Archive for Judy Dean

Watching and Waiting: Desert of the Tartars

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2014 by dcairns

A regular contributor to the blogathon, Judy Dean, tackles a true late masterpiece for us this year.

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“I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness… “ (Valerio Zurlini, 1926 – 1982)

Nothing illustrates this statement more effectively than Zurlini’s last film, Desert of the Tartars, made in 1976.  Adapted from the 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English under the title The Tartar Steppe), it is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, an idealistic young army officer setting out for his first posting to an isolated frontier fort.

He explains on arrival that he has been assigned to the fort by mistake and wishes to apply for a transfer but is persuaded, in the interests of his career, to stay for two months.  Caught up in a web of surreal Catch 22–like bureaucracy, and clinging to the vain hope that one day there will be an attack on the fort and his dreams of military action will be realised, Drogo’s two months turn into twenty years.

Buzzati, an Italian journalist, said that “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night shift I was working on at Corriere della Sera in those days.  It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.  It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people.”

Indeed it is.  You may not be a soldier, you may not be young, or male, but if you have ever begun a job with high hopes only to find yourself sometime later trapped by inertia, by familiar routine, aware your life is slipping away but apparently powerless to prevent it, then you will find Drogo’s situation all too familiar.

The novel, described as a surrealist masterpiece and most often compared to Kafka and Orwell, became an international best seller and several major directors, including Visconti, Lean and Antonioni, expressed an interest in adapting it for the screen.  However, the film rights were held by Jacques Perrin, the young French actor who had appeared in two of Zurlini’s early features – Girl with a Suitcase (1961) and Family Portrait (1962) – and when, in the seventies, he got together the financial backing, Perrin turned to the man he regarded as his mentor.  Perrin took the lead role as well as co-producing while Zurlini directed and is also credited with the Italian dialogue.

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To play Drogo’s fellow officers an extraordinary international and multi-lingual cast was assembled. The characters portrayed by Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant depict different responses – ennui, stoicism, delusion, fanaticism – to the tedium of a military routine that is punctuated only by false alarms and dashed hopes.  How the casting was achieved is not entirely clear.  Was Zurlini’s reputation among actors riding high at the time?  Perrin’s character has much of the screen time and this illustrious group is given little to work with, but does so supremely well.  Trintignant, for example, playing the garrison doctor, has about four lines of dialogue and Fernando Rey, an ageing Colonel, none at all.  Did some end up on the cutting room floor?  Who knows?  If only we had a director’s cut.

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Two lesser known actors make striking contributions.  Laurent Terzieff, primarily a stage actor, plays Count von Amerling, a sickly Lieutenant, whose treatment at the hands of the sadistic Major Matti results in his death. Terzieff has as few lines as other cast members, but his face alone ought to ensure his place in the annals of cinema.

Major Matti is played by Giuliano Gemma, a former stunt man and better known at the time for sword and sandals epics, but whose performance here was to earn him a Donatello Award.

But it is not the performances, excellent though they are, for which this film is remembered, but its setting, one of the most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – in film history.

Drogo’s nationality is never made explicit, and the uniforms give nothing away.  Some commentators have assumed the fort to be located on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that is surely too literal an interpretation.  The film starts conventionally enough with Drogo leaving his small-town home, having bid farewell to his mother and fiancée, and setting out on horseback across green meadows.  He says to his companion, a fellow cadet who has come to see him off, that he doesn’t know what the fort looks like, only that it is distant.  In the next shot he is traversing a featureless, rock-strewn desert of a kind unknown in Europe to the accompaniment of an eerie Morricone score.  Clearly, this will not be the standard military adventure the title sequence leads us to expect.

Zurlini, a passionate art collector and student of art history, is reported to have been inspired, in his search for the right location for the fort, by this painting of Giorgio Chirico entitled La Torre Rosso.

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But elsewhere, the choice is said to have been determined by incentives offered to filmmakers at the time by the pre-revolutionary government of Iran.  As one of Perrin’s co-producers is Bahman Farmanara, who went on the following year to produce Kiarostami’s first feature, this may well be the case.  Whatever lay behind it, the final choice was stunningly effective.  The film was shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South-East Iran, close to the Afghan border.  A Silk Road fortress, dating to the 5th century BC, Bam was the largest adobe complex in the world, covering an area of more that 180,000 square metres and surrounded by seven-metre high walls.

