Archive for Orson Welles

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

God Send the Prince a Better Companion

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2015 by dcairns

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MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OR ORSON WELLES has one decisive thing in its favour — it’s on the side of its subject. American documentaries about Welles have tended to take an antagonistic view — there’s something about seeing Welles as, ultimately, a failure, which is immensely comforting to mediocrities. It’s wrong to aspire to greatness, you’ll never make it, so Three Cheers for the Ordinary! Showmanship instead of Genius.

But Chuck Workman is a really terrible name to have if you’re setting out to make a film celebrating genius, I have to say. God, it’s really unfair to pick on a guy for his name, isn’t it? Forget I said it.

The problem with the documentary… no, I can’t make it that simple. First among the documentary’s problems is that it tries to cram too much in. This was always going to be tough, when you look at the number of books and documentaries and fictional representations of Welles — such Simon Callow’s still-unfinished trilogy of biographies. How do you do justice to all that, if you’re tackling the plays as well as the films, the incomplete, unreleased works as well as the known classics? You don’t.

The decision to include everything, or a bit of everything, looks heroic at first but is possibly the result of indecision. What else can explain the fleeting reference to the controversial restoration of OTHELLO — “It has a few problems,” — a subject dropped as soon as it’s raised, with absolutely no exposition of what the problems are. Even getting into this subject takes us out of chronology and into Welles’ posthumous reputation, so it derails the narrative. This is a movie that insists on touching upon every point but is in too much of a hurry to elucidate anything.

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The most egregious effect of the need for speed is the treatment of the film clips, all of which are recut, compressed, turned into edited highlights — Workman even plays music underneath to further condense, distort. His idea of the kind of edit you can get away with is also hopelessly optimistic, so that he chops lines together as in a movie trailer, resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs, making blurting blipverts out of some of the best-known scenes in American cinema. When the expected line doesn’t follow, or follows five seconds too soon, the audience member familiar with the clip is thrown for a loop. The audience member new to all this is in an even worse position, force-fed a bowdlerized, mangled version of LADY FROM SHANGHAI or THE THIRD MAN. It’s hugely ironic that a movie which takes Welles’ part should re-edit his films as viciously as ever Columbia or RKO could manage.

Added to this, quality control is low: an early montage of framed photos of Welles features one shot with a Magnum watermark pasted across it — stolen from the internet, defaced, not paid for, thrown out there in the hopes that we won’t notice the very thing we’re being shown. Music choices are hackneyed, anachronistic, inappropriate (L’Apres-Midi  d’un Faun for THE TRIAL??) and rather than bolstering the emotion of the clips they play under — the presumed purpose — they frequently undermine it. Clips are sourced from all over, some of them seemingly from YouTube, so the resolution fluctuates like crazy.

Most of the best stuff comes from Welles’ giant BBC interview, broadcast as Orson Welles: Stories from a Life in Film, but this is hacked up too. There’s nothing as egregious as the ending of The Battle for Citizen Kane, which has Welles saying “I think I made essentially a mistake staying in motion pictures,” but leaves off what he said next — “but it’s a mistake I can’t regret,” which is followed by a heartbreaking, inspiring speech about his love of film. But Workman does use the interview as a source for random pull-quotes, so that some lines do duty for subjects they originally had nothing to do with. It’s a very insidious form of misquotation. Sometimes, people whose big mouths have gotten them in trouble complain of being “quoted out of context” (all quotes are, by their nature, somewhat out of context) — Welles is being quoted in contexts he never knew anything about, contexts devised thirty years after his death by a bloke called Chuck whose day job is editing the Oscars.

The compassion for Welles is admirable, and I think the section on his love of food was skillfully done — affectionate without degenerating into fat jokes. and there’s a nice bit where different Welles interviews are cut together to show how he would vary a story each time he told it. Where the movie has a strong idea, it’s on solid ground, but this rarely happens.

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Of the critical thinkers on display, James Naremore makes the best contribution. I would have liked more of Christopher Welles and even the dreaded Beatrice. Oja Kodar’s bit comes across like unedited rushes, jumping from subject to subject which may well be the way she talks, but the filmmaker is supposed to supply shape. She says some lovely stuff, and announces her willingness to be shamelessly indiscrete — I wish she was allowed to be.

Still, this could be an important moment even if the film is mainly a missed opportunity — a film from America which is resoundingly pro-Welles, which sees the truncated and unfinished films as the fault of a system rather than of the man, which debunks “fear of completion” and admits that the Philistinism of the film industry is the more serious problem — this is a new development, and worthy of celebration in this centennial year.

Secret Cinema

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2015 by dcairns

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As you might have noticed, we don’t tend to do lists here at Shadowplay. I have, at various times in my life, enjoyed making lists, but now the internet is flooded with them, so I will only do lists if they can be complete rubbish, like this one.

So, what follows is a list of the most secret films ever made, films that have never made it onto their respective auteurs’ filmographies.

