Archive for Seconds

Seconds Out

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Casual observations inspired by screening SECONDS to students –

Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE FOX, THE MECHANIC) apparently didn’t care for John Frankenheimer’s handling of SECONDS — Frankenheimer cut a scene on a beach with a kid which nevertheless gets referenced in the film’s final shot. “It still works,” argued Frankenheimer, and he’s right — in a non-literal, allusive way, the scene has something to do with unfulfilled dreams or poignant memories, and it provides a heartbreaking note of regret amidst the sheer horror of that killer final sequence.

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Carlino also objected to all the damn STYLE — James Wong Howe’s bravura handheld swooping, the cameras mounted on actors to turn them into gliding automata in a wobbly world, the jump cuts (in Hollywood! in 1966!), the expressionist set in the drug-trip staged sexual assault. Carlino carefully scripted the action to take place in mundane settings, anchoring the allegory (the ending, with the line “You were my finest work,” somehow reminds me of Kafka’s Parable of The Law in The Trial). As with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, the fantastic company is plonked down in reality — reached via a steam laundry on Lafayette and a meat-packing company a short taxi ride away.

But I love all the disorienting tricks. The only false step I think is shooting Jeff Corey low-angle, where his nostrils, black and wondrously elongated like tadpoles, get a little distracting.

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The best (and most literal) cut in a film full of daring excisions — John Randolph lowers pen to paper to sign his Faustian pact, and we immediately see a scalpel touch skin as the painful (and in literal terms unbelievable) process of transforming the puddingy Randolph into chiselled Rock Hudson begins. We think of signing in blood, and the surgeon’s blade as a pen rewriting lives. Very evocative, and also OUCH!

That missing scene is a good thing, probably — the beginning and end of the film are very strong, and the middle kind of weak (that interminable nudie hippy wine ceremony!), and so speed is a good weapon to get Rock back to the company and bring things to their predestined appalling conclusion. They nearly overdo it — one is reminded of what Fitzgerald said about second acts in American lives — but the balance is just about there. I suspect David Ely’s novel got too internal in the middle and Carlino couldn’t quite crack it without access to the character’s inner world, or else he did crack it and Frankenheimer and Hudson strayed from the path (it’s never fair to blame the writer unless one has read the script, and I haven’t, though I’d like to).

Still, this is strong stuff, and I found myself thinking about the many, worrying ways the story blends with Hudson’s own life (we’ll give you a new face, new voice, new name, and everything will be perfect). Theory: the strongest horror movies were probably made by people who didn’t think they were making a horror movie as such. Or, rather than scaring the audience with a Wes Craven 1-2-3-BOO! every ten minutes, they simply follow the implications of a disturbing story to its terrible conclusion.

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Class

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2013 by dcairns

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I’m jumping on a plane to Venice today, en route to Pordenone. So as a stop-gap measure, here’s the list of screenings I’ve set for students at Edinburgh College of Art where I work. They’ve already had THE GENERAL, M and CRISS CROSS.

The screenings start off in chronological order but then meander. The choices are not so much to fill in vital areas of film history — impossible to do with so few! — but to hint at the development of the medium while pointing to clues useful to our students’ work. Things like POV and subjective emotional effects, use of time, movement, props and their relationship to character and story, seducing the audience to go on a journey…

My blurbs are on the basic side, written in half an hour…

TUESDAY 15TH OCTOBER
RASHOMON
(Akira Kurosawa)
The film that introduced Japanese cinema to the west. A dizzying exploration of truth and lies. Several people have witnessed a murder, but at trial their accounts differ so radically that nobody can make sense of what really happened. Kurosawa turns this premise into a hypnotic, sometimes shocking, always beautiful study of our problematic relationship to truth.

THURSDAY 24TH OCTOBER
WILD STRAWBERRIES
(Ingmar Bergman)
An old man nearing death goes on a journey into his past. Bergman’s poetic film uses cinema to explore time and memory as a key to character. The aging actor/director Victor Sjostrom, in his last role, is extraordinary.

