Archive for Richard Attenborough

The Spielberg Transition #1

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2019 by dcairns

One of the things Steven Spielberg vocally admires about David Lean is his imaginative scene changes, of which the most celebrated is the “match cut” in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Spielberg has emulated the technique a fair bit, often with enjoyable results. But sometimes he gets it wrong.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK is the kind of thing Spielberg is supposed to do well, but it’s an oddly confused film, from its back-asswards title on down. I don’t think his heart was in it.

How do you know when there’s a tyrannosaur in your tent?

The first JURASSIC PARK is, on the whole, really good (haven’t bothered with any of the non-Spielberg sequels). It’s fairly faithful to Michael Crichton’s page-turner, though most of its departures are disimprovements. And while the novel is very clear that bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a disastrous idea, you get the sense that, even though this plot point is ported over from the book, deep down Spielberg thinks it would be awesome (which is why the park’s creator doesn’t have to die, despite being responsible for all the other deaths). I don’t necessarily disagree (there’s a weird meme in popular culture, particularly Doctor Who: whenever dinosaurs get revivified, the wonderment is promptly quashed by a sentimental death scene. Dinosaurs can come back, but only for a few minutes. It strikes me like giving a kid a toy and then taking it away again.)

Well, Crichton wrote a follow-up book that wasn’t worth filming, so screenwriter David Koepp threw it away and came up with a story that flatly contradicted the thrust of the earlier film: now Jeff Goldblum, the anti-dino rock ‘n’ roll chaos theoretician of the previous film, wants to save the poor T-rex, just about the scariest threat he faced (it ate a man on the toilet, ffs). The last tenth of the film abandons the titular location to run amock in America, a clear violation of the Platonic unities as well as various traffic statutes.

But the rot sets in early on: with the introduction of the hero, in fact. The threat is set up efficiently in scene one. Spielberg had listened to the criticisms of little kids (really?) who didn’t want to wait so long to see the thunder lizards, so he brings on some miniature CGI beasties to attack a child right at the outset (maybe he didn’t really take too kindly to the criticism?). Mom runs up and sees daughter in trouble, and SCREAMS ~

And we CUT TO Jeff Goldblum yawning against an unconvincing tropical palm background. The scream continues but now it’s something else: the roar of a subway train.

Goldblum steps screen left and the pan takes us away from his backdrop, now “revealed” to be a backlit holiday advertisement, and we learn he’s in the subway.

These kind of gags, where a background turns out not to be real practically never work, because the background practically never looks real. Our initial reaction is likely to be “That looks cheap and fake as hell,” and though the reveal provides an excuse for the phoniness, it fails to provide a pleasing surprise.

And the yawn? It’s hard not to see it as a gesture of contempt towards the material or the audience or both.

But the worst thing is the fanciness. Remember, the LAWRENCE cut has only a few elements, really. Lean doesn’t try to align the match with the rising sun, pictorially. The connection is merely conceptual: the desert is, in some way, like a flame that can burn you, and a man like Lawrence might enjoy that. The sound of Lawrence’s breath extinguishing the match carries across the edit. And that’s it.

Whereas LOST WORLD has the audio transition of the scream/subway, the visual match of the screaming woman/yawning man, and the fake background of blue sky and palm trees. It’s all busy, and all ugly, and all ineffective and fighting against itself. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This isn’t just plain awful. This is fancy.”

There’s maybe an actual artistic principle here: the more artful a transition, the more simple it needs to be.

More Spielberg awful soon!

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Great Guns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2018 by dcairns

Had never managed to watch Richard Attenborough’s OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR — TV screenings in my youth made it look unwatchable due to panning and scanning or maybe I just didn’t have a big enough telly. It’s a very handsome film on a decent sized screen with a DVD, and I should think a 35mm viewing would be almost overwhelming in its beauty. The design and the cinematography are really top-notch, and it’s all on a colossal scale.

Richard Lester described it as “GENEVIEVE with guns,” because the overall effect is nostalgic and reassuring, whereas Joan Littlewood’s source play created a feeling of desperation. And I think that nails it — Attenborough is trying to fuse Littlewood’s Brechtian epic theatre with David Lean’s epic cinema. Politically, the two seem unlikely to fit together neatly. Certainly a defiant middlebrow like Attenborough seems a preposterous choice to attempt the deed: to his credit, the movie seeks to preserve the theatricality and the revue-style plotlessness, which would count as bold in any era other than the sixties, but this is a sixties movie. Tony Richardson or Joseph Losey might have brought the necessary whiff of Godardian agitation.I think part of the problem here is that the theatrical devices tend to be in the wrong place: a gorgeous wrought-iron palatial interior serves as a sort of Olympus for a bunch of theatrical luminaries cast as the key political and military leaders of the war. They move like trundling waxworks through this lambent, tented space, intoning lines from history in the most stilted way you could ask for, or that Dickie Attenborough could ask for.

