Archive for Little Big Man

Hi Ho

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by dcairns

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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Nowhereerewhon

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on January 5, 2011 by dcairns

From Thomas Berger’s novel Nowhere ~

“I confess I find it curious that the clergy of all people would condone the exchanging of schools and churches for cinemas.”

The priest laughed merrily. “‘Condoned’ is too mild a word, my dear fellow! We were positively ecstatic to do so. For the first time in a century we have full houses!”

“And the movies are also a substitute for school?”

He frowned. “The choice of words is not appropriate. The movies are not substitutes! If anything, church and school were the substitutes. They were poor imitations of life. Now we can see the real thing.”

“Old American films are the real thing?”

“Yes, of course,” the priest said forcefully. “The virtuous are shown to succeed, the evildoers invariably come to grief, and the general philosophy that informs every picture is that there is a common good, which is recognized by everyone — including the wicked, who of course are opposed to it, but they know what it is. Believe it or not, before the Enlightenment, Sebastiani society had no such standards or beliefs. The church had utterly different aims from the schools, and the code one learned in each was utterly confounded by one’s experience of life. And the government received no respect from anyone, which of course is still true, but now the government is intentionally performed as a farce, and is quite effective.”

“Namely, it does nothing.”

His smaile became ever more radiant. “Exactly! And are you aware of what an achievement that is? Unprecedented throughout history! Not even the Austro-Hungarians were quite able to pull that off.”

A riff on the Utopian novel, and particularly Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (try in backwards), Nowhere is intermittently amusing, although the narrator’s tendency to talk like a Rudy Vallee character in a Preston Sturges film sometimes put me off. I read the whole thing before realizing that Berger is the author of Little Big Man, which made sense: Indian society in that film is another not-quite-utopia. Haven’t read it, but I like the Arthur Penn movie very much. Weird coincidence: I discovered Berger’s connection just as Fiona plunged into one of her regular fits of obsession, this time over Penn’s film of THE MIRACLE WORKER.

Blood for Oil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

Alex Orr’s zestful cheapie BLOOD CAR played the Edinburgh Film fest this year (the Fest has a long history of supporting imaginative exploitation cinema, starting with its ahead-of-the-curve Corman retrospective back in the ’70s) and the writer-director was around for the whole event. He seemed very approachable so I cornered him for the first Shadowplay interview.

Well, it turns out I suck at interviewing, but am OK at free-ranging movie conversation, so once we stopped with the programmed blather things went much better. This means that I only garnered a tiny amount of useable on-topic stuff to print here. So I’m using ALL of it.

BLOOD CAR details the misadventures of vegan schoolteacher Archie Andrews, who’s trying to convert his car to run on wheat grass, but inadvertently discovers it prefers blood. The day before the interview I heard someone describe the film as “technically horrible” (it’s not, but it’s shot on digital) but “conceptually brilliant”. The political subtext of “blood for oil” is never stressed, but it doesn’t need to be. The filmmakers were certainly well aware of it.

“A B movie should just be a BIG AWESOME RETARDED THING,” he says, citing Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS as the big-budget version of that principle: Pretty kids getting eaten by bugs, plus a weird Nazi vibe. It’s all in the concept.

Alex and his pals were pitching ideas in the car, trying to find an exploitable low-budget scenario, and I guess the idea of a car came naturally to mind since they were in one. I bet lots of cyber-thrillers are thought up while the writers are staring at their P.C.s. It’s obvious, really.

Being an aspiring low-budget filmmaker myself, I had to ask Alex the budget and schedule question. The movie was made for “around 25-30” and shot in 12 days, but there was a subplot that didn’t work, comprising about a third of the footage, so that was ditched and a further couple days new material was produced to bring the film up to length and add touches like the very funny baby-kissing coda. (OK, there IS some overt political satire).

Alex has a group of friends he regularly works with, and had helped out on horror films before, but never made one. His leading man is a friend whom everybody thought it would be amusing to systematically degrade and smear in blood. The “meat girl” character is Alex’s girlfriend (lucky guy). A local rap artist was drafted in to play a carjacker.

A little money was spent on one essential prosthetic effect, and a device to spray blood at high pressure was hired. And about fifty gallons of “Kensington gore” was purchased at a knock-down price.

The resulting movie has sold in Germany and has U.S. distribution, arranged through a sales agent. It’s pretty clearly going to turn a profit, and hopefully Alex will be able to make his next project.

“It’s about a white supremacist who gets a black hand transplanted onto him. It’s called BLACK HAND.”

Alex admires the seemingly loose but actually tightly organised plotting of LITTLE BIG MAN, and hopes to achieve a similar historical sweep. “Sex and violence can’t really offend anybody in a movie anymore, what with the Internet,” he says, “and nobody takes religion seriously,” so his plan is to use race, which is still a hot enough potato to get people talking.

“You gotta have an angle, other than ‘I’m great!’

Oh, I also want to mention Alex’s excellent abstract Peter Bogdanovich impersonation. “I met that guy, and he’s like a caricature of himself. He’s all, like, ‘Ah-wub-wub-wub.'” The sound can best be characterised as a smug burble. But Alex paid tribute to the burbler: “Your first two movies are the reason I became a filmmaker.” Bogdanovich is quite used to soaking up deserved praise for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, but: “What? Targets???” referring to his low-budget Corman-produced debut, to which Alex could only reply “YES Targets!” 

I agree, it’s a terrific movie, and Bogdanovich gets extra points for gamely seizing a poisoned-chalice project that had to incorporate ten minutes of outtakes from Corman’s THE TERROR, and turning it into a smart and touching homage to Boris Karloff, as well as a chilling meditation on modern-day violence.

It’s the kind of low-budget derring-do I’d like to see more of in British cinema.