Archive for Roger Corman

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…

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UHU and Applesauce

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2017 by dcairns

Tom Weaver’s Science Fiction and Film Fantasy Flashbacks is an entertaining collection of interviews with actors and other personnel from cult SF and horror movies. Debra Paget, now rich, married and living in Texas, has some fun stories.

Debra, do you recall?

Asked about her skimpy dance costume in Lang’s THE INDIAN TOMB, she says it was stuck on with “a marvelous glue called UHU.” This amused me because I grew up with UHU and never appreciated its marvelousness fully until now. “In fact, we used to call it ‘the UHU movie’ because earrings were glued on, everything was glued on!”

So, we have to remember this — from now on, THE INDIAN TOMB is to be called THE UHU MOVIE.

I am in little doubt as to which illustration in this post is more enjoyable to look at.

Paget also talks about appearing in an episode of Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR. More substance abuse here — Vincent Price’s graphic decomposition was achieved with caramel applesauce, poured over his face. Rathbone, blinded by sweet goop, had to hang onto the camera itself to guide him forward. “I am not one to break up and waste time on a set, but David Frankham and I laughed so hard and Roger got so upset with us!”

Debra doesn’t say whether TALES OF TERROR should be nicknamed THE CARAMEL APPLESAUCE MOVIE, but I figure yeah, maybe.

A break from the norm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2016 by dcairns

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I felt kind of guilty that I hadn’t hurried to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and TETRO when they were new. I kind of bailed on him after Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and saw no reason to bother with JACK or THE RAINMAKER. Uncle Francis was going to get paid whether I saw them or not, so they’d served their purpose. But I intended to give him another chance when he came back with more personal films, I just… never got around to it.

But now I’ve seen TWIXT and am right puzzled. Written by FFC himself, and proudly bearing the American Zoetrope logo, it seems like a personal project. And indeed it incorporates a tragic incident from Coppola’s life, the death of his son in a boating accident (here rendered as the death of a daughter because, as Poe says here, that makes it more poetical). But what it is, is a hoaky, creaky, incoherent gothic fantasy that plays like cut scenes from a video game and feels like it was written by an eight-year-old. Now, that may sound like a knock. In fact, even as it suffers from all these problems, it has some of the dopey charm of cut scenes and children’s writing: naivety can be attractive.

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The thing starts with considerable assurance: a spooky Tom Waits voice-over will kick anything off nicely. And the images of the small town are very atmospheric without, for the most part, pushing it: visually, the film is often splendid, with digitally manipulated night scenes that evoke Bava and Freda. As the movie goes on, the stuff set in “reality” becomes more and more laughably unconvincing, but the fantastical stuff has a bit of Lynchian weirdness and, although nothing in the movie makes proper sense, there are bits that seem to link up in an irrational, dreamlike way.

It feels harsh to criticise Coppola for using a personal tragedy in his story — after all, it’s his personal tragedy. He should be free to use it if he wants to. But it felt unresolved, unconnected, and curiously unfelt — maybe because we first see a photo of the dead child right after Kilmer’s done a Brando impersonation in a (quite funny) improv writer’s block bit.

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The acting is all over the shop. Val Kilmer works hard to anchor it. It’s lovely to see his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, here playing his current wife — but she doesn’t convince in her bitchier moments. She’s just too nice. Then there’s Bruce Dern as Sheriff Bob LaGrange, who Coppola clearly believes can do no wrong. I saw Dern in Telluride talk to Leonard Maltin about his work in NEBRASKA, and giving a pared-down performance without any of his trademark “Dernsies.” Well, I think all the Dernsies ended up in this film. It’s a performance made entirely of Dernsies. Waste not, want not. I love Bruce Dern, he is an international treasure. But when he gives his name as “BOB LaGrrrraaaange!!!” he probably could have benefited from some direction. Who gets that excited about their own name? I think you can see similar stuff going on with Anthony Hopkins in DRAC, he keeps getting more ridiculous, waiting for the moment when his director will say, “Okay, maybe that was a little too much…” but the moment never comes.

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Oh, we also get Alden Ehrenreich, a Coppola discovery. He plays a ridiculous, Baudelaire-quoting vampire goth biker called Flamingo, and is as good as anyone could be under such circs. Ben Chaplin plays Edgar Allen Poe with an English accent, an odd/lazy choice. But he looks the part. Handsome yet still strongly Poe-like. And I always feel a burst of enthusiasm from somewhere or other when this guy shows up, a bit like with Rufus Sewell, you know? A Rufus Sewell kind of a feeling.

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I’m told, and it may not be true, that when Coppola screened DEMENTIA 13, his first attempt at the Gothic, for his producer, Roger Corman, a man not given to loud displays of emotion, Corman snapped a pencil. Which would be like a bomb going off, from Corman. So he got Jack Hill to rescue it. My own pencil-snapping moment came right at the end of this one, when it became clear that nothing was going to wrap up satisfactorily, that Coppola didn’t have a clue how to end the story, that he’d been making it up as he went along and filmed a first draft. And let’s be clear — it’s OK to end a movie with text on the screen saying what happened to the characters IF THEY’RE REAL. Or if you’re being funny. Coppola is clearly being funny some of the time here, but he doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision about when.