Archive for Mark Cousins

One scene, three times (2) Polanski

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2022 by dcairns

Polanski’s approach to Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III in his 1971 adaptation is, we have to think, informed by the fact that, unlike almost anybody else attempting the scene, he had lived it. A man receives the news that his wife and child/ren have been murdered while he was out of the country. What’s that like, Roman?

Polanski is, quite understandably, extremely annoyed by critics who try to impose a simplistic autobiographical reading onto this film, and his work in general — my friend Mark Cousins walked boldly into this issue when he interviewed RP for the BBC. It was a pretty lively, rebarbative chat — some of the most feisty stuff got cut out, but Mark wrote about it for Sight & Sound: Polanski doing a big snore noise when he didn’t like a question, that kind of thing.

RP has said that he chose Macbeth to adapt precisely because critics couldn’t claim he was making a film about the Manson murders, since all the violence is already in the text. A naive supposition, admittedly. The only way to have escaped the armchair shrinks would have been to make a film with no violence whatsoever. Instead, Polanski and co-scenarist Kenneth Tynan created a world where bloodshed is the norm, so that it arguably loses much of its moral dimension, becomes all-pervasive.

While Welles repurposed Ross as the Holy Man, Polanski & Tynan work some character redesign of their own. Rather than being a sort of Basil Exposition figure who turns up and delivers information, their Ross is a two-faced traitor, making nice with Macbeth while meeting his enemies on the sly. In this film’s world, honour is an illusion (it ends with another betrayal, another thane* off to meet the witches). Shakespeare typically ends his tragedies with (a) a bloodbath but (b) the restoration of order, which is to be viewed as stable, balanced, good. Not so in Polanski’s films, where the natural order IS chaos.

Unlike Welles, Polanski has a bit of a budget, though it’s still quite tight. But he can afford locations — Wales being closer to the UK production centre than Scotland, he shoots there. So the meeting of Malcolm and Macduff with Ross can happen on an actual road, in an actual valley. This is a film full of production values and realistic detail (Polanski spat a mouthful of breadcrumbs onto a dining table to illustrate the level of authenticity — and grunge — he required) so we open on the sight of what appear to be refugees fleeing their terrible lives north of the border. Pan onto Malcolm and Macduff.

They can afford horses, too, so Ross comes trotting over the horizon line, suitably mounted for the trip. (We’ve just seen him in Dunsinane with Macbeth, so he’s had to travel at least a hundred miles to get here.) Welles’ rebels would have been lucky to get coconut shells.

Instead of saying “My countryman; but yet I know him not,” Malcolm says “Our countryman who seems a stranger to us,” a line NOT IN SHAKESPEARE. Pure Tynan, intended to suggest that Malcolm and Macduff don’t quite trust Ross, feel he’s been a bit too pally with the usurper. This seems somehow like cheating to me. You can impose a personal interp on the play, even if it means distorting some scenes. But just making shit up seems sort of… not legit. Still, Macduff arrives in a wide and dismounts into medium shot all smiles. He is John Stride, and he is a sly one. (Stride is a fine, underused thesp, excellent as the unctuous man from the ministry in JUGGERNAUT.)

Ross bows to the pretender to the throne (we have to call Malcolm that: for now, he’s just pretending) and greets Macduff with a manly hug. As his horse gets led off to presumably have some hay put in it or something, Stride/Ross makes his report on the state of the nation. Said state being absolutely dreadful.

The three walk off into an encampment. Ah-hah! This isn’t a random meeting by a roadside, but a visit by Ross to the enemy’s base. As we get a long shot, a huge swathe of text is conveniently cut, allowing Macduff to cut to the chase and ask after his wife and kids. Still in the wide shot, Ross says they’re fine.

This is a weird choice. Ross knows full well that the whole Macduff household has been put to the sword or worse. As a tiny rear view, Stride can’t inflect the lie with any kind of psychology, so we’re left at a loss as to why he does it. And I do think, even if we’d seen his face, seen a sneaky or uncomfortable look cross it, we’d be a bit puzzled by this behaviour. On his trip from Scotland he’s had plenty of time to think about what to say to Macduff.

