Archive for Ian Christie

The Reluctant Revenant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2016 by dcairns

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My trawl through the less-explored Minnellis continues — thanks to David Wingrove for recommending this one. Introducing Martin Scorsese’s personal Technicolor print of THE BAND WAGON in Bologna, Ian Christie remarked that Marty considers Minnelli to be still an underrated auteur. Very well, I say, let’s take him seriously, which means looking for themes and stylistic motifs in his lesser films as well as the acknowledged classics.

GOODBYE CHARLIE, modestly opened-out from the play by George Axelrod (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and others of note), has maybe the most transgressive plot premise of any Minnelli. Pair it with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and call it his Diptych of Reincarnation (doesn’t Eddie “Rochester” Anderson get restored to life at the end of CABIN IN THE SKY? Could we call this an informal trilogy? This auteurist is drooling at the thought). Charlie, a hypermasculine screenwriter rake/heel, is shot dead when caught in flagrante with a movie producer’s wife, falling into the sea — only to emerge, post-funeral, in the form of Debbie Reynolds. (One wants to say “alluring form,” and one could, as Debbie is cute as a button, but one does get the impression the script has something more like Jayne Mansfield in mind.) Best buddy Tony Curtis has to deal with the fallout.

I wonder how this worked as a play? It doesn’t work as a film, in strict plot terms — audience identification is split between best buddy Tony Curtis and his back-from-the-dead transgender pal; subplots tantalise with the possibility of Reynolds actually getting intimate with (another?) man; a homicide detective turns up to make Tony nervous, but why? On Broadway, was some immoral element explored that had to be chopped from the movie script, leaving lacunae and shapelessness? I’m not too bothered, because what’s left is highly entertaining and quite peculiar.

Opening credits — director’s name revealed in the purple interior of a yawning clam. Well well.

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Scene 1 is part of the opening out — it shows how Charlie met his maker (but not how he gets remade). Minnelli, perhaps assuaging the nervous hetero element in the crowd, gives us generous footage of a Playboy Playmate doing the twist, a dance which mostly seems to involve shaking her tits (I had never thought of the twist this way before). Fiona admired her dress. I admired the way her breasts jostled for supremacy (partly) within it.

Minnelli accompanies this action with strange handheld lurches, leering in on several of the characters, which at first seems like a subjective drunkenness effect, then like a seasick thing, then becomes completely inexplicable, resembling the mad bursts of handheld frenzy in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN or TRAGIC CEREMONY — handheld disorientation served up purely as a stylistic garnish.

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A very Minnelli widescreen shot. Burstyn on the right.

Then we’re into ninety-very-odd minutes of typically elegant Minnelli mise-en-scene, with occasional outbursts of excess pizzazz. Tony Curtis confirms his status as capable farceur, and Reynolds is fantastic, not overdoing the butchness or underselling it either. Astonishment: there’s Ellen Burstyn (before she took that name), playing comedy with gusto and skill. This could maybe form a duologue for her with THE EXORCIST: both are insider Hollywood stories in which a girl is possessed by a male identity and the solution is arrived at by defenestration.

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Further astonishment: the manslaughtering movie producer, clearly based on Alexander Korda (he’s a Hungarian and a knight) with maybe a side-order of William Randolph Hearst (jealous yacht-based assassin), is played by Walter Matthau. Old scrotumnal-face had mainly been making his living in hero’s pal or sneaky villain roles, but I guess ENSIGN PULVER had just unveiled his comic chops (and what chops they are!). However, the manic silliness of his work here is beyond anything he’d attempted on the big screen to this date, making even his most excessive moments in A NEW LEAF seem restrained. His “accent” is a wonderful creation all his own, owing nothing to any set of sounds previously mouthed by modern man. One has no idea whether his self-description “not unattractive” would have been so hilarious if anyone else had played the role — Matthau, of course, is an extremely attractive player, but for him to play a man who uses that phrase is priceless.

