Archive for Kubrick

Satellite of Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 20, 2023 by dcairns

I recently recalled an intriguing conversation I once had with the first editor I ever worked with, back in my student film days. He cut my first film when I was in third year and he was a recent graduate. Sadly, I think, he got a comfortable civil service job and never worked in the industry — the Scottish film industry barely existed then, and none of us knew how to interact with what there was of it.

Said convo was about the match cut in 2001, of which I expressed my admiration. A rather bland opinion — his view was more intriguing, because though he admired the CONCEPTION of cutting across millions of years from a bone — the first human tool — to a spaceship — the latest — he took the view that the execution was dreadful. This rather surprised me. It seemed immediately wrongheaded. But here are his arguments:

  1. The exciting match cut is preceded by a dogshit jump cut — the camera’s tilt up following the slow-motion whirling bone is interupted midway when the bone escapes frame and an awkward splice reinstates it.
  2. The bone at one point assumes the perfect position to match with the spaceship, but continues PAST it, and the eventual cut doesn’t match the position nearly as well.

To these I can add a third objection: Kubrick and Clarke intended the spaceship to be an orbiting ICBM launcher, so that the cut was not just from one TOOL to another, but between WEAPONS. A voiceover had been planned to explain this, but Kubrick wisely cut this fairly late in the project’s development, I think. Had he not planned then cut an explanation, he could and should have had a model designed that LOOKED like a nuclear missile launcher. Perfectly easy to do.

Anyway, as Steven Soderbergh observed, after admiring something for a certain length of time, you get the urge to mess around with it. It occurred to me that the technology now existed to recut the greatest cut in film history to see if my friend was right.

I made the cut happen earlier — I removed the dogshit jump cut and made the cut happen when the bone was in exactly the right spot and at the right angle to the frame to make the match seamless. And, as you might expect, I ruined the cut. Why didn’t it work?

Firstly, the cut just feels like it’s too soon. Maybe that’s because we’re used to it taking longer, though? But I think an epic quality has been lost, and we’ve also lost the surprise a bit — the bone goes up and up and up — exactly like the child’s arm in the film Winston Smith goes to see in 1984 — and Kubrick may well have read and remembered a celebrated science fiction novel with a date for a title — and then down and down and when we’re confidently expecting it to drop out the bottom of frame, presto change-o it transforms instead! In the abbreviated version it cuts before we’ve formed any particular expectation.

Secondly, it turns out the direction of movement is more important than the position in frame. Kubrick cuts from a falling bone to a descending-thru-frame missile satellite, and it has a smoothness — movement plus position versus the shock of pale blue sky cutting to black.

So it seems to me Kubrick couldn’t have cut his two/three shots together any better than he did, and the sequence is more than good enough for me. But wait…

Could he have made a better cut if he had different footage? A longer, more complete tilt following the bone in a oner, and a differently placed/moving spacecraft?

Arthur C. Clarke describes Kubrick experimentally tossing the bone in the air and shooting it with a handheld camera on their way back from filming Moonwatcher’s timpani performance with the tapir skeleton (the film’s only exterior location scene, staged on a traffic island outside the studio with buses going by out of frame in the distance). Given that, it’s extraordinary he was able to achieve what he did. (The story of him getting the idea — a preconscious urge to do something with a bone — is also pleasingly like Moonwatcher getting the idea for weapons.)

Presumably the effects shot was done afterwards, and planned to match nicely. But not TOO nicely. I have a suspicion that a more perfect positional match might look too crafty. I assume Kubrick tried it various ways — he wasn’t known as someone who settled immediately on a rough-and-ready version.

The “dogshit jump cut,” I’ve always thought, was perfectly admirable, bold. But if you want the audience to accept a violation of normal continuity cutting as deliberate, the best way is to repeat the violation. MAYBE the mismatched bone-spaceship position is intended to reassure the viewer that the previous jump was intentional?

I invite everyone to try their own timings, as there are a lot of ways to try this. If everyone out there with video editing software tries this out, we can either prove Kubrick right or wrong, or get hopelessly confused. Be the monkeys with typewriters, Shadowplayers!

