Archive for Mark Harris

Dying Like Crazy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-16-20h06m09s4

Finished reading Mark Harris’ Scenes from a Revolution. Two unusually large thumbs up.

(The book also seems to be called Pictures at a Revolution by mistake. I like the Mussorgsky quality of that.)

There’s a story told by Arthur Penn at his appearance at Edinburgh International Film Festival which does not appear in the book’s excellent and extensive coverage of BONNIE AND CLYDE. Now, I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems possible, Penn told it, and it’s funny. It plays into Warren Beatty’s well-known predilection for doing lots of takes, not really starting to act until he’s good and ready, that stuff.

This one will require the use of your mind’s eye, so make sure you have it polished and switched on. Ready?

vlcsnap-2014-04-16-20h06m28s198

The film’s climactic massacre was conceived by Penn, under the influence no doubt of Kurosawa, as a kind of “spastic ballet” — bodies jerking as they’re peppered with bullets, blood capsules and squibs blazing everywhere. It took half a day to get Beatty and Faye Dunaway wired up with the necessary explosives for the first angle. Four cameras were lined up, each shooting at a different speed. Beatty had control of the pyrotechnics — he’s supposed to be eating a pear, and by squeezing it, he set off the fireworks.

Action! The mayhem commences. But, for reasons known only to himself, Beatty does not begin to act. “He just stood there with a dopey smile on his face as a piece of his head blue off,” recalled Penn. Bullets rippled Beatty’s suit, and still he remained, smiling and blinking slowly. “And all the time Faye Dunaway, behind him, is dying like crazy. I wish to God I’d kept that piece of film.”

I’d rank this lost outtake even higher than the one I described here.

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
Bonnie And Clyde [Blu-ray] [1967] [Region Free]

What we are about now is a week of posts dealing with period movies from the New Hollywood of the ’70s. Not westerns, so much, mainly ’20s and ’30s settings, and quite a few of them New Hollywood looking at Old Hollywood. Hope you can dig it. Suggestions are still welcome.

Advertisements

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h24m00s86

NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h25m23s160

COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h31m17s115

UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h32m18s165

Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h35m16s201

EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.