Archive for Paul Williams

Town without pity

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)

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None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —

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Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.

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Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~

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The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.

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However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.

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The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns

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The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)

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It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.

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The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).

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I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)

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The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

“This place is… possessed!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2009 by dcairns

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If you want my opinion, Gerrit Graham is the whole show.

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Tony Dayoub’s DePalma Blogathon here.

Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE — his name is above the title, despite the fact that who the hell was he, anyway, in 1974? — is an oddity in his career, a career strung with oddities. Despite perhaps borrowing its bird imagery from PSYCHO, and featuring probably his funniest take on the shower scene, PHANTOM isn’t particularly a Hitchcock-referencing film, which sets it apart from SISTERS beforehand and OBSESSION afterwards. The movie does feature a replay of TOUCH OF EVIL’s opening long take, though, with a split-screen twist. I think in this case he ruins the song and creates confusion rather than clarity (for much of the sequence both images show basically the same action), but it’s still an amusing trope, somehow.

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Has DePalma somehow obtained custody of a dead little girl, and mounted the tiny corpslet on wires like some kind of macabre marionette? Or has he hired Paul Williams to act in his film? I’m not sure which is the greater outrage against taste and decency. Williams provides the score, which contains enjoyable but not truly memorable songs — the big problem is probably that they don’t feel specific to this story. The plot details the mounting of a rock opera based on Faust, but the songs don’t seem that specific to that either. Even when the Faust plot invades the main storyline in an outrageous and rather-unprepared-for supernatural twist, the songs don’t really mesh with it. But they’re good little toe-tappers while they’re on.

Depressingly, DePalma’s script derives more from the Claude Rains PHANTOM than from the Chaney, despite name-checking that film’s leading lady, Mary Philbin. This means that practically the first half of the movie is an origin saga, before the Faustian pact can get going, and the relationship between the Phantom (William Finlay, still working for BDP in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) and his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is relegated to a couple of lines of dialogue. That’s often been my trouble with DePalma’s “sweeping and Wagnerian” romantic side — he can’t spare the time or effort to suggest a real relationship, so the love interest is gestural and generic and totally fails to move me.

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But — PHANTOM is so popping with ideas, and so strikingly designed by Jack “the man in the planet” Fisk, that such problems, while certainly central and critical, do not prevent a good time from being had. Meeting Finlay in his pre-phantasmal geekdom robs him of all the grandeur Chaney possessed, but DePalma is aiming for a more pathetic creature of the night anyway, albeit one who has inexplicably acquired the ability to punch through walls.

“Style will always convince cinematic purists that the surfaces they admire contain depth, and that clear shortcomings in disguise. DePalma isn’t logical, so he must be impressionistic. He isn’t realistic, so he must be surrealistic. He isn’t scrupulous, so he must be audacious. He isn’t earnest, so he must be ironical. He isn’t funny, so he must be serious.”

So writes Martin Amis in The Movie Brute, his very funny, grossly unfair but quite well-aimed takedown of DePalma and his pretensions to greatness, written as BDP was shooting BODY DOUBLE (which would have given Amis a lot more grist to his mill had he been able to see it in time). Amis’s sarcastic remarks (leaving aside the fact that most of them could equally well apply to himself) are, in a way, literally true, in not quite the way he means — if only by default, DePalma is surreal and audacious and the rest. He can also occasionally be funny, but perhaps not frequently enough to fill a whole movie. PHANTOM is funny while Gerrit Graham is strutting and preening as rockstar “Beef.” BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has André Gregory ranting about Don Giovanni (his introduction, given several times: “This is Aubrey Buffing, the poet. He has AIDS.”) RAISING CAIN has a fantastic John Lithgow turn, and another dead child in a fright wig (“It is a bad thing that you are doing!”). WISE GUYS has Joe Piscopo and isn’t funny at all.

DePalma addressed this comedic lack when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival: after averring that he wasn’t afraid of anything, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be making any more comedies anytime soon. And yet he practically began as a comedy director: that’s one word used to describe GREETINGS and HI MOM! anyway, and then there’s the Tom Smothers movie and PHANTOM. I think maybe DePalma’s sense of humour is a little too outre for popular taste, like Polanski’s, and his technique doesn’t really lend itself to chuckles — I can recall a 360 degree pan in WISE GUYS, and it didn’t really work as a gag-delivery mechanism. Plus Polanski and DePalma can’t help throw in unpleasant little details that make the laughter shrivel in your throat — here there’s a gratuitous tooth-pulling episode that leaves the Phantom with a ritzy set of steel gnashers. He doesn’t USE them, but there they are.

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Jessica Harper, who’s had a surprisingly psychotronic career for such a nice-seeming girl (SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, SAFE, even MINORITY REPORT) has a big voice and a beautiful little-girl face. She’s good at looking perplexed, which is helpful here. And she dances like a mad aunty at a drunken party.

I don’t know why Gerrit Graham isn’t at least as famous as, say, Al Pacino. On this evidence, he should have his face on a stamp for services to lisping and mincing. It must be difficult to act this good without attracting the attentions of the vice squad, but anyhow we can cherish him in this film, threatening to erupt all over the audience like a protoplasmic Roman candle, a bipedal outrage who makes overacting a religious calling. He should be in every film, giving this performance. It would improve EVERYTHING.

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When he’s not about we can admire Harper and the sets (dressed by Sissy Spacek!) and stare slack-jawed at the multi-talented Paul Williams, with his tiny hairless body, bri-nylon cancer wig, groovy shades and jaunty philtrum (I want a film in which he plays Ron Perlman’s conjoined twin and I want it NOW). DePalma’s nightmarish, nihilistic ending, a sort of gothic Altamont revenger’s tragedy, left me feeling woozy and a little depressed, but I was glad I’d been on the PHANTOM ride. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

1) At Edinburgh Film Fest, DePalma asked his driver, a friend of mine, for a lighter. My friend passed one over. DePalma pocketed it. Are other people just walking dispensers of stuff to Brian?

2) He tried to get a young female producer to sit on his lap, and when she politely declined, he spanked her.

3) Fiona walked with him from one party to another. “How much farther?” whined BDP, like a big baby. Quote from Amis’s profile ~

“‘Hitchcock was sixty when he made PSYCHO. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk when I’m sixty.’ A curious remark — but then Brian is not a good walker, even now, at forty-four; he is not a talented walker.”

Still, at 69, Brian is still walking and still making films, and they’re still interesting and undiluted and personal. That deserves some credit.

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UK buyers:

The Moronic Inferno

Phantom Of The Paradise [DVD] [1974]

US buyers:

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

Phantom of the Paradise