Archive for Steven Spielberg

Photogenics

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2019 by dcairns

Bruce Dern, that god among men, appeared at the Telluride Film Festival with NEBRASKA the year Paul Duane and I were there with NATAN, so I got to hear him talk to Leonard Maltin. Dern likes to talk, so my memory is that Maltin asked about four questions and Brucie filled the ninety minutes with ease.

I’ve never gone into his Hitchcock stories here since I assumed they were readily available in the public realm via Dern’s memoir, Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have. BUT I finally just read the book, which is terrific fun, and the stories I recall aren’t included. So I’m just going to tell them here. I think my memory of them is accurate though of course I can’t vouch for Dern’s. But he seems pretty reliable.

First, Dern reported that on day one of FAMILY PLOT (Hitch’s last movie and his second with Dern), Hitchcock ended the day by thanking his whole crew, individually by name, for their efforts. Sixty people he’d never worked with before. Dern said he’s asked other directors if they thought they could pull off a feat like that, and hadn’t ever gotten a “yes.” He speculated, correctly I think, that Hitch wanted to demonstrate to everyone, aged 76, that he was still sharp.

It’s the other story that’s the real doozy, though. Hitch, said Dern, was approached by Lorraine Gary. You may know her as Sheriff Brody’s wife in JAWS, but she was the real-life wife of Sid Sheinberg Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now the head of his studio, Universal — and Spielberg’s casting of her, twice, seems like a shrewd way to keep the boss on-side, though LG is also an excellent actress, well worth casting purely on merit. Anyway, she’s a woman of influence at this time.

Lorraine Gary says to Hitch, reportedly, something like this: “My friend Mary [not her real name so far as I know] is an actress, and she needs to work once a year to keep her union membership, and she would be just perfect for the role of the bra saleswoman in your film.”

“Out of the question,” says Hitch.

“Oh, but-“

“Out of the question.”

But the day comes to shoot the scene, and on the set is not the actor Hitchcock chose for the part, but Lorraine’s friend Mary.

Hitch makes no comment. He sets up his first shot — we’ll be over Bruce’s shoulder on Mary, then at the end of the scene she’ll leave and Bruce will turn and it’ll end as a single on him.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vlcsnap-2019-09-30-18h41m25s188.png
A bra saleswoman.

Take One. It goes fine. Hitchcock says, “Cut,” and walks up to the camera. Opens it. Unspools the film, exposing it: holds it up to the light.

“Oh dear,” he says to Mary, “It appears you’re not photogenic.”

“Wh-?”

“Your image does not appear on the celluloid.”

Mary starts crying and leaves, Hitch returns to his director’s chair to await the arrival of the actor he chose (pictured).

Dern had told Hitch that he wanted his chair right next to Hitch’s so he could study the Master of Suspense at work. So he leans over and asks, “What was all that about?”

“What that was about, Bruce, was DON’T FUCK WITH HITCH.”

The Spielberg Transition #2

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2019 by dcairns
Bana hulks out.

MUNICH is one Spielberg I hadn’t seen until recently. I still haven’t managed to steel myself to run THE TERMINAL or THE BFG, but I guess I will at some point. They’re sitting on the shelf opposite as I type this, looking at me with their big puppy-dog eyes.

But MUNICH seemed like it was at least an attempt to do something interesting and different, so I felt vaguely ashamed of not giving it a shot. And I recall an interview from the time of production where Spielberg was talking about how the movie was going to make EVERYBODY angry. The great crowd-pleaser, going out of his way to be unpopular. This seemed worthy of attention.

Well, in a way the film’s refusal to firmly endorse or condemn the Israeli assassination programme depicted (targeting those responsible for the Munich Olympics atrocity) is standard Hollywood hedging, but Spielberg is right too, in that the film isn’t going to satisfy anyone with an entrenching position on the Palestine question. You can probably position Spielberg, based on this film and his other work (notably the penultimate scene of SCHINDLER’S) as a Zionist with qualms.

Fine, I’m a Zionist with qualms too. In that Israel exists and is here to stay, and you can question whether its creation was a good thing, but that’s wholly academic because what acceptable action would dissolve the state at this late stage? You can’t be genuinely anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, because what’s your non-genocidal solution to Israel’s existence?

On the other hand, I’m opposed to practically everything Israel is doing in the name of self-defense. It’s apartheid, it’s a slow-motion genocide, it’s not even in any sane conception of Israel’s own best interests.

My problem with MUNICH started with my inability to accept the arguments Golda Meir, or the film’s version of her, puts forward in favour of the assassinations (or “executions,” as Kevin Macdonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER disgustingly calls them). So, although the film tries to take you on a journey from accepting the mission to questioning it (without ever arriving at a definite position), I was never on board to begin with. So, although I found the film “interesting,” I wasn’t INTERESTED, apart from when Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale showed up (“Things always get better when the good actors show up,” said a distinguished produced friend once, talking about Bob Hoskins as a dwarf, but the point stands).

Spielberg described his influences as European thrillers, and one thinks Costa-Gavras, or Melville, but Lonsdale suggests a more Hollywood influence: DAY OF THE JACKAL. And it’s all very loud and impactful and bloody and explicit. It has the first, I think, full-frontal nudity in a Spielberg joint, both male and female, but predictably the straight male audience wins out with a voluptuous enemy honeytrap (Marie-Josée Croze) while everyone else has to content themselves with Ciaran Hinds’ small dead cock.