The Death of the Arthur: Knights of the Two Semi-Circular Tables

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2023 by dcairns

Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT (1963) is on YouTube, so I had a look.

Wilde’s THE NAKED RUNNER PREY has a decent reputation, I feel. Criterion released it, though that was in the early days and possibly it was cheap. His NO BLADE OF GRASS is an ugly mess, botching a compelling John Christopher apocalypse novel. It’s possible that he only found the right kind of material once, because LANCELOT ain’t it.

There’s a lovely brutish insensitivity to his directorial choices which may be instructive. The opening credits play out over still photographs by the great Karsh. The idea of getting a world-class photographer to shoot your stills is a fine one — Kubrick was about to do the same by getting Weegee to shoot the set of STRANGELOVE. Showcasing the results in the movie itself proves to be a very silly idea: there’s a reason why period movies often use archaic fonts or calligraphy, old-fashioned illustrations, scrolls and stuff. Photos (and photomontages, as here) feel modern. Karsh’s images make me feel like I’m looking at either set photography, in which views of the camera crew, boom operator or script supervisor would not be out of place, or at news pictures of a historical reenactment society on manoeuvres. The film might as well begin with a caption in some Gothic text saying AD 1963.

Wilde, leading man as well as director, has, however, come up with a plan that aims to keep him from sticking out like fellow Americans Robert Taylor in KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE or Alan Ladd in THE BLACK KNIGHT. Lancelot is French. Wilde will play him weese un out-rah-jos Franche ack-sont. It’s a bold effort and probably not the worst French accent ever. (Lancelot is never played by an actual Frenchman, except in Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC where everyone else is French also. But if Franco Nero can play French — STOP PRESS he can’t — Wilde is entitled to have a go.)

The rest of the casting is erratic and unstellar, though Wilde has noticed that the lovely Reginald Beckwith (above, far right) — the comedy medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON — is at heart a medieval man, so he’s positioned him as a court jester. It’s never been recorded that Arthur had one, but after all why shouldn’t he?

Good big set for CAMELOT, but Wilde’s attempts to explore it with camera moves are hesitant, wobbly and un-epic. The round table is two C-shaped bits, which is just nuts.

Disguising Wilde’s accent leaves the only other American, Wilde’s wife irl, Jean Wallace, awfully exposed as Guinevere. She’s introduced as mute witness at a joust, which Wilde stages better than the dialogue scenes, with decent build-up, ritualistic presentation of the weaponry, etc. I’m waiting for her to sound like Lina Lamont.

To prepare us for this jarring moment, Wilde carefully seeds the trial by combat with shots of extras wearing ludicrous nylon wigs.

He does get away with quickly including a rear projection shot of himself charging on horseback — filmed tight enough and cut quick enough that it’s not too distracting, and we don’t see the stuffed horse he’s being bounced around on. It’s effective enough that it MIGHT actually be a location shot with Wilde seated on a dolly (which would have made a great behind-the-scenes snap for the opening titles).

And then, the duel ends with a surprisingly graphic sword chop down through the opposing champion’s helmet, anticipating the gore effects of Bresson and Gilliam. Wilde seems to be most at home with violence — the most facile form of cinematic drama. Still, I enjoy a good head-cleaving as much as the next sedentary pacifist. It’s also fun to imagine the effects team lovingly packing the helmet with meat and bags of finest Kensington Gore. The out-takes would be amusing to see also.

Finally JW gets a line, as Lancelot escorts Guinevere to be married to Arthur. It’s decently worked out as a story — better than CAMELOT. The young knight gets a chance to make an impression on the Queen-to-be BEFORE she meets her much older spouse (Arthur is Brian Aherne). Wilde’s co-writer is Richard Schayer, who had a hand in FRANKENSTEIN back in ’31, and wrote the story for THE MUMMY the following year, which would be more impressive if that story weren’t a straight rip of the Lugosi DRACULA.

And Wallace copes well — she’s discernibly American but is talking as far back in the throat as possible, and managing to interpolate some vaguely English vowels. Pretty creditable and not as distracting as Wilde’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! performance.

