Archive for Jaws

They Go Boom #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2018 by dcairns

Friday night turned out to be a Vilmos Zsigmond double feature* — I’d bought a second-hand disc of Spielberg’s 1941 and showed Fiona the end credits because I remembered them being funny — she not only laughed at the entire cast screaming as their credits come up —— but at every single one of the random explosions punctuating the end titles. Then she demanded we watch the film. “What else did you buy it for?” Hoist by my own petard! Well, the trouble with certain unsuccessful comedies is not so much that the laughs aren’t there, but that the irritation is. As Spielberg himself diagnosed the problem, the film is just too LOUD. He realised he was in trouble in the edit and hoped John Williams’ score would bail him out, “…but then I realised John was overdoing his score to match my over-direction of Zemeckis & Gale’s over-written script.” In tightening the film to try to save the audience from exhaustion, he took out or compressed quieter character moments, according to co-star Dan Aykroyd, hyping up the intensity even more.

The best bit — whether it makes you laugh or not, it’s spectacularly impressive as a piece of choreography — camera movement as well as people movement.

Spielberg’s favourite comedy is, apparently, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (“One mad too many”) — which is another way of saying he should never have attempted to direct a comedy. Amid the shouting, the actors who make a good impression and even get laughs are those who take their time and underplay — Lionel Stander and Robert Stack. Aykroyd does his patented fast-talking schtick (he would have gone down great in the thirties), Belushi is a cartoon, and the cast is rounded out with members of the Wild Bunch, the Seven Samurai, and Christopher Lee and Sam Fuller. Nominal hero Bobby DeCiccio is an incredible dancer/stunt artist and I’d like to have seen him do more physical comedy.It’s gloves-off time for Spielberg — he lets his obnoxious, bratty side out, though he did modulate the script to reduce some of the real unpleasantness. Our hero no longer nukes Hiroshima. But there’s a rapey villain — played with gusto by Treat Williams — a real Zemeckis/Gale trope — see BACK TO THE FUTURE — and lots of racial “humour” — I don’t need to see Toshiro Mifune saying “Rots of ruck,” thank you. But I kind of liked that the Americans destroy a lot of their own property but DON’T sink the Japanese sub. No Japs were harmed during the making of this picture. The race jokes are bold, especially viewed with modern sensibilities, but I’m not sure the movie really knows what it’s trying to say with them. Equal-opportunities offense only really works when you have equal opportunities elsewhere.

Spielberg asked Chuck Jones for advice, and the advice was, “Don’t do it.” Jones said you need to have at least one non-crazy character or it won’t work — he cited BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for the James Donald character — “Madness! Madness!” But 1941 does have quite a few non-mad characters. DiCiccio and Dianne Kay are more generic than eccentric — but the movie never gives us a reason to care about them. They don’t care about anyone else. Example: in the wake of the seriously impressive night-club riot, Kay thinks she’s found DiCiccio — she lifts his head, but it’s just a random sailor, so she drops his head with a thunk and moves on. Moderately funny, perhaps, except we’ve seen it too often in movies, and it’s done cold-bloodedly (OK, maybe distractedly — but if she’s not paying attention to the wounded man, she’s still cold-blooded) and it hurts her character, so it wasn’t worth doing. All the characters we’re supposed to like are stupid or obnoxious much of the time in this movie.Slim Pickens’ character is dumped at sea, last heard screaming “Which way is the coast?” They KILLED him? I really needed a shot of him trudging out of the Pacific surf in his sodden onesie, and that’s not something I say about every film.

Good old Vilmos’s William Fraker’s cinematography is beautiful, but it’s a big part of the problem — combine the 70s’ approach to period, which is tons of diffusion, fog filters as thick as Warren Oates’ glasses, with Spielberg’s love of backlighting, smoke and Fuller’s Earth, and it becomes a little hard to read the action. Forcing the viewer to strain cancels out a huge amount of the comedy and adds to the headache effect with all the screaming and explosions. I think it’s a bit too misty even if it were an Indiana Jones picture. (To shoot RAIDERS, Spielberg gets Douglas Slocombe, who can do atmospherics but who also likes things clean and crisp unless there’s a good reason otherwise. Spielberg enters the 80s leaving behind that 70s period look.

Amazing miniatures work. Only the fairground ever looks like a model, for some reason. The Death Star assault on LA looks amazing. Callback to JAWS is a little laboured. Foreshadowing of JURASSIC PARK is funnier now, though.Oh, it was also a Nancy Allen double bill… In 1941, Nancy plays a woman with a sexual fetish for warplanes — an extrapolation of Carole Lombard and Robert Stack’s business in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, possibly. If we look for traces of autobiography in Spielberg’s work, then we have to say that the character with a fetish for WWII warplanes is HIM — see also the planes in the desert in CE3K, his WWII episode of Amazing Stories, the flying wing fight in RAIDERS, the flyboy antics of ALWAYS, and the rather extraordinary sequence in EMPIRE OF THE SUN where Christian Bayle spies on a sex scene during an air raid. Spielberg is more Ballardian than you’d think.

