Archive for Jack Nicholson

Unmastered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 2, 2018 by dcairns

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.

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The Easter Fools’ Day Intertitle: Lon Chaney Big

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2018 by dcairns

Yeah, sometimes the calendar makes the satirist’s job too easy.

Fiona has announced that we need to see READY PLAYER ONE today — something about it being a kids’ film with geeky references for the over-forties (or over-fifties in our case) — so it looks like we’re doing that. Sadly we missed THE POST which was the proper grown-up Spielberg film for this year — we did manage to make it to Filmhouse for a screening but sadly five hundred other grown-ups had the same idea first. So I feel we may be seeing THE WRONG FILM. I also want to see ISLE OF DOGS but, to quote Peter Falk, “You’re sick, I’ll YUMA ya.”

Our intertitle is from my favourite film of all time — it’s THE BEST FILM THERE IS, folks — HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — because the date seems to demand a martyred clown picture. And Lon Chaney was recently enjoyed in Bo’ness. He’s quite something on the big screen. I still dream of Jane Gardner getting to score this one. That would be REALLY something.

A friend, who was experiencing Chaney for the first time in THE PENALTY, thought he had a Jack Nicholson quality. He certainly does the lowered-chin malevolent glower, known as the Crazy Kubrick Stare, to perfection. It’s like the Lauren Bacall Look, but with added menace. Though I doubt Chaney, like Bacall, was doing it to steady himself against a nervous tremor. And Kubrick is known to have used the line, when directing Vincent Donofrio in FULL METAL JACKET, “Make it big. Lon Chaney big.”

 

Shining Through

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by dcairns

The nice people at Park Circus gave us free tickets to see THE SHINING at the plush Vue Omni, so we HAD to go. Years since we saw it on the big screen, maybe decades. I think Kubrick would have liked to cleanness of the digital projection, so that his film looks ageless and pristine. He wouldn’t have liked the way the exit sign spilt light onto the screen. I know they have to have them, but a bit of masking could at least keep the eerie green glow from seeping onto the picture.

But otherwise this was excellent. I don’t know whether Kubrick would have liked the short documentary — WORK & PLAY — it has some terrific interviews and behind-the-scenes images I’d never seen before, so *I* liked it, but even I wondered if I wanted to precede the viewing of the movie with images revealing how, for instance, the sky behind the vast Overlook exterior set is a big blue backing. I suddenly felt the little ridge of rocks here was a bit unconvincing, when it had never bothered me before.

The doc also seems to have digitally messed about with its film clips, making the blacks crunchier. The film had never looked like this to me before, and I hoped that wasn’t what the screening would look like. Not that it was bad, but it was a striking change. But the screening was fine — the colours looked like they’d always looked. So I don’t know what was going on in the doc. But Stanley wouldn’t have approved.

I went in wondering if I’d see anything new in the film, or find anything to say about it.  Maybe I’d USED UP Kubrick’s horrorshow in some way? No such thing. From the very start, the bigger images let my eye swoop off into the Rocky Mountains, the landscapes drawing me in and exerting a lot more power than they ever did on TV.

Critics at the time complained that Jack Nicholson was too weird at the beginning, which I guess is true. It forces him to go more over the top later. But it’s clearly Kubrick’s intention that every scene in his horror movie should be strange and disturbing — look what he’s doing with the music. I think the most problematic scene may be the car journey.

Jack is doing a number of things here that contribute to the creepiness of Jack Torrence, husband, father and writer. One of them is clearly fine: he’s concentrating on the road. Actors in driving scenes often pay too little heed to what’s in front of them, straining to establish eye contact with their costars. Jack’s fixed gaze makes him seem less warm and paternal, but on the other hand less likely to kill everyone by plunging into a ravine. Then he also plays the early part of the scene a bit annoyed, a driving dad being pestered by questions. That’s a way of making the scene human and not just a bunch of information, but I’m not sure it’s needed. And then there’s his wicked grin, a favourite part of the Jack arsenal which got to be overused pretty soon.

