Archive for Lost Highway

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h15m24s27

If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h20m45s164

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h12m24s13

“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h20m36s73

Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h19m05s171

Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile –

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door –

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.’”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h20m14s106

At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h23m16s140

TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-10h14m03s241

Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

Mystery Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2011 by dcairns

LOST HIGHWAY and THE NEW CENTURIONS. Two videos that kind of resonate with each other. In fact, maybe if you play them both at once you can get some kind of interesting conversation going.

The lynch film is, I hope, sufficiently well-known to most Shadowplayers as to require no elucidation from me, although I can report my conversation with its director during an Edinburgh Film Festival satellite hook-up interview conducted by Mark Cousins. The interview had been arranged with many warnings from Lynch’s people — “David doesn’t like to explain his work,” etc. So Mark was faced with the challenge of interviewing an acclaimed maker of enigmatic and surreal mysteries, without asking him to clear up any of the mysteries. Lynch appeared on the big screen, sometimes fading in and out myseriously as his voice continued twanging on, rather like Virginia Madsen at the start of DUNE. Mark, anxious about publicly quizzing the Great Man, had steadied his nerves with a drink or two. The first clip was played, showing Bill Pullman in the death cell mutating into Balthazar Getty, all mixed in with an image of a shack exploding in reverse. Mark’s first question: “So, what’s going on there?”

Lynch, despite the dire warnings, was affability itself and was quite happy to talk about the scene, without, of course, explaining anything. I remember he did say that he’d chosen to avoid digital morphing “Because it seems like everyone and his uncle is doing that.” And he talked about how the exploding shack was the result of a sudden inspiration which came to him while filming a later scene at that location. “I just got this image, so I called the special effects guy and asked what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”

As the audience were invited to ask questions, I knew it was no good to ask for explanations, but I did ask, since we saw the Mystery Man with a video camera, whether it was reasonable to assume he was the one who was sending Pullman VHS tapes at the start of the film. I also sneakily asked where he got the idea of casting Robert Blake. Of course, if you ask someone two questions, they get to choose which one to answer. He told me he cast Blake based on his Johnny Carson appearances. But he also said of the Mystery Man, “I don’t want to tell you who he is. He’s someone we’ve all met.”

THE NEW CENTURIONS is Richard Fleischer’s Joseph Wambaugh adaptation, dealing with the travails of LAPD patrolmen George C Scott, Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. Sterling Silliphant scripted, eschewing any overarching plot and avoiding traditional structural forms — it’s episodic yet oddly of a piece, and quite a superb piece of filmmaking. The above scene (with its gorgeous LA light) occurs after George C has retired and is at a loss to what to do with himself. I’ve cut it off before the end to avoid a gross spoiler. I always like to watch a violent crime movie set in a place I’m going to visit — I prepared Fiona for our New York trip by screening THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (version originale).

This post is somewhat inspired by the weirdness of talking to Fiona via Skype from LA, looking back into my flat from the other side of the looking glass.

The other day upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh how I wish he’d go away!

Robert Louis Stevenson

Pow!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by dcairns

IMPACT isn’t a great noir, indeed bits aren’t much like noir at all, but I wanted to see it because it’s another film to deploy that strange noir meme, the guy who assumes a new identity working in a small town garage — see also Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Lancaster in THE KILLERS, and Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, it’s Brian Donlevy who shucks off a life as married corporate bigshot to become a grease monkey in the employ of Ella Raines, after his wife’s lover attempts to kill him and instead inflicts him with temporary amnesia.

But I found another intriguing aspect to keep me occupied as the film trundled along, not exactly riveting but oddly structured — the bucolic middle section is a very unusual feature, and the sympathetic husband inverts the James M Cain adultery-murder plotline — I detected in this 1949 movie a weird echo of 1941′s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

Plotwise, the amnesia gimmick is the obvious connection, but the idea of a powerful rich dude descending to the working classes is another link. As Donlevy staggers along the railway tracks, the movie seems on a convergent line, only to divert ultimately into a not-too-exciting courtroom drama. But the cast is full of Sturges links –

Robert Warwick, a studio exec in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS plays another desk jockey here, a police captain. Most of the rest of the cast have Sturgesian credentials — Donlevy, of course, was McGinty in THE GREAT MCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK: Charles Coburn was in THE LADY EVE; and Ella Raines played one of her earliest parts for Sturges in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.

My old friend Lawrie, who remembered seeing Raines movies in the 40s, once said, “I was always very interested in Ella Raines, because I had heard she was a lesbian, and of course… I had no idea what that meant.”

I have no idea if Ella was a lesbian in reality (she was married twice, once for a long time, and had kids, not that any of that proves anything in this cockeyed carnival) but perhaps anxiety about her sexuality and screen persona influenced the nervousness of the studio bosses at Paramount who told Sturges that his leading lady was unconvincing as a girl next door? The resulting tensions contributed to Sturges’s decision to depart the studio, which ultimately led, alas, to his career plunging into a tailspin.

IMPACT also benefits from the presence of Anna May Wong, albeit in a somewhat thankless maid role, and Helen Walker as the scheming wife. Walker’s best noir role is as the scheming shrink in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and her best comedy role was not for Sturges but for Lubitsch, as the Honorable Betty Cream in CLUNY BROWN (see it, you may find it to be one of the best forties comedies of all). Alas, a drunk driving incident, when Walker killed a hitchhiking war veteran she’d picked up, damaged her career. Pow.

It’s a great shame, from a movie as well as a human point of view, because Walker could be dynamite on the screen.

Remember, this Friday is the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club — drop by and join the discussion!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers