Archive for John Box

Catch a Falling Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2019 by dcairns

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is one possible answer to the question “What would a David Lean movie be like without David Lean?” A question nobody but Sam Spiegel would think to ask, I suspect. N&A may not be the best answer, but it’s the only one we have*. I assume Spiegel was jealous of his former star director’s box office triumph DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and thought he’d do one better.

Franklin J. Schaffner, who we like at least partly because his name is Franklin J. Schaffner — a name that positively chomps its own cigar — did some lively work on potentially lumbering epics like PLANET OF THE APES. He’d go handheld at unexpected moments. In PATTON we also see his flair for highly formal compositions to contrast with the explosive set-pieces. Well, the formal shots still turn up in N&A, but it could do with a shot of handheld chaos to get it on its feet.To speak of this film is to speak of tedium — the sheer amount of tedium makes it the film’s most interesting trait. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to cram so much boredom into a movie also containing a cast of thousands, a mad monk, one Russo-Japanese war, one world war, two revolutions, and both the cream of the British acting establishment and a lot of young and soon-to-be-nude hopefuls (Robin Askwith turns up just to rip the skin of a rabbit). And yet it’s quite remarkable how dull things are for long stretches.

Schaffner seems in awe of his material, so he’s on his best behaviour. Nobody’s at their best when they’re on their best behaviour. Designer John Box creates a very convincing Russia out of various Spanish and Yugoslav locations, but the great Freddie Young’s photography is surprisingly overlit much of the time. How did the wretched White Russians get their palaces to look like daytime soaps with only candles at their disposal. I don’t require the full BARRY LYNDON every time, but a bit of atmosphere would be welcome. (I’m only using the more gorgeous shots for this post — there are, admittedly, lots. But the movie only really impresses visually when it ventures outside, or when night falls, or when it’s dealing with the plotting Bolshies. (Michael Bryant makes a very good Lenin — his story would be worth telling.)And of course there’s Tom Baker’s Rasputin. If ever an actor and role were more suited on paper — Baker was an actual monk, ffs — I can’t think of the occasion. And while Baker is impressive and brings the stately proceedings to relative life (the only kind of life on offer), he’s actually disappointing compared to the version of “Tom Baker as Rasputin” that plays through my head when I think of that glorious phrase. I think it’s because all Old Greg’s atrocities, as portrayed here, are so mild and tasteful. His murder is pretty lurid — though utterly outdone by the Battle of the Barrymores in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. This one has lots of homoeroticism thrown in, though, including Tom making eyes (and WHAT eyes!) at a dragged-up flautist. It perks things up. Also some good snivelling hysteria from Michael Jayston’s ex-Tsar when he sees his missus for the first time after abdicating. Shame cuts the puppet emperor’s strings and he collapses lopsidedly. “I didn’t mean to do it!” is all kinds of pathetic. And he becomes human in our eyes for the first time.James Goldman (assisted or hampered by rewrites from Edward Bond) really can’t make us care about Tsar Nicky, an absolutely appalling leader combining weakness with arrogance, able to vacillate stubbornly and be obdurately spineless, neither of which should even be possible. The problem of “our son, the little bleeder” (if only they’d cast Burton & Taylor they might have gotten some healthy vulgarity into their show — but they’d probably still be shooting it) is supposed to make the royals sympathetic, but mainly it gives them a problem they can’t do anything about.

Goldman’s best idea is to show the Tsar becoming a better man after he abdicates, which is based on no particular historical evidence but at least gives him an arc. It doesn’t make much difference though, since the entire royal family is reduced to total helplessness at this point, passengers through their own story on their way to a historically foreordained execution.

For which Schaffner finally pulls out all the stops. His formal compositions are almost as striking here as in the celebrated opening of PATTON, and he milks the suspense — which ought to be nonexistent — a bunch of people with little personality who have done nothing effective or good for the previous three hours of screen time are about to die, and we know it’s going to happen — to breaking point. If it makes sense to milk something to breaking point. Can you break a cow? See NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the film that breaks a cow. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA stars Lewis Carroll; Cleopatra; Emanuelle ‘Bunny’ O’Neill; Pola Ivanova; Ralph Gurney – 13th Earl of Gurney; Goneril; Koura; General Allenby; Mr. Tow-Wouse; ‘Maxim’ De Winter; Harry Dominion; Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.; Professor Harrington; Wick Blagdon; Peter Brock; Mrs. Chasen; Robert McKee; Lord Ludd; Bilbo Baggins; Leopold Mozart; Encolpio; Bumbo; Woodrow Wilson; Wernher Von Braun; Master Robert Shallow; Colonel Breen; Timothy Lea; Sherlock Holmes; and the voice of Colossus.

Or, to put it another way, since none of the up-and-coming young thesps strutting and fretting here went on to more big movies (not right away, anyway), we have the future stars of THE MUTATIONS: THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Hammer House of Horror; SCHIZO; CRAZE… eventually, of course, many of them hit their stride again, but it really doesn’t look like this movie helped anyone.

