Archive for Jan Harlan

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.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Style and Title

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2014 by dcairns

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Getting back to Edinburgh on Thursday, I returned to work the following day to see a talk by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, director of the Malcolm McDowell documentary O LUCKY MALCOLM! etc (pictured above with Head of Film & TV Emma Davie).

Harlan is a delightful fellow, and the theme of his talk — music in cinema — was one he was well-qualified to discuss having worked with Kubrick on all his scores from 2001 on, and having an extensive knowledge of classical music. The wide range of film clips he presented illustrated how music can be used as a storytelling tool, to control the pace, to enhance character and to generally beautify the film. Harlan was, in effect, proselytizing for classical music and suggesting that all filmmakers should study it and fall in love with it. “If you don’t love it, you’re likely to ruin it,” was his mantra. And, “If you want to know how you acquire ownership of art, it’s very simple: you just fall in love with it and it becomes yours.”

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It’s a huge and tricky subject. My advice has often been to never use a piece of music you know from another film. TV magazine shows do this — so that you couldn’t escape PULP FICTION’s surf guitar for at least a year on TV — and many documentaries do this, because to a large extent documentaries haven’t learned to take themselves seriously as art — hence they recycle titles from other movies, or slightly adapt them, which otherwise only porno movies do. There are exceptions to my rule — years before Kubrick made the Blue Danube his own, Julien Duvivier had used in memorably in THE GREAT WALTZ, where obviously you couldn’t avoid it, but more excitingly, Clouzot had used it with great imagination in THE WAGES OF FEAR, where Yves Montand slewed his truck all over the road in waltz time. But Kubrick had confidence that he could trump those films, and he was right.

But when that plinky-plonk bit of Carl Orff that forms the theme of BADLANDS gets used in TRUE ROMANCE and MONSTER, the filmmakers don’t think they’re superceding BADLANDS. They’re just copying BADLANDS. And the thinking seems to be, “Young couple, road movie, murders, therefore we need the music from BADLANDS.” Absurd. The deliberate placing of your film in second-best position. A failure of imagination. A dive into the mediocre.

Harlan’s suggestion to study the field is sound advice, because filmmakers have exhibited a dreadful tendency to repeat the same few pieces of the repertoire until they become unsuitable for any use save parody. Barber’s Adaggio is an obvious victim (David Lynch used it beautifully before PLATOON, and when Harlan showed the PLATOON clip I was struck by the obscenity of it — whose tragedy is this music expressing? As the American soldiers burn a Vietnamese village and separate civilian families, we are being asked to feel sorry for the soldiers, the poor youth of America who are being corrupted by violence). Lahkme by Delibes has been done to death not just by Tony Scott, who in fairness obviously loved the piece, but by everyone else who can’t be bothered selecting something less hackneyed (Brian DePalma and CARLITO’S WAY, stand up).

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The counter-argument to Harlan and Kubrick’s suggestion that the best music ever composed is all available to us, is that it may be the best music but is it right for the film you’re making? It’s notable that FULL METAL JACKET uses not only considerable original score, performed by Kubrick’s daughter on the Fairlight synthesiser, the rest of its music is period-appropriate pop of a particularly and deliberately moronic nature (I like some of those songs a lot, but taken as a group I think they’re making a not-too-subtle comment of the dumbness of pop culture). Maybe PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW forced Kubrick’s hand — using classical pieces would have invited invidious comparisons — but I think Kubrick’s ultimate decision also skirts the western-centric solemnity and false dignity that could come from pasting high culture all over barbaric acts.

“…lead to the grave.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Years ago, when I discovered Fiona hadn’t seen PATHS OF GLORY and we watched it together, she put into words something I had felt about the film but not articulated — “It’s not just a war film, it’s about really big things — LIFE and DEATH!” Indeed, for us the film really kicked into its strongest phase after the three soldiers have been sentenced to death (off-camera, in a bold elision) and have to face their mortality (calling to mind Woody Allen’s speech from LOVE AND DEATH: “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer.”)

Like Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel, we have three choices about facing death — we can weep and pray, we can put on a brave face, or we can be unconscious when it happens. And ultimately it could be said to make little difference. “Pull yourself together — is this how you want to be remembered?” asks Bert Freed. “I don’t want to die,” replies Meeker, reasonably.

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I just ran the movie for students ahead of a visiting lecture by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer — one remarked that it was sweet to see Turkel being so nice, since in his most famous roles, THE SHINING and BLADE RUNNER, he’s kind of sepulchral and sinister. True, he does punch a priest in the face, but that’s not too unsympathetic by this film’s lights, and to be fair the priest was a bit annoying. By casting Emile Meyer, usually a heavy, with his pugilistic, clapped-in face, Kubrick somehow mitigates the anti-clerical brutality — you couldn’t slug the padre from MASH without losing audience respect, but somehow Meyer is fair game. When Meyer protests that he wants “to help you, with all my power!” Turkel responds, “You HAVE no power!” which is true, as far as the immediate problem goes. It’s the best bit of defrocking dialogue outside of  THE GREEN ROOM, where Truffaut yells that what the bereaved want from the church is the immediate resurrection of their loved ones, and anything less is an unforgivable tease. Unreasonable, you might say, but not when you take into account the authority these dudes claim to represent.

