Archive for Joe Turkel

Tomorrowsday #5: Our continuum is rather a frost

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by dcairns

Anticipating ufologist Jacques Vallee by decades, Gore Vidal ruled in his 1955 television play, Visit to a Small Planet, or perhaps his 1957 stage play, Visit to a Small Planet, that flying saucers are transdimensional rather than interplanetary craft, and to hell with the Carpenters, who wouldn’t put forward their contradictory theory until 1976. Meanwhile, in 1960, because time is “all one thing” — “a trapezoid” — Jerry Lewis starred in a film version of either the TV or stage play, adapted by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson. (Beloin has numerous Bob Hope credits, a couple of Lewis ones, an Elvis movie, story credit on DONOVAN’S REEF; Garson is one of several writers on THE RECKLESS MOMENT and collaborated as a duo with Beloin on his other Lewis movie and his Elvis. They’re not negligible talents, but they’re not fit to lick Gore Vidals seven-league boots.)

Excitingly, the alien Kreton was played by Cyril Ritchard (above) on TV and stage — the lecherous artist from Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL. Not exactly a Jerry Lewis type, though I believe Lewis could have stretched himself to play the part as written if he’d been offered it or if director Norman Taurog had any ambition to deal with ideas. The movie is a sad travesty of the play, without any coherent reason for existing. It’s only intermittently funny, but it’s stupid all the time. However, let’s see what we can find to admire.

The copy I was able to track down has German credits, allowing us to learn that the German title is JERRY, DER ASTRONAUTEN-SCHRECK, which seems odd to me. Is “fright-astronaut” a common German term for what we would call a little green man or bug-eyed monster? It’s a nice compound word, anyway.

Special effects are by John P. Fulton, a long way from James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock. But they’re excellent. The film tries to get laugh with them, and fails, because they don’t have comic timing. That’s not what you hire John P. Fulton for.

The physical effects are good too.

Excuse me while I do a spot of time-travelling myself — my memory is that I didn’t see this film in 1974, only the ending — I have a vivid memory of Lewis’s space pod and him running about like a lunatic, one of several memories of UFOs that are far more vivid than the movies they appear in — ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 form a kind of trilogy with this one. But, watching it this week, I was struck by the image of Lewis sticking an entire pack of cigarettes in his mouth and lighting it. I’d seen THAT before. So maybe I saw the whole thing and then just erased it. Maybe I erased my childhood recollections, like Johnny Mnemonic, to make room for interesting facts about Anthony Mann’s filmography?

At any rate, Fulton’s UFO is memorable. I’ve proved that, by remembering it for forty-odd years. The film features both nifty opticals and impressive practical effects — a levitating dog, a car that slides sideways into a parking space, an invisible barrier that surrounds Kreton (taken from the play but given vivid visual form). Maybe that’s what earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design, which makes little sense otherwise (it lost, and rightly so, to THE APARTMENT).

Fred Clark, great dyspeptic patriarch of the fifties, is perfectly cast as TV pundit Roger Spelding. Joan Blackman is perky as the love interest. Farmer/boyfriend Earl Holliman is much more of a jerk than in the play, which is a silly change to make because they’ve already got Lewis. Lee Patrick, recently enjoyed in VERTIGO, is Clark’s ditzy wife, and John Williams plays a fellow alien, his role greatly expanded from the play, partly because if they filmed the play as written, Lewis wouldn’t enter for ten minutes, which audiences in 1960 would not have stood for. So we begin in space, in a weird studio afterlife of dry ice, Paramount’s attempt to visualise Vidal’s suggestion of another dimension.

The movie also features Miles Archer, Talkie Tina, Dr. Eldon Tyrrel and Grandma Walton (also from VERTIGO).

Ye-es… at one point, Joan Blackman takes Jerry to a beatnik joint, the Hungry Brain. In Virginia? I don’t know that much about your Earth Culture, but I’d always assumed beatniks were more of a coastal thing. A salt water bi-product. OK, it IS the best bit of the film, with Joe Turkel freaking out at Jerry’s out-of-this-worldliness, Jerry’s simultaneous translation of a scat song, and Barbara Lawson’s dance with Jer. Although the presence of a beat club in this movie is completely unforgivable, a more efficient solution would be to junk the other, less entertaining bits of the movie and come up with a whole new story set in New York where Jerry could “plausibly” visit a beatnik place. There’s no reason why the film should be set in Virginia, though the source play did have its reasons.

Much of the movie is pure Mork & Mindy avant la lettre. Kreton’s spaceship isn’t quite an egg, but it’s tending in that direction. If you were going to morph Klaatu’s big saucer into Mork’s egg, Kreton’s capsule would be the midway point.

OK, update, I’ve now read the whole play. It’s only mildly amusing by Vidal’s standards, but it at least hangs together. It’s Gene Roddenberry’s #1 plot from Star Trek: God is an astronaut, and he’s a lunatic, an idiot, a child. Did Gore invent this trope? Vidal’s Kreton is a moral imbecile, escaped from supervision for the day. He was hoping to witness the Battle of Bull Run but arrived a century late and so decides to start WWIII instead. So there are reasons for Virginia (handy for the air force too), and it all ties together, whereas the movie is a big ball of loose ends. Intriguingly, in the movie, we do learn that Kreton was somehow responsible for the extinguishing of all life on Mars, but this is brushed aside, a throwaway gag. We’re not meant to hold genocide against him.

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the name Edgar Box, about a crime-solving metrosexual PR man, and they’re excellent. It seems he could turn his hand to anything, including Mork & Mindy.

