Archive for Mike Hodges

The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

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I Like Mike

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , on October 26, 2017 by dcairns

I don’t usually run lists on Shadowplay, but here are a few —

Mike Hodges Films I Love

GET CARTER, PULP, THE TERMINAL MAN, FLASH GORDON, SQUARING THE CIRCLE

I think these are all stone-cold masterpieces, worthy not only of enthusiastic perusal but STUDY. I’ve just been frame-grabbing GET CARTER, and it’s almost impossible to find an image in that one that isn’t bold and striking.

Mike Hodges Films I Admire

BLACK RAINBOW, CROUPIER, I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD

All really good stuff, and to another viewer they might belong on the first list.

Mike Hodges Films I’m Afraid to Watch

MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE, A PRAYER FOR THE DYING

Maybe I’m afraid I’ll like them, or that I won’t like them. Anyroad, I’ve been putting them off a long time, which must mean something.

Oh, and of the TV work, “Dandelion Dead” is a stunner.

Another thing I don’t do much is commercials, though WordPress sticks some ads in. get an adblocker, is my advice to you. Your lives will become more restful and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re sabotaging the economy.

But this is an ad — you can buy Mike Hodges’ novellas here. So you should do so. During the years when the film industry has been disgracefully Hodges-free, he has not been idle. You CAN hear that voice again.

The Monday Matinee, episode 12: The End of Murania

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by dcairns

It was over too soon! All really terrible things must come to an end. So, for the last time, the oddly stressful theme music plays, and we get a confusing recap of fragments of the previous instalments. For the first time, the Cowboy Comedy Sidekicks (CCSs) rate a mention, since they were directly responsible for last week’s cliffhanger ~

Also, a misplaced apostrophe. Now read on.

The two nitwits manage to get Murania’s central control room malfunctioning, then throw themselves down a trapdoor which leads to where Gene Autry is getting his head disintegrated (see last week — it’s complicated). This bit of narrative retro-fitting ought to allow for a rescue, though given these nitwits’ past form, Gene might easily wind up even more disintegrated than he would have been naturally. He’s already A BIT disintegrated — he’s making a pained face and tugging at his kerchief as if overheated — that’s the first sign that you may be being disintegrated. If you have those symptoms, see a doctor.

The sidekicks drag Gene from the death ray, taking care to expose themselves to it thoroughly in the process, which surprisingly causes them no distress whatsoever, almost as if it were merely a spotlight.

Queen Tika enters, brought by two guards who had intended to disintegrate her. The CCSs immediately attack the guards in the best Iraqi style, taking off their boots and striking the unbelievers about the head.

“We must get Her Majesty back to the Control Room,” opines Gene, the second he recovers. It’s the kind of thing one feels he WOULD say in such a situation — testament to the skills of the serial’s writing staff, Wallace McDonald, Gerald Gerachty, H Freedman, John Rathmell and Ernest Schaeffer. He doesn’t look a bit disintegrated, although I guess he might be completely hollowed out on the inside. It’s hard to tell. I’m going to study Gene’s performance closely in search of suggestions that this may be the case.

The villainous Argo enters, with his pestilential science gang, and Gene promptly targets them with their own disintegrator ray, which was still ON last we saw. The burly baritone somehow backs his foes into a corner with the unwieldy weapon, and everybody legs it. Now we get to find out if Queen Tika is as good at running as she is at watching television. Let me tell you, the two talents are not always found in one person.

But we never do find out, as the serial uncharacteristically cuts from the chase, leaving the bad guys locked in the disintegrator room (their cunning escape plan: face the locked metal door and shove each other). The CCSs deal with the “heavily armed” guards at the control room (two pasty guys with spears) by shoving robots at them, leading to a strange, cramped, irritating fight. Everybody looks really hot and bothered. Although, oddly, the guards don’t notice the robots until they’re quite literally about three inches away. This makes for intense, close-quarters action.

Muranian myrmidons do seem oddly myopic. Once in the throne room, the CCSs push their dumb robots clatteringly right past a patrolling guard who doesn’t notice anything until he reaches the far wall and turns around. Then Gene fells him with a gigantic punch, flubs his line (“Hurry, we’ll… get to the control room.”) and the Control Room is gained! Queen Tika immediately wants to watch television. She discovers that Argo’s rebels are melting the door with the Disintegrator Atom Smashing Machine. The impudent dogs!