The image up top is Bana, near the end of the film, having sex with his wife but seeing images of terrorist massacres, and the machine gun fire from his fantasy (a flashback to events he didn’t witness?) illuminates his face in the present tense reality — I found this ludicrous, but I’m actually going to semi-allow it because it’s certainly BOLD.

But earlier in the film, while travelling by plane, Bana has another flashback to events he didn’t see, the Munich massacre itself, and that has two fantastically horrible transitions. First, we move into the aeroplane window as Bana gazes at it, and the terror attack becomes progressively more visible. I’m reminded of the supremely eggy moment in Polanski’s BITTER MOON where Emmanuelle Seigner’s face appears in the plane window as a Romantic Vision. I think that film is a grotesque comedy (Polanski’s funniest film?) so the moment kind of works, even as it makes me cringe. And I guess both filmmakers were thinking of a kind of in-flight reverie and trying to evoke that sort of boredom-distraction-fantasising. But, you know, it doesn’t WORK.

But the really bad one is the end of the fake flashback (he wasn’t THERE!), when automatic rifle fire rakes a poor Israeli athlete and Spielberg shows bullets tearing up a blood-spattered wall, then dissolves/morphs to little pink puffy clouds seen through that aeroplane window.

I have no words. Except these ones: What. The. Hell?

Well, all really impressively bad ideas have something good going on in them. As with the eros + massacre up top, the idea of something attractive being infected by a vision of something murderous isn’t a terrible one. Nic Roeg would probably have made a hard cut here, and left the audience the option of seeing a connection between the bloody, perforated plasterboard and the sunrise sky, or of seeing the things as merely contrasting. Spielberg is more controlling, so he can’t bring himself to leave that to chance.

Or, as Fred Schepisi advised Spielberg when he heard about SCHINDLER’S, “Don’t do it, Steve. You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.”

I think SCHINDLER’S LIST works, or works well enough overall. But I think there’s a transition in there that might be worth talking about…

The Spielberg Transition #1

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2019 by dcairns

One of the things Steven Spielberg vocally admires about David Lean is his imaginative scene changes, of which the most celebrated is the “match cut” in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Spielberg has emulated the technique a fair bit, often with enjoyable results. But sometimes he gets it wrong.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK is the kind of thing Spielberg is supposed to do well, but it’s an oddly confused film, from its back-asswards title on down. I don’t think his heart was in it.

How do you know when there’s a tyrannosaur in your tent?

The first JURASSIC PARK is, on the whole, really good (haven’t bothered with any of the non-Spielberg sequels). It’s fairly faithful to Michael Crichton’s page-turner, though most of its departures are disimprovements. And while the novel is very clear that bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a disastrous idea, you get the sense that, even though this plot point is ported over from the book, deep down Spielberg thinks it would be awesome (which is why the park’s creator doesn’t have to die, despite being responsible for all the other deaths). I don’t necessarily disagree (there’s a weird meme in popular culture, particularly Doctor Who: whenever dinosaurs get revivified, the wonderment is promptly quashed by a sentimental death scene. Dinosaurs can come back, but only for a few minutes. It strikes me like giving a kid a toy and then taking it away again.)

Well, Crichton wrote a follow-up book that wasn’t worth filming, so screenwriter David Koepp threw it away and came up with a story that flatly contradicted the thrust of the earlier film: now Jeff Goldblum, the anti-dino rock ‘n’ roll chaos theoretician of the previous film, wants to save the poor T-rex, just about the scariest threat he faced (it ate a man on the toilet, ffs). The last tenth of the film abandons the titular location to run amock in America, a clear violation of the Platonic unities as well as various traffic statutes.

But the rot sets in early on: with the introduction of the hero, in fact. The threat is set up efficiently in scene one. Spielberg had listened to the criticisms of little kids (really?) who didn’t want to wait so long to see the thunder lizards, so he brings on some miniature CGI beasties to attack a child right at the outset (maybe he didn’t really take too kindly to the criticism?). Mom runs up and sees daughter in trouble, and SCREAMS ~

And we CUT TO Jeff Goldblum yawning against an unconvincing tropical palm background. The scream continues but now it’s something else: the roar of a subway train.

Goldblum steps screen left and the pan takes us away from his backdrop, now “revealed” to be a backlit holiday advertisement, and we learn he’s in the subway.

These kind of gags, where a background turns out not to be real practically never work, because the background practically never looks real. Our initial reaction is likely to be “That looks cheap and fake as hell,” and though the reveal provides an excuse for the phoniness, it fails to provide a pleasing surprise.

And the yawn? It’s hard not to see it as a gesture of contempt towards the material or the audience or both.

But the worst thing is the fanciness. Remember, the LAWRENCE cut has only a few elements, really. Lean doesn’t try to align the match with the rising sun, pictorially. The connection is merely conceptual: the desert is, in some way, like a flame that can burn you, and a man like Lawrence might enjoy that. The sound of Lawrence’s breath extinguishing the match carries across the edit. And that’s it.

Whereas LOST WORLD has the audio transition of the scream/subway, the visual match of the screaming woman/yawning man, and the fake background of blue sky and palm trees. It’s all busy, and all ugly, and all ineffective and fighting against itself. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This isn’t just plain awful. This is fancy.”

There’s maybe an actual artistic principle here: the more artful a transition, the more simple it needs to be.

More Spielberg awful soon!