Archive for Richard Lester

Come Fly With Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 7, 2014 by dcairns

I’ve always been curious to see some of Richard Lester’s TV ads. There were the caroselli, short visual comedies with a product tagged on the end, made to be shown once on Italian TV and then destroyed. I know there’s no chance of seeing those. But the frustration was that, since ads don’t have credit sequences, I was undoubtedly seeing his work without knowing it. Occasionally I might recognize a composition or an approach to gags and think “This COULD be Lester,” but I could never be sure.

I found this one by researching the boss of the company Lester worked for — an article published at the time of his retirement, and made available online, listed some of his most acclaimed productions, naming the directors, and lo and behold this one was on YouTube.

A utopian vision of air travel. The film isn’t actually that inaccurate about  what’s technologically possible — in other words, the film could all have come true. But instead of trying to make air travel attractive to the rich, the airlines have concentrated on making it affordable to the moderately well-off. This has led to a policy of treating their customers really badly, which has combined handily with the threat of terrorism to create an environment in which all travelers are treated as if they’re being admitted to prison. I guess for those in first class and its euphemistic variants, flight is still a little more like the Braniff dream vision, but it’s dragged closer to reality by the fact that anybody not in the Lear jet class still has to use the same aeroplanes as us plebs.

The ad has a strong resemblance to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and the world of advertising probably did move fast enough for Lester and co to have a commercial knock-off onscreen the same year Kubrick’s film opened. But I guess it could also be coincidence — the 60s approach to sci-fi costuming existed outside of 2001, though that was the only place where it didn’t look kitsch. We do know Lester admired 2001, since one of the Making Of books includes a congratulatory telegram he sent to the hermit of Abbots Mead: “YOU’VE GIVEN US ALL SOMETHING TO AIM FOR.” He doesn’t quite say he’s already aiming for the two-minute version.

If anyone else has any leads for tracing Lester’s commercial work, I’m all ears!

The ’68 Comeback Special: Days of Matthew

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2014 by dcairns

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Video stores, those vanished pleasure palaces of yesteryear, used to be good places for picking up bits of conversation, Alan Bennett snippets of amateur movie analysis from the citizenry. I well recall a young fellow handling a VHS of the Christian Slater flick KUFFS and asking his friend, “This any good?”

“It’s alright.”

“Much action?”

“Uh.” A thoughtful pause, and then, helpfully, “He talks to the camera.” As if that were a form of action, or a decent, if weird, substitute for it.

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Several actors were talking to the camera in Cannes films of ’68, and one might guess the influence overall was Michael Caine in ALFIE, whose complicity with the audience makes him a kind of Richard III of shagging. But for several reasons I think the key influence on Witold Leszczynski’s ZYWOT MATEUSZA (DAYS OF MATTHEW) might be THE KNACK…AND HOW TO GET IT (1965) which predates the Lewis Gilbert picaresque bonkathon in having Michael Crawford briefly monologue at us. THE KNACK won the big prize in Cannes that year and so would have been widely seen by foreign filmmakers.

Matthew lives with his sister in an isolated house by a lake in the countryside. He seems to be either a little simple-minded or a little schizophrenically detached — more of a holy innocent than a clinical case one can connect to any actual condition. Like Crawford, his soliloquies are directed out, into the audience, but not consciously at them, so they feel more internal than Michael Caine’s smirking asides. Franciszek Pieczka is sometimes a little too cute in his intimacy with us, but nothing like as bad as his main competitor in the direct-address stakes at Cannes that year, Barry Evans of HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, a bloke who will long live in infamy.

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Rather than a lot of plot, the film drifts through stunning gray-on-gray misty landscapes as we become more aware of our hero’s instability — he is overly impressed by a heron, is traumatized by a nearby tree’s destruction by lightning (he thinks it signifies that his sister will die or leave him), and is socially awkward around bikini-clad lovelies. These jiggling swimmers are the film’s least credible characters, seemingly invented to show how Matthew doesn’t know how to get to first base even with the most available, seemingly vapid and underclad females. It’s like putting Jerry Lewis in a scene with Monroe: sit back and watch the fireworks implode up the fumbling pyrotechnician’s sleeve.