Whereas the war scenes tend to look REAL, except everybody’s bloody singing and dancing. It genuinely gives the impression that some of this war was fun, in a musical comedy manner. And it doesn’t manage to make you feel any tension between our idea of war’s reality and this all-singing, all-dancing, all-mustard gas version. You don’t feel anything. There’s a bit of mud, but no other unpleasantness really: no blood, dysentery, maiming, mental illness, rats, frostbite, desertion or firing squads. Lots of gallows humour, poppies and white crosses.Some of this SHOULD work — you ought to be able to imply the slaughter and horror without overplaying your hand. Most of it shouldn’t work, has no chance of working, but one can admire the skill and splendour. I do admire it. But if that’s the main takeaway, then it’s not an antiwar movie at all.

(Attenborough’s all over the place: celebrating Gandhi and Biko but also Churchill and the battle of Arnhem. Vaguely liberal, I suppose, but the kind of cinema he aspires to has CONSERVATIVE written all the way through like Brighton Rock.) Really lovely titles. The movie is co-produced by writer Len Deighton, who also did ONLY WHEN I LARF which also had super, sort of similar titles. My theory is that Deighton’s Sunday supplement magazine cookery column experience put him in touch with great layout people who could transfer those skills to the movies…

OWALW guest-stars Bilbo Baggins, Gustav Von Aschenbach, Louis XIII, Henry IV, Richard III, Elizabeth I, General Allenby, Captain Scott (of the Antarctic), Lord Fortnum (of Alamein), Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught, Professor Minerva McGonagall, Professor Bernard Quatermass and Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.

Chart a Course for Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2015 by dcairns

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Once saw the last half hour of THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) on TV and thought, That looked really good. Then forgot about it, mostly, and wasn’t even sure of the title, but when someone mentioned it in a comment here a while back, I remembered and made a mental note, and managed not to misplace it.

Basil Dearden directs, from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat of THE CRUEL SEA fame. A British WWII gunboat sees active service, but after the war is bought up and used by three former crewmembers in a smuggling operation. In a semi-supernatural story element, the ship itself rebels against this dishonourable use. Dearden was very good with low-key occultism — he did some of the best work in compendium DEAD OF NIGHT, and THE HALFWAY HOUSE is not bad. His last film, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, is quite a bit cheesier, but its hoaky yarn of Roger Moore surviving a motorway crash only to be stalked by his doppelgänger gains a bit of atmosphere when you learn that Dearden himself subsequently perished in a smash-up on the same stretch of road depicted. Heart attack at the wheel.

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Here, he has a very sweet romantic couple, George Baker and Virginia McKenna, but that doesn’t last long, and then the film belongs to the blokes, with Baker lured into sin by a mephistophelean Richard Attenborough. Bill Owen, Roland Culver and Bernard Lee class up the joint.

There are many Richard Attenboroughs — you could say he was underrated, or that some of his aspects were.

Stout, dependable Dickie barely gets a look-in here, except as a front for devious doings.

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We do gets suggestive flashes of Psycho Dickie, the compelling front man of BRIGHTON ROCK and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE — Fiona’s favourite Dickie. She was shocked to find how sexy his Pinkie was. The dead-eyed lizard stare is something he does extremely well.

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Shitty Dickie, however, is much to the fore — the same spiv-like wide-boy foregrounded in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK, ONLY WHEN I LARF (for Dearden again). He’s awfully good at subverting his own pleasant persona. It’s often the way — actors who have a sweetness about them are always particularly loathsome when they get to play baddies. Tough guys in baddie roles are never so horrible (apart from Mitchum in CAPE FEAR). Think of Robin Williams; utterly unapologetic when cast as nasty pieces of work, but sometimes too ingratiating when playing sympathetic.

Baby Dickie, the limpid-eyed, star-child of the forties, is barely to be seen, the overlay of years having modified his Starchild face to something able to suggest a touch of the debauched.

Saint Dickie, the one who clones dinosaurs for all the children at Christmas, has not crinkled into being yet.

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Since this is an Ealing film, we can assume that the ship is The Ship of England. Boats are always societal microcosms — SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) was about how, after the war, those who had taken part would share equally in the good fortune coming our way (studio head Sir Michael Balcom was part of a secret group tasked with preparing the nation for socialism). THE MAGGIE (1954) was a miniaturized Scotland, which is itself a miniaturized UK, and it’s about taking the Yanks for a ride, harmlessly, to skim a bit off their enviable wealth.

If the ship is always Britain, or the Empire, then this is Ealing’s bleakest statement about the post-war world, where the nation has sunk from self-sacrifice and daring during the war (not overly glamorized, though), to dog-eat-dog criminous capitalism. The only solution is to kill off the guilty and let the ship sink itself. Perhaps this pessimism has something to do with Balcom selling his studios to the BBC — he tried to keep the company going without a permanent base, but it inevitably fragmented and eventually submerged.