Archive for Sam Peckinpah

Wife, Horse, Mustache

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2016 by dcairns

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A shot nobody particularly remarks upon in its first iteration goes on to become famous in LAST TANGO IN PARIS…

It’s odd the things that stick in your mind. I remember some TV review of the year show at the end of 1982 and Billy Connolly was on it reviewing KING OF COMEDY, which he said had become his new favourite film — “Apart from VIVA ZAPATA!” So there you go, now you know what Billy Connolly’s favourite film is. I mean, I’m sure it hasn’t changed.

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Another odd thing — since I’m younger than cinema itself, marginally, I find myself experiencing film history backwards sometimes. Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is a film I retain some considerable fondness for, though I’m more and more bothered by the misogyny. But when I finally watched Billy Connolly’s favourite film, I was fascinated to see the influence it had on Leone — specifically an execution in the rain with an artfully-lit rain-speckled car window. Though Leone was clearly working off the American western tradition, it’s relatively rare that I spot a moment in one of his films that owes a noticeable visual debt to any specific movie. Sir Christopher Professor Frayling has pointed out shots borrowed from HIGH NOON, and I was quite smug when I noticed that the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY owes a recognizable debt to William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (gunfight indoors, filmed from outdoors, with a camera movement motivated by somewhat abstract means), but no doubt partly because of the new tools of widescreen and the zoom lens, and pertly because of his own distinct visual mannerisms (extreme closeups from eyebrow to lower lip intercut with spectacular wide shots, and deep focus compositions which combine ECU and ELS), Leone’s films never seem to me like a patchwork of influences. I also don’t really feel they have anything in common with anybody else’s spaghetti westerns, a genre which seems to me to have produced almost no distinguished work outside of Leone.

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Anyway, to VIVA ZAPATA!, a relatively early Kazan/Brando, which really does come to life in its scenes of personal violence (battles, not so much). Kazan is continuing the very in-your-face deep focus approach he used in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (which at times looks like it was shot for 3D, so much thrusting into the lens goes on). There are lots of great expressive shots which develop and transform as you watch, a hallmark of Kazan’s approach since he decided to make PANIC IN THE STREETS “like Hitchcock.”

 

THUNDER FURY! whaaa?

There is a slight problem with the whole Mexico thing. This Fox production credits no Mexican actors at all, apart from special case Anthony Quinn, though there are plenty in small roles. Allowing for Hollywood fantasy (which one doesn’t have to allow for in Kazan’s very best films), actors like Joseph Wiseman and Arnold Moss make semi-credible substitutes, and Jean Peters doesn’t really try, which wins her points. Brando is the problem.

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It’s an interesting makeup. Apart from darkening his skin and hair, the makeup team (including Ben Nye and gorilla specialist Charles Gemora — did somebody ask for a guerrilla fighter and get misunderstood?) have given him wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery oriental eyes, which combine with dark contact lenses to make Brando/Zapata seem boss-eyed. And they’ve given him a mustache many, many times smaller and punier than the famous original. Brando’s ‘tache would only look like a Zapata if glued to Herve Villechaise for some kind of ill-advised TERROR OF TINY TOWN scaled-down remake. That’s a strange choice. We don’t require our leading man to look exactly like the historical figure he’s impersonating — but Zapata’s mustache was very famous indeed, and he gave his name to it. Which must have been confusing. “Are you talking to me or my mustache?

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Suspense-building cutaways — Kazan probably wished he had a half-dozen more of these for the climax, but he gets by with two, thanks to Barbara McLean’s taut cutting and Joseph Walker’s marvelous photography.

The ending is a stunner — well, not so much scenarist John Steinbeck’s inspirational coda, which I found noble but corny — but the action climax is proper proto-Peckinpah, no slomo required. Brando, like Peckinpah, is an artist of violence, particularly inspired by moments of pain and death, and he approaches the assassination with a lot of interesting ideas. Look out for a major Brando project from me shortly…

A Kubrick Shot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Quite late in ONE-EYED JACKS, directed by star Marlon Brando after Stanley Kubrick departed the project, there is an unmistakable Kubrick shot.

