Archive for Spielberg

2001: An Odyssey in Bits #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on November 28, 2018 by dcairns

(So, OK, there’s an overture — a bit of Ligeti used as build-up — played over a black screen for a minute or so before this shot.)

Hello! I thought I’d blog my way through 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and see if I can surprise myself with any fresh discoveries.

Kubrick was prone to speaking of his films being based around “non-submersible units” — “give me six non-submersible units and I’ll make you a film!” Suggesting he may have been confusing films with pontoon bridges, possibly. But 2001 really is based around big cinematic set-pieces, and Kubrick’s rejection of the theatrical act structure adopted by Hollywood and most other movies is significant. It ties him into the sixties art cinema of Fellini, Antonioni, etc. I’m not quite clear who first developed the more abstract, musical or free-form patterns we see in art movies of the time…

Anyway, after the Ligeti we get Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and a sunrise in space. In fact, a simultaneous planetrise and sunrise.Sunrises are important in this film. See how many of them YOU can spot.

The FX still hold up, partly because they’re beautiful as well as convincing. This one arguably is a little flat — a shame they couldn’t have made moon more dimensional. There is a slight feeling of the rostrum camera about the movements. It’s the authentic BRIGHTNESS of the sun that makes it feel more real than cut-out animation — the bit of lens flare that will appear just before the main title really sells it.The big crescendos and cymbal-clashes on Kubrick’s name and the title are almost too much — I don’t think anybody laughs at 2001 except for the zero-G toilet instructions and some of the late Douglas Rains’s lines, so they get away with it, but really… you must have a healthy ego to put your name up there at this exact moment in the music. It’s good showbiz though, clearly.Reading the contemporary critics is a little dispiriting. They seem so determined not to be amazed. Like they all drank their sense of wonder to death long before. Those words “sense of wonder” may have been overused to death also, but they really apply here. The film does allow room to wonder — your questions have a good chance of being worth asking. I think I may have first heard the expression around the time of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and in that film, there aren’t really any questions that’ll make you think. There’s mystery — what are the aliens up to? — but no useful answers present themselves. Stealing and returning aeroplanes and small children, swooping about, implanting images in brains… they’ve come a long way just to fuck with us, it seems.

Kubrick’s aliens are less whimsical. It seems they have a definite end in mind. They are playing a long game. But does it work?

Tune in next time…

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True to Type

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by dcairns

We watched Steven Spielberg’s THE POST and then moved on to its sequel, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN which, unusually for a sequel, was made forty years earlier. And it turned out to be the week screenwriter William Goldman died. ATPM is one of his best pieces, though he complained that writing it was very tough. It got him an Oscar, though, so that seems reasonable.

Comparing the two films was interesting. THE POST is solid stuff, as conventional as you’d expect from the Spielberg-Hanks-Streep teaming: “entertaining” is a very good word here. It has a certain forward impetus and there are nice bits of visual storytelling amid the gab and Spielberg’s skill at moving actors around as he moves his camera around is apparent. Hanks is fine, but no Jason Robards. Streep is great value. Alison Brie and Sarah Paulson are wasted but Bob Odenkirk gets some good business.

Kaminski shoots it in shades of gun-metal blue (not an obvious seventies look — more like DIE HARD) with the usual Spielberg God-light blasting over everyone’s shoulders but with crunchier blacks to point up all that clandestine power and subterfuge.

As a political response to the current times, it’s perhaps too polite, and you notice that when previous filmmakers like Pakula and company wanted to address the current situation, they addressed the current (or very recent) situation. They didn’t look back forty years for an peudo-analagous moment.

The great thing about a lot of seventies cinema is, it doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching. A friend said that about THE EXORCIST. Even THE EXORCIST, which wants to scare you, doesn’t really care if you’re watching or not. Your choice, it shrugs.

WHAM!

In THE POST, you can see the wheels go round: literally, with the fetishistic hot press shots of newspapers rolling out into the world. In ATPM, the source of dramatic tension is harder to place: in this one, typewriter keys descend from nowhere in abrupt, slamming ECU. The mechanism is concealed, off over there somewheres. Unlike Spielberg, Alan Pakula doesn’t seem to be trying to create tension, but there is nevertheless some crackling energy force underneath it all, created invisibly by the actors, the frame, the lighting.

I’m curious to look at Pakula’s later work for the Late Show Blogathon: I’m worried that he’ll have felt compelled to amp up the dramatics in his later thrillers, and I’m certain the scripts won’t be as good.

The secret wonder ingredient here is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who bonded with Pakula even more than with Coppola on THE GODFATHER — he seems to have shot nearly everything Pakula made (plus a bunch of key Woody Allens). He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, happy to let expensive sets and actors drop off into Stygian gloom if it served his sense of the scene. When he filmed car interiors, he let other cars serve as the light source, which meant the characters could cease to be visible even as outlines for long stretches or movie and road.

