Archive for Kubrick

The Sunday Intertitle: Harold Lloyd be thy name

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2017 by dcairns

I read about FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, a Harold Lloyd vehicle directed by the skilled Sam Taylor (EXIT SMILING) over at Observations of Film Art, where my all-time favourite annual event takes place — Kristin Thompson’s annual look back at the cinema of ninety years ago (with a modest assist from David Bordwell).

FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, plotwise, is a nothing, predicated on a premise that doesn’t seem to have anything to it. Harold Manners, millionaire, funds a mission in the slums by mistake, but then falls in love with the daughter of the founder. He has some misadventures helping with the mission, then his rich buddies kidnap him to stop him marrying the poor girl, there’s a chase and a happy ending. Pretty flimsy stuff — but sufficiently solid to attach Lloyd’s “islands” — his comic set-pieces. (Kubrick spoke of “non-submersible units” by which I take him to mean something similar, but with fewer pratfalls. Military enthusiast that he was, Kubrick used the pontoon bridge as his metaphor.)

The pun in this intertitle is so good, the whole movie may have been built around it. Which would account for the gossamer-thin plot. But that doesn’t matter, as the set-pieces are SO good.

Harold’s character is interesting — rather than being a boy next door, he’s a touch feckless and over-privileged, but this doesn’t make him unsympathetic. It makes him superhuman. Most Lloyd movies show him struggling to gain mastery over some hazardous situation, with our hero being handicapped by shyness or gentility which he has to overcome. Here, Lloyd’s victories are mainly effortless until the last act, when he gets a good work-out.

To round up a congregation for the new mission, Harold provokes fights with all the neighbourhood roughnecks so they’ll chase him into the building. The action is fast, furious, inventive and hilarious, and all the time we’re wondering what he’ll do with them when he gets them indoors. It turns out that he has no plan at all, and is rescued by the timely arrival of the police, which is a little disappointing but leads us into the next amusing situation.

(The lead yegg is Noah Young, whose praises I’ve been singing lately. A peerless plug-ugly.)

The climactic rescue is in itself easy enough, but Harold’s rescuers — Young and his gang, now allies — are all smashed out of their faces, and Harold’s new task is to get them to the church on time without them getting lost, arrested or killed. The sozzled bozos are incapable of sitting still, and rounding them up becomes an extended piece of Sisyphean slapstick eventually accelerating into a hair-raising sequence on a runaway bus.

Walter Kerr observes that, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd had no shadow about him, he seems always equipped for happiness should it come along — so to be interesting, he has to stack the deck against himself and pile on colossal odds against his victory. This pleasing, laid-back romp mainly eschews this until the end, letting us simply watch a guy lead a charmed life, much of the comedy coming from his blithe unawareness of how damned lucky he is.

 

Napster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON gives us five-and-a-half hours on France’s smartest, bravest, sexiest, tallest man.

I’m not sure if star Albert Dieudonné was actually tall — in one of two shots there are other actors who out-heighten him. But more often, Gance gives him screen prominence that makes him seem to tower over his surroundings, and his bony, sharp features and slender frame create an impression more of tallness than its opposite. Basically, nothing about him really evokes the historical figure he impersonates, but like Chaplin, Napoleon can be reduced to a hat and a stance, and so anybody can stand in for him.

Dieudonné’s great advantage is his intensity, which he seems to carry with him at all times and which makes itself felt even if he just sits there. You believe he must be a military genius because of his presence and how Gance frames him. Kubrick believed Jack Nicholson would make a good Napoleon because he felt intelligence was the one quality that can’t be acted. I’m not sure that’s true. If the actor is bright enough to understand something, they can play the person who invented it. While there are certainly cases like Denise Richardson playing a nuclear physicist which seem to insult OUR intelligence, for the most part, a moderately sentient thespian can play a brainbox by hard work. John Huston was ultimately impressed by the way Montgomery Clift convinced us in FREUD that he was having original thoughts, when in fact the poor man’s brain was basically burned out. What convinces us of genius is the one quality Nicholson and Dieudonné both share — that mysterious quality called presence.

 

The Art of War

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on November 22, 2016 by dcairns

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I feel like I’m cautiously circling NAPOLEON, nibbling off tiny bits here and there. Like a man with a scary cake.

Kubrick was pretty dismissive of the film in The Film Director as Superstar – “as far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.” He praises the filmmaking more in the Michel Ciment book, but still says it’s disastrous as a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. It feels like when Kubrick watched films for research he still approached them like an audience member looking to be entertained, not as a filmmaker looking at craft. Arthur C. Clarke got him to watch THINGS TO COME in prep for 2001 and Kubes’ reaction was “I’m never watching a movie you recommend again!” I would have thought the film would have been diverting on technical grounds, at least.

My theory relates to animated maps. Kubrick seems to have been particularly keen on rendering Napoleon’s genius as a strategist, which is why he needed 40,000 extras to play the various armies, but also why he wanted to be able to show figures on a map, large troop movements in a kind of stylised time-lapse. So I can see why he would have been appalled by Abel Gance’s rather different approach.

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon looks at a map…

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And his eyes BLINK ON AND OFF. And we see flashes, diagrams, sums, arcane symbols, superimposed war footage. A sort of blipvert montage of a brainstorm, suggesting that Napoleon is producing cogitations we mere mortals couldn’t possibly hope to understand, and which we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about. This black magic approach seeks to convince us of Bonaparte’s genius by baffling us with bullshit, whereas for Kubrick the whole challenge was to explain, to render comprehensible to us so we can grasp just how clever the Frenchman was.

I can agree that Kubrick’s explicatory approach, if that’s the result you’re after, was superior. But then, he never made the film, did he?