Archive for Pulp Fiction

Blind Spots

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Ray Walston, an unsatisfactory substitute for the indisposed Peter Sellers, and Cliff Osmond, an unsatisfactory substitute for the area of wall he’s standing in front of, in Billy Wilder’s arguably-still-great KISS ME STUPID.

One kind of directorial blindness is obvious — Quentin Tarantino giving himself the job of lisping narrator in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I suppose the idea that he’s a recognizable voice and he IS the director could be said to justify that one, if the idea worked. But Tarantino casting himself in PULP FICTION is harder to excuse — an actor with Tarantino’s limited manner and range and skill set could never hope to get cast in that movie, with more lines than Rosanna Arquette, if not for the fact that he was the guy who could give him that part.

And then there’s someone like Jules Dassin, working with his wife Melina Mercouri, and evidently convinced that everything she did was sexy, adorable, funny and convincing. I like Mercouri, but she does get carried away sometimes, and Dassin was evidently not going to be the man to rein her in. I don’t think it’s because he was afraid to do so, I think it’s because his critical eye relaxed unduly whenever he gazed upon his tall thin Greek wife.

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But, excepting such obvious cases of prejudice, what are the cases where someone who really should know better casts badly and fails to notice? I think the most inexplicable case on record is that of Billy Wilder’s affection for Cliff Osmond. Wilder, who had talent and knew talent, did not know that Osmond lacked talent. Not totally lacked, just lacked it enough to make his presence problematic when surrounded by really good people with really good material. Wilder went on the record saying that Osmond might be the new Laughton. And Wilder had worked, very successfully, with Laughton. Interestingly, he had planned to have Laughton play the character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE, but Laughton became terminally ill. According to Maurice Zolotow’s unreliable Wilder bio, the director carried on meeting with Laughton, pretending that the actor was going to recover and play this comic role for his friend, thus comforting the great star on his death-bed. Lou Jacobi eventually took the role — but Cliff Osmond is in the picture too, as a policeman, making his first appearance for Wilder, and it is perhaps this connection that set in Wilder’s mind the curious idee fixee that Osmond was in some way Laughtonish. True, he was fat, and true, he wasn’t handsome, but many people are fat and unhandsome. Only Laughton is Laughton. Wilder might as well have cast me.

Osmond went on to prominent roles in KISS ME STUPID, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE FRONT PAGE. He’s in more Wilder films than Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Erich Von Stroheim or Audrey Hepburn. He’s level with William Holden.

I’m curious — who else do you think represents a blind spot in an otherwise talented director’s career? And more importantly, why?

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FC5: Left-Handed Guns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2009 by dcairns

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vlcsnap-11572401) THE ASPHALT JUNGLE 2) THE KILLING.

“THE ASPHALT JUNGLE became the model for a number of films of this genre,” wrote John Huston, modestly enough. As well as inspiring probably 60% of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, the movie served as a source of inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s first really good picture, so it seems worthwhile to look at the two together, to see what aspects of Kubrick come from Huston and where he breaks out on his own. Film Club meets the Fever Dream Double Feature.

vlcsnap-154983Calhern and Lawrence.

“Crime is a left-handed form of human endeavour,” opines the paymaster of Huston’s gang, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), and Huston says this line encapsulates “the tone of the film.” Not it’s message, you understand. Huston, who arguably didn’t believe in very many things, doesn’t tend to have messages in his movies, he merely adopts different tones. He’s sincere in his belief that these tones are honest representations of the way the world feels to some of his characters. He doesn’t necessarily give them credit himself. When he was preparing to work on the script of SERGEANT YORK, co-writer Howard Koch reminded him that their previous collaboration, a stage play entitled In Time to Come, was about peace through collective security, and that this, by contrast, was a pro-war picture. “Well, we’re in a war,” said Huston, sketching away unperturbed.

