Archive for Lawrence of Arabia

The Spielberg Transition #1

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2019 by dcairns

One of the things Steven Spielberg vocally admires about David Lean is his imaginative scene changes, of which the most celebrated is the “match cut” in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Spielberg has emulated the technique a fair bit, often with enjoyable results. But sometimes he gets it wrong.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK is the kind of thing Spielberg is supposed to do well, but it’s an oddly confused film, from its back-asswards title on down. I don’t think his heart was in it.

How do you know when there’s a tyrannosaur in your tent?

The first JURASSIC PARK is, on the whole, really good (haven’t bothered with any of the non-Spielberg sequels). It’s fairly faithful to Michael Crichton’s page-turner, though most of its departures are disimprovements. And while the novel is very clear that bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a disastrous idea, you get the sense that, even though this plot point is ported over from the book, deep down Spielberg thinks it would be awesome (which is why the park’s creator doesn’t have to die, despite being responsible for all the other deaths). I don’t necessarily disagree (there’s a weird meme in popular culture, particularly Doctor Who: whenever dinosaurs get revivified, the wonderment is promptly quashed by a sentimental death scene. Dinosaurs can come back, but only for a few minutes. It strikes me like giving a kid a toy and then taking it away again.)

Well, Crichton wrote a follow-up book that wasn’t worth filming, so screenwriter David Koepp threw it away and came up with a story that flatly contradicted the thrust of the earlier film: now Jeff Goldblum, the anti-dino rock ‘n’ roll chaos theoretician of the previous film, wants to save the poor T-rex, just about the scariest threat he faced (it ate a man on the toilet, ffs). The last tenth of the film abandons the titular location to run amock in America, a clear violation of the Platonic unities as well as various traffic statutes.

But the rot sets in early on: with the introduction of the hero, in fact. The threat is set up efficiently in scene one. Spielberg had listened to the criticisms of little kids (really?) who didn’t want to wait so long to see the thunder lizards, so he brings on some miniature CGI beasties to attack a child right at the outset (maybe he didn’t really take too kindly to the criticism?). Mom runs up and sees daughter in trouble, and SCREAMS ~

And we CUT TO Jeff Goldblum yawning against an unconvincing tropical palm background. The scream continues but now it’s something else: the roar of a subway train.

Goldblum steps screen left and the pan takes us away from his backdrop, now “revealed” to be a backlit holiday advertisement, and we learn he’s in the subway.

These kind of gags, where a background turns out not to be real practically never work, because the background practically never looks real. Our initial reaction is likely to be “That looks cheap and fake as hell,” and though the reveal provides an excuse for the phoniness, it fails to provide a pleasing surprise.

And the yawn? It’s hard not to see it as a gesture of contempt towards the material or the audience or both.

But the worst thing is the fanciness. Remember, the LAWRENCE cut has only a few elements, really. Lean doesn’t try to align the match with the rising sun, pictorially. The connection is merely conceptual: the desert is, in some way, like a flame that can burn you, and a man like Lawrence might enjoy that. The sound of Lawrence’s breath extinguishing the match carries across the edit. And that’s it.

Whereas LOST WORLD has the audio transition of the scream/subway, the visual match of the screaming woman/yawning man, and the fake background of blue sky and palm trees. It’s all busy, and all ugly, and all ineffective and fighting against itself. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This isn’t just plain awful. This is fancy.”

There’s maybe an actual artistic principle here: the more artful a transition, the more simple it needs to be.

More Spielberg awful soon!


An Odyssey in Pieces: The Million-Year Jump Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2019 by dcairns

A moment of time — the present instant — is so slight as to not truly exist. How long is the present? Less than a second, a nanosecond, a zeptosecond, or even maybe a jiffy.

We inhabit a non-existent moment situated between the immeasurable past and (presumably) immeasurable future. We live in that division, our consciousnesses, it seems, exist there. Just as a cut in a film occupies no time in itself, but is the division between two shots.