Orangey the cat, fresh from his roles in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, drags up as Clementine, voiced by cartoon favourite June Foray. (Kreton talks psychically to the cat, called Rosemary in the play, but we don’t hear her responses). The movie invents a dog also, but whoever does his voice is unlisted on the IMDb.

My favourite gag that’s original to the movie: whenever anyone tries to tell the world about Kreton, he zaps them and all they can say is “Mary had a little lamb,” sung in falsetto. When the movie’s hysterical ufologist (not in the play) snaps a Polaroid of Kreton in spaceman attire, this is how the pic comes out ~

Vidal’s notion that the aliens have moved beyond sex (“Our continuum is rather a frost,”) is spun off into lots of creepy business about Lewis wanting to watch the romantic leads making out. If you want that NOT to seem creepy, you need someone other than Lewis, whose manchild act is not devoid of lechery. The funniest thing in the play, for me, is that the young lovers had been planning to check into a motel with fake luggage to avoid suspicion — a valise full of phone books. Kreton learns of the plan and somehow imagines the phone books are an essential part of the proposed loveplay. (Ah, kids these days don’t know what lovemaking IS… because they don’t know what phone books are.)

Vidal’s Kreton is quite camp in his touristic enthusiasm — his enthusiasm for war turns him into Bud Cort in my imagination, in that scene in HAROLD AND MAUDE where Harold tries to freak out the general by being TOO pro-war. “Zero hour is almost upon us. I’m getting all shivery.” The sad thing is, Jer could have done all that brilliantly, if only they’d wanted him to.

Here is a picture of director Norman Taurog. Hahahaha he has a funny face. His career runs from Larry Semon to Elvis Presley, with Jerry near the end.

I guess VTASP served as a comedic break in the 1974 sci-fi season where I saw it, or part of it. Allowing us to gather ourselves before the strong meat of THEM! But also following neatly from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which it subverts (though a faithful rendition of the play would have subverted it even better).

 

 

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Watney’s Red Planet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney became the second ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in my birthday treat movie on Saturday, which turned out to be a bigger treat than I’d expected, and quite possibly Ridley Scott’s best film since the eighties.

THE MARTIAN — filmed in all three dimensions of outer space! 3D seems to be something directors get better at on repeated exposure — Fleischer, Dante, Arnold. Scott, speaking of PROMETHEUS actually said, “The 3D was no problem at all. We actually see in 3D all the time,” which one might charitably interpret as a senior moment, but Fiona says, “Ridley would still have said that in 1979.” One worried that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient study.

In THE MARTIAN, there’s far more exploitation of the gimmick, but not in a chuck-spaceships-at-the-lens way. PROMETHEUS’s best quality was its vivid and immersive environments, and here the planetscapes are more shapes and multi-leveled, with aerial shots that let the dunes and buttes roll past the lens. But Scott also gets great value out of little sprouts poking through topsoil, and the multiple rows of screens and workstations in NASA HQ. And in the Hermes, he’s gifted us a gyroscopic spacecraft that’s a sheer joy to observe as we fly past it or through its rotating rings. The sensual pleasure of moving through a deep environment becomes as rich as the use of smoke, rain, multiple little light sources, widescreen composition, long lens ECUs, and all the other features of the Scott visual style.

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The dumbness of PROMETHEUS, its bad dialogue, and its mainly dopey, inconsistent and unappealing 2D characters, have all been replaced here with an intelligent scenario by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, full of nice people working together to help each other. It’s astonishingly positive. This, along with the NASA mission control setting, has led to a lot of comparisons with APOLLO 13, which is a very good film, probably Ron Howard’s best, so the likening isn’t an insult, but I think this one’s better, because it has the same virtues plus some extra ones, mostly audio-visual.

Scott’s always been rather good at casting, though his background in ads would seem to equip him solely to flick through Spotlight and pick out faces he liked. But look at ALIEN — every one of the Nostromo’s crew is a wonderfully quirky thesp. When ill-health forced Jon Finch to drop out, Scott replaced him with John Hurt, which shows flexibility as well as excellent taste. For BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s masterstroke was Rutger Hauer, but he also saw something in Darryl Hannah that nobody else had recognized, and was one of very few directors to have tapped the potential of Joe Turkel (basically Kubrick and Scott are his whole career).

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Here, Damon is a personable everyman, onscreen solo for most of 140 mins, and neither bland nor irksomely quirky. The quirks are left to the supporting cast, all briefly sketched in but suggesting the possibility of greater depths. For a while it feels like Kate Mara is going to do nothing but punch computer keys, but some more stuff eventually happens. Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and of course Kirsten Wiig are often associated with comedies, which I guess equips them to be likable. Sean Bean seems like a stand-in for the director. And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña… it’s just such lovely company to be in.

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In Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, when Dan O’Herlihy leaves the island he hears his dog bark — a dog that had died some years before. This is something I sometimes quote to students as an example of the poetic power of surrealism. Nobody needs to have the moment explained, yet it comes from a place beyond the rational. There’s nothing as elegantly imaginative as that here, but there is the power of realism. The design and performances and writing create a conviction that carries us along. We don’t need interpersonal conflict hyped up when the central situation works as a magnificent plot motor.

Robinson Crusoe is a tricky figure to make work on screen, since fictional characters feed off their interrelationships with one another to become real and engaging. Someone else has to care about them before we can. Watney is alone for ages, and we get very little interaction with his team-mates, but what makes us go with him is his relationship with US, via the vidcams dotted around his Martian “hab.” Implausibly, these all provide a 3D image, something I guess you just have to go with, but it’s worth it.

Saw the film with an actual botanist, who thought it plausible enough except that Martian sunlight would be rather weak for growing veg, and Damon should have swept the red dust off his skylight to help things along.

“…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.”