Archive for Roman Polanski

A Throat in his Frog

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by dcairns

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Chuck Jones (director) and Michael Maltese’ (writer) ONE FROGGY EVENING has one of the lamest titles ever stickered to the front end of a cartoon, but it’s an undying masterpiece just the same. Of its many striking qualities, its uniqueness is a major one — it isn’t like anything else Jones, or Warner Bros, ever attempted. Since I learned in school that you can’t have levels of uniqueness — something is either unique or it isn’t — the peculiar feel of this film must be attributed to its being unique in multiple ways, surely?

It’s wordless. While Hanna & Barbera at MGM were happy to go mute with their Tom & Jerries, but Warners cartoons enjoyed the verbal element, even if the scripts depended less on wit than on speech impediments and abrasive accents. But Jones also made FEED THE KITTY, in which both main animal characters are non-verbal, and the Roadrunner/Coyote series, wordless save for the infinite supply of labelled crates and instruction manuals from the Acme Corporation, and the equally infinite supply of hand-written placards, suited to every occasion, which Wile E. can produce from the limitless expanse behind his slender back, as required. So wordlessness can’t be part of OFE’s individual spark, can it?

But there is a particular quality to the silent-movie approach in this one. The frog sings — the humans make no sound. This inverts the pattern of FEED THE KITTY which, with unusual realism, featured a talking housewife and a bulldog and kitten without the gift of language. The fact that the many words heard in OFE are lyrics, sublimely irrelevant to whatever situation they’re sung in, adds a further absurdity.

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Jones began his cartooning career with an obsessive quest for cuteness and sweetness, which the raucous atmosphere of Termite Terrace eventually exorcised from him. He could still access it when appropriate, but it would now be leavened with more abrasive elements — FEED THE KITTY is very sweet-natured, on one level, but scores its biggest laughing sequence with the cruel jape that the big dog thinks his feline friend has been diced up and baked into cookies. It’s maybe the one film that can make me laugh and cry at the same time.

But OFE is set in a world without sweetness. A seemingly contented demolition worker discovers, sealed within the cornerstone of a building he’s razing, a singing frog. He’s convinced this will make his fortune. But the frog sings only to him. All his attempts to monetize the amphibian result in his gradual destruction — humiliation, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration. Finally he deposits the frog within a fresh cornerstone, all set to ruin some poor workman of the future.

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Like Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, OFE revolves around a central conceit which refuses to define itself. Neither symbol nor allegory, Michigan J. Frog, as he was eventually christened, remains his own man. It’s interesting to enumerate things he might represent, but his dumb, croaking face stares blankly at us (like Hypnotoad!) as if to dumbly insist that he’s just a frog. When he sings, a Jekyll/Hyde transformation overtakes him, and he is 100% singing! 100% dancing! No thought creases his green brow, the music just pours out of him. I Am A Singing Frog, is his statement during these transformations/performances. He is possessed by some slimy Muse. At other times, not.

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One explanation occurs to me and rather appeals: the frog as metaphor for Jones’ own talent. Perhaps he felt saddled with a gift which, though special and, to him, important, was not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, any society where men like Jones, Avery and Clampett are paid less than the president has got its priorities badly wrong. Cartooning was a somewhat low-status job at Warners, though Jones earned a living rather than being rendered destitute by it. But he may have had moments of wondering what good it was to have this talent, when the world may have seemed largely indifferent to it. The nameless demolition man is cursed by his gift as surely as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Bros film. Frog or albatross?

Of course, there’s the Freudian angle, and you know I’m going there. Michigan J. Frog as performance anxiety. The damn thing works fine when I’m alone, springing to its full height and putting on a show. As soon as I try to demonstrate it to an interested party, it crumples up. I manipulate it by hand, trying to show what I know it’s capable of, but it remains defiantly limp, hanging boneless and shrivelled. I think I’m correct in saying Freud would immediately have diagnosed such a nightmare as having something to do with a body part, perhaps the liver.

