Archive for Paddy Chayefsky

The Godless

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I sort-of disliked THE GODDESS, even though it’s maybe John Cromwell’s last major film — his last in Hollywood — and scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky.

(Cromwell directed two more movies, a mediocre B-thriller in Hong Kong & the Philippines, THE SCAVENGERS, and a drama in Sweden, A MATTER OF MORALS starring the versatile Patrick O’Neal and shot by the mighty Sven Nykvist — I have been unable to locate a copy.)

THE GODDESS is a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe and how she’s doomed by the loveless emptiness of her existence — made while Monroe was still alive and working.

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Apparently this movie was hacked down considerably in post — some character called George Justin gets a credit as “supervisor.” For all the talent involved, nothing seems in sync. Kim Stanley is the first problem — we have to believe her, in some way, as a teenager when we first see her (Patty Duke gives a beautiful, melancholic performance as the child version of “Emily Ann Faulkner”). She then ages to 31, Stanley’s true age during filming. It’s a cruel observation, but at no point does she suggest the allure of a screen goddess or the freshness of a newcomer.

There are two ways to go wrong with casting a Monroe-like part: you could cast someone gorgeous who can’t act, or cast a strong actor who does not evoke glamour and youth and gorgeousness. Based on THE GODDESS, the second may actually be the more serious mistake, since it throws off all the other actors, removes the motivation for most of the story.

Not to pick on Stanley too long — there’s something more interestingly amiss. Chayefsy was a writer who, justifiably, fought to get his words on the screen as written. Here’s Stanley on her way to the casting couch —

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As photographed by Arthur J. Ornitz, THE GODDESS is full of powerful, expressive wides. A real hallmark of Cromwell’s style, going back to the early thirties. We know exactly what is going to be suggested in these scene — the shot speaks so clearly of patriarchy, power, sleaze. It’s as explicit as fellatio. So the fact that the scene continues into closeups and dialogue is redundant, boring, depressing. Arguably it’s Cromwell’s fault for saying everything the scene needed to say in a single image. But the old cliché about a picture vs. a thousand words applies, doesn’t it?

Some strange line flubs from Stanley late in the show. This is when her character is supposed to be disintegrating, so somebody may have decided they would seem appropriate, excusable. But humans misspeaking sound different from actors, usually — they correct themselves, or fail to, in different ways. Only very rare actors can stumble on a line and make it seem like a natural mistake in casual speech. And Chayefsky’s stuff is so precise, and in a way non-naturalistic (all that monologuing!) it really doesn’t benefit from people tripping over their tongues.

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And oh my God the trailing hand. THAT one hasn’t been seen since Barrymore’s day, and HE was spoofing it in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Fiona has read more on Monroe than I have, and gave the film credit for acknowledging MM’s spiritual side, a real and overlooked aspect of her life. Chayefsky is the poet of emptiness, though, and religion in the end is another crutch, useless if it can’t forge a bond between the goddess and her distant mother (Monroe’s real mother, of course, suffered mental illness). Horrifyingly, Chayefsky diagnoses exactly where Monroe is going — more pictures, because it’s all she knows to do, with the likelihood of drink or pills or both getting her in the end. In an act not even as meaningful as suicide.

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Tanked

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2011 by dcairns

Our teenage friend Louis seemed ripe for introduction to the oeuvre of the late Ken Russell, so we showed him ALTERED STATES. His father thanked us for this afterwards, so it seems it was a good move. I think he viewed it as something like the young fellow’s first trip to a bordello — a necessary stage in his development.

(William Hurt experiments with isolation tanks and hallucinogens, experiencing a physical regression to a pre-human state. Along with DAY OF THE DOLPHIN, this is the second film based on John C. Lilly’s experiments — he sued the makes of the former film… but apparently this one was OK with him.)

Fiona had been wanting a Ken Russell tribute ever since the Great Man left his body, but she was particular that it should be this film, and I thought our only copy was on loan, but then I found a spare, and so we DID IT. Ken’s first American-shot film and his last major studio film (VALENTINO was shot in the UK, CRIMES OF PASSION was an indie for New World) seems to have allowed him considerable freedom — a big budget and license to cast unknowns like first-timer William Hurt. He’s excellent, though Ken found his need to discuss everything slightly wearing. “I knew he’d marry a deaf woman.”

