Archive for Martin Amis

“Get its brain out!”

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2014 by dcairns

The blogathon is officially over, which means the guide to what’s appeared has vanished back to a week ago but can still be checked here. Meanwhile, I still have a few thoughts, and there may be posts appearing as late as January…

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SATURN 3 qualifies as late Stanley Donen, doesn’t it, even though he made one more, is still going strong, and may even make another. His to-date-final film, BLAME IT ON RIO, is mostly dispiriting, with Michael Caine and Joseph Mantegna Bologna both trying to do Cary Grant impressions (the fact that Donen directed Grant to such great effect makes this much sadder) and Demi Moore looking all self-conscious and young and topless and self-conscious some more. It’s the kind of film once Donen did well, but it’s a very poor example of that genre and its being made in the wrong decade.

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Musical staging! Very “Top Hat and Tails”!

SATURN 3 is a lot more fun to watch, for me, because it’s just weird. Donen actually does a good job of shooting it, but the script is such a mess he could never be expected to turn it into something good. Apart from letting Kirk Douglas overact atrociously in the early scenes and Farrah Fawcett fail to act and dubbing Harvey Keitel with the voice of Roy Dotrice (!) — which I guess makes for a total failure with the cast, since it’s basically just the three of them onscreen — he sweeps through the tubular, vascular corridors of the moonbase with something like the glee he once brought to following Gene Kelly, and he brings some kind of visual interest to every scene.

The movie sits very strangely in his career, and can only be explained by two things. (1) Donen’s disastrous 1970s output — THE LITTLE PRINCE; MOVIE, MOVIE; THE LUCKY LADY. These three gobbling turkeys (I quite enjoy bits of the first two and haven’t properly seen the last) must have made him ready to accept any genuine offer, and the gaps between films had been getting longer. (2) The film was in fact developed to be the directorial debut of production designer John Barry (CLOCKWORK ORANGE, STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, the aforementioned LITTLE PRINCE) who died before he could make it, so Donen was a fairly last-minute substitute, after I imagine all the usual suspects had been approached.

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So allowances must be made.

Basically, SATURN 3 is a remake of THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, in which Kirk Douglas played a hermit who has retreated to a lighthouse with hot babe Samantha Eggar and has to fight off pirates. Here, Kirk Douglas plays a hermit who has retreated to a Saturnian moon with hot babe Farah Fawcett and has to fight off a man with a tiny pony-tail and a robot with a tiny head.

Big, proto-ROBOCOP feet. Fiona: “You know what they say about robots with big feet.” Me: “Tiny heads.”

The Other John Barry, as we must call him, had evidently put together a strong visual team, even if the film at times resembles all the space epics that had just come out. Unbelievable that they’d open with a big-ass spaceship flying over the camera, or feature multiple-alignment eclipses to mark time shifts — put it down to the inherent vulgar stupidity of Lew Grade productions and Donen’s unfamiliarity with the genre. What Barry hadn’t quite done was create a working script, though some of the elements are there. There are interesting ideas — Keitel becomes the first actor to have a jack in the back of his neck, before Keanu Reeves was even thought of. There’s the idea that chess-playing machines don’t understand sacrifice (not true), later stolen word-for-word in HARDWARE. But a few groovy notions are not enough. To make a film as bad as SATURN 3 you need a touch of genius, supplied here by Martin Amis.

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Hey, Amis at least got a book out of this, Money, which cruelly lampoons the process and some of the actual people (Kirk Douglas becomes Lorne Guyland). His profiting from the experience seems unfair, since nobody else did, God knows, and he saddled the cast with unspeakable dialogue (when FF turns down a blunt suggestion of sex with HK, he snaps, “That’s penally unsocial on Earth, you know that?”). He then had the nerve to declare screenwriting easy. Well, anything’s easy if you do it badly enough, and don’t know what the job requires. A perfect encapsulation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which ironically also afflicts Keitel’s character in the film.

Hollywood-style screenwriting is easy for a novelist because the prose doesn’t seem to matter (nobody who sees the film will experience it directly) and there’s just dialogue. But it’s also very hard, because it requires tight, short dramatic scenes with their own shape, and a structure which mellifluously plays the audience’s interest and builds it to a climax, and contains surprises but also logical inevitability, and creates fascinating characters expressed almost entirely in their outward behaviour (the novelist’s access to the character’s thoughts is largely shut down here).

