Archive for Kubrick

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 —

TO BE CONTINUED.

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.

TO BE (I hope) CONCLUDED

Great party

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2021 by dcairns

SEASON’S GREETINGS!

I’m unhappy that my Toshiba isn’t big enough to show off the grain, which I recall quite clearly from my own cinema experience of this movie, at the late lamented Odeon Clerk Street (where I also saw STAR WARS and two KING KONGS). Apparently the camera negative was smooth as a baby’s bottom, so the grain was something we are to presume Kubrick wanted. Although on the other hand, he wasn’t around to supervise the prints with his usual rigour, being as he was dead, and his heirs do their best to follow his wishes but they’re not him, of course.

The movie is EYES WIDE SHUT. Meet the Harfords, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Right from the start, after we get over gaping at Nicole’s splendid bottom, I’m amazed at the slow dissolves. Once had a student tell me he thought dissolves were old-fashioned, which I thought was silly. But THESE dissolves are old fashioned.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment he didn’t even LIKE dissolves, but sometimes they were the simplest way to get across a change of time and place. By that standard, they’re completely unnecessary here, as is the sitcom-like exterior view of the Harfords’ apartment building. But, when you’re unable to do principal photography in New York, you settle for second unit, and then those shots become, I guess, immovable blocks in your continuity.

“My name is Sandor Szavost. I’m Hungarian.”

“This dialogue!” gasped Fiona. “This film was written by an artificial intelligence!”

“He taught me to write a screenplay,” I said in sloooww mmmotion, “Would you like to hear it?”

The Cruiser flirts with two Anglo fembots. Nicole and Tom are suddenly very drunk. Tom saves a girl who has O.D.’d. This is where Kubrick and his camera crew were reflected in the shower screen, originally, but this has been digitally removed. Now, either Kubrick wanted this done, in which case Warners disobeyed him and released the film at the cinema with the unintentional cameo intact, or else Kubrick was happy for it to stay, in which case they violated his wishes by scrubbing him out of his own movie.

While we’re on the subject, it should be noted that the only director-approved digital version of EWS is the 4:3 DVD, because at the time apparently SK had no faith in widescreen TVs. In fact, for one as particular as Kubes about how his films were watched, the widescreen TV would be a nightmare, since many many people are content to watch films in any old aspect ratio, usually erring on the side of filling up as much of their TV as possible, regardless of how much of the original image they might be cropping out, or how badly distorted they’re making it.

Then the already-familiar Shostakovich takes us through a superfluous montage of Nicole’s bum again, Tom treating another busty nude, domestic stuff with the Harford’s daughter, and then the looong scene where the marriage is thrown into jeopardy by the revelation that Nicole once fantasised about another man. Here, Kubrick and cinematographer Larry Smith go for a sort of Leon Shamroy effect, with warm yellowy interior light and blue night exterior. But I don’t know that New York has blue streetlight, and moonlight isn’t blue, so Kubrick is following a movie convention here. Which is inconsistent with his real candlelight fetish in BARRY LYNDON. But that’s OK.

So, this dialogue. Kubrick hadn’t lived in New York for a long time. Had Frederic Raphael ever? And had either of them heard a human conversation? Raphael hadn’t had his name on anything that got made for quite a while. But I’ve always found his writing impossibly arch. I quite like NOTHING BUT THE BEST (Alan Bates leans into the archness) but DARLING and TWO FOR THE ROAD give me the pip.

Still, he was a distinguished expat American-born writer living in Britain. It was a convenient match. And we got an interesting book out of it, Eyes Wide Open, FR’s memoir of working with SK, whose rapid publication caused the Kubrick clan to close the iron door on him.

On meeting Kubes, Freddie can’t decide how intelligent he is. John Fowles said exactly the same thing about that other one-take wonder, William Wyler. Perhaps directors have a different FORM of intelligence from novelists?

Half an hour into the film it settles into a pattern: thrown into a rit of jealous fage by Nicole’s confession, Cruise starts cruising, encountering a series of available women and failing to have sex with them. It’s noticeable that Kubrick’s Steadicam basically just follows Tom around, or tracks back as he advances. The most basic kind of movement. After the twitchy bereaved woman, there’s the student/sex worker, and more brill dialogue.

“What do you want to do?”
“What do you recommend?”
“What do I recommend?”

It’s the beginning of the echolalia that will reverberate through the rest of the film. Dr. Bill may escape catching HIV from the girl he shies away from crewing, but he catches the tendency to repeat whatever’s said to him.

Oh, and he’s being haunted by blue-tinged monochrome fantasies of Nicole getting it on with her fantasy figure. His fantasy of her fantasy. But why do we need the special grading? It has no equivalent in any other Kubrick film. Alex’s fantasies in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE weren’t photographically different from the rest of the film. The trick seems cheesy.

I suppose though the blue echoes the light behind Nicole during her confession. It’s quite a colour-coded movie: the sex worker has a red door for passion, and a green lobby for disease. That kind of thing.

