Archive for Steve McQueen

Danger!

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2019 by dcairns

FACT: Steve McQueen liked to have his middle name written on the walls of his sets.

This is from LE MANS, directed by Lee H. Katzin, the man who brought you THE PHYNX, for which you were not sufficiently grateful in my view.

Part of the reason I hate all sporting activity is that it’s noisy, horribly noisy. If the sound of the activity itself isn’t upsetting, the audience steps in and screams its collective nut off to make up for it. Name me a sport that’s pleasant to listen to. I have misophonia, so bear that in mind when you make your terrible suggestions.So you might imagine I’m not keen on racing car action, but in fact I can tolerate it well enough in a fim because films have sound design. They’re not just random awfulness, despite everything Michael Bay can prove to the contrary. So I could put up with the roaring in LE MANS — about seven-eighths of the film is VVVVVVVRRRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!! — and I even kind of appreciated the lack of plot, subplot, character development, sympathy, philosophy and sex. After all, John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX, which is equally impressive visually — all those low angles of tarmac skudding by millimetres from our eyes — attempted to have all those elements, and they were boring. LE MANS would probably like you to call it existentialist, since McQueen barely speaks and it’s all about his life-and-death struggle with his gears and the road, but what it is, really, is underdeveloped. But it does offer an array of very good documentary footage into which the meagre story has been inserted with some skill.

The main speechifying bit is when Elga Andersen suggests to McQ that when men risk their lives, they ought to have a very important reason, an unanswerably good argument to which he responds with pure screenwriter bullshit. Move on quickly. There’s some fine visual direction and cutting. Two spectacular crashes at what we could jestingly call the second act curtain illustrate this well. In one, a minor “character” comes a cropper, his car buckling like so much wet cardboard, settling into a tattered heap from which he emerges, jerkily. Katzin and one or more of his five editors have started snipping frames, so that the inevitable slomo jolts back and forth to normal speed, giving the staggering motorist a broken, spasmodic gait — at all makes his progress away from the wreck, which we expect to explode at any instant — seem painfully protracted, and indeed just plain painful.

Moments later, McQueen also crashes, slamming into the barriers, which warp fantastically as the car crumples and splits, finally coming to rest, a twitching McQueen visible through the shattered windscreen (big ugly zoom). And then the action replays — in McQueen’s mind, we assume — and we get the whole thing again from new angles and with more slomo, step-printing until the persistence of vision almost breaks down. Fiona was MOST impressed here — clearly, the action is a traumatic flashback, and she interpreted the exterior views as representing the kind of dissociation, distancing, that some have reported experiencing during accidents.The end credits worried me by thanking one of the drivers for his “sacrifice” — I assumed the poor bastard had died, and thought this was a rather tactless way of describing something that wasn’t, one presumes, voluntary. In fact he “only” lost part of his leg. The lower part, I hope. If it’s the upper part there’s usually not much they can do.

I still wouldn’t call it a sacrifice. “We would like to thank XXX for his horrible mishap” would seem more accurate.

Motor racing, you see, is a very bad thing. Don’t do it. You only have a limited number of legs to sacrifice.

 

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Hunger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 2, 2016 by dcairns

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First image: wildness and freedom to contrast with the prison scenes to follow. Also: alertness.

Nowadays, when we speak of Steve McQueen’s hunger, we are most likely thinking of the conceptual artist turned filmmaker’s Bobby Sands biopic, not the look in the eyes of a movie star in a Sam Peckinpah film.

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I screened the first eight minutes of THE GETAWAY to students in a class on separation of sound and image and non-literal filmmaking. The inspiration for the class, which was assigned to me, was a few lines from Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography, so naturally I run to “Bloody Sam,” an artist on the far end of any spectrum you care to concoct that might have Bresson and Peckinpah on its chromatic scale.

But this sequence, which takes its time to set up in an almost wordless manner the facts and emotions concerning a bank robber in prison, does show the unique value of divorcing sound from image. The key device is to take the sound of the prison workshop — a repetitive rattle of mechanized equipment (cotton looms, if looms is the word I’m looking for) — and play it over a whole range of material of prison life. It becomes background noise, an inescapable, enervating irritation, the fact of loss of freedom captured in aural form.

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Peckinpah and his editors do some great stuff with picture too, treating the shots of Ali McGraw’s portrait on the cell wall as blipverts, tiny flashes that snap past almost too fast to be acknowledged, and triggering flashback caresses — hands stroking skin or hair — which are equally fleeting. The whole montage reaches a crescendo after we see the prisoners showering, as if the assembled celluloid were thrown into a spasm of homosexual panic, all that available male flesh impossible to cancel out with a few frames of feminine company, snippets of film dropped into the flow of footage like pebbles in a stream.

Hair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2014 by dcairns

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The Mayans, we are told, had an incredibly advanced civilisation, despite never developing the wheel or metalwork. So they had to construct their dialogue and performances out of wood. And thus, alas, their dialogue and performances were no match for the leaden dialogue and performances of invading armies.

I really ought to watch TIGER BAY or YIELD TO THE NIGHT or the original CAPE FEAR as a palate cleanser, but my trawl through obscure J. Lee Thompson films instead led me to KINGS OF THE SUN in which Mayan king George Chakiris discovers Louisiana only to discover Indian chief Yul Brynner is already living there.

Of course nobody in this film can talk convincingly, the thick-ear epic dialogue seeming to choke on the miasma of brown face-paint (Shirley-Anne Field is excused fake tan, inexplicably). But if you can’t have good talk, you can at least have good hair.

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Chakiris leads the way with his giant quiff and pony tail look, similar to Tony Curtis’s magnificent quiff-and-pageboy cut in THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH. George could stand on the spot and rotate slowly and you’d get a complete history of human hair from the early hunter-gatherers to the latest in singing Puerto Rican street gangs.

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This dude opts for an innovative Mr. Whippy look.

Yul Brynner is excused hair, and gets a very funny introductory shot.

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Yul is the whole show. He can’t fare much better than anyone else with the dialogue, although he puts it over better. It’s his movement, his snake-hipped prowl, his snapping jaws in the fight scenes. We have to wait half an hour for him, and waiting for Yul is like waiting for Groucho in a movie as wooden as this, but when he does turn up he walks like really good sexual intercourse would walk. EVERYTHING gets better when Yul is around — the lighting goes from TV movie-of-the-week flat to vivid and modeled (Brando was impressed, on MORITURI, by how Brynner roped the lighting in to aid his performance) — the camera moves go from big swooping crane shots, spectacular at first but quickly tedious since the actors stand around like a forest, spouting duff verbiage that sounds like it’s been auto-translated from the original Mayannaise, to striking mobile POVs and dynamic following shots showcasing the best of Thompson’s style. His cameraman is Joseph Walker, who shot Capra’s stuff. Capra usually worked multi-camera (perhaps as a holdover from the early sound days?) which seems to have helped him get all that life and bustle going. For all its cast of thousands, this movie has zero bustle, and seems incapable of imagining convincing activity for more than one character at a time. Brynner makes damn sure that when he’s on screen, he is that character.

My favourite Yul story is from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. To Steve McQueen: “If you don’t stop playing with your hat, I’ll take off my hat, and then we’ll see who they look at.”