Archive for Pauline Kael

Zero is the Loneliest Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2018 by dcairns

I love the weird diminishing array of phones. And the lack of nose room for DeNiro — it creates an imbalance that eventually helps justify the camera taking off on its own, tracking right in a way completely unmotivated by onscreen movement, a move which “corrects” the composition — and then keeps going, like an automaton, into nothingness.

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to keep delving into TAXI DRIVER.

When Martin Scorsese came to o a Q&A in Edinburgh, preceding the release of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986, the teenage me, who had only recently discovered his work, was in attendance, and my hand shot up when the call went out for questions from the floor. There’s usually an awkward pause when such a request is made, so if you sit at the front (desirable for movies, essential for personal appearances), and you DO have a question, this is the time to ask it.

Scorsese had been talking frankly about his career, the current scene in Hollywood (“The studios like to be able to look out their office windows and see what’s going on, and their offices are in San Francisco, so if the films can be set in San Francisco, they like that. Like the new STAR TREK is set in San Francisco. Really. They go back in time. And they save the whales. No, really!”) and the recent collapse of the original planned version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Aidan Quinn was already losing weight for it…”)

I asked about Travis’s phone call to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER, and you can read most of Scorsese’s answer in Scorsese on Scorsese ~

“That was the first shot I thought of for the film, and it was the last I filmed. I liked it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.”

I had mentioned in my question that some critics had objected to the shot — as I recall, Kael was one — on those grounds. I had found the shot mysterious, since tracking away from your subject and staring at an empty space seems counter-intuitive. It reminds me now of Mike Hodges’ reasoning for pulling away from a tragic moment in THE TERMINAL MAN. “It’s too painful!” He tries to give the character some privacy. And “the Americans,” he says, couldn’t understand this at all. The Hollywood system is to push in on the emotion. That’s why Kael flinched at it, and why teenage me found it mysterious.

But Hodges’ approach, and even more so Scorsese’s, produces the appropriate emotion in an indirect, discreet way. What’s more lonely than Travis on the phone to Betsy, hopelessly failing to get through to her on a clear line? That empty corridor leading out into night and the city, which he will finally walk down.

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655321

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Malcolm McDowall’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is known during the film’s middle act as Prisoner 655321, but as he enters prison he gives his name as Alexander De Large, same as in Anthony Burgess’ novel. But when he’s released from the stripy hole, the papers give his name as Alex Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic nomenclature in THE SHINING (he’s either Charles or Delbert Grady, depending on who’s talking).

Such peculiar slips aside, this is probably the most seventies sci-fi film of them all, its look playing like a kind of caricature of the fabulous ugliness of British hair, fashion, architecture, interior design and speech in that dark decade. The BLADE RUNNER idea of “retro-fitting” had not been invented yet, so movie visions of the future tended to work on the assumption that our dystopias will consist of all-new clothes and architecture and furniture. Ridley Scott’s team visualised the truth: the future will have all of our crap, only older and more broken-down and badly repaired. (The big exception to old stuff not surviving into movie futures is the Statue of Liberty at the end of PLANET OF THE APES).

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Speaking of apes, Fiona pointed out how this image recalls the primordial tribes of 2001. And then the soundtrack album of 2001 turns up in the record store Alex attends to pick up Gillian Hills and friend for a threesome (having presumably seen Hills’ threesome in BLOW-UP.) “Kubrick didn’t go in for in-jokes, did he?” Oh, but he did! Fiona has never seen EYES WIDE SHUT…

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I first saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE during the period when Kubrick had withdrawn it in the UK, on a fourth generation VHS dupe, with attendant fuzziness and flaring colours that bled off their subjects in shimmering auras. Then, on a college trip to Paris, I saw it in the cinema that played it non-stop, and it looked a lot better, although a splice robbed it of its final line, which was a real pain. (Terry Southern’s idea, floated in his novel Blue Movie, of a site-specific movie, made by a Kubrick-like master filmmaker, which you would have to travel to see, making it a kind of tourist attraction, had come true, at least for me — my main motivation in visiting Paris was to see this film.)

