Archive for Tennessee Williams

Things I read off the screen in Suddenly, Last Summer

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by dcairns

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What can you see in the shadows?

There are spoilers in this…

Though Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s use of horror movie tropes to depict homosexuality in his adaptation (with Gore Vidal) of Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER has drawn comment, I suspect in time we may come to be more alarmed by the film’s depiction of Mexican street boys as cannibals, and lunatic asylum inmates as zombies.

Of course, there is a certain amount of weaseling around the cannibalism thing — “It looked as if” Sebastian had been eaten alive, we are told. But the sequence as staged by Mankiewicz evokes Romero horror movies which had not yet been made, plus THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the climax of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (two other movies with very queer gentlemen who play God), and it’s supposed to prove that Liz Taylor is NOT insane, so even if we don’t take it 100% literally, we have to take it as to some extent true.

(John Gielgud dubbed the play, “Please Don’t Eat the Pansies.”)

Williams’ evocation of the monstrous-feminine, ably embodied by Katherine Hepburn in Mrs Bates embalmed mode, might also raise eyebrows. Perhaps we need to just admit that the Gothic imagination is not inclined to be politically correct.

Poor Monty Clift is very good in a role (sympathetic lobotomist!) that basically involves looking quietly freaked at how goddamn WEIRD everybody is in this picture — a vital role to make the audience acclimatize.

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LOOK: Even when Hepburn casually picks up a magazine in the hospital sun room, it features swimsuit sexiness on the back cover and a devouring tropical beast on the front.

Occurred to me that Hepburn’s first scene, with the primeval garden (containing its own Audrey II flesheater in miniature greenhouse) is like the briefing of Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP, and the movie is a Freudian detective story like SPELLBOUND or MARNIE, but even more investigative and Marlowesque than those. And did Bunuel clock Hepburn’s buzzing box and steal it for BELLE DE JOUR, perhaps thinking that, although the specially-imported Venus flytrap food was a good gag, it was a pity to introduce a mysterious buzzing box and ever explain what was up with that?

Jack Hildyard’s photography is incredible, well served by the DVD.  His career seems to have gone to shit after MODESTY BLAISE, but before that he shot BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI — he also did uncredited work for Mankiewicz on CLEOPATRA and much as I love Leon Shamroy (The King of Technicolor), I have a suspicion that the nocturnal throne-room stuff in that movie which is FAR handsomer than anything else in it, may conceivably be Hidlyard’s contribution. I’d love to know.

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What a weird film. Though Clift and Taylor have mucho chemistry in A PLACE IN THE SUN, here their love story is pretty flimsy, and the movie brushes aside any qualms about Clift falling for a patient (whom he also hypnotizes). The grotesque circus hangs together remarkably well, with all its brazenly unsubtle symbolism and incantatory, Salome-esque monologues, but the romance may be a beat too many. Whatever — just getting a freakshow like this made at MGM deserves some kind of chutzpah award.

Embarrassing note: I’d never seen it.

Fiona: “You have so seen it. I’ve seen it!”

Me: “But we have not seen all the same films, because we are two people.”

Though this at times seems decreasingly true.

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When the Levee Broke

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2008 by dcairns

bloodkin

BLOOD KIN (AKA LAST OF THE MOBILE HOTSHOTS, a horrible title! Sounds like some kind Burt Reynolds movie) is Sidney Lumet’s film of Tennessee Williams’ play The Seven Descents of Myrtle, scripted by Gore Vidal. It was the rarest thing screening in Edinburgh Filmhouse’s recent Williams season, so I felt I couldn’t pass it up. Vidal, of course, is a past master of distorting Williams to suit his own intentions. Here at least he’s less restrained by the censor than he was with SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Lynn Redgrave is loud showgirl  Myrtle, James Coburn is sickly landowner Jeb, Robert Hooks is his half-brother, whose dark skin the script is hilariously mealy-mouthed about. Nobody’s quite sure how to refer to his obvious blackness. “Dark-complected” is as explicit as they can get. Performancewise, Coburn is himself, only dying and impotent instead of lusty and strutting. Hooks is zestful and impudent, and Redgrave gloriously loud and theatrical. David Wingrove, also present, described the effect as being like a Little Britain parody of a Tennessee Williams play. He meant it as a compliment, mind you.