Huston disdains to preach at us, which makes him seem quite modern in some respects — THE ASPHALT JUNGLE picks up on those aspects of ’30s Warner gangster movies which made it past the censor without neat morals branded on their hides, and looks forward to the movies of Scorsese. It coolly portrays a certain lifestyle with the eye of an anthropologist, not an apologist. Huston has some sympathy for his characters, especially the most hopeless. His later masterpiece FAT CITY would likewise find most compassion for those most without a chance. It’s odd that Huston, who some people found cruel and sadistic, should show these traces of tenderness in a tough movie. And it’s odd that MGM made this one — I guess somebody was dazzled by the “Crime Does Not Pay” conclusion. But it’s really “Crime Often Does Not Pay — Sadly.”

vlcsnap-154719Whitmore and Hayden.

The biggest loser in this bunch is the hooligan, Johnny Guitar/Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a failed farmer, gambler and strong-arm man. His backstory (“that black colt”) gives him a poetic sadness, which in Hayden’s gristly hands becomes a kind of monomania. It’s also noteworthy that his self-pity prevents him from feeling anything for his sometime girlfriend, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a rather pitiable creature and possibly the model for all the women in Kubrick’s more misanthropic THE KILLING.

Huston’s adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel, co-scripted with Ben Maddow (INTRUDER IN THE DUST, which I hope to see soon) reputedly sticks close to the book and only made adjustments for the sake of the censor, working around their strictures with care and guile. When the Production Code enforcers stipulated that Louis Calhern couldn’t kill himself if he was in his right mind, Huston had him tear up his suicide note before blowing his brains out. The fact that this professional lawyer can’t finish a simple note proves that his mind is in total disarray, argued Huston. They bought it.

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The other main sop to the censor was the police commissioner’s speech near the end, designed to excuse the presence of a corrupt cop in the story. This is very nicely written but rather drags the film down in its last third, and in plot verisimilitude terms the cop shouldn’t really have  been caught at all.

Albert Band, later a producer of drive-in trash and straight-to-video nonsense, was Huston’s production assistant, according to Lawrence Grobel’s excellent book The Hustons. Huston announced that he was going to cast unknowns, and started with Marc Lawrence as Cobby, the bookie who finally puts up the money for the heist when Calhern can’t. “Marc was probably the most famous criminal face in the movies at that time,” laughed Band. Huston had already used him in KEY LARGO. (And THIS is why I’m referring to the actors by character names from other films.) Huston also screen-tested writer and artist Ludwig Bemelmans for the part of the gang’s mastermind, but when producer Arthur Hornblower showed him a reel of Sam Jaffe, Huston happily cast his actor friend. “The film was very well cast,” is just about the only thing Huston says about it in his autobio.

vlcsnap-155770Only Huston wanted to cast Monroe. “Look at the ass on that little girl,” he mused.

With the High Llama’s plan, the job goes ahead, amid extreme chiaroscuro lighting effects, beautiful unfamiliar cityscapes (especially scene 1), and an atmosphere of foreboding, since Ambassador Trentino plans to sell them all out, ditch his invalid wife and run off with Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe), his mind-bogglingly luscious girlfriend. Joining the gang are Anthony Caruso (whose honest wife is the only woman with any backbone in the film) and hunchbacked James Whitmore. The scheme itself seems surprisingly simple, at least since we’ve become accustomed to the Rube Goldberg-meets-Machiavelli scheming of THE KILLING, RIFIFI, et al. There are two reasons it goes wrong (discounting the requirements of the censor)…

The first is luck, or fate, and it’s explicitly pointed out by Jaffe. A prowl car responding to another crime unexpectedly shows up. A gun goes off by itself. The kind of things you can’t plan for, or if you did, you wouldn’t risk doing anything.

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But Jaffe himself comes to realize there’s a second reason. The plan fails because of who the people are. Calhern is untrustworthy. Lawrence is weak. Jaffe himself is undone by his fondness for pretty girls. So Jaffe and  Whitmore are caught (Whitmore will still be serving his sentence in 1994, as the Birdman of Shawshank). Caruso and Hayden are killed, Hayden’s death a strange variant on that of the donkey protag in AU HASARD, BALTASAR.

