Archive for Richard Burton

Gone for a Burton

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by dcairns

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RIP Jack Gold. In a twist of fate the protagonist of THE MEDUSA TOUCH would have mordantly approved of, the veteran director’s passing was completely drowned out by the posthumous panegyrics in praise of Uggie, the dog from THE ARTIST, whose euthanizing was announced the same day. I suspect film history will eventually balance itself and the director of THE BOFORS GUN will come to be regarded again as a more significant figure than the one-hit Jack Russell Terrier.

I was wary of approaching THE MEDUSA TOUCH as, though undeniably a piece of seventies sci-fi, I recalled it also being a piece of crap, and perhaps unsuitable viewing if I wanted to say nice things about Gold. (I met Gold, only last year, when Edinburgh Film Fest screened THE RECKONING. He was very sweet, very sharp, and seemingly in the best of health.) Fiona, on the other hand, DID deny it was science fiction (I guess because either telekinesis isn’t real, in which case it’s fantasy, or it is real, in which case it’s social realism) and at any rate its status as crap outweighed any genre attributes. She never met the lovely Mr. Gold.

BUT! I am delighted to report that the movie is a lot less crap than I remember it. It has two really weak moments that had coloured my recollections, plus another one I’d forgotten, but it also has a lot to enjoy, in a modest, unpretentious, daft way.

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Gold co-produced the film with his editor. the great Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE ELEPHANT MAN, OUT OF SIGHT, and Gold’s THE BOFORS GUN…and, at ninety, FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY if you can believe that) and it’s an editor’s film — one of its pleasures is the way it enfolds flashbacks within flashbacks, interviews within interviews. I’m imagining Gold and Coates meticulously plotting this all out in advance. French flic on exchange in London investigates the bludgeoning of Richard Burton, prophet of doom, by talking to his shrink, Lee Remick. She introduces flashbacks in which Burton tells her he can cause disasters with the power of his mind (case in point: STAIRCASE), and he thus leads into deeper flashbacks where we see this happening.

Coates sticks to the principles of Direct Cutting which serves her so well when T.H. Lawrence blew his match out and made the sun rise in the desert. frequently she cuts to a reverse angle in mid-conversation to reveal that the person looking back is a different one from who we expected, and we’ve now shifted time zones. Gold will even pan 180º back in time without a cut. For a legendary bad movie, it’s stuffed full of intelligent and elegant film storytelling.

vlcsnap-2015-08-18-11h13m30s169Lino Ventura, ace detective.

These reminiscences lead to Bad Moment Number One, the death of young Burton’s parents, nudged off a White Cliff of Dover by a runaway jalopy. This wasn’t as terribly directed as I remembered it — in fact, it’s served up fairly convincingly. The problem may be that such a scene cannot be rendered horrifying (especially when the parents are horrible caricatures out of Roald Dahl — they might as well get trundled flat by an outsize peach). To make it dramatic, Gold gives us Staring Boy, Low Angle of Car Slipping its Brakes, POV of Car pushing in on Parents, POV of Parents Staring at Looming Car… it all feels overdone, and goofy, because it’s a silly accident, without even the dignity of a FINAL DESTINATION atrocity pile-up. I tried imagining it all played in long shot over the boy’s shoulder, but that seemed comical too, like one of those AIRPLANE comedy-business-in-background routines.

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Meanwhile the film moves on, with Burton exterminating all and sundry with his gloomy gaze, and the cast list heaps up enjoyable hams. Michael Hordern has a great bit as seedy medium, Alan Badel is a silky lawyer, Philip Stone a bashed bishop, getting punished for his poor parenting skills in Kubrick’s films. Harry Andrews and Gordon Jackson compete with Burton and Ventura for the coveted Big Face Award. Derek Jacobi turns up to report a mysterious anecdote about Burton and a tramp which is never bloody well explained. I’m quite cross about that.

But the next really bad bit is a plane crash — the film has received a fair bit of stick for Brian Johnson’s special effects, but I’m inclined to blame Gold and Coates a bit here. the key with special effects is not just to get great material, obviously, but to exercise judicious quality control so no bad material slips in to spoil the effect. With Coates’ crosscutting, the jumbo jet striking a tower block yields some very effective pyrotechnics. But the early shots simply showing the plane flying over London are pathetic. Making the toy plane fly straight across frame from screen right to screen left is a terrible bit of staging, exposing the artifice as surely as if they’d spotlit the wires holding it up. It could be argued that, with slow seventies film stock and airspace safety regulations, they couldn’t simply film a real plane. But what does a real plane at night look like? Like a blinking tail-light! A cheaper, more convincing special effect could not be imagined.

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Oh, and this is supposed to be Burton’s POV. He must live in a very hi-rise indeed.

I had forgotten the plane, but I vividly remembered the crumbling of Westminster Cathedral. As a boy, I laughed hysterically as a church bell bounced off a church official. Not because I was naturally evil-minded, although that is a possibility, but because I knew even then that the physics were all wrong. A bell that size wouldn’t be remotely deflected by a chap standing under it, even if he were Lino Ventura. The chap would simply fold up and the bell would continue on into the flagstones and then maybe a bit further.

