Archive for Harold and Maude

Tomorrowsday #5: Our continuum is rather a frost

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by dcairns

Anticipating ufologist Jacques Vallee by decades, Gore Vidal ruled in his 1955 television play, Visit to a Small Planet, or perhaps his 1957 stage play, Visit to a Small Planet, that flying saucers are transdimensional rather than interplanetary craft, and to hell with the Carpenters, who wouldn’t put forward their contradictory theory until 1976. Meanwhile, in 1960, because time is “all one thing” — “a trapezoid” — Jerry Lewis starred in a film version of either the TV or stage play, adapted by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson. (Beloin has numerous Bob Hope credits, a couple of Lewis ones, an Elvis movie, story credit on DONOVAN’S REEF; Garson is one of several writers on THE RECKLESS MOMENT and collaborated as a duo with Beloin on his other Lewis movie and his Elvis. They’re not negligible talents, but they’re not fit to lick Gore Vidals seven-league boots.)

Excitingly, the alien Kreton was played by Cyril Ritchard (above) on TV and stage — the lecherous artist from Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL. Not exactly a Jerry Lewis type, though I believe Lewis could have stretched himself to play the part as written if he’d been offered it or if director Norman Taurog had any ambition to deal with ideas. The movie is a sad travesty of the play, without any coherent reason for existing. It’s only intermittently funny, but it’s stupid all the time. However, let’s see what we can find to admire.

The copy I was able to track down has German credits, allowing us to learn that the German title is JERRY, DER ASTRONAUTEN-SCHRECK, which seems odd to me. Is “fright-astronaut” a common German term for what we would call a little green man or bug-eyed monster? It’s a nice compound word, anyway.

Special effects are by John P. Fulton, a long way from James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock. But they’re excellent. The film tries to get laugh with them, and fails, because they don’t have comic timing. That’s not what you hire John P. Fulton for.

The physical effects are good too.

Excuse me while I do a spot of time-travelling myself — my memory is that I didn’t see this film in 1974, only the ending — I have a vivid memory of Lewis’s space pod and him running about like a lunatic, one of several memories of UFOs that are far more vivid than the movies they appear in — ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 form a kind of trilogy with this one. But, watching it this week, I was struck by the image of Lewis sticking an entire pack of cigarettes in his mouth and lighting it. I’d seen THAT before. So maybe I saw the whole thing and then just erased it. Maybe I erased my childhood recollections, like Johnny Mnemonic, to make room for interesting facts about Anthony Mann’s filmography?

At any rate, Fulton’s UFO is memorable. I’ve proved that, by remembering it for forty-odd years. The film features both nifty opticals and impressive practical effects — a levitating dog, a car that slides sideways into a parking space, an invisible barrier that surrounds Kreton (taken from the play but given vivid visual form). Maybe that’s what earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design, which makes little sense otherwise (it lost, and rightly so, to THE APARTMENT).

Fred Clark, great dyspeptic patriarch of the fifties, is perfectly cast as TV pundit Roger Spelding. Joan Blackman is perky as the love interest. Farmer/boyfriend Earl Holliman is much more of a jerk than in the play, which is a silly change to make because they’ve already got Lewis. Lee Patrick, recently enjoyed in VERTIGO, is Clark’s ditzy wife, and John Williams plays a fellow alien, his role greatly expanded from the play, partly because if they filmed the play as written, Lewis wouldn’t enter for ten minutes, which audiences in 1960 would not have stood for. So we begin in space, in a weird studio afterlife of dry ice, Paramount’s attempt to visualise Vidal’s suggestion of another dimension.

The movie also features Miles Archer, Talkie Tina, Dr. Eldon Tyrrel and Grandma Walton (also from VERTIGO).