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It’s necessary to use the past tense because in 2003 the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in which many thousands in the city lost their lives.  The film has therefore become a poignant reminder of its former glory.  Bam is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the current regime in Iran, with international aid, is undertaking restoration work but its long-term future is far from secured.

The film achieved some commercial and critical success in Europe, especially in Italy where in 1977 it won Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Director (as well as Giuliano Gemma’s aforementioned acting prize), but it was never released in the USA.

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Zurlini committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 56, possibly as a result of financial and alcohol problems.  Here’s what Claudia Cardinale who appeared in Girl with a Suitcase said of him in an NFT interview in 2003.  “He was a wonderful director and a man of great refinement.  His apartment in Rome was full of wonderful paintings.  We became close friends; he gave me one of his paintings after that film.  Then one day in 1981, he invited me to his apartment in Rome.  When I got there the place was bare.  Everything sold.  There were only packing cases.  He ordered in a gourmet meal and we ate it off packing cases.  Then he went to his home in Venice (sic) and killed himself.”  (Other sources give his place of death as Verona.)

Never as well known outside of Italy as he deserved, Zurlini’s reputation went into a decline following his death, but despite something of a revival in the past decade, thanks to DVD releases and retrospectives, there is still a dearth of information about him (at least in English) and you will search in vain for his name in the reference books.  A re-evaluation is long overdue.

My thanks go to Rolland Man of the University of Edinburgh on whose recommendation I first saw this superb film.

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The Shooting Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean writes about James Mason’s final screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY.

What is it about the English country house weekend? From PG Wodehouse to Agatha Christie, from Gosford Park to Upstairs, Downstairs, we are by now so acquainted with its rituals that, even before Downton Abbey came along, most of us could give a detailed, if perhaps clichéd, account of one. We may never have dressed for dinner or circulated the port or – as would have been more likely for most of us – polished the boots of the gentry, but we are very familiar with the class distinctions, and the habits and attitudes of both servers and served.

I feared The Shooting Party, the 1985 film in which James Mason makes his last appearance, might have nothing new to say on the subject, but it goes some way towards subverting the stereotypes and confounding our expectations. Adapted from Isabel Colegate’s prize-winning novel, it’s directed by Alan Bridges, who was known mainly for his TV work, but who had won the Palme d’Or in 1973 for The Hireling, based on LP Hartley’s period novel about an inter-class love affair.

The Shooting Party is set in the autumn of 1913 and from the very start presages the coming conflict. It opens with a shot, in black and white, of a procession of people walking across an open field, a stretcher party in their midst. It’s clearly England in peacetime, and there are women in the group, but it powerfully evokes WW1 footage.

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The film then switches to colour and introduces us a group of guests assembling at a country house for a weekend of pheasant shooting, horse riding and fine dining and, for some, flirtation and adultery. The film boasts a particularly fine cast. Here are Edward Fox as Lord Gilbert Hartlip, a crack shot unhappily married to a spendthrift and faithless wife (Cheryl Campbell), Robert Hardy as Lord Bob Lilburn, the genial, buffoonish husband of a beautiful young Judi Bowker, and Rupert Frazer as a rising lawyer with literary leanings who is in love with her. Their hosts are Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie Nettleby (James Mason and Dorothy Tutin). Later John Gielgud, Gordon Jackson and Frank Windsor are added to the mix.

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Mason’s part would have been played by Paul Scofield had it not been for an accident on the first day of filming that nearly cut a swathe through British acting talent. Five of the men in the cast were being filmed arriving at the shoot in a horse-drawn brake. The driver’s footplate gave way and he fell to the ground between the horses and the brake, with concussion from a blow to the head. The driverless horses panicked and headed at speed for a low hanging beech tree and then turned sharply to avoid a fence line. The brake overturned and those who had not already jumped clear were thrown out. Scofield’s leg was badly broken and he was hospitalized for several weeks while Fox sustained broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

There was a hiatus while a replacement for Scofield was found. Eventually, the BBC (one of the film’s backers) released Mason from a TV role he was working on – a piece of exceptional good fortune for the production team as it’s doubtful if even Scofield could have given a finer performance.

Mason’s Sir Randolph is a thoughtful and benevolent employer who commands respect, even from the local poacher, and the Lloyd George supporters who gather in the pub. But where he differs from most of his class is in his doubts about the justice of privilege and his awareness of changes on the horizon. In a voice-over that accompanies the opening shot we hear him say “Life was extraordinarily pleasant for those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the right place. Ought it to be so pleasant? And for so few of us? …….. Might war cleanse us of our materialism? Our cynicism, our lax and lazy hypocrisies?”