It’s a real shame, because that one shot spoils a thoroughly convincing housequake, seamlessly blending location, set and miniature. Admittedly, it’s the worst kind of movie disaster, the kind you CHEER ON, rather that saying “Oh the humanity!” (as in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and even bits of TITANIC). We were sincerely regretful that Harry Andrews managed to stop the Queen entering the Abbey in time to get a bell dropped on her. This nihilistic glee is made OK by Burton’s philosophising, a bunch of anti-establishment rants which are all, broadly speaking, on the money, if a little jejeune.

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The script is by Jack Briley who also penned CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED and thus knew a thing or two about giving someone a very hard stare indeed — the plot is all business, with little time for characterisation but the starry cast seize any moments they can.

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Jack Gold directed another 70s sci-fi opus, WHO? in which a scientist loses his face and fingerprints in an accident in Russia, and when he’s returned with a new, cybernetic face, the US authorities can’t decide if it’s really him. But, on the plus side, he can store food in his cheeks.

I’d like to see WHO? again sometime — it’s based on a proper sci-fi book by Algis Budrys (great name!) and has an affecting performance from Joe Bova as Chubby-Cheeks the Tin Woodsman.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bad Vats and Jeroboams

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2015 by dcairns

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There are TWO intertitles in Kevin Allen’s new film of UNDER MILK WOOD, screened at EIFF in advance of its general release this autumn. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of the film to frame-grab these from, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. And I can’t remember exactly what they say. The Fest is becoming blurry.

As is the film — frequent smearings of digital vaseline to rub the image into a glassy glaze, along with multiple other tricks and tics — it’s a hugely resourceful film, visually, as it needs to be. The challenge of matching pictures to Dylan Thomas’ “Play for Voices” which don’t overwhelm the text or blandly illustrate it must have been daunting. Allen, who reports that he spent the intervening decade since his last feature working on a pig farm, seems to have grown immensely in stature as a director — this was a proper Ken Russell phantasmagoria.

Allen burst on the scene with TWIN TOWN, producer Andrew MacDonald’s follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING, which I think suffered from the sense of letdown that it wasn’t as assured and entertaining as its predecessor — but it did give us Rhys Ifans. Ifans, who seems to be in every film in the Fest, is back here as both First Voice and Captain Cat Complimenting his Jekyll-Hyde dual role in THE MARRIAGE OF REASON & SQUALOR), along with the estimable Charlotte Church, all lusty smile and lascivious jiggle as Polly Garter.

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Allen decided to treat the film as ALL DREAM, with scenes flowing together and surreal and bawdy rupturings of reality pushing through at every turn. It’s frequently delirious and only occasionally deleterious — when what the text calls a “shaving glass” is represented by a wall mirror in a shop, I couldn’t see what was gained by the mismatch. And maybe there are too many phalluses. But it’s all livelier and more evocative than the earlier Richard Burton job, I think. In that one, the line “circling her nipples with lipstick” is illustrated by a busty wench drawing rings round the outside margins of her bosoms, as if about to turn them into pink-nosed smiley faces. Allen persistently seems to have a better idea of what Thomas was on about, and aided by Mark Thomas’ epic, sumptuous score and Andy Hollis’ gorgeous photography, has created something rather intoxicating.

The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2012 by dcairns

Oscar hopeful Max Von Sydow, centre. The Tattooed Man, left.

From The Making of The Exorcist II: The Heretic by Barbara Pallenberg ~

Boorman walks slowly around a tiny, wizened old black man wearing the makeup the tall, thin black man had had on during the last week or so. The old man will play The Tattooed Man. He looks frightened and embarrassed.

Demi says, “He is a reverend, and is very upset about portraying a pagan. I picked him up this morning, and I feel very badly. I convinced him to come, but although to you and me there is nothing demeaning in the part, he is very unsure about the whole thing. He is worried about uncovering his chest, which I had assured him wouldn’t happen. That was last week during the call when he first appeared. I didn’t know then they would want him for the role of The Tattooed Man. He told me, ‘You’re a proud Ethiopian–you wouldn’t do anything derogatory to your race, would you?’ He wasn’t feeling good about the whole thing. And then these makeup men from some other movie walked in when he was being painted and said to each other, ‘You want to see something disgusting? You want to throw up?’ They said it right in front of him, and he started to feel terrible. They acted as though he was a piece of furniture. One said, ‘He wants to look pretty, like a dancing girl. He doesn’t want to look ugly.’ If he hadn’t been old, small, black, they wouldn’t have said what they did.” Demi’s eyes are flashing with anger. “And now Makeup says it doesn’t have a hot shower, only a cold one, and he gets colds very easily–he’s an old man. So he has to go home with the makeup on. I told him we would get more money for him, anyway, since now he has a bit part, instead of just being an extra. His eyes are irritated from the makeup, too, and I’ve got to get the first aid man for him.”

Apart from the distressing story above, Pallenberg’s book is pretty engrossing — better than the film it deals with, for sure — Pallenberg did a better job with the book than her husband did with the screenplay.

And it’s surprisingly revealing for something that’s kind of a kind of publicity tract. Richard Burton comes onto the film clean and sober, amid much publicity to the effect, and by the end is only working mornings: “He’s a little weak and cranky after lunch–we’ll be able to go faster this way. He’s a very early riser, and really puts in a full day’s work by 1pm, anyway.” Ye-es…