He doesn’t go looking for beauty: the Washington Post interior is as flat as it ought to be. But then he seizes passing opportunities for visual grace, and creates surprise with unexpected splashes of light, colour.

The tamped-down performances and low-key lighting are enhanced by David Shire’s muted score, so that nobody seems to be trying to make this a thriller, but everybody seems to be succeeding.

Poor old Goldman had to try to please the original authors, who were also the main characters, a star who was also the producer, another star who was Dustin Hoffman, and Pakula, who couldn’t make up his mind. It must have been a huge relief to him to realise he could cut the story off half way through, before it got to the part everybody watched unravel in the news. His script unfolds in a rash of names, names leading to more names, with ellipses used so boldly we fear we may not keep up. Maybe THAT’S the source of tension: our fear that we’re not equal to grasping Watergate. Thankfully, we have Deep Throat to keep us straight: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

This felt like a good film to be watching right now.

THE POST stars Forrest Gump, Florence Foster Jenkins, Bunny Yeager, Jimmy McGill, Gerald Burlingame and Unikitty.

ATPM stars Jeremiah Johnson, Ratso Rizzo, Max Corkle, Det. Milton Arbogast, Henry Northrup, Cable Hogue, Georgia O’Keeffe and Tector Crites, or do I mean Hoover Shoates?

Au Hasard, Joey

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2018 by dcairns

Since WWI finally ended on Sunday, I thought I’d watch something suitable. Unfortunately, the film that leapt out at me was Spielberg’s WAR HORSE, which I’d picked up cheap on DVD and never watched. I had just been picking out clips to show students to illustrate the art of scene blocking, which Spielberg has a real gift for. So I was feeling positive, even though friends had described WH as a right load of old guff.

I have smart friends.

The Spielberg fireworks display goes full blast in this one, and there’s much to admire from a technical standpoint. But this was a children’s book, turned into a play that used technically impressive but stylised theatrical techniques, now turned into a big budget film with a Hollywood-real aesthetic. So it’s like somebody adapted Tom Sawyer into Equus and then into GONE WITH THE WIND. The qualities of the children’s story which were perfectly acceptable in a storybook — the naiveté and sentimentality and romantic implausibility — all become glaringly obtrusive on the big screen with real people (well, actors) and a real horse (when it’s not CGI).

“Don’t do it, Steve,” said Fred Schepisi when he heard Spielberg was going to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. “You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.” An immortal line. To the extent that Spielberg did not fuck it up, we can credit his success to the decision not to storyboard and to go handheld when possible. Handicapping himself. His decision to shoot the start of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN like a documentary also helped stave off problems. But since WAR HORSE is about long-ago events more remote than the forties, he evidently decided to let himself go full David Lean. There are some beautiful images ~It is, in fact, absolutely pornographic. The famous debate about the tracking shot in KAPO is very relevant here. But imagine ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT crossed with LASSIE COME HOME and that gives some idea. But don’t forget that, on top of all that, it has a thick coating of John Williams poured all over it. And Richard Curtis on script.

(All the nice WWI art is, in a sense, sickening. The giant display of poppies (sponsored by the British weapons trade) spilling like blood from a wound was striking, but what it accomplished was the transformation of something raw and bloody into something pretty and inoffensive. As effective a pro-war statement as you could wish for. I’ve seen people saying “Dulce et decorum,” on social media, leaving out the fact that Wilfred Owen used those words with savage irony.)

Despite the skill and effort put into it, it’s insulting. Horses charge a German camp. Stylish mayhem. The machine guns open up. Charging horses. And then suddenly horses are leaping over the guns. And we realise they’re all riderless. A clever cinematic idea, but the empty horses gag simply couldn’t happen, because you can’t shoot a man off a horse whose riding right at you because the horse’s head would be in the way. Any effective shot would also fell the horse. Now, you might get away with that kind of impossible illogic in a kids’ book or play (but it’s an inherently cinematic idea, you have to give it that) but its an absurdity here. I wouldn’t accept it in an Indiana Jones movie, but it wouldn’t bother me much.There’s one scene that manages to apply a bit of restraint: Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann (I think) underplay a scene where they rescue the titular horse from barbed wire in no man’s land. The restraint pays off and the dialogue is less on-the-nose. And in reality, soldiers did sometimes risk death for their horses… generally to put a bullet in their brains as a mercy. So there’s a basis in reality… except here the horse lives and it’s all combined with a bit of Christmas Day Armistice sentiment. Can I have an extra rum ration, sir?

To take the taste away we had to run Losey’s KING AND COUNTRY. In order to FEEL something moderately genuine. The war horse in that one is a dead donkey full of rats.

WAR HORSE stars Swanney, Jackie Du Pré, Professor Lupin, Loki, Alan Turing, César Luciani, Koba the bonobo, Inspector Lestrade and Davos Seaworth.

KING AND COUNTRY stars Dr. Simon Sparrow, Billy Liar, Gerald Arthur Otley, Klang, Bob Rusk and Dinsdale Gurney.