Archive for Terry Jones

Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.

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Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.

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He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.

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Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.

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Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.

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“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

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Breathing Life Into A Turd.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2015 by dcairns

Fiona went to see FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Here is her report, which contains language. From the outset.

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As I staggered, stupefied, out of a screening of Fifty Shades Of Grey, accompanied by the ‘monstrous regiment of women’ a friend of mine had organized into this group activity , which I’d convinced myself was an anthropological experiment, the slightly confused words falling from my lips were, “Dakota Johnson really breathed life into that turd.” Pausing to think about that statement, I realized I was mixing my metaphors like crazy, except only the first part of the sentence was a metaphor and the second part was…a word. A strange coincidence, bearing in mind the fact that EL Wisty James can barely construct a sentence at the best of times. And, is breathing life into a turd something you really want to achieve? According to attendance figures and box office for this fecal behemoth lumbering through the world’s multiplexes, it’s well worth it, but this reanimated jobby is very different from South Park‘s happy little bowl-lurker, Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo.

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Mr. Hankey in his red room of pain

I’m usually cheered to see Mr Hankey, with his toothsome smile, inviting wave and cry of “Hi-Di-Ho!” This example of human waste, excreted from the mind of EL James/Erica Mitchell on to a Blackberry, and hence, into the homes of most people around the world, instead fills me with a creeping dread much like that experienced by characters in an HP Lovecraft story.

Writing erotic fiction. A guide.

“But what of the film adaptation you started talking about at the beginning of the opening paragraph?” I hear you mewl. Well, it’s glossy. Very glossy. Many years ago I used to regularly purchase a magazine called, hilariously, Living etc, centering on interior design. That’s exactly what this film is like, with the ‘etc’ meaning, watered down, misunderstood, vanilla BDSM for people who don’t read books. I’d like to amend John Waters’ advice about not fucking people who don’t read books. Don’t fuck people who read EL James. I’m deadly serious here, because her message is not sexy, it’s toxic. Back to the film.

Sam Taylor-Johnson directs this tosh extremely well, with a self-awareness of its inherent ridiculousness that it doesn’t deserve. She regularly dips a toe into parody with a tv commercial style of shooting and grabs the comedic moments to her bosom. And there ARE deliberately funny moments. Notably the contract negotiation scene, (props to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for the sumptuous look of the whole thing) but even that can’t be saved from Mitchell’s tiresome insistence on her dreadful dialogue being included as much as possible. When Ana expresses an interest in winding up the meeting, Christian tells her that her body is saying something different. “There is a blush on your cheek.” But how can he tell when everything’s orange?

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Taylor-Johnson apparently wanted to approach this as a dark fairy tale, while Mitchell saw it as an epic bonk-buster. Taylor-Johnson and adaptor Kelly Marcel’s sensibility creeps in with the inclusion of a scene with a hung over Ana waking up at Christian’s place with a painkiller, a glass of water, and a note that reads. ‘Eat Me. Drink Me.’ I don’t believe Mitchell has the imagination to write that, so I’m assuming it’s down to Marcel. Not exactly subtle, but it’s there. (Correct me if I’m wrong and it is in the book, but I’d bet my eye teeth it isn’t.) They try to take the curse off it in other areas too. “Laters baby,” has been turned into a recurring joke, a phrase first uttered by Christian’s brother, which he then uses ironically. There is no Inner Goddess and there are no “Holy craps!” although there is a breathy “Holy shit,” as Ana exits Christian’s office building in a downpour, holding her face up into the rain, bowled over by his money charisma. Why do we keep coming back to excrement? Don’t answer that.

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To paraphrase Sarah Miles in White Mischief, “Not another fucking beautifully composed and lit shot.”

The screening itself had the odd atmosphere of a Hen Night. And beforehand I’d mused that this film might be a first. A commercial piece of cinema about sexuality, written by women, directed by a woman and appealing to a core audience of women. I was assured by the other attendees that there were plenty of people lapping this stuff up, talking excitedly amongst themselves and generally having a great time. We weren’t among them. When Dornan does his tedious, sad, nude piano playing schtick I muttered, “For god’s sake. He’s like The Phantom Of The fucking Opera without the organ.”

