Archive for Orson Welles

The Big Mouth

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2021 by dcairns

I was curious about Errol Morris’ AMERICAN DHARMA, about Trump advisor and Breitbart exec Steve Bannon, but not apparently curious enough to see it when it was new. I finally checked it out.

Essentially, it conforms to the conclusions I’ve already drawn about Morris’s filmmaking. When he was making documentaries about ordinary people, he had an impressive ability to get them to open up. When he switched to people like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, he was suddenly dealing with people who had decades of practice obfuscating and outright lying and who were not about to change the habits of a lifetime. If David Frost couldn’t open up Richard Nixon, a barefaced crook, in three hours of television, Morris wasn’t going to get any damaging revelations out of these creeps in the space of a feature film. So all his films do is humanise the monsters. This, in some circumstances, might seem worthwhile in itself — monsters are human too. Understanding them can be useful, salutary. But McNamara’s technocrat logic and Rumsfeld’s nauseating folksiness are really just masks.

AMERICAN DHARMA does a number of things with Stephen K. Bannon (as he likes to call himself): it makes him look good, by filming him in a reconstructed set from Henry King’s TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and in hero poses on an airfield, and by flattering lighting and angles — we all know Bannon as a grubby unshaven carcinomic schlub wrapped in excess shirts, a kind of fleshly embodiment of Trumpian excess and corruption. Here he looks, at times, positively noble.

The Bannon emerging from the film is contradictory, which the real Bannon probably is too, but I felt I understood him less at the film’s end than at the beginning. Without feeling I’d been wrong in any of my derogatory opinions about him before. The onscreen Bannon’s most appealing characteristic was his admiration of Morris as a filmmaker and tearful-kitten-emoji eagerness to have Morris’ respect and affection. He genuinely didn’t want Morris to see him as a racist, white supremacist, mean bad guy. So the things he said were calculated to portray him otherwise. Morris was able to use film clips to show Bannon being less cautious elsewhere. When he instructed his audience that when they were called racists, they should “wear it as a badge of pride,” it definitely opened up a schism-chasm between affable Steve the interviewee and his public persona elsewhere. But it seemed, despite a 96 minute runtime, that there just wasn’t any opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of how exactly it is possible to wear being called racist as a badge of honour, if you’re not a racist. Maybe getting a political figure to approach the truth about himself is going to take much more than an average/minimum feature length. Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe, if that’s true, it shouldn’t be attempted.

Of the varied slithery shitheels and war criminals Morris has allowed to wriggle free over the years (remember how he concluded that the Abu Ghraib torturers were only following orders?), Bannon ought to be the easiest to pin down. He’s not as clever as he thinks he is — I’m not at all certain he’s using the word “dharma” accurately, and certainly the line “we hit them with an enormous fuselage” (rather than “fusillade” — and this guy was in the military?) is laughable. And here is an apparent Breitbart headline, which will reward you for more attention than the copy editor gave it:

DONALD TRUMPS WINS WHITE HOUSE?

As we know from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and other places, Bannon is a man who likes to talk, and while that other jovial fat fellow of sinister motivation, Caspar Guttman, says that talking can only be done judiciously when practiced regularly, it is not certain that talking constantly can ever be judicious, especially if you have crimes to conceal. Bannon not infrequently says the quiet part out loud, because he just can’t bear the thought of there being a quiet part. So it’s actually surprising that Morris, emerging from behind his Interrotron™ to appear as a sort of CKANE Thompson interlocutor, can’t pin down his subject more meaningfully. I guess Morris could argue that, since I didn’t like Bannon better at the film’s end, he hadn’t glorified, glamourised, flattered and platformed a dangerous nutjob — but I have never felt Bannon’s craftiness, sadism and bigotry LESS keenly than I did watching him preen here.

Morris does catch Bannon in one flat-out lie, his assertion that Trump wrote his own inauguration address, which is followed by a slow blink so transparently bogus in its movie-sincerity that Morris’ cry of “Oh come on!” is hardly necessary. And his juxtapositions of archive news footage and doc interview occasionally get at the cruelty underlying the Trump administration’s every action, but living through those years made all that much more visible if you had eyes to see.

I once read that the left cares about human welfare and doing no harm, and the right cares about values, which felt true-ish. So that driving abortion underground, causing more harm, would seem perfectly reasonable to a rightwinger, since all that matters is not endorsing abortion. The death penalty needn’t work as a deterrent, it needn’t save money, it needn’t be humane, it just has to serve as the ultimate statement of a society’s values: there are certain things we feel are so bad that we get to kill you for them.

Suddenly, or not so suddenly, with the Trump administration it seemed like the cruelty was the point. The religious right could overlook Trump violating every commandment ever chiselled, so long as he hurt the right people. Morris mentions this cruelty, but he never follows up on it. When he asks “How is this helping anything?” he’s missing the point. It was never supposed to help anybody or anything, it was just a statement of identity: This particular kind of cruelty is the kind we like. As always with Trump-era wingnuttery, it’s all projection, so when the right accuses the left of identity politics, they’re confessing. Their politics is ALL about identity — their own.

Bannon is, at least, a better movie critic than Trump, who no doubt only chose CITIZEN KANE because it’s “the greatest.” I am undecided if Morris cut that piece together to conflate both Mrs. Kane’s because he assumes Trump doesn’t remember there’s two of them, or just because he wasn’t taking care. Bannon’s reading of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is possibly smarter than Morris’. But less humane.

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.