(The society of OFE is almost exclusively male, apart from some switchboard operators used as scenery in a theatrical agency, a starlet’s portrait on the wall, and a couple of matrons trudging indifferently past the theatre where Michigan is intended to debut. When the show starts, the audience is all beer-swilling men.)

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When I first saw the film, I thrilled to its savagery — the relentless cruelty of the film’s one joke, directed at a character who may, it is true, have absconded with a musical animal which did not strictly belong to him, but who otherwise seems blameless (finders keepers being a well-established legal principle). The point seemed to me simply that the universe was hostile, and would reach out, for no reason, to crush an entirely insignificant man using insanely unnecessary force, for no reason. I felt Jones had stumbled upon a large and important and previously almost unrecognized truth. If there’s a slight flavour of Kafka here, that may be why. Finding a singing frog that, with inexplicable non-malice, destroys your life, is as likely and as irreversible as awakening as a giant cockroach: on the one hand, not likely at all. On the other, inescapable. It always happens and it always will happen. It has already happened to you and to me.

The Influence of Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE. I wasn’t quite sure if I was or not. I really like his first feature, SUBMARINE. But, just as the overt HAROLD AND MAUDE stylistic references in that film, while appropriate, don’t really help it secure its own standalone identity, the complex filmography of influences that make up THE DOUBLE sometimes made it seem to me like it was Frankenstein’s quilt or something.

BRAZIL hangs heavy over the film, although Ayoade and his team haven’t really borrowed anything specific — office cubicles are now such a universal workplace phenomenon as to be inescapable. The dystopian vision of bureaucracy comes straight from Dostoevsky’s literary source, and the only point of connection is that Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine have chosen to set their film neither in 19th century Russia nor modern Britain, but in a non-geographic fantasy conurbation mingling British and American (and Australian) accents, with a muted colour palette and a lot of retro stylings. Once you accept this similarity of approach, you won’t find many particular points of connection.

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The movie manages to fold both Wilder’s THE APARTMENT and Polanski’s THE TENANT into its narrative. The titles of those films suggest an affinity, but they are in fact pretty different. The latter choice is intriguing because Polanski tried to adapt THE DOUBLE himself, only for star John Travolta to pull out over qualms about nudity — Steve Martin quickly stepped in as a replacement, at which point leading lady Isabelle Adjani (who was also in THE TENANT) fled, and the whole house of cards collapsed. Ayoade definitely isn’t setting out to make the film Polanski would have aimed for, but a recurring death leap, viewed from an opposing window, seems to have been transplanted almost intact from Polanski.

There’s business with an apartment key used to facilitate sexual liaisons — this is the APARTMENT connection. Ironic given Billy Wilder’s crude put-down — asked if he was going to see ROSEMARY’S BABY, he replied, “I wouldn’t touch it with a five-foot Pole.”

In resolving the story, a bit of FIGHT CLUB seems to have crept in — not anything specific, just a sense of “How can we make this dark yet somehow upbeat?”

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Fiona howled at this shot, though: “It’s his signature image — a woman staring balefully over food! It gets me every time!”

The casting is great, if possibly too on-the-nose? Jesse Eisenberg can embody a hapless nerd in his sleep, after all. It’s when he shows up as his nasty doppelganger that the film lifts off, with a new kind of energy powering it. The horror of the completely confident man. The trouble is, this is a Zuckerberg cut in two, so both the lovelorn nebbish and the blank-eyed sociopath are slightly familiar perfs.

Mia Wasiskowski can do no wrong. It’s lovely seeing Craig Roberts and Yasmin Page (and indeed Noah Taylor), the stars of SUBMARINE again. Wallace Shawn is a bit typecast, James Fox is a big tease, it’s interesting seeing comedy people Chris Morris and Tim Key, though there’s the risk of Guest Star Syndrome setting in. But both justify their appearances by being remarkable. And Cathy Moriarty!

