of foolishness. It really turned her on.”

May, 1969, Francis Ford Coppola on co-writing IS PARIS BURNING? (before Gore Vidal’s involvement): “Ray Stark said I could go to Paris and have a vacation with my wife because the writer then working on it was a man who was very ill, dying in fact. And these are the honest-to-God words used, my job was to assist that man and ‘if the pencil fell out of his hand, I was to pick it up.'”

July 1959, Shelley Winters on George Stevens: “George photographs what goes on in the air between people.”

October 1964, Sidney Lumet: “But in the early television days we were doing cuts as fast as a finger could move. John Frankenheimer, who was my AD, can bear me out: there was one sequence on a live show where John had 64 cues to give in a one-minute period. It was 23 cuts in a one-minute period, which is just about as fast as a switcher’s fingers can move, and John had three cues for each camera cut.”

June, 1970: Costa-Gavras on Z, which has a score by Mikis Theodorakis: “Theodorakis was already in prison, but I had some records of his which we adapted for the film soundtrack. […] We have just one short piece of original music for the picture. It is the scene with Jacques Perrin and the guy at the restaurant, where he is giving him the passport and the addresses, you can hear Theodorakis singing in the background. This piece was recorded on a miniature tape-recorder and smuggled out with his instructions on using it in the film.”

April, 1979, Philip Kaufman on the Dolby sound mix of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: “And when we were doing the mix at Zoetrope, I just kept saying, ‘Pods eat birds. Just keep the birds down.’ I didn’t want the feeling that nature goes on while man is having his problems, because there is some suggestion in the film that everything is being transformed, that nothing is real anymore, that we are gradually going to lose. And that’s the sense of claustrophobia that I wanted to create. I mean the soundtrack is stylised and overdone and there are sounds that are bleeding in from the very beginning, that when you see it again you’ll recognize as either chimes or alien noises. […] Dolby was very excited by what we did with sound. Not just rolling stuff in its surroundings, but selectively beginning to creep sounds into the scenes. You know, we spent a lot of time determining what channel to place sounds. It’s a very expensive soundtrack, and Ben Burtt, who worked on STAR WARS did a lot of the sound effects and special sound effects.”

Nicholas Meyer: “They’re always looking for what is commercial, which I think proves how idiotic most people in the movie business are. Obviously there’s no such thing as commercial until something has made 50 million dollars. And since it is impossible to tell beforehand, it seems to me a waste of energy and you should concentrate on something which they never ask themselves, which is, ‘Do I like it?'”

And: “I came home one day and saw Martin Luther King standing on the balcony of the hotel and getting shot. I sat on my bed and was truly appalled by what I was seeing. And they took him to the hospital, and people were screaming, and there was blood, and suddenly all of this was interrupted by someone who says, ‘Miami for 25 dollars less.’ It’s preposterous, it’s George Orwell time. It scares the shit out of me. Television scares the shit out of me. […] It’s in your house. It’s this unblinking eye with its inexhaustible font of passivity, and it should be banned. No one should be allowed to have one. We should all go to the movies the way God intended.”

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How Old Cary Grant?

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2018 by dcairns

The journalist accidentally sent the above query by telegram, not to Cary’s publicist, but to the star himself.

Cary famously replied, OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

Here’s the first entry in our blogathon on late movies, final films: Judy Dean tackles the swan song of Bristol’s finest movie star, Archibald Leach himself. As films about the Tokyo Olympics go (we are nothing if not topical) this may not have the cinematic values of Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD, but it has Cary Grant, damnit.

“Heavy romance on the screen should be played by young people, not middle-aged actors”  (Cary Grant, 1952)

In WALK, DON’T RUN (1966, dir. Charles Walters) a successful English businessman, happily married with grown up children, finds himself in Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics. Arriving ahead of schedule he’s told his hotel room won’t be available for 48 hours and ends up renting a room in the flat of a young single woman. He meets a member of the US Olympic team who’s also looking for accommodation, invites him to share his room and then sets about engineering a romance between his two flatmates.  

It’s a remake of 1943’s THE MORE THE MERRIER (dir. George Stevens) which was set in an overcrowded wartime Washington. WALK DON’T RUN follows its plot very closely, even reproducing some of the sight gags (a drop-down ironing board, trousers propelled out of the window by their braces).

In the original, however, the businessman is played by Charles Coburn and in the remake by Cary Grant, two actors seldom mistaken for each other.

THE MORE THE MERRIER is a sweet, engaging screwball comedy with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a charming and sexy, if somewhat mature, couple and for whom Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, in the same roles, are no match.

What pleasure there is in WALK, DON’T RUN, and there isn’t much, lies in the way Cary Grant subverts the central premise of the film, which is that he is now too old to get the girl and can only act as matchmaker.  The script hammers this home this with a distressing lack of subtlety. In the closing scene, satisfied that the young couple, now married, are about to consummate their relationship, he smiles cheerily and is driven off to fly home to his wife and their silver wedding celebrations. He is passing the baton of love, sex and romance to the next generation. Or not.

Nobody watches THE MORE THE MERRIER wondering if Jean Arthur might fall for Charles Coburn rather than Joel McCrea but in WALK, DON’T RUN, there’s no denying that it’s just possible Samantha Eggar will opt for a man of 60, especially if that man is Cary Grant.  

What the script tries to persuade us to believe is at odds with the evidence of our own eyes. Whether scaling the outside of the apartment building (echoes of TO CATCH A THIEF), showing off his naked body, whistling the theme tunes from CHARADE and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (more reminders of past glories), Grant is on fine form, as dazzlingly handsome, vain and athletic as ever and more than capable of injecting a little life into the leaden dialogue.

But, despite his best efforts, it’s a silly film and with two weak and baffling subplots, some horribly stereotypical jokes about the Japanese and unnecessary coyness about racewalking as an Olympic sport, it must be asked why he decided to do it.

The key seems to lie in his ongoing pursuit of the Oscar that had eluded him for so many years. After being nominated twice for Best Actor, first in 1942 for PENNY SERENADE and then again in 1945 for NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and after losing on both occasions, he boycotted the ceremony for many years until persuaded by Ingrid Bergman in 1957 to collect the award for her role in ANASTASIA on her behalf.  Grant believed, and the argument carries some weight, that the members of the Academy had never forgiven him for his break with the studio contract system. Nevertheless, he’d been hopeful of success with his penultimate film, FATHER GOOSE, in which he’d played a dishevelled, misanthropic drunk and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn’t even nominated. It seems doubtful that, had he won, WALK DON’T RUN would have been made, but he was aware that Charles Coburn had walked away with Best Supporting Actor for the original and no doubt thought the remake might offer a chance to do the same.

As it was, he had to wait until 1970 when, under the presidency of Gregory Peck, an old friend who had set about liberalising the Academy and had campaigned vigorously on Grant’s behalf, he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues”.

One last point.  WALK, DON’T RUN could be read as a gay film and the audience just as easily forgiven for predicting that the two male leads will ride off into the sunset together, given that they not only happily share a very small bedroom but engage in dialogue like this:

“Tokyo’s filled with baths.  They’re all quite nice. Ever try one?  Probably one around here somewhere. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll join you.”

The ensuing scene only gives weight to the theory ~

as does this shot, in which Cary Grant recognises his roommate through binoculars with a shout of “Oh, that’s him!”

JUDY DEAN

The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!