Archive for John Landis

Not the Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2019 by dcairns
From Z: “Any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.”

No intertitles in Costa-Gavras’ films, that I’ve been able to find. Plenty of writing on the screen, though.

Since the stories he tells are often based on true ones, or set in real historical situations, the use of text is sort of genre-appropriate. Although I don’t think we can really argue that it’s a technique taken from documentary — the history of fiction films starting with a superimposed crawl stating the time and place and what’s happening politically is a very long one — it’s true that this approach literally turns the film into a document for the duration of the text.

C-G can begin a film with a scene-setting graphic, as in UN HOMME DE TROP ~

Since this is a Harry Saltzman production, this MIGHT be the work of an uncredited Maurice Binder. I do hope so!

He can use a superimposed date to get over a jump in time, as in L’AVEAU, which cheekily identifies its first flash-forward as a hallucination, then treats the later ones as real ~

I like C-G’s experimental side. The relentlessly brutal L’AVEAU might be unwatchable without this ludic spirit.

The movie ends with Czech graffiti, subtitled. Does that constitute a kind of intertitle?


In C-G’s endings we sometimes learn about what happened after the events of the movie itself. Z has perhaps the best example of this ever, and it helps that the explanation of the title has been held back until the very end (spoiler alert, I guess) ~

It’s just a list of things banned by the Greek generals, culminating in the letter Z, which was forbidden because it could be used to say “He still lives.”

Where a Hollywood true story might tend to reassure us that the story we’ve just watched resulted in wrongs being righted (I’m generalising massively here), C-G tends to tell darker stories and he wants to send his audience out angry or determined, not reassured.

From SECTION SPECIALE — devastating in context.

I’m not usually crazy about the textual “future re-cap” ending. It can signify a failure on the scenarist’s part to effectively condense the true story into a cinematic narrative. And I usually find it a colossal cheat when it’s used in fiction films. I don’t like it in AMERICAN GRAFFITI *at all*. ANIMAL HOUSE, directed by C-G’s pal John Landis (who put C-G in three of his films as an actor, a record for this director-casting maniac) is OK because it’s parodying the form and the jokes are pretty good. MAGDALENE SISTERS is just confusing because the characters aren’t real, but they’re based on real stories… so are the hackneyed captions telling us about real people or fictional ones? It’s supposed to be devastating, but I found it irritating because I’m a pedant and a bad person, I suppose.

AMEN. (note the full stop) is a dicier example. It has two protagnists. One was a real person, Kurt Gerstein, a Nazi whistle-blower who tried to warn the world about the Holocaust while being deeply involved in it (it’s a fascinating and terrible story), the other is a compound character signifying various people in the Catholic Church who did various things to get the Pope to act (unsuccessfully). The film solves this conundrum by summing up Gerstein’s post-movie fate and remaining silent about the quasi-fictional Jesuit.

I would say that just as I slightly prefer Costa-Gavras’ more playful and quirky early work, where the nouvelle vague tricks in no way take away from the seriousness — in fact, they point it up — I prefer the use of text early on, because it has a similar wit. Playing with the docudrama conventions rather than subscribing wholeheartedly. Likewise, the two freeze-frames in UN HOMME DE TROP, capturing the moment of death for two characters, are much more striking than the standard-issue freeze endings of MUSIC BOX and BETRAYED, even though the latter, with the action actually juddering to a halt, is rather haunting ~


L’il Lil

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2019 by dcairns

We should have resisted, but Fiona and I remember when THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN came out in 1981 (the reviews! such bitter fury!) and so when we decided to do a podcast on the theme of miniaturisation (coming soon!), we thought we’d check it out. Curiosity can be a terrible thing, especially if it’s the morbid kind.

This started life as a John Landis project but became a Joel Schumacher one after the budget was slashed (a result of MOMENT BY MOMENT underperforming in 1978 — but by this time, NINE TO FIVE had been a smash, so the FX work in the movie is excellent). You can sense Landis’s fingerprints in some of the gags, but the sensibility is all Schumacher. Although never not capable of turning out a sickening turkey, Schumacher *did* get more technically able, and FALLING DOWN is actually impressive, in an icky, fascistic kind of way. At this point, he’s a terrible choice of director, since he overcuts furiously between one misplaced camera angle and another, which would be bad under any circumstances but is ruinous in a movie where Tomlin (for no reason) plays multiple roles and we have to believe they’re all inhabiting the same space, and where Tomlin on miniature sets has to interact with Charles Grodin et al on full-scale ones. The necessary Kuleshov-cohesion is lacking.

Weirdly, though this is written by Tomlin’s regular TV writer, Jane Wagner (they married in 2013), it doesn’t provide her with funny stuff to do. The role of a conventional suburban housewife and mother seems beyond her, though in fact other movies prove this is not true. If making THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN into a WOMAN makes a comedy of it, presumably this should rely on the character’s attitude to events, since the events themselves (falling down the garbage dispose-all, or into a cupboard full of scary, talking, moving, pissing dolls) are sort of the same. Indeed, it’s when the film’s at its most nightmarish that it seems most effective.

