Archive for Julie Christie

The Look # 1: Julie Flashes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Julie Christie flashes the camera in BILLY LIAR.

I am reading and enjoying Geoff Dyer’s Zona — it really is as good as everyone says. The kind of book I’d like to write, if I could settle on a film and if anyone would agree with me on which film was worth settling on.

Dyer has plumped for Tarkovsky’s STALKER, and his discursive approach echoes the antics of a lively mind watching a slow film — sometimes totally concentrated on the sounds and images in front of him, sometimes darting off into memory or fantasy, inspired by the movie but running on a parallel track. Here’s Dyer on a moment when Tark’s characters seem to meet the camera’s gaze ~

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This is in direct contravention of Roland Barthe’s edict in his essay ‘Right in the Eyes’, that, while it is permissible for the subject to star into the lens–at the spectator–in a still photograph, ‘it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera’ in a movie. So convinced was Barthes of his own rule that he as ‘not far from considering this ban as the cinema’s distinctive feature…. If a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.’

Either the quotation is doing Barthes no favours, or Barthes is a silly man who hasn’t seen enough movies. “Don’t look at the camera!” cries Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW, playing a documentary director, ignoring the fact that in documentaries (which are, arguably, movies), characters looking at the camera actually ENHANCES the realism. It’s when they’re too good at pretending it isn’t there that the fly-on-the-wall approach starts to seem artificial, staged.

Nevertheless, in fiction films it’s true that there’s a convention — which only means that those, quite frequent moments when the rule is broken always seem mildly unconventional. In a mainstream film, the effect is noted, and the ticket-buyer says, “OK, this is a little unusual, but as long as the filmmaker doesn’t get too crazy, I’m going to allow it.”

My favourite video store story: two young men looking at prospective rentals. One picks up the Christian Slater vehicle KUFFS. The other says he’s seen it. “Any good.” “Aye, awright.” “Much action in it?” A micro-pause. “Ah… he talks to the camera.” Said as if this were, arguably, a form of action.

In BILLY LIAR, Julie’s lapse is momentary and obviously unintentional, but in good movies even flaws are good. This scene is already breaking from Billy’s POV, which makes it a violation of the movie’s own rules. If Julie is exceptional enough to merit a scene of her own, away from the prying eyes of the POV character, and devoid of any fundamental narrative purpose (well, it’s introducing Julie, swinging her handbag, and that’s ENOUGH), then surely she’s allowed to sneak a peek at camera operator Jack Atchelor. She’s Julie Christie, she has special privileges.

Inaugurating a little season considering some looks to camera, and what they might mean.

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The Russian Revelation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by dcairns

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DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.

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Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.

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Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.

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I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.

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I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.

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I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.

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Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.

Falling Don

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head” — statue outside the Church of St Nicholas in Venice, where DON’T LOOK NOW was filmed. Forty years on and they STILL haven’t got a head on that thing.

A story from Philip Kaufman’s commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — he was filming the climax, with Donald Sutherland gamely staggering around a catwalk high in the air in a big greenhouse, and a mutual acquaintance approached. “Is that Donald Sutherland up there?” Kaufman affirmed that it was, and his friend, with a note of panic, cried “Don’t you know he’s The Clumsiest Man Alive?”

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This makes Sutherland’s cameo as “The Accident-Prone Waiter” in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE much funnier, but adds a frisson of terror to DON’T LOOK NOW and several other Sutherland films. As Sutherland described it to Mark Cousins in a TV interview, the scene in DLN where he dangles from a rope at ceiling level in a cavernous Venetian church was originally going to be performed by a stunt man. But, he says, rather apathetically, the stunt man “wasn’t happy about something” and in the end Sutherland volunteered and did the dangling himself. He had a kirby wire running down his sleeve to a harness, securing him so he couldn’t actually fall.

Years later Sutherland is talking to another stuntman, who congratulates him on the awe-inspiringly dangerous sequence. Sutherland demurs: “I was quite safe, I was fastened to a kirby wire…” “But you were going like this,” says the stunt man, making a twirling motion with his index finger to indicate the way Sutherland spun helplessly on his rope. “Yes, I was.” “Well, when you go like that on a kirby wire, the kirby wire breaks.”*

Sutherland actually had premonitions of doom on the movie, feeling that it was such a tragic and death-haunted tale, somebody might actually have to die while making it. Fortunately for him, that was silly.

But one of the strange pleasures of re-watching the film with students — and it unlocks fresh pleasures each time — is the number of times poor Donald falls on his ass, or nearly so, during the show. Nic Roeg has him staggering along beside canals, blundering over barges, and straddling ledges fifty feet up… It’s all a touch ungainly. Julie Christie, meanwhile, negotiates rowing boats and the like with the grace and dexterity that only the Rank Charm School can instill.

What else — ?

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Odd framings, like this shot which picks up a sinister sign-post as a plank glides across the lower edge of frame like a shark’s fin.

Constant communication trouble: Sutherland speaks fluent Italian to his work crew, but whenever faced with an emotional question or a conversation with a woman, his language deserts him. “English… English…” he pleads abjectly.

Julie Christie sees a police sketch of one of the two sisters (vacationing from Scotland, though their accents are VERY English) — “It doesn’t really look like her.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Inspector Longi (how I’d love a whole series of films about his unsuccessful cases! Maybe he could team up with Harvey Keitel’s Inspector Netusil from BAD TIMING to fight crime ineffectually across Europe). He means, “It doesn’t matter since no crime has been committed and we’re no longer seeking her,” but what Christie understands, from her nonplussed expression, is obviously “It doesn’t matter if our sketches don’t resemble the people we’re looking for because that’s not their purpose.” Whole worlds of mystery open up at that thought.

The first view of Julie —

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This prefigures the film’s climax, which hinges on that uncanny lurch you feel when you approach somebody you know and they turn around and it’s not them. I first got this with a woman who wasn’t my mum in the supermarket when I was small. (“His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed.” ~ Chickamauga, by Ambrose Bierce.)

I was in Venice recently, making a side-trip from Pordenone on a free day after the Silent Film festival had ended, and I visited Donald’s church. It’s still there, looks the same, but doesn’t have any mosaics that I could see. They don’t let you take pictures inside as they fear the camera will steal away the Holy Spirit, I guess, but I snapped away outside. And no, I didn’t see any little figures in red macs. Fiona suggests the Venice town council should hire little people to dart about and peak from round corners wearing the appropriate plastic attire. She’s right — I think you’d only need about seven at a time to cover the city. You wouldn’t want them to become commonplace or anything.

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Donald sees a glove on a window ledge. I saw a segment of orange.

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*Sutherland has another great story about shooting Bertolucci’s 1900 which left him with concussion and a half-severed ear. I can tell it in the comments section if there’s interest.