Archive for King Kong

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

Dynamation Emotion

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday was spent, much of it, at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, strolling through the extensive Ray Harryhausen, Titan of Animation exhibition. Which was basically heaven. Of course I’m going to criticise it a but because I’m an ingrate, but —

The silhouettes are animated. A really nice effect.

I’d seen a few of Harryhausen’s models in the flesh (or fur and steel and latex) at various times. Once, at the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema at the Scottish National Museum, there was the magical moment when he produced a skeleton, complete with miniature travel coffin, and within an instant every child in the auditorium teleported down to the edge of the stage to get closer to it, each perhaps imagining that Ray would hand over the precious figurine for them to play with, or perhaps make a very short movie with.

And Berlin’s fantastic film museum had several of the creatures on display (we don’t call them monsters).

But this was much more extensive and just better. The addition of drawings and home movies elevated it.

I really wanted to see the planned WAR OF THE WORLDS. The tiny bit of test footage is mouth-watering. I suppose we’d have to trade it off — George Pal’s beautifully-mounted version couldn’t exist in the same version as Ray’s — but we’d have tripods and tentacled Martians and, I submit, it would be worth it.

The exhibition features several specially-made bits of animation which show sketches coming to life, and so on, and this is nice, but it really needed more video. I think galleries generally are not very good at dealing with film. I remember a Saul Bass exhibition in London which presented pan-and-scanned versions of all the widescreen title sequences, on tiny little screens.

Today, pan-and-scan is happily dead, but we have the opposite problem. So here’s a clip from KING KONG in 16:9 (and of course it’s the Empire State sequence, the most vertical thing in the film). That wasn’t a very promising start.

The Harryhausen films are much better presented, WHEN they’re presented. There just wasn’t enough — it was up to me, every room would have a screen showing reasonably long clips of each of the creatures represented by drawings or armatures or full figures in that room. Because when you see the Medusa, it’s absolutely wonderful but you want to see her MOVE too.

The solution, of course, was to dash home and watch one of the movies, which we did.

Maybe the Gallery had a philosophical question it never quite resolved about this exhibition. As a sketch artist, Harryhausen wasn’t good enough to merit a show in anybody’s national gallery, even though his drawings are delightful. But the sketches were a means to an end, and they were absolutely good enough to get him there. The puppets or figures or whatever you want to call them are marvelous, but they’re not intended to be consumed the same way as stationary statues. Again, they’re a means to an end.

Mighty Joe and friend.

The end, of course, is the film. And the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art doesn’t really do film. What the exhibition doesn’t QUITE do fully — even though it helpfully explains and illustrates stop motion animation and rear screen projection and glass paintings — is show the sequences alongside the ephemera (we get Ray’s copy of his chum Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and revealing behind-the-scenes photos, and so on) and the drawings and the models so that the REAL art — the art of animation, literally imbuing with life, is foremost in the spectator’s mind.

But this is high-flown quibbling. The exhibition is a carnival of wonders and we were very, very lucky to get to see it.

Pastures New

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2021 by dcairns

I’d always read about GRASS (and CHANGO) or at least I’d read MENTIONS — in the various stuff I read about KING KONG as a kid — I would devour anything I could get on the mighty ape, even before I’d managed to see the film one unforgettable afternoon at the late, lamented Odeon, Clark Street. So I had a pretty good grounding in twenties documentary for a seven-year-old, I guess, without having actually seen any twenties documentaries.

Well, I’ve seen a few now, though I’ll probably have to see more for the next class I’m going to teach (NANOOK here we come), and thanks to this year’s HippFest I’ve finally seen GRASS.

Ernest B. Schoedsack & Merian C. Cooper, the KONG guys, follow a nomad tribe in search of grass. It’s what I call an epic! Interesting that all the early docs, once we got over the Lumiere phase, were ethnographic. The selling point was the distant and exotic. And also interesting that, although as Dr. Nacim Pak-Shiraz said in her introduction, the filmmakers clearly patterned their structure on the wagons west narrative of America, the early documentaries don’t seem closely patterned on the tropes of the fiction film. There are no real characters in GRASS. We meet the filmmakers at the start, and the nomad chief gets a few intertitles and medium shots, but the only real close shots are given to puppies and camels and a flyblown baby. Not a Bruce Cabot among them.

So it’s a film of spectacle — which is certainly a big element of Hollywood drama, but usually accompanied by individual struggles. Here there’s a quest, certainly, and we follow the travails of the tribespeople with a degree of suspense. The filmmakers’ attitude, mostly expressed by title cards, is empathetic, and clearly we’re meant to root for them to make it, but there’s no special focus on particularly charismatic examples of nomadry.

The scenery and the hairy escapades are impressive, though, and pianist Mike Nolan did well to conjure a whole lost world with just the 88 keys at his fingertips.

Also yesterday: an entertaining lecture by Dr Trevor Griffiths on Scottish cinema and the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. Incidentally, why did Donald Trump always insist on calling it the 1917 flu epidemic? Because he saw that wretched movie and the date stuck in his brain? But I think something else was going on — he would pause dramatically before saying it, and say it very DELIBERATELY. So I think he knew it was wrong, and he just liked annoying us. Or else it was an exercise in power, like O’Brien’s “How many fingers am I holding up?” in 1984. Trump saying it makes it true. It would be interesting to ask his supporters if they believe there was a great flu epidemic in 1917. Actually, no, it probably wouldn’t be.

GRASS ends with a testimonial —

Dr. Pak-Shiraz wonders how Cooper & Schoedsack communicated with the Baktyari, since it’s unlikely either group spoke the other’s language. I guess an interpreter could be brought in for the above agreement. If only we’d had such a person to translate Trump.