Oh, and Tom does a bit of palm-punching, to show he’s angry. Emulation of Jack Nicholson’s crazy walk in THE SHINING, or did Kubrick just give him the same direction: think of the crazy people you see on the street, ranting at nobody?

Dr. Bill gets queeerbashed by fratboys, a change from the source book, where the doctor is Jewish and his persecutors are anti-semites. Raphael proposed to Kubrick that Bill could be Jewish. “A doctor in New York?” “I don’t want him to be Jewish,” said Kubrick, apparently not giving any reason. And then saying to Raphael, who was also Jewish, “We don’t really know what they say about us when we’re not around, do we?” In which case, wouldn’t a Jewish protagonist be easier to write?

He also didn’t want the story to be a dream. “There’s no movie if it’s all a dream.” FR, by his account, offered logical arguments as to why it was pretty inescapable that Dream Novel is a dream. SK just said no.

The New York street sets are impressive, and arguably the film’s most dreamlike aspect is the way the production took hundreds of Polaroids of Greenwich Village and environs and then built a set in which all the familiar places are jumbled up.

Somewhere in here, too small for me to detect on the Toshiba, is a neon sign saying Vitali’s, a rare Kubrick in-joke.

Apparently Kubrick hired every yellow cab in the UK (a dozen or so) and tied them up for fifteen months, inconveniencing several other shoots. You never see more than two yellow cabs in a shot.

The piano bar interior is lovely. “Nick Nightingale” is an impossible character name, though. It’s a straight anglicisation of the name in the Schnitzler original, and gives a clue to the weird affect of this film: it’s a dream narrative played in realistic-fake environments, a Viennese fin-de-siecle sex story transposed to modern America and in the hands of men who don’t know modern America very well. I presume the adaptors thought “Nick Nightingale” sounded convincingly showbiz, but in what era?

Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski’s scene kicks things up into what passes for high gear. Thing always get better when the good actors come on. RS seems to be under the impression he’s in a comedy, something SK seems to have hinted to Alan Cummings also, but not to anyone else. This could be quite a funny film if anyone knew it’s what was wanted. Kubrick did consider casting Steve Martin in the eighties, but it’s not certain he would have asked him to be funny.

What does Leelee whisper to Tom? It’s like Twin Peaks all over again.

She recalled that Kubes always wore the same black smock to work, “But he must have had lots, because he didn’t smell bad or anything.” Clearly, he was following the practice of Einstein, who had multiples of the same suit so he didn’t have to expend any extra mental energy deciding what to wear. He had already adopted Napoleon’s practice of eating soup, main course and dessert all at once, so he was clearly susceptible to emulating his fellow geniuses.

(The smock had many pockets, making it very practical.)

“Orgy! Orgy!” in the wise words of Dyan Cannon. The masked ball is cinematic, at least. It has my favourite dissolve, and the follow-cam actually becomes atmospheric. And then we get circle-cam too. It’s a corny and incredible set-up, but the colours are nice.

This was, apparently, the trickiest thing, in SK and FR’s minds, to translate to a modern setting. Raphael typed up a fake document purporting to be an FBI report on secret sex cabals within the Democratic Party. Kubrick FREAKED, got very paranoid. “This is classified material, how’d you get hold of it? I need you to tell me.”

This I find very funny. But the pair decided that this would indeed be the unstated backstory of their big daft sex party, resulting in BELATED RESONANCE. Sidney Pollack as Jerry Ziegler as Jeffrey Epstein, ladies and gentlemen.

“Is the orgy so banal because that’s how this unimaginative character would dream it?” asked a friend of the friend I saw the movie with first time. I hadn’t felt the orgy was imaginary, and Kubrick seems to have not wanted it to be, but obviously in the book it is and that’s sort of crept into the film even if he didn’t want it. I think, when Kubrick was at the height of his powers, things wouldn’t creep into his films without his allowing it. But then, I did write this. Raphael has said he felt Kubrick wasn’t really on form — he was, after all, heading towards death.

Fiona wonders “Where do they find all these identical women?” Apparently such women couldn’t be found for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where we see various types of body, but they could in 1999 for EYES WIDE SHUT.

Kubrick tried to figure out what the maximum level of sexual explicitness allowed by the MPPA, but still ran afoul of their arcane rules about how many pelvic thrusts were permissible in a single shot, so had to digitally superimpose voyeurs to blot out the action. What he needed was Clive Barker’s List,

When Clive was shooting HELLRAISER he got to a point in discussions with lead Clare Higgins where they felt they needed to define what the character’s sex life was like with her former lover Frank. The days of Dorian Gray, where you could keep it on the q.t., were gone. “I think she’s into spanking,” declared Higgins. “Great!” replied Barker.

They shot a scene. The producer cabled him the next day. “I’ve just seen the rushes. Fan-tastic stuff. We can’t use any of it.”

Barker protested that he needed guidance, in that case, as to what would be acceptable. He was sent a detailed list of the dos and do-not-dos. “It did wonders for my sex life,” he said later. “I now knew exactly the point where I was crossing over into obscenity.”

