Archive for Straw Dogs

Cuddly

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by dcairns

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In THE FRENCH CONNECTION II, Gene Hackman, pursuing Fernando Rey during a raid on his heroin lab, passes an inexplicable fluffy pooch, lolloping gaily in the opposite direction. A nod to Bunuel? Or does every heroin lab have a mascot?

While in THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a painfully young Anthony Hopkins tucks his son into bed, ignoring a cuddly lion with Anthony Hopkins eyes.

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Tossing a coin, I think I’ll now proceed to deal with THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a John Le Carre adaptation which sees John Box, David Lean’s designer, stepping up to produce, and Frank Pierson, prolific screenwriter, steps into the director’s chair. He does pretty well, I think — he shoots proper shots, with ideas behind them, not just coverage. Some of the cutting is fantastic, inventive and unusual in its rhythms and transitions. Some of it just doesn’t work. When we cut from one end of a room to another, it’s a shock to hear Ralph Richardson’s voice continue, because it looks like a scene change.

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Christopher Jones shares the spotlight with Hopkins. An up-and-coming prettyboy, he did a great James Dean impersonation in WILD IN THE STREETS — the muscles around his mouth pout and pucker and strain in exactly the configurations of Dean’s face, so it was biology as artistic destiny. Here, he’s dubbed because he couldn’t do a Polish accent, but David Lean didn’t realize that when he grabbed him for RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Unsuitably cast as a British officer, dubbed again, and straitjacketed by Lean’s meticulous direction, Jones seems to disappear from the screen even while he’s on it. An empty outline, a shadow floodlit out of existence, the sound of one hand failing to clap. Lean evidently hadn’t heard Nick Ray’s dictum: Don’t Fuck With A Natural. All Jones’s methody tricks added up to was a compulsion to muck about onscreen, to do what he felt like in the moment. Lean sat on his chest and wouldn’t let him have fun, so all his talent froze up and died.

Despite the dubbing, he’s alive in this one, playful and unpredictable. An exciting contrast with the Brits, who are all technique on the surface (but, of course, deeply eccentric in their essence — I very badly wanted to see Richardson to interact with Jones). Put together with Susan George, another untutored misbehaver, Jones turns sex panther (the two had a fling, brutally nullified when she brought over a toothbrush — “No way, baby,”). Her chubby face is out of control. It’s amazing seeing onset doc footage of her making STRAW DOGS, because the charismatic, cute girl you see is nowhere to be found in the sullen, dead-eyed performance Peckinpah captured. Here, she’s antic, a rough baby.

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Where the movie goes wrong is East Germany — once Jones is out on his own (in Cybulski shades) with no crisp Brits to bounce off, things go to pot. Le Carre MAY have been responsible for the wan guff of romance, gasped into the plot without a whiff of social reality — on an off-day, he can do twee — but Pierson should have stomped on it. The end creds say “Filmed at Shepperton Studios and on location in Europe” and those last bits feel as vague as that makes it sound, not helped by rendering dialogue in English which ought to be in German. Wally Stott parples away with his East German truck jazz as Jones and a leaden Pia Dagermark listlessly enjoy their idyll, overseen by a broken-toothed child who seems to squat on the movie’s chest, paralysing it like the imp in Fuselli’s Nightmare.

The wrap-up is satisfying, though it hits the button marked “message” rather too hard. The darkly ironic final twist helps take the curse off it.

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Hatchet Job

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2015 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s TV play, Noon Wine, based on the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, occupies a legendary position in his oeuvre, because it turned his career around when he was at a low ebb, making everything afterwards possible (although it’s THE WILD BUNCH which created his unstoppable momentum in the next decade), and also because it’s been almost impossible to see.

After being shut out of the editing room on the troubled MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston wondered why Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, so charming to their actors when they wanted to be, could not turn that charm on the moneymen; Peckinpah wrote to his producer, “You are a well-poisoner, Jerry, and I damn you for it”), and after being fired from THE CINCINATTI KID after allegations that he tried to shoot hardcore pornography on the MGM lot (screenwriter Terry Southern claimed, plausibly, that it was his idea of adding an interracial love scene that freaked out the suits; but see also Susan George’s allegations about Peckinpah’s initial plans for the rape scene in STRAW DOGS, which tends to support suspicions about the director’s enthusiasm for what might be termed “sexual realism”) — anyhow, after all that, nobody was willing to touch Peckinpah.