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Similar concerns about the existing social structure are aired throughout the film, and objections voiced to the culture of killing for sport and male competitiveness. It’s disconcerting therefore to hear the producer, Geoff Reeve say in a 2006 interview that he optioned the book because it “seemed to embrace the values and beliefs I held at that time. Apart from believing in God, we believed in the British Empire and, if you like, the lord of the manor …….. Very old fashioned ideas. And The Shooting Party endorsed those beliefs.” I’m sure the book’s author would have been surprised to hear this, and it’s clear that Julian Bond, the screenwriter didn’t share Reeve’s view.

The script is, however, not the film’s strongest point, even though it received a BAFTA nomination. Bond, who had worked exclusively in television up to that point, generously admits it lacks the book’s complexity and that whatever depth and meaning it has is mainly thanks to the actors.

Mason is especially effective in two scenes, one humorous, the other poignant. In the first John Gielgud, playing an animal rights activist bent on sabotaging the shoot, walks in front of the guns with a placard bearing the message Thou Shalt Not Kill. He is brought before Mason and the conversation that follows, in which they discover a common interest in pamphleteering, is sheer joy.

The film’s climax is the accidental shooting of the poacher (Gordon Jackson). While he lies dying, Mason offers comfort and reassurance and together they recite the Lord’s Prayer. The scene could have been mawkish in the hands of lesser actors, but here it’s done with great delicacy and genuine emotion. Both Frank Windsor and Rupert Frazer who appear as bystanders recall the profound effect on them of witnessing the performances at close range.

It’s worth noting that Gordon Jackson, playing an Englishman, reveals his Presbyterian roots by reciting the Scottish version of the Lord’s Prayer with its reference to debts rather than the Anglican trespasses and I suspect that Bridges chose to leave this in rather than go for another, possibly inferior, take.

The rest of the cast is no less impressive. While negotiations for Scofield’s replacement were taking place, Bridges shot a delightful small scene between Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker. Told to take their time over it, for there was nothing else that could be filmed, they turn a seemingly trivial discussion about cufflinks into a subtle and revealing portrait of a marriage.

The delays caused by the accident meant it became impossible to film the script in its totality. Apart from financial problems, the weather was becoming too wintry and the shooting season was drawing to a close. It had been planned to follow the fortunes of the male characters as they entered the war, but instead it was decided to close the film with a reprise of the opening shot of the party walking across the field with what we now know to be the poacher’s body. This time it’s in colour, with captions telling us where and when the men were killed in action.

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Mason was shown the finished film but died of a heart attack aged 75 in July 1984 only six months after shooting was completed and before its cinema release. He was posthumously named Actor of the Year by the London Critics Circle, an award he richly deserved.

Judy Dean

UK DVD: The Shooting Party (Collectors Edition) [DVD]
US DVD: The Shooting Party

Steam Heat

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2010 by dcairns

Special Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean offers this entry to THE LATE SHOW: THE LATE FILMS BLOGATHON —

Steaming is notable for being the last film made by three of its collaborators; Joe Losey, Diana Dors and cinematographer Christopher Challis.  I’m happy to report that Challis is still alive at 91, but Losey and Dors, who were both in poor health at the time of the shoot in early 1984, died shortly afterwards, she in May of that year aged only 52 and he a month later at 75.  It’s sad therefore that this talented team should have produced a work of such disappointing quality and that their careers ended on what must be regarded as a low note.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start.  Casting problems, wrangles over nudity, crew changes and an inflexible set all played their part but the root of the film’s failure seems to lie in its unsatisfactory script, adapted from Nell Dunn’s stage play by Losey’s wife, Patricia.  She and Losey had seen the play together and his biographer reports her as saying “I was so enthusiastic and certain about it that I asked Joe that night to let me do the adaptation.” Losey was apparently anxious to launch her screenwriting career so she would have a means of support after his death and, although others had a hand in it, the script is mostly her work and the inexperience shows.

Even an unrepentant second wave feminist like me finds it hard to watch films from the period such as Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’autre Pas and  Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman without a slight wince of embarrassment but Steaming had me groaning aloud with my head buried in my hands.

