Archive for Lawrence of Arabia

Gone for a Burton

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by dcairns

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RIP Jack Gold. In a twist of fate the protagonist of THE MEDUSA TOUCH would have mordantly approved of, the veteran director’s passing was completely drowned out by the posthumous panegyrics in praise of Uggie, the dog from THE ARTIST, whose euthanizing was announced the same day. I suspect film history will eventually balance itself and the director of THE BOFORS GUN will come to be regarded again as a more significant figure than the one-hit Jack Russell Terrier.

I was wary of approaching THE MEDUSA TOUCH as, though undeniably a piece of seventies sci-fi, I recalled it also being a piece of crap, and perhaps unsuitable viewing if I wanted to say nice things about Gold. (I met Gold, only last year, when Edinburgh Film Fest screened THE RECKONING. He was very sweet, very sharp, and seemingly in the best of health.) Fiona, on the other hand, DID deny it was science fiction (I guess because either telekinesis isn’t real, in which case it’s fantasy, or it is real, in which case it’s social realism) and at any rate its status as crap outweighed any genre attributes. She never met the lovely Mr. Gold.

BUT! I am delighted to report that the movie is a lot less crap than I remember it. It has two really weak moments that had coloured my recollections, plus another one I’d forgotten, but it also has a lot to enjoy, in a modest, unpretentious, daft way.

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Gold co-produced the film with his editor. the great Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE ELEPHANT MAN, OUT OF SIGHT, and Gold’s THE BOFORS GUN…and, at ninety, FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY if you can believe that) and it’s an editor’s film — one of its pleasures is the way it enfolds flashbacks within flashbacks, interviews within interviews. I’m imagining Gold and Coates meticulously plotting this all out in advance. French flic on exchange in London investigates the bludgeoning of Richard Burton, prophet of doom, by talking to his shrink, Lee Remick. She introduces flashbacks in which Burton tells her he can cause disasters with the power of his mind (case in point: STAIRCASE), and he thus leads into deeper flashbacks where we see this happening.

Coates sticks to the principles of Direct Cutting which serves her so well when T.H. Lawrence blew his match out and made the sun rise in the desert. frequently she cuts to a reverse angle in mid-conversation to reveal that the person looking back is a different one from who we expected, and we’ve now shifted time zones. Gold will even pan 180º back in time without a cut. For a legendary bad movie, it’s stuffed full of intelligent and elegant film storytelling.

vlcsnap-2015-08-18-11h13m30s169Lino Ventura, ace detective.

These reminiscences lead to Bad Moment Number One, the death of young Burton’s parents, nudged off a White Cliff of Dover by a runaway jalopy. This wasn’t as terribly directed as I remembered it — in fact, it’s served up fairly convincingly. The problem may be that such a scene cannot be rendered horrifying (especially when the parents are horrible caricatures out of Roald Dahl — they might as well get trundled flat by an outsize peach). To make it dramatic, Gold gives us Staring Boy, Low Angle of Car Slipping its Brakes, POV of Car pushing in on Parents, POV of Parents Staring at Looming Car… it all feels overdone, and goofy, because it’s a silly accident, without even the dignity of a FINAL DESTINATION atrocity pile-up. I tried imagining it all played in long shot over the boy’s shoulder, but that seemed comical too, like one of those AIRPLANE comedy-business-in-background routines.

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Meanwhile the film moves on, with Burton exterminating all and sundry with his gloomy gaze, and the cast list heaps up enjoyable hams. Michael Hordern has a great bit as seedy medium, Alan Badel is a silky lawyer, Philip Stone a bashed bishop, getting punished for his poor parenting skills in Kubrick’s films. Harry Andrews and Gordon Jackson compete with Burton and Ventura for the coveted Big Face Award. Derek Jacobi turns up to report a mysterious anecdote about Burton and a tramp which is never bloody well explained. I’m quite cross about that.

But the next really bad bit is a plane crash — the film has received a fair bit of stick for Brian Johnson’s special effects, but I’m inclined to blame Gold and Coates a bit here. the key with special effects is not just to get great material, obviously, but to exercise judicious quality control so no bad material slips in to spoil the effect. With Coates’ crosscutting, the jumbo jet striking a tower block yields some very effective pyrotechnics. But the early shots simply showing the plane flying over London are pathetic. Making the toy plane fly straight across frame from screen right to screen left is a terrible bit of staging, exposing the artifice as surely as if they’d spotlit the wires holding it up. It could be argued that, with slow seventies film stock and airspace safety regulations, they couldn’t simply film a real plane. But what does a real plane at night look like? Like a blinking tail-light! A cheaper, more convincing special effect could not be imagined.

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Oh, and this is supposed to be Burton’s POV. He must live in a very hi-rise indeed.

I had forgotten the plane, but I vividly remembered the crumbling of Westminster Cathedral. As a boy, I laughed hysterically as a church bell bounced off a church official. Not because I was naturally evil-minded, although that is a possibility, but because I knew even then that the physics were all wrong. A bell that size wouldn’t be remotely deflected by a chap standing under it, even if he were Lino Ventura. The chap would simply fold up and the bell would continue on into the flagstones and then maybe a bit further.

It’s a real shame, because that one shot spoils a thoroughly convincing housequake, seamlessly blending location, set and miniature. Admittedly, it’s the worst kind of movie disaster, the kind you CHEER ON, rather that saying “Oh the humanity!” (as in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and even bits of TITANIC). We were sincerely regretful that Harry Andrews managed to stop the Queen entering the Abbey in time to get a bell dropped on her. This nihilistic glee is made OK by Burton’s philosophising, a bunch of anti-establishment rants which are all, broadly speaking, on the money, if a little jejeune.

