Archive for Mel Gibson

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #3 & #4

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2022 by dcairns

The Kozontzev HAMLET is grand and the ghost is particularly fine. If you want a spectacular, epic vision of the ghost, you couldn’t really do better. Something about the particular tone of this movie isn’t quite up my alley but I have no end of admiration for the showmanship here. Why don’t any of the other versions make use of the possibiities of BILLOWING CLOAKS?

(Does Branagh, perhaps? I’ve forgotten already, but I’ll remind myself soon when I rewatch and write about his ghost encounters. Flowing robes seems a very Branaghlike trope.)

I’m here today to break down the Franco Zeffirelli HAMLET though — the one with Mad Mel. Just two arch-Catholics hanging out together in a Scottish castle.

FZ — I keep thinking that must stand for Frank Zappa, but never mind — foolishly omits the ghost’s first appearance, which gets his film off to a far weaker start. But he has a great cast, except for his Hamlet. Mad Mel has foolishly seized on the chance to do some Great Acting, whereas the thing he could and does contribute most effectively is Movie Star Presence. This is diluted by his attempts to get flowery.

Along with Mel, we have the excellent Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and some other guys I don’t know as Marcellus etc. It’s fine not having well-known faces in every role, in fact it’s preferable to the insanely overstuffed Branagh.

Hamlet is bemoaning his uncle’s wassails, if you’ll pardon the expression, viewing him through an unconvincing grill (I don’t know if you’d want a giant hole in your banquet room ceiling, not in Denmark, although I guess before chimneys were invented you might need something like that so you don’t asphyxiate). In addition to supporting players like Alan Bates, Glenn Close (only 11 years older than her screen son), Ian Holm and Helena Bonham-Carter, FZ has David Watkin on camera and Ennio Morricone on score. Neither of these great talents was doing their most exciting work by this time, but the film looks and sounds good. Watkin and designer Maurizio Millenotti can’t quite convince me the tower set is a real place, and although I suppose with a medieval tower at midnight some form of artifice is always going to be involved. MM was also costume designer, had worked for Fellini, and Gibson would import him for his acclaimed how-to guide to crucifixion, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

I should mention that unfortunately the only copy I could get is 4:3, and it’s not open-matte, meaning I can’t crop it to the right ratio: we’re missing a third of the image. So any aesthetic judgements come with major provisos — we’re not really seeing the film FZ made, even allowing for the reduction in size and definition. Plus my copy is glitchy.

What’s good about the ghost’s first appearance here is that he’s just a colourless figure in the distance. What’s uncanny about him is that everyone recognizes him as a dead man. He’s far enough away that there could be some doubt, which makes things even more worrying, in a way. At a certain distance, you can be sure you know the person you’re looking at, but you could still try to sell yourself on the idea that you’ve made a mistake.

I think all this would be better if we’d had the ghost’s first appearance, though.

FZ’s editor has some unlikely credits. Richard Marden had cut the Olivier OTHELLO (yikes) before being adopted by Stanley Donen for BEDAZZLED and TWO FOR THE ROAD, and then cut the dazzling SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY for John Schlesinger. But he also cut SLEUTH, which I don’t think is a well-edited movie (but Olivier was having trouble with his lines, which may have caused problems), and also also garbage like CARRY ON ENGLAND and WHAT’S UP NURSE! and returned to Donen’s side for the regrettable SATURN 3.

This would all work great except the first shot of the HFG (Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost) shows Paul Scofield, for it is he, in a medium shot, defying all sense of optical POV. And then he gets another closer shot later. This takes me out of the reality of the scene, and in trying to startle us — and it’s not particularly startling — by having PS enter in MS — the film breaks the reality of the scene. If you were Horatio or his chum, you’d first see a wide shot, and then you might filter out the surrounding scenery and mentally create a kind of medium shot. But you couldn’t start with that.

In other words, all the wide shots of the ghost are great, Mel advancing from the distance to his own MS is good, but jumping in for impossible detail views harms the scene. It’s a bit like the horrific moment in THE PIANIST when Nazis throw a disabled man from a window, and Polanski’s camera watches from the window opposite, never taking you unnaturally close. The drama comes from the sense of REALITY, and attempting to amp it up with close-ups would actually detract from that, by putting us where we couldn’t be.

