Archive for Steven Spielberg

Wests Sides Stories

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2022 by dcairns

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

ALL-CAPS COLUMBO

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2022 by dcairns

So, after veteran Richard Irving had directed Peter Falk as Columbo, in standalone teleplay Prescription Murder and again in the official pilot Ransom for a Dead Man, the first episode of the first series was handed to a newcomer Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, aided by TOUCH OF EVIL lenser Russell Metty, starts his show with a bravura sequence, in which the camera zooms and dollies back from a moving car, revealing that we’re observing from inside an office, and then introduces crime writer Martin Milner, at work on his latest “Mrs. Melville” mystery. The shot is lovely and unexpected, but it’s enhanced by the sound of typing, which is all we hear. As the sequence proceeds, the typing continues, even though we’re now outside the office and looking at things — the moving car, a revolver being loaded, the car door opening and closing — which we’re normally expect to make their own sound effects.

This stylised wrongness creates a valuable tension. Later, Billy Goldenberg’s interesting score will incorporate the typing. Most Universal cop shows just have BA-BA-BAAAAM! type music.

Less fortunately, Spielberg cuts to an ECU of the page Milner is typing. Apparently, Milner’s novel is being written in all-caps. (Also, he can’t spell “J’accuse.”)

Theory: in 1971, Steven Spielberg had never seen a novel, didn’t know what they looked like.

I was going to theorise that he based his idea of the novel format on the TV script format, but US TV scripts aren’t in all caps (unlike UK ones, which have a miserable and ugly all-caps approach to scene descriptions). So maybe he called a friend. Someone who would be sure to have seen a novel at least once. Maybe John Milius?

SS: John. Steve. You’ve seen a novel, haven’t you?

JM: Several.

SS: Well, I’m directing this TV episode and I need to show a, whatyoucallit, manuscript. What should it look like?

JM: Well, you’ve seen a comic book?

SS: Of course I have, John. I love Mad Magazine. Or is that a magazine?

JM: It’ll do. A novel is like Mad Magazine, but without the pictures or panels or speech bubbles. Just the words.

SS: Really? Are you sure? That sounds weird to me.

JM: I wouldn’t lie to you, Steve.

There are other possibilities. Maybe Martin Milner didn’t know how to turn the caps off, and nobody else did either. Spielberg presumably figured out how to deactivate the caps before writing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, though come to think of it there’s a fair bit of shouting in that movie.

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.”