Meanwhile one couple end up screwing in a tar pit and Treat Williams is last seen being molested while covered in raw egg. Biological sex is messy. Mech sex is clean. Clean like fire. Once we can all upload ourselves into the Oasis, everything will be great.

*Actually, no.

Advertisements

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

 

Ragnarok

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by dcairns

Belatedly caught up with MILIUS, an entertaining (snappily cut) and affectionate (as far as would be possible without straying into straight hagiography) portrait of the auteur of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RED DAWN, THE WIND AND THE LION and the exceptional DILLINGER, which is the one I would point to as demonstration that Milius has genuine talent and isn’t just a loudmouthed cartoon character — sort of a monstrous crossbreed of Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. In fact, the fondness with his contemporaries speak of him, and the sympathetic way they try to parse his failings and outright insanities, speaks very well for him. And you can quite see, give Milius’s health troubles and the bravery he’s shown dealing with them, why you wouldn’t in any way want to make the movie a hatchet job.

Leave that to me.

The bad things I know about John Milius —

The published screenplay of APOCALYPSE NOW is a terrible piece of work. Windy, incoherent, preposterous and pretentious. All those qualities can be found in the finished film, for sure, but it’s delivered with such gusto by Coppola and his team — a film made by a bipolar personality in the extreme end of his manic cycle — and the additions to the script made by Brando, Hopper, and particularly Michael Herr, partially rescue it from its excesses. Milius did write some good stuff, including a striking opening in which a jungle slowly comes alive with hidden Viet Cong. I don’t know if that was ever filmed. But try reading the thing. Your brain will get indigestion.

“I still can’t get a room at the Ritz in Madrid because of what John Milius did,” complained the venerable filmmaker to me. Basically According to this account, Milius got drunk and shot up his expensive hotel room with his expensive gun collection, I guess during THE WIND AND THE LION or maybe more likely CONAN. The room was decorated with original painting and Milius put a bullet through each of them. Let’s think about that, as an action by a creative artist.

(But see below for comments from someone who strongly doubts the veracity of the above.)

“A bully,” was the verdict of the venerable film editor, of legendary standing, who walked off a Milius film in mid-post-production, something she had never done before.

Milius-on-the-set-of-Conan-with-Schwarzenegger (1)

Milius has claimed credit for DIRTY HARRY and Robert Shaw’s big speech in JAWS. Don Siegel describes basically pasting together a bunch of different writers’ drafts on the former film, so I don’t know how much Milius really contributed — not enough to get a credit. He did more on MAGNUM FORCE, and look how that turned out. Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers on JAWS, gives more credit for the sinking of the Indianapolis speech to Robert Shaw himself. Various writers had tackled it, and Milius was one, literally phoning in his version, but Shaw — the best writer involved in that film, including the original novelist, turned up as Spielberg was finishing dinner one evening and delivered a sunset recitation that floored Spielberg and ended up in the film word for word. As Gottlieb has said, “Who are you going to believe, the guy who wasn’t there who says he did it, or the guy who was there who says he didn’t do it?” (In the movie, Spielberg sensitively gets around this by crediting Milius with the key writing and Shaw with the edit which took the monologue down from ten minutes to just a few.)

RED DAWN is a really, really bad movie.

Milius is not only what we’d now call a libertarian (Oliver Stone calls him out on that, critically but not unkindly), he has flirted with Nazism not just in the imagery of CONAN but in his promotion of it “This is a film that would have done very well in the Third Reich.”

I can forgive Milius, I guess, for dishing all the dirt on his friends to Peter Biskind for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, because (1) it’s very entertaining dirt and I love gossip, as the above makes clear and (2) Milius loves telling stories and so how could he possibly help himself, when he knows all this hilarious/disgusting/embarrassing stuff?

And at the end of the doc, and looking back on the best bits of Milius’s work, I still have to like him a little. Even bullies can be often entertaining when they’re not in attack mode. Milius’ friends clearly like him and can see past the bluster, the cigars, the firearms and the contrarian-libertarian “politics” — in recounting the terrible circumstances that have robbed his friend of the power of speech, Spielberg is moved almost to tears — something we have never seen. We realize how glib Spielberg usually is, how he often can’t even be bothered to make sense. Here. he’s incredibly sharp and articulate. So is Lucas, for God’s sake. Anyone who can inspire those guys to choose their words more carefully deserves some respect.

After missing Vietnam due to his asthma (don’t smoke, kids), Milius finally has a campaign of his own to wage as he struggles to reacquire language. I want him to succeed. He was always a good storyteller when he got out of the way of the story, and now he’s going to have new and interesting things to say.

And then there’s this ~

Hats off to the big bastard, in a way.