Archive for Robocop

Holiday Affray

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2021 by dcairns

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

It always happens

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2016 by dcairns

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On a whim — I’m a whimsical fellow — I made a gif of a dummy Kim Novak falling past the mission tower window in VERTIGO.

Stare at it long enough and you will begin to get past the initial amusement. You will see that what is happening is not funny, but terrible.

The shot in the movie itself is bathetic rather than tragic, escaping a Bad Laugh only because it’s part of a powerful montage with good acting and music. What’s wrong with the shot?

I think Hitchcock is up against the fact that figures falling past windows are somehow comic. There’s a whole Monty Python sketch about this, and one also thinks of Charles Durning’s cartoony plunge in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Rigid dummies are also funny, though not as much as floppy ones. Did nobody think of manufacturing a realistically articulated dummy with a degree of stiffness in the joints? The expense of the exercise may have been a factor, but I bet I could knock up a better dummy in a day, if supplied with some mannikin parts and a wig and costume.

Are you actually reading this or have you become hypnotized by the perpetual motion falling Novak?

As often with Hitchcock’s less effective moments, the artificiality is an issue. He’s built a full-sized window and a big bit of background art, more of a cyclorama than a matte painting (we know this because it’s recycled in ONE-EYED JACKS). So there’s no reason I can see why the dummy has to be superimposed, but it appears to have been matted in afterwards. You could actually have placed a trampoline off the bottom of frame and dropped a real Kim Novak into it — it would have been hilarious when she bounced back into view, but George Tomasini would have cut by then. You could rely on George to get things like that right.

(Unlike Frank J. Urioste, who allows us to see a stuntman’s legs waving as he hits a crash mat just out of frame in ROBOCOP, even though he’s supposed to have been flung from a high window. Strange carelessness, in what’s otherwise a superbly cut film.)

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Then there’s the pose. Of all the possible angles of descent, head first seems to me the most potentially comical. Because it shows the ersatz Novak full-figure, in her most recognisable aspect (although we’re not used to seeing her upside down), Hitch may have thought it would be helpful for clarity, since we would only have an instant to recognize the plummeting figure. But I think the context he’s set up would allow him to get away with being less clear, and a less perfect angle would enhance the sense of glimpsed reality. Basically any angle that’s not upskirt would be better.

(See Polanski’s POV shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY of Ruth Gordon on the phone in the bedroom. The cinematographer was astonished that Polanski chose to obscure most of the actor with the door jamb, but that awkward framing is what convinces us we’re seeing something through the eyes of a real-life onlooker who cannot be expected to have a perfect view.)

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Anything else? Well, the dummy (and even in under a second we are in no doubt that it IS a dummy) seems to be falling at a very slight angle. I guess that’s possible if she stood on the edge and pitched forward, or did an Olympic-style dive, but it makes us wonder about things that aren’t relevant to the emotion of the scene.

Still, it’s been voted the best film ever made, so I guess Hitch was doing something right.

 

 

Third Degree Screen Burn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 26, 2015 by dcairns

I think it’s OK to reprint this — my first piece for Sight & Sound, on Montaldo’s CIRCUITO CHIUSO (CLOSED CIRCUIT). Frame grabs are new. Maybe the first review published in Sight & Sound in the form of a police interrogation.

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Okay, wise guy, what were you doing on the night in question?

I was watching a film. A perfectly harmless –

So you were watching a film. What film?

Um, it was called Closed Circuit.

Never heard of it.

It’s an Italian film, from the seventies. I wouldn’t expect you to –

Tell me all about it.

Well, it’s not easy to describe –

Try.

Well, it’s actually a TV movie. Made during that half hour when Italian TV was making interesting stuff like Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. A time capsule from before Berlusconi.

He mixed up in this too?

No, thankfully. Anyhow, it’s all set in a cinema –

Thought you said it was a TV movie.

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It is. Set in a cinema. And for the first half hour, nothing much happens. People come in, we get glimpses of the staff, the routines, the different kinds of characters. But it’s fascinating, because the filmmaker, Giuliano Montaldo, who’s still working today, shoots everything with a wonderfully fluid moving camera, and a choreographed approach to action. Plus the sound, all post-dubbed in the Italian manner, creates a sense of everything happening just as it should. Like fate is running smoothly.

The movie being screened is a spaghetti western. And there’s something very nostalgic for me about the way that widescreen image gets crimped and cropped by shooting through doorways or blocking the screen with a foreground character. It’s like when I was a kid and saw Sergio Leone movies for the first time, and they were panned and scanned on the BBC, sliced down from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1. You could see this was wide, expansive cinema, but it was oddly telescoped. It seemed like a kid’s-eye view, watching the world from under a table or behind a couch.

Anyhow, the focus on bit-players, the artificial sound, and the plotlessness, sort of recall Tati. But then somebody gets shot. A middle-aged cinephile comes in late, sits down, and gets a bullet in the heart. There’s panic. The cops arrive and stop everyone leaving. They make a search but can’t find any gun. They interview everyone but can’t find any motive.

It’s a cop movie?

Well, the young detective in charge is as close to the lead as the movie has. And I guess it’s kind of a giallo, but without the sex and gore. It expands on the weird self-reflexive quality you get in some gialli. But the weird thing is, all this set-up hasn’t established anything that could make for a plot, anything which could lead to murder. So they decide to stage a re-enactment. An excitable usher takes the dead man’s role, they start the film again, and at the exact same moment, just as a climactic gunshot goes off onscreen, the usher gets shot.

Uh-huh. A serial killer.

Well, here’s the thing. The audience members are really freaked now. The sense of entrapment and repetition recalls Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, even down to the media circus gathering outside the theater. Now one geeky guy comes to the cops with a hair-brained theory. They won’t listen, but he does succeed in finding a bullet-hole in the movie screen. A search behind the screen fails to find anything, but this arrogant police chief who’s come in –

Careful, buddy.

– this arrogant police chief insists on another re-enactment. To prove they really have the crime scene pinned down now, that the killer can’t possibly do it again. Because, maybe, the cops are starting to dread that the sociologist is right. There’s a superstitious terror in the air, a feeling that the movie may be cursed, may be a film maudit.

A film mud – ?

A cursed film. See, the sociologist is suggesting that the movie killed the first guy. And having adjusted itself to that fact, it will now repeat the action whenever it’s projected. Because it’s a movie, and movies are always the same each time you watch them. Or they’re supposed to be. And, you see, we know he’s right, because the movie hasn’t set up any crazy killer or villain who could possibly be the real guilty party.

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So they stage the final re-enactment. And even if we now see it coming, Montaldo pulls out all the stops. Just as the forensics guy arrives with the news that the first bullet came from a Civil War Colt, the projectionist finds his projector won’t stop, and the police chief panics as the big cowboy on the screen tracks him across the auditorium with his giant pistol. It has the same kind of hilarious, scary panic as the Ed 209 bit in Robocop.

See, once the film has become a killer, it can’t stop. Because what happens in a film always happens the same way, each time. And maybe that’s why everything in this movie feels so choreographed, so fated. Rewatching a movie gives us an overview of predestination and prophecy.

And it’s all about, basically, the power of the image.

That’s the screwiest thing I ever heard. I don’t believe there is such a movie.

But I –

Take him away.