*I tell a lie: Akira Kurosawa thought he was going to be co-directing TORA, TORA, TORA with David Lean, but got Richard Fleischer instead. Then he quit, and they hired Kinji Fukasaku, making T,T,T both a Lean film without Lean and a Kurosawa film without Kurosawa. Enjoy!


Fun in the Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 25, 2012 by dcairns

Thelma Schoonmaker was in town (yay!), participating in a forum on digital restoration. As a sort of discussion piece (but much more than that), we got to see the 8K restoration of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which has been fine-tuned since its appearance in Cannes (which makes this a world premier, in a way). Which inspired me to make the following geeky observation —

Gasim (I.S. Johar) abandons his belt and gear in the desert as he wanders, lost in LAWRENCE —

David Niven dreamily discards his kit on the beach in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Lean’s contribution to Powell’s films as editor is well known (49TH PARALLEL, ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING), but maybe there’s room for further consideration of Powell’s influence on Lean? Here, the shot height and framing isn’t the same, but there’s a similar feeling of the distracted character being towed along by the tracking camera, as if on invisible wires.

Lean’s camera takes the position of the sun, beaming brutally down on poor old Gasim from on high, whereas Powell’s hugs the earth as if afraid of falling upwards to heaven — the frame positions Niven as caught precisely between heaven and earth, wearing the horizon as a belt.

When Gasim is lost, Niven makes the desert as abstract as possible — there’s the giant painted sun, and shots which lay a featureless blue rectangle atop a featureless manilla rectangle with a straight flat horizon joining them like to slices of cut card. In Gasim’s shot, even the horizon and sky have been mislaid. Yet Gasim is traveling left-to-right, and Lawrence is going right-to-left, so in such a flat world they MUST find each other.

Freddie Young, ace DOP, talked about LAWRENCE containing only one special effect shot, a painting of the sun. And indeed, the commitment to doing everything for real is still awe-inspiring. If a filmmaker tried some of these shots today, the audience would simply assume they were digital effects. But Young didn’t quite tell the truth — there’s also a shot of twinkly stars which is faked up (skillfully), and if we want to really nitpick there are some studio scenes with fake backdrops by production designer John Box and his team. The various solutions to filming at night also involve some trickery —

PROBABLY this whole shot is an interior set, but even if not, that moon is definitely on a stick. Gorgeous, though, isn’t it? MUCH gorgeouser in 8K, though…

The Small Back Rooms

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2011 by dcairns

Zinnemann may be a realist, but he is also, like nearly all American filmmakers, an expressionist — that is, he uses music and composition and movement to inspire emotion, rather than simply recording emotions produced by his actors.

Here are three striking, felicitous rooms in F.Z.’s work — there are many more.

In A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, production designer John Box lived up to his name by placing Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey in a tiny office, where his bulk easily dominates the space. Apart from Welles’ desk and chair, there’s no furniture, so visitors have to stand. As a final masterpiece, the room is painted the same shade of red as Wolsey’s robes and burst capillaries, so that he seems to extend from behind his desk, across the walls and ceiling, embracing the nervous guest. It’s like being invited to an audience inside Orson Welles.

In OKLAHOMA!, all that Todd-AO space outside falls off into impenetrable lung shadow within Jud Fry’s smokehouse, where Rod Steiger lurks with his pornography and his killer ViewMaster®. This is probably the most palpably malodorous environment in any major American film, certainly in a musical. While the design and photography play a part, I think most of it’s down to Rod. His lumpen, perspiring form, exuding a sickening over-eager bonhomie, larded over with sullen pride and nursing an inner core of curdled semen, makes this a horrifically uncomfortable space. Zinnemann felt, on reflection, that he’d over-indulged Steiger, allowing him to create a dimensional, tortured figure out of what should have been a cartoon bad guy, thus badly overbalancing the movie, “and when he died the jubilation of the community was not echoed by relief in the audience.” Such is the brooding, stinky power of Steiger’s Jud, that even before he appears, the community’s vocal dislike of him strikes a bum note.

Finally, another large man in a small room. For an hour of screen time, we hear about the horrors of Ernest Borgnine’s stockade in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. It’s a place you don’t want to get sent. And yet we’ve never seen it, merely heard whispered descriptions — apart from these, all we have to base our anxiety on is Borgnine’s deplorable piano playing.

Well, we finally get there, in the company of Sinatra, whose much-mocked physical weediness is for the first time a huge asset. The room is very small and narrow, opposite in shape to Borgnine, who looks like he might burst the walls by inhaling too deeply. Sinatra is pitifully vulnerable, and as Borgnine raises his billy club, a small, uncomfortable movement of the prisoner’s eyes powerfully conveys the sheer vulnerability of human bone and muscle.

This is not the end of Fred Zinnemann Week! It’s just the end of the week. The case needs to be made for F.Z.’s later works, and I hope to make it, but we seem to have run out of time here. Expect the odd F.Z. post this coming week, live from Hollywood, and thereafter for the rest of the year, maybe one a week. I do want to write about THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS which are favourites, and I’ve already started pieces on BEHOLD A PALE HORSE and DAY OF THE JACKAL. As today’s post indicates, we may drop the chronological approach somewhat, but I do hope to touch on all the films…

The author prepares to mete out corrective discipline to Zinnemann doubters.