Archive for Philip Kaufman

Things I read off the screen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by dcairns

I hadn’t watched Don Siegel’s original INVASION for years — no, decades! And I can’t think why — I always preferred the Philip Kaufman remake, it’s true — check out the Arrow Blu-Ray for my article on that — but had only seen the original in pan-and-scan, then got hold of the widescreen edition, then failed to watch it, like a fool.

Now I’ve watched it! How excellent it is, and how ahead of its time, even with the tacked-on bookends and VO. I was watching it and I could sort of see the original, bleaker version THROUGH the re-edit, and it damn well nearly moved me to tears. Apparently the original cut does exist, so it’s monstrous that nobody seems to have released a dual edition. Still, if you were watching this in 1956, seeing love blossom between divorcees Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter only for the latter to get pod-personned out of existence would be pretty tough and shocking. It still is. Being more sentimental than I was as a teen, it really got to me, and I could appreciate how well set-up we are for that moment.

(Though, come to think of it, Dana’s conversion in a cavern doesn’t follow the pattern elsewhere — no pod in sight, and her doppelganger has somehow got all her clothes. The VO even tries to bodge this by saying her body’s been taken over, but that’s not what happens. That’s INVADERS FROM MARS you’re thinking of, Mr. Anonymous V.O. Writer. Haven’t you been watching?)

FOR FIRE ONLY. Alien creatures like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD are always vulnerable to fire. Later, Kevin will torch a couple of pods in the road.

ETAVIRP. The PRIVATE sign on Kevin’s door features A LOT, usually reversed. It symbolizes his individuality and his belief in personal freedom, also his all-important ability to lock himself in and the pod people out, which is critical later.

Save $1.25 FLINT-WARE. Dana Wynter’s character, who loves to cook, is positioned next to signs of domesticity. WIN A VALUABLE PRIZE! Kevin is in with a chance, or would be if this were a different kind of movie. But the advertising has a more sinister significance. Kevin McCarthy, in later interviews, says he saw the pod people as being like Madison Avenue men — harbingers of conformity, pushing a product. We see them arranging its distribution. Every home should have one! And they TALK like salesmen, stressing the necessity of their product. Once you have it, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever got along without it…

The prints on the wall may represent local author King Donovan’s book jackets, I’m not sure. CHAT BLANC (WHITE CAT). MIRROR NOIRE (BLACK MIRROR). FEMME FATALE. The black mirror is particularly apt here, as King looks at his own unformed reflection on the pool table. Femme fatale is of course what Dana will become. Not sure about the white cat, unless that’s what she presently is. In which case, reading from left to right we can chart her progress from innocent kitten (Alice’s cat, Dinah), through the looking glass black mirror, emerging as a fatal woman, possibly the Queen of Hearts.

LUBRICATION of the body-snatchers! Easing their penetration of society, I guess. Dunno what VEEDOL is, but we’re told it’s PREMIUM QUALITY 100% PENNSYLVANIA, which has a sinister ring to it.

UNION. My favourite! As the pod people gather to arrange their further dissemination. If you want to read them as communists, here’s your evidence.

RICHFIELD GUARANTEED BEST. More advertising hyperbole. The rich field calls to mind the seed pods, the agricultural nature of this evil. Pod people start out in the country, take over the small towns, then assail the cities. Which, as we’ve seen more recently, is true.

Contemporary audiences may also have been surprised by the partially-formed Wynter pod’s nipples (top). The censor’s rules are more complicated than I ever suspected. There’s the little-known Annabella doctrine dealing with small, French breasts, and now it turns out that the nipples of a pod person are acceptable as long as they’re not fully-formed and she hasn’t come to life yet. A loophole few other filmmakers were able to take advantage of.

 

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Falling Don

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head” — statue outside the Church of St Nicholas in Venice, where DON’T LOOK NOW was filmed. Forty years on and they STILL haven’t got a head on that thing.

A story from Philip Kaufman’s commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — he was filming the climax, with Donald Sutherland gamely staggering around a catwalk high in the air in a big greenhouse, and a mutual acquaintance approached. “Is that Donald Sutherland up there?” Kaufman affirmed that it was, and his friend, with a note of panic, cried “Don’t you know he’s The Clumsiest Man Alive?”

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This makes Sutherland’s cameo as “The Accident-Prone Waiter” in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE much funnier, but adds a frisson of terror to DON’T LOOK NOW and several other Sutherland films. As Sutherland described it to Mark Cousins in a TV interview, the scene in DLN where he dangles from a rope at ceiling level in a cavernous Venetian church was originally going to be performed by a stunt man. But, he says, rather apathetically, the stunt man “wasn’t happy about something” and in the end Sutherland volunteered and did the dangling himself. He had a kirby wire running down his sleeve to a harness, securing him so he couldn’t actually fall.

