Archive for Les Tribulations d’un Chinoise en Chine

Woodery Pokery*

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2014 by dcairns

HELP!

*Woodery pokery = John Gielgud’s term for playwright Charles Wood’s verbal gymnastics.

HELP! had an unusual genesis. The Beatles had contracted to make three films, and the roaring success of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT made it inevitable that United Artists would take them up on the option.  Director Richard Lester has described how the film was defined by what it couldn’t be – it couldn’t revisit the Beatles working lives, because that had been done, and it couldn’t tackle their off-duty lives because those were x-rated. As it is, it’s surprising that we get to see the boys smoke (tobacco) and order (but not drink) “two lagers and lime and two lagers and lime.”

And also Lester felt the band were not ready to play anything other than themselves (D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers were mooted, but would have to wait until Lester was ready himself). There was not only the question of acting skill, there was the fact that these four men were famous AS THEMSELVES, and any Beatles movie was going to have them playing their hits, so how convincing would any impersonation of fictional characters be?

So the solution was unavoidable – the Beatles, playing cartoon versions of themselves, deposited in a fantasy plot in which they can be buffeted about. French writer Marc Behm sold the team on a storyline where Ringo, established in the first film as the most vulnerable Beatle, can’t take the pressure of fame and hires a stranger to kill him. He regrets it the next day, but teere’s no way to call the hitman off. This was agreed as the storyline, and then Jean-Paul Belmondo starred in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOI EN CHINE with exactly the same story. Lester didn’t know until I told him that the plot stems from Jules Verne, and that Behm was thus offering them stolen goods.

Nevertheless, Behm got the job of coming up with a fresh plot, and the one he created, in which Ringo is pursued by an Indian death cult who want his ring, in perfectly serviceable. Since Behm couldn’t write scouse, Charles Wood, who had just adapted THE KNACK with Lester, got the job of taking the story to screenplay form.

“It was just an assignment,” Wood is quoted as saying in Andrew Yule’s patchy Lester bio, The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles, “I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”

I beg to differ: a very good job, and a very odd job too. One could wish it had a bit more resolution – even with almost nothing to resolve, it needs some comeuppance for baddies Leo McKern and Victor Spinetti, I feel. The “character arc” bit, in which Ringo is required to show courage, is slightly underdone – it reads fine in the published script, but doesn’t quite catch fire onscreen. Maybe because the Beatles made the film under the influence of wacky baccy, and so their performances aren’t quite as enthusiastic as before. Lester resorted to saying their lines ahead of them and getting them to copy his phrasing, just to get them through a take. Lennon claimed the best bits were all on the cutting room floor, with him and his mates falling about in hysterics.

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Ringo is kind of a great bad actor, or non-actor, or un-actor, entertaining in his failure to seem like he’s mentally present in a scene, but one of my fave exchanges in the script is utterly nailed by him. The team are speculating about how the unwanted ring can be detached from Ringo’s pinkie.

“The fire brigade got my head out of some railings once.”

“Did you want them to?”

“No. I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school. You can see a lot of the world from railings.”

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The last sentence is delivered with just the perfect sort of faraway wisdom, with Richard Starkey OBE staring into the middle distance. I think Ringo succeeds so well here because he has the attractive quality of a child, unaware of saying something funny.

The script is full of abstract non-jokes – either Lester and Wood trusted the young audience to get them – to laugh at a non-joke you have to be smart enough to process the material and instantly realize that there’s nothing hidden there that you’re not getting – or they didn’t care, knowing that the audience would turn up for the Beatles alone and be happy as long as they got to look at them and hear them play, so why not just entertain yourself and the smartest person in the room? At any rate, it’s a wonderfully nonsensical thing, more Reeves & Mortimer than Monty Python, exulting in language. The weakest bits are the straight puns (“It’s the brain drain. His brain’s draining.) which aren’t in the original script anyway, or not in the form they wound up in. I prefer the odd constructions like “Jeweller, you’ve failed, jeweller.”

Anyway, Lester’s visuals are dazzling, but the words deserve appreciation too.

My latest film is a video essay for the Criterion Blu-Ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Pre-order it here: A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray + DVD)

 

Emergency Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2010 by dcairns

Dig the crazy cabaret-style music and sound effects of Friedrich Hollander!

So, in answer to the calls for something about Robert Siodmak… maybe we could look at one film a month, and make a Siodmak Year of it that way? The item under analysis this time is LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER, or DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT, which BabelFishes out as “The man, who looks for his murderer,” giving the lie to those who argue that German isn’t a good language for comedy. They managed to get the key word to come at the end of the sentence, after all, which German syntax often forbids.

We don’t think of Germany in the 30s as a thriving era for comedy, for some odd reason… But there was a lot of the stuff going on. Was it actually funny? And if so, how tainted does it become by what followed in the socio-political, that is to say human, arena?

