Archive for Nicholas Roeg

Hazy Days of Summer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2008 by dcairns

To the extent that most film criticism discusses the lens at all, you’re more likely to find discussions of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s use of the wide angle lens combined with deep focus in CITIZEN KANE, than any discussion of the properties of the long lens. This is partly because fairly long lenses were fairly standard for close-ups before KANE came along and changed the rules, and partly because Toland and Welles successfully publicised their work, so that the ideas behind it were out there, accessible to critics.

The ideas behind the long-lens closeup were far less discussed, because the approach had been commonplace for a long time. It’s easy to see why: the long lens both flattens and flatters the subject, avoiding any of the fish-eye distortion of the wide angle, which tends to warp and uglify the face, making mountains out of moles (notable exception: AMELIE. Camera tests established that Audrey Tatou’s face could look quirkily attractive through a wide lens, provided the camera was slightly above eye-level, so that her big forehead got the emphasis).

Also, unless you have massive amounts of light so you can stop down (as in the infinite, sun-blasted spaces of Leone’s westerns), the long lens tends to result in a shallow depth of field, useful for separating the subject from the background. Since the movie screen is flat, anything that produces an illusion of depth can be handy (deep focus has a contradictory quality of flatness, since everything is equally sharp).

But beauty is hard to talk about, and the idea that deep focus results in the illusion of depth is ingrained.

These shots of Julie Christie, taken by cinematographer Nicholas Roeg for Richard Lester’s bleakly romantic chronicle of a near-miss love affair in 1967 San Francisco, PETULIA, show another possibility of the long lens. Lester is fond (going at least as far back as THE KNACK, his 4th film) of using out-of-focus foreground material as well as background, situating the face, partially eclipsed, within layers of gleaming blur. It contributes to the kaleidoscopic quality of his work (often remarked upon, seldom analysed in detail) and strikes me as a purely photographic conceit, like the starburst filter, rather than a realistic one. You CAN get a shot like the above with the human eye, by sticking something between you and what you’re looking at, and then mentally “cropping” the image so as to enlarge one detail of your view, but would you? The effect achieved here has little of nothing to do with realism, which is probably why it wasn’t much used before the ’60s and all that mucking about with zoom lenses (Sternberg may be an exception, since he loved filming through layers of smoke and streamers and veils and branches and rain and whatever else he could think of).

In the same way that golden age Hollywood films didn’t like to show people talking in extreme longshot but with closeup sound (an approach which probably came in thanks to the radio mic, although dubbing could have produced the same result earlier), and felt that car scenes needed to be shot from INSIDE the windscreen, hence all those process shots whenever anybody went for a drive, a subconscious sense of naturalism probably stopped directors and cinematographers from exploiting the long lens in just this way (so it makes sense that Sternberg wouldn’t be put off).

Thanks to Chris Schneider, who suggested I write something about PETULIA. I wasn’t sure where to start (it’s a very rich film), but zooming through it in search of frame-grabs inspired these musings).

The hearth moved

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2008 by dcairns

Ground-breaking sexual shenanigans from Jules Dassin’s PHAEDRA. Faced with the challenging task of manufacturing sexual chemistry between his wife, Melina Mercouri, and Anthony Perkins, Dassin pulls out all the stops. The result is like a MOVIE MASH-UP of love scene clichés — soft focus; roaring fireplace; clenching hands; rain battering on window; the sweeping music of Mikis Theodorakis on the gramophone (there will be NO remarks about Anthony Perkins and Greek love in this post. Apart from this one). By the end it’s a wonder there’s a stick of furniture intact in that apartment.

David Thomson in his BioDic of Film, writes, “In good company, and a little drunk, HE WHO MUST DIE, PHAEDRA and 10.30PM SUMMER might cure would-be suicides.” I’ll allow that Dassin skirts the edges of absurdity in 10.30, and PHAEDRA looks like it plunges headlong into a basin of ludicrous pomp, but I still get a kick out of this scene. The effect is overdone but the individual elements are orchestrated with great skill — I like the compositions and editing and music.

I heard of an English teacher one time who would object to purple passages of sexual action in DH Lawrence with the words, “But it’s not LIKE that!” which is a good argument, though not necessarily one that should take precedence over all other concerns. I don’t think it applies to Dassin — taken metaphorically, his sex scene could be seen as quite authentic. Unless what you’re after is complete authenticity (which would mean SOUND EFFECTS, and none of us wants THAT) evoking the corny (there’s rarely anything ORIGINAL about sex) but overwhelming emotions of what General Ripper calls “the physical act of love” seems reasonable, and doing it without fear of looking silly seems at least commendable.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment that the exhilerating and goofy William Tell Overture time-lapse threesome in CLOCKWORK ORANGE was in part a reaction to the way movies tend to solemnize sex, and he had a point there, but sex is very often quite humourless. There’s plenty of room for giggling at the start, but there comes a point where that could be  OFF-PUTTING.

