Archive for Ken Russell

News from Catland

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2021 by dcairns

The Benedict Cumberbatch cat movie is better than the Benedict Cumberbatch dog movie, in our view. Not just because the dog movie has no dogs, just shadow that looks a but like one, whereas the cat movie has actual cats, lots of them, some of which speak to us via subtitles, but because the cat movie is surprising, original, wonderfully moving, and because it is inside the realm of stuff B.C. can do compellingly well. Not that it doesn’t stretch him, but it stretches him into places he can actually reach.

You have to stick at it: Will Sharpe’s film, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, co-written with Simon Stephenson, documents the life of Edwardian cat painter Louis Wain, and his undiagnosable strangeness, and it uses several techniques that get it off to an uncertain start. There’s an omniscient narrator, Olivia Coleman, who sometimes makes it feel too much like a documentary, or worse, a tape-slide presentation — Arthur Sharpe’s score sometimes has a docu-quality too, the way it runs on from one scene through another — however, it is absolutely gorgeous, and weird, the best film score I’ve heard lately. The other problems seemed to me to lie in an over-fussy condensation of images, as if the film had been mired in post-production with a lot of competing voices arguing over the first act (there are twelve producers listed), and a tendency for the wide-angle lens to be observing from too far away or from the wrong side altogether. When it calmed down and simply observed the performances (Cumberbatch is great, Claire Foy is great) things immediately got better.

As an artist biopic, the natural comparison for it would be the works of Ken Russell — and the VO makes it early Russell. But it’s photographed inside the artist’s mind, so it also has aspects of mid-period Russell. The two best periods, arguably. And it’s its own thing, at the end of the day: not hugely like anything else out there.

Cumberbatch has a false nose, a distant stare, awkward body language, an accretion of old age makeup (very effective) — but it seems to me a truly FELT performance, not a bunch of tricks. Since Louis is always a step or two away from consensus reality, the early parts of the film also suffer a little from our difficulty in getting close to him, especially since his sisters, the other main characters at this point, are rather noisy and unsympathetic. Foy’s entrance into the film forms a bridge to Louis, allowing us greater access to his emotions. It clearly allows HIM greater access to his emotions, too.

Totally recommend this one, but you have to give it more than half an hour, brushing aside impatience and irritation and waiting for the catmagic to take hold. I picked up the director’s previous film, BLACK POND, a while back, now I must watch it.

The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2021 by dcairns

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.

Moses strikes poses

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by dcairns

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.