Archive for Robert Altman

Treacly Dicky

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by dcairns

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I got intrigued to finally watch NIXON — I had always been kind of intrigued to see it but not enough, apparently, to actually see it — after hearing Oliver Stone talk about it, and seeing a lengthy — really extraordinary lengthy — clip of it during his Edinburgh masterclass.

Fiona and I were both rather taken by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but Fiona kept getting tired out by the sheer duration of the thing, and all those names — having missing Watergate ‘s opening run, due to youth, we felt we were experiencing it in real time, with added flashbacks. So we watched it in about four parts, which is admittedly not ideal.

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Let’s be clear: bits of this film are terrible. Stylistically there’s a lot of hangover from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which took the faux-documentary elements of JFK — switching film stocks, flash cuts, b&w and still photo inserts — and pumped them up into sheer hallucination. It’s a film whose brio I admire but whose message and attitude I despise, and which makes me feel really ill every time I see more than a few minutes of it. But I would grant it’s effective. (I don’t blame the film for inspiring actual atrocities: but there is nothing in it which would not be flattering to someone contemplating an atrocity — the serial killers are the only characters with integrity, apart from the civilians who don’t matter — Tarantino’s original draft is positively moralistic compared to Stone’s revision.)

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In NIXON, some of the techniques are flat-out awful: superimposing napalm blasts behind Nixon as he mounts the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a new low in taste. Put it alongside the shark eating a victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth in 3D in JAWS 3D. But with Robert Richardson lensing, this filmic atrocity abuts some truly stunning shots of the statue itself. And then comes the bit Scorsese got very excited about — Nixon goes out of sync. He says a line, pauses — and his voice continues. And then we jump-cut to a very slightly different close-up just as he finished his new line, his lips moving in time with it for the space of half a syllable. “This is new! We haven’t seen this before!” snapped Marty, and he’s right. And not much since. But it’s powerful — it’s not just Stone, stoned, mucking about in the edit, though it might have come about that way. It conveys in vivid fashion a familiar human sensation, when we find ourselves saying something. Our mouth and brain are out of sync, and there’s a belated moment of realisation when we grasp what we’ve said. Or else, we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re saying, we kind of miss the moment of actually saying it. Intense conversations have this quality.

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Dance, Nixon, dance!

Hopkins is very enjoyable — so much so, that when the movie finally shows us the real Tricky Dicky, it’s a surprise how little resemblance there is — there is, in fact, no resemblance. I think Hopkins may be wearing contacts and teeth, but otherwise the team have wisely decided not to disguise him. In HITCHCOCK, Hopkins is plastered in makeup but can’t do the voice. Here, he gets to look human, he sort of does the voice, and he gets the manner, or at any rate A manner which is fascinating and horrifying to watch.

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Best Nixon: Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s film of Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s SECRET HONOR. Hall doesn’t exactly look like Nixon but he is a Nixon type, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.

Worst Nixon: the poor guy in the prosthetic nonsense in WATCHMEN, a big expensive film with inexplicably terrible makeup. He looks like he’s wearing a leftover Nixon Halloween mask from POINT BREAK. A good plot twist would be to have him rip his face off and be Tom Cruise underneath.

Best possible Nixon — Walter Matthau. Only he had the scrotumnal countenance. And, if we disregard all the twinkly rogues he played in his late career and recall his charmless villains of the fifties, then it all happens. Just sharpen his nose and lighten his hair.

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Hopkins works harder than Baker to adapt his mode of performing, because he obviously HAS to. He has no genetic advantages. Very smart costuming manages to make his shoulders behave like Nixon’s shoulders, with Hopkins’ help.

Stone was amusingly scornful of most of his collaborators (in a way that makes you slightly suspect him of being an asshole) — I paraphrase: “I liked Hopkins as an actor because you always felt you could see his thinking going on behind his eyes. Having worked with him, I don’t know what he actually finds to think about…” Stone reported that Hopkins struggled terribly with the accent, and one day was riding an elevator with Paul Sorvino (transformed by makeup and performance astonishingly into a perfect Kissinger) and asked how P.S. thought the rehearsals were going. “Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Sorvino, and Stone had to either wrench Hopkins down from the ceiling or high-tackle him on the way to the airport as he tried to flee the country, I forget which.

I can report that the struggle was worth it!

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As the movie lurches from bad bit — a March of Time newsreel that’s unconvincing in itself and a lame bit of condensed exposition even in the abstract — to good bit — lots of performers we like — Madeleine Khan, Larry Hagman, James Woods, J.T. Walsh (a great actor who had somehow slipped out of mm mind altogether in the few years since his death, a terrible thing) — I started to appreciate the hallucinatory feel. Maybe because it covers a lot of the same material, the film has much in common with the far more modest SECRET HONOR, but whereas the Altman takes place in a single room which comes to feel like Nixon’s headspace, all of NIXON, wherever the action takes place, feels like Nixon’s disordered mind — or Stone’s. Some of the Deutsch tilts and extreme low angles feel forced and melodramatic, but some of the psychedelic madness works, mainly in conjunction with Hopkins’ sweaty grimacing. Nixon, we are told, was trying to appear mad to make the Russians afraid. As Nick Nolte observes in MOTHER NIGHT, “Be very careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you ARE what you appear to be.”