But all of these elements might have seemed borderline natural if not for the ominous electronic drone Kubes lays over the whole scene — either Rachel Elkin or Wendy Carlos, I guess. If one could somehow remove it, we might get something more like a charming family discussion. Of cannibalism.

Amazing noises here!

Nicholson’s performance has come in for a lot of stick. Personally, I enjoy it, and I think that’s the point. Let’s look at Kubrick’s process ~

PRIZZI’S HONOR was made just five years after THE SHINING and its director, John Huston, said that most of the takes in it were take one, and this was mainly due to Jack, who was always prepared and always good right off the bat. But in THE SHINING, Kubrick shot dozens of takes of everything. Partly this is just OCD, or else an anxiety that if he stops trying, he might miss the greatness that was awaiting him just one take, or a hundred takes, down the line. Partly a curiosity about what will happen to the actors’ performances after so many repetitions. In Nicholson’s case, he seems to have resorted to lots of crazy stunt acting, jut to keep himself entertained. And clearly Kubrick liked the extreme stuff and used as much of it as possible.

The result may be “a style of acting beyond naturalism” as Nicholson called it, or it may be, that as Clive James remarked, “the style of acting beyond naturalism is called ham.” But it’s very DETAILED ham. Some of it is just face-pulling, but I like the drunk stuff, particularly the deeply stupid look of cunning Nicholson adopts when being told something by his ghost buddies. You know when you make some innocuous remark to a drunk person and they try to look WISE, as if you’ve said something really fucking profound? I don’t know what’s behind that kind of an act, but Jack does it beautifully.

Then there are the shots where he just looks like a dirty old woman.

Co-writer (and Dashiell Hammett biographer) Diane Johnson noted that Kubrick was particularly good at writing dialogue for Mr. Torrence. Controlling Dad. And I would say that the film is actually really good at documenting shitty male behaviour and attitudes. A friend of mine even found himself using a line from it when arguing with his girlfriend, years ago. He was horrified. I was kind of uncomfortable this time when I recognized elements of my own grumpier behaviour. Not the crazed axe-murdering, I stress.

 

I’ve been using my old fullscreen DVD for framegrabs because it’s the only director-approved version, hilariously enough. Kubes was a late adopter of widescreen versions. Admittedly, the boxy Academy ratio framing is kind of cute. But the wider image gives more dynamism to camera movement (enhanced peripheral vision) so Danny’s wild ride is much more exciting wide (and big). The CAMERA WALK sign struck me as an amusing description of the Steadicam shot itself.

I always wondered how they did the maze shot from above — which feels like Jack’s POV as he looks at the model maze — and then I learned that they just shipped their fake maze to the forecourt of a huge tower block and shot down in it from the roof. Amazing! And it explains why the overhead view doesn’t have the grassy verges or the park benches, and why the ground is cement white rather than gravel grey. Kubes was certainly bold to cut directly from one to the other, though…

 

And there’s more vanishing furniture in this movie, of course. When David Bowie was recording in his Berlin period, he was cracking up a bit and imagined the furniture was moving around the room. That struck me as creepy. And there’s a story by crazy Frenchman Guy de Maupassant about discovering that furniture is always doing this, when we’re not looking.

So, was this deliberate? It’s the first time we’d seen the film since seeing ROOM 237 where this very strange continuity error is pointed out. Having never noticed it before, now of course we can’t help but spot it. And the effect is in fact quite eerie, particularly since you can’t believe it’s a mistake Kubrick would allow. So he must have wanted it, right?

Jan Harlan, in saying that ROOM 237 is all nonsense, would seem to be saying that the above is simply a mistake. But can we believe Kubrick never noticed it, or was too lazy to reshoot it, or had a resistance to reshooting things? So this, and probably some of the cutting discontinuities of Overlook space, must be part of his plan to imbue the hotel with malign animation. Right?