It’s a stunning film, and I’v very glad I watched it again. I’ve been working my way through the lesser-known Huston films in recent years, which are often far better than their reputations suggest, so it was interesting to come back to one of the celebrated films and find it holds up. The cast are extremely good — I especially like the weaklings, when they break down (I empathise so readily with a good sniveling weakling): Lawrence and Calhern. The burst of violence when Hayden erases Calhern’s private eye sidekick is sensational in its staging, anticipating the startling abruption of THE KILLING’s massacre. Harold Rosson lights the seedy locations with harsh yet moody effects, and Miklos Rosza not only contributes a marvelously doom-laden score, he does something he rarely ever did: stays out of the way for most of the film. I love Rosza, but he has a tendency to overdo things. Not here.

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Gerald Fried’s music for THE KILLING, a bunch of snare-drum and aggro, is a lot less pleasing to the ear. I wonder if Kubrick didn’t switch to largely sourced music because so many of the composers he worked with weren’t very interesting? But he always had a weakness for this kind of martial theme, just as he frequently turned to war as a subject or metaphor in his work.

And, ugh! that voice-over. I guess they needed something to make sense of the timeline, especially for audiences at the time, but it does make me wince a little, especially compared to the beautiful VO in BARRY LYNDON. Although I guess it wouldn’t have made sense for them to hire Sir Michael Hordern to narrate this one. Might make an amusing mash-up though. The KILLING guy, Art Gilmore, sounds kind of dumb. The writing is part of it: since this is a spoken element of the film, it should really have  been scripted by Jim Thompson, but I fear it wasn’t.

A little bird tells me there’s actually a mistake in the film’s complicated timeline, but doesn’t tell me where. Seems too dull to go looking for it, even though I’ve long championed the notion of Kubrick not as a perfectionist machine-mind, but as a kind of shambling, dopey muddler — but I’ll reward anybody who locates it for me. But I *did* notice that one of the horses in the first race we overhear appears to be called Stanley K. The first example of SK’s in-jokey side (given free rein in EYES WIDE SHUT)?

Sterling Hayden is back, as a very different kind of character, less sympathetic but the perfect man to mouth Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled, hard-assed dialogue. Boiled-ass? Having a half-decent budget for the first time, Kubrick is able to build upon his experience from his first two cheapies and make a far more tight, visually logical film, and he’s able to fill the frame with great character players. Jay C. Flippen is robbed of all his usual aw-shucks mannerisms and plays it hard but human. Elisha Cook Jnr. is maybe the first guy to go Over The Top And Beyond Infinity in a Kubrick film. And Marie Windsor, as his scheming wife, now strikes me as the heart and soul of the film. “You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart,” as Hayden tells her.

vlcsnap-1157156A handsome couple.

Kubrick, like his hoods, was always on the lookout for the main chance, picking his next film with care to raise his profile, consolidate the critical respect he had so far, and move higher up. In 1956 his chief task was to get a really good B-movie under his belt, something that would qualify him for A-picture jobs. PATHS OF GLORY (one of my very favourites) was the A-picture, where according to Kirk Douglas (whom I don’t exactly trust) Kubes’ greatest concern was to have a commercial hit, to which end he attempted to add a happy ending. Never quite been able to bring myself to believe that, wholly. SPARTACUS was the epic, but without any artistic control, Kubrick was unhappy and shrank down for LOLITA, using the book’s reputation (as masterpiece; as scandalous and unfilmable) to garner a rep for iconoclasm. And so on. The difficulty in choosing a project increased as SK’s acclaim increased, and the more things he was celebrated for, the fewer things were left for him to try…

So one of the terrific and liberating things about THE KILLING is that it’s made at a time when Kubes has everything to prove, and he goes all out to do so, but on a small scale. The artistic ambition of the film itself is modest, Stan’s ambitions in general are vast. Borrowing Huston’s set-up, leading man and lighting style, he grafts on Ophuls’ unchained camera, gliding through walls like an Overlook Hotel spectre, shamelessly foregrounding the cheap sets and cheaper dialogue, making one of the first art-house noirs (maybe DETOUR is the first?) if we can allow such a thing. That non-linear timeline — who else was doing that in ’56?