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The script is by Jack Briley who also penned CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED and thus knew a thing or two about giving someone a very hard stare indeed — the plot is all business, with little time for characterisation but the starry cast seize any moments they can.

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Jack Gold directed another 70s sci-fi opus, WHO? in which a scientist loses his face and fingerprints in an accident in Russia, and when he’s returned with a new, cybernetic face, the US authorities can’t decide if it’s really him. But, on the plus side, he can store food in his cheeks.

I’d like to see WHO? again sometime — it’s based on a proper sci-fi book by Algis Budrys (great name!) and has an affecting performance from Joe Bova as Chubby-Cheeks the Tin Woodsman.

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Fun in the Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 25, 2012 by dcairns

Thelma Schoonmaker was in town (yay!), participating in a forum on digital restoration. As a sort of discussion piece (but much more than that), we got to see the 8K restoration of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which has been fine-tuned since its appearance in Cannes (which makes this a world premier, in a way). Which inspired me to make the following geeky observation —

Gasim (I.S. Johar) abandons his belt and gear in the desert as he wanders, lost in LAWRENCE —

David Niven dreamily discards his kit on the beach in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Lean’s contribution to Powell’s films as editor is well known (49TH PARALLEL, ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING), but maybe there’s room for further consideration of Powell’s influence on Lean? Here, the shot height and framing isn’t the same, but there’s a similar feeling of the distracted character being towed along by the tracking camera, as if on invisible wires.

Lean’s camera takes the position of the sun, beaming brutally down on poor old Gasim from on high, whereas Powell’s hugs the earth as if afraid of falling upwards to heaven — the frame positions Niven as caught precisely between heaven and earth, wearing the horizon as a belt.

When Gasim is lost, Niven makes the desert as abstract as possible — there’s the giant painted sun, and shots which lay a featureless blue rectangle atop a featureless manilla rectangle with a straight flat horizon joining them like to slices of cut card. In Gasim’s shot, even the horizon and sky have been mislaid. Yet Gasim is traveling left-to-right, and Lawrence is going right-to-left, so in such a flat world they MUST find each other.

Freddie Young, ace DOP, talked about LAWRENCE containing only one special effect shot, a painting of the sun. And indeed, the commitment to doing everything for real is still awe-inspiring. If a filmmaker tried some of these shots today, the audience would simply assume they were digital effects. But Young didn’t quite tell the truth — there’s also a shot of twinkly stars which is faked up (skillfully), and if we want to really nitpick there are some studio scenes with fake backdrops by production designer John Box and his team. The various solutions to filming at night also involve some trickery —

PROBABLY this whole shot is an interior set, but even if not, that moon is definitely on a stick. Gorgeous, though, isn’t it? MUCH gorgeouser in 8K, though…

A Festival of Film

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2012 by dcairns

Edinburgh International Film Festival launched its new programme this week. I’m hardly a disinterested spectator, having viewed submissions this year, but I’m happy to report that under Chris Fujiwara’s direction, the hoped-for renaissance seems well underway.

I already knew three films I voted for during the submissions process — DEMAIN?, EVELYN and EXIT ELENA — had been selected, as I’d been asked to write about them for the brochure and catalogue, but I was chuffed to discover that several more, including FRED (with Elliott Gould) and BRAKE (with Stephen Dorff) are also screening.

After no real retrospective last year, this year we have TWO — one on Shinji Somai, highly regarded in Japan but little known elsewhere — a great choice because even in the twilight world of bootleg downloads, NONE of his films are available with English translation — and one on Gregory La Cava, a favourite of mine. I’ve written pieces on two of the La Cavas, and this retrospective will actually continue after the Fest, with Filmhouse running the remaining six films in the series.

Other old stuff — the old/new WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, which I’m extremely curious to see in its restored condition, digitally restored LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and Humphrey Jennings’ THE CUMBERLAND STORY (the first film ever screen at Edinburgh Film Festival.

There’s new work from Johnny To, James Marsh, Harmony Korine, and Gakuryu (formerly Sogo) Ishii. And celebrations of the exciting recent cinema of Argentina, Chile & Uruguay, plus the Philippine new wave. And the usual strong programmes of fiction, experimental and documentary short cinema.

Filmmakers in attendance to talk about their work will include William Friedkin (technically as a guest of Filmhouse the day before the Fest begins), Shinya Tsukamoto, Viktor Kossakovsky and, it is hoped, documentary legend Wang Bing.

Documentaries are in a stronger position this year: for the first time, the awards (reinstated after last year) will see documentaries competing alongside fiction film. Arguably the documentary sector is in better shape than drama in the UK right now, and it’s certainly right that the Michael Powell Award should be open to features of any kind. Even if Powell himself did refer to documentarists as “failed poets”. (I can’t imagine a better career than “failed poet.” So wonderfully dismal-sounding! You can be a successful poet and starve to death, imagine the glamour of being a failed one!)

One exciting consequence of this policy shift is that Maja Borg, an ex-student of mine from ECA, is in the running with her documentary feature FUTURE MY LOVE. Although I’m stretching a point by calling her “my” student, since Maja was always clearly a creative documentarist, and I teach fiction filmmaking, but you’ll allow me a little proprietary pride, I hope.

Fellow critic, blogger, filmmaker and friend Dan Salitt will attend with what could be his breakthrough film, THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT, and I’m looking forward to catching up with him — so long as I’m not filming in Paris, which is a vague possibility. Well, missing out on a film festival because I’m making a film isn’t something I can exactly complain about…

Lawrence of Arabia [DVD] [2011]