Set in a women’s bath house in East London and with an all-female cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, it’s crudely put together, full of puzzling non sequiturs and riddled with stereotypes.  They’re all here – the abandoned upper class wife and mother regretting her years of domesticity, the successful career woman longing for a child, and the working class victim of domestic violence who goes back for more.    Why two wealthy women should meet regularly at a shabby east end baths with threadbare towels and cracked tiles instead of an upmarket spa is inexplicable, except for the purposes of a plot that requires them to complete the film’s social class jigsaw.  What unites them is, predictably, their suffering at the hands of men and, for much of the film, the trio sit around in various stages of undress relentlessly bemoaning male shortcomings until even Andrea Dworkin would shout “Enough!”

The manager, played by Dors, is aware of a plan by the local council to close the baths but script and editing blunders result in her not mentioning it to her customers until about half way through the film.  The emphasis then shifts to their campaign against the closure. Unlike the play, the film gives us a happy ending in which the baths are given a temporary reprieve following an impassioned speech to the council (delivered off screen) by the working class woman who – yes, you’ve guessed it – has finally found her voice.

Apart from these four characters, and a rather baffling widowed mother and her daughter whose problems are never fully explained, there is only one other speaking part and we see little evidence of the hundreds of women who, the manager asserts, use the baths every week.  This means the cast have to adopt the kind of frantic mugging that is called for whenever a few people have to convey the impression of being many. An excruciating party sequence requires them to become over excited by a few balloons and sandwiches, and leap to their feet and start dancing manically and badly to undanceable music, invariably a hallmark of a bad film.

Acting styles are far from consistent. Vanessa Redgrave (abandoned upper class wife) and Sarah Miles (career woman) attempt to inject a note of screen naturalism into a theatrical script. As the working class woman, Pattie Love (who played the Sarah Miles part in the original Theatre Royal Stratford production) engages in that style of stage acting that, to quote Quentin Crisp, “embraces us with semaphore gestures and tells us her secrets in the voice of a town crier.” Only Diana Dors manages to look at ease in front of the camera.

If more effort had been made to address the play’s shortcomings, it might have been a better film but it does nothing to transcend its stage origins and they differ very little.  Pages of dialogue are lifted verbatim and there are no exterior shots, the set being made up entirely of a series of rooms within the baths. Losey did not see this as a problem, or chose not to, and told his cast and crew “In my experience cinema can be used in many ways: one of them is to increase enclosure rather than the Hollywood cliché of ‘opening up’.”

Christopher Challis, who was brought in at the last minute after Douglas Slocombe turned the job down, had previously worked with Losey on Blind Date. In an interview with David Caute (Losey’s biographer), Challis described the set as a disaster. “We repainted it, but nothing would float, you couldn’t move anything.  It was wedged in with backing.  The script described atmospheric weather outside, but it was impossible to get it from inside.” One outcome is that there is no sense of the passing of time and it’s not at all clear if the events take place over days, weeks or months.

Caute’s book also reports Slocombe’s damning verdict. Not wishing to offend Losey, he made the excuse that his asthma couldn’t cope with the damp atmosphere, but in reality he hated both the play and the script. ‘I thought it was a nasty, cheap thing for Joe to do, and I thought doing this will kill him.  It did kill him.  Sad to end on that note.”

The film’s reputation has not improved over time and, like the play, has attracted more attention for its glimpses of the naked body than for its political intentions.  Looking at the keywords allocated to it by IMDB (always a revealing exercise) we find the following; female full frontal nudity, female nudity, independent film, based on play.  No feminism there, then.   Of the three user comments on it on the same website, one is from a woman who had to decide whether to accept one of the nude roles in a local stage production, the second from a man who describes it as a ‘British nudie cutie film’ and the third from someone whose comments on other films such as Basic Instinct 2, Intimacy, Sirens, Full Body Massage, Showgirls and Love Crimes leave us in no doubt as to where his interests lie.

It’s significant that Christopher Challis’s autobiography does not mention the film at all.  In fact, there’s a strange omission in his filmography that forms an appendix to the book.  For every other film his name appears as either camera operator or photographer, but the entry for Steaming gives only the names of the producer, writer, director and stars.  Was this deliberate?  A proof reading error?  A Freudian slip?  Let’s just hope that in 1984, when he was 65, he was already planning to retire and not driven to it by his involvement in Steaming.

To end on a more positive note, Challis’s book, aptly titled Are they really so awful?, is the most level headed and good natured account of the filmmaking process I have ever read. It tells the story of his rise from trainee to DoP and his encounters along the way with temperamental colleagues with disarming modesty and considerable tact.  Yes, he concludes, they were awful, but he liked them.

References

Caute, David.  Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. Faber and Faber, 1994

Challis, Christopher. Are They Really So Awful? Janus Publishing Company, 1995