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Despite starring Chin Cleft himself (introduced shirtless, as was his wont), and being produced by his company, the film is really an ensemble piece (a fact emphasised even further by the tacked-on conclusion, in which Kirk is merely a passive witness), and everybody is really good. James Mason, impressed enought to take on LOLITA, nevertheless felt that the American accents let it down, which is objectively silly, but I guess the custom for using Brit to represent the entire non-American world was strongly established. Having gone for Yanks, Kubrick pushes it pretty far, with Meyer’s Bowery bum whine (wait, he was from Louisiana?) and Jerry Hausner’s bold reading of “What is life widout a liddle divoijshen?” and, of course, Timothy Carey.

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Listening to the film’s producer, James B. Harris, in Lyon, my NATAN co-director Paul Duane picked up lots of great stuff about Carey faking his own kidnapping on location and other typical crazy shit. John Baxter cites the story of someone questioning Kubes why he kept hiring Carey. “He can’t act!” Kubrick replied that he wanted either the best actor in the world, or a brilliant type. (Exemplified by DR STRANGELOVE — when Peter Sellers dropped out of the role of Major Kong, the director went straight for Dan Blocker and then Slim Pickens, genuine examples of what Sellers was to have imitated.) And it’s true — Carey carries his own reality with him, a beat-up beatnik doziness that anchors him in every scene. If he can’t quite do everything the script calls for, and has a slight tendency to strike poses (hilarious vanity in one with his lizard-lidded zombie face), his essential Timothy-Carey-ness keeps him credible, like the way a small child, or a very old person, or a dog is always believable on-screen even if they can’t act.

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Who else? Wayne Morris, a real-life WWII hero, is great as the drunken coward Roget (the script, partly written by alcoholic Jim Thompson, tends to equate boozing with vice, until the third act when everybody swears by it). My late friend Lawrie said used to drink with him– I can’t work out when this occurred, since Morris doesn’t seem to have had a British career. And the bad guys — Adolphe Menjou, whose rapid-fire delivery makes him the worst casualty of the boxy sound recording in vast halls — George MacReady, whose psychotic villainy keeps rising to new levels of outrageous hypocrisy, and that’s his arc — Richard Anderson, who probably oversells his sliminess early on and his doubt later — and Peter Capell, who plays the presiding judge at the court martial, and scores by buttering the most prejudiced and insanely unjust comments with a veneer of gentle, paternal reasonableness.

The full quote is “The paths of glory lead to the grave,” hence all those tracking and trucking shots — at the execution, SK dollies over gravel towards the posts the men are to be bound to, and the POV shots heading forwards seem to represent the rush towards Death — three wooden poles marking the end of everything.

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For the first time I really thought about what the film would have been like without the musical number from the future Mrs Kubrick at the end. Ending on Kirk’s rugged face as he says, “Because you don’t know the answer to that, I pity you,” would be very strong indeed — the only note of grace being supplied by the lighting, which makes of him a lambent gargoyle-saint. What follows is a brilliantly judged attempt to soften the conclusion without softening the film, beginning with a sequence which actually makes us dislike the French troops we’ve been rooting for all along, developing into the musical montage of faces, magnificently lit again — I wonder how Kubrick got on with his German cinematographer, Georg Krause, who had been active all through the Nazi era? They do great work together. Most of the previous imagery has been figures in landscapes or interiors, Kirk’s big CU at the end of the “real film” starts this cascade of portraits. The best thing about it is it does almost nothing — it doesn’t alleviate the sense of injustice, it almost universalizes it. The final shot of Kirk leaving is pretty bleak and ugly — but isn’t even the last shot, since the end creds are a bunch more portraits.

Obviously PATHS OF GLORY is an emotional film, but it defies WWI movie convention by stirring up our sense of moral outrage rather than trying to break our hearts with the pity of it. It gives the lie to the cliché of Kubrick the emotionless. My friend B. Mite strongly argued that Kubrick was interested in “the emotions that don’t have names” — 2001 stirs up a kind of awe and terror that’s closer to the romantic poets’ response to nature than to anything in Spielberg. It’s cold in a tactile sense — all that black space and ll those white surfaces — but nobody, surely, could watch it without emotion. Even Pauline Kael felt claustrophobic.

The movie has been used by scientists testing the physiological effects of film — it has been shown to make people physically angry. Script guru Phil Parker once pointed out that injustice is a great plot engine, because it seizes and inflames everyone. As the line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS goes, “When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair,’ the child can be believed.”