THURSDAY 31ST OCTOBER
SECONDS
(John Frankenheimer)
A man is approached by a mysterious company who offer him a new life. A new face, a new identity, a chance to start again. Second helpings. Both melancholy and stylistically dazzling, the film unites the influences of Hollywood, television, and European arthouse to paint a haunting portrait of longing and failure that will incidentally terrify you.

THURSDAY 7TH NOVEMBER
DON’T LOOK NOW…
(Nicolas Roeg)
Visually beautiful, romantic, frightening. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are grieving parents in wintry Venice, haunted by visions of their dead child and embroiled in a deeper, darker mystery. Roeg practically reinvented film cutting with his allusive, mosaic-like approach, fragmenting time and space.

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THURSDAY 14TH NOVEMBER
CABARET
(Bob Fosse)
Not always considered in the context of New Hollywood cinema (Scorsese, Coppola etc), but he definitely belongs there, the choreographer-turned-director Fosse proved himself with this divinely decadent exploration of Berlin night-life in the years just before the rise of Hitler. A musical which is also sinister, sexy, scary, political and unsettling.

THURSDAY 21ST NOVEMBER
A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE
(Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
Documentary and fiction crash together in such a way that you can’t tell them apart. Director Makhmalbaf decides to make a film about the policeman he stabbed during the Iranian revolution. He hires the policeman to play himself. What will a fictional recreation of a real event reveal?

THURSDAY 28TH NOVEMBER
SHORT FILMS PROGRAMME
Classic and obscure short fiction films selected to broaden or even explode your thinking about story, performance, photography, design, editing…

THURSDAY 5TH DECEMBER
THE SUITOR
Pierre Etaix stands somewhere between Jaques Tati and Woody Allen, delivering visuals gags around romantic situations. Playing almost like a series of short films, The Suitor follows Pierre’s misadventures as he doggedly tries to find romance, without understanding really what it is. For his use of framing, props and the language of film, Etaix is a master to learn from.

THURSDAY 12TH DECEMBER
THE CONFORMIST
(Bernardo Bertolucci)
Simply one of the most exhilarating pieces of filmmaking ever, this political thriller is also a dark psychological drama and a joyous romp through cinematic technique. Clerici wants to please Italy’s fascist rulers because he needs to feel he belongs – he’s worried about an event in his youth which may mark him as different. The state sends him to Paris to assassinate his old teacher, to prove his loyalty. Since he’s getting married, he brings his new wife along – it’ll make a nice honeymoon…

THURSDAY 19TH DECEMBER
L’ASSASSINAT DU PERE NOEL (THE MURDER OF SANTA CLAUS)
(Christian-Jaque)
A delightful mystery which serves up the true spirit of Christmas: murder, suspicion, insanity and malaise. But all wrapped up at the end in a way that’s charming and funny and surprisingly heart-warming. Amazing to think this confection was first served up during the Nazi occupation.

Up until the last minute the list included COME AND SEE, an amazing film which I think students would get a lot out of… but I began to fear that the schedule was getting to be too much of a wrist-slitter. I don’t find any of these films depressing, but some light and shade is useful.

Going To The Candidate’s Debate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2008 by dcairns

Watching THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (version original) with friends — Fiona had never seen it — and it was striking how, for a very good film (it IS a very good film) it’s full of very silly, awful things that would sink a lot of lesser movies. So in a way I feel I’m celebrating the flick’s real virtues by listing some of its more gaping dreadfulnesses.

1) Opening credits. A badly airbrushed THING — a bundled flag? Then it acquires a playing-card face. OK, that’s pertinent. Then it sort of STRETCHES in order to fit in more credits. How does it do that? WHAT IS IT?

David Amram’s music works quite well in the film, but when you hear it more or less by itself, as here, it kind of makes you want to slip quietly out of life and start decaying.

Korean? Right.

2) Henry Silva as a Korean. “Of Spanish-Sicilian descent?” someone must have said, “Close enough!” Or maybe they just wanted someone Sinatra could hang out with. I like Silva, he has the face of a clever shark, but he is nobody’s idea of oriental. And he has to do kung fu! They could have got Bruce Lee, surely. Not Korean, either, but you know, CLOSER. It is ASTONISHING that, in 1962, a filmmaker might voluntarily cast this way, especially in a small role where there would have been no real pressure to insert a big name star.