The Japanese pop songs are the one rogue element — you can’t pin down any specific reference that’s being made — they just add to the alien atmosphere and provide something jaunty amid the bleakness. I liked them all and would like to own the soundtrack.

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Also, the film is brilliantly cut. The images sizzle against one another. This isn’t just a technical compliment, as in, “The editor has a good sense of timing/drama/comedy.” The shots are designed beautifully so that they smack together in a way that feels striking and genuinely original. Based on this alone, I’m prepared to call Ayoade one of our best and most exciting filmmakers, even if I can’t quite decide what I think of this film, a hesitation that would surely disqualify me from broadsheet film reviewing (although I get the impression some of those guys didn’t know what to make of THE DOUBLE either).

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Sidenote: I recently asked Richard Ayoade to be in a film I plan to make and he was nice, considered it, and then respectfully declined. Now his agency is helping us find an alternative. Am I resentful of Ayoade for spurning me? Am I grateful to him for considering me? Which version of Jesse Eisenberg am I behaving like? Who am I?

 

Additional dialogue by…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK premier of MACBETH, which made me feel quite the dude, until I looked at my wardrobe and realized I was going to have to take a whimsical approach to the dress code “smart”. I also met lots of people I know there, which made me feel well-connected. There was a splendid after-party and I utilised it in moderation as I had work the following day, so all in all it was a very good afternoon/evening, apart from the film.

The film isn’t too bad, though — that was a dirty trick I pulled at the end of  that paragraph. The crowd responded with enthusiasm, en masse, though I caught some mutterings later.

All of the acting is decent, though I didn’t love any of the actors. I love Martin Shaw in the Polanski version. I love Mifune and Mrs. Mifune in THRONE OF BLOOD, more for their pyrotechnic displays of theatrical technique than as characters, but they are close to my heart all the same.

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The accents are good, though Marion Cotillard’s is pretty different from everyone else’s. It’s a shock whenever Malcolm (Jack Reynor) speaks, because he doesn’t sound like he’s doing Shakespeare — he sounds like he’s saying something he just thought of. By this reckoning he’s probably the best actor in the film, but he creates a problem for everyone else, because if that’s what a person talking is like, what are these?

The film looks pretty stunning. The locations on the Isle of Skye are brooding and dramatic and spectacular, and it’s nice seeing my native country used in a cinematic manner. Some of the Northumberland scenes look exactly like Polanski’s version, though. The designers have perversely chosen quite a Russian Orthodox look for the architecture and costumes, but this mostly works quite well, apart from the kingly robes which seem a bit samurai to me. Stuff can be the wrong period or the wrong setting as long as it isn’t jarring.

What people said:

Alex: “Paddy Considine has the world’s most disapproving beard.”

Jonny Murray: “Who’d have thought the old man would have so much mud on him?”

Emma: “It’s a shame these things can only happen with big movie stars doing big acting. Ken Loach could do Macbeth.”

Me: “But look at Fassbender in FISH TANK. Why couldn’t he be as natural in this?”

Yes, this is another muddy MAC, calling to mind the classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL exchange (“Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”) — only in this version, even the king gets covered in shit. Michael Fassbender turns up plastered in peat in one scene with no explanation of how it got there, and you hardly notice, because everybody’s always filthy. And all the rooms are draughty. The Macbeth’s bungalow creaks in the wind like a ship in a gale. The scenery is splendid but I wouldn’t want to live here. Oh, wait,

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I didn’t feel like anybody in the film had a relationship with anyone else. Lady Macbeth seemed basically mad from the start, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) was a savage barbarian who then goes totally psycho. Usually you get the sense that Banquo and Macbeth are mates. I have to say — the continuing problem of the Festival Theatre’s accoustics and sound system meant that I may have missed stuff that would have helped forge this connection.