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“Don’t worry, I’ll use the old Nixon charm,” says Hopkins, and then performs a wink that makes him instantly morph into Quasimodo — a role he has previously played.

I quite liked John Williams’ music. For once, it doesn’t feel on-the-nose, maybe because it’s never quite clear where Nixon’s nose is.

Oh, apart from the opening biblical quote, “What shall it profit a man…” Give Williams a hackneyed biblical quote and you know what you’ll get from him.

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Not quite sure what to make of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Stone overplays the homosexual angle just as he did in JFK, and seems to be using it as evidence of moral corruption. On the other hand, acknowledging Hoover’s sexuality may be more respectful than downplaying it to nothingness, as other biopics tend to do, either by necessity or sheer discomfort (Eastwood?). Hoover’s big scene with Nixon is awkward as we have two Brits trying to out-Amurrican each other, while Stone cuts to foaming racehorses, symbolism which would certainly be lead-footed if we knew what the hell he was getting at. But I must say, the looming closeups with their lysergic sharpness and broiling intensity made for quite a scene. It’s bad AND good, much like the film.

(I miss Bob Hoskins.)

 

Fair and Lovely on the Campaign Trail

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2015 by dcairns

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In THE CANDIDATE (1972), Michael Ritchie does such a good job of surrounding golden boy Robert Redford with grotesques, ugly Americans, non-WASP imperfect specimens of ordinary humanity, that the overall effect is similar to Heironymous Bosch’s painting of Christ Carrying the Cross, thronged and taunted by gurning Semitic caricatures. The once-dapper Melvyn Douglas is used to particularly unsightly effect, seemingly serving his aging kisser up happily to curdle our blood with a lot of sinister, wet grinning. Also Allen Garfield’s ebullient bulbousness, Peter Boyle sporting a Mr. Upside-Down-Head full beard, even a young Michael Lerner, every part of whom seems to be wider than it is long.

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This is one I had to watch pan-and-scan in an off-air recording, which seems a terrible gap in the historic record. You’d think Redford was well enough known for there to be a DVD somewhere. I’d suggest an Eclipse box set to compliment Criterion’s excellent DOWNHILL RACER — “Winning and Losing with Michael Ritchie” — it could have SMILE, THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, THE BAD NEW BEARS and maybe The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And does anyone rate SEMI-TOUGH? Still, this would have to come after René Clemént’s “Occupation and Resistance,” which is top of my wish list.

What shall it profit a Malibu blond? It’s the age-old tale of the idealist who loses his way — Ritchie and editors Richard A. Harris (regular collaborator) and Robert Estrin shape Jeremy DRIVE HE SAID Larner’s script so that the path to hell has plenty of missing paving stones, forcing us to fill in the blanks, mentally. There are great transitions and elisions, and for once the principles Redford starts with actually sound like principles — pro-choice, pro-bussing, anti-pollution. Most political dramas, from MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to House of Cards, contain sub-homeopathic doses of politics. Watching Redford get whittled down to nothing by his campaign managers is both depressing and grimly satisfying. Also, it’s a very good portrayal of how awful campaigning must be: an utterly moronic process designed to trap intelligent adults into humiliating situations.

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The movie anticipates Robert Altman’s excellent TV series Tanner ’88, which Altman considered his best work, in many ways, not least the use of real politicians and journalists playing themselves. And once again, Redford’s manner of heroism looks oddly off-kilter, a kind of behaviour we wouldn’t find noble anymore — he’s petulant and passive-aggressive. We aren’t convinced he’s really struggling to hang onto his integrity, and maybe that’s the point. But the whole thing also works as a depiction of the cult of celebrity, and how frightening and degrading it must be to experience from the inside. Redford once said that when he first saw his portrait on the cover of Time with the caption Robert Redford: Actor, he was convinced for a second it said Robert Redford: Asshole. That’s showbiz.

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Grain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2015 by dcairns

Inherent-Vice

Pting. Vessooey. Wooch.

I never saw THE MASTER on the big screen. I missed the 70mm screenings in Dublin by days, and the big print never made it to Edinburgh. Apparently the London cinema that had first dibs on it had booked their best projectionist to handle it, but decided to save a little money by letting a less experienced employee take care of the press screening. He wrecked the print.

Bliffle. Wazzmap. Trintrintrittock.