Ye-es… at one point, Joan Blackman takes Jerry to a beatnik joint, the Hungry Brain. In Virginia? I don’t know that much about your Earth Culture, but I’d always assumed beatniks were more of a coastal thing. A salt water bi-product. OK, it IS the best bit of the film, with Joe Turkel freaking out at Jerry’s out-of-this-worldliness, Jerry’s simultaneous translation of a scat song, and Barbara Lawson’s dance with Jer. Although the presence of a beat club in this movie is completely unforgivable, a more efficient solution would be to junk the other, less entertaining bits of the movie and come up with a whole new story set in New York where Jerry could “plausibly” visit a beatnik place. There’s no reason why the film should be set in Virginia, though the source play did have its reasons.

Much of the movie is pure Mork & Mindy avant la lettre. Kreton’s spaceship isn’t quite an egg, but it’s tending in that direction. If you were going to morph Klaatu’s big saucer into Mork’s egg, Kreton’s capsule would be the midway point.

OK, update, I’ve now read the whole play. It’s only mildly amusing by Vidal’s standards, but it at least hangs together. It’s Gene Roddenberry’s #1 plot from Star Trek: God is an astronaut, and he’s a lunatic, an idiot, a child. Did Gore invent this trope? Vidal’s Kreton is a moral imbecile, escaped from supervision for the day. He was hoping to witness the Battle of Bull Run but arrived a century late and so decides to start WWIII instead. So there are reasons for Virginia (handy for the air force too), and it all ties together, whereas the movie is a big ball of loose ends. Intriguingly, in the movie, we do learn that Kreton was somehow responsible for the extinguishing of all life on Mars, but this is brushed aside, a throwaway gag. We’re not meant to hold genocide against him.

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the name Edgar Box, about a crime-solving metrosexual PR man, and they’re excellent. It seems he could turn his hand to anything, including Mork & Mindy.

Orangey the cat, fresh from his roles in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, drags up as Clementine, voiced by cartoon favourite June Foray. (Kreton talks psychically to the cat, called Rosemary in the play, but we don’t hear her responses). The movie invents a dog also, but whoever does his voice is unlisted on the IMDb.

My favourite gag that’s original to the movie: whenever anyone tries to tell the world about Kreton, he zaps them and all they can say is “Mary had a little lamb,” sung in falsetto. When the movie’s hysterical ufologist (not in the play) snaps a Polaroid of Kreton in spaceman attire, this is how the pic comes out ~

Vidal’s notion that the aliens have moved beyond sex (“Our continuum is rather a frost,”) is spun off into lots of creepy business about Lewis wanting to watch the romantic leads making out. If you want that NOT to seem creepy, you need someone other than Lewis, whose manchild act is not devoid of lechery. The funniest thing in the play, for me, is that the young lovers had been planning to check into a motel with fake luggage to avoid suspicion — a valise full of phone books. Kreton learns of the plan and somehow imagines the phone books are an essential part of the proposed loveplay. (Ah, kids these days don’t know what lovemaking IS… because they don’t know what phone books are.)

Vidal’s Kreton is quite camp in his touristic enthusiasm — his enthusiasm for war turns him into Bud Cort in my imagination, in that scene in HAROLD AND MAUDE where Harold tries to freak out the general by being TOO pro-war. “Zero hour is almost upon us. I’m getting all shivery.” The sad thing is, Jer could have done all that brilliantly, if only they’d wanted him to.

Here is a picture of director Norman Taurog. Hahahaha he has a funny face. His career runs from Larry Semon to Elvis Presley, with Jerry near the end.

I guess VTASP served as a comedic break in the 1974 sci-fi season where I saw it, or part of it. Allowing us to gather ourselves before the strong meat of THEM! But also following neatly from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which it subverts (though a faithful rendition of the play would have subverted it even better).