The film did not inspire me to any acts of criminal behaviour, though I may have tried to talk like Patrick Magee afterwards (“Trrry the WIIIINE.”

Random thoughts —

The novel is short and seems to me FAST, though I guess that depends on your reading speed. Having to look up the nadsat dialect words, or else strain to remember the last time they were used, does slow you down, but I always felt the prose demanded a certain celerity. Kubrick’s pacing is… well, deliberate would be a polite word. It seems to loosen up in the final stretch, somehow — McDowell even seems to be improvising in the scene where he’s psychologically tested with a caption contest, which had Fiona in hysterics. She’d forgotten what a funny film it is, if you can take it.

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“Cabbages… knickers… it hasn’t got a… a beak!”

SHOULD you take it? There are multiple issues at stake. Firstly, the written word becomes something quite different when visualised. Even Ken Russell said that the word must be censored by the artist when he films it. Mad Ken was mooted to direct CLOCKWORK ORANGE with Terry Southern on script and the Rolling Stones as stars — if he had, it would probably still be banned. Everywhere.

It’s pretty clear from John Baxter’s flawed but informative Kubrick bio that the director was treating the movie as an opportunity to ogle naked girls. The sexual violence has a role in the story, but is obviously important to the filmmaker for other reasons. Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t on. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?” “Tough.”

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(The two became quite friendly. She gave him red socks as a present, her costume when last seen in the film.)

Kubrick also got Cheryl Grunwald to mime being raped as her audition, a fairly pointless exercise that seems more like power-play than legitimate creative process (auditioning for DEATH WISH, Jeff Goldblum had to rape a chair. He got the part). Oh, and the scene Kubrick gave his rapees was very much like the encounter between the girl and the soldiers in FEAR AND DESIRE, suggesting that his violent fantasies were of a long-standing nature and informed earlier work.

If the director’s intentions aren’t pure, does it matter? Pauline Kael thought so. She pointed out that the relatively few alterations to the novel all had the effect of making Alex a more appealing character. She was right, but the matter bears further consideration. Kubrick could clearly have gone further — Alex is, by any reasonable estimation, a monster. But his crimes are photogenic — he beats up ugly people and rapes attractive, nubile women, not the other way around. Kubrick admitted that the character’s frankness with the reader/viewer made him appealing, in the same way that Richard III is appealing — a scheming dissimulator who flatters us by taking us into his confidence.

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Let’s look at the changes. Firstly, all the underage girls are now older — the “weepy young devotchka” in the casino is a spectacularly buxom adult, and the girls Alex picks up in the record store may not have been assigned a specific, clearly-identifiable age, but if Kubrick had wanted us to accept them as schoolies he needn’t have cast Gillian Hills, who we might remember from another threesome in BLOW UP, or even further back in BEAT GIRL. Kubrick was probably bit concerned about what he could legally show, a little concerned about getting typecast after LOLITA, keen to avoid making the viewer reflect on how old Malcolm McDowell is supposed to be, and he wanted to photograph spectacularly buxom adults.

I believe Kubrick when he says he cut the prison murder for reasons of length. I think the prison scenes drag a little — the story loses forward momentum until Alex can get into the Ludovico Institute, and the scenes are played very slow indeed — arguably to emphasize the stultifying environment and as a dramatic gear shift after the savage opening. I think Kael is wrong to suggest this omission softens Alex, who has already killed a woman in furtherance of theft on top of all his other crimes. As I recall from reading the book, the additional killing didn’t make me like Alex less — I already despised him on a moral level and enjoyed his voice on an aesthetic one.

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Kael gets into the fine detail of it when she points out that Kubes breaks his own rules, departing from the first-person narrative to show the casino devotchka getting stripped by the rival gang BEFORE Alex has arrived on the scene. Kubrick is filming something because he wants to film it, not because it’s a legitimate part of the story. But a defense is quite possible here (although yes, I think Kubrick is salacious). The scene is shot from the vantage point Alex will have when we see him. He introduces the action with voice-over setting the scene. And then he is revealed, stepping from the shadows, having apparently been watching for at least a few seconds.

