Archive for Stellan Skarsgaard

In the ruins of Berlin

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 11, 2016 by dcairns

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TAKING SIDES (2001) seemed like it would be an interesting thing — scripted by Ronald Harwood (THE DRESSER, THE PIANIST) from his play, directed by Istvan Szabo, and starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård, based on a fascinating historical situation: the “denazification” by American investigators of acclaimed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

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And indeed, the film is pretty compelling, even if it never quite finds a style. Aided by the great production designer Ken Adam, Szabo stages some truly impressive large-scale exteriors, opening out the play with repurposed spaces (a market under a bridge, a library in a former synagogue). But this leaves the bulk of the drama — everything from the original text, in fact — to be staged in a single interior, and it has to be as cinematically interesting and finally more climactic.

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Adam does something quite odd with this set. It’s very grand, but the view out the window is a b&w photograph.

In the useful making-of doc, we get to see this view in more detail, and it’s actually a very impressive cyclorama. But still, b&w. There’s one brief scene where the window view is overexposed, and it looks convincing. And at night, with snowfall, it looks convincing. But for most of the movie it just sits there, a stylised element in theatrical adaptation that’s trying to be realistic. Adam was a genius, so I’m sure he had a plan here. Something didn’t quite come together, maybe?

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Keitel is a bit too shouty for my taste — but in the excellent interview book Ronald Harwood’s Adaptations, the author is able to justify this choice: “…the American occupation forces were deeply, deeply aggressive towards the Germans. They were shown the Nazi archive films, they had seen the evidence of the concentration camps, and they were angry.” Still, he feels rather broadly written and played, whereas the more contained Skarsgård is really excellent, embodying the mysterious star power Furtwangler was said to possess.

There are two things in the interview I wish Harwood had managed to work into his screenplay, actually.

  1. There are many stories, he tells us, of Furtwangler walking into rehearsals where someone else is conducting, and the orchestra would just start to play better, due to his very presence.
  2. Though Furtwangler played for Hitler’s birthday and just before the Nuremberg rallies, he also protected Jewish musicians. But what Harwood says in the book that isn’t in the film is that he only protected the best musicians. Like he saw the Holocaust as an opportunity to winnow down the field. I mean, Oskar Schindler didn’t just rescue the most skilled machinists, did he?

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The book could do with more rigorous proofing (there’s stuff like “Carol Reid”) but it’s a small-press product and what counts is the illuminating content — it’s an encounter with a master craftsman and it makes me want to check out THE DRESSER (both versions) and THE PIANIST and OLIVER TWIST again.

You can check out Furtwangler’s talents  right here ~

Running on Empty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Both of John Frankenheimer’s last cinema features, RONIN (1998) and REINDEER GAMES (2000), are set at yuletide, though the latter, with its heaps of bloodstained Santas lying dead in the snow, is certainly the more festive. Most of the best Christmas films are the work of Jewish filmmakers anyway.

RONIN, which I saw at the cinema when it was new, for DeNiro’s sake, and which I just showed to Fiona, seems the better film, which is interesting — RG has a twisty-turny plot with a killer set-up and an escalating menace and a truly ludicrous volte-face at the end which makes perfect narrative sense, in its demented way, but simply can’t be believed for an instant. RONIN is just about a bunch of guys (and Natasha McElhone) trying to get their hands on a shiny box (well, it IS Christmas). There are double-crosses and there are action sequences and there is, essentially, nothing else.

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David Mamet wrote pretty much all the dialogue and then they wouldn’t give him sole credit so he used a pseudonym. His terse, hardboiled stuff is quite effective here, sparser than usual because everybody is trying to make this movie be like a Jean-Pierre Melville heist flick — the title clearly references LE SAMOURAI. What ultimately elevates the tone into something approaching Melville’s oddly serious pastiche style, is the music of Elia Cmiral, which imposes a palpable melancholy over the quieter scenes.

Frankenheimer and DoP Robert Fraisse frame gorgeously. While the all-real car chases attract most of the attention, with the camera scudding just above the tarmac as we rocket through Paris and Nice (is that fapping sound a burst tire or Claude Lelouch furiously masturbating?), the scenes of plotting and confronting and staring down are so beautifully framed and cut, every frame seething with dynamic tension, with a chilly blue metallic tinge, that I could cheerfully watch a version of this movie without any of the searing mayhem.

