Archive for Paul Mayersberg

I gazed a gazely stare

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by dcairns

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The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.

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SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING

Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”

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SMILING AND WAVING AND LOOKING SO FINE

But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?

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WHEN IT’S BAD I GO TO PIECES

Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.

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HOLLYWOOD HIGHS

Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.

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AND SHE’S HOOKED TO THE SILVER SCREEN

What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.

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Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2008 by dcairns

THE SNIPER (1952) deals with a psychotic misogynist who takes to shooting women. It comes to us from Stanley Kramer’s production company.

Here’s Paul Mayersberg on Stanley Kramer in Hollywood The Haunted House ~

“In Kramer you can see the real dilemma of the Hollywood director. He wants to be an artist and he wants to be popular. He doesn’t want to be the compleat middlebrow which is what he is, what he is forced to be. Kramer has not come to terms with popular culture in the United States. So where does he stand? Bang in the middle of Reader’s Digest country, but he is no philistine. To be cruel about it, Kramer is Hollywood’s answer to Arthur Miller.”

Far from being cruel, that’s probably the most sympathetic critique of Kramer I’ve read. Though middlebrow reviewers may like some of his films, those who see them as preachy and dull tend to be savage in their dismissal. Mayersberg gets at the root of the problem and shows simply and directly how Kramer’s good intentions make for bad cinema. (Yet when Kramer tried his hand at pure entertainment in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, the results were even worse. It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite comedy, and thus we get Spielberg’s own bloated comedy corpse, 1941.)

THE SNIPER is a Kramer production, but it’s directed by Edward Dmytryk and it’s a thriller, so that gives it a slightly schizoid character. Kramer usually saw himself as above genre, which is part of where he goes wrong. As Mayersberg says ~

“Oddly enough, the subtleties of form occur in the genre movies rather than the theme movies, because in genres you are playing variations within certain conventions and you can be more experimental. We may be close to André Gide’s idea that ‘art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.'”

The schizoid nature of THE SNIPER comes from its script, direction and production. The script is at pains to lay everything out, to explain everything over and over, and to make us understand its central theme. A title crawl at the beginning tells us what this theme is. Then we see it nakedly expressed in the action of the plot. The characters discuss it and the psychiatrist character explains it so we can all understand. And the bit-part players keep up a running commentary on events also, so we get to hear what the man in the street thinks. The schism lies between this idiot’s approach to storytelling, and the intelligent and dynamic use of visual storytelling by director Edward Dmytryk.

Dmytryk had a weakness for the big theme too, but at least he liked to express it in visual terms. Maybe making socially conscious films like THE SNIPER was a way to reassure himself that he hadn’t sold out after he became a friendly witness and ratted on his former pals in the Communist Party.

Whatever his politics, Dmytryk didn’t automatically become a bad director when he turned stoolie (that came later). He directs THE SNIPER with flair, using striking deep-focus compositions (although he claimed to hate the use of wide-angle lenses for oncreasing depth of field, preferring to use them for psychological distortion). The great Burnett Guffey is D.O.P. here, making atmospheric use of San Francisco locations, transforming them at night with near-expressionistic lighting.

In an effort to stop his homicidal impulses, our sniper burns his hand on the oven ring, and Dmytryk and Guffey contrive a bizarre low-angle shot with the hot hob casting an implausible glow on the ceiling:

Each bullet from the sniper’s gun is effectively shocking and abrupt. Several of the murders aren’t even shown — Kramer and co are anxious not to make this an exploitation film. Hence all those screeds of verbiage. The insane killer is shown as a victim of his psychological disorder and of an uncaring society. It’s all very liberal and decent, and when Dmytryk is allowed to do his job and tell the story with sound and image it can be effective too.

Adolph Menjou is Detective Frank Kafka (yeah, I laughed too), which is a literary reference with no apparent point. Arthur Franz is attractive and charismatic as the killer. The terrific Marie Windsor appears only briefly, but is as warm and lovely here as she is harsh and brazen in THE NARROW MARGIN. And she has a mouth the size of Charles Durning, which is no bad thing:

Weirdly, the film classes the sniper as a sexual criminal, but the behaviour of the character doesn’t really suggest he gets a sexual charge out of his crimes, although he does kill attractive brunettes, often ones he’s failed to get off with. The police haul in assorted “peepers, rapists and defilers” and have them publicly humiliated in a lineup by a chubby interlocutor with the air of a stand-up comedian.

Then a psychiatrist explains that there’s no crossover in criminal insanity — none of these criminals could turn sniper. Incidentally he’s wrong — the absurdly-named Colin Pitchfork, the first murderer arrested on DNA evidence (read Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent The Blooding for the fascinating story) was a flasher who moved on to rape and murder as an extension of his initial perversion.

In its killer’s M.O. and San Francisco setting, THE SNIPER oddly looks forward to the Scorpio killer and his movie incarnations in DIRTY HARRY and SCORPIO. Where Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY portrayed its killer as a motiveless force of pure malevolence, and David Fincher’s SCORPIO uses him as a kind of defining absence at the story’s heart, the Dmytryk urges compassion and clinical care for the disturbed. It’s a very honourable film. But perhaps best watched with the sound off.

Does Anybody Know…?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2008 by dcairns

creepster 

Here’s an odd one. I’ve been reading a film book, Hollywood: The Haunted Houseby Paul Mayersberg (later screenwriter of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, CROUPIER, and director of 1986 film maudit CAPTIVE, with Ollie Reed), which is smartly written and a fascinating snapshot of a moment during the slow decline and fall of Hollywood.

Mayersburg writes approvingly of creepy troilist Darryl F Zanuck’s return to 20th Century Fox, where he scored a hit with THE LONGEST DAY and attempted to help the ailing studio over the crisis caused by the failure of mega-budget flop-a-roo CLEOPATRA. Of course, this being Hollywood in the early ’70s, disaster lurked around the corner and Zanuck’s second reign would prove short, painful and financially unprofitable.

But what intrigued me is the statement that Zanuck put his son, shark-eyed go-getter Richard Zanuck, in charge of production since he himself was unable to enter the state of California for legal reasons.

...like a doll's eyes...

I figure there has to be an interesting story behind THAT.

Unless it’s a tax thing, but then why wouldn’t Mayersberg say so?

Anybody know?