Archive for Satyricon

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.

Casanova in Greeneland

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by dcairns

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I’ve been looking at Mankiewicz, Joseph L, as the New York Film Fest is doing a retrospective and I was asked to write something for The Forgotten, which you can read about on Thursday. As part of my viewing, I was startled to discover that Fellini stole the opening of CASANOVA from Mankiewicz’s THE QUIET AMERICAN.

TQA is a Graham Greene adaptation set in Viet Nam, photographed by Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) in inky b&w, whereas CASANOVA is a carnivalesque biography of the Italian libertine, poet, diarist and spy, so the two would seem pretty far apart. But both begin with celebrations, and what Mankiewicz and his team make of Chinese New Year in Saigon seems to have strongly influenced Fellini’s take on the Venice Carnival. Obviously, both events have certain elements in common — Mankiewicz centres his scene on a canal (he loved Venice, and filmed there), and there are masks and fireworks and bells and singing and chanting. It’s not surprising that the Fellini scene would contain all those features.

And it is POSSIBLE that the way veteran editor William Hornbeck fragments Mankiewicz’s scene, with near-subliminal flash-cuts of firecrackers exploding against the night sky, suggested itself to Fellini and his editor, Ruggiero Mastroianni independently. And the jumbled, jangled soundtrack, so very reminiscent, certainly owes something to what these celebrations naturally sound like, though Fellini’s is more elaborately layered and stylised.

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But when a Chinese dragon’s head fell from a bridge and floated down the canal, I felt a distinct deja vu. The image of Venus rising from the waters like Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW has a precedent in Fellini’s work — the top half of a vast statue’s head is carried through the streets in a moment in SATYRICON, so it was a partial image in the maestro’s mind already. But I think the combination of similarities is fairly overwhelming — nothing is proven, you understand, but direct influence seems to me more likely than not.

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And I’m still surprised — Mankiewicz influencing Fellini?

But I’m telling you the plot.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2012 by dcairns

“Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no-one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story, we say: ‘And then?’ If it is in a plot, we ask: ‘Why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘And then – and then -‘ they can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.”

~ EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel.

I’m enjoying Forster’s book of lectures, which I’ve dabbled with before but never read cover to cover. Obviously he’s snobbish about the movie-public above, and he’s writing in 1927 when clearly elaborate plotting was to be found all over the screen. I wonder when Forster had last been to the flickers? But I also wonder if the pure story he speaks of, that which requires nothing from the viewer but expectation of the next stimulating event, really exists except as a sort of platonic ideal.

(Also, I’ve also felt that the word STORY had a grander sound than the word PLOT, so I’m almost inclined to reverse Forster’s terminology, but that would get confusing. So, in his terms a story is a linear sequence of related events, whereas a plot is a structured sequence of causally related events.)

The first STAR WARS certainly depends a lot on the appeal of pure story. Alec Guinness, frowning at the poor dialogue and hackneyed characters, was on the point of discarding it, he says, when he realized he wanted to know what happened next. And if that were so, he further realized, the thing had a shot at being successful. Wisely, as it turned out, he agreed to be in it.

But STAR WARS is plotted. At the beginning, we meet the robots, we see the princess captured, we escape with the robots and meet the hero. His path eventually brings him into contact with the princess, and he rescues her. This is all linear, and we use the robots as POV characters to pull us through the different strands of the story. But Lucas also cuts away from them to action involving the villains and the princess. This is so that we are reminded they’re in the film — and so that we can anticipate the adventure which will occur when the different plot threads weave together. If the film were mere story, it would be enough to simply follow the robots to Luke, then follow Luke. No doubt when he meets Leia and Darth we’d be surprised, because we’d have forgotten they were in the film, but from a STORY point of view that would be fine. In Hitchcockian terms, Lucas defuses that surprise in favour of suspense, which gives greater value over a longer period of screen time.

So if even STAR WARS uses plot mechanics, can the plotless film be said to exist? Even the most moronic video-game movie uses goals, often in a kind of treasure-hunt scenario. The constant succession of stimulating action sequences satisfies those who only require visceral excitement, but a causal connection has been established, a purpose to all the striving and strife. Critics who describe the modern action spectaculars as plotless are usually responding to a surface impression rather than really analysing how the things function. Such films tend to use very flat characterisation (to use Forster’s term: but even flat characters, he notes, have their uses) and any development or alteration of these characters is usually unconvincing and rote (because the screenwriters are following the Syd Field road map rather than feeling the landscape with their own senses). But plot is something they all have, usually extending even to the TWIST, where a goodie turns out to be a baddie or apparent salvation turns out to be a trap.

Forster’s own example is the Thousand and One Nights, which is odd because you can’t hook a “tyrannical sultan” merely with a string of interesting events — for him to keenly anticipate further developments, you need to engage his intelligence with puzzles, something needs to be at stake. If the hero is buried up to his neck in sand and the tide is coming in, you can’t be concerned unless you visualize what is supposed to happen next.

For a narrative in which memory and anticipation and intelligence are irrelevant, you kind of have to look to FELLINI SATYRICON — and the result is far more avant-garde, and a way far more interesting, than STAR WARS. Anticipating what will happen next will get you nowhere, because what happens next is always going to be whatever Fellini thinks would be most delightful or strange. Occasionally narrative questions are produced, dangled, and very occasionally answered, but actual dramatic tension is really beside the point. Forster complains that mere stories like Walter Scott’s often drag in death or marriage to provide a totally arbitrary conclusion, but Fellini’s non-ending is even more abrupt — he essentially just abandons the story. He does it beautifully, and makes us feel that the ensuing scenes are lost to history, and his inconclusive conclusion is more profound than Lucas’s Leni Riefenstahl borrowings could ever be, or were ever intended to be. THAT’S a story — as Homer Simpson once put it, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

But I wonder what Forster would have thought of it?

I don’t know what he’d have thought of this, either — but it’s the source of my post title. The late Kenny Everett as Cupid Stunt, on and with Michael Parkinson.