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This low-budget TV play demonstrated that Peckinpah could be trusted to turn up, shoot to schedule, and get great reviews. What’s weird is how shonky Noon Wine is. Admittedly, the source material screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival, supplied by UCLA, may not have shown the film at it’s best — though this may be the best surviving material. It looks to have been shot on tape, filmed off a TV screen, and then dumped back onto digital, but it’s hard to be sure. The colour is streaky, the image sometimes displaying a tubular edge distortion, and the resolution is low, and there’s also the unpleasantly smooth, HOBBIT-like video movement, though one soon gets used to that.

The piece is obviously cheap as chips, with laughable production design in the courtroom scene — blank stage flats painted in streaks to try to add a spurious sense of detail. But much low-budget TV still impresses, due to story and acting and framing. Noon Wine is erratic in all of these aspects.

Technically, the piece is below the standard of most TV of the period, with music unconvincingly papering over gaps in the soundtrack where Peckinpah seems to have shot mute. The only visual sequences which don’t look flatly televisual are the frequent montages, layerings of lap dissolves to show time passing. Generally, whenever Peckinpah mucks about with lap dissolves, wipes, freeze frames, ripple dissolves or accelerated motion, I cringe. These examples aren’t outright offensive, but they get a little embarrassing sometimes.

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Olivia DeHavilland is good, naturally. Jason Robards SHOUTS all the time, just like Steve Martin in THE JERK. Per Oscarsson is outstanding. Whenever I see him, I always think, Who is this strange man, where did he come from and what’s he doing here? I even saw him in a Swedish film, DR GLAS, and thought the same thing. So he’s perfect to play what the script calls “a stranger in a strange land.” Theodore Bikel essays a range of characterful tics including a Magoo chortle, and seems to have strayed in from another, more amusing but far worse film.

The story seems predicated upon an ambiguous event (an unseen axe murder) like the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, but Peckinpah struggles to make the unclear clear. His use of monologues, internal monologues, expository dialogue and more montages is frequently awkward. I realized that Peckinpah’s movies are almost never solo writing jobs, though his work on The Rifleman and The Westerner on TV showed he could get the job done OK when he had to. But he never had to solve all the narrative problems of a feature script without help.

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It feels almost ungrateful to get a rare chance to see something like this projected, and not like it better. But that leaves the enduring mystery of how Peckinpah’s career got rebooted by a tiny TV play that isn’t very good. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was that the film, so little seen but so significant in its repercussions for Peckinpah, is like the offscreen murder itself — it is responsible for everything that happens afterwards, but in itself it is unknowable, unseeable and impossible to understand.

I was just thinking, “Now all we need is Nick Ray’s The High Green Wall” — and then I thought to check YouTube and here it is! Hope it’s good.

The Williams Boy

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2008 by dcairns

 Robin Williams Syndrome

Lots of people have been reading the post “Roddy, Prince of Darkness,” apparently looking for information on Williams Syndrome. I feel kind of bad about this, because that post was just me venting some stress after our slightly horrific Christmas experience with my partner’s brother, an adult with this non-inheritable genetic condition. I also didn’t want to have to explain the story to everybody who asked “How was your Christmas?” so being able to say “Read the full story here,” seemed a good solution.

Bad Xmas

But that particular tale is maybe not going to be that amusing for anyone with a Williams kid looking for insight and encouragement and hope, so now that the trauma has faded a bit I thought I’d try to write something more upbeat.

Fiona just got back from an emergency meeting called to try and tackle Roddy’s weight problem and phobias, and they seem to have put together a sensible plan, which involves Roddy going out to buy food with one of his care-workers every day. This provides a little exercise and fresh air, hopefully controls the amount of food brought into the house, and allows Roddy to get used to spending time outside, so his anxiety about falling over will be reduced. We’ve seen how his ability to handle stairs improves markedly within just a few days if he’s staying with us, so it could be that this new regime will produce positive results quickly.

