Archive for Paul Schrader

Light & Dark

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2021 by dcairns

Picked up a DVD of DYING OF THE LIGHT in a charity shop, which seems like the movie’s natural destination, and had a dim memory of it being a disastrous production that was taken out of writer-director Paul Schrader’s hands. Then, however, I was able to do a direct comparison with DARK, which is sort-of the director’s cut. Sort of.

DYING is a middling thriller in which a CIA officer with frontal lobe dementia (Nic Cage) tracks down a terrorist with anemia (Alexander Karim). You could say that the producer’s cut is anemic, and Schrader’s response is demented, and you wouldn’t be far off. Obviously demented is better. But not ideal.

DARK was made without access to the original materials, so Schrader and editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr scrambled together the producer’s cut with deleted scenes from the Blu-ray, refilmed shots with a cell phone, and generally exploded and reassembled the material into a radically different form. The director’s cut is 75 minutes to the original’s 96 (Schrader didn’t have to worry about hitting a commercial length since he had no rights to the material and couldn’t commercially release his version). His reclaiming of the footage is a heroic act.

(In fairness to the producers, however, their notes, as quoted by Schrader, seem fairly respectful and reasonable — a case could be made for synthesising what they wanted from the film along with what Schrader wanted, to make something that satisfied everybody. It’s not quite clear what made Schrader decide such an understanding was impossible.)

But is DARK a better film? Is it really less conventional? In some ways, yes, but Schrader can’t escape the fact that he shot fairly conventional coverage. Both cuts even contain establishing shots of building exteriors, like you’d see in a sitcom. I was a bit unfair to Brian DePalma’s DOMINO a while back, not knowing at the time that BDP’s film had run out of money and he hadn’t been able to stage the setpieces he’d had in mind. At least on paper, Schrader’s film is more interesting than DePalma’s, with at least one proper character, Cage’s, and one borderline case, the late Anton Yelchin’s. He does what he can with an underwritten part, and the DARK cut restores a couple of character moments. But DePalma has said, “establishing shots are a waste of time” and when it comes to building exteriors he’s pretty much correct.

Both versions of the film require Cage to wear a FALSE EAR, which is supposed to look like a part has been cut away, but of course they couldn’t do that to Cage (he did have some teeth removed for BIRDY but they were baby teeth that would have had to come out anyway) so they’ve stuck a couple of bits on, resulting in an ear that always seems to be waving at you from behind its owner’s face.

The disruptive effects Schrader is going for in DARK, what he calls “a more aggressive editing style,” is not really anything new, it strikes me as artsy rather than really expressive, and it doesn’t really convey the Cage character’s disorientation in a way that feels subjective. Actually shooting the movie with disorientation as a goal would have achieved that better (but, to be fair, maybe there’s unused coverage that would have done that, but which Schrader couldn’t access). If disorientation is a goal those establishers are REALLY destructive.

There’s also a slight disadvantage in having a lead character plagued with mood swings and sudden shouting, played by an actor who’s made a career of mood swings and sudden shouting. Nothing’s very wrong with what Cage is doing, it’s just a little familiar.

Schrader follows his original plot (another place the disorientation should’ve been used more is in the WRITING) until the end, basically changing the visual and aural texture, and then he boldly has the film disintegrate instead of reaching a climax. It’s a big lightshow meant to signify the state of the protagonist’s mind, though it’s very electronic in both its pictorial effects (digital fragmentation, videotape static) and sound. Even here, Schrader can’t quite commit to abstraction, however, and ends the film with a character’s gravestone, so we can’t complain we never learned how things came out.

Still, it’s undeniably an auteurist disgorgement, able to be read as the most uncomfortable allegory — an aging pro, considered past it and suffering mental decline (Schrader is, I trust, quite healthy, but some of his social media posts might make you wonder) goes on a last desperate mission, with his bosses disowning him, helped only by a younger colleague who has to ignore the quixotic nature of the quest… it’s all there. Not all of it is flattering to the filmmaker. But he reclaimed his movie! And he screwyoued the producers in a highly noncareerist way. I have to admire that.

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!