Good bit of following, and the Mel gets up on the tower and finds himself alone. A nice bit of the uncanny. There’s nowhere else the ghost could have gone. And then he’s there — an equally impossible thing.

Gibson’s attempts to get action movie stuff into HAMLET are NOT actually embarrassing: it’s what he’s best at, after all. So he swirls around with his sword, sees the ghost — and immediately drops it.

Great shot of Scofield, just sitting there, making a strange, ineffectual movement, lowering one hand from the battlement, attempting to look as mild and unthreatening as possible, and looking VERY SAD — sad that his only son is afraid of him, I think. A great choice. As impressive as Olivier and Kosintsev’s ghosts are, they can’t do this kind of human stuff.

And then the scene is McKellan’s, and we’re in very good hands. Scofield is quite old to be Gibson’s dad, just as Glenn Close is quite young. The positive side of this is we can imagine her preferring Alan Bates. But that voice! No better casting was possible.

The cutting of the dialogue here is quite good — whenever we see Gibson, it is possible to imagine everything the ghost says being in his mind (the ghost tells Hamlet exactly what, in a sense, he wants to believe, hence “Oh my prophetic soul!”) If Gibson were stronger I’d say hold on him more, but as it is the balance is good and Gibson gets through the scene respectably, mainly just listening and reacting. His bigger moments seem forced.

Slow track in on Scofield, and an even weirder hand movement at 4:08. Somehow Lynchian, in that one senses some crazy backstory there we’re not getting. “But that I am forbid to tell…” The movement seems to ward off whatever harrowing power forbids the ghost.

PG Wodehouse has forever ruined “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” as a dramatic line, if it ever did work, so I don’t miss that bit.

At 4.47 Scofield is suddenly being viewed from a new angle, even though Hamlet, whose POV we assume it to be, hasn’t moved recently. It seems likely that, having no doubt already pruned the text, FZ and his cutter have decided to snip out a chunk of footage. Indeed, all through this scene the dialogue has been savagely slashed, but it kind of has to be for a movie. Even for a play.

Scofield has the best male voice maybe ever. I mean, Richard Burton, yes, and I am partial to a bit of James Coburn, but Scofield is somehow less obvious, he achieves his gravitas without the need for Sensurround rumble. He’s much of what makes Patrick Keillor’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE two favourite things — I can’t watch Keillor without Scofield, the vacuum left is unfillable.

I started to wonder whether, at some point in this sequence, Hamlet might not want to go to his father. Sure, the man’s a ghost and therefore scary, but as the scene goes on and Hamlet gets over his initial doubt and feels pity for his poor old dad, might it not be a good idea to dramatise that by having him actually approach. And FZ takes my hint — the ghost comes forwards, saying “Adieu” — a bizarro choice but Scofield, but one he sells — if you’re a ghost, you can vanish while walking towards someone — and as the ghost reaches out, Hamlet in turn reaches up — whether to fend off the spook, embrace him, or to stop his own head from exploding, we cannot know — and the reverse angle reveals the HFG has indeed vanished.

The ghost’s “Remember me” is absolutely heartbreaking and haunting.

Now the floor is Mel’s, so things get quite a bit worse quite fast. It’s not a bad choice to have H return to where he has a view of his uncle’s revelling, so he can be looking right at the damned villain while he curses him. But FZ and his cutter include closeups of Bates, midrevel, and have neglected to shoot it from a high angle, so I find its inclusion jarring and clumsy. H then has the line about his “tables” but he hasn’t got any school jotter on him, so the schoolkids in the audience are destined to remain puzzled — he borrows a leaf from Nicol Williamson’s sweaty book and tries to carve his vow on the castle’s stonework with his sword. Sparks fly! Not convinced he could wield a sharp sword that way without losing some fingers.

I think directors should probably listen to the author when he has Hamlet call for his tables, and actually give him some tables. I expect this was done a lot on the stage until it came to seem cliche. but you can enliven tired business, you don’t have to chuck it out completely.

The last bit feels like H should still be writing, but Mel does it as H swearing on his sword, then hyperventilates a bit — this is all quite forced — then suddenly drops out of view. The rest is silence — until Kenneth bloody Branagh rocks up, a mere six years later. Tune in next time to hear Prince Hamlet say… absolutely everything.

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.

The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2021 by dcairns

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.