We’ll come back to that. This movie was scripted by Billy Wilder, which is a more cheerful way to start looking at things, along with a gang of others including Robert’s idiot brother Curt. It’s based on a play, and the IMDb suggests an uncredited Jules Verne link, which is very intriguing. Here’s the plot:

Our hero is suicidal, so he hires a hitman to kill him (easily done in the economical freefall of Weimar Germany, I would think). He says he doesn’t want to know when or how it’ll happen. “Just surprise me,” or words to that effect (I was watching without benefit of subtitles, so anything I say should be regarded as dubious: as David Lynch would say, “I don’t speak the German”).

Then our hero meets a girl, or is reunited with his ex, or something, and realizes he doesn’t want to die after all. But he has no way of contacting the contract killer, who will strike at random some time in the next week…

It’s a superb first act set-up, the only problem being that you need to come up with a second and third act to match, which the assembled writers can’t quite do, but they certainly throw in plenty of interesting situations. I have no idea how much of the film’s nuances and humour I was missing, but with Wilder having a hand in the dialogue, I would imagine plenty. Visual pleasures include the noir look, which shows Siodmak as having a predisposition towards this style long before Hollywood pushed him into it (this movie was made in 1931, although the busy RS had already squeezed in three more movies since his first, the celebrated PEOPLE ON SUNDAY).

Our hero lives in a studio apartment, overlooking expressionistic and cat-haunted Berlin rooftops, created in the studio, and the funniest gag is when a character crashes through the window. Giant sheets of sugar-glass being either beyond the budget or else technically impossible at that time, the moment is represented by an off-screen SMASH sound, Laurel & Hardy style, but then we get the character staggering into shot with his head jammed through the Venetian blinds. He then struggles to extricate himself for, like, a really long time. Again, Laurel & Hardy style — a durational gag, in which something becomes funnier just by eating up footage in a normally unjustifiable way. I’m going to have to keep my eye open for other signs of the L&H influence on Siodmak, this might be a treasure trove!

Now, about this plot — it turns up again in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOISE EN CHINE (THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINESE MAN FROM CHINA) — and now the Jules Verne influence becomes clear: he is the inventor of this first act zinger. Everybody adapting the story simply uses it as a springboard for whatever form of romp they wish to promulgate: in this case, Philippe de Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo serve up another action-packed comedy with Belmondo essaying the kind of stunts that would have Jackie Chan saying “What do you think I am, crazy?”

According to Richard Lester, the same plot thread was under consideration over at Beatles Central as the basis for a follow-up movie to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (with Ringo as the despondent hitman-hirer). It had already been decided to make the Beatles “the recipients of a plot,” passive participants in some kind of farrago, since the first film had covered their working lives, and their private lives were off-limits (John suggested a film on that subject would resemble FELLINI SATYRICON). But the arrival of De Broca’s movie put the kibosh on that.

X marks the spot. Seems like a grimly jokey reference to M, but it’s possible that Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN was on their mind too.

Siodmak’s leading man is Heinz Rühmann, Germany’s all-time most popular film star. A dapper little bespectacled fellow, he seems like an agreeable stand-in for Billy Wilder himself. It’s hard to know what to make of him as a person, though: this was a man who divorced his Jewish wife of 14 years because the Nazis told him to. On the other hand, he did smuggle her over to Sweden. On the other other hand, he then married a loyal Nazi and made a short film celebrating Goebbels’ birthday, in which he played Mrs Goebbels and all the little Goebbelses (you know, the ones she later poisoned to death? I’d like to see that film, I bet it’s hilarious). Rühmann was later present when his new wife was raped by Russian soldiers. In the end, I feel sorry for everybody in this story: the human race.

So, German comedy in the 30s… a healthy medium? In box-office terms, it seems to have been. The Germans have always enjoyed their own comedies, which make up a large proportion of their movies, but are rarely if ever exported. Since Lubitsch had departed for Hollywood long before the coming of sound (in that first exodus, named by the sardonic Mr. Wilder as “The exodus of the talented ones”), German comedy had lost any international ambitions. I have, however, seen a couple of Ophuls comedies  from this era. THE MERRY HEIRS (1933) stars Rühmann again and gets its few laughs from a big dog gallumphing about and behaving like a person, et cetera. Ophuls took over the film at the last minute, and only manages to express his stylistic talents with some creative montage, which is an oddity coming from this master of mise-en-scene. THE BARTERED BRIDE (1932) is much more successful, but more as an operetta than as a laugh-getter. Ophuls swings his camera around with gay Teutonic abandon, even going handheld to follow antics in the fairground. It’s visually even more sophisticated and dazzling than the following year’s LIEBELEI, although that’s the only German movie where Ophuls really finds his true subject matter.

THE BARTERED BRIDE: the comedy bear costume is a sure winner.

I’ll end with a joke. This comes from a fine BBC documentary on comedy in the Third Reich — I wish I could remember the name of the comedian it concerns. This fellow had a habit of making fun of the Nazis, and he tended to get away with it too, but he frequently sailed close to the wind and risked censure or worse. On one occasion he was asked to report to SS Headquarters so they could inform him of their displeasure at something he’d said. He arrived at the front desk and was asked “Are you carrying any concealed weapons?”

“Why?” he replied innocently, “Am I likely to need them here?”