Part two: Tom retraces his steps, at great length.

Alan Cummings plays, essentially, Mr. George Swine, hotel receptionist, from LOLITA (just as Leelee Sobieksi played Lol). He’s funny. Cruise is retracing his steps, trying to work out what’s really happening. This part of the film is quite slow and plodding. We’ve been to all these places and met all these people, and the film doesn’t seem to know how to condense or elide. We follow Tom into and out of various rooms, down various streets. He revisits the fancy dress shop, he revisits the orgy house, revisits the sex worker and learns from her flatmate… well, first she comes onto him in a stilted fashion, then she tells him the girl from the other night has tested positive for HIV. They both pretend to be upset about this.

Tom leaves and buys a newspaper that says LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. A sinister man is stalking him. The only new location here is the morgue, where the OD girl from the first party, who we guess is the girl from the orgy, lies dead (and naked, of course).

Finally he meets Ziegler again, who tries persuading him there’s nothing sinister been going on here. He doesn’t do it very convincingly, but Dr. Bill clutches eagerly at this as a way of returning to normal life and forgetting all this weirdness. “This is the only detective story I’ve ever seen there, when they warn the guy to lay off the case, he DOES.”

Mind you — Red Cloak at the party (Lord Bullingdon himself, Leon Vitali) warned Dr. Bill not to pursue any investigations, OR ELSE he and his family would face dire consequences. And then they had a terrifying manservant hand him a threatening note. Now, anyone who threatens you with dire consequences should you do something, and then merely warns you again when you do it, is not serious and can be ignored. That’s my advice to you. So maybe these guys really are harmless lechers.

Tom finds his party mask on the pillow beside a sleeping Nicole (good whip-pan). He tells her the whole story (but the movie remembers to leave this out — though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Kubrick shot it).

“That was a very sad story,” says Fiona, filling in for Nicole, “It made my Touche Éclat come off.”

Christmas shopping scene in Hanleys. I’ve heard podcasters (Chapo Trap House, Death is Just Around the Corner) suggest that, while the Harfords are making up, their daughter is being abducted in the background by evil Ziegler minions, but I think there’s not even a subliminal suggestion of this. The bald guy standing there isn’t a minion seen earlier, and he’s apparently shopping with another man. I would love to have discovered a macabre Easter Egg like that, but all I’ve done is discover it isn’t there.

So I’ve finally done a Late Show on EYES WIDE SHUT, a late film, a final film and a posthumous film. It didn’t seem to reveal anything new. Frederic Raphael was never really able to work out why Kubrick wanted to make it. Kubrick wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him. The honest thing to do would be to turn down the job under those unpromising circs, but who would refuse Kubrick? Maybe the writer he needed was Jean-Claude Carrière, who described his remit as “helping the director understand why he wanted to make the film.”

The film is strange, and I should give it credit for that. I don’t know what to DO with the strangeness, though. Basic screenwriting books warn against having characters constantly repeat what they’re told. Bill picks this up 45mins in, and by the end, his wife is doing it too. The French New Wave taught us that we don’t have to see every step of a journey, we can jump from spot to spot and let the audience catch up. It’s fine to break those rules if you have a better idea. But if the result is… plodding and repetitive… maybe you need to rethink. Kubrick made slowness work brilliantly in some of his previous films. But here, when Dr. Bill says “Was she the woman at the party?” Ziegler pauses for ten full seconds (“THIS SHIP HAS ONE HOUR TO LIVE!”) then says “Yes,” then pauses for another five seconds and says “She was.” It’s not a dramatic pause, in my view, if it reveals no new dramatic information. “Yes” has already given us everything, and “She was” is pathetic redundancy.

I don’t feel I don’t get the film — it’s about the balancing of fidelity and fantasy life. The ur-text may be John Baxter’s Kubrick biography where the Great Man’s collaborators talked about Kubrick’s fondness for casting couch head games. He DID get all the actresses in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to take their tops off while he videoed them (save for Adrienne Corri, who refused: “Suppose we don’t like the tits, Adrienne?” “Tough.” Kubrick cast someone else, she got injured being lugged about on Warren Clarke’s shoulder for days, and he then cast Corri as replacement). He got them to mime being raped. But he didn’t touch them.

An assistant found him looking at a catalogue of models during 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. “Look at these girls! We could get some of them in, pretend it’s for the TV screens.” The assistant suggested Kubrick could just approach them openly, lots of them would be excited to meet the great Stanley K. He backed off immediately. Then he got obsessed with Julie Christie. Suggested inventing a project so he could audition her. The assistant said, Look, I know Julie Christie, why don’t I just call her up and say you’d like to meet her? Again, Stanley backed off. “Everything had to go through the fantasy department,” concluded the assistant.

So his big sex film, a project which might have made sense maybe twenty pr thirty years before, turns out to be about spousal fidelity in a world full of temptation, and the essential compartmentalizing of fantasy and reality — in a film where those compartments don’t exist or can’t be made sense of.