Archive for Mahler

The Unseen Peril

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2022 by dcairns

I bet we can see the unseen peril.

Chapter 10 of FLASH GORDON begins with Flash, in a deathlike stupor, menaced by the fire dragon who might be called Gocko — the recap of this takes far longer than the resolution: “I’ll destroy it with this grenade!” barks Zarkov, and does so. The rubbery foe explodes into clumps and falls over sideways.

The high priest is outraged. He doesn’t go so far as to claim the fire dragon was sacred, but it was guarding the secret chamber of the great god Tao, which you must admit comes pretty close.

Fun with camera angles! Apparently Fred Stephani had some time on his hands this week, so he gives us two novel views of Ming’s throne room. A zombified Flash is tasked with choosing the one he loves the most, like Lassie. But, not like Lassie, he’s been doped with the same love potion (#9) used so effectively by Mickey Rooney to enchant Ava Gardner the lovers in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Or maybe not — it’s merely a draught of forgetfulness — waters of Lethe — and Aura now tries to persuade the befuddled polo player that she’s his one and only. Not clear why Dale just stands there staring while this goes on, but the scenario rarely allows her what you’d call agency.

Vultan protests this jiggery-pokery and is cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — possible FRANKENSTEIN leftovers, as is the score. Prince Barin wisely chooses not to protest and reports to Zarkov.

Larry “Buster” Crabbe may not be the world’s best actor. Larry “Buster” Crabbe may be the world’s worst actor. But he is very good at playing brainwashed. “Don’t you know me?” asks Dale, quoting Stan Laurel in DIRTY WORK under admittedly fairly different circumstances (chimney sweep genetic regression calamity). Flash just stares into space (which is easy to do in space). He has the ardour, the passionate responsiveness, of Li’l Abner. Sad violins.

Prince Barin tries to fetch him for Zarkov, but the suggestible earth-dolt is tricked into seeing PB as his enemy, A boudoir swordfight ensues, easily the equal of the one which opens LISZTOMANIA. (I don’t know why Ken Russell didn’t use Liszt’s FLASH GORDON theme in his rock opera biopic, his aesthetic has plenty in common with the Flash Gordon Cinematic Universe, and I mean that as a compliment. MAHLER even has a cave-dwelling fire dragon.)

Assisted by Zarkov, Barin knocks Flash (more) senseless with the hilt of his sword, adding brain damage to our strapping hero’s mental woes. Unfortunately it isn’t one of those blows to the head that restores a lost memory. It’s just the kind that makes you fall down on the boudoir carpet. They lug the fallen Flash to the lab and enlist the healing power of neon tubes. It’s so crazy it just might work.

Griffith Observatory calling! Funny how everyone abandons Flash’s prone form once the earth gets in touch. Dale, hearing the radio, rushes to the wall safe space viewer to take a look at the old planet, as if she expects to see its lips moving. Zarkov manages to make himself dimly audible to the terrestrial listeners, something he’s been struggling to achieve since episode 2, and which has no dramatic consequences whatsoever.

Zarkov’s electrical tubing soon restore’s Flash’s “mind” but just then, an imperial death squad arrives from Ming. They stand him against the wall, level their ray guns — but Zarkov does the business with the old lever and makes Flash vanish. The execution squad scream like girls and run away, pursued by a thunderbolt wipe which leads into the Continued Next Week card.

So — it’s not the peril that’s unseen, it’s the imperilled. But that wouldn’t have made a good episode title. And neither one is a match for In the Claws of the Tigron, which is NEXT —

Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , on March 21, 2020 by dcairns

I have a new essay up at Criterion, a “deep dive” in which writers highlight slightly neglected features buried in the Criterion site beneath the current big pictures. I’ve gone for Ken Russell’s MAHLER because it’s a good opportunity to get a little hysterical.

Here.

Not Acting But Drowning

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being disappointed by Ken Russell’s book Directing Film when it came out. Picking it up again, I was more impressed, but I could still see what bothered me originally — unlike the Lumet and Mackendrick books, which are masterpieces of the genre, Russell divides himself between general knowledge stuff about who does what on a film set — this stuff is suitable for precocious children interested in getting into the movies — and amusing anecdotes from his distinguished career. This is the stuff I enjoyed this time, because Mad Ken tells a great yarn (see below). But there’s so much the book doesn’t cover — the chapter on shooting says nothing about camera placement, camera movement, lighting, which is all stuff Russell knew about and did brilliantly, in collaboration with such cinematographers as Dick Bush, Billy Williams, Douglas Slocombe, David Watkin, Peter Suschitzky, Jordan Cronenweth… Only Ken could tell us how he approached actually filming those musical numbers, nun orgies, peyote trips… the editor should have insisted he write about this.