Amis, so good with blackly comic prose, sucks at genre (as he showed with his detective and scifi stories) and can’t write scenes at all. His characters are one-dimensional and don’t change or even reveal themselves progressively. Unfair to judge a writer by the films they write, since they rarely have the final say in anything, and probably unfair to take Money as an accurate description of Amis’s process, but the book seems to suggest that he was a kind of on-set script doctor, addressing the cast’s many issues with their roles. But someone evidently decided to break off every scene before it’s achieved anything, and introduce the Adam and Eve in space characters (imaginatively names Adam and Alex) through the eyes of Keitel, as if he were the hero (yet he’s already murdered someone) and they the threat, and to leave out any character detail which might make us respond to the protags as human beings (sole exception: they have a cute dog. It’s Nick and Nora Charles in space!).

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We COULD be blaming the editor for some of this. Richard Marden’s career is divided evenly between big, not always good films for Donen, Schlesinger and Zefferelli, and butchered travesties in the fantasy genre, like all Clive Barker’s stuff, SWORD OF THE VALIANT, MALPERTUIS and Frankenstein: The True Story. Plus a couple of CARRY ON films, which were traditionally edited with a bacon slicer. Fuck it, I’m blaming it on Amis.

Kirk gurns maniacally for the first half hour, then settles down and gets his kit off, Lorne Guyland style. Farrah does that thing with her teeth which makes her look psycho. Grinning with your teeth apart — who does that? Keitel plays it robotic, and his scene interrogating his crazy robot Hector is the only good scene in the film. Keitel talks (with Dotrice’s voice), Hector responds with read-outs on a screen, and it’s all very creepy. Maybe because it has space to breathe and is allowed to conclude on an actual dramatic note. It gives us a tantalising glimpse of what a non-awful version of SATURN 3 would be like.

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What Amis HAS managed to do, though much of it may be accidental, is create a whole series of internal metaphors and allegories of and in the film. I don’t mean the ludicrous speech about how the Greek Hector came to a bad end, clearly added at Kirk’s request to shoehorn in “mythic resonance” (read: literary showing off). I mean the sequence where the robot’s brain is removed but it reassembles itself from parts and lumbers on, just like this movie after Barry’s death. I mean the redubbing of Keitel, echoed in the script when the robot starts copying everyone else’s voices. I mean the weird sex stuff, with Fawcett as beard to mask the peculiar tensions between Kirk and Harvey (naked strangling, Harvey penetrating Kirk’s neck to install another phono-jack), and the glass tube full of “pure brain matter” sliding sexually into the robot’s interior. This must be how Amis saw his role: pure brain matter (him), sexually penetrating the Hollywood machine, to create a psychopathic, biomechanical, microcephalic, veiny behemoth — combining Kirk’s barrel chest and wiry arms (because the robo-actor’s real arms are concealed in the torso), Keitel’s taut, shiny buttocks (leather-clad) and Fawcett’s minute cranium and glassy, staring eyes — shuffling in comical baby-steps out of control through the universe, destroying everything it touches.

He succeeded only too well.

“This place is… possessed!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2009 by dcairns

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If you want my opinion, Gerrit Graham is the whole show.

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Tony Dayoub’s DePalma Blogathon here.

Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE — his name is above the title, despite the fact that who the hell was he, anyway, in 1974? — is an oddity in his career, a career strung with oddities. Despite perhaps borrowing its bird imagery from PSYCHO, and featuring probably his funniest take on the shower scene, PHANTOM isn’t particularly a Hitchcock-referencing film, which sets it apart from SISTERS beforehand and OBSESSION afterwards. The movie does feature a replay of TOUCH OF EVIL’s opening long take, though, with a split-screen twist. I think in this case he ruins the song and creates confusion rather than clarity (for much of the sequence both images show basically the same action), but it’s still an amusing trope, somehow.

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Has DePalma somehow obtained custody of a dead little girl, and mounted the tiny corpslet on wires like some kind of macabre marionette? Or has he hired Paul Williams to act in his film? I’m not sure which is the greater outrage against taste and decency. Williams provides the score, which contains enjoyable but not truly memorable songs — the big problem is probably that they don’t feel specific to this story. The plot details the mounting of a rock opera based on Faust, but the songs don’t seem that specific to that either. Even when the Faust plot invades the main storyline in an outrageous and rather-unprepared-for supernatural twist, the songs don’t really mesh with it. But they’re good little toe-tappers while they’re on.

Depressingly, DePalma’s script derives more from the Claude Rains PHANTOM than from the Chaney, despite name-checking that film’s leading lady, Mary Philbin. This means that practically the first half of the movie is an origin saga, before the Faustian pact can get going, and the relationship between the Phantom (William Finlay, still working for BDP in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) and his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is relegated to a couple of lines of dialogue. That’s often been my trouble with DePalma’s “sweeping and Wagnerian” romantic side — he can’t spare the time or effort to suggest a real relationship, so the love interest is gestural and generic and totally fails to move me.

