Archive for Nicolas Roeg

Battle Dress

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 15, 2021 by dcairns

In my experience, it’s quite hard to watch Nic Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW *without* spotting some new and fascinating detail. Certainly I had noticed that in the openings sequence the little girl is playing with a military doll — it looks like an Action Man but it has one of those drawstrings used for talking dolls, which I’m not sure the Action Man ever had, and bizarrely the male doll has a posh female voice. I’d also noticed that, in a bit of grotesque black humour, the doll says “Fall in” shortly before little Christine fatally does just that, in the pond.

What I’d missed is that Christine has dressed the male figure in an ankle-length dress, made I think of shiny textured plastic. With a sort of brick pattern on it. Maybe because her dad’s an architect. So we can extrapolate a whole backstory — Christine has latched onto her big brother’s toy, and made it her own. For some reason the doll spoke to her, as it were, but needed to be rendered feminine. But it’s not likely that she was able to operate on it and alter its voice-box, replacing it with a female robo-larynx — after all, her approximation of a dress is pretty crude. But maybe the voice is heard by us as female because that’s how she imagines it?

There is odd, undeclared subjective stuff going on in this sequence — Christine’s father, John (Donald Sutherland) gets a paranormal vision of Christine drowning before he can rationally be aware of it, a point most viewers (well, me, anyway) miss on first viewing. It also just occurred to me that it’s rather cruel that his second sight doesn’t give him the tip-off in time for him to do anything about it.

But no — I’m wrong again. The first reaction shot from Sutherland, indicating that something — we know not what, asides from his hair, but it’s a presentiment — is going on in his long, permed head, occurs well ahead of the accident. If Baxter had been able to act upon his impulse, to acknowledge the possibility of his psychic foresight, the tragedy might have been averted, just as it might have been at the end of the film.

Incidentally, Julie Christie is smiling at the movie’s conclusion. She asked Roeg, sensibly enough, why Laura Baxter would be smiling at her husband’s funeral. “Because it’ll be too sad, otherwise,” Roeg told her. Which is a silly version of the real answer, which is that Laura has faith, and so neither Christine nor John is really dead.

(It’s a very good film about the painful gulf existing between those who have faith and those who don’t, and it ultimately seems to take the side of the former group — well, maybe not “take the side” — but the movie seems to think they’re correct — and I wouldn’t agree with that, myself — but the movie has compassion for both types of person, which is nice.)

Block and Tackle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2020 by dcairns

Other directors had tackled the work of Lawrence Block before A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, but it hadn’t gone well. Hal Ashby was shut out of the edit on 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, and Nic Roeg was fired after five days on NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON. Block also served as screenwriter for Wong Kar-Wei on MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, which I haven’t seen.

AWATT was also a bit jinxed, since Harrison Ford bailed on it (too violent, perhaps) and it collapsed. When it sprang to life again, screenwriter Scott Frank was in charge and Liam Neeson was the lead, and the result is very violent indeed. It also fits snuggly into that rather unproductive and creepy subgenre Neeson seems now irrevocably associated with, the female kidnap drama where Neeson says bad-ass things into a phone in a husky voice.

We watched this purely because the writer-director’s two Netflix miniseries, Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, are absolutely sensational. You’ve probably sought out the latter if you have Netflix, but go after the former too. Both are much better than AWATT, which is a decent thriller. The banter and relationship between Neeson and Astro (yes, that’s his name), defrocked cop and homeless kid, is really good. There’s what they call “strong support” from Dan Stevens (Frank seems to get half his casts from Downton Abbey) and Boyd Holbrook, and a good turn from Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.

It just doesn’t seem to add up to more than a really horrible situation that gets resolved with a substantial body count. What have we learned? I mean, I don’t require a message. But maybe the problem is that Neeson’s character, Scudder, is the star of a whole series of books, so he’s a bit unchanging. At any rate, at the end of this one he seems substantially the same lumpen brute as at the start. There’s a sense in which, if Stevens’ character were the protagonist, the stakes would escalate markedly.

Very snazzy cinematic use of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps, though.

Scott Frank is a big fan of seventies US films like DOG DAY AFTERNOON. He just doesn’t want to ever take things that far, it seems. As he himself puts it, he’s “always looking for a safe place to land.” But he’s a huge talent and The Queen’s Gambit is still the best new thing I’ve seen this year apart from THE LIGHTHOUSE.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES stars Oskar Schindler; Hellboy; Gatz Brown; Pierce; David Haller; Alma Wheatley; Calvin Walker; Ragnar the Rock; Hiram Lodge; Jesse Edwards; and Ptonomy Wallace.

A bit of a character

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2019 by dcairns

I showed a bit of PERFORMANCE to my students last week as part of a class on filming dialogue — I wanted to show them how interesting and experimental they can get.

The clip got a lot of laughs! The performances do go right to the edge of caricature, but Roeg & Cammell’s framing and cutting are so eccentric that they also invite a knowing response.

The coverage starts off almost conventionally in the establishing shot. There are some freeze-frames, though, accompanying a stills photographer’s flashbulbs — looks like Scorsese picked up on this. Certainly Paul Schrader has cited PERFORMANCE as a particularly good movie to steal from, and a back-to-back viewing with MISHIMA will confirm this.

James Fox’s Chas gets told off by his boss, with accompanying yes-men, while Anthony Valentine, his erstwhile victim, gloats. (Really appreciated Valentine’s work in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and THE MONSTER CLUB when we podcasted about those).

Once we start seeing closer angles, though, things get weird. There’s an in-your-face quality that’s nightmarish — the lens is wide and the actors are uncomfortably close. It does have an alcoholic quality — that moment when you’ve had a few and you suddenly notice how funny everything looks and feels.

As the scene progresses, the shots and cutting both get more fragmented: Roeg’s framing cuts off parts of faces in a most odd way, reducing characters to mouths or eyes:

When we see Chas, the angles are closer, more centred, lower. The effect is to isolate him from his surroundings. Close-ups and low angles can be used to confer strength, but not here:

Chas breaks into a sweat, and his eyes dart around the room.

Now, Cammell attested that in collaborating with Roeg, he took charge of the actors and Roeg handled the camerawork, and this worked very smoothly. My first geuss about the scene was that maybe the two filmmakers were diverging in their intentions, resulting in the shots feeling really wacky.

But James Fox’s eye movements convince me this is quite false: the crazy angles are actually a subjective rendering of what he’s experiencing, a sort of panic attack, coupled with a dissociation from reality, and a kind of ADHD distracted hyperfocus. Chas is seeing things very clearly, but only in a jumble of bits.

At one point, Cammell and Roeg surprise us by cutting to a b&w photo of a limbo-dancing violinist, then zoom out to catch Anthony Morton in profile. Throughout the scene, Morton freaks us, and Chas, out, but delivering his lines either right down the barrel of the lens, or off into the void.

A similar dissociating effect occurs earlier when everything fades into bluish monochrome and seems to go far away:

Quite scary, in fact. With a change of lens, some experimental colour grading, and rearranging the furniture in the office, the filmmakers have turned the room into one of REPULSION’s distorted nightmare spaces.

That photo on the wall is probably one of the filmmakers’ little connections — tying us to the idea of performance, which is mentioned in the scene (Chas, who “puts the frighteners on flash little twerps,” is a performer whose role is to terrify) — anticipating the musician character we’ll meet later — it also ties up with the photographer and his flashes, and with the b&w subjective imagery from the office scene. The sudden cut to the photo also makes us think a new scene has begun, before the zoom-out reveals that we’re still trapped in this one.

The lesson is, Be bold!