Archive for Kill Baby Kill!

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

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Harry Potter and the Gashlycrumb Tinies

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by dcairns

We went to see THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Fiona’s urging, because the book’s a modern spook classic, the Nigel Kneale TV version has one of the greatest scares ever (even if it otherwise borrows a bit too freely from THE INNOCENTS), because it’s from the revivified Hammer, and because advance word was good. Didn’t know it was from James Watkins, director of the acclaimed EDEN LAKE (which I haven’t seen because it sounded too nasty for my squeamish side) but that’s good too.

The film, in which Daniel Radcliffe is terrorised by some other small children, as well as by the titular funereally clad lady, is proper scary. Admittedly it gets by on powerful BOO! gotchas rather than dragging the suspense out for as long as it might, but fans of Slow Creeping Terror will nevertheless  find much to be freaked by here. One shock moment — “That’s the sort of window faces appear at!” to quote Mr Withnail — made me scream like a woman, while another caused our friend Mr Brown to practically shoot vertically from his chair. I felt sorry for our dates, who were relying on us for manly protection.

The Victoriana is terribly vague — when is this supposed to be happening, exactly — but serves its atmospheric purpose in the best Hammer manner. Lots of vine-covered mansion, rattling carriages, puffing locomotives. Since this is a ghost story rather than an out-and-out horror, we’re deprived of what Philip Larkin approvingly called “tit and fang”, but I expect Hammer, still in the early days of new management, are limbering up for that.

Jane Goldman, the go-to girl for genre entertainment in the UK today (KICK ASS, STARDUST) pads out the slim plot with borrowings from Mario Bava’s KILL BABY KILL, inventing a rule that each sighting of the dreaded Woman causes… well, I won’t say exactly. In fact, spoilers are hard to come by here, since the plot is so slight and one-track. In a way it’s refreshing that it avoids major twists and reversals of the “He’s not who you think!” variety — it’s more like J-horror, and indeed the vengeful ghost is pretty much out of THE GRUDGE — she’s not open to negotiation.She takes a Hard Line.

Weakest element, as you may have guessed, is the man Radcliffe, who is never less than, well, physically present, and assumes a suitably worried expression throughout, but one can’t help, afterwards, imaging what a more substantial actor might have brought to the role.

Those who have seen THE ARTIST will recall the BANG! intertitle which serves a neat double-purpose (the film’s cleverest touch), seeming to mean one thing but instantly recontextualized by the following shot. Here, at the ending, of which I plan to give away NOTHING, there’s a similar switcheroo, with an image rather than a word being the ambivalent junction between two Schrodinger’s cat style possible outcomes to a single event. One solid, unambiguous image somehow serves as a signal-change shifting us from one reality to another… hard to describe, but I think you’ll dig it when you see it.

The Naked Lynch

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by dcairns

David Lynch has generally presented himself as a kind of naif, and “no cinephile”, working more from inspiration than influence. While this is largely true, and offers a useful explanation of how his films end up in the strange and wonderful places they do, I’ve noticed over the years a few moments that definitely betray the influence of specific other movies, some of which are equally revealing of Lynch’s approach…

YOJIMBO — WILD AT HEART. The dog with the human arm in his mouth,whom I’ve named “Murdo“, trots out of Kurosawa’s evocation of a no-horse town in 19th century Japan, and into a Texas bank. Actually, since the arm is found in the bank, perhaps we need to posit the existence of a time-traveling hound who scoops up a banker’s forelimb and absconds back to Edo period Japan.

Could happen.

Complicating the matter is Murdo’s appearance in both THE NEW YORK RIPPER and the TV show Lost

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR — WILD AT HEART — TWIN PEAKS. This Blake Edwards thriller (!) is graced  by a wonderfully scary performance by Ross Martin, who has one intense scene intimidating a teenage Stephanie Powers which seems like an unmistakable influence on the “fuck me” scene between Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern in WAH. But the IMDb mentions other salient connections between this film and Twin Peaks which I somehow missed on my first viewing years ago — the score by Henry Mancini obviously strongly influenced the roadhouse theme in TP, and there’s an actual Twin Peaks road sign at the start of the movie. Furthermore, Martin’s psychopath character is actually called Lynch!

