Archive for John Huston

Two Hundred Million Maniacs!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2015 by dcairns

The Blogathon is GO —

David Ehrenstein visits the land of THE DEAD here. The last John Huston.

I try to consider the merits of BUDDY BUDDY in five-line verse at Limerwrecks. The last Billy Wilder.

But here on Shadowplay, the very-much still active Matthew Wilder considers the not-quite-last effort of Herschell Gordon Lewis and finds it TIMELY —

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TWO HUNDRED MILLION MANIACS! by Matthew Wilder

Why, just this morning Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were trying to out-harsh each other in coming up with “Muslim registry” scenarios—the crescent moon perhaps subbing for the yellow Star of David. At the same moment, there was some question as to who it was that Ben Carson was calling “rabid dogs”—bad apples among the Syrian refugees (not sure who that might be) or just Muslims generally? In any case, the top three Republican options as of Nov. 20, 2015, were Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina—the unsuccessful CEO of Hewlett Packard who has successfully marketed herself as a mixture of Sheryl Sandberg and old-time religion. (Her dominant campaign meme is a description of a late-term abortion that appears never to have existed.) It’s clear that showmanship trumps substance—or is it? Are voters aware of what they want, and wish to “act out” more than act? (That’s what all the Occupy protesters, save maybe a few in New York, did.) Are Americans being sold a bill of goods, or are they, as per this interactive economy, writing their bill of goods themselves?

The most trenchant movie analysis of the politics of 2015 comes from 1972. And no, it’s not Michael Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE, an inquiry into the bake-off nature of modern American politics that still entertains; nor is it TOUT VA BIEN, Jean-Luc Godard’s and J.P. Gorin’s whirlwind farce about strikers and bosses and the delirium in between. Instead, it’s a little, almost lost movie called THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! by one Herschell Gordon Lewis. Now—is this “late style,” you ask? Well, it literally is: HGL abandoned the cinema full time after THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO!, and went, oh so tellingly, into the world of marketing. (People in the world of marketing tell me that Herschell Gordon Lewis is a known name—and not for his splatter movies.) What is appealing about THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it deconstructs the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the contemporary marketing of candidates in strangely hyperreal, real-time terms: there are moments as literal-minded as the key scenes of PRIMARY or THE WAR ROOM or other classic campaign docs. One expects cartoonish buffoonery from Herschell Gordon Lewis, but instead he paints a queasily familiar world.

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A giant riff on the Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg A FACE IN THE CROWD, YAHOO is less histrionic, less preachment-filled and more convincing. Here, a group of party consultants—the 1972 ancestors of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove—tell the powers that be that their candidate (who remains off camera, but is described as a Mitt Romney-like dullard) just ain’t gonna cut it. The incumbent is a liberal as gray and anemic as Gore Vidal in BOB ROBERTS, maybe a little more so: as played by Robert Swain, this Senator Burwell looks like a cross between Robert Lowell and the mad-doctor character from REPO MAN. Anticipating the Reagan revolution to come, the party analysts see that Burwell can be beat. The incumbent Governor has a long list of hacks to put up against Burwell, but the analysts aren’t having it—they want a pop star.

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One of the glories of THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! is that it never moves in the direction you expect. When the string-pullers decide they want a country singer, we expect Hank Jackson (Claude King) to be a grinning, manipulative ape like Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes in FACE IN THE CROWD. Instead, our first glimpse of him at work shows him wowing a crowd with a Goth-dark slice of psychedelic country that rhymes “no hope” with “rope”: Jackson and his band are like the Joy Division of Nashville. Soon enough, in a brilliant touch of Lewis-ian irony, Hank’s gloom song has been repurposed as a campaign song…for a commercial where the word HOPE hangs in space like a mothership filled with Obama t shirts.

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Shot, like all Lewis’ movies up to this point, in the rancid, postcard color of Educational Films, YAHOO! never quite reaches the level of frenzy of, say, HGL’s equally exclamation-pointed TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! But what fascinates about it is how Lewis’ fascination with the mechanics of marketing drives him to render the making-of-a-fascist scenes in eerie, unfurling microdetail. In one dazzlingly virtuosic scene, the main handler, Hollywood-born Sid Angelo (played by terrifying HGL veteran Ray Sager) shows his chops: Hank Jackson plays before an adoring throng who, when he announces he is running for the Senate, shriek and crash the stage in a giant mob. Sid calls “Cut!”—jarring us out of what seemed like a plausible case of spontaneous hysteria—and then directs the mob in how to be spontaneous and hysterical, drumming beat after beat into their thick skulls like a factory foreman. The movie is a relentless deconstruction of every kind of emotion-stirring political image, yet its invention never flags—Lewis always has some fresh weirdness in the wings.

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THE YEAR OF THE YAHOO! marks the point where governance ended and spectacle began. It was shot at the moment when Richard Nixon, still smarting from the first Watergate revelations, won a staggering landslide victory over George McGovern: Nixon’s Silent Majority theatrics overwhelmed McGovern’s almost unimaginably indie campaign slogan—“Come Home, America.” (If you’re gonna go down, go down like a saint, seemed to be McGovern’s motto.) YAHOO anticipates our present moment, where candidates have moved from being objects of fantasy projection, like Ronald Reagan, to the kind of magnetizing sheer trainwrecks seen on reality TV—one doesn’t want to be them, one wants to watch them writhe and squirm. This is a new phase of devolution: Voters want not to identify with a candidate and play make-believe, but rather want to sit and passively watch a nutjob’s antics, the more grotesque the better. In an age of the real-time Internet, all politics is as remote and creepily giggle-inducing as webcam porn. It’s not really meant to stir a fiery mob, it’s designed to be passively consumed by a supine spectator on a laptop.

YAHOO is the origin story of the depoliticization of politics—and somehow it’s eerily perfect that it was one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ drive-in movies and not a sober, inside-baseball work of mature satire like Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE. It also seems right that this augury of a post-ideological future was essentially HGL’s kissoff to the directing life. (He has been roused out of retirement a couple times in recent years to direct features that pay homage to his sixties splatter self.) It ends on a hopeful note—with a character who could’ve popped out of Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH as an ironic victor—but Herschell isn’t fooling anybody: tomorrow belongs to him.

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Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.

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The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.

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Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.

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And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.

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The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.