Lloyd the barman is out of his gourd in THE BOY AND THE PIRATES.

Is Jack getting drunk on spirit liquor? Ghost booze? Lloyd the barman pours him a drink but neither Lloyd nor the glass are present when Wendy charges in. At any rate, he sure starts looking seedy and there are scenes where Torrence seems drunk on whatever ectoplasmic brew Lloyd is serving up.

It’s funny when Jack goes to investigate the crazy lady in the bathroom. He goes in, tense, scared. And then he finds a crazy lady in the bathroom. But she’s naked and hot, so he’s happy! A really stupid smirk creeps onto his grizzled visage, like he’s a three stooge or something. “Ah-hur-hur, the crazy lady who tried to strangle my son is nekkid!” So, Jack is dumb. And he never does any actual caretaking. And I kind of doubt that book of his is going to be a big seller, either.

Maybe Stephen King doesn’t like the movie because he already created a character who was a really unflattering portrait of himself at a certain time in his life. And then Kubrick made the guy even worse. Kind of a personal insult, though unintended I’m sure.

The missing scene — Jack leaves Room 237 in absolute panic. But when he gets back to Wendy, he’s all calm and has a cover story prepared. I’m really curious what happened to him on the way back. Fiona thinks he just cooled down and reasoned that as he doesn’t want to leave the hotel, ever, he’d better make a convincing case that nothing is up. I think it would take another intervention by the hotel — maybe a few nerve-settling drinks from Lloyd — to get Jack this rational and steady, and to set him on this course.

You know, I guess it IS a great party, at that.

Kubrick seems to have had an unshakeable faith that people wearing full-face masks can perform oral sex. We see this again in the orgy scenes of EYES WIDE SHUT. But Stanley, Sterling Hayden may have been able to do it while wearing a clown mask in THE KILLING, but that was a rubber mask. Flexible mouth-hole is key. And the ape-men in 2001 had hinged jaws. Nothing they demonstrated really counts here. You’re just wrong. Perfectionist my ass.

The two bits that scare Fiona are Jack getting a wee skelf on his hand — it’s small-scale enough to relatable — and Scatman Crothers arriving at the hotel and walking into an unlucky fate. She felt that, being a psychic, he really ought to have sussed the situation out better than to just wander in shouting “Hello?” I was wondering how much the scene owes to Martin Balsam’s demise in PSYCHO. In terms of shots, nothing. It’s just a similar kind of scene. It’s a change from the book which I think is thoroughly defensible. We like Scatman/Halloran, so his death hurts, but that’s the kind of death horror movies should have. The film would be really depressing if Danny or Wendy died, but poor Scatman is that unfortunate combination of likable and disposable.

Plus, I think if he just showed up and rescued Wendy and Danny, it would be kind of dull.

Oh, poor Shelley Duvall is really good, isn’t she? Kubrick seems to have decided he doesn’t want the audience to be very sympathetic to her — so we side with her, but we’re not encouraged to feel real warmth. Danny is lovely. We like him. Kubrick seems to have decided that any woman who stayed with Jack must be a dope, and even though she looks after the hotel, saves her son’s life, and her only mistake is sticking with Jack who hurt Danny once by accident and used to drink too much, he doesn’t let us feel too much in the way of admiration.

In my book, Wendy is a heroic character. And it’s not a bad idea to emphasise her weakness, since it makes her victory all the more heroic. But you sense Kubrick’s withdrawal, his distance from her. Whereas we know he likes little Danny, who is smart, brave, resourceful, curious…

The film played beautifully, I thought. I was never anticipating the next scenes, bored with the one in front of me, despite having seen it many times. Fiona doesn’t think it’s scary, apart from those two bits, but then she doesn’t think it’s a horror film, either. I’m not sure what she means by that. I think it’s a Kubrick horror movie…

After the screening, Fiona saw a fellow audience member doing a really good impression of Shelley’s distressed run. Respect.