Archive for Spitting Image

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #5b

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2022 by dcairns

OK, I’ll finally be finished with Branagh now.

The second appearance of Old king Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh’s looooooooong HAMLET has a few things I like in it. But is terrible. Let’s see if we can find out why!

I do not hate the intercutting of Hamlet in fast tracking shot with quick cuts of earthly eruptions — it’s kind of an illustration of the text, it creates a visceral excitement. It’s a forced, hammy excitement, in my view, but I can see how other people might dig it. Thrown into the Cuisinart are also quick shots of the big corpse lying in state and so on. Straight-up illustrating what the character’s talking about is the coward’s way out when it comes to Shakespearian cinema, but I will admit, we can follow what Hamlet is on about.

It’s not at all clear that Hamlet Jr. is following Hamlet Sr., or that he has any good reason to think he’s trotting in the right direction. But apparently he is.

Then there’s a spooky moment with Brian Blessed’s disembodied voice, heavily electronically treated, as Hamlet looks around an empty glade. Acceptable, except for the voice — given the setting, a more or less NORMAL voice that cannot be PLACED would be more authentically scary.

And then Branagh attempts a jump scare by having the ghost appear out of nowhere, grab Hamlet, and fling him into a tree. For no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.

The TV sketch show Spitting Image had a strange influence on the world — it may have actually influenced the UK public’s view of its politicians (sadly, not always in the way intended — and it also caused Greta Scacchi to refuse to go nude in THE PLAYER after they did a sketch pointing out how she was always naked, and suggesting (satirically — and quite untruthfully) that she insisted on this. Robert Altman was apparently pretty shitty about her refusal.

The show also spoofed Brian Blessed as an actor who likes shouting. They had writer John Mortimer, in puppet form, pitching a show where BB would play a very quiet man. “Who SHOUTS all the time? I love it!” roars the puppet Blessed. “No, no, he’s very soft-spoken!” “Then why is he always SHOUTING?”

I have a vague theory that either Branagh or Blessed saw this and thought it would be great to cast BB in something where he only whispers, to show his versatility. Unfortunately (1) Gielgud had beaten them to it and (b) Gielgud gains power by his whisper, he becomes more dominating, and Blessed loses power. Plus the fact that it’s a very enunciated, very loud STAGE whisper, and electronically treated, makes it rather silly. And one-note.

All the theatrics have nothing to do with psychology, or any credible notion of the supernatural and its rules within this story world. And I don’t know, but on a basic level a fat ghost feels wrong. (In the Olivier, the ghost is erect, straight up and down, but Hamlet’s father, in flashback, is a bit rolly-polly).

Brian Blessed for Player King. Charlton Heston as Ghost. There, fixed it.

We are being asked to believe that Julie Christie was married to Brian Blessed and then was won away by Derek Jacobi. These relationships raise a lot of questions the movie/play can’t answer. It’s probably quite helpful if Claudius is a good-looking guy, sexy, and maybe Hamlet Sr. is noble-looking but stern and not so sexy. Hamlet shows his mother miniature paintings of both men, trying to show to her what a bad choice she’s made. When Branagh does this with pictures of Blessed and Jacobi, it’s hilarious.

(The Zeffirelli pretty much nails this requirement.)

I don’t hate the Japanese ghost story trick of the light fading up on BB’s silhouetted face. Though I think that kind of thing works better if the scene is taking its time. I understand how, with a four hour text, they felt the need to rush everything — one more reason not to do the whole text.

Giving Brian contact lenses and ordering him not to blink makes his ghost rather… blank. Basically, all these restrictions turn the Ghost into a bore.

Random angle change! About time we had one of those. In fact, there were lots as Hamlet was haring through the woods, but they came as a cluster and you could call that a consistent stylistic approach. Here we’re in a shot / reverse shot dialogue scene and the abrupt profile at 1.39 is jarring a.f. It’s all about ENERGY!

More bubbling and seething ground, feels like the same footage we had before, now step-printed for some mysterious reason. This serves to distract attention away from the Ghost quoting Bertie Wooster, possibly a good thing. Actually, BB says “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” instead of “porpentine,” which is what we have in Shakespeare’s text. I suppose this is OK. “He clearly MEANT to write porcupine,” says Branagh, rapping his knuckles against the playscript, whap! It could easily be a mistranscription. I favour cutting the line, it’s too amusing post-Wodehouse, and for those of us who know the text somewhat, correcting it is a distraction.

It may be that Branagh felt “I’m doing the WHOLE play” was a USP which alone justified doing this six years after Zeffirelli.