(Kael doesn’t mention a scene Kubrick invented, showing the Cat Lady phoning the police, another moment not shared by Alex, who isn’t in the building and very importantly does not know the millicents are on their way. This seems to indicate that for all his obcomp meticulousness, Kubes wasn’t that bothered about the purity of the first-person or “closed” narrative.)

I always felt the opening of the casino scene was problematic, though. Or “evil,” might be a better word. The ensuing gang fight is incredibly dynamic in a western brawl way, snazzily cut to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, but the opening, a scene of sexual sadism, interacts with the music in a teasing, smirking way — it’s quite justifiable as a rendering of Alex’s view of this kind of cruelty, but I can’t bring myself to admire it. The music, the voyeurism, the sexually mature victim, can all be explained, but in combination they add up to something exploitative.

The highly fetishized assault on Adrienne Corri is another thing, simultaneously a stunning coup de cinema, an assault on the audience in fact, and a fairly indefensible piece of art-porn/rape-porn. Worth pointing out, though, that just as Burgess identifies himself with the male victim (both are authors of a book called A Clockwork Orange), Kubrick seems to put himself in the place of Alex’s prey. I’m sure Patrick Magee is typing on one of Kubrick’s favourite typewriters. And the cat lady, like Kubrick, lives in a big house full of pets with paintings by Christiane Kubrick on the walls, just like the great Stanley K. Whether the film encourages this kind of reflection isn’t certain: Kubrick deleted the novel’s explanation of the title, which means viewers must accept the phrase as an abstract concept, meaningful for whatever sensations it arouses rather than as a sensible bit of language, and in some ways we may be meant to do the same for the film itself. Kubrick seems divided as to whether the movie is a pure sensory onslaught or a film of ideas, and the tension shows. Which is not to say the tension is a bad thing.

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Burgess’s story seems to suggest that a criminal might be forcibly turned off violence by giving them drugs and showing them films (although it’s uncertain if he literally believed this or just used it as an allegorical device to explore free will). It seems to me the drug used is based on apomorphine, which William S. Burroughs took to help him kick his heroin habit, and which was also used in aversion therapy for homosexuals seeking (or being forced to seek) a “cure” for their orientation. Kubrick’s refusal to engage with the media left a disgruntled Burgess to appear on every TV discussion under the sun, arguing that audiences seeing films (and possibly taking drugs) could NOT be accidentally conditioned to become criminals.

(Burgess later admitted he disliked the film, and no wonder — he wrote the book after his wife was gang raped, and to see that turned into a pervy fantasy by the director must have been rather painful. I don’t know what catharsis he achieved by adopting an assailant’s viewpoint in his novel, but he made it enjoyable as a literary stunt, not as sado-smut.)

Kubrick’s suggestion to Michel Ciment that films MIGHT affect audiences, but only in the same way as a dream might, strikes me as sensible. A well-balanced person does not commit a violent act in response to a dream, though C.G Jung reportedly packed in sculpture as a profession and became an analyst after a dream about being in Liverpool. Whereas I have actually been in Liverpool, twice, and did NOT become an analyst — except of movies, I guess.

Dubbed and doubled in doublets

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by dcairns

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CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT at Film Forum, with a Skype call to Beatrice Welles introducing it. A full house – during the Super Bowl, which I gather is kind of a big deal en Amerique – because it’s a rarely screened movie. Though for the internet-savvy, ethically unclean bootlegging type of cinephile, almost nothing is rare anymore. But I’d certainly never had an opportunity to see Welles’ masterpiece on the big screen, and I hadn’t seen this new restoration.