So, if sex is overwhelming, serious, and best treated in a stylised way — Dassin is surely the man for the job. He was dismissed for his “strained seriousness” by Andrew Sarris, but that seems somehow wrong: it’s no strain for Dassin to be serious. His lighter films from this period, TOPKAPI and NEVER ON SUNDAY, seem far more effortful (though I love TOPKAPI and make allowances for NOS).

Dassin was a Sexual Pioneer! The bisexual triangle of 10.30PM SUMMER must have been strong stuff for 1966. I also think there’s enough textual evidence in his work to deduce a keen interest in sado-masochism (whippings abound in THE LAW, RIFIFI…)

Two Ladies

Sex, in the movies, is fraught with difficulty. Maybe because it’s universal but also distinctly personal. There’s a cringe-making story of a well-known actor who, in his first sex scene, grabbed his partner by the hair and began slamming her head off the pillow. “Cut! What are you doing?” He was totally perplexed. What’s the problem? Doesn’t everybody do it this way?

Everybody does it every which way! The first sex scene in a mainstream movie is supposed to be in ECSTASY, in 1933. Director Gustav Machatý attempted to evoke an orgasmic reaction from his star Hedy Lamarr by pricking her feet with a pin. “That would just be really annoying,” says my partner. “Maybe everybody Gustav Machatý slept with found him really annoying.”

a little prick

Another technique — in RED ROAD, an actress appears to receive oral sex. In reality she was holding half a peach between her thighs for her co-star to munch on. Hey, it’s a system!

In SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, Barbet Schroeder wanted to film a more than usually convincing blow-job, so he purchased a dildo for Jennifer Jason Leigh to fellate: the hope was to show she had SOMETHING in her mouth without offending the censor by showing WHAT. But, perhaps fearful of insulting his male lead, Schroeder acquired a jaw-breakingly enormous plastic dinosaur appendage…

DON’T LOOK NOW is justly famous for it’s cinematically beautiful love scene. One story I heard, from former producer/director turned educationalist Brent MacGregor, who heard it from an assistant editor, casts an interesting light on the scene. Supposedly, Donald Sutherland was more “into” the sex scene than co-star Julie Christie, which resulted in (a) her walking off the set after one take and (b) Warren Beatty bursting into the cutting room and attempting to beat up director Nicolas Roeg.

I don’t generally credit such gossip, but a couple of aspects of it at least make sense — if you look at the actual lovemaking, MOST of what you see is consistent with a single hand-held shot. But bits of the shot were unusable as the cameraman was clambering over the bed, etc. With only one continuous take, partly no good, Roeg was forced to intercut, and all he could intercut WITH was neutral material, the couple dressing to go out (which would have to have been shot deliberately for the purpose, later, if we buy this version of events). And thus is born a thing of immense beauty and poetic resonance.

Donald Sutherland reports being locked in that bedroom “for hours” with Roeg, Christie, and an extremely noisy unblimped camera. But what’s seen in the film isn’t consistent with such a prolonged shoot. And what’s been rumoured about Roeg’s swinging lifestyle might be consistent with the desire to go a little further than usual in the name of realism…

Donald Fuck

(Also — looking through the scene for not-too-explicit frame grabs, I realised that it’s quite a bit more explicit than I’d previously thought. Much of the “stronger stuff” is compositionally decentred and hard to spot due to the pace of cutting, but… let’s just say I hope Julie Christie remembered to bring half a peach to the set…)

Nic of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Sung by Tom Robinson, written by Robinson and Peter Gabriel. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Think of it as a little unknown movie by the maestro Roeg. Hey, it’s better than FULL BODY MASSAGE. And you can certainly see Roegian themes and concerns and techniques at play in it. I was a little doubtful when it suddenly went all “video technique” at the end, but in fact the FX are used with taste and aren’t inappropriate at all.

Strangely, I know a few people associated with the Great Man. Screenwriter David Solomons (5 CHILDREN AND IT) was hired to write a first draft script based on the life of a German WWI hero who was sent to Auschwitz during WWII, never to be seen again. Roeg’s regular script collaborator Allan Scott was producing.

If you’ve ever seen Roeg interviewed, you’ll have noticed his tendency to burble away in a semi-coherent fashion, like THIS GUY, occasionally coming out with an unheralded flash of brilliance. I asked David S about this, and he sort of agreed. Apparently one of Roeg’s big ideas was that this film was “the ultimate story of man’s inhumanity to man.”


David S was faced with a problem. The real-life personage on whom this film was to be based had a very heavily-documented life. Mountains of research had to be digested. But at the moment he vanished behind the gates of Auschwitz, nothing whatever is known of his fate — although we certainly know enough about what happened to other people in that annexe of hell.

The script wasn’t getting written. Finally David S steeled himself, told himself the research was done and the only thing to do was to begin work on the actual writing, he opened a document in Final Draft — and the phone rang.

Call Me

Roeg: “I just wanted to say that, the more I think about it, the more I feel this IS the ultimate story of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Roegs rings off and then David stares at the blank screen computer until his forehead bleeds.

Deep Red