Archive for John Baxter

An Odyssey in Bits: The Fantasy Department

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2019 by dcairns

A spacecraft floats/falls through frame and at the exact moment we realise were going to lose it from view, the big blue balloon of Planet World drifts into view to replace it.

A series of different satellites and vehicles are picked up, as Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube begins, not without controversy, to play. Here’s Quincy Jones:

“But you can’t get too cute with that sort of thing. I was really bugged by the over use of Strauss waltzes in 2001. That would have been OK as a one-liner, but it bugged me when it developed into the main theme. I knew that Frank Cordell had written Mahler variations for a year and a half for that picture, and they threw it all out. Then Alex North came in and wrote about six reels, and everything he did was thrown out too. I’m sure that between them, those two composers came up with something a lot hipper and a lot more appropriate for a picture that important than what we finally saw. Kubrick had already made that kind of musical point in Dr. Strangelove with “Try a Little Tenderness.” I personally think 2001 is too important a film for this kind of cute musical self-indulgence.” 

Leaving aside the inaccuracies — there’s only one Strauss waltz in the movie and it isn’t the main theme, except of the two sequences it’s used for — does Jones have a point? I doubt anybody today has a problem with the use of library music here. Jones seems concerned that it’s too cheap-sounding for an “important” film.Kubrick’s treatment of his two composers was awful: Cordell was put to work with practically no instructions, whereas North only found out his score had been cast aside in favour of the temp track when he attended the premiere. Imagine sitting there and hearing Also Sprach coming up instead of your close-but-no-cigar title theme. And then thinking, “Oh well, he’ll have used the rest of it.” And then along comes Ligeti. And then The Blue fucking Danube. And on and on until, only after three hours can you be sure that your entire score has been binned. Ouch.

However, I think Kubrick was correct to prefer the Strauss and quite right to say those who had a problem with it were being affected by the associations the piece had for them: ball gowns and tuxedos and waltzing. Whereas he was merely trying to evoke “grace in turning,” which is what the music seems to do. Certainly putting it up over shots of the actual Danube, as Duvivier does in THE GREAT WALTZ, isn’t nearly so effective. Did Jones also object to Clouzot’s use of it in THE WAGES OF FEAR, where it partly accompanies a dance, and partly a truck lumbering homewards?The first spacecraft we see are a bit 2D: they move like photographic cut-outs. But then the big wheel space station hoves into shot and its rotary motion, and the shadows cast over itself by its spokes and ring give it a majestic sense of solidity.

The Pan American spaceliner reminds us that corporations will always let us down: like the neon Atari ads in BLADE RUNNER, they date the thing, although modern audiences probably haven’t even heard of PanAm so they won’t care. The bestest shot in the whole space ballet is when we, out of nothing more than sheer joie de vivre, we fly BETWEEN the rings of the space station. It’s not any of the five normally accepted motivations for camera movement, it’s just WHEE! And maybe making the camera behave like a spaceship. It never flies into position and stops in this sequence. Sometimes it observes from a sort of geostationary point, sometimes it sails past or towards or around the action. It’s a proper zero-gravity camera.This docking bay is VERY Death Star, isn’t it? About the only design trait Lucas’s film shares with Kubrick’s. Love the little windows, all showing, Escher-fashion, different gravities (because the station creates gravity by centrifugal force, and the docking bay is in the hub, gravity is pulling outwards in all directions.

Meet Dr. Heywood Floyd! He’s asleep at the moment but you might as well meet him now as he doesn’t get much more interesting when he’s awake. “I like to work with the best actors in the world,” Kubrick told Michel Ciment, so naturally he got the guy from GORGO and DEVIL DOLL. An American who happened to be a UK resident. But I’m OK with him. W.S. always seems both matter-of-fact and chummy, which suits the character of a space spook, a government guy and scientist. One of the bureaucrats ultimately responsible for HAL’s nervous breakdown, though the movie doesn’t make that clear.The floating pen is such a neat effect: it’s stuck to a big rotating pane of glass in front of the camera, and the stewardess gives it a very slight twist to detach it.

I don’t so much dig how the lines of seats are sunken either side of the central aisle, like a slave galley. Makes me fear that stewardess Edwina Carroll Heather Downham might step on his drifting hand with her grip shoe. Or trip over him and go literally flying.

But I guess the seats being in trenches is an excuse for the low angle showing off the grip shoes.Edwina Heather is very attractive: a flashback to those days when all airline stewardesses were young and pretty, to distract the anxious hetero male passenger, via her pulchritude, from his fear of a fiery death. As one lot of pretty girls retired to get married, the airline could replace them with new, younger models. No more.

TV screens. In-flight movies, shot specially for this movie, and computer read-outs, all running on 16mm. Here’s an extract from John Baxter’s Kubrick bio ~

‘He called me and Ivor Powell into his office one day on 2001,” recalls Andrew Birkin. “He had all these international model directories, and he’d gone through them, marking up all these girls.’

“‘We could get them in,’ he said, ‘for an audition.’

Birkin and Powell looked blank. ‘For what?’

‘We could always say we have to shoot one of those 16mm docking sequences,’ Kubrick mused. (The films of sports and news that appeared on TV screens in the PanAm shuttle sequences were all back-projected 16mm.)

‘But it was all a fantasy,’ Birkin says, ‘He never did it. He also had an obsession about meeting Julie Christie. He was always trying to work out some sort of scheme whereby he could audition her. I knew her a little, and I said, “I’m sure she’d come up if you just called her.” But he didn’t want to do that. It all had to go through the Fantasy Department.’

That’s kind of sweet, or as sweet as casting couch ambitions can be said to get. We could guess from EYES WIDE SHUT that fantasies of adultery were a part of Stanley’s very successful second marriage.The auditions for CLOCKWORK ORANGE don’t sound so sweet.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.

 

This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?

 

And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.

Attack of the Clonebaugh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 22, 2016 by dcairns

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So, I did a foolish thing. Following a conversation at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, I flashed on the fact that there had been no biography of Josef Von Sternberg. His magnificent autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, is too idiosyncratic to really count. I proposed the idea to a friend in publishing. And learned that, in fact, there had been a biography just a couple of years ago. Oops.

Of course it’s by John Baxter, who has practically monopolized the field of director bios. I checked it out — it’s not bad.

I was amused to learn that, while Sternberg was making army information films during WWI, his Germanic name apparently causing no problem at all, character actor Gustav Von Seyffertitz underwent a name change in order to be able to get work. What would Gustav Von Seyffertitz consider a reasonable, plausible pseudonym?

The name he went for, G. Butler Clonebaugh, is kind of memorable, I guess. Except that of the three film he used it on, it was spelled correctly just once, the other times manifesting as Clonbough and Clonblough. Which are both clearly far inferior names. Except that I can’t find any evidence that Clonebaugh even IS a name: it hasn’t been attached to anybody on the internet except Seyffertitz. Even the name Seyffertitz is more common.

Fun fact: You never see Gustav Von Seyffertitz and C. Aubrey Smith in the same shot. This is because of the superstitious fear shared by both men that if they met, their profiles would permanently interlock like the mosaic-creatures in an Escher print.

You can buy the Baxter bio: Von Sternberg (Screen Classics)