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Against the obvious strengths, weaknesses are pretty insignificant. Hayden’s plan is over-elaborate (the great Timothy Carey’s role is redundant and if he got caught and told who hired him, the gig would be up) and could easily miscarry in a thousand ways. As in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, Hayden has apparently the ability to knock out a healthy cop with a single punch. I never quite believe this in movies. I’m not sure about the biology of it, but if Mike Tyson takes several blows to fell an opponent, I don’t get how a man like Hayden can do it in one. OK, he’s not wearing gloves, but that’s surely more likely to result in busted teeth/nose/jaw/knuckles, and doesn’t increase the chances of unconsciousness greatly. It’s the back of the head you have to hit to bring on that kind of brain damage (Joe Turkel’s injury in PATHS OF GLORY is much more convincing, horribly so: and spot Joe at 4.57 into this one), preferably with a blackjack. Sorry, I didn’t intend this as a how-to guide, I’m just saying movies win extra points from me if they avoid implausible cliches.

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The photography by Lucien Ballard (Mr. Merle Oberon) does a superb job synthesizing the stark, source-lit noir aesthetic with the fluid camera style, even if Stanley K. had to threaten to fire the guy on day one (a case of establishing the juvenile auteur’s authority over the pushy veteran cameraman: Kubrick was just 28). The Elisha Cook massacre, perhaps inspired by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE’s shockingly sudden whip-pan shooting, is jolting and quite credible, even if the aftermath is hard to make sense of. By reducing the action to a couple of quick shots, Kubes gives us the impression that we’ve seen a coherent exercise in gunplay, even if we haven’t.

The movie’s  influence is all over Tarantino’s work, from the questions-first, answers-later structure of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION to the way the guy comes out of the kitchen shooting in the latter film (although the outcome there is different: it’s kind of a joke about THE KILLING’s total slaughter that the guy blasting away at Travolta and Jackson misses every shot). More than spaghetti westerns and kung-fu flicks, THE KILLING is the film that’s necessary to QT’s existence. But personally I think Kubrick’s morally blank, cool stare is more compelling and meaningful than QT’s hip, flip referencing.

vlcsnap-84081A teenage audience member in Belfast once asked me about this scene. I was amazed: “You’re a teenager in Belfast and you don’t know what a cavity search is?”

I’ll own up to the latter myself though: in my film CRY FOR BOBO I shamelessly swiped Kubrick’s faulty suitcase for my own CRY FOR BOBO (non-UK residents, see HERE), along with the strip-search from CLOCKWORK ORANGE, also drawing on Kubrick’s symmetrical, wide-angle lensed compositional style. It’s the post-modern age, I’m afraid.

The burst suitcase is another instance of the Fickle Finger (or poodle) of Fate meddling in human affairs, as in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but it can also be argued that Hayden’s impatience is to blame. If only he’d bought a couple of smaller, better cases! It’s been argued that Kubrick’s films are all about what HAL 9000 would call human error, the inherent faultiness of human nature leading to complex systems collapsing in disarray. That certainly holds good for DR STRANGELOVE, and can be read into 2001… is the system in question in EYES WIDE SHUT the institution of marriage? Is THE SHINING really just about how not to look after a hotel? A sort of gothic Fawlty Towers? But it’s fair to say SK’s work is united by a somewhat skeptical view of humanity’s virtues, with the Spielberg footnote A.I. looking forward to a day when we will all be replaced by more efficient, humane machinery, lording it over an ice-palace New York. So there’s that to look forward to.

Love the vacant taxi which blatantly drives right past Hayden and his girlfriend without slowing. “I don’t stop for losers!”

vlcsnap-1163840-1Photoshopping Hayden doesn’t seem to make that much difference.

“What’s the difference?” mumbles Hayden at THE KILLING’s end, a more than usually pointed and depressing summation of the noir ethos.

World’s Worst

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2009 by dcairns

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I joined Twitter 11 months ago, and thought it was time I actually did something there, so I asked everybody for their worst cinema experiences, figuring I could compile that into a simple blog post quickly, and it might be amusing. Then I put the same request on Facebook, so I could test which is better.