Delivered into a studio pond for a sexy swimming scene with Lancelot (who has been established as the first man in England to use soap, giving him another erotic advantage over smelly old Arthur), Wallace is required to shout instructions to her maidservant, at which point her attempts at an accent falter and her inner Lamont emerges a little.

The costuming department has done some interesting and innovative work to enable Wallace to appear in a wet and clinging shift without offending, or poking, the censor’s eye with verboten mammary papilla. It’s quite hard to figure out what’s going on here — the bosom seems to have support, and be covered with more than the filmy fabric seen on the upper slopes. It looks to be a somewhat concealed cantilever bra. This of course would be an anachronism, but the attempt at boundary-pushing sexiness suggests to me that Wilde may have been more actively involved than previously suspected in the celebrated moment in THE BIG COMBO where co-star Richard Conte descends out of frame while kissing Wallace. Director Joseph E. Lewis claimed credit for the innovation and said Wilde, producer as well as star, wasn’t in on it. But now I wonder. Sex and violence seem to be Cornel’s bag.

Against my better judgement, I’m going to finish watching this. Which means this piece is now —


Maybe I can do some kind of crazy joint review with the last hour of ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD?

The Death of the Arthur: Me and my Galahad

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on January 17, 2023 by dcairns

“See what happens in PASSAGE OF PERIL, Chapter Six of ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD…” And it’s true enough, you will see what happens. What happens may not be very exciting or intelligent, but you do see it. Unlike Sir Bors, here:

Not much funny stuff, the early episodes were deceptive. True, there’s an appearance by Ray “Crash” Corrigan, unrecognisable without his ape suit. There’s a hovel with a PORCH, a bit of anachronism that somehow isn’t absurd enough to be worthwhile. There’s a dungeon, slightly more convincing than the one in that Three Stooges medieval mess, but the script requires this dungeon to have separate cells, so it ends up looking like a couple of stone cottages transported to the inside of a cavern. It’s a medieval dungeon in spirit, sort of, but in layout it’s still a western jailhouse.

Sir Bartog the bad joins a group of outlaws, which entails dressing up as Robin Hood, sort of. He hasn’t really got the figure for it.

The existence of cheap magic is the main quality separating this from a western serial (which I would never watch — the repetitive action would be just the same as this, but the comedy relief would be louder and more grizzled, wouldn’t it?), but there’s no funny business from either Merlin, Morgane le Fay, or the Lady in the Lake between episode two and episode nine, so my craving for fantasy was experiencing a drought. There are altogether more tavern/barroom brawls than fancy spells cast.

Escapes, captures, escapes, captures.

Finally, some magic — the cheapest kind, invisibility! As I said in my Bill Rebane feature, having people vanish is actually cheaper than NOT having them vanish: just stop paying the actors and they’ll disappear of their own accord. Here, Morgane Le Fay has an enchanted ring borrowed from The Hobbit. The jump-dissolve in which she faces from view is marred by mistiming — you can actually see her shoulder slipping away on the right of frame: so they filmed her speaking, then had her step out of shot to produce an empty frame, but when they mixed the two together you get a marginal overlap where you see one-and-a-bit Morganes at the same time.

Bottom right corner of first pic.

You might wonder how such a screw-up can happen, and also how the clapper boy makes a similar spectral appearance in Kubrick’s LOLITA. It’s because when a dissolve or fade is being indicated by the editor, he makes a cut and draws a couple lines on the work print to indicate the duration of the transition. There’s no way to actually check what the effect will look like until the lab has done its work, but the editor is supposed to check the material before the incoming shot, and after the outgoing one, to see there’s enough good footage to make the mix work. Sometimes, they forget. Easy to see how that would happen in a cheap serial, harder to figure when the Great Stanley K. is at the helm.

When Morgane reappears, the effect is better managed, but her dress is swaying even though she’s supposed to have been standing still. It’s like the wobbly top had in Mrs. Kane’s lodging house in CITIZEN KANE — a winking spyhole into the creative mysteries.