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1) Alfred Hitchcock’s STOLEN. Alfred Hitchcock’s career officially contains two missing films, the unfinished NUMBER 13 and THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, completed but lost. But some time in the sixties, Hitchcock conceived a complex, self-referential movie called STOLEN, which was designed to be stolen and never recovered. Hitchcock scripted and shot a complete feature film which then went missing without a trace. The empty film cans were later retrieved, but with no trace of the footage. It has been suggested that, as a kind of perfect crime, Hitch actually shot the movie without film in the camera, and thus STOLEN never actually existed. At any rate, he planned a major publicity drive, inviting audiences to buy tickets and see a blank screen glowing white where the movie would have been had it not been nicked (using a slogan adapted from THE BIRDS: “Stolen Isn’t Coming”), but Universal bosses nixed the scheme and the whole thing was hushed up.

2) Alejandro Jodorowsky’s NUDE. After he lost the rights to Frank Herbert’s DUNE and saw Dino de Laurentiis make a dog’s dinner out of it, the famously eccentric Jodorowsky attempted to make his own version without copyright by rearranging all the letters. DUNE became NUDE and the rest of the story was similarly rearranged, making NUDE officially the first filmed anagram. The adventures of Sir Lead Taupe on the planet Ark-Sari, where he battles the evil Bonar Nan-Honker and rides on a colossal Norm’s-wad, NUDE also lived up to its title by being made without a costume designer, or even costumes. To further save money, Jodorowsky adapted an idea from his earlier plans, in which Salvador Dali as the emperor was to have been played party by a life-sized statue (because Dali would only agree to a few days’ filming). Going one better, Jodorowsky cast his film entirely with statues. In reality, the extremely limited budget only ran to one naked statue, which the director modified from shot to shot with a series of wigs, false beards and false breasts. The film, basically a series of shots of statues with anagramized dialogue dubbed on, was immediately slapped with an injunction by Dino De Laurentiis and was never screened. Jodorowsky subsequently denied ever making it. But he totally did.

3) THE BAWDY ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Remember when Peter Jackson was going to make the second part of the TINTIN saga begun by Spielberg? But then nobody went to see the Spielberg film because the mo-cap characters looked like corpse-puppets? Well, in fact, Jackson shot his film back-to-back with Spielberg and it has been awaiting release ever since. Owing to the disappointing response to the corpse-puppet version, however, Jackson has been working furiously to make the footage acceptable to the public. First, he toyed with releasing the film straight, without animation, just as a series of scenes of Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis in gimp-suits, studded with measles, cavorting in front of greenscreens. TINTIN DOES DOGVILLE was the working title of this version. Then Jackson considered a return to his low-comedy roots, adding a lot of sex and violence. In this cut, the Thompson Twins would form an incestuous relationship, Captain Haddock would turn out to be a female transvestite, and Snowy… but it is better not to know. Fans will learn the truth when the film finally sees the light of day as the fourth part of THE HOBBIT trilogy.

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4) Andy Warhol’s UNTITLED. Not its real title. The true title is . Not a full stop, just a space. Like this one: . Not the colon, not the full stop, the bit in between. This has ensured that even when film historians remember to include   on Warhol’s filmography, nobody notices it. The film itself is just sixty minutes of Candy Darling’s left nipple.

5) FILM MAUDIT. Jean Cocteau, having invented this useful term, then had to use it as a title for a film he made about swanning around Picasso’s villa, taking lots of opium, and annoying Picasso in his trunks. The film lived up to its name when it vanished in a puff of smoke after coming into contact with a drunken Robert Shaw.

6) UNSEEN FILM. This 1997 curiosity was cobbled together by director Raul Ruiz from out-takes of several of his earlier films and part of an incomplete Jesus Franco women-in-prison romp. Threatened lawsuits by several cast members (or their executors) were only forestalled when Ruiz screened the film for a drunken Robert Shaw.

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7) NIDAKRA .RM This unofficial version of Welles’ MR. ARKADIN was never released, but some claim it to be the director’s preferred cut. Unhappy with his makeup, which mainly consisted of two false beards, one stuck to the top of his head, Welles toyed with the idea of threading the film backwards so it projected in reverse and upside down. He had always favoured achronological narrative structures, and viewed in this inverted manner the beard sprouting from his scalp didn’t look so bad. The film itself was just a perfectly ordinary print of one or other cut of the film, so that even letting Robert Shaw near it didn’t ultimately do it any harm.

8 1/2) Fellini’s NINE AND A HALF. We all know that EIGHT AND A HALF was Fellini’s eight-and-a-halfth film, but what of his nine-and-a-halfth? This was a misguided experiment inspired by the maestro’s exploration of LSD. JULIETTE OF THE SPIRITS may have been influenced by Fellini’s hallucinogenic experiment, but the untitled follow-up was actually made DURING an LSD trip. Reversing his usual practice, Fellini did not have his actors speak numbers and then dub on dialogue: ha had them speak a carefully prepared script and then dubbed on numbers. Producer Dino de Laurentiis had previously had a scene from NIGHTS OF CABIRIA stolen from the lab to prevent Fellini from using it, but on this occasion he had the entire film stolen and claimed it on the insurance. Rumours abound that Adrian Lyne later claimed the film simply by adding the word “WEEKS” on the end and redubbing it. And adding tits. Others claim that a remorseful Fellini begged Robert Shaw to borrow the negative, usually a safe way of destroying something, but that several reels may have survived despite Shaw setting fire to the cans, his house, and his legs.

The Forgotten has been on hiatus for Cannes, but will return to The Notebook next week.

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