Archive for Harold Gould

The Sunday Intertitle: Brown is the New Black

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by dcairns

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The brown intertitles are one of the many reasons to be skeptical of Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE, his least-seen movie from his seventies run of hits. There’s a lack of panache in the film-making (signature shot — zoom in, a bit too fast, on somebody, panning as they cross the cheap, barren set) and even a basic lack of care (establishing shot on New York is a photograph with a large smudge on it — I was waiting, and waiting, for a gag revealing it to be just a photo, but no — this movie was too cheap to buy a stock shot cityscape of Manhattan; shot of studio commissary sign, zooms out, briefly catches some extras standing in the middle of the steps, before an offscreen A.D. presumably yells “Action Two!” and they start moving…).

Some of the jokes don’t work, and some are the wrong jokes, and some aren’t even jokes at all — a man walks out of an acupuncturist’s with big needles in his back. And? It’s funny because it’s true?

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And the cast — Mel Brooks is a very enthusiastic performer (he grins a lot), and can sometimes magic laughs up out of sheer exertion of that enthusiasm. But he’s not a visual comic. Marty Feldman is funny looking, alright, but his Harpo Marx lechery here comes off a bit creepy. And Dom De Luise is basically used for fat man jokes.

The best jokes tend to conceptual jokes, deploying words, as when Brooks cusses out Feldman for his ungentlemanly approach to a beautiful woman, clearly using strong epithets, and the intertitle bowdlerizes it (“You bad boy!”). It’s a silent movie whose heart is real gift is for verbal humour.

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It’s a huge relief when Burt Reynolds shows up. Yes. Because Burt, it turns out, has a gigantic flair for slapstick and silent playing (strong hints of this in his work for Bogdanovich), and he has a comic character to play that’s fully worked out — a self-parody that destroys the dignity of the Burt Reynolds brand so conclusively that your respect for him actually goes up. In his short bit, he plays an inventive series of variations on the theme of self-love, and there’s an endearingly stupid gag with a steamroller.

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The other guest stars are mostly very good too, which is a relief since Harold Gould and Sid Caesar are compelled to overact uncomfortably. Bernadette Peters is a great cartoon character with a kind of silent movie look, but there’s no writing to help her get a character going. (I had forgotten Barry Levinson was a writer on this — I guess that kind of explains TOYS, which would otherwise be an entirely mysterious anomaly in his career).

A lot of the best jokes involve signs — I could certainly do a “Things I Read Off the Screen in SILENT MOVIE” post. If your best jokes involve signs, perhaps you are not the right people to make a silent comedy.

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Marcel Marceau bit is pretty great. It doesn’t require the audience to love mime. Again, the movie breaks character in order to do a spoken word joke, but it’s a good one.

The movie is oddly likable, even though you cringe as much as you laugh. A minute or so of three men in suits of armour trying and failing to join Liza Minnelli at a refectory table is enough to redeem any number of failed jokes involving carousel horses shitting wooden blocks.

See-Thru Hats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by dcairns

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again —

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.