With one mighty chop! I think it’s the placement of the couch that makes this bit funny.

3) Kung fu. Sinatra is many things (he’s terrific in this) but he’s actually not the most graceful athlete. It’s particularly funny, the contrast between the feeble movements of the lumbering Caucasians onscreen, and the EFFECT they have, smashing through tabletops and doors with their mighty chops. It’s just mad. Several of Sinatra’s “moves” seem to have been borrowed from the classic “dirty fighting” scene in Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER, where, despite being some years older and having a bad back, Gary Cooper acquitted himself rather better in the action hero stakes than the bandy-legged crooner from Hoboken.

Send in the stunt men! If you watch the equence at regular speed, it is in no way obvious that it’s not Frank and Henry here. But it’s still funny.

The sequence is laughable partly because it seems to have served for the inspiration for all the wildly destructive martial arts combat in the later PINK PANTHER films, but only partly. Shouting “No, Cato, now is not the time!” at the screen doesn’t actually make the sequence funnier than it already is. It shares with Blake Edwards’ slapstick scenes the abrupt, unmotivated start, the massively elevated levels of destruction, and the unhealthy, unskilled posture and movement of the fighters (though Burt Kwouk and Henry Silva certainly have the edge on Peter Sellers and Frank Sinatra).

4) Janet Leigh. Now, I love Janet Leigh, but there is actually no reason for her to be in this picture save to assure us that the Frankie is heterosexual, in case we were for any reason worried. After all, shorn of love interest, he spends most of his time making puppy eyes at Laurence Harvey. Screenwriter George Axelrod (THE 7 YEAR ITCH) breaks out his best cutesy dialogue to try and give Janet something to SAY, at least, since she has nothing to do, and Sinatra suffers so effectively in these scenes that they kind of get away with it. Of course, a lot of women’s roles were created for this very reason, and still are, but usually they’re more thoroughly woven into the narrative, so that their presence actually achieves something else too.

5) Laurence Harvey going on about being “lovable”, a word he uses about 47 times in one speech. Overdone, maybe? However, L.H. is, if not exactly adorable, extremely effective and touching here. My old friend took a dislike to the Lithuanian Lothario after witnessing him urinate from the window of a moving car, but if wanton micturation were something that disqualified one from screen greatness, Lee Tracy and Robert Mitchum would both be disbarred from the Walk of Fame. As well as all those cockney actors who, by long tradition, use the dressing room sink rather than the toilet (Barbara Windsor, James Hayter and Jessie Matthews, I’m talking about you).

6) Not a flaw, but a definite TRAIT: Frankenheimer directs this with a great deal of invention but very little cohesion. While most of it uses wide-angle lens deep-focus photography in a way that draws upon CITIZEN KANE while looking ahead to Frankenheimer’s much more extreme SECONDS, the film uses just about every style yet invented. Mostly location-shot, the film has some bizarre process shots when Harvey and Sinatra are meant to be in Central Park, even though the wide shots show them actually there. Arriving at a political rally, we suddenly go handheld, in a pastiche of Pennebaker’s PRIMARY (see also THE BEST MAN and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY — this is obviously the default mode for filming political activity, pre-Zapruder). Ten minutes from the end, there are a couple of WIPES, for no readily explainable reason.

Winged victory.

The stylistic confusion could be said to apply to the film’s politics as well, except that I think both are intentional, and pretty clever. It’s obviously an anti-McCarthy fable, but at the same time the film confirms the Reds-under-the-beds paranoia by having its McCarthy character turn out to be a communist agent. Senator Jordan voices the film’s message, but when he’s assassinated the bullet passes through a carton of milk on its way to his heart, so he appears to bleed milk. Frankenheimer stated that this was a satirical swipe at the character’s milky liberalism.

But all that double-bluff and counter-espionage makes the movie smarter and more interesting than some piece of agit-prop.

Pretty much everything else seemed great, Angela Lansbury in particular. Let’s talk about HER sometime!

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