Archive for Haskell Wexler

The Horror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 24, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-10-24-13h34m12s75

Watching horror movies all week. Though, as an aging fuddy-duddy, I somewhat deplore the way Halloween seems to start at the beginning of the month, and I even more deplore the way the impending Guy Fawkes Night is already terrorizing pets with explosive charges (including one in our stairwell, thank you very much), and Christmas is going to start as soon as we’ve finished blowing shit up, I felt that a one week run-up to the main event would be acceptable, and some readers might pick up handy hints for their weekend viewing. And UK TV continues to largely neglect the big night itself, so we have to over-compensate a bit.

This one doesn’t count as genre at all, though, but it rates a mention because it’s so impressive and it’ll probably be the most horrific thing I see this week. Joseph Strick’s INTERVIEWS WITH MY LAI VETERANS is absolutely blood-curdling, and consists of nothing but head-shots of guys talking. It’s not so much the horror of what they describe, which is appalling but devoid of graphic detail, it’s the casual, flat delivery. For most of the men, this part of their lives seems to mean nothing, have no significance. They are puzzled that anyone is curious about it. They use as justification the fact that other such massacres undoubtedly happened before and after, so what’s the big deal?

vlcsnap-2015-10-24-13h36m01s57

Disconcertingly, some kind of bug (lower right) crawls across the lens as this guy’s affable recounting his mass-murder activities on the porch.

Interviewer Richard Hammer sounds stern, perhaps mimicking a commanding officer to get the facts from these men, but this doesn’t result in much expression of shame. Out of the army and free from any risk of prosecution, the men seem happy to speak frankly, unaware that what they’re saying might seem controversial (killing children is fine because they would grow up to be the enemy anyway), and able to smile at perceived ironies in the situation. Glimmers of guilt do appear, but all are reassured that they were obeying orders and therefore not accountable (the rulings of Nuremberg were never applied to any incidents in Viet Nam).

Lieutenant Calley, the only man convicted of war crimes after the incident, from these accounts doesn’t sound particularly more guilty than other officers involved, but then he served barely any of his original life sentence anyway.

Strick, whose feature films generally consisted of adaptations of unfilmable books which seemed oblivious to the very challenges they were taking on, hits it out of the park here with a simple, factual approach. Richard Pearce and Haskell Wexler shot it.

You can watch it here, but be warned, it will follow you around for a while afterwards.

Advertisements

Riding the Rails

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-17-00h06m32s101

I was amused by this in-joke in Hal Ashby’s BOUND FOR GLORY. Charles Mulvehill is the film’s associate producer (“An associate producer is anyone who will associate with a producer,” – Billy Wilder) and production manager. The churchman who has acquired his name is explaining to hobo Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) why he isn’t about to corrupt him by giving him a free meal out of charity. It might stave off malnutrition, true, but what would it do to his self-respect.

The horrible, smug priest isn’t the only ersatz Mulvehill. The big detective who pins Jack Nicholson down while Roman Polanski performs impromptu rhinoplasty on him is called Claude Mulvihill. Screenwriter Robert Towne knew CM from their collaboration on THE LAST DETAIL.

One has to wonder what it is about Mr. Mulvehill that inspires such backhanded tributes? I think the jibes are probably intended with affection, and anyhow we can say that CM got his own back for the character assassination by feeding info to Peter Biskind for his big gossip book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (or Hollywood Babylon Revisited, as I call it).

vlcsnap-2014-04-17-00h04m44s79

BOUND FOR GLORY is quite a piece of work — if Biskind’s book had a positive effect, it was in spearheading a reappraisal of Ashby, and yet his biggest production still seems like the most neglected of his seventies films. It has epic cinematography by Haskell Wexler, with special effects by Albert Whitlock: new wave photography yoked to an epic theme, matte painted landscapes and Melinda Dillon all make this a kind of prequel to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

vlcsnap-2014-04-17-00h08m56s38

 

And that’s a very endearing performance from David Carradine, who otherwise rather wasted his career doing trash — even after KILL BILL he plunged straight back into barrel-scrapers for the remainder of his days. Maybe because Tarantino didn’t actually give him any good writing on that one — his stuff felt lazy, derivative and wanky to me — but part of me suspects that Carradine actually liked doing filler, maybe because the expectations were lower? He’s wonderful here, anyhow.

 

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h24m00s86

NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h25m23s160

COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h31m17s115

UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h32m18s165

Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h35m16s201

EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.