Unfortunately, for reasons no doubt clear to the architect, the auditorium at Film Forum is built along the lines of a corridor in a German expressionist film, and we were at the back, viewing the screen as a tiny, distant window in the darkness. I could easily arrange my TV at home to fill a larger percentage of my field of vision. But I would have missed the intro, the Q&A, and the audience, who worked their way through the various kinds of laughter Shakespearian comedies get: from the “I understood that!” laugh, which is essentially humourless, to the “I understood that and it’s actually funny!” laugh, which is wonderful to hear.

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Beatrice W claimed the film was missing a couple of shots from the Battle of Shrewsbury, but I didn’t spot any gaps. There are several shots in that montage which are ingrained quite specifically in my memory, and they were all present, but it’s such a long and complicated sequence that I guess some less obvious snippets could go astray and I might not notice. Still, I wouldn’t entirely take BW’s word for it without further evidence. After all, she claimed to be Welles’ executor, which I gather is not wholly true – she has the rights to OTHELLO and nothing else, though that hasn’t stopped her threatening with legal action anyone who tries to restore or complete a Welles film. (It seemed like she BELIEVES she embodies Welles’ estate, though, just as she states that her parents stayed married all their lives, ignoring the fact that Welles was living with Oja Kodar for most of that time.) She managed to get the TOUCH OF EVIL restoration pulled from Cannes, and delayed THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND for so long that the editor patiently waiting to complete it, Frank Mazzola, has died of old age. Plus, her “restoration” of OTHELLO is so inauthentic and misguided that I would hesitate before accepting her views of any other restoration job.

It was a relief to see that CHIMES’ restoration hasn’t resulted in a soundtrack cleaned up to a level of purity in never had. The synch is still uncertain – Welles is content to have characters walk through shot, albeit briskly, lips clamped shut, while their voices rabbit on over the soundtrack, so no amount of digital jiggery-pokery was ever going to render things conventionally polished. But this hardly matters. By focussing on technical flaws like this, Pauline Kael damaged the movie’s chances in America. To really love it, you have to accept Welles’ slightly idiosyncratic technical standards.

Welles described his interpretation of Falstaff as being “like a magnificent Christmas tree decorated with vices, but the tree itself is pure and good” – and the film could be said to be similar. Occasional lapses in the generally splendid production values, bold edits that don’t quite come off, dubbed Spaniards who look like dubbed Spaniards – these gives critics something to talk about but are irrelevant to the film’s sweep, beauty and emotional affect, which is greater than any other Welles movie.

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The q&a after the screenings featured some pretty lame questions from the public, but fair play to Beatrice, she did manage to answer most of them in a way that was informative. Apart from being dubbed herself, she mentioned that she was also doubled, since she came down with rheumatic fever, so every time we don’t see her face, it’s actually a little French schoolboy playing the part. But then, everyone else is doubled too – I expect the clanking, armoured Falstaff who galumphs robotically about the battlefield isn’t Welles, and since Gielgud and Moreau were available for short snatches of shooting, any time you don’t see them clearly it’s someone else in a crown or a wig.

“What happened to Keith Baxter?” asked our screening companion, Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, and I had to admit I don’t know. He should have had a much bigger career, I would have thought. Of course, he had the benefit of a great director here, but then so did Robert Arden in MR ARKADIN and he still came rigid and irksome. Baxter had real talent — and didn’t make another film for five years.

There’s a CHIMES book, collecting script, reviews, and interviews, and Baxter’s contribution shines. He talks about Welles filming an army charging in one direction, then optically flipping half the shots so it becomes two armies charging at each other. There’s also good info on the rather musty Spanish DVD, which has unsubtitled interviews with the likes of Jesus Franco. Unfortunately the late Mr. Franco has a very specific and thick accent, and not many teeth, so that my usual benshi film describer, David Wingrove, was only able to give us an approximate idea of what he was saying. But there’s a good bit about Welles filming in a ruined cathedral which had no ceiling and a missing wall, which he turned to his advantage — so much daylight was admitted that Welles didn’t have to use artificial lighting. As Baxter says, “Well, he was a magician.”

A thousand thanks to the Siren for a lovely evening!