Archive for Lawrence of Arabia

The Russian Revelation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by dcairns

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DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.

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Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.

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Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.

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I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.

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I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.

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I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.

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Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.

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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.

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…