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Another highlight is Pat Boone. Enjoy that sentence as this is likely the only chance you’ll ever get to read it. Boone plays the mother’s-boy son of a millionaire businesswoman, mollicoddled since conception. He falls for Charlie immediately, based on her looks (she’s naked when they meet) and her knowledge of sports cars. There’s a spectacularly smutty exchange of double entendres about Boone’s malfunctioning Maserati.

Jesus, did Boone know what he was doing to himself with this role? “I do drink on special occasions: mother’s birthday, or the election of a Republican president.” Curtis gets a scene where he almost necks with Reynolds, and comes to his senses feeling squicky, but Boone actually kisses her/him. And the mother obsession is astonishing — mother is apparently absent attending to her many businesses, but when Pat leads Debs down to the wine cellar we half expect to find momma mummified in a corner. At one point, Minnelli jump-juts straight down the line on mum’s portrait, as if she were the Frankenstein monster or the eyeless farmer-corpse in THE BIRDS.

Boone was either completely clueless or a very good sport — I hate to give him credit, but I think he was at least somewhat aware. He gives really good stooge, and you can’t do that unknowingly in a comedy.

If you can manage it, I highly recommend seeing this crazy thing. You get Minnelli’s playful/transgressive side given freer reign than even in TEA AND SYMPATHY. You get his undiminished suavity as a master of camera blocking. This is probably his last good movie. It’s not wholly successful, but all the disconnected bits are good — we’re back to the FRANKENSTEIN metaphor again.

Listing slightly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2012 by dcairns

“Oh no… can you imagine how sarcastic that coroner’s going to be THIS time?”

I try to avoid writing lists, mainly. I used to make to-do lists, but it seemed to be a way of putting off doing things. And I used to make lists of favourite films, which is perhaps an OK way to start thinking about films, but runs out of value pretty quickly.

But for some reason I bought Sight & Sound specially for the Critics’ and directors’ poll this month. Actually, more the directors’. A good list there works as a sort of map of the filmmakers’ head. Just agreeing or disagreeing with the choices isn’t enough, I want to learn something about the person. That’s why my favourite last time was Bryan Forbes, because he included his own movie, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. Tells you a lot about him.

Forbes wasn’t asked back, but my favourite lists were those Guillermo Del Toro (FRANKENSTEIN, FREAKS, LA BELLE ET LA BETE), Mike Hodges (all thrillers, all on the verge of noir but not quite typical), Richard Lester (visual comedies and period movies), Edgar Wright (from DUCK SOUP to THE WILD BUNCH) and especially Terence Davies (lots of cineastes listed SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and one doesn’t doubt their sincerity, but with him it really means something). Also Bong Joon-Ho (CURE and TOUCH OF EVIL and ZODIAC) and Abel Ferrara (A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, THE DEVILS).

I also like the mysteries: Charles Burnett is the only filmmaker to list Henrik Galeen’s THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE and doesn’t amplify; does Rolf de Heer really like FEARLESS that much or did he feel the need to list a film from an Australian (the film is good, but is it that good?); Andrew Dominik’s list is all-English language and all post-1950 — his choices are all great, but doesn’t he feel any embarrassment?

Atom Egoyan claims to have listed ten films that have had “the most dramatic impact on the artform,” as if his personal feelings didn’t come into it.

I find myself in favour of goofy lists. I don’t want the overall top ten to change that much, but it gets boring to see the same names again and again. In the critics’ poll, Ian Christie lists RW Paul’s THE “?” MOTORIST, Geoff Dyer has WHERE EAGLES DARE, and they’re obviously quite sincere, and the Ferroni Brigade has PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (“We don’t believe these are the ten best films of all time, but we are convinced it would be better if they were,” begging the question, WHAT would be better?). One of Alexander Horvath’s choices, NOISES (anon, 1929) cannot be located using Google or the IMDb (“While it should be pretty obvious that these are the ten greatest films of all time, I still wonder if anyone will agree”). On the other hand, Slavoj Zizek, as always, tries a bit too hard to be interesting.