Argo, impatient at the slow rate of door disintegration, turns the volume up, impatient of Rab’s panicky warnings that his Smashing Machine might get “out of control again.” Again? He’s right to be cautious, it seems — the big ray gun immediately starts wobbling randomly around the room, forcing the rebel scientists to run about like headless chickens. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” yells Rab. “Turn it off! Turn it — off!” Nobody thinks to unplug it. Everybody dies. Although they don’t disintegrate, that I can see.

“It will eat its way through the empire!” declares Queen Tika. She suggests Gene gets out, and he suggests she come too. “To the mad world above?” she sneers, regally, harping on her favourite theme. “It would be a living death!” Still nobody thinks of maybe unplugging the Smashing Machine. Queen Tika seems tickled to death about the prospect of being disintegrated along with her people. “It is better than an invasion from the surface world.” Seemingly she’s fixated on the idea that on the surface she would be forced to drive race cars or bum cigarettes. (The fact that she would be unable to breathe seems like a more sound reason for staying below ground.) Still, one notices that the Queen’s role in her plan consists entirely of watching television again.

Entertaining shots of melting Murania! Only Gene and his two idiots think of using the elevator — everyone else is fleeing straight into the holocaust, apart from the robots who merely plod doggedly towards it.

Gene and his pals join up with Frankie and Betsy, and they find exactly the right number of horses in the Muranian stables. But then they remember all the other horses, and rescue them. The Muranian PEOPLE can go whistle. All this is shown to us on Queen Tika’s television, making it TWICE AS EXCITING.

Queen Tika staggers regally over to the big knife switch that opens the garage door to the surface, then ascends to her throne one last time as her world literally crumbles around her, a moment that could have been powerfully moving were it not totally obscured by smoke. Finally, the melting models (a cheap optical effect) are replaced by a melting Queen, and the disintegrator at last disintegrates itself.

And with one bound our heroes are free, having contributed substantially to the destruction of an entire civilisation. “But it was worth it,” says Frankie, “I learned a lot of new scientific things.” Betsy is upbeat: “I’m going back to Murania someday, and see what’s left,” she beams. The disgusting ghoul. “I’m afraid there isn’t very much left of the city,” says Gene, dampening her youthful spirits, “But we’ll probably find enough radium to make us all rich.”

When Mike Hodges made his FLASH GORDON, he saw it as a slight satire of American interventionist foreign policy, which never quite convinced me as a valid allegory. But had he instead made THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, he’d have had a pretty solid footing, it seems to me.

Until now, the serial had seemed in danger of neglecting its subplot about the tricky Professor Beetson and his cronies, and Gene’s false murder rap, and his radio show, but now these come to the fore with a truly heroic sense of anticlimax. Gene blows up a city then sorts out his legal difficulties! I suppose we’ll end with him reordering his record collection.

Meanwhile… in a cavern… in a canyon… excavating for a mine… Professor Beetson deals with a labour dispute from his miners. The excitement just keeps building! But it actually does, since rather than going through some kind of ombudsman, he opts to shoot them down like dogs. You could do that then, before they introduced all this red tape. trump is going to bring this kind of thing back, and everyone will be happier.

Gene finds one of the dying men and attends to the poor fellow, shaking him violently by the collar. “Who shot yuh? Yuh might as well tell me!” he says, compassionately. Mistaking these words for the supreme unction, the bullet-ridden miner promptly expires.

Meanwhile — will Gene make it back in time to do his radio broadcast? Given that he’s now a radium millionaire, we probably shouldn’t be concerned, but we are EXTREMELY concerned — this obviously matters more than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muranians.

The broadcast is a typically exciting one — Gene attempts to reveal Beetson’s perfidies live on air, and gets his hat shot off. Exciting chase! Song! Punch-up! That’s like the four food groups of western entertainment. Beetson incriminates himself on an imitation Muranian television screen cobbled together by Frankie Darro ina  spare forty seconds, and this is witnessed by the sheriff.

Gene “plays us out” (what does that MEAN?) with his moronic “owls go hoo” song which I now realise concerns Noah’s ark. A clear thematic bond is f0rmed with the survivors of a lost civilisation whom this serial has so ably extirpated. Then Gene does some yodeling, which doesn’t seem to connect to the main premise as neatly, and the thing is over.