A prologue sets up Coburn’s meeting with Redgrave, with them getting married on a cheesy game show and winning a carload of white goods. A great moment at a rancid fast food restaurant, the long-lens frame heaped with trashy Americana, a giant effigy of a cow trundling past on the road. Then the main event:

Maybe the wettest film I ever saw. It may rain more or less constantly in SE7EN and BLADE RUNNER, but it doesn’t soak into you half as much as in this movie. Once the rain begins, we learn that the levee is apt to break, and the whole movie could end up sub-aqueous. The tactile discomfort of all that downpour, and Coburn’s damp, stained white linen suit, has a powerful, exhausting effect.

Hooks, we discover, has a history of surviving floods by taking to the rooftop of the crumbling southern property where the film transpires. Ironically, the whole plot hinges around LAND, land which may shortly become water. Coburn wants to prevent his half-brother from inheriting, by either producing an heir via Redgrave, or getting her to steal the agreement which promises him the property upon Coburn’s (imminent) demise.

I’m skeptical about Quincey Jones’ score: I don’t think he’s a natural film composer, and his music sometimes seems to go off on its own, abandoning the movie. I feel this about most Jones scores, but then he’ll do something brilliant like THE ITALIAN JOB, and I think the problem must be with me. 

The bits where the set fades to red and Coburn has a strange interlude, with slo-mo flashbacks of laborious running around with sexy chicks, seem to stop the film dead (nearly all attempts to add “cinematic” values to filmed plays seem to do more harm than good). But I like the chamber piece part of the film, dependant solely on performance, photographed by James Wong Howe in a beautifully crisp fashion. It looks nothing like this still:

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And then the ending! Hooks wins the land — just as the flood comes and — united with Redgrave — he flees to the rooftop — as the little three-hander suddenly turns into THE MOST EXPENSIVE FILM EVER. After a miniature shot of floodwater that has a distinct, and humorous, ’70s disaster movie vibe, we see the water crashing through the windows of the house — first floor, second, THIRD! — as the game thespians clamber upwards. It’s preposterously huge and epic and dynamic. Jones’ music suddenly becomes so-wrong-it’s-right, with a blaxploitation exuberance one does not expect to find in Tennessee Williams. After the claustrophobic interiority and long dialogue scenes, this is an eruption of energy that’s truly cathartic.

The black man inherits the land, just as it vanishes beneath the waves. I felt a smidgin of political subtext there, which seemed all the stronger after the election. I don’t see how anybody could have planned it that way, but it was a nice film to see at this moment.

What does Gore think?

Hey Moondog

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by dcairns

Secret Passage

SECRET CEREMONY is a film maudit if ever there was one. Even many hardcore Loseyites find it hard to defend.

“Anyway, to go back to SECRET CEREMONY, here is how it was finally set up. I was sitting in Rome; I had just been doing the dubbing of BOOM!, Burton was going off to do WHERE EAGLES DARE, or whatever they do — shit — WHERE EAGLES SHIT — and we were all in the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth said ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ I remembered this script and thought she would be ideal for it. I got her the script a few days later from London, and she said ‘I’ll do it’, and we did it, at once. Now, of course, I brought [writer George] Tabori back in and we did a great deal of re-working, mostly out of that particular house.”

~ from Conversations With Losey by Michel Ciment.

(I like Ciment, he has a particular enthusiasm for the mad and visionary strains of British cinema that are at least as big a part of our culture — the valuable part of it — as social observation and all that muck.)

Justify My Love

So, having finished Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (which is John Waters’ favourite movie for reasons that are evident if you can manage to see it ), while Burton is off where the eagles shit, Liz Taylor is parading around in various Christian Dior outfits in this deeply weird art movie in this weird house in Addison Road, London. The house had been a rest home for the mentally ill, run by some kind of religious organisation who had fallen on hard times — Losey’s regular collaborator Richard MacDonald ran amok in it and created one of the very best London houses in cinema — it stands alongside Asshetton Gorton’s work in THE KNACK and BLOW-UP, and John Clark’s in PERFORMANCE. The great London house films of the period.

Sausage, M'lady?

