Archive for Jack MacGowran

The Russian Revelation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by dcairns


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.


Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.


Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.


I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.


I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.


I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.


Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.

The Man Who Painted the Park

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by dcairns


The death of production designer Assheton Gorton (last month, but I just recently learned of it) got me thinking about his unique contribution to sixties British cinema. Joe Massot’s WONDERWALL (1968), above, was an early sign of the new decadence, a film made almost entirely to spend the Beatles’ money before the taxman got it, which is not the noblest artistic purpose, but clearly everyone involved wanted to create something beautiful — more beautiful than a hospital ward or a torpedo bay (even a really nice one). And they succeeded.

I do get a ringing alarm bell in films about fantasy versus reality where the filmmakers can’t resist making the reality just as lovely and strange as the fantasy — MIRRORMASK, or THE CELL could be chosen as examples. WONDERWALL has this problem very badly — it plays a little like THE ZERO THEOREM, with its mundane protagonist twisted so far into eccentricity as to become insane and alienating, depriving us of our Dante or Virgil in the labyrinth. Some might argue that BRAZIL is oppressively fantastical too, but that’s the point for me — the reality is desaturated and bluish and oppressive and insistently real, and the fantasy can do its job effectively in such a context. If everything is fairytale, there’s no contrast, and movies love sharp contrasts.


Whatever the opposite of an everyman protagonist is, Jack MacGowran is it. A kind of “no-man protagonist,” or “notagonist,” if you will. An actor whose quirks and accent and 24hr inebriation can make him fascinating at the same time as incomprehensible and utterly opaque. Apparently on KING LEAR he had no idea what he was saying. The trouble is, neither do I. Whereas, oddly, he seems to totally get Beckett, and makes me feel I do too.

Still, Gorton did a gorgeous job, though some shots are actually little more than beautiful actors in beautiful fabrics and patterns, beautifully lit, with not a wall or piece of furniture in sight.


Obviously it was BLOW-UP, on which A.G. served as art director, that got him WONDERWALL. I suppose the job title is correct because Antonioni appears to have built no sets, but he transformed locations, painting a street various shades of gray, and even the people in it, so that David Hemmings’s skin becomes the only thing telling you the movie isn’t b&w. Elsewhere, colour is insistent and striking, though Antonioni still prefers a sort of metallic pastel palette, distinguishing his work from the screaming psychedelia that was beginning to explode in reality.


Famously, Antonioni had Gorton paint a park, because the colours had changed since they location-scouted it and it no longer fitted the scheme. I couldn’t say for sure that the park looks different from a natural one, but I certainly FEEL it does — it seems flatter, more uniform and graphic.


Aided by overcast English skies, the park becomes a gray-green silhouette — sure, the shrubbery has shadows and weight, but it doesn’t sem to have ENOUGH.

I always felt that, in scenes like the non-sequitur cross-talk purchase of a propeller from an antique shop, Antonioni was influenced by THE KNACK and its Ann Jellicoe-via-Charles Wood script, in which language becomes a kind of infestation, scrambling the characters’ brains and even pouring from their heads in the form of subtitles. Antonioni, working in an unfamiliar language, had the help of Edward Bond, but neither man is what you would call zany and so their attempts at a comedy of word soup floundering tends to fall rather painfully on its keys, but the very discomfort and flatness of it kind of suits the picture.


In Jellicoe’s play, Tom, the Donal Donnelly character, repaints his room, stripping it of furniture and, I seem to recall, painting the shadows on the wall. And then he drives in a few nails so he can hang the chairs high off the floor. He doesn’t get that far in Richard Lester’s film, and he paints the room a featureless white, so that the various shapes look embossed, like MARIENBAD’s title sequence (Lester was a fan). Certianly Antonioni, who had been repainting reality in THE RED DESERT (1964), must have felt that Gorton was a kindred spirit. He just needed to THINK BIGGER.




Walloping About

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by dcairns


Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.

Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another,  into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk,  who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.

The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).

The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.

Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.


Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…

Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”

Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).


What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).

You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.

Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.

Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.

The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~

“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”


During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.

Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~

SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.


Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.

Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.

Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”


Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.


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