Archive for Richard Lester

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.

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Everything’s Coming Up Hitler

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2018 by dcairns

Reading yesterday’s post, greatest living Scotsman Steven McNicoll texted me with two more Hitlers.

First off, Frank Finlay is Hitler! In an ITV play, The Death of Adolf Hitler broadcast in 1973, the same year Alec Guinness hitlered up — must have been awkward if they bumped into each other.

Hilarious! It’s just pure Frank Finlay, to the power of ten, dressed as Hitler. That may be the problem of doing it in English — you can’t very well put on a Hitler voice.

I once saw Michael Caine interviewed, saying, “What I offer people is the shock of recognition,” and I thought, I’ve never felt the shock of recognition with Michael Caine, unless he means, “Oh look! It’s Michael Caine!” But I do LIKE recognising Michael Caine. Similarly, here, I don’t see Hitler but I do see quite a lot of Frank Finlay and that’s always a welcome thing.

Interviewing Richard Lester, I asked him why he didn’t make Porthos in THE THREE MUSKETEERS a giant, as he is in the book. “It didn’t interest me,” he replied. So he just got Frank Finlay to act giant. Good call.

1981: The Bunker. Anthony Hopkins is Adolf Hitler! Well, he does have the initials.

This one looks quite interesting, but the only impression Hopkins can do is Tommy Cooper. His Hitler suffers the same problem as his Alfred Hitchcock (though again, right initials) — the few areas of resemblance just point up the big areas of difference. He has some eye makeup here, I think, and he’s trying to make himself lipless (would Branagh be good casting? — his Heydrich was fun!) by sheer effort of will, and there’s some good physical work with the hands. But it doesn’t work, I don’t think. Not only do you not think you’re looking at Hitler, you don’t think you’re looking at a person. Whereas with his turn in NIXON, you believe he’s a person, just not Richard Nixon.

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…