But the anecdotes are terrific, and some even teach valuable lessons, though what you take away from the one coming up depends on you and your moral compass. Ken has just finished telling us how me made the mistake of casting an actress in a supporting role for THE MUSIC LOVERS, without having heard her speak. She had a strong Canadian accent so he ended up cutting all her lines. We’re on to MAHLER. Now read on ~

Even so, the experience taught me to be well on my guard in future and to take an actor’s talents according to his CV with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless such is the cunning of the average thespian that they are able to slip through one’s defences and pull a fast one. After all, they are ‘actors’ and learn their survival techniques from an early age, as I found to my cost on Mahler.

Casting the young Gustav was a bit of a problem owing to the fact that he had to ride, swim and play the piano. Most of the boys I auditioned could manage two out of three, but finding a contender who could handle the lot proved difficult. Finally I settled for Gary-someone-or-other, who assured me he was fine so far as his athletic abilities were concerned, but was a bit rusty on the piano. I watched him play and thought if I ever made a film of Frankenstein’s monster as a young piano prodigy, I need look no further than Gary. However, he read his lines well and looked remarkably like Robert Powell, who was playing Mahler the man. I should have remembered my experience on the Tchaikovsky film and been warned.

So, on the understanding that he practised the piano every day, I hired him. After all, he only had to play scales and I assumed he could manage that with ease. He was a bright boy, keen as Coleman’s, and desperate to do the part.

I stopped worrying and got caught up in the hurly-burly of pre-production, but still managed to phone him from time to time to see how he was progressing. Gary was never there; he was always down at the baths, according to his mother, who added reassuringly that the piano tuition was coming on fine. I guess I should have smelt a rat — a water rat — but I had far greater problems to sort out and missed the obvious.

What should have been obvious became horrifyingly so on choppy Derwentwater five weeks later. We had reached the point in the schedule where the young Mahler, wishing to show off to his school chums, attempts to demonstrate that he is as at home in the water as they are, by plunging into the chilly waters of the lake in  foolhardy attempt to swim across it. In the event he only manages a few yards before getting into difficulties and being ignominiously rescued.

So, imagine the scene. There we are, with me and my camera crew in a boat moored a little offshore, and young Gary poised on the water’s edge in his underwear ready to plunge in, swim into close-up, become exhausted, and start to drown. After a few seconds of this I’d say ‘cut’, and he’d be hauled safely on board. Everyone knew exactly what was expected of them and we were all keyed up for the take, when Gary’s forlorn little voice was caught up by the wind and whipped across the choppy waters towards me.

‘Mr Russell,’ he shouted through cupped hands. ‘I’ve got a confession to make… I lied to you, I can’t swim! I can only manage a few strokes.’ So that’s why he was always down at the baths when he should have been practising the piano, I thought, before shouting back at him.

‘Never mind, Gary, just do your best, swim out a few strokes — you needn’t even get out of your depth and then pretend to get into difficulties.’

‘But Mr Russell, I don’t want to, I’m scared.’

‘Nonsense! You can do it if you try,’ I shouted back with a touch of steel in my voice. ‘Ready now — roll camera, action!’

It’s amazing how that word ‘ACTION’ galvanizes the mind. Shout ‘Action’ through a loud hailer with command and conviction and you can get a ten-stone weakling to move mountains and pigs to fly. Even our Gary was galvanized sufficiently to wade into the water and take the plunge, for all the world like a cross-channel record breaker. He got all of three yards, started blubbing, and waded shivering and snivelling back to shore. This was disastrous. Defeat was staring us in the face. True, we’d got him in the water and starting to swim, but that was all in long shot. We still needed a few shots in close-up of him swimming and getting into difficulties. And the drowning scene was crucial to the film — we simply had to have it.

‘Great, Gary, we’ve got it,’ I shouted. ‘Now just jump in and we’ll row you out here to discuss the next scene before the light goes.’ He wasn’t happy, but before he could object an assistant director had bundled him into a boat and started rowing.

‘Here, Gary, let me give you a hand,’ I said as he was brought alongside. Trustingly he did so, whereupon I sort of lost my balance and poor Gary was hurled into the deep — as both boats pulled away from him like mad and the camera, primed for the crucial moment, purred into action. And what do you know? Gary managed to swim half a dozen strong strokes before giving up the ghost. It was the most convincing drowning scene I have ever seen on screen. The little bugger couldn’t ride a horse either — so we tied him to te saddle and whipped the stallion into a gallop — only kidding! HONEST!

Gary Rich was the young actor. He didn’t immediately take early retirement after this rough treatment, as I had feared, and was actually cast by Russell again in TOMMY the following year. A land-based role, thankfully. The following year he DID pack it in, but it doesn’t look like MAHLER was the deciding factor. Looking at the shots, I’m not quite convinced it happened the way Russell remembered it, which may be a relief to some of you.