Archive for John Wayne

Wendy Light

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2013 by dcairns

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By sheer chance, the assistant technician in the Edinburgh College of Art film department happened to be in a bookshop in her native Brighton one day when she stumbled upon a reading by Oscar-winning cinematographer David Watkin, who had just published a limited-edition memoir under the title Why Is There Only One Word For Thesaurus? She picked up a copy, and that’s how I got to read this very rare book about one of my favourite film-makers.

Flash forward fifteen years or so, and Richard Lester generously lends me the second volume of that book, a greatly expanded rewrite, Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag? “He certainly had a gift for titles.”

The book includes more everything — more excursions into irrelevant but fascinating sidetracks on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Wilhelm Furtwangler and graffiti at Eton — more dazzling insights into the craft on filmmaking — more scandalous gossip and colourful character portraits. These are not really irrelevant at all as they add to the self-portrait of a man with interests outside of cinema. Not having to worry about his editor or his readership frees Watkin to simply write.

I was pleased to see that the second book was out of the closet. Watkin himself was too honest, I think, to ever seriously adopt a wooden shell around his sexuality, but as I remember the first book is deliberately obscure on this subject, though that didn’t stop the author including a chapter about how AIDS was undoubtedly manufactured in a lab to do exactly what it eventually did. Such hiding in plain sight is avoided in WCSAFH? and we get an ode to the virtues of rent boys and a gratifyingly frank discussion of the important men in DW’s life.

Also a glossary, which alternates between opinionated takes on various bits of film kit, and brilliant stuff like this ~

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX Often mistaken as an alternative to something, which it is not. Inside the box isn’t thinking.

And when John Wayne met Noel Coward ~

“Mr Coward, I’m John Wayne.”

Noel seized the outstretched hand and patted it reassuringly.

“Of course you are, dear boy, of course you are.”

Some of the best stuff is on CATCH 22, a gorgeous photographic job by Watkin, and a discomfiting experience for his American collaborators. Watkin was very British, but he also had his own personal way of shooting which didn’t correspond to any known school. Lester has called him a kind of primitive.

This seems as good a time as any to say that from the very beginning I have shot all my films for an audience of one, namely the director (though some of those may be surprised to hear it). It’s natural and I never thought about it — like a girl wishing to please a lover. If she is a sensible girl that does not mean doing everything the lover wants and there again, without needing to think about it, I was protected always by a deep respect for celluloid. Later on the phone Mike [Nichols, director] was telling us who strange he found the Brits. When contemplating my removal, he had asked Alan [McCabe, camera operator] how long it would take the crew to adjust to my replacement.

“No time at all — we’d all be on the plane with David.”

This was incomprehensible to Hollywood.

In fairness to Nichols, Watkin evidently drove him crazy: on the excellent commentary track he recorded with Steven Soderbergh, he reports Watkin creating such a forest of flags and lights for one scene that it became impossible to get the stand-ins out and the actors in. Still, Lester, a notoriously fast director liked Watkin because he could match his pace (and get beautiful and distinctive results).

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The book also explains one of CATCH 22′s most eye-popping special effects ~

Hungry Joe standing on a raft in the sea to photograph McWatt’s plane gets sliced up by the propeller, leaving only his legs standing. It may appear difficult but in fact there is a simple way to do it. A shield with two hand-grips at the back to cover the top half of the body, and covered on the outside with front projection material, could be held by the actor against a waist-band of make-up blood. With a brute positioned just above the camera on the shore the density of the shield could be matched to that of the sky behind it. The actor could then dance a jog for as long as required, provided he kept face-on to camera and fell off the raft backwards. It was safe and effective, its only drawback being that it was suggested by me. The special effects department had built a dummy that could be blown in half by an explosive charge and to my disbelief this method was insisted on. I have never seen anyone cut in half by an aeroplane but I do not believe that their demise would be attended by an orange flash and clouds of black smoke, whatever they’d had for breakfast. I said this with due modesty and diffidence but to no purpose, and several ludicrous attempts were made. Finally a hand from the disintegrating dummy got lodged in the tail-plane and the pilot nearly crashed into the sea. Only then, faute de mieux, was my idea adopted and within twenty minutes the shot was made that is in the film.

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(Actually, Nichols uses the exploding dummy in extreme long-shot, then cuts to Watkin’s effect, which is the amazing bit — the fact that the legs are clearly real and articulated sells the gag with horrific conviction.)

