Archive for Richard Lester

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.

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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…

Rush Job

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by dcairns

Filmed mainly around California’s famous Hotel del Coronado, its plot involves a fugitive protagonist in disguise hiding in plain sight with a showbiz job, but it’s not SOME LIKE IT HOT, it’s THE STUNT MAN, which I finally saw after having it at the back of my mind ever since seeing Peter O’Toole promoting it on a talk show in 1981. I distinctly recall the clip where Steve Railsback’s character (doubled, one presumes, by a real stuntman) crashes through a skylight and plummets towards a bed, from which a copulating couple separate and roll off instants before his impact. I can still hear O’Toole’s amused voice intoning, “actually the woman was a man, and her bosom was rubber.” My fourteen-year-old self had perked up at the fleeting glimpse of nudity afforded by the clip, and was now disappointed and a touch confused that the stimulating frames had actually depicted a bloke with prostheses.

Without being aware of the fact, my teenage self had also seen another film by the same director, Richard Rush, the notorious FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. When you’re a kid, provided you’re fairly unenlightened, that’s a great movie. Car crashes, violence, antisocial behaviour… When you’re an adult, it SHOULD be profoundly problematic: sexist, racist and toxically, deeply and violently homophobic.

This all came back to me only while watching Rush’s own making-of documentary — during THE STUNT MAN I had fondly imagined it to be the deranged product of a cultish one-hit wonder. And then I remembered THE COLOR OF NIGHT and the tacky video effects of the doc started to make sense — what we have here is a macho yet somewhat self-questioning, brazenly vulgar sensibility which uses style as a decorative element rather than a constructive one. I’m not sure such a sensibility could ever make a perfect film, but maybe it could manage a really good one. I’m still not sure if THE STUNT MAN is this film (FREEBIE and COLOR sure ain’t). But it’s interesting.

Steve LIFEFORCE Railsback, troubled Vietnam vet, is on the run from the law when he blunders onto the location of director Peter O’Toole’s WWI epic, accidentally killing a stuntman. O’Toole covers up the fatality by getting Railsback to replace the slain man, which apparently his cast and crew are all happy to go along with. Over the course of the next two hours, Railsback falls for movie star Barbara Hershey, takes part in a series of insanely elaborate stunt sequences, and comes to suspect that the Mephistophelean O’Toole is plotting to murder him and get his death on film.

We were watching this because Richard Lester had mentioned to me that Lawrence B. Marcus, who wrote the final draft of PETULIA had written it, and it was odd that it didn’t lead to more and bigger things. I looked up Marcus and was surprised to learn he’d been writing movies since 1950’s DARK CITY. His IMDb bio is fascinating — there’s a Lester story I didn’t know. I suggested that THE STUNT MAN may not have boosted Marcus’s career as much as you’d think, despite his Oscar nom, because it was such a troubled production. “But interesting!” said Lester, enthusiastically.

O’Toole is excellent — his post-CALIGULA career was kind of ice-cold at this time, but he followed this up with MY FAVORITE YEAR — both films somehow suit his premature elder statesman quality — he seemed like some kind of survivor of a bygone age when I saw him on TV as a teen. (He was just a little older than I am now, but had, you know, done a lot of living, something I’ve done my best to avoid.) His and Richard Harris’ interviewers always seemed amazed he was alive, though it would have been even more startling, surely, had they been dead and still appearing on Parkinson. Barbara Hershey is also very good, though Rush apparently likes big and loud and frenzied performances. Hershey’s ability to look unbelievably gorgeous while twisting her face up in the throes of whatever passion is required by the action at hand seems like a special effect in itself.

Allen Garfield is not quite as glamorous as all that. I hope I can say that without causing offense. But he’s really good as the film’s writer, and it’s nice to see him not playing a sleaze, unbeatable though he is at that.

Leading man Railsback is, arguably, more problematic. Though much better than he was in LIFEFORCE, for sure — I think he’s hampered by the lunacy of every line and situation in that film. But the facial muscles that stood him in such good stead to play Charles Manson in Helter Skelter on TV do make him seem a little edgy, even for this movie. It’s fine that we think his character may have a serious criminal past (quite believable whenever he smiles), and may have combat shock and be delusional (believable during all the other facial expressions, and there are many), but perhaps a problem for the film that one is fighting a recurring impulse to lash out in self-defense with the nearest blunt instrument (in my case our Tonkinese cat, Momo). In a sense, despite the crime and insanity, his character is supposed to be a sort of innocent, out of his depth amid the madness of a film shoot.

But that doesn’t stop the film being interesting, it just makes it work differently. Perhaps less well. But it’s still an intriguing show. The movie O’Toole’s character is making looks dreadful, which is often a problem in behind-the-scenes dramas — the film being made never seems to hang together. But if you had a fully functional movie idea, why wouldn’t you be making that, instead of making THE STUNTMAN?

As befits the title, the stunt sequences are spectacular, even if the realistic acrobatics, pyrotechnics and daredevilry are somewhat undercut by the preposterous duration of the sequences being staged — I always assumed they’d break these things down into simpler, less risky and more controllable segments, although I’ve seen some bits of behind-the-scenes stuff from John Woo shoots which were eye-opening.

Rush’s appearance in his own documentary seems to explain his films nicely. Big hair, porn star mustache, deep, deep tan, muscles, corny sense of humour, adam’s-apple the size of a Fabergé egg — he seems Hemingwayesque, in a seventies kind of way. The rambunctiousness, the vulgarity, the thrust towards deep and meaningful statements, the energy (cranes, helicopters, steadicams whenever possible), the gaudiness (starburst filter! animated blast of light to take us into the next scene!) all makes sense when you see him. And for all the negative qualities associated with macho intellection and showy zooms and rack-focuses, he and his film are oddly likeable.

Also the score, by Dominic Frontiere, which contributes to the off-balance tone by adopting a circus attitude, pushing a light-heartedness that the movie only occasionally reaches for otherwise. Rush says it took them ten years to get the script made because the tone was so intentionally erratic, the subject unfamiliar (HOOPER and other stunt pics got made first, which actually helped them look like a bankable proposition), and studios couldn’t think how to sell it.

O’Toole loved his crane, apparently.

“I don’t think this music is right for this film,” protested Fiona.

“Well, it’s not obviously right… it’s interesting.”