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Jamie Dornan

(Thanks to Kim for pointing out this connection.)

He really is organless, because although wide-eyed, lip-biting ingenue Dakota Johnson gets everything out,  Jamie Dornan is restricted to a naked, cigarette-burned chest and buttocks.  Now, it’s not like I want the screen to be awash with cocks (Or do I? A question for another day) but I would like some parity. At one point there’s an utterly bizarre flash frame of ‘someone’s’ pubic area (not Dornan’s, because he signed a ‘no complete nudity’ clause) reminding me of the insert of a nob (“Ooh err!”) in Fight Club.

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And so to the actors. Dakota Johnson has been on the receiving end of universal praise for her expressive naturalness and I’m in agreement. She brings believability to the unbelievable. Not conventionally beautiful, she has adorable little bags under her eyes, a slightly wonky nose and a sensual mouth. The camera loves her. The camera’s a bit unsure about Jamie Dornan but it might give him a call next weekend if it doesn’t have anything on.  Now, I’m aware that Dornan is the Psycho Du Jour due to The Fall, but not having seen that, or indeed, anything he’s been in, I was completely bemused by his flat, lifeless performance. To be fair, the script is mainly atrocious. Who is Christian Grey? According to this film he’s a super-rich fetus in a suit with a flying license and a predilection for kinky sex. Not much to base a performance on. BUT, and now we get to the important stuff. He has a ‘back story’, it’s what’s made him into the cypher he is today, and it’s not pretty. “I’m fifty shades of fucked up.” he complains. But do you really have to be fucked up to be into BDSM? The truth is you don’t. It’s a desire, probably hard wired into the brain and reinforced by environment, and when practiced by consenting adults, is not a mental illness to be cured by having a ‘normal’ romantic relationship, and the insinuation by Mitchell that it is, is downright insulting. In fact everything she does is insulting. Her utter contempt for her readership. Her congratulatory self-aggrandizement and her complete absence of self-awareness. No wonder Taylor-Johnson doesn’t want to work with her again. The news yesterday that she will be adapting her own work for the sequels must have the execs at Universal and Focus shitting their little panties, because she can’t write a sentence let alone a screenplay and she’s never had an original thought in her life.

Fifty Shades Of Grey started life as Twilight fan fiction, but there’s an even earlier film it draws upon heavily, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002), based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill and adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson.

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The original Mr Grey

Secretary is also the story of a BDSM relationship but unlike Fifty Shades, our female protagonist, Lee, genuinely ENJOYS the games she plays with Mr Grey/Spader, while Ana seems to put up with Christian’s ‘singular tastes’ in order to keep her man. When she reaches her limit, she storms out of his house in tears. This should be the end of the story, but there are a further two books/films in which she partially ‘cures’ him and they live happily ever after in a socially sanctioned marriage with children. Pardon me while I have a strange interlude in which I imagine Mitchell drowning in a vat of Nutella, her favorite snack. Now Lee and Mr Grey also get married, but the wonderfully unconventional coda (SPOILER ALERT) finds her tied to a tree in her wedding dress being rogered senseless by Grey and loving every second of it! This is true consent. Ana doesn’t consent to Christian selling her car behind her back or having him stalk her, turning up at places and events he hasn’t been invited to. This is obsessive nonsense. In fact it’s abuse. Mitchell, even when she knew her witterings were turning into a money-making concern, wasn’t the least bit interested in properly researching the BDSM lifestyle. What she peddles is Harlequin Blaze like romantic fiction with rough sex, pop psychology and a writing style that makes Dan Brown look like Dostoyevsky. These are quite simply the worst books ever published, in any medium, aside from possibly, the Cum For Bigfoot series, (Yes. They’re exactly what they sound like) which also makes a bloody fortune, but film studios didn’t engage in a bidding war for them. She’s the kind of woman who makes me ashamed to be female. I’m all for women making successful careers. I have a lot of respect for Taylor-Johnson. She has talent and she’s worked for her now elevated position, all while navigating extreme illness and personal crises. Mitchell on the other hand, wrote a load of old rubbish on her phone on the underground on her way to and from work and has created an empire. An empire of ‘holy crap’.

And now, something for the ladies.