Archive for Marnie

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns


I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.


His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.


Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.


As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

A Handbag?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by dcairns


Valerie Hobson, unlucky in love — at 17, she married Henry Frankenstein, and at 38 she married John Profumo and became a classic Tory wife, standing fragrantly by her man as he became embroiled in a sex scandal that brought the government down. In between, she played the wife of James Robertson Justice in VOICE OF MERRILL, which we watched in a moment of weakness. (Network UK provide an invaluable service to cinephilia by releasing all these duff movies and TV shows. Some are actually good.)

JRJ brings the only entertainment to be had in VOM, playing an irascible playwright with a heart condition, a sort of Waldo Lydecker acid wit specialist. But the sight of his heart pills clues us in to the fact that he’s likely to fade out before the movie does, and we’re left with the insipid leads and some workaday investigating officers. Valerie may be fragrant and decorous, but she’s never exactly interesting unless the script works hard to make her so — even playing an adulteress, she’s a little dull.

What I wanted to talk about is the opening murder scene. Director John Gilling, who made a name for himself later at Hammer but had been around for ages, writing for Tod Slaughter and Arthur Lucan (and Bela Lugosi), begins and ends the sequence on two rather curious notes. First, we follow a pair of shoes, stalking the streets of nocturnal London — a time-honoured cliché that’s unlikely to raise eyebrows in itself. Yet it goes on so long it becomes hilarious, starting to resemble some avant-garde experiment in audience endurance. Next, a sultry secretary is shot and in the affray a vase of flowers is toppled. Gilling pans from the tabletop with the spreading puddle of water, to where the water is now drip-dripping to the floor. And ends the scene with a closeup of the water dripping into the victim’s handbag.


What’s this about? I know purses make excellent sexual symbols, qua MARNIE, but this is just bizarre. If it’s intended to be sexual, it’s WAY too explicit. Then there’s a discomfort about seeing the leather splashed with non-drinking water. The trope of the mobile camera, scanning a crime scene like an investigator, is another time-honoured cliché, but tradition has it that we must end on an element redolent with significance. There’s no clue to the handbag. The water doesn’t make it any more important.

Had Gilling begun the scene AFTER the murder, the handbag might have made an excellent opener. I recall Eisenstein writing in The Short Fiction Scenario that a murder scene might begin with a shot of a shoe on the floor. The audience asks “Hello! Why is there a shoe on the floor?” and they are intrigued, ensnared. Well, they wouldn’t ask that in our flat, where Fiona, the Imelda Marcos of Leith, has covered the entire floor with shoes. Rather than stepping over them, it is easier to step into them, and cross the room slipping into a different pump with every step. No wonder I couldn’t find my bank card when I dropped it.

“Hello! Why is water dripping into a handbag?” we would have asked, a useful question which the scene could have answered by panning UP to the spilled vase, and then onto the corpse. Instead of asking this, we ask a lot of useless questions with no answers, most of them concerning Gilling’s grasp of visual storytelling.

Of course, if we want to give Gilling credit for being a second Bunuel, the wet handbag might have a defense. Think of the mucky stick in GRAN CASINO. “The effect was marvelous,” wrote Don Luis.


Life and Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2013 by dcairns


As last films go, Jan Svankmajer’s SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE) is both vibrant and energetic and full of creative juice, and deeply melancholy on a number of levels. It’s sad because the filmmaker has announced it as his last work, and because he’s made it without his creative partner, wife Eva Svankmajerova, who designed for his films and was in every way seemingly his perfect other half.

The film is something of a departure for Svankmajer, deploying a cut-out animation technique (achieved using computers) stolen from Terry Gilliam who stole it from Walerian Borowczyk. The alchemist of Prague even introduces the film in person (as a cut-out) like Gilliam did in TIDELAND. Svankmajer takes the opportunity to explain all the film’s stylistic choices as being solutions to budgetary limitations (using cut-outs saves on petrol and catering), and even explaining the introduction itself as a fix for the film’s short running time (however, it’s not THAT short). A glum apologia that slowly gets funnier the more despondent it becomes.


The biggest surprise about the film, whose imagery (flopping tongues, bodily functions, bizarre juxtapositions and violations of scale, human-animal hybrids, dream-reality crossovers) and sound design (slurping and slapping and flopping) are absolutely consistent with the rest of the auteur’s oeuvre, is that it tells an old-fashioned Freudian investigation story, like MARNIE, in which nearly everything fits together like a well-oiled plot mechanism out of Hitchcock. The difference which lifts it well out of banality is that the dream analysis and breaking through the barrier of traumatic amnesia is achieved in a narrative in which the distinction between reality and dream is continuously blurred and muddied. The protagonist Evzen (or Eugene — it’s a film about heredity, or eugenics) has his dreams analysed by a shrink, upon whose wall hang duelling portraits of Freud and Jung, but some of what she analyses was stuff we assumed to be reality, and some of her consultations seem to be happening in dreams.  And both Evzen’s waking life and his sleep adventures are prone to disruption by the same surreal manifestations — chicken-headed women, a dog-headed man, giant hands and eggs and apples and falling melons…


The Oedipal angle is well to the fore as Evzen pursues the woman of his dreams, who seems to be both his anima (female self) and his mother, and at one point bears the name of Eva, at another Evzenie. The whole thing ends with life, catharsis, death, the closing of a loop which may swallow itself like an ouroborous or blossom out into new possibilities depending on your reading.


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