Creating an alternate list to the top ten ought to be fairly easy — just sub in an alternative choice from the same director or era or country or movement or genre. But in fact, the list is pleasingly stuffed with sui generis oddities — no other Dreyer film really compares to JOAN OF ARC (some may be better, but none are like it), CITIZEN KANE stands unique in Welles’ oeuvre even if one prefers CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, VERTIGO is a uniquely strange Hitchcock, LA REGLE DU JEU a uniquely strange Renoir, and Vertov offers only one obvious candidate. Ozu, Ford and Fellini made enough masterpieces for credible substitutions, though 8 1/2 still seems summative.

I know my favourite film: HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (ten years ago, Mark Cousins listed this: now, I don’t think anyone has). And then PLAYTIME and 2001 are the most amazing films I know. Beyond that, I’d surely have to have Powell, Welles, Sturges, Kurosawa, Keaton, Hitchcock, Russell, Lang, Fellini… oops, that’s eleven already. This is a silly game, I’m not playing.

Three Disappointments and a Whoopee

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2008 by dcairns

Disappointment 1: the lack of a really great critical study of Powell & Pressburger. Ian Christie’s Arrows of Desire was a fine starting point, and the coffee-table quality of the book, with glossy and lurid colour stills, makes it a nice visual companion to the Archers’ films. But Andrew Moor’s Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces just seemed too DRY to evoke these lush romances, and Scott Salwolke’s The Films of Michael Powell and the Archers is hampered by the fact that he hasn’t seen all the films. Several times in the book we get the phrase “is hard to see nowadays”, which I might believe if I didn’t have copies of them on my shelves. I guess I’d admit they’re hard to see, but not IMPOSSIBLE. The author doesn’t admit to not having seen HONEYMOON, but since all he does is reproduce some contemporary reviews of it, it’s pretty clear he never managed to track it down. I guess since the book is ten years old, things were tougher then, but I can’t believe THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW would be completely inaccessible: Raymond Durgnat sold me a copy for a fiver.

Disappointment 2: What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman. Norman wrote the script for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, which was then revised by Tom Stoppard (Norman professed himself delighted to have had Stoppard’s assistance), and this is his first non-fiction work. I was hoping to find some kind of thesis lurking in it, but it reads like a stack of anecdotes so far. It reads like *I* wrote it!

The early chapters on silent cinema fall for the old one about Mack Sennett not using written scripts (the half-page or page-long outlines have in fact been found — Frank Capra’s autobiography is not the most reliable source for ANYTHING) and he talks about BIRTH OF A NATION having a scene breakdown prepared from the book, but which was never seen on the set, but he misses my favourite Griffith script story: Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE, had its scenario jotted down by Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer the night before shooting, on a piece of cardboard that came from the laundry with Griffith’s shirt wrapped round it.

Norman also refers to Chaplin’s first director as Henry Pathé Lehrman, missing the all-important inverted commas around “Pathé” (Lehrman got a job with Mack Sennett with a tall tale about having worked for Pathé: when the ruse was discovered, the name stuck) and says that Herman Mankiewicz worked on “some trifle” called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. It may sound like a trifle, and the casting of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly might have lead contemporary audiences to expect one, but CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is a very dark film noir romance, and authors should resist making such statements about films they haven’t seen.

I’d still like this book to turn into an impassioned and informed account of the screenwriter’s role, so I’m going to persevere a little further — this isn’t a proper book review since I haven’t finished the thing. I will report back if I end up more impressed by it.

Disappointment 3: Hanno’s Doll by Evelyn Piper. I picked this up after belatedly realising that both THE NANNY and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, films I like a lot, came from Piper novels. I wanted to read something else by her. Although it does have a nice, twisty plot, the book took me ages to finish, being written in an irksome baby-talk that’s supposed to simulate the thought processes of the protagonist, a fat German actor (Piper must have had an eye of Curt Jurgens for a possible movie adaptation, or Gert Fröbe).

Whoopee 1: Maja Borg, a recent graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art film course where I teach, has a show on next week, Thursday 21st August, 8.30 pm on More4 in their First Cut series. Happy Birthday, You’re Dead takes its inspiration from the fact that a fortune teller once told Maya that she’d die in a car crash before her 25th birthday. The documentary charts the “last” weeks of Maja’s life leading up to her 25th.

I’m rooting for her to survive.

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