So things are a bit better than they were. Like many people with learning difficulties, and many without, Roddy isn’t the most disciplined character, so he really needs encouragement to do what’s best under these circumstances. His natural instinct would be to glue his ass to the couch and hook three litres of full-fat milk to an I.V. So there’s a balance to be struck between treating him as the adult he is, and making sure he takes care of himself. I don’t know quite where one should draw the line, myself.

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But, MY MESSAGE OF HOPE: Williams Syndrome is a complex thing, and the way it manifests itself seems to vary. People with W.S. may share certain passions, phobias, skills, but they’re full of surprises. They are people just like anybody else. Part of the condition seems to often involve an outgoing, sociable nature (even when he’s trying his best not to leave the house, Roddy is chatty and charming with anybody who comes IN), so my advice would be to enjoy the person, appreciate them for the good company they are, and gently steer them to make the best of themselves (Williams folks may need to be encouraged not to hog the conversation or to interrupt others with their own little obsessions, but it’s fairly easy for them to learn this).

A Williams person will grow into adulthood, while retaining certain childhood traits. It’s unlikely they’ll “grow out of” their childhood enthusiasms (in this, they resemble a lot of film-makers). One of Roddy’s school report cards details an incident when he went missing, and was found in a field, looking at a tractor — his love of heavy machinery is as strong today. But he’s a grown man, even if some of his emotions are childlike (maybe ALL emotions are, and it’s just experience that allows us to focus them in “adult” ways?), and his literacy level is well below his verbal functioning.

The rules of thumb with Roddy is that he can do a lot of things for himself, but he needs a bit of supervision. It’s good to encourage him to widen his abilities and do all he can do, as long as you keep an eye on him. Once he’s learned the right way to do something, he’ll need a refresher course once in a while because he’ll let things slide, whether it’s personal hygiene or tucking his shirt in or getting a reasonable amount of exercise.

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Williams people don’t score too well at reading others, which makes them terrible liars. Roddy will try to avoid trouble by the tried and true method of DENY-DENY-DENY, but he’s not good at judging whether his account is at all credible. “Somebody’s spilled Coke,” he explained, when I came in the door one time. A bottle of cola, previously sealed, was now open. Some was splashed on the floor. The front of Roddy’s jumper was wet. He likes Coca Cola to an excessive degree. He was alone in the house.

“Was it you?” I asked.

“No.”

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It’s uncertain what Roddy’s future will be: he’s overweight and he has a dodgy heart, and there are other complications which can beset Williams sufferers. There has already been a bit of a drop-off in his functioning. But he’s still happy, he enjoys what he sees as a good quality of life. How anybody else might judge it doesn’t matter to him, and why should it? He’s made it to his late forties. He’s held down a part-time job for some of that time, and the U.K. system of “care in the community”, which has had some terrible failures when looking after the mentally ill, has been pretty successful with people with learning difficulties. Roddy enjoys a degree of independence that his parents would probably never have believed possible.

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Since this is supposedly a movie blog, a quick word about mental handicap in cinema: this is one of those things that movies nearly always get wrong. Lars Von Trier, in THE KINGDOM and to some extent THE IDIOTS, seems to believe people with Downs Syndrome are “gifted with innocence,” or are “holy fools,” a belief system that went out of style around 1500 AD. Sam Peckinpah carries on the “village idiot” approach with David Warner’s character in STRAW DOGS, whose “simple-mindedness” is all plot device and no diagnosis. Jaco Van Dormael’s THE EIGHTH DAY, much-praised for its “sensitivity,” is in fact a sinisterly sentimental tissue of lies with a eugenically-inspired ending where the Downs character thoughtfully takes himself out of the gene pool by rooftop suicide, and everybody sings a sweet song. It’s not “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead,” but it might as well be. The filmmaker, who has a sibling with Downs, is obviously struggling with some hostile feelings he is completely unable to analyse, and so they wind up expressed in a false and offensive way. Which makes the film a failure as a piece of art.

I think it’s pretty bad when the best handling of the subject comes from the Farelly Brothers, who at least recognise people will all kinds of handicaps as PEOPLE, and therefore suitable material for comedy — I don’t think they’re poking fun, they’re just having fun. But their decision to cast a “regular” actor as Mary’s learning-disabled brother in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY may one day look like the casting of blackface whites in earlier Hollywood films, since THE EIGHTH DAY did at least show that people with chromosomal disorders can still be good actors.