Archive for Last Tango in Paris

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

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Wife, Horse, Mustache

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2016 by dcairns

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A shot nobody particularly remarks upon in its first iteration goes on to become famous in LAST TANGO IN PARIS…

It’s odd the things that stick in your mind. I remember some TV review of the year show at the end of 1982 and Billy Connolly was on it reviewing KING OF COMEDY, which he said had become his new favourite film — “Apart from VIVA ZAPATA!” So there you go, now you know what Billy Connolly’s favourite film is. I mean, I’m sure it hasn’t changed.

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Another odd thing — since I’m younger than cinema itself, marginally, I find myself experiencing film history backwards sometimes. Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is a film I retain some considerable fondness for, though I’m more and more bothered by the misogyny. But when I finally watched Billy Connolly’s favourite film, I was fascinated to see the influence it had on Leone — specifically an execution in the rain with an artfully-lit rain-speckled car window. Though Leone was clearly working off the American western tradition, it’s relatively rare that I spot a moment in one of his films that owes a noticeable visual debt to any specific movie. Sir Christopher Professor Frayling has pointed out shots borrowed from HIGH NOON, and I was quite smug when I noticed that the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY owes a recognizable debt to William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (gunfight indoors, filmed from outdoors, with a camera movement motivated by somewhat abstract means), but no doubt partly because of the new tools of widescreen and the zoom lens, and pertly because of his own distinct visual mannerisms (extreme closeups from eyebrow to lower lip intercut with spectacular wide shots, and deep focus compositions which combine ECU and ELS), Leone’s films never seem to me like a patchwork of influences. I also don’t really feel they have anything in common with anybody else’s spaghetti westerns, a genre which seems to me to have produced almost no distinguished work outside of Leone.

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Anyway, to VIVA ZAPATA!, a relatively early Kazan/Brando, which really does come to life in its scenes of personal violence (battles, not so much). Kazan is continuing the very in-your-face deep focus approach he used in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (which at times looks like it was shot for 3D, so much thrusting into the lens goes on). There are lots of great expressive shots which develop and transform as you watch, a hallmark of Kazan’s approach since he decided to make PANIC IN THE STREETS “like Hitchcock.”

 

THUNDER FURY! whaaa?

There is a slight problem with the whole Mexico thing. This Fox production credits no Mexican actors at all, apart from special case Anthony Quinn, though there are plenty in small roles. Allowing for Hollywood fantasy (which one doesn’t have to allow for in Kazan’s very best films), actors like Joseph Wiseman and Arnold Moss make semi-credible substitutes, and Jean Peters doesn’t really try, which wins her points. Brando is the problem.

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It’s an interesting makeup. Apart from darkening his skin and hair, the makeup team (including Ben Nye and gorilla specialist Charles Gemora — did somebody ask for a guerrilla fighter and get misunderstood?) have given him wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery oriental eyes, which combine with dark contact lenses to make Brando/Zapata seem boss-eyed. And they’ve given him a mustache many, many times smaller and punier than the famous original. Brando’s ‘tache would only look like a Zapata if glued to Herve Villechaise for some kind of ill-advised TERROR OF TINY TOWN scaled-down remake. That’s a strange choice. We don’t require our leading man to look exactly like the historical figure he’s impersonating — but Zapata’s mustache was very famous indeed, and he gave his name to it. Which must have been confusing. “Are you talking to me or my mustache?

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Suspense-building cutaways — Kazan probably wished he had a half-dozen more of these for the climax, but he gets by with two, thanks to Barbara McLean’s taut cutting and Joseph Walker’s marvelous photography.

The ending is a stunner — well, not so much scenarist John Steinbeck’s inspirational coda, which I found noble but corny — but the action climax is proper proto-Peckinpah, no slomo required. Brando, like Peckinpah, is an artist of violence, particularly inspired by moments of pain and death, and he approaches the assassination with a lot of interesting ideas. Look out for a major Brando project from me shortly…

The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)

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In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.