THE RAPTURE — LOST HIGHWAY. Robert Blake’s first, memorably unsettling appearance in LH sees him amble up to Bill Pullman at a party, dressed in black and with an air of Uncle Fester about him, and engage our hero in a strange conversation, during which the party music and background noise fade slowly to silence. Then he ambles off again and the normal sound resumes. In Michael Tolkin’s THE RAPTURE, Patrick Bauchau does exactly the same, only with different dialogue. His Uncle Festerishness is produced not by a close-shaved head and eyebrows, but by a priestly cowl, but his effect on the party atmos is identical. Everything that is said in the scene is quite different, but the general shape is the same. Of course, Lynch’s version is both scarier and funnier than Tolkin’s.

Incidentally, I once asked Lynch about The Mystery Man. He declined to say whether the MM, who turns up with a video camera late in the movie, was the one sending video tapes to Bill Pullman’s house. But he did say, helpfully, “He’s someone we’ve all met.”

This example feels like Lynch might have switched on his TV a few minutes into THE RAPTURE, caught this scene, become fascinated, and decided to use a variation of it in a movie somewhere, perhaps even switching the TV off and never learning the movie’s name… not wanting to spoil the intriguing little scene with context and explanation…

KISS ME DEADLY — LOST HIGHWAY. LH being a “twenty-first century noir,” movie references are perhaps more prevalent than in other Lynch films. The exploding shack which appears, destroying itself in reverse (creating itself) amid a retracting fireball during the striking sequence where Bill Pullman transforms into Baltazar Getty, seems to evoke the exploding house at the climax of Aldrich’s 1958 ne plus ultra of noir. In fact, Lynch’s decision to film the shack exploding was one of his last-minute on-set inspirations. Filming the climactic  reverse transformation later in the movie, which takes place in front of the shack, he suddenly flashed on the image of the building exploding. “So I asked the special effects guy what kind of really high-powered explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”

THE KILLERS — OUT OF THE PAST — LOST HIGHWAY. LH repeats the noir plot device that when a man wants to disappear, he becomes a garage mechanic in a small town. Both Burt Lancaster, an ex-boxer, and Robert Mitchum, a former PI, manage this surprising career change. (A garage also features in BLUE VELVET, and both this film and LOST HIGHWAY feature disabled African-Americans among their staff. Not sure what we can make of that except that Lynch likes what he likes.)

THE WIZARD OF OZ — WILD AT HEART. This is really too obvious to need elucidating, and besides, the OZ references doubtless originate in Barry Gifford’s source novel. In fact, the Gifford-related movies tend to have more intertextual stuff than the others, however —

GILDA — MUHOLLAND DR. Not only does the amnesiac Rita derive her name from a poster for this movie, but the audition scene where Naomi Watts plays a scene of hatred as if it were a love scene is a clear paraphrase of a similar scene between Glenn Ford and Rita Hyaworth in the classic noir. SUNSET BLVD also seems to inform this film, but in a more diffuse way that’s hard to pinpoint through direct comparisons.

And now a weird one —

TALES OF HOFFMANN / KILL BABY KILL —Twin Peaks (last episode). In the spooky finale of his hit TV show, Lynch redeems the series from its second-season slump with a prolonged sequence set in the Red Room, or Black  Lodge. At the climax of this, the good Kyle MacLachlan is chase by a bad Kyle MacLachlan down a repeating series of red-curtained rooms and corridors. This seems to relate both to the chase through a single, endlessly looped room in Powell & Pressburger’s filmed opera-ballet exercise in pure cinema, but also to a chase through repeating rooms in Mario Bava’s delirious low-budget psychedelic period horror movie (which also inspired Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT). The malevolent doppelganger also reminds me of the last episode of The Prisoner and the revelation of Number 1.

The one-armed man in Twin Peaks was originally written in as a throwaway nod to The Fugitive, but when Lynch realized what a great actor Al Strobel was, he enlarged the role greatly and made it (somehow) central to the series’ mythology.

Anyhow, these little references and influences point to a slightly different picture of Lynch than the usual one, although these examples are all from post-BLUE VELVET movies — I don’t think the earlier Lynch films reference cinema nearly so much. I suspect his childhood and personal fantasies supplied all the initial impetus he needed, and then the longer he’s worked in film the more movie quotations have seeped into his work in an osmotic fashion. The point is not to denounce him as a thieving swine, but merely to point out the more complicated relationship his cinema has with other movies.

Please jump in with any other examples you may have spotted!