But this isn’t the film’s point of comparison to THE KNACK. It’s vastly more melancholic, solemn and ethereal (though I always feel the Lester film has an autumnal sadness tucked away somewhere). But it does share some camera movements. Lester doesn’t normally move the camera. Probably less than Bresson. He told me he regards it as showing off. But THE KNACK is like his RASHOMON — he probably had the grips lay out track about five times. There’s a particularly striking moment when Rita Tushingham addresses the lens, not as a soliloquy, but as if it were sexual predator Ray Brooks’ POV. And the camera tracks right into a claustrophobic closeup of her — then cuts back to its starting point and does it again. Three times. It’s a disconcerting effect that throws the whole scene into a conflicted, uncertain state of unreality. Because if this is Brooks’ POV, he is either walking up to her or her isn’t, and if he is, he’s certainly not teleporting back to his starting point.

NOBODY has copied this sequence, that I know of, though Skolimowski’s student film EROTYK, made five years earlier, has something a little similar. Maybe it’s a Polish thing – Leszczynski doesn’t tie it to POV, but he repeatedly tracks straight forward in a scene, then cuts back to where he began. And he shares with Lester a love of the planimetric, architectural view.

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For some reason, he never really tracks in the forest scenes, though — a missed opportunity.

Even the photography resembles David Watkin’s work for Lester, and especially on Tony Richardson’s MADEMOISELLE.

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With its perfectly-composed shots, pervasive melancholia, music by Arcangelo Corelli (which sometimes the protagonist seems to be able to hear along with us, as if the woods were wired with loudspeakers nailed to trees like birdhouses) and haunting, allusive narrative sense (a dream sequence, weird silences and hums, lost time), this comes close to being a masterpiece — maybe it is. I was wary of the ending. As the film neared the 80 minute mark, with little narrative in play, I suspected that Matthew would either do himself a mischief or do it to someone else — characters like him typically do in movies, though in real life this isn’t actually that common. It’s the sane, normal-IQ people you have to watch out for. Sure enough, things don’t end well. It’s portrayed poetically rather than horrifically, and just bypasses the dangerous area of romanticizing this kind of tragedy.

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One of the most beautiful films of its year, and quite unknown.

Meanwhile — NATAN, part 2, over at Mostly Film.

Sim City

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2014 by dcairns

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By some strange quirk, the great Edinburgh-born actor Alastair Sim seems to have spent most of his later career in the sauna. In the subject of this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten he appears in two scenes, steaming himself in both. In ROYAL FLASH he also appears in two scenes, one of which is a magnificent Victorian Turkish bathhouse designed by Terry Marsh complete with a foot-pedal-powered brass shower for Malcolm McDowell to enjoy. Sim’s character, fully dressed in gentlemanly finery, does not look like he’s enjoying himself quite so much.

One the DVD commentary, McDowell reports meeting Sim again when he went to loop a few lines. Sim looked exhausted. “I wish I could just say a line,” he moaned. The actor had, by this time, become such a master of the stutter, the hesitation and the silent working of the jaw, that replacing a line became torture, because the words never came out in a straight line. His talent was also his torment.

I should think the hardest actor to loop would be Leonard Rossiter, though, who developed a level of wordless chuntering even more extreme than Sim’s — particularly on the sitcom Rising Damp, Rossiter would flap his gums soundlessly, or else accompanied by a high, hesitant drone like a distant mountaineer plummeting, waiting for the words to actually form, for a long time before actual speech emerged, and part of the comedy was that you never knew at what point the facial calisthenics and faraway yodel would resolve into language. Lucky, then, that he worked with Kubrick, who tried to avoid dubbing whenever possible, and a little unfortunate that Sim was paired with Lester that one time, since Lester virtually rewrote his films in the dub.

But still, it’s delightful to see Sim in a Lester comedy.

None of this has anything much to do with today’s column, the Peter O’Toole tribute edition, which is available here.

Royal Flash [Blu-ray]
Royal Flash [Blu-ray]

And meanwhile, at Apocalypse Now, The ’68 Comeback Special returns with Scout Tafoya’s take on 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN starring the great Danielle Darrieux.

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