Munch chomp gnosh

Early on Liz, grieving her lost child, is adopted as mother by orphaned loony Mia Farrow, who cooks her a splendid sausage breakfast. And the film slams on the brakes and simply observes, with Farrow, as Liz wolfs down the lot. A whole breakfast consumed, in silence… It seems like a dreadful mistake at screenplay stage: The script must have said, “She eats the sausages,” and nobody thought anything of it, but it’s one of those sentences, like “The Indians capture the fort,” that really entails much more than it seems to. Yet somehow the film knows we want this. We want to see Liz eat those sausages. All of them. It’s pornographic, but we can’t look away. The fact that Liz is carrying, shall we say, a few extra pounds and Farrow, who does not eat, still has the emaciated spidery limbs she sports in ROSEMARY’S BABY, adds to the pervasive and enticing wrongness of it all. This is a terrible thing we are witnessing.

Later, Liz will pat her jowls reflectively and complain, “Christ, I’m so f=a=t,” her voice rising to a hoarse beep on the final word.

My Last Breath

What’s going on? All the characters are insane, as Losey admitted. This makes things pretty alienating for any audience member with a grasp of reality. And while Losey announced that Farrow’s character was “in every detail thought out as a hysterical schizophrenic,” I get the impression that his sense of those words may be rather loose. Jean-Pierre Melville also described Delon’s character in LE SAMOURAI as schizophrenic, and I have no idea what he meant by that. Autistic might be closer in that case. I think Farrow’s schizophrenia, like protagonist George Harvey Bone’s in Hangover Square, may be a plot device as much as a condition.

Mia

(Damnit, I now have private information regarding Farrow’s mental state at the time, but I don’t think I can repeat it. Never mind, Losey loved her, and she’s very good in his film.)

I think that by making Liz’s character so nutty, the film kind of disables itself, since if she functioned as a vaguely reliable guide to the labyrinth, she could get away with being distraught, maybe a bit irrational, but not this totally random screwball she is.

Moon Age Day Dream

Screenwriter George Tabori, who is no Pinter, obviously has no shortage of ideas, but his organisation is lacking. David Caute’s Losey book criticises the dialogue for muddling American and British idioms, but I got the impression that’s Liz’s character — a yank who fakes a Brit accent when she’s pretending to be the mother. It’s just about the one thing I was clear on. But it’s a throw-away film full of throw-away notions, like Farrow’s fear of “Moondog”, the God figure in a William Blake illustration on the bedroom mantel. It probably relates to her incestuous stepfather, and maybe when Robert Mitchum turns up (“C’mon, you know I’m harmless before lunch!” with an Irish beard and a bunch of flowers, we’re meant to be reminded of the sinister figure. But why “Moondog”?

Calypso is... like so

ALTHOUGH — the environments of the film are beautiful and the various performers do fascinating things. Mia Farrow essays her note-perfect English accent, also displayed in Anthony Mann’s swan-song, A DANDY IN ASPIC, and her physical acting is likewise remarkable, all flailing arms and manic grin so wide it threatens to crack the outline of her face and break out on its own. Liz is just Liz, she stomps about, giving her all, seizing on anything she can emote at. Robert Mitchum turns up and shows his bravery again, playing loathsomeness without apology. Decorative eccentricity is provided by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who are always welcome round my place, but Losey’s use of the phrase “sort of comedy relief” in describing them is a clue to the fact that they’re not actually funny, just more neurotic whimsy.

Give it the grin

Richard Rodney Bennett did some fantastic music for Losey, and his stuff here is absolutely right for the film, a messed-up music box tinkle that helps make us feel as crazy as the characters. When Liz and Mia go to the seaside, a stunning resort filmed in Holland, the design and score lift us into a wonderful dream state. Then Mia Farrow shoves a stuffed frog up her dress and pretends she’s pregnant. Put this on a double bill with William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE, a 3D mystery in which the lord of a Scottish castle is secretly a giant frog, having never evolved out of the amphibian stage we all supposedly go through in the womb.

What makes you think I want a stain-proof dress?

Better yet, you know what this would make a great Fever Dream Double Featurewith? BOOM! is obviously a good choice, which might prove fatal if you didn’t have strong drink to hand, but try it with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT, also known as IDENTIKIT, which has lots of equally barking mad Lizwork in it, and an even louder frock. Liz gets very irate at the suggestion that she might want a stain-proof dress, at one point: a fine Liz moment. It’s from a book by Muriel Spark, apparently reasonably faithful in its adaptation. Ian Bannen is around to supply, what? Himself, I suppose.