Brian’s “O list!” is just FUNNY. Which isn’t what we’re going for here.

When we get the big Rosebud mouth closeup on “murder” Branagh does something sort of interesting, I will admit — the repeated prosthetic shot of the ear, bulging and seeping as it reacts to the “leprous distillment” recently funnelled into it. The sound effect is interesting too — it’s basically redolent of a speed change, as if the editor is yanking the dial on his Steenbeck. I kind of like it, I think it could be used again in some other context, probably more effectively, but it’s an interesting notion.

Both Hamlet and dad get profile shots now. An ineffective, inexpressive, un-atmospeheric choice which diminishes the performances — perhaps no bad thing in Branagh’s case, but BB is playing this blind, stationary, whispering, and now his face is reduced to a hissing outline. Give the poor man something. Not too much! But something.

Now we get the flashback, the least effective part of the Olivier version, ported over and rendered preposterous by the film’s insistence on making everything Christmassy. Hamlet Sr. sleeps in his orchard, in the snow. OK, he has a fur rug and a fire and a pot of tea. But still, I do not believe it. Also, Shakespeare has him asleep so the poison can be poured into his ear — we have to imagine him lying on his side.

Branagh’s turn to be ridiculous, as he positively gibbers “Oh my prophetic soul,” a line that demands a certain simplicity (Just Say The Fucking Line is a good direction sometimes) so as not to sound fruity and overcooked. Branagh now cuts away to the uncle on the line “uncle”, which is just unforgivable. Zeffirelli does something similar, later, but at least the uncle is THERE in his version. Branagh is so anxious for us to understand, it’s rather pathetic. This turns into an entire flashback showing the Hamlet family enjoying a game of curling. Floor frisbees. Not indicated in the text. Mad.

“Brief let me be!” (4.28) Brian turns, I would have to say theatrically, from his profile shot to look right into the lens. Hysterical. Yes please, Brian, be brief, if you think you can manage it.

Wrong ear, Brian!

Brian’s death scene, played in fake slow motion. Awful. It isn’t any good in the Olivier, either. A fat guy falling out of his lawn chair is never going to be convincingly tragic. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Elsinore’s Funniest Home Videos.

Among the many reasons this is ineffective is the sheer redundacy of having the story told in blank verse AND show in herky-jerky visuals. But Branagh needs to liven up his totally static exposition scene. Having the ghost walk — as he says he has been condemned to do — would be one way to keep the thing on its feet.

But even if Branagh had kept the scene developing visually by having the characters MOVE, his ghastly flashback are probably necessary because the scene is so damn long. But just showing you the exact thing Hamlet Sr. is saying isn’t a solution. It makes me nostalgic for the curling.

Surprisingly, Branagh chooses NOT to show the glow-worm paling his ineffectual fire, but he does helpfully put a cock-crow on the soundtrack. Visually, the ghost’s disappearance is decent, but Patrick Doyle’s score now comes syruping into the mix, giving everything a solemnity that seems to, I don’t know, FLATTER Hamlet and his vengeance quest. I don’t think you have to see the Prince as a psychopath, though he is definitely adolescent and shitty at times. But this emotion, here, seems utterly wrong.

Branagh has a tendency, in this role, to suggest extremes of grief by making his voice go UP into a sort of timorous squeak, and he does this on “O all you host of heaven!” (6.52) and it’s laugh-out-loud material.

Looking at what this production needs to make it work totally dismantles every salient feature of… this production. Branagh the actor needs a director. The director needs a better actor. The text needs cutting. The cast need swapping around. (In the whole huge crowd, the only one who seems like he could play Claudius is Don Warrington, who would be awesome. He has the nothing role of Voltimand.)

Branagh falling face down in the dry ice, in a Keatonesque flat wide, is pretty funny. Having him say “O earth!” TO the earth is, I guess, a reasonable choice, if a tad literal-minded (“literal” is this film’s keynote). Branagh now builds to a big slobbering climax lying on his gut, spitting into the fake snow. Again, Olivier had all this worked out — when Shakespeare’s text requires an actor to build to a big climax, the camera should move AWAY rather than, in the conventional way, IN. Because we do not which to see the character SPIT. Because a big performance is acceptable only from a certain distance. This was embarrassingly obvious in Branagh’s saliva-drenched HENRY V, and we already had the example of Olivier getting it right in HIS HENRY V and TELLING US ABOUT IT. This is Branagh’s THIRD Shakespeare film.

