Archive for Stanley Donen

Thick Black Curls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 9, 2009 by dcairns

The latest edition of The Forgotten, my regular Thursday column, is up at The Auteurs’ Notebook, so once you’re through watching the above, and choking on your muesli or whatever it is you people eat, and then sandblasting your retinas, head on over and read all about it. As usual, The Auteurs’ would appreciate it if you leave your comments at that end.

Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2008 by dcairns

TLP

Tearing myself away from the Lithuanian baby racing (banged a tenner on a sprog that threw a tantrum on the final stretch) I turn my gaze upon more from Stanley Donen. LATE PERIOD Stanley Donen.

I thought this would be interesting, having recently “enjoyed” his musical parody MOVIE MOVIE, which was a very mixed bag. I remember seeing stills from THE LITTLE PRINCE in old movie mags when I was at school, and discussing it with someone (a Gene Wilder fan, I think) who had seen it and hated it. So I was fascinated (those stills were intriguing!) and also rather wary.

I. Loved. It.

Based on the story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, adapted into musical form by Leopold and Loeb. No wait, not them, the other two — Lerner and Lowe. Much better choice. Still it’s a weird book that I couldn’t get on with as a child, but which I’d probably love now. One of those “children’s books” that’s probably wasted on kids. It’s very peculiar and so is the film.

The Rose

it’s also made in quite a bold style that possibly seemed dated when the movie came out (1974) — Donen uses stylised sets not just for the fantastical otherworldly bits, but also for the desert at night, even though the daylight stuff is mostly shot on real locations (Tunisia). But this isn’t like Billy Wilder using rear projection for car journeys in BUDDY BUDDY (1981), Donen’s choices make sense for the film he’s making. Looking ahead to modern cinema we could even say he was ahead of his time.

In fact, when the central characters pass a giant fish skeleton in the Tunisian sands, and a soft-edged wipe takes us on to the next scene, it’s easy to see George Lucas MUST have seen this before embarking on STAR WARS. Everybody assumes those are sand worm bones in A NEW HOPE, but that would suggest Lucas had read Dune. I’m not even convinced he’s read Joseph Campbell.

Bones

Plot: An aviator crashes in the Sahara where, as he desperately tries to repair his plane, he encounters an extraterrestrial child who tells him his strange story… it’s like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, only with more dancing.

There is quite a bit more to it than that, but describing it would get us into the pernicious realm of spoilery, and I quite liked not knowing what was going to happen in this case. I must say I would NOT have predicted the ending. Crikey.

Graham

Incidentals: travelling through space, our little cosmo-lad encounters several eccentric characters, played by eccentric actors of various type: Joss Ackland from England, Graham Crowden from Scotland, Victor Spinetti from Wales and Clive Revill from New Zealand. Not major stars, but with impressive track records of cult cinema trailing in their wakes. Each embodies some aspect of adult human folly.

Two of them appear on giant spherical sets, and two appear filmed with a fish-eye lens that folds them into a spherical image. This must be one of the most brazenly stylised devices ever deployed in a mainstream entertainment. It’s pretty alienating and freaky, but so’s everything else. What I actually loved in this film are all the things than probably made it completely unacceptable to my schoolfriend.

Clive of India

Once on Earth, the little guy (a rubber-faced child with albino eyebrows and a fright wig, also a curious flattened delivery) encounters a snake, who offers to return him whence he came by killing him (all in song form) and a fox who wants to be tamed. The snake is Bob Fosse and the fox is Gene Wilder, and they don’t use animal costumes or special effects, just a few jump cuts to equate each with the animal they’re playing. It works marvellously well, but might be a stretch for little kids. Kids would always rather have a talking animal than a great actor or dancer.

(The tacky part of the film is actually the flock of birds that transport our miniature hero through the stars — they’re poorly drawn and animated and clash with the rest of the film. I assume that animation was used only because real doves couldn’t be tied to a child and unleashed. We’re not talking Hitchcock and “Tippi” Hedren here. Maybe, in keeping with the more theatrical approach to the talking animals, the birds should have been invisible, with sound effects only, or something? I actually think they would have sucked even if they’d been better designed and animated.)

The Birds

Fosse is amazing here. Fiona found it disconcerting to see Bob Fosse dance moves actually being danced by Bob Fosse. He’s styled kind of like Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe, and some of his moves and dress sense call to mind Michael Jackson, which is alarming. Both Fosse and Wilder’s scenes involve SEDUCING A CHILD, which obviously complicates our responses to the scenes, but I enjoy a healthy dose of malaise and discomfort in my entertainment so that didn’t spoil things for me.

Fosse!