Years later Sutherland is talking to another stuntman, who congratulates him on the awe-inspiringly dangerous sequence. Sutherland demurs: “I was quite safe, I was fastened to a kirby wire…” “But you were going like this,” says the stunt man, making a twirling motion with his index finger to indicate the way Sutherland spun helplessly on his rope. “Yes, I was.” “Well, when you go like that on a kirby wire, the kirby wire breaks.”*

Sutherland actually had premonitions of doom on the movie, feeling that it was such a tragic and death-haunted tale, somebody might actually have to die while making it. Fortunately for him, that was silly.

But one of the strange pleasures of re-watching the film with students — and it unlocks fresh pleasures each time — is the number of times poor Donald falls on his ass, or nearly so, during the show. Nic Roeg has him staggering along beside canals, blundering over barges, and straddling ledges fifty feet up… It’s all a touch ungainly. Julie Christie, meanwhile, negotiates rowing boats and the like with the grace and dexterity that only the Rank Charm School can instill.

What else — ?

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Odd framings, like this shot which picks up a sinister sign-post as a plank glides across the lower edge of frame like a shark’s fin.

Constant communication trouble: Sutherland speaks fluent Italian to his work crew, but whenever faced with an emotional question or a conversation with a woman, his language deserts him. “English… English…” he pleads abjectly.

Julie Christie sees a police sketch of one of the two sisters (vacationing from Scotland, though their accents are VERY English) — “It doesn’t really look like her.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Inspector Longi (how I’d love a whole series of films about his unsuccessful cases! Maybe he could team up with Harvey Keitel’s Inspector Netusil from BAD TIMING to fight crime ineffectually across Europe). He means, “It doesn’t matter since no crime has been committed and we’re no longer seeking her,” but what Christie understands, from her nonplussed expression, is obviously “It doesn’t matter if our sketches don’t resemble the people we’re looking for because that’s not their purpose.” Whole worlds of mystery open up at that thought.

The first view of Julie —

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This prefigures the film’s climax, which hinges on that uncanny lurch you feel when you approach somebody you know and they turn around and it’s not them. I first got this with a woman who wasn’t my mum in the supermarket when I was small. (“His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed.” ~ Chickamauga, by Ambrose Bierce.)

I was in Venice recently, making a side-trip from Pordenone on a free day after the Silent Film festival had ended, and I visited Donald’s church. It’s still there, looks the same, but doesn’t have any mosaics that I could see. They don’t let you take pictures inside as they fear the camera will steal away the Holy Spirit, I guess, but I snapped away outside. And no, I didn’t see any little figures in red macs. Fiona suggests the Venice town council should hire little people to dart about and peak from round corners wearing the appropriate plastic attire. She’s right — I think you’d only need about seven at a time to cover the city. You wouldn’t want them to become commonplace or anything.

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Donald sees a glove on a window ledge. I saw a segment of orange.

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*Sutherland has another great story about shooting Bertolucci’s 1900 which left him with concussion and a half-severed ear. I can tell it in the comments section if there’s interest.

The Whiteness

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by dcairns

TelluridePhil

The author meets the auteur: Philip Kaufman and a dazed man in a borrowed hat.

One of the results of meeting Philip Kaufman in Telluride (above) was the realization that, despite loving a number of his films (I have literally no idea how many times I saw THE RIGHT STUFF in the eighties, at the cinema and on VHS) there were big holes in my knowledge of his career. One movie he mentioned as being a little neglected was THE WHITE DAWN (1974), which I’d heard of but never seen.

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It proves to be an excellent film, and I’m not just saying that because Mr. Kaufman was so nice (if I didn’t like this one, I’d find something else to talk about). It’s really one of the best films about intercultural failure of communication, standing comparison with MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE, which it’s arguably better than because it doesn’t have David Bowie in a school uniform. Instead it has Timothy Bottoms, Warren Oates and Louis Gossett, Jnr, a near-unbeatable trio of axioms of 1970s American cinema, acting against a genuine selection of non-professional actors gathered from a single Inuit tribe.

The story, based on James Houston’s novel in turn based on true incidents, deals with three whalers stranded in the arctic who are taken in by an Inuit tribe. The initially friendly approach of the natives ultimately takes a tragic turn as the interlopers fail to fit in, contribute, or understand the people they’ve become dependent on. While the reliably surly Oates is an obvious walking trouble-spot, Bottoms and Gossett’s response to the apparent free love offered by the community also seems likely to cause problems, with the sensitive young Bottoms becoming enamoured and possessive of one young woman (Pilitak).

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The blend of languages and acting styles works remarkably well. “The trouble with non-professionals is they’re not professional enough. And the trouble with professionals is they’re too professional.” ~ Milos Forman. “When you put a non-professional and a professional together the effect is immediately to show up the artificiality of the professional.” ~ Alexander Mackendrick. And the movie manages to create sympathy for both sides — its theme has never been more timely, and it’s regrettable that the movie isn’t easier to see (according to its director, no good 35mm print of this handsome film, shot by Michael Chapman, exists anywhere in the world).

If everyone saw it and absorbed its theme, it could actually save us.

I have THE GREAT MINNESOTA NORTHFIELD RAID lined up next.

My Kaufman essay can be bought as a bonus along with: Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Blu-ray]

White Dawn