We follow Brando, a prisoner, and Karl Malden and Slim Pickens, his captors, into the jailhouse. The party advances towards us then turns to head screen right —

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— tracking screen right, the camera passes THROUGH a wall —

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— through various cells, following Brando and Malden and Pickens —

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— emerging at the the stairs to a tower —

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— and as the characters start to climb, the camera begins an ascent also…

Then the shot stops abruptly, cut off by a rather jagged angle change which abandons the phantasmal fluidity — having declared that prison walls can’t hold it back, the camera abruptly gives up the ghost-walk and jerks to a higher angle. Understandable, in a way — Brando is about to kick Pickens downstairs, and this is not the kind of action I, personally, would care to stage repeatedly (or at all!) at the end of a long, complicated camera move. Better make it a single, locked-ff shot and then the only thing that can go wrong is the stunt itself. With luck, you can just do it once and hope “Slim” doesn’t crash through the set wall.

What’s incredibly striking is how Kubrickian the shot is — under the influence of Ophuls, Kubrick was tracking through walls A LOT in THE KILLING, and would do so even more in LOLITA, the project he jumped ship onto immediately after his collaboration with Marlon ceased to seem tenable. (After LOLITA, Kubrick’s camera loses its power to become intangible and pass through solids — I don’t recall any instances of permeation in STRANGELOVE.)

The second striking thing — or maybe this struck me first — is that the shot is totally un-Brando-like. His filming so far ha been decent enough, elegant even, but he hasn’t shown any interest in long, fluid camera movements. Arguably he doesn’t show much interest here either, hacking into the shot as soon as he is decently able — sooner, even.

One would be tempted to assume that Kubrick filmed this sequence before his untimely departure, and maybe Brando chopped it up, contemptuously — but all accounts suggest SK left the film before photography began. What gives?

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My best guess is that maybe the set was prepared to Kubrick’s specifications — and it must have looked surreal, all those jail cells with a missing back wall — with a specific shot in mind. In filming there, Brando was certainly tied into one good angle — a long, graceful track-and-crane shot would be the only alternative to a series of choppy entrances and exits. Based on his usual approach, Brando might have preferred to put the camera at one end of the cells and have the characters approach from the far end, and perhaps the incomplete cells made this impractical.

If the whole thing is coincidence, I think it’s an interesting one, a novice filmmaker falling into the style of another director he’s just fired.

Incidentally, many versions of Kubrick’s departure have been told, most of them involving a script meeting and a bell or gong. What story did YOU hear?

Also, incidentally — Kubrick stole Slim Pickens for DR. STRANGELOVE after Peter Sellers wriggled out of playing Colonel Kong. And Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado were stolen by Sam Peckinpah, who had been fired from this project by Kubrick and Brando, when Peckinpah remade the story as PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

Without a Sound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Looking at LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE and SAMURAI WOLF, and am blow away by the use of sound in these 60s and 70s Japanese samurai flicks. What’s impressive is not so much the steely clashes as the silence around them.

SWORD OF VENGEANCE director Kanji Misumi uses one particularly lucid technique to heighten his swordplay. Much of the film consists of flashbacks depicting how jowly protagonist Tomisaburo Wakayama became a masterless ronin. These flashbacks tend to feature water — rain, a rushing weir. But the water makes no sound. An eeriness is created, from which the shrill clang of blades emerges with alarming clarity. There’s basically no atmos whatsoever, so that the sound mixer’s golden rule — always be having something going on — is abandoned. The audience is always quieter when the film is quiet. We fear our movements will give us away, revealing our position to potential enemies elsewhere in the auditorium, or to the giant, godlike figures on the screen. Heaven help you if you attract their attention.

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Of course, Misumi’s choice also helps distinguish flashbacks from present tense.

Hideo Gosha’s slick SAMURAI WOLF uses silence as the sound of death. Normal sound is cut off with the swipe of a sword — we lose the whistling wind sound, the cries of the dying victim continue for a second, and then get flicked off as with the throw of a switch — this seems to follow the advent of slomo, as a kind of delayed after-effect. As with Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Peckinpah after him (THE WILD BUNCH) slomo is the speed of the dying man, that adrenalin shot of death-trauma putting your last moments into a slurred timescape, a last chance to put your thoughts in order before oblivion reels you in. And with no sounds to distract you — how thoughtful of someone.

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The last great repository of silence may be the anime, where, since every sound is added afterwards anyway, Japanese filmmakers still occasionally withhold an effect. Miyazaki does neat things with the SIZE of sounds too — in TOTORRO, the titular nature spirit is big and noisy, but in an extreme long shot he can alight with a comical PLOP, like a fat raindrop. In Otomo’s AKIRA, Tokyo blows up in the opening shot, a black bubble of destruction which spreads and bursts without a single sound, the audio vacuum somehow suggesting a roar too great for any cinema’s speakers.