The adaptation is an odd one — lots of interesting ideas. I just didn’t think they worked. The film is at pains to answer that academic’s question, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” According to this film, two. We open on a dead baby, so we surmise that this tragedy isn’t going to be a comedy, and then there’s a teenage Macbeth Junior who dies in the opening battle. At the risk of coming over like Tom Stoppard, who has protested the tendency of directors to treat Shakespeare’s text as a sounding-board for their own ideas, I think a productive question for academics may not be so useful for filmmakers. The Macbeths have no children that we meet in the play. To create one for the film presents a challenge — he can’t say anything, and nobody can say anything about him. So the kid dies, and Macbeth writes a letter to his wife — about some women he met on the heath. No mention of son. When Duncan  congratulates Mac on winning the battle for him, he doesn’t add, “And by the way, sorry about Junior.” We need to talk about Macbeth Jnr!

The filmmakers bring this doleful kid on as a ghost, and have him holding the dagger which Macbeth sees before him. So the line, “Come, let me clutch thee,” is addressed to his son. Who then leaves — things were getting oddly homoerotic — and Macbeth continues talking to thin air, delivering lines written to be addressed to a dagger, as if to a dead son. Who isn’t there anymore.

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The most egregrious abuse of Shakespeare is right at the start, actually, when the witches say, “Where the place?” “Upon the battlefield.”

That’s right. I seem to recall that line once reading, “Upon the heath.” Which fits the rhythm, and has an assonant connection with the following line, “There to meet with Macbeth.” This feels like a Weinstein Bros idea. Macbeth has a vision of the witches while he’s in battle. Couldn’t the battlefield be on a heath? A kind of battleheath, if you will? Apparently somebody thought this would be confusing, so it was better to rewrite Shakespeare. “Additional dialogue by…” The Weinsteins have a long history of explanatory overdubs, with exposition blasting from the back of actors’ heads the moment they turn away, just to make sure we understand what Harvey wants us to understand. This fiddling has actually occurred at script stage, though, so we can have bad exposition with good lip sync. The filmmakers can’t hear will rotate in his grave because they’re simply not on his frequency.

There are other mismatches of word and action. When we are told that Macbeth “unseamed” the traitor “from the nave to th’ chops,” clearly stating, albeit in flowery language, that he splin him open from stomach to throat, we are shown Macbeth simply lopping the guy’s head off. It’s genuinely like the director didn’t read the play, or even the script. I wouldn’t like to suggest that this was a particularly Australian tendency (George Miller, for one, always matches word to deed with striking accuracy), but the last time I felt this weird disconnect was at Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! in which E. MacGregor sings “You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue,” while looking straight into N. Kidman’s eyes. They’re blue, Ewan. She’s right in front of you. I’d be worried about that kind of memory loss.

When Macbeth talks to one of his murderers after Banquo’s assassination, he does it at the banquet, with everyone else standing around silently, listening to the secret murder plot echoing around the hall. You can play it that way, and it doesn’t necessarily contradict anything later, but that scene always seemed to work really well when nobody knew Macbeth had Banquo offed, and so his embarrassing flake-out when he sees his former chum’s corpse at table exposes a dirty secret and causes Lady M. to fly into hostess mode, trying to put an acceptable spin on things.

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One thing the movie works hard to fix is Shakespeare’s missing scene — Edith Evans always complained that it was impossible to play Lady Macbeth’s plunge into guilty madness right after the banquet. “She was perfectly fine at supper.” Using visual scenes, our Aussie director Justin Kurzel is able to suggest a credible, gradual descent — but then blows it spectacularly by killing her offscreen with no explanation of how she died. I do think we need to know. Wouldn’t her grieving husband ask?

It goes on… Macbeth and Macduff smash each other to pieces and disembowel each other, and only get around to the “untimely ripped” bit at the very end of the fight. Untimely indeed. I can’t even be bothered going over why that’s a goofy choice.

I said to a colleague, bright and un-hungover at work the next day, that the film was dramatically kind of dull.

“More of a Michael Slowbender?” he asked.

“Michael Grimbender,” I clarified.

Which doesn’t even mean anything. That’s me, full of soundbites, signifying nothing.

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