“My tables!” Branagh briefly gestures here — Hamlet wishes he had his tables on him, but doesn’t. I think that’s OK. You need to do something with the line, if you’re keeping it. I think having him take out his tables and write would be a good choice. That’s what the stage directions say, although we know Shakespeare didn’t write those. It seems plausible that “Writing” was put in there because that’s what the actor playing Hamlet did. When he says “So, Uncle, there you are,” this makes sense if he’s written “Uncle.” Branagh just looks confused when he says the line. As well he might.

Branagh kisses his sword — a swipe from Olivier. But that’s OK. Borrowings which work are a good thing. Better than the multiple ineffective choices, blunders and bad laughs we’ve had in the past few minutes.

Some kind of a puppet

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , on December 3, 2016 by dcairns

life backwards from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’ve been looking for this sketch since forever. Easily, for me, the most memorable thing the satirical puppet show Spitting Image ever did.

The modus operandi of the show was snark, but this posthumous piece on Orson Welles can be processed in other ways. At the time, I remember finding it not so much funny as thought-provoking.

The year was 1986. Welles died in October the previous year. It was kind of odd for a topical show to pick up on something not really in the news. “Don’t you think right after his death -?” as a guy named Thompson once attempted to ask. This little scene riffs on some of the commonplace bits of snark about Welles — “from CITIZEN KANE to sherry commercials” but offers a different spin.

American satires of Welles come with a not-so-hidden subtext: he started big and ended small. He made the greatest film ever, and look what happened to him. Beware, all of you, of artistic ambition. Hubris! No good can come of it. Very reassuring to those with regular work making run-of-the-mill multiplex fodder.

The authors of this piece are still prone to underrating later Welles achievements, as far as we can tell in its rather incomplete summary of his career. But by flipping Welles’ biography around, this little spoof raises two points ~

  1. Does it matter what order Welles made things in? The fact is, he made CITIZEN KANE. A career with that in it is a triumphant career. Nothing that comes after it can invalidate it, any more than anything before it could invalidate it.
  2. What does it matter what you say about people?

Jonesing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2008 by dcairns

Freddie Jones, thespian genius, plays a rogue Scottish psychiatrist (R.D. Laing?) with the worst accent on record (Star Trek‘s James Doohan would laugh at it) who has seemingly invented a new form of therapy, based largely on burling the patient about in a swivel chair. The treatment relies on centrifugal force to bring hidden traumas out from the depths of the brain, where they lurk and fester, to the surface, where they can be drawn out through the skull by vigorous scalp massage.

THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF contains possibly Freddie Jones’ worst performance and possibly Roger Moore’s best performance. In a sad irony of fate, Jones’ performance is nevertheless BETTER than Moore’s performance. But it should be said: Moore is touching in some scenes and convincing in some scenes, and sometimes both at once. He does actually raise one eyebrow at a climactic moment, something he was ruthlessly parodied for doing on puppet sketch show Spitting Image: the Moore puppet would hoist one brow upwards, accompanied by the sound of a squeaking pulley, as if unseen stagehands were effecting this miracle of showmanship.

It’s unlikely that THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF ever really frightened anybody, but apparently the trailer did. Director Basil Dearden had a long but slightly unsatisfied career directing all kinds of material, but every now and then he would evince an astonishing talent for what Michael Powell would call The Composed Film, and Hitchcock christened Pure Cinema. The climax of DEAD OF NIGHT, where all the stories in the compendium crash together in a surreal nightmare mash-up, and the carnival scene of SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS both show this talent in full flow. Well, the climax of THE MAN WHO… is a bit like that, but not quite as good. Much of it can be seen in the trailer, including the glowing tinted lights and the astrological pool table. Heady stuff, I imagine, if you saw this trailer as a kid, and many did.

Those were the days when kids going to see Disney cartoons could be subjected to trailers for any old filth. I already blogged about my childhood encounter with GOODBYE EMMANUELLE, and my friend Robert’s viewing of trailers for TOMMY and  SHIVERS while on an innocuous visit to BAMBI? He didn’t venture back into a cinema for ten years.

The truly spooky thing about THE MAN WHO… is its onscreen-offscreen synchronicity. In the movie, Roger Moore survives a nasty car crash only to be persecuted by a malevolent doppelganger (also played, in an unforgiveable casting error, by Roger Moore. Two Moores is one-and-a-half Moores more than any decent film can sustain). In reality, Basil Dearden was killed on a stretch of road close to the film’s accident site, shortly after finishing it. While not quite as resonant as the tragic demise of F.W. Murnau, this incident does add a certain frisson of interest to Dearden’s final film.