I’ve never seen Tomlin be bad in anything, but she’s generally uncomfortable to watch here: accidentally sliding on a skateboard the relative size of a surfboard causes her to open and close her jaw like an automaton — YA! YA! YA! Nothing human about it. So strange, because Tomlin is usually magnificent and one can’t see her taking any crap from a director (if you haven’t seen the video of her blow-up with David O. Russell, go check it out). But I guess Schumacher’s misguided notes (he seems quite sweet in interviews) would have been kindly delivered and therefore far more insidious.

The film’s central home is designed in nauseating cartoon pastels, making it look unreal and dollhouse-like before anything happens, one of those “false good ideas” that can derail any movie with money to spend. Adding to that a ghastly soft-focus aesthetic (to make Tomlin prettier?) results in a really unpleasant feel, like smother in rose-tinted cellophane.

(Criticisms of Schumacher — the former windowdresser — often have a homophobic sound to them. BATMAN AND ROBIN caused one Ain’t It Cool News correspondent to express the desire to murder the director with a hunting knife to the rectum. If we admit the existence of some kind of “gay sensibility,” Schumacher presumably has it, but it has nothing to do with whether he is a good or bad director. Spoiler: he’s mostly bad.)

“When I go to see a film and it has diffusion, I immediately walk out.” — Nestor Almendros.

The excellent Grodin is miscast in a role that makes you expect villainy, which he’s so good at, but the film is too chicken to knock the nuclear family. There’s a vague attempt at “satire” but rather than firing off in all directions it tends to implode: lousy corporate products can be bad for you, we’re told, as we watch a lousy corporate product. Which doesn’t have the nerve to point out that irony.

Weirdly, the film improves in its second half, which brings villains Henry Gibson (Tomlin’s NASHVILLE co-star) and Bruce Glover into play, along with “Richard A. Baker” (Rick Baker — took me WAY too long to figure that out) as a signing gorilla (the obvious gag of him holding a tiny Tomlin in his hand never materialises). Baker is the funniest ape since Charles Gemora in THE CHIMP, and Mark Blankfield is VERY funny, in spite of rather than because of the material.

Lily’s funniest moment is some good pratfalling, but I have an uncomfortable feeling it could be a stuntwoman concealed within that outsize glove puppet.

A movie starring Blankfield and Rick Baker as a gorilla still seems like an excellent idea, if anyone wants to make it.

Rubber Biscuit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2018 by dcairns

Was discussing something with Anne Billson on Twitter. Those shots where either a character moves on a dolly independently of the camera —


Belle in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, gliding eerily down a corridor of wafting curtains.

This ghost in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL — Cocteau maybe invented the trope and Castle maybe introduced it to Hollywood.

The implacable revenant in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, who never makes the mistake of moving like a normal living person. She teleports from room to room like Droopy (“I do this to him all through the picture.”), sits up in bed without the use of arms, rising like a drawbridge, then finally wheels forward through a rainbow of artfully gelled lighting, arms already in position for a spot of strangling…

Kathleen Freeman as the Penguin in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Landis’s parodic use of the supernatural glide is striking because the trope was scarcely in common use at the time. It wasn’t like the trombone shot/exponential zoom in his THRILLER video, where the gimmick was maybe on its way to becoming overexposed and thus ripe for parody. The nun on wheels (at the very end of the long clip above) feels like it could have been played absolutely straight in a real horror movie.

(I like to think they intended to hire Kathleen Byron as a scary nun but asked Freeman by mistake. But I know this is not true.)

Also, those shots where the camera moves WITH the actor, as if the actor were on wheels or the camera were attached, or both. There are two variations on this (well, two main ones) ~

At the opening of SECONDS, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe mount their camera on an actor via some kind of rigid harness, getting a whole range of eerie effects whereby the world lurches about, a drunken handheld nightmare, while the foreground shoulder or slice of face remains rock steady.

Another example of the same thing: Scorsese fastens on to Harvey Keitel for (appropriately) a drunk scene in MEAN STREETS, to the tune of Rubber Biscuit. Scorsese has also attached his lens to a boxer’s forearm to deliver a fist’s-eye view of a punch in RAGING BULL (blink and you’ll miss it) and to Willem Dafoe’s crucifix as it’s raised in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a novelty.

The other variation ~

Spike Lee is the main proponent of this one — camera and actor are moving in unison, but it’s a steady tracking shot, as if the actor is standing on the same dolly the camera moves on (and he is). Lee seems to do this in every film, and, distressingly, sometimes he seems to be doing it just to prove it’s him. His signature shot.

I used this one in my short film CLARIMONDE, back in the nineties — so Lee may have been the influence. I wanted a dreamlike effect and to show a character moving without free will. We didn’t actually have a proper dolly, just a tripod with castors, so I got my lead actor, Colin McLaren, to balance his feet on the castors and grip the top of the tripod so we could wheel him across the studio floor. I still like the result.

This whole slew of techniques seems to be without a name, unless I’ve missed something. I propose calling it the Rubber Biscuit Shot, even though Scorsese didn’t invent it and Spike Lee could probably stake a better claim to ownership. I just think Rubber Biscuit Shot sounds absolutely right for the weird, dislocating effect.