I suspect Polanski covered this dialogue with the next shot, but then lopped a big speech out and overlapped some lines to pick up the pace, with the unfortunate result that part of the scene’s meaning becomes a bit blurry. But speed is usually your friend, and he can get over the problem by just rocketing forward to the next good bit.

With the bigger budget for extras, Polanski can show what they’re talking about, vis-a-vis the plans for invasion, so Malcolm stops to have a look at two warriors having a practice bout. The younger one is the film’s brilliant fight arranger, Bill Hobbs. Polanski covers most of the dialogue here with a handheld shot following the men through the mud. Polanski had developed this neat approach to handheld, using the trudging figures to, in effect, stabilise the shot. The actors and camera wobble as one. John Alonso talked about quarrelling with the director on CHINATOWN about whether handheld was appropriate, and found Polanski winning him over with this effect.

Continuing on through the camp, towards where the archers are doing target practice, Ross now decides to tell the truth about Macduff’s family tragedy. We don’t know why he lied before, and so we can’t really understand why he changes tack now. Never mind, onwards! as Boris Johnson is always saying. Leave your calamities in the rear view mirror then blame your critics for fixating on the past, while you line up a fresh disaster.

Polanski’s theory about casting, as expressed to his PIANIST screenwriter Ronald Harwood (in David Wilkinson’s excellent interview book), is that you basically choose actors for what they look like. This is bananas, and dumb, but also true. You can’t get away with useless actors, you need far more essential qualities than appearance, but still, an actor who is the correctly carved block of wood will get you a lot of what you need. It’s essential that they photograph right, that their look suggests the character. I guess Polanski gets the rest of the way by screaming at them, by doing lots of takes, by showing off his karate chops (he was taught by Bruce Lee).

Stephan Chase, then, as Malcolm, has presumably been cast for his long, noble, sensitive, rather sorrowful face, because Malcolm is always at the scene of bad news. John Stride is playing a sneak, but he has to appear trustworthy because on the whole people trust him. He has a bland, mild, round-edged face.

Terence Bayler is Macduff. He’s very dark and baleful of countenance, rather like Welles’ choice of Dan O’Herlihy, in fact. His eyes peer out of a black scowl. Very effective, and little to do with acting. He has a mobile mouth, which is common to classically trained British thesps with good diction. The American mumblers make better tough guys. Ken Campbell worked out that to be threatening on stage or screen, you have to be as good a ventriloquist as possible. You scare the enemy by saying things without seeming to. Bayler is fiery and baleful but doesn’t seem convincingly tough here, because of his flapping, twirling lips. He more than makes up for it in the final duel through sheer physical exertion.

Billy Wilder, asked if he was going to go see ROSEMARY’S BABY, replied “I wouldn’t touch it with a five foot Pole.” But Polanski apparently bore no grudge because he follows Wilder’s dictum about not showing a character’s face when they get bad news. Or almost. He has Bayler turn quickly away as Malcolm mutters “Merciful heavens,” all so quick it’s possible to get confused about who spoke. It’s quite a weak effect, I think. The bold and effective way would be to have his back to us because they’re walking, and then have him stop. Or he turns away to brace himself and we just see him stiffen. Anything direct, anything requiring an expression, an action, or a line, is kind of doomed to be inadequate to this awesome moment. Giving him an expression an action compounds the inadequacy.

But when Bayler trudges off into the middle distance to deal with the shock alone, that works very well, I think. From here on, by sticking to the script more or less, Polanski & co are on firm ground. Macduff keeps asking if his wife is dead too? And his kids? And his wife? It’s absurd and nightmarish and true.

