Archive for Paul Schrader

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

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!

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.


Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”