ALTERED STATES is full of Dick Smith bladder effects. Chief among them is William Hurt’s face.

I once met a chap from a deaf school who had dealt with Hurt on CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. “He had an interesting time,” said the guy’s dad, and the guy immediately did a full-body clench of anger at the mere memory of Hurt: “He’s – a – very – difficult – man,” he gritted.

I may never forgive Pauline Kael for sniping that all Blair Brown displayed here was the small of her back — she gives a moving and intense performance, dealing with Paddy Chayefsky’s decidedly tricky script. She does, it must be admitted, look great in her nude scenes, but that hardly seems something that should be held against her. She’s credible as an anthropologist and as a woman in love, which is not a combination everyone can pull off. Plus, she delivers two of my favourite facial expressions in any movie — the first is her Sphinx Face, which she deploys when playing the in-between to a gila monster and a sandstone sphinx in a hallucination. It’s appropriately both sphinxlike and lizardlike, full of cold-blooded mystery.

The second is her very convincing and frightful going-into-shock face. In GOTHIC, Julian Sands has a very similar scene in a very similar shot, but his version is rubbish because he’s Julian Sands and not Blair Brown, as any fool can see.

About that tricky dialogue — the one area where Russell didn’t have freedom was the script. Chayefsky had earned the right to control his productions to the point where nobody could change a line of his dialogue without his consent, which is fair enough considering his status and the level of his success with NETWORK etc. But here, his writing does somewhat cross the boundary from florid and theatrical to ridiculously over-explicit and jargony. Russell thus proves how far a director can subvert a script without rewriting it — pretty far, it seems: to the point where Chayefsky took his name off the screenplay.

Russell’s main weapons are speed and overlap, allowing the dialogue that didn’t interest him to rocket over the viewer’s head in a cataract of projectile verbiage. Having the character spout psychological insights with their mouths full of food also adds much-needed naturalism. And actors like Bob Balaban and Charles Haid, with their cool, moist and hot, dry delivery respectively, manage to make this stuff sound believable and human. Haid gets the best rant ever, as Hurt slides to the floor laughing in his face (which, believe me, is the best reaction if anybody ever does start furiously ranting at you — try it, it makes them crazy).

The only downside of sliding so quickly over the incessant monologues is that this stuff is where Chayefsky sets up the crazy Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations that come later. This must be my sixth viewing of the film at least, but it’s the first time I’d taken particular note of a stray observation about schizophrenics almost trying to modify their bodies to suit their schizophrenic self-image. The idea of Cronenbergian psychoplasmics, where mental states take on physical forms, is a crucial one to prepare the audience for the TERRIFIC APE-MAN, who otherwise may seem a bit of a stretch.

Although, a friend said he had no trouble with the ape-man, what he found a little tricky was the weird cosmic shit, which really only gets set up quite late in the day. Of course, for Ken, the image was of singular importance, so what mattered was not establishing these concepts through science-talk, but hitting the audience right between the eyes with them as forcefully as possible, in actual scenes of violent physical action. Here, he delivers. Nothing could be more compelling that the non-verbal adventures of Hurt’s monkey self, rampaging through the streets followed by Jordan (BLADE RUNNER) Cronenweth’s dynamic, roving camera. Just beautiful!

The late Miguel Godreau, a Puerto Rican dancer, plays “primal man” with aggression, gusto, grace, and a surprising quality of choreographed grace — rather than simply running wild, he strikes poses that seem as much physical theatre as wildlife documentary, an unusual choice which shouldn’t work but does, aided by the 80s lighting, which is all smoky shafts of toplight and overwhelming Spielberg godlight. Ken’s sensory overkill needed the kind of budgetary support he got up until CRIMES OF PASSION, and the later films suffer by having insufficient resources to barrage the audience with their effects.

Attention To Detail — here are two shots from near the beginning and near the end, melodramatically lit and mirroring each other cutely. Note also the statue in image one — barely noticeable in the film, where one’s eye flashes to the silhouette of Hurt, but amusing when you spot it. Note also the image at the top of this post: I never spotted, until I went looking for frame-grabs, how the face of the schizophrenic patient bleeds through Hurt’s face during one of his trips. The amazing actress, Deborah Baltzell, tragically died of a heart attack, aged just 25, a year after the movie came out. Everybody use this as your Facebook avatar, NOW.