Facebook wins!

Via Twitter, regular Shadowplayer and cartoonist Douglas Noble writes,“Dundonian EXORCIST audience, no heating, film snaps, advice yelled to screen, stair-fall exodus. I think I’ve mentioned it before.” I picture the audience’s breath misting in the projector beam.

Whereas, touchingly, Elver Loho, one of the very first Shadowplayers EVER, Twittered back, “Worst cinema experience? Don’t think I’ve ever had a truly bad one.” If that’s true I’m moving to Estonia.

Now, the FaceBook landslide.

Mandy Lee, inventor of the Human Swastika, chimed in with the following lament: “THE CRUCIBLE in a multiplex. About halfway through, the film went on fire and started bubbling and melting on the screen – it was creepy and at first no-one really knew if it was a special effect or not, then we got evacuated. Sort of fitting though, bearing in mind the subject matter.” I’m picturing Philippe Noiret ablaze in the projection booth. I’ve seen that happen with THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY at Edinburgh University Film Society. Slightly alarming.

Musician Daniel Prendeville: “A Saturday night sitting behind Paddy Twomey in the Astor Cinema, trying to watch THE LAST WALTZ, while the sleeping Paddy, all 6’5” of him, shifted in his seat, obscuring my view for the entire film.

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Baris Azman: “One was with THE STRAIGHT STORY, which I saw in an arthouse theatre, where there were tons of old ladies in the theatre. Two behind me and my friends literally commented on almost every thing that happened during the film. “Oh my what happened?”, “Oh my, the lawnmower broke down. Oh my, he’s getting off. Oh my, there’s a truck …  coming.” And on and on and on, ’till I finally turned around and asked them to be quiet, we can all SEE what is happening. They then proceeded to call me “rude”.

The other one was where PULP FICTION was screened in a theatre in 2005, finally I was able to watch it on the big screen, finally after all those years. I’m enjoying the hell out of myself ’till there is a reel change somewhere around the scene where they have to clean up the mess they made with Marvin and what happens… the next reel us not only upside down, but in reverse. The projectionist had spliced one of the reels backwards.

We got our money back, but it screened only once.”

Michal Oleszczyk: “A very recent screening of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, with a group of teenage girls giggling at each Craig’s line (I’m still wondering what dirty double entendres did they get that missed me).” Sounds like an enhanced experience to me.

Filmmaker Timo Langer sympathises: “I have a simular one to Michal…Watched RUN LOLA RUN in Germany next to a guy which commented almost every exciting scene if not cut with the word “Phat”…the cool word at the time as I remember.”

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Celebrity guest Lara Belmont, star of Tim Roth’s THE WAR ZONE, volunteers: “THE THIN RED LINE, you know you’re in trouble when the nature shots are the only reason to stay, and even they end up driving you out of the cinema.”As a devout Malickite, I can’t agree, but I can understand. There are a lot of leaves in that film, and some of them have more screen time than George Clooney. 

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Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider: “Well, there was always the midnight screening of David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS where the crowd was beery and numskulled and, when a face came onscreen who vaguely resembled Henry Kissinger, a male voice called out “Looks like a Jew!” … causing me to think “That’s my cue to leave.”” The Kissingeralike would be Joe Silver, also seen in RHINOCEROS, I think.

Brilliantly, filmmaker May Miles Thomas had an unpleasant run-in with the same film: “Years ago I went with my boyfriend to see SHIVERS at the Lyceum, Govan. Unfortunately boyfriend arrived stoned. Ten minutes in, he excused himself and never returned. I was about to leave when the usherette (50s, bespectacled) came up to me in a panic. I ran to the foyer and found boyfriend with his head embedded in a plasterboard wall. ‘Too scary for him’, opined the usherette. He claimed to have fainted on the way to the toilets.” Why this movie? Is there something strange about SHIVERS? Surely not.

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Brian Robinson: “AMERICAN PSYCHO – “Hee hee hee”, said the apparently disabled (but not physically so) man to my immediate right as Christian Bale slapped around two prostitutes during a bout of rough sex. And then his hand slipped into his trousers and I frantically searched for a way to get away without actually passing him. “Hee hee hee”.” Brrr.