When Polanski throws us a reverse angle, going from three back views to three frontal ones, it’s very effective, and Malcolm’s “Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows,” is occasioned by a very effective stance from Baylor. In the Welles film, Macduff doesn’t have a hat so he can’t pull it upon his brows. Polanski’s adaptations always take blind fidelity as their starting point: assume that everything is there for a reason, and assume you’ll find it out by sticking to it. He apparently filmed ROSEMARY’S BABY exactly as written in the novel, then had to reshape the film to get it to be a releasable length. His OLIVER TWIST includes characters and bits everyone leaves out of their adaptations. The bit about the hat, a strange line which is hard to picture, becomes THE BEST BIT. A psychologically true displacement activity.

(The other filmmaker who had this sort of experience for real was the late Peter Bogdanovich. His response to the news of his partner’s death was to fall to the floor and attempt to claw his way through it. Now there’s a displacement activity. The right actor might be able to do that in a scene, but probably the majority wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was also very impressed by Abbie Cornish’s performance in BRIGHT STAR: sudden, shattering grief. It’s a difficult thing to show, and your audience may shrink or even giggle. Which is why artifice could be your friend. When the truth works, it’s better. When it doesn’t work, it’s much, much worse.)

When Malcolm proposes revenge as the cure for this tragedy, Baylor’s flat rendition of “He has no children,” is magnificently despairing. You can’t repay Macbeth for this. Revenge doesn’t actually work. But sometimes it may be essential anyway.

Macduff staggers about. He gets into a solo shot, viewed from the side, and when he wonders if heaven looked down at his family’s slaughter, he looks up at the bleak, bleary Welsh clouds.

The rest of the scene plays out in a continuation of this shot, as Macduff sinks to his knees and then, offered a sword by Malcolm, rises to his feet again. Despair is followed by the urge for justice which propels us forward into the next part of the story.

Surprisingly, Malcolm’s cynicism in using Macduff’s bereavement for his own ends isn’t greatly stressed here. He seems genuinely sympathetic.

The offering of the sword, however, seems to echo Macbeth’s earlier encounter with the phantom dagger. This is emphasised by the fact that Polanski frames him as headless, making the sword seem less attached to a person. Fate, or witches, or kings, are always handing us weapons and telling us to get busy. Macduff/Baylor’s fighting stance at the end seems less aggressive, more defensive and wary — he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the coming battle. But he seems to be trying to hallucinate it into being.

(The next scene, fittingly, shows Macbeth riding in long shot from right to left, as if towards Macduff and his vengeful sword.)

One thing Polanski and Tynan do that Welles oddly doesn’t: they end on a line and a moment and a command to go forward, rather than on an EXEUNT, which Shakespeare absolutely had to do in order to bring on the next scene, and which Welles chose to retain. Cutting Shakespeare is absolutely essential for the screen (and quite often necessary or advisable on stage), both to eliminate description of things that we can’t avoid SEEING, and therefore don’t need described, and to propel us forward with a cut.

Endnote: Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD isn’t a favourite of mine. It has stunning scenes, but Kurosawa seems to have no particular sympathy for Macbeth, which maybe you need. No sympathy translates into little interest. Anyway, Kurosawa is excused wrestling with the verse because he’s doing it in Japanese, and rather brilliantly he manages to tell the story entirely without Macduff, so this scene doesn’t appear at all.

*Don’t know what it means.

The Clumsy Waiter

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2020 by dcairns

In canceled John Landis’ KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE Donald Sutherland has a surprising cameo — Landis evidently cultivated the star assiduously while assisting on KELLY’S HEROES (and got him again for ANIMAL HOUSE) — as “the clumsy waiter,” a bit that involves cutting to him falling down a lot in waiter garb, as part of a mock trailer for a disaster movie starring George Lazenby… these few moments of crude slapstick may hint at something deeper which would, if viewed from the right angle, unlock the mysteries of cinema.

Sutherland was fresh from Fellini’s CASANOVA and Bertolucci’s 1900. In Mark Cousins’ Scene By Scene interview — I think the best in that series — he tells an amazing story about the latter. In 1900 he plays a fascist who’s literally called Attila and who shows you how bad he is by murdering a cat with his head.

The story’s at about 22:42. The reason this is the best episode is that it’s the only time the central conceit of showing scenes to filmmakers actually results in staggeringly interesting reaction shots. Some of Donald’s expressions in this interview count as among the best of his career.