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I recently contributed an essay on Frankenheimer to Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray edition of SECONDS. This was subject to oversight by Paramount’s lawyers, who are strangely fussy creatures — they objected to my harsher words about some of Frankenheimer’s lesser works. To my surprise and wicked pleasure, though, the overall gist of the piece escaped their notice — in comparing Frankenheimer to the protagonist of SECONDS, I suggested that he had cut him off from his authentic self and become a hollow shell, making empty films whose most compelling subject matter is their own emptiness. In this regard, RONIN is a brilliant summation.

The whole plot revolves around this shiny box, a pure MacGuffin whose contents are never revealed (doubtless they glow when the box is opened, but it never is). By the end, it even transpires that the box is itself irrelevant, a decoy for an assassin, not what the plot was revolving around at all. And the title, meaning masterless samurai, patiently explained by Michael Lonsdale (yay! Michael Lonsdale!), turns out not to be an honest description of the protagonist. An empty film about emptiness, with Frankenheimer even reprising his shots of boxes and corpses montage from THE TRAIN, which he would re-reprise in his very next film.

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The jarring note is the end, where some idiot has decided the film SHOULD, after all, be about something, and has dubbed in a radio broadcast alleging that the plot had something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process. So all that carnage was in a good cause. This is completely unacceptable — I kind of respected the movie’s ruthlessness in staging shoot-outs and car chases on the streets in which innocents are casually mown down and blown up. I accepted that this was a dog-eat-dog, amoral world we were being shown. To now try to argue that all this collateral damage is somehow JUSTIFIED in a HIGHER CAUSE is the work of a moral imbecile. It feels like a studio afterthought. On this second viewing I’m able to disregard the nonsense, but it throws Fiona for a loop, as does Jean Reno’s sudden internal monologue, which ends the picture. “He never had a voiceover before! What happened?”

“Somebody panicked,” I suggest. To make a truly hollow movie takes guts, something Frankenheimer had.

The Edinburgh Dialogues #2: Hannah McGill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by dcairns

Number two in my series of conversations with former directors of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. These unsung heroes, toiling in the service of cinephilia, don’t often get the attention they deserve. What we’re attempting here is a look back, clear-eyed and free of nostalgia, but with affection where appropriate, and a look forward, boldly and imaginatively.

Hannah McGill ran the EIFF from 2007 to 2010, putting on retrospectives on such filmmakers as Shirley Clarke, Anita Loos, Jeanne Moreau, and also After the Wave, an estimable event celebrating those filmmakers who followed the British New Wave of the sixties — this series appealed to me so much I wrote about it here, here and here.

Hannah supervised the fest’s move from its August slot in the midst of the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival, and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to a June position where it stands virtually alone on the stage — audiences rose the year of the move, aided by an influx of cash for events and publicity.

I asked Hannah most of the same questions I asked Mark Cousins, knowing full well I’d get entertainingly different answers —

1) Favourite/oddest moments of being Festival director.

Hannah: This will be a bit random because there are many, many scattered moments.

Meeting John Waters and Bela Tarr, and introducing them to each other – that was cool.

Laughing so much interviewing Judd Apatow onstage that I stopped being able to speak.

Telling award-winners that they’d won was always absolutely lovely, as was the awards ceremony itself.

Being stopped by strangers who wanted to gush about something they’d seen and loved.

Full houses for our Jeanne Moreau retrospective. All our retrospectives, in fact – that was a special thing because it took so much research and hunting down of prints; it was so satisfying to get it up onscreen.

Seeing the red carpet at the Festival Theatre in 2010 – the beauteous culmination of much labour and stress.

Introducing the Under the Radar strand and meeting extraordinary filmmakers through it like Rona Mark, Zach Clark and Martin Radich.

Cinematographers: Seamus McGarvey, Chris Doyle, Roger Deakins, Antony Dod Mantle.

Happy late nights in the Filmhouse bar when I should have been well asleep.