A good friend argued that the brilliant jump-cut in 2001, from flung bone to drifting satellite, would be a lot more brilliant if not preceded by an unnecessary jump cut — Kubrick extended the spinning bone by tacking two takes together, resulting in a slightly jarring jump when his subject drifts out of frame and is rediscovered in a fresh shot. But this never bothered me. It was also pointed out that the match cut could have been an even better match if it happened sooner. But clearly, Kubrick wanted the bone-spin to last as long as he could make it last (without getting into the ugliness of step-printing to create an artificial slomo).

Was Kubrick thinking of Winston Smith’s description, in his 1984 illegal diary, of the film he saw — a boatful of children is exploded and in a “superb shot” the camera follows a child’s severed arm spinning through the air. If anyone were to stage such a shot today it would look unavoidably like a Kubrick swipe.Apparently Clarke and Kubrick intended the spacecraft we see to be, not the Satellite of Love as you might think, but an orbiting missile platform capable of raining down Death from Above, setting up the Cold War scenario that plays out later when we meet Leonard Rossiter (East-West tensions will play a greater role in 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT). When Kubrick decided (wisely) to avoid all VO, it became unfortunately impossible for an audience to tell that the innocuous looking craft is meant to be a weapon of mass destruction. A shame, I suppose, that they didn’t make it look  like a bunch of missiles mounted on something, or have open tubes with missile noses poking out. Not only is this a plot point later (and could have been a bigger one: there was a plan that the Starchild would cause all the orbiting missiles to detonate harmlessly in space, giving an optimistic clue as to what his future actions may involve), it would make the cut from bone to rocket a weapon/weapon match, not just a tool/tool one.

At least one of the snooty contemporary reviewers called the transition “naive” and referred to it as a dissolve. Film critics should be cine-literate. This doesn’t mean they have to have seen everything (which is impossible), but they at least should see what they do see. I guess if it were a dissolve, it probably WOULD be naive. The dazzle of the execution imparts sophistication to a simple idea. Nothing can be bolder than jumping millions of years with a single cut.This is the film’s first really striking use of silence, too. It’s there in the fade-outs, but movies otherwise are supposed to always have some sound going. But there’s no sound in space, and Kubrick honours that: he’ll allow non-diegetic music, and the subjective sound of an astronaut’s breathing inside his helmet, but otherwise, unlike nearly every one of the space epics that followed (including the Sensurround European release of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA that gave me a pounding headache when I was eleven), his interplanetary space is properly soundless.

Two of the reasons that 2010, despite being quite enjoyable, is an inadequate response to this film: it doesn’t add any new music, just recycling Kubrick’s choices, and it has sound effects in space. Lack of imagination and lack of nerve.

Of course 2010 helmer Peter Hyams has nothing in his whole, perfectly decent, filmography to compare to this single edit, which stands alongside the match-to-sun cut in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as a pre-eminent moment not just in the sixties, but all time. Anne V. Coates is credited cutter on that film. Ray Lovejoy, her former assistant, headed the team cutting 2001 (and died *in* 2001). It was his first film as chief cutter.Both did a magnificent job on their respective films. But we have to give primary credit to their directors who conceived the shots always intended to lie either side of those cuts.

The Costumier is Always Right

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by dcairns


Herbert Lom

Visiting Angels, the UK’s largest costume house, for the first time, I got entranced by their gallery of stills, many of them signed, showing movie and theatre stars of bygone days. I liked them particularly because they don’t seem to have been updated for aeons, and some luminaries still have pride of place despite having sunk to the status of subluminaries or even nonluminaries. Sinclair Hill, anyone? I may be unusual among visitors to Angels in that I was kind of thrilled to find a photo of the director of BRITANNIA OF BILLINGSGATE and the minor Jessie Matthews vehicle THE MAN FROM TORONTO.

Here are some better-known persons, some expressing their gratitude to Monty Berman, costumier-in-chief.


Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee


Edward Fox — father of our leading man, Freddie Fox


Most of the costumes at Angels are on the racks, waiting to be used again, but two stand in pride of place: Indiana Jones, and this fellow. I would never have dared to touch its hem, but as I was taking a pic of a still of John Philip Law, I brushed against it, so now I can say I have done so.

I took lots of bad snaps, so if you want to see more (Hayley Mills! Hugh Williams!) just let me know.