Archive for Kevin MacDonald

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns

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The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.

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The St Andrew’s Day Intertitle

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

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Finding intertitles from late movies to write about for the blogathon is always an interesting task. This one is from THE ADVENTURER, and it qualifies because this 1917 Chaplin short is the last appearance — or one of the last, he made four films that year — of Chaplin heavy Eric Campbell.

Chaplin never did find anyone to replace Campbell, although this arguably pushed his plots into more adventurous terrain. Soon after this, the leading lady stops being automatically Edna Purviance, and stops being a stock figure. The villains become a more variegated bunch, and the days of “a park, a pretty girl and a policeman” are over, in favour of more ambitious and sprawling narratives.

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THE ADVENTURER is much more sophisticated than any Keystone knockabout, but it’s still a very tight and simple farce, with Chaplin as escaped convict wooing Edna while trying to avoid the clutches (and truncheons) of the law and the machinations of music hall cad Campbell.

This same year, Campbell, who had a history of drunk driving, finally removed himself from the silent comedy gene pool in an auto smash. His ashes remained unclaimed for thirty-five years, and ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere at Rosedale Cemetery.

He’s an interesting figure. Kevin Macdonald made a documentary about him, CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH, predicated largely on Campbell’s status as a Scottish immigrant to Hollywood and funded by Scottish TV. Part of the film shows the placement of a memorial in the town of Dunoon, Campbell’s claimed birthplace.

But it turns out Campbell wasn’t from Scotland at all. He just liked to say he was.

He apparently thought it sounded more glamorous than Cheshire, or more in tune with the image of the burly, tough hard-drinking lummox. One wonders how Macdonald could avoid stumbling across this fact at some point in the course of making his extensively researched 54-minute film…

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It can at least be said that Campbell went out on a high, with THE ADVENTURER, THE IMMIGRANT, THE CURE and EASY STREET all appearing in that last year. Any one of them would ensure him glowering, mad-eyed immortality.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films volume 2 (1916) [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – Essanay & Mutual 3-Disc Steelbook Collection [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics – The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection

The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by dcairns

From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.

A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.

By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.

Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:

“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”

There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”

“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”

It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]