Gene Wilder is doing his saccharine thing as showcased at the end of WILLY WONKA (he’s wonderfully sinister in the rest of that film) and it’s slightly problematic for me. I prefer Wilder when he’s funny. But he features in one of the film’s most lovely and weird shots:

Gene Wilder, Party Liason

It’s almost like a William Hurt hallucination from ALTERED STATES, as is most of the film. In Ken Russell’s psychedelic sci-fi extravaganza, stoners would famously lurk in the lobby during the talking bits, until a hallucination came on, then they’d rush into the cinema to experience it. In this movie they’d never have to leave their seats.

My biggest problem with the film was leading man Richard Kiley, a baritone voice with legs. At first I misread the credits and thought it said Richard KIEL, the hulking Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which would have been a miraculously brave choice. The kid would have barely come up to his calf. Kiley sings with that rather strenuous, fakey passionate commitment that I associate with the more generic kind of Broadway entertainment, and he kind of acts that way too. But in a strange way he balanced out with the non-acting, non-singing kid. By the end I liked them both. I mean, I liked the kid from the start because he’s a shaggy foetus in a frock coat, and you don’t see enough of those, but by the end I also RESPECTED him. He can pop round for a biscuit anytime.

Kiley and Warner

The songs and music sometimes tend to the sugary as well, but I Never Met a Rose was lovely and Fosse’s number was spectacular (and looooong — Fosse fans will not feel cheated) and any film where you get Joss Ackland singing will score highly on the old Weirdometer. He can kind of carry a tune, but more importantly, he can bulge his eyes like an ill frog.

Having cringed slightly at the stylistic vagueness of MOVIE MOVIE, I was thrilled at most of Donen’s visuals here. He seems confident, imaginative, on close to peak form. There are some very odd camera moves — when the Prince first appears it’s in a little crane shot, descending to earth so the kid sort of grows, which can only be explained in fairly abstruse psychological terms, but works, in some way. A lot of the moves are beautifully counter-intuitive. I get the impression Donen is enjoying himself, which didn’t so much seem the case in MOVIE MOVIE.

Cinematography, favouring the wide-angle lens, is by Christopher Challis, who did beautiful work on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and shot most of the later Powell & Pressburger flicks — films that aren’t as good as the ones Jack Cardiff filmed, mostly, but which are every bit as beautiful. And it’s worth getting his book.

The Planet

I was lucky enough to see Challis introduce P&P’s OH… ROSALINDA! here in Edinburgh. After he’d trashed the film, which everyone involved in considered a total failure, he observed that this was a restored print. “I’m not quite sure what that means, but when I look in the shaving mirror in the morning I do sometimes wish there was a restoration scheme for aging photographers.”

Spanking Don Giovanni

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by dcairns

Don G

I haven’t gotten my hands on the enticing 2-disc DVD of Joe Losey’s DON GIOVANNI yet, but I’m working on it. Meanwhile there are lots of bits on YouTube:

I’m a complete foetus when it comes to opera. Julien Temple’s childhood impression of “some fat bird freaking out in a foreign language,” strikes me as a bit strong, though — I would say I’m sympathetic to the IDEA of opera but I’ve simply had too little experience of it to judge.

The unique problem of the filmed opera is a fascinating one though. Losey’s film, shot on real locations, has to find a balance between the stylised and potentially unnatural approach of sung dialogue, and the palpable reality of the environments. It reminds me of Olivier’s reasoning behind shooting HENRY V on stylised sets: “I felt the audience might very well think, if we did it on location, ‘Well, that’s a field and that’s a house and that’s a horse — why’s everybody talking so funny?’” Creating a theatrical world is one way to facilitate theatrical performances.

But not the only way — the musical wasn’t immediately killed off by Donen and Kelly filming sequences of ON THE TOWN on location — though arguably the slow creep of realistic settings coincides with the musical’s decline. The sound stage may be the music-film’s most natural home.

The thing that bother’s me most in this clip, though, and this is quite literally a half-arsed view since I haven’t seen the movie, is that bit with the naked girl (ah, some of you hadn’t watched the clip but I bet you will now). Two men recline on the bed where she’s asleep, but she doesn’t rouse from her (post-coital)slumbers. One of them cops a feel, and she doesn’t even twitch. Perhaps she’s drunk. Then the other slaps his hand away, effectively spanking her backside, and she STILL doesn’t react. Is she DEAD?

The danger of shoving naked girls into operas seems to me to be that in a situation like this they tend to get used as props. An ordinary extra can be given bits of business and brought to life as a character in a scene, and they are generally eager to contribute to this process. Because extras are actors. But this nude is probably a model, and if the director doesn’t tell her to react, she won’t. The result can be sexist in a way that simple nudity, even gratuitous nudity, isn’t.

Nevertheless, friends rave about Losey’s DON G so I’m psyched to see it.

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