Archive for Lewis Carroll

Airless in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2016 by dcairns

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I had never even heard of this 1949 British ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I have suspicions it may have been suppressed by Disney, but maybe it was just judged not entertaining enough. But if so, how to explain the 1972 ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, possibly the least entertaining thing since the Aberfan disaster, which got tons of airplay in my dim youth?

This one has wonderfully smooth stop-motion animation — their ways of integrating the live-action Carol Marsh (of BRIGHTON ROCK fame) are simple, but adequate. Split-screen predominates rather than matte shots or rear projection. Lou Bunin, whom I had never heard of, was in charge of animation. A Russian-born American and former apprentice to Diego Rivera…

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Unfortunately the script pursues some pointless conceit of Lewis Carroll’s characters all having real-life analogues. This extends the framing structure endlessly, a real problem since the movie also reproduces all of Alice’s to gain access to the garden of Wonderland — I’ve never seen the caucus-race presented on-screen before, and now that I have I understand why it’s usually cut.

Pamela Brown plays Queen Victoria and voices the Queen of Hearts. A couple of other popular actors do voice-only duty: Peter Bull (unspecified role/s) and Joyce Grenfell (Duchess AND Dormouse). There’s a preponderance of French crew, including Claude Renoir as co-cinematographer.

It’s curiously unaffecting, maybe because the material is so familiar and the film does nothing very effective to re-energize it. There’s an arch style of playing which nearly everybody adopts when doing Carroll (which is why Ian Holm’s White Knight is so startling), and you then need either magnificently odd production design or some other means of refreshing it. Here, the smoothness of the animation is coldly admirable but the designs and characterisations aren’t uniformly beautiful or charming, though there’s some nice use of Regency stripe and some of the flattened stylisation is pleasing in its approach to Yves Tanguy.

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Worse, it isn’t funny. Disney’s version is criticised for Americanizing the characters but it does have a certain slapstick energy. When I saw it as a kid, on a double-feature with CANDLEWICK, it made me feel stoned, before I knew what that was. It’s interesting that Disney couldn’t completely Disneyficate this unconducive material. One reason I hated the Tim Burton version more than I hate my own body is that it mutilates and malforms Carroll’s nonsense into a bogus “empowering” Disney princess tale. There aren’t enough thunderbolts in heaven to punish anyone who (a) thinks that’s a good idea (b) attempts to do it (c) breaks box office records by doing so. The only good thing is that schoolchildren drawn to the book by the Burton monstrosity are due to have their minds blown all over the nursery walls by the unexpected psychedelic hilarity.

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The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2015 by dcairns

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.

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Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.

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The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.

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There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.

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Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

21 bees, Baker Street

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Though Cannes is not what you would call an egalitarian film festival (few of them are), it did used to be the case (I haven’t tried it lately) that you could show up at the Palais, present a cheap business card declaring yourself to be the director of a fictitious film company, and you would, eventually, be presented with a low-level pass. This would get you into the odd gala screening, if you queued early in the day, and into the various pavilions, and into market screenings, which meant you could see a lot of films, just not necessarily the hot tickets. This suited Fiona and I just fine, and in this manner we were able to see Bill Condon’s GODS AND MONSTERS, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

So we were hoping MR HOLMES would be a worthy successor, and it just about is. Despite its leisurely narrative pace, it does create a series of compelling mini-mysteries for the aged Holmes (Ian McKellan) to solve, from the forgotten conclusion of his last case, lost in the mists of incipient senility, to the problem of who or what is bumping off his bees.

Mitch Cullin’s source novel picks up on a few references in Conan Doyle to Holmes eventually retiring to Sussex (like Richard Lester) to keep bees (unlike Richard Lester). Adding in the idea of Holmes declining mental powers allows for a compelling set of subplots, two unfolding in parallel flashbacks, one in present tense. Like GODS AND MONSTERS, it’s quite moving. Modest budgetary means are well-mustered so the film never strains to convince us of its period setting (though I thought the Japanese scenes maybe needed something — I’m not sure what — more to really convince us we weren’t on British soil).

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Sadly, I don’t think McKellan’s Holmes is as good as his James Whale in GODS AND MONSTERS. We have less of an idea of what Whale was like, of course, and McKellan’s lack of physical resemblance to the great director wasn’t really a problem. In a sense, Whale, who is visible and audible only in a couple of seconds of ONE MORE RIVER and in various stills, is less real than Sherlock Homes. Somehow I can’t imagine a young McKellan playing a young Holmes, so I struggle a bit to see an older one playing an older one. Also, McKellan has gotten very keen on pulling faces, chewing his lip, tonguing his teeth, etc. That’s probably quite appropriate for the pensive, anxiety-prone senile Holmes, but he did so much of it in his last turn as Gandalf that it feels less like characterisation and more like actorly mannerisms.

Still, he can work our emotions as of old, and he’s backed up by an excellent Laura Linney and wunderkind Milo Parker, who shares most of the key scenes with McKellan. He’s pretty amazing — he has to do everything Brendan Fraser did in GODS AND MONSTERS only backwards and in heels while being much, much smaller.

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One real issue — the film is seriously over-edited. The deliberate pace cannot be converted into a hurly burly by intercutting like mad. There’s a lack of variety to the rhythms, with everything rushed on and offscreen, where a contrast between longer shots and more hurried one would have been much more exciting and appropriate. It’s apparent at once, where a scene in a train carriage is framed to let Holmes resemble a Tenniel illustration for Through the Looking Glass. But the shot is whisked away before we can enjoy it, we get barraged with closeups for a bit, and then the shot returns for another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance.

Never repeat a master shot. If anyone can tell me why, I’ll give you a jar of honey.