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Two from Mary Gordon: “Watching KUNDUN at the Lumiere with the house lights up and remonstrating with the museum staff that Mr Scorsese mde it to be seen in the dark; watching an EIFF documentary, Armenian, no dialogue and someone behind me with a runing commentary with what was happening on screen (came close to being banged up in Cornton Vale that day).”

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Shadowplay informant Danny Carr: “Watching THE WIZARD OF OZ while a friend snogged my ex-girlfriend a row behind me. The film was tainted for years to come!” Ouch.

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Harriet Hunter: “Going to see WOLF CREEK and speding most of it trying to hide under the seat and wispering ‘I can’t watch this,I can’t watch this’,yet still watching It with one eye closed…not a great experience for the friend I was with.” Still, I’d say that was appropriate behaviour at a horror movie. Extreme, but appropriate.

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My producer, Nigel Smith: “My first cinema experience was part of a schoolfriend’s birthday party. What sort of parents would take a bunch of excitable six year olds to see Tommy Steele in HALF A SIXPENCE? That’s tantamount to abuse.” It is pretty bad, I remember that film. It’s quite hard to take on TV. On the big screen it would be like getting your brain opened with a Mantle retractor.

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But Mary suggests something worse: “Easy — WATERSHIP DOWN: I spent years after that checking for Nazi rabbits under my bed…”

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Filmmaker Johannes Roberts: “A teenage audience laughing everytime John Carpenter cut to a close up of a sweaty close up of the fat Baldwin culminating in a prolonged groan for his close up kiss with Sheryl Lee, in VAMPIRES.” I don’t know, that sounds like an enhancement.

Also debatable, Chris B’s use of refreshments: “Ahoy, I went to see ELOGE DE L’AMOUR at the cinema back in 2001/2002, a film that had falsely been advertised as a romantic comedy in the Julia Roberts vein (only, avec subtitles). The first odd occurrence in this rather yuppy district was a young man called his mother before the film began (which is ok) to tell her that he was watching a Godard film; clearly he felt some kind of superiority in this triumphant choice of screening and had to call his mum to join in on the celebration.

The film began and the audience, allowing it some leeway despite not being prepared for the film they expected, became a little restless; the guy sat behind me even said to his complaining girlfriend that “this is interesting, let’s give it some more time”, but she was having none of that and, maybe being a French film’n’all, must’ve felt that in order to “fill the void” that the film was leaving, became horny and began the process of fellatio. I must say, I was fairly familiar with ELOGE having owned and rewatched the DVD countless times prior to the 35mm announcement; so, and despite Godard’s eclectic and whimsical play with soundtrack, I knew that the wet slapping sound emerging from behind me was not part of the Dolby Digital output. This continued for some time until oral did not suffice and a move to full-on penetration would be the order of the day, albeit discretely(?). Well, as much as I enjoy people enjoying themselves, they were encroaching upon MY cinema experience and something had to be done. I waited until the first credit appeared (the film plays out until the very end); exited the room to buy a couple of large Cokes (with ice, please); returned; and threw my purchases all over the couple who were in no position to begin pursuit of the perpetrator! Was this a bad movie experience? I’m not sure thinking about it.”

As for me, I recall being physically threatened by an oddly aggressive stoner sitting behind me at a screening of BY THE BLUEST OF SEAS, which didn’t seem so funny, and there was a very weird screening of THE IDIOTS at Cannes where Fiona and I found ourselves crawling along some kind of balustrade to get to our seats (the festival had kept us waiting outside until the film started), not quite a science fiction film AIR VENT, but close, and then when we reached our seats we could dimly hear the simultaneous English translation whispering from the armrests, but couldn’t find any way to ACCESS it, so ended up watching the film in Danish with French subs, which actually improved it. If you can understand what they’re saying, that sure isn’t a very good movie.

I think the John Cleese movie CLOCKWISE was the worst, though. It just seemed like the death of everything precious in cinema.

This, of course, is your cue to offer up YOUR experiences.