Archive for Peter Brook

“Maintain Visual Contact!”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2018 by dcairns

Some computer-jockey actually yells that in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. He’s having a laugh: director Paul Greengrass is going all-out this time to stop his enemies, the audience, from getting a fix on what the hell is going on in his violently unstable frame. He apparently went so far as to tell his camera operators that if they ever felt like violently reframing a shot, looking at something else, or just messing up the composition, they should do it. A producer opined to me that camera operators, as a breed, if empowered to do whatever they want, will tend to offer up a stable, eloquent and graceful composition, so I think there’s a sense that Greengrass is nudging them towards this chaotic approach pretty sharply.

What makes the idea dumb is that you can TELL the operator is edging around, not to get a better view, but to get a WORSE view, so unlike in THE IPCRESS FILE, we don’t get a feeling of covert surveillance, but one of filmmakers mucking about.He doesn’t go THIS far very often, thankfully. This reminds me of Peter Brook’s back-of-the-head shots in his KING LEAR, intended to fill in spaces whe”re the text is enough,” and any imagery would be too much. A pathetic idea, I always thought, an abdication of the filmmaker’s job, which is to find the right image the way a writer chooses le mot juste. Brook’s choice, like Greengrass’s here, has one main effect, which is to make the viewer wonder what’s gone wrong.

Having said that, I enjoyed this film more than its predecessors. It has a number of completely joyless, garbled fights and chases, but towards the end also delivers the best punch-up and the best car chase in the original trilogy (which has since sprouted two more films). The sequence of Bourne leaping from window to window in Tangiers, crossing streets a storey or more above ground level, is slightly absurd but very dynamic, with the abrupt changes of angle and movement forcing the eye to work hard but not quite defeating our ability to make sense of what we’re seeing.

Was Robert Ludlum obsessed with The Guardian newspaper? John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s gloriously ludicrous film of Ludlum’s THE HOLCROFT COVENANT has Anthony Andrews as a journalist who writes “brilliant but mysterious articles on international finance for the Guardian.” Here we have Paddy Considine as a hapless hack who gets in over his head and becomes for Bourne the equivalent of the Act 1 Girl in a Roger Moore Bond film, fated to be unceremoniously offed to create a bit of jeopardy and establish the baddie’s credentials.There’s also David Strathairn, Scott Glenn (moving sideways from NASA and the FBI to the CIA), Daniel Bruhl, Albert Finney, and the return of Julia Styles and Joan Allen. Edgar Ramirez, so striking in CARLOS, is almost invisible here as a thug, as the talented Karl Urban was in the previous film.Regular series scribe Tony Gilroy is credited with “screen story,” making me wonder what the source novel contributed, and various other hands (Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi, an uncredited-as-usual Tom Stoppard) make this the film with the best dialogue and plot twists too. There’s also a furious amount of retconning — the second film already changed Bourne from a man who refused to be an assassin, to one who actually completed several missions, and now we find out he volunteered to be brainwashed in the first place. The flashbacks, shot with a deliberately malfunctioning camera, make the brainwashing look like waterboarding, adding “contemporary relevance,” which is commendable I guess, but left me unconvinced that drowning someone is good training to set them up for a career in homicide. Plus we learn that Julia Styles was Bourne’s lover before he chose to be brainwashed by Daddy Warbucks (Finney’s mishmash accent contains stray bits of John Huston) — so this is basically THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND with added punching.

 

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The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

Flub

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by dcairns

King Lear cock-up from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I was always rather disappointed by the live TV King Lear directed by Peter Brook which Orson Welles starred in. I pretty much loathe Brooks’ film of KING LEAR with Paul Scofield too, but that’s based on my love of the play, my reading of it, and my feelings about what I’d want from an adaptation. Brooks’ film certainly has the courage of its convictions, and is almost a compelling and well-made film, if it weren’t for his ridiculous habit of cutting to the backs of people’s heads. (There are times, explained the Great Director, when you don’t want to see anything, you just want to listen to the text; but as it’s unacceptable to have the screen go black, he opted to show the backs of the heads. This, needless to say, perplexes and distracts the viewer far more than the faces of excellent actors ever would.)

The TV Lear, heavily cut to fit into a one-hour time slot, isn’t as radical a reinterpretation of the play as Brook’s later film, which strips it of emotion and nobility and tragedy and settles for a kind of lumpen, petrified grimness. What wrecks the TV play is Orson’s makeup, probably the worst he ever wore. To see his Lear, who looks like Krankor from PRINCE OF SPACE, with his cardboard beak, is to suddenly think far more highly or Gregory Arkadin’s tonsorial choices. Wearing a false beard on top of your head, matching the one on your chin, at least suggests a kind of symmetry, like a playing card. As with his regrettable IMMORTAL STORY makeup, Welles is attempting suggest old age by painting shadows on his face like a set from CALIGARI. But he’s gotten carried away, and ended up darker than his Othello, and blotchy with it. Welles as Lear is somewhat embarrassing to look at, and I love Welles too much to take any pleasure in being embarrassed about him.

The worst moment in the telecast is the best moment in the play. The reconciliation scene is the bit that moves audiences to tears. I saw a Kenneth Branagh production with Richard Briers as Lear, and THAT moved me to tears. I don’t recall feeling anything except disgruntlement at the Scofield version, mirroring the Scofield performance, but in general the scene seems almost impossible to screw up.

Welles, alas, blows his lines. Lear says to his loving daughter, Cordelia, whom he has wronged ~

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

This refers to Lear’s casting out of Cordelia, for which she should hate him, and to his other daughters’ casting out of him, after he gave them his kingdom.

But what Welles says, unfortunately, in the last line, is ~

They have some cause ~

Here, he pauses. He has just made Lear say that his wicked daughters, who kicked him out in a storm, had good reason to do so. This makes no sense. Worse, Welles realises that if he finishes the line, he will be making things much, much worse. But the alternative is to go back and correct himself, making the mistake completely obvious to the television public. I think we can see him thinking, calculating, for an anguished second. He decides to plough on ~

you have not.

So now he’s saying that his banishment of Cordelia was justified and she’s not entitled to hold it against him. Worse, this means that Cordelia’s next line, “No cause, no cause,” is not a daughter forgiving her old father’s terrible flaws and saying that she loves him and nothing has stood in the way of that. Now it means that she’s just agreeing with him that he was right to give her the boot.

Fortunately the scene gets back on track after this and they do the lines as written. But Welles is still wearing a ludicrous great hooter.