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And I wasn’t completely sure I was going to bother with seeing INHERENT VICE in 35mm — Fiona, influenced by bad reviews, wasn’t interested, and a few friends reported disappointment and bafflement. I let the Cameo screenings slide by. But, on a whim, I popped along to Filmhouse 3 after work yesterday — and I really, really liked it. But it’s put me in quite a strange frame of mind. Vuvuvungle. Ilm. Fffffiip.

Another thing that had put me off slightly is that I had read the book, and found it extremely slight by Pynchon standard. Not just thin physically — The Crying of Lot 49 is also slender — but conceptually. It seemed filmable, but a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature, should have selected a LESS filmable book and then grappled with its challenges/impossibilities.

I mean, we’d already had Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which maybe didn’t overtly male Philip Marlowe a stoner, but by casting Elliott Gould at least implied as much. And then THE BIG LEBOWSKI made it literal. Pynchon’s “Doc” Sportello seemed doubly redundant, and more so as a movie character. Trahumph. Crrrrk.

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Since seeing the movie, I have a Tourettes-like urge to make silly noises, rather in the manner of Jerry Lewis in WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? when he can’t handle rejection. Vooolf.

Burke Stodger, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax… Wrrrab. Sporf. Maybe it’s the onslaught of Pynchonian names, even more overpowering on the screen, where an actor has to actually introduce himself as Dr. Threeply. Giddiness sets in. Watching lots of drugs being consumed doesn’t usually produce any vicarious effect in me except perhaps boredom, though the fast cutting in the brownies scene in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS did make me feel kind of sick. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, watched on a single glass of wine, did produce some kind of elation, and I kind of caught Brad Pitt’s mania from TWELVE MONKEYS. Preet. Prott. Hespelafigo.

Luckily there was nobody at the bus-stop after the film so I could Vrrroop and Pleck and Spraddlekoffup to my heart’s content.

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I will discipline myself. No more eruptions. Anderson’s film is flawed — I don’t mean that it’s impossible to follow — I actually understood most of it better than I understand THE BIG SLEEP, and I suspect a repeat viewing would clear up the remaining mysteries (which are not insignificant: what the hell was Bigfoot Bjornsen trying to achieve with the stolen drugs?). But there are plainly too many two-hander scenes in which Joaquin Phoenix (very funny) sits down with an informant and gets told some more plot. In one lengthy exchange over a canister of nitrous oxide (which literally induces laughter here, something I understand to be pharmacologically inaccurate), Anderson serves up the exposition in a pair of closeups against featureless white walls in a tiny cubicle, until I felt suffocated of all visual stimulation (kind of like the incomprehensibly long two profile shots outside the church in KILL BILL: death by understimulation). But those white walls showed up the grain nicely.

I wasn’t sure how nostalgic I felt about celluloid. When the censor’s certificate came on at the start, scratched to buggery and out of focus, I thought, “Oh, I haven’t been missing THIS.” But that dancing pointillist patina… a film that so successfully evokes its period would be impossible on digital, even with all the colour manipulation available. This experience is akin to time-travel.

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Oh yes, the movie’s flaws. It’s overlong and overshoots its climax by what feels like twenty minutes. But it has Owen Wilson, the heart of the movie. (The melancholy of the first scene, with the protean Katherine Waterston — one of a regiment of scratchy-voiced chicks rocking the natural look — sets up the undercurrent of sadness that Pynchon gets at in his prose sometimes but never in the actual SCENES of the novel, so it’s a brilliant piece of adaptation to me). It has Martin Short, channelling Burgess Meredith at his most Creep Factor 11, filtered through a layer of Phil Spector. Genius. I mean, NOBODY does Burgess Meredith. Short has a history of crystallizing the madness of whatever film he’s in, presenting it in a purer, more intoxicating form (MARS ATTACKS!). Josh Brolin, presenting the Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Whiteman (to quote the Robert Crumb cartoon: “I must retain this rigid position or all is lost!”) Benicio Del Toro, underselling his quirkiness, which makes it even more striking. Some guys I don’t know so well are astounding: Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jefferson Mays. And, in the “Where you been?” category, Eric Roberts and Martin Donovan.

This spaced-out Rockford Files won’t appeal to everybody. As I watched, I was wondering if my mum would like it. She enjoyed THE BIG LEBOWSKI… But this is more intense, peculiar, and dysfunctional. But it also has more of a purpose. Anderson, unlike Altman or the Coens, finds Sportello’s moral code admirable, I think. And the film’s elegiac quality, creeping up on you unexpectedly, is something far out of the register of its predecessors. Pynchon’s best bit in the book is the foreshadowing of the internet — it’s when the whole enterprise belatedly acquires some gravitas and atmosphere. Anderson deletes it entirely — but he captures the gravitas, and enhances the atmosphere.

Zzzzzzeeb! Hataracack.

 

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