Archive for Terry Southern

Southern Discomfort

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2021 by dcairns

END OF THE ROAD (1970) is certainly an extraordinary thing. Terry Southern adapting a John Barth novel (to Barth’s eventual dismay) and Aram Avakian directing it.

Avakian isn’t a well-known name: he only directed four films. I enjoyed his laid-back thrillers, COPS AND ROBBERS and 11 HARROWHOUSE. I haven’t seen LAD: A DOG, made eight years before this. The guy never seemed to get any momentum going.

But as an editor he was a star: he cut JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, LILITH, MICKEY ONE, and Coppola’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. All of them dazzling works from a vision-mixing standpoint. He’d periodically break out of cutting into directing and then get shoved back into the editing suite. After this, Coppola got him to cut THE GODFATHER but Robert Evans fired him — Evans’ memoir says Avakian was going behind Coppola’s back, saying the film wouldn’t cut. Evans had some rushes assembled, proving him wrong, and showed him the door. I find this unlikely. Avakian was, after all, Coppola’s ally going into production, so a scenario where Evans fires a Coppola crony is readily explained by Evans wanting more influence on the film. Evans lies quite a lot elsewhere in his book.

Anyway, END OF THE ROAD shows an artistic ambition not on display in the nice thrillers. And I’m guessing not in the dog movie. The montage — a pyrotechnic, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of abstraction and dissonance, unsettles and dazzles. The performances go right to the edge, then over it. Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones who should by rights be our points of entry and identification, swing wildly through a dizzying repertoire of funny voices and bizarre line readings. Keach is the catatonic patient quicky revived by Jones’ unorthodox methods/madness.

As screenwriter/producer, Southern is on particularly indulgent form. I haven’t read Barth — I feel like I should now — but Southern appears to have transformed an early, comparatively naturalistic book into something a little more like later Barth, but a lot more like mid-period Southern (the film makes me wish Avakian had been entrusted with The Magic Christian).

Keach and Jones’ funhouse lunacy — it’s a toss-up which of the two is more disturbingly demented — is joined with a terrific, naturalistic performance from Dorothy Tristan, and a creepy one from the excellent Harris Yulin, who seems to be trying to bridge the chasm of performative styles on display. It’s absolutely never boring. Profoundly alienating, technically stunning, infuriatingly incoherent, yes. Boring, no.

What put me off was the glib, jokey end-note, which follows a horrific botched abortion scene — the swerve into tragedy after surreal farce was effective and I could go with it, but the cheap wink at the end ruined that — it’s of a piece with Southern’s other repulsive violations of taste/the audience apparently elsewhere in his oeuvre, particularly the comic treatment of the heroine’s suicide in the novel Blue Movie and the film THE LOVED ONE — both motivated by out-of-character nastiness from the male lead, both ghastly — both moments that really make you wonder about the guy.

I recall a student making a short film in his first year which rather upset everybody, and he was kind of proud of himself, when a colleague, who’s more combative than me, told him he had to take responsibility for the emotions he was evoking, and they had to achieve something. Just showing that he could make us uncomfortable wasn’t a positive achievement in itself. Possibly a lesson Southern and Avakian needed to learn. Avakian perhaps did.

Gordon Willis shot it (Michael Chapman operating) and it looks AMAZING — his first feature and he’s already doing his toplight thing. Robert Q. Lovett cut it, a future Coppola guy. FFC essentially crewed THE GODFATHER from this movie.

Chamber of Dreams

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by dcairns

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One after another, the films in out POW!!! retrospective turn out to be far better when seen on the big screen than one would expect — DANGER: DIABOLIK’s somewhat episodic plot seems to flow more smoothly, MODESTY BLAISE’s jarring tonal shifts seem more thought-through, and BARBARELLA —

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I used to assume that of the army of writers on this film (including Hammer scribe Tudor Gates, also credited on DIABOLIK), Terry Southern was probably responsible for the funniest lines, but when I got ahold of the Grove Press (!) edition of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic strip, I found they’d been lifted straight from its speech balloons. (“A great many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”) All of them are enhanced, however, by Jane Fonda’s witty and inventive line readings. How many ways of doing wide-eyed innocence ARE there? An infinite number, apparently. Fonda not only makes the film funnier, she defuses offense in the more exploitative scenes, reassuring us that good taste, and the heroine, will not be violated altogether.

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Embodying a very up-to-the-minute view of the future, 1968-style (the swishy shipboard computer seems like a riposte to 2001, but surely can’t be), the film is also, by movie standards, comparatively generous towards its source, crediting Forest once for co-co-co-co-co-co-writing, and once for design. Combining his art with the craft of production designer Mario Garbuglia (THE LEOPARD) results in wonderfully Felliniesque settings.

In my intro I said that Roger Vadim’s direction was the weakest link, but after watching the film with an audience I would have to retract that halfway — true, Vadim’s marshalling of his resources into camera coverage sometimes seems a bit random, so that you frown at shapeless footage of clearly magnificent environments and crowds — not as bad as CALIGULA, say, but a milder version of that effect — “I know we’re in an amazing set, but we just can’t see it!” As if, having covered his wife/star, Vadim had no clear plan for how to present anything else, and just let the cameramen roam about as if in a behind-the-scenes documentary. But the pacing of the film is really good. Despite their charms, DIABOLIK and MODESTY BLAISE are both peppered with dead spots in their talking scenes, partly a result of rather thin sound design, partly a result of directors who are either not so comfortable with actors (Bava, I’m afraid) or with comedy timing (Losey, unquestionably). BARBARELLA, in front of an audience, really PLAYS.

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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.