Roger Corman, Ken Russell, Clair Denis, the Quay brothers. People who were just utterly charming and sweet, like Sir Patrick Stewart, and people who were hilarious, like Stellan Skarsgaard.

I shall not list individual films, for we shall be here all day and also I may cry. 

2) Worst aspect of the job.

Hannah: Unpredictability, of everything. 

Also: it can feel thankless, because everyone wants different things from it, and people tend to have very strong, angry opinions about it – which are often unencumbered by knowledge of how festivals and the film industry work. There’s this received wisdom peddled by the Scottish press that the film festival ought to be Cannes, and by not being Cannes, evidently isn’t trying hard enough.

Well, Cannes has roughly a 30 million euro budget; happens alongside the world’s most massive film market; and doesn’t admit ordinary paying public. (And actually, when you’re there, is kind of a massive stressful faff a lot of the time). Building Cannes to the stature that it has in industry terms took many decades of massive investment.

So kneejerk, ill-informed criticism of that nature was always galling. As was the ‘can’t win’ factor – in the same year, you get picked at for having not enough celebrities and too many celebrities; not enough obscure art films and too many obscure art films. There’s a weird resistance to the idea that the point of a festival is variation and range. The audience seem to get that rather more than the press, who are always looking for a quick editorial line – and in Scotland, usually want to find a negative one. Often, you’re being slated for things that are just part of the reality of any film festival: variable screening facilities; films of different styles and quality; some films that are there for primarily commercial reasons; films that prove unavailable; guests that cancel. The standard you’re being held to – an uninterrupted flow of undiscovered, commercially appealing, artistically flawless works, all ready for release at the same time, supported by celebrity casts who are eternally available and pay for their own plane tickets out of the sheer love of film! – is a fantasy.

You do have to rise above press quibbles, but I think there are serious consequences: the fact of the festival being so picked on for what it’s not, rather than celebrated for what it is, has had an effect on its sales and its standing. Last year a London journalist criticised the festival for having too many big commercial films. This year, the same journalist declared it a failure again, because…? No big commercial films. I bit a hole in my newspaper. (Except I didn’t, because I was reading it online, for free, the better to hasten the demise of print journalism. Ha ha ha.)

3) What would you recommend to improve the festival next year?

Hannah: I recommend that it be run by a consortium of Scottish arts reporters: they know how to make it PERFECT. No. Not really.

Just an empowered artistic director, with a full year to prepare a programme, and realistic ambitions clearly conveyed by the messaging. An acceptance, confidently embraced and properly expressed, that the financial climate and the changing film distribution world mean that the festival IS going to alter and evolve, and not turn into a multi-million pound extravaganza overnight, or go back to exactly how it was in 2003 or 1985 or 1972. 

4) The move to June.

Some facts re June as there is a lot of disinformation abounding out there: the move had been discussed for years (was in fact first proposed by M Cousins in the 90s).

The Board and management decided to pursue it in 2008, on the basis that Edinburgh was utterly overloaded in August (it is); that the tourist intake to the city weren’t coming to the film festival, whereas local and rest-of-Scotland audiences were staying away due to general August fatigue (also true); that hotels and transport and venue space were all jam-packed and overpriced (they are); and that the festival had no space to grow and establish itself as a significant international film event as long as it was seen as an adjunct of the other fests (I habitually used to get asked ‘do you programme all that theatre as well?’!!).

Arts pages were also completely overstretched, and the film fest didn’t get the coverage it merited. Also from a programming pov, August was crap. Blockbusters taking up multiplex space, whole of Europe on holiday, MUCH too close to the London film festival.

We canvassed distributors and the bulk of them thought it was a great idea. And that was why we decided to try moving.

Sorry to witter on, but I am sick of the press talking as if it happened for no good reason!! 

In addition: I can see why there are arguments for moving back, because people are sentimental about the August date, and Edinburgh’s exciting then. Also, the move to June by Sheffield, and Sundance doing a July event In London in 2012, are both new pressures on June. But the reasons we moved still stand. And next year, aren’t there some Olympics in August? Would you want to be going up against that??

Well, I hate sport, so I’d welcome a distraction while all that jumping around is going on, but I can see it might have an adverse affect on attendance…