John Mcdonald’s production design, like most of the film, straddles a line between realism and theatricality. Everything has real-world solidity, and insists on its authenticity via texture and age, but the room with the metal grid floor, lit from below, makes very little sense if you think about it. It’s a hard balance to get right: see EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC for an example of production design that crosses that line first define by David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, between clever and stupid.

As Ken happily pointed out, what contemporary audiences really responded to was the crazy trip scenes. Ken’s crew discovered that what he responded to best was actual on-set physical effects he could see happen live, through his camera, although by the time things reached the screen he had manipulated them in all kinds of ways with the optical printer and splicer. The combination is both visceral and cosmic, which it needs to be. John Corrigliani’s score, with its Stravinskian assaults, is a great help.

And who’s this guy? Small role, but he’s AWFUL good.

“Well, they seem like agreeable people.” — classic example of the kind of fellow you wouldn’t want supervising your peyote trip!

(Apparently he’s Thaao Penghlis, and no, I didn’t just collapse face first on my keyboard, that’s his name. And he’s been in 1,053 episodes of Days of our Lives, which I guess is better than dying young, but how much better I’m not sure. Still, he’s GREAT.)

Euphoria #17: It’s showtime, folks.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2008 by dcairns

Fiona’s got a nasty ‘flu’, so I’m attempting to restore her spirits with another of those movie scenes that infuses you with optimism, like steam inhalation for the soul. 

Pure frug-ing euphoria from Bob Fosse’s SWEET CHARITY, his remake of Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, book by Neil Simon. A modest floor-show in the Fellini, visible for just a few seconds, is here inflated into a gigantic number with Suzanne Charney (and Ben Vereen!) This is the second euphoric clip in two days where a woman makes remarkable shapes with her body. S.C. is utterly incredible. Women want to be her. Men want to be on her. 

Neil Simon and Bob Fosse were great friends and contemporaries: Fosse was only two days older than Simon. He used to say, “During those two days when I was on this earth and you weren’t… I had more girls than you will have in the entire rest of your life.”

Another writer friend was Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, ALTERED STATES). When Fosse was about to go in for open-heart surgery he asked Paddy to sign his will as a witness. Chayefksy asked to read it.

‘Well, that’s not really nec-‘

‘I don’t sign anything I don’t read,’ snapped Chayefsky.

He scanned the document, then: ‘Well, this all seems — I say “SEEMS”, mind you — to be in order. But I don’t see my name anywhere.’

‘Well, that’s true. I mean, you know I love you like a brother and everything, Paddy, but you’re not actually a beneficiary.’

Chayefsky throws the will back at his sick friend. ‘Screw you then — LIVE!’

Hospital hallucination, take 1

Fosse’s surgery is gorily recreated in ALL THAT JAZZ, his penultimate film. He gives himself the best lines in that one. To first wife: ‘If I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I did to you.’ To new girlfriend: ‘And if I DO make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m GONNA do to YOU.’

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Style note: Fosse cuts rather a lot for a choreographer/director. His editing is very stylish and rhythmic, but sometimes it takes over from the dancers, makes it impossible for us to follow the WHOLE SCENE. True, it’s a cinematic effect instead of a theatrical one, but when the dancing is this good, sometimes simplicity might be better? My main reason for fretting over this is the horrible state of filmed dance in the mainstream media today.

In CHICAGO we get a modern director imitating Fosse’s approach, but with many more cuts, the MTV tradition. The dance becomes totally incoherent, and what people remember is the editing: “Wasn’t the editing great?” Well, no. It wasn’t.

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I still love Fosse though. Like a lot of theatre directors, he embraced the unique qualities of film with insane enthusiasm. His films are all about montage, juxtaposition, cross-cutting different kinds of fictional reality, performance and life clashing head-on.

If I ran a series of clips of Cinema That Makes You Want to Gnaw Your Own Brain Off, Fosse’s skin-crawling work with Eric Roberts in STAR 80 would have to be Clip One. Amazing stuff.

Footnote: just watched this again and don’t find it at all over-edited. Maybe there’s too much cutting in other sequences, but not here.