Archive for Mark Kermode

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.

 

Unhinged

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by dcairns

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The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film is well and truly up and running again — my first visit to Bo’ness’ century-old cinema this year resulted in a viewing of HELL’S HINGES (1916), starring William S. Hart in one of his archetypal “good bad man” roles, as a gunslinger called Blaze Tracy  who gets religion after falling in love with a preacher’s sister. Most intriguingly, Hart’s ascent is played parallel with the preacher’s fall from grace, since the man who has been “following the wrong trail” makes a great contrast with the “bad good man” who lacks the inner grit for the role he’s chosen in life.

Music was by Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers, who did such a great job with BEGGAR’S OF LIFE last year — their skiffle/Americana approach suits the early western perfectly. I chatted with Neil afterwards and he was quietly pleased with the way the music, which is quite epic and powerful, soft-pedals the film’s hokier elements — it’s never religiose, saccharine, or melodramatic, despite the presence of a villain in a black fuzzy felt moustache. The semi-improvised score nods to Leone (whistling) and Ford (Shall We Gather at the River) and even evokes True Detective, without falling into pastiche — everything is taken seriously, and that’s enough to make you feel present at the birth of a genre, seeing all this stuff for the first time.

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Lead guitar/vocalist Mike Hammond mentioned THE SEARCHERS and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER as favourite westerns in his intro, and the “town called Hell” aspect of the latter is actually fairly prominent in Hart’s film, which ends with what a contemporary reviewer called a “Gehenna-like” conflagration. Guess it was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

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Very florid, poetic, slightly racist intertitles (apparently producer Thomas Ince was a great one for the faintly purple prose), which worked well. I may well find myself quoting those some more on Sunday’s post… Also, the dialogue titles had a really strong western idiom to them, more so than the dialogue in most talking oaters.

Best place to read about Hart that I know of is Ann Harding’s Treasures. It’s in French, but we have computers for that now.