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But — PHANTOM is so popping with ideas, and so strikingly designed by Jack “the man in the planet” Fisk, that such problems, while certainly central and critical, do not prevent a good time from being had. Meeting Finlay in his pre-phantasmal geekdom robs him of all the grandeur Chaney possessed, but DePalma is aiming for a more pathetic creature of the night anyway, albeit one who has inexplicably acquired the ability to punch through walls.

“Style will always convince cinematic purists that the surfaces they admire contain depth, and that clear shortcomings in disguise. DePalma isn’t logical, so he must be impressionistic. He isn’t realistic, so he must be surrealistic. He isn’t scrupulous, so he must be audacious. He isn’t earnest, so he must be ironical. He isn’t funny, so he must be serious.”

So writes Martin Amis in The Movie Brute, his very funny, grossly unfair but quite well-aimed takedown of DePalma and his pretensions to greatness, written as BDP was shooting BODY DOUBLE (which would have given Amis a lot more grist to his mill had he been able to see it in time). Amis’s sarcastic remarks (leaving aside the fact that most of them could equally well apply to himself) are, in a way, literally true, in not quite the way he means — if only by default, DePalma is surreal and audacious and the rest. He can also occasionally be funny, but perhaps not frequently enough to fill a whole movie. PHANTOM is funny while Gerrit Graham is strutting and preening as rockstar “Beef.” BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has André Gregory ranting about Don Giovanni (his introduction, given several times: “This is Aubrey Buffing, the poet. He has AIDS.”) RAISING CAIN has a fantastic John Lithgow turn, and another dead child in a fright wig (“It is a bad thing that you are doing!”). WISE GUYS has Joe Piscopo and isn’t funny at all.

DePalma addressed this comedic lack when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival: after averring that he wasn’t afraid of anything, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be making any more comedies anytime soon. And yet he practically began as a comedy director: that’s one word used to describe GREETINGS and HI MOM! anyway, and then there’s the Tom Smothers movie and PHANTOM. I think maybe DePalma’s sense of humour is a little too outre for popular taste, like Polanski’s, and his technique doesn’t really lend itself to chuckles — I can recall a 360 degree pan in WISE GUYS, and it didn’t really work as a gag-delivery mechanism. Plus Polanski and DePalma can’t help throw in unpleasant little details that make the laughter shrivel in your throat — here there’s a gratuitous tooth-pulling episode that leaves the Phantom with a ritzy set of steel gnashers. He doesn’t USE them, but there they are.

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Jessica Harper, who’s had a surprisingly psychotronic career for such a nice-seeming girl (SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, SAFE, even MINORITY REPORT) has a big voice and a beautiful little-girl face. She’s good at looking perplexed, which is helpful here. And she dances like a mad aunty at a drunken party.

I don’t know why Gerrit Graham isn’t at least as famous as, say, Al Pacino. On this evidence, he should have his face on a stamp for services to lisping and mincing. It must be difficult to act this good without attracting the attentions of the vice squad, but anyhow we can cherish him in this film, threatening to erupt all over the audience like a protoplasmic Roman candle, a bipedal outrage who makes overacting a religious calling. He should be in every film, giving this performance. It would improve EVERYTHING.

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When he’s not about we can admire Harper and the sets (dressed by Sissy Spacek!) and stare slack-jawed at the multi-talented Paul Williams, with his tiny hairless body, bri-nylon cancer wig, groovy shades and jaunty philtrum (I want a film in which he plays Ron Perlman’s conjoined twin and I want it NOW). DePalma’s nightmarish, nihilistic ending, a sort of gothic Altamont revenger’s tragedy, left me feeling woozy and a little depressed, but I was glad I’d been on the PHANTOM ride. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

1) At Edinburgh Film Fest, DePalma asked his driver, a friend of mine, for a lighter. My friend passed one over. DePalma pocketed it. Are other people just walking dispensers of stuff to Brian?

2) He tried to get a young female producer to sit on his lap, and when she politely declined, he spanked her.

3) Fiona walked with him from one party to another. “How much farther?” whined BDP, like a big baby. Quote from Amis’s profile ~

“‘Hitchcock was sixty when he made PSYCHO. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk when I’m sixty.’ A curious remark — but then Brian is not a good walker, even now, at forty-four; he is not a talented walker.”

Still, at 69, Brian is still walking and still making films, and they’re still interesting and undiluted and personal. That deserves some credit.

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UK buyers:

The Moronic Inferno

Phantom Of The Paradise [DVD] [1974]

US buyers:

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

Phantom of the Paradise

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