Bertolucci set the scene, explaining that he would tie a (real) cat to a post, then charge a cunningly substituted fake one headfirst, crushing a bag of blood concealed within. Donald wasn’t exactly keen on smashing into a wooden post with his head, which he needs for acting with, but agreed to do it ONCE.


The bag of blood failed to burst. “The actor didn’t hit the cat correctly,” was what Sutherland recalled them saying. OK, one more time.

Some FX genius got the idea of placing two thumbtacks against the baggie, so that it would be pierced by any solid impact.


“There. OK?” “No. Not okay.” He has two thumbtacks sticking out of his forehead. He also has concussion.

So he does twenty takes or something crazy until Bertolucci is satisfied. That evening in the bar he’s trying to explain to Gerard Depardieu what he had to do that day and he decides to SHOW them what he had to do. He charges a pillar, trips, crashes into what turns out to be a mirror, and ends up with half his ear hanging off.

The point of this story, besides the striking nature of the events themselves, would seem to be the plight of the actor, but Sutherland plants a seed of doubt in our minds about his physical prowess, and one maybe wonders if the KENTUCKY FRIED skit was inspired by a certain gaucheness in his movements?

Moving on.

Next story comes from John Baxter’s Fellini biography, not his best work, but he describes Sutherland wrapping on his last day on the project. They’re filming in a field. As he’s walking away, wearing a blanket or cloak or something, he does a big wave at Fellini, using the robe for a flourish. It catches the wind, and he’s pulled off-balance and falls in the mud.

He gets up, makes the gesture again, and falls in the mud again.

Moving on again.

This is from Philip Kaufman’s audio commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Kaufman is filming the climax in a big greenhouse with Sutherland way up in the roof beams, clambering about.

A friend drops in. “Is that Donald Sutherland way up there?”

Kaufman confirms that it is.

“What the hell? Don’t you know he’s the clumsiest man alive?

I love Donald Sutherland and I will gladly accept any stories you have about Donald Sutherland falling over.

Stealing Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2019 by dcairns

I’m in the edit today — Fiona and I have recorded a video essay for KWAIDAN. So not much time for blogathoning. But I tell you what — Timo Langer and I are cutting at Mark Cousins’ place. How about I wander about and see if I can find any late films to write about, in between cuts?

The reference material from Mark’s THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES lie all around, so there’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, F FOR FAKE and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

There’s a Derek Jarman box set, but it doesn’t contain BLUE, which I really ought to write about — one of the ultimate late films, you could argue, made when its director had been struck blind by AIDS.

Ah, there’s WAR REQUIEM, late-ish Jarman and positively final Olivier. You can’t get later than late Olivier.

(Is it bad manners to blog about somebody’s flat when they’re out?)

Two Theo Angelopoulos box sets. Haven’t seen THE DUST OF TIME, but it’s a great title for a last film, even though its creator probably wasn’t planning to curtail his career by stepping in front of an off-duty cop’s on-coming motorcycle.

Wow, here’s THE BRAVE, the only film directed by Johnny Depp, to date. (And a follow-up seems less and less likely.)

This place is a treasure trove of cinema, including late cinema…

Mark’s back, now I feel guilty and furtive.

He’s OK with it — in fact, he mentions an article he wrote on Late Style, which you can read here, at The Prospect. Quick discussion follows on why, so often, filmmakers’ work becomes tired or boring in old age, whereas that doesn’t happen so often with visual artists. The weight of all that equipment seems to be a burden. “Look at Bertolucci, how his films shrank, until they were one-room films.” Maybe lightweight digital cameras will transform this. But the filmmaker’s

I suggest that there’s a feeling that film is done best by people who are still discovering everything. It’s when we think we know what we’re doing that we get dull. It’s like those seventies Disney films where they had filing cabinets full of old animation cels as reference. You want a dancing bear, you just trace one somebody did earlier. Sometimes our brains get like filing cabinets.

There’s a relevant line in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: “It’s alright to steal from others, what we must never do is steal from ourselves.”