 

 

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Wall Street Bull

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2018 by dcairns


Adam McKay’s entertaining, broad cop comedy THE OTHER GUYS actually hinges on financial crimes involving the police pension fund, and unexpectedly ends with an animated credits sequence explaining stuff like Ponzi schemes and wealth inequality in America — it’s by some way the cleverest and most serious thing about the movie. The subject obviously fascinates the director, and having rather shoehorned it into that film, he centres THE BIG SHORT on those financial services dudes who saw the coming financial crisis and enriched themselves by betting against the housing market, previously thought to be the most stable of institutions.THE BIG SHORT is eager to have us understand the issues at stake — it has an uphill task with me, since I tend to go blurry whenever the stock market of high finance enter the picture. I can just about follow TRADING PLACES (“You guys are a couple of bookies!”) until the ending, at which point it becomes like one of those poker scenes in a western — I don’t understand the game, but I know something important is happening with money and somebody will win and somebody will lose. The documentary INSIDE JOB had set me up with some useful terminology, and it’s full of little mini-lectures that set out the key concepts in simple terms (“When you hear ‘sub-prime,’ think ‘shit.'”)Where INSIDE JOB can simply tell us stuff using talking heads, and encourages us to be interested by laying out the stakes, McKay knows that a drama has to convey its information through scenes of rising dramatic tension. He can break this rule with the mini-lectures by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain et al, by keeping things entertaining, but he has to give his actors meat. Fortunately, the real-life characters are adapted into appealing, extreme personality types (I don’t know how accurately, but Steve Carell, Christian Bale et al are interesting and convincing) and the script gives them plenty of funny, explosive scenes. This stuff is also dressed up with some creative fracturing of the fourth wall, which doesn’t stop us caring (Brecht was wrong) but does mix up the approach and keeps things snappy and surprising.

The cast includes Batman, Driver, Nebula, Gru, Spiderman’s Aunt May, Tyler Durden…The film’s choppy cutting style is also worthy of note. I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s worthy of note. Many of the conversations are shot in a fragmented, zoom-happy mockumentary manner, using the reframings and adjustments you’re normally supposed to leave out (Hill St. Blues seems to have originated this approach for its morning briefing scenes) and the edits are also often abrupt, premature, cutting out of a scene before it a gesture or word has been completed. The earliest example of THAT which I can think of is HAROLD AND MAUDE, where a traumatic moment is cut short before Harold can quite finish the word “WHAAA-” That movie does it once — this one seems to do it constantly. It’s enervating, which is sort of effective, and it’s an innovation, but it’s one I rather hope doesn’t catch on. It could potentially take the joy out of editing the way the BOURNE series takes the joy out of cinematography.

There are also some photomontages. These are surprisingly poor. Is this a lost art? Or did the film not have enough money to get enough good stills? I think it’s a lack of editing skill, maybe. Like, the ugly cutting of the staged scenes is definitely deliberate, is going for ungainliness as an effect. But I can’t see any advantage to the clumsiness of the photomontage.

But in a way this is all just window-dressing — perhaps necessary stuff to help tell this complicated and technical story — there are multiple narratives, each with its own protagonist, all of which explore the abstruse world of financial services — but the film thrives on its multiple scenes of dramatic confrontation, unfolding like a detective story garnished with bizarre human comedy, and powered by sorrow and anger which it transmits with skill. The methods used, ultimately, may not matter, so long as they provide clear context for the Big Scenes.

 

New

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 12, 2014 by dcairns

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New from Masters of Cinema.

TOO LATE BLUES, the second film of John Cassavetes, has a video intro by me.

IF…. has a text essay in the booklet as well as an interview with Brian Pettifer, one of the film’s dazzling discoveries, conducted by me.

HAROLD AND MAUDE has another video intro.

Strange seeing myself on video on a commercially available DVD. Even stranger seeing my name as an item on the menu. DAVID CAIRNS — that’s all it says. Click here for some David Cairns.

Thanks to Brian, to Colin McLaren for the use of the flat and the excellent spaghetti and to Alberto and Lukasz and Anna and Mario for recording my blatherings. Thanks to MoC for the gigs in the first place.

Now you should buy at least one of them!

If…. (Masters of Cinema) [Blu-ray] [1968]

Harold And Maude (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray) [1971]

Too Late Blues (Masters of Cinema) (Dual Format Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD] [1961]