I told Lester something line producer David Brown once told me, that on his later films Watkin would have a return ticket to Brighton taped to the side of the camera. If anybody said anything he didn’t care for, he could simply point toward this, as if to say “I can leave whenever I like, you know.” We agreed that when you’re David Watkin, this is a perfectly reasonable position to take.

Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?: v.2: The Second Volume of an Autobiography Mainly, But Not Entirely, About the Film Business: Vol 2

Catch-22

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile –

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door –

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.’”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

Hollywood Forever

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2011 by dcairns

My LA jaunt wasn’t a sight-seeing tour, nor a social visit (managed to meet Glenn Erickson because he popped by, but only achieved a phone call with David E — both encounters I wished could have lasted much longer) but I did manage to see a couple of things…

This used to be Lana Turner’s house. And what’s this we can see lurking at the threshold – ?

THE GHOST OF JOHNNY STOMPANATO!

Knifed to death in the kitchen by Lana’s daughter Cheryl. By all accounts she was defending her mother from her abusive partner, a known gangster. Lana got Cheryl off by giving an award-worthy performance at the inquest — visible at 4.55 in this clip.

“Oh mother, stop acting!” Actually, I’m sure the emotion is sincere, but it uncannily resembles any of a dozen Lana Turner movie performances. Poor Lana had pretty bad taste in men: apart from Fernando Lamas (for God’s sake), she had relationships with Tarzan Lex Barker who sexually abused Cheryl, and Stompanato, who physically abused Lana.

This bijou bungalow belonged to Clara Bow, and is the site where she supposedly ravished the entire USC football team, including at the time a young John Wayne. I don’t believe this story though — the house looks too small to cram all those guys in, at least not without them removing their padding, which I think rather spoils the mental image. I totally believe the one about Tallulah Bankhead and the boy scouts though.

The DeMilles! I prevailed upon my generous hosts to give me a whistle-stop tour of Hollywood Forever, graveyard of the stars. I missed out on John Huston’s grave, which I imagine as the statue from the end of BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (hey, who wouldn’t want a weeping orangutan grave marker?) but caught DeMille’s, Hitchcock’s and Toto’s.

This was my day for recovering from jet-lag, and it was a suitably restful outing. Stayed so long it was too late to go on the Universal Studios tour, but I can’t imagine that being any better than this.

This is the last resting place of Doug Fairbanks Snr and Jnr. The inscription reads “Goodnight, sweet princes, and flights of angels sing the to thy rest. Adapted from Shakespeare.” Yeah. “It’s what you call a paraphrase.”

Still, you feel rather sorry for the Fairbankses when you see what they’ve got to face for all eternity… no, not a weeping orangutan (because that would be grand), but Joey Ramone.

Kind of tacky, no? I find it hard to conceive of a statue with an electric guitar in hand achieving the level of dignity suitable for a memorial, but perhaps this is mere snobbery. Anyway, this is what we came to see –

Valentino’s shrine. Fresh flowers, too — good to know the woman in black is still out and about. Given the historical duration involved, one has to suspect a dynasty of women is in operation, passing the flowers from mother to daughter like a relay-runner’s baton.

Interesting to find Rudy hemmed in by June Mathis and Peter Finch. Death makes for strange bedfellows.

And then my host dropped a six-pound award on his foot –

The disc of Melies’ moon made earthfall first, chipping the cement, then the award snapped in two and the heavy base landed on his toe. Suspected fracture. This necessitated a trip to another place of great interest –

“There’s Mr Skirball’s name again.” This is part of the motion picture retirement home, and thus of enduring fascination, especially to a fan of LA FIN DU JOUR, which is set in a retirement home for actors. I didn’t feel right buttonholing the resident crusties and demanding their life stories, however, so I contented myself with photographing the exhibits until politely ordered to stop.

Cooler even than Ann Miller’s Golden Boot Award (an item unlikely to inspire my host with warm feelings considering his recent experiences with golden awards and feet), cooler than Elsa Lanchester’s Dracula Society certificates, these caricatures by esteemed Hollywood-by-way-of-Romania director Jean Negulescu are lovely indeed. I can recognize everybody except the upper and lower central figures. What do you reckon?

And so, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we say a fond goodbye to Los Angeles — I love this pic, taken from my host’s back yard. The flash illuminates the foreground while the distance sinks into silhouette, creating an unreal effect not unsuited to La La Land. Dumb luck.

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