Archive for The Big Country


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on February 18, 2021 by dcairns

Hal Ashby, in Directors in Action (a 1973 collection of pieces from Action, the Directors Guild of America’s official magazine) tells of the pep talk he got from William Wyler’s editor, Robert Swink, when he was starting as a junior cutter:

“Once the film is in hand, forget about the script, throw away all of the so-called rules, and don’t try to second-guess the director. Just look at the film and let it guide you. It will turn you on all by itself, and you’ll have more ideas on how to cut it than you ever dreamed possible. And use your instincts! Don’t be afraid of them! Rely on them! After all, with the exception of a little knowledge, instincts are all we’ve got. Also, don’t be afraid of the film. You can cut it together 26 different ways, and if none of those works, you can always put it back into daily form, and start over.”

Swink would have been forty years old and the movie would have been THE BIG COUNTRY in 1958, so the language here is undoubtedly Ashby’s hippy-inflected speech. And some of the editorial philosophy may likewise be Ashby’s — but Swink cut for both William Wyler — minimal coverage but an insane number of takes — and George Stevens — multiple shot sizes from every conceivable direction — and he cut inventively and boldly, so I do believe a lot of what Ashby is passing on came from him. It’s good advice, whoever came up with it.

Great Directors Made Small #4

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , on March 24, 2010 by dcairns

Hal Ashby and his big brother.

Nick Dawson’s recent bio, Hal Ashby, Life of a Hollywood Rebel seems pretty good — it tells the story of the troubled editor-turned-director in what seems a fairly even-handed way, sympathetic to Ashby but also admitting his weaknesses and moments of cruelty.

However, I was slightly alarmed by a passage dealing with Ashby’s work as a junior editor for William Wyler on THE BIG COUNTRY (I know, it’s a strange meeting of talents, but Wyler was actually a big personal influence on Ashby)…

“When the film previewed in San Francisco, he was one of the few not brought along by Wyler, but he nevertheless paid his own way to attend the screening. Wyler was so impressed that Ashby was there that he had his expenses reimbursed. Everybody settled down to watch the film, and all was going well until, about an hour or so into the film, one of the reels went out of sync. It took a group of nervous editors almost ten minutes to rethread the negative and sort out the problem, by which time, as Ashby recalled, “a lot of people had come out to the popcorn stand to get candy and popcorn and so forth. And when they started the picture back up again, there was Willy running around in the lobby saying to people, ‘The picture’s started again, the picture’s started again,’ forcing them back into the theater! There was no question about it: he wasn’t polite, he was just grabbing them and throwing them back in! It was hysterical.”

It’s a nice anecdote, but what strikes me about Dawson’s telling of it is the blithe technical ignorance he displays. What would the negative be doing in the projection room? Does he have any idea what you would see if you projected a negative? You would see a negative! And you really wouldn’t want to risk your negative under such conditions, even if for some crazy idea you fancied previewing the film with all the colours reversed.

This kind of thing in film bios rather irks me, and puts me off because how, if you don’t understand the difference between a neg and a print, are you going to be able to talk about Ashby’s actual work as an editor, or even as a director? It certainly seems like a moderate amount of grounding in film language would help.

Incidentally, I used to wonder how a film could go out of sync when the sound was printed right on the print, in that optical film stripe ~

The answer lies in the loop. First, it’s important to understand that the sound is already out of sync — due to the impossibility of reading sound from a frame of film passing in front of the projector beam (I assume there’s just no room, plus the heat of the lamp might be deleterious to a sound head), the sound is printed several frames off, so that one frame is passing over the sound head to have the soundtrack read, while the corresponding frame of picture is passing through the gate and being blasted with light.

Meanwhile, there is the loop, literally a loose loop of film between the sound drum and the gate, a little quantity of excess that’s designed to stop the film tearing if it momentarily snags anywhere along the way. The trouble is, if the film does snag, the loop can shrink or disappear, which has the effect of moving the sound out of sync. The frame being projected would now be up to half a second closer to the frame whose soundtrack is being read. That’s enough to be very noticeable whenever a a character onscreen talks or slams a car door. (Dawson is quite correct in his use of the world “rethreaded” for the solution to this problem.)

This stuff might or might not strike you as interesting, but none of it is inherently hard to grasp, and anybody writing a book about an editor’s life might want to make a point of understanding some of it…

Charlton Heston, actor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2008 by dcairns

Fiona came into the room early in the morning and told me that some famous Hollywood person had died.

Then she came into the room and told me that Charlton Heston had died and I realised the earlier incident was a dream. I’ve never had deja vu like that before. Weird.

Then, as Edinburgh was briefly swamped by snowflakes the size of nachos, I began to think I must commemorate the great Chuck’s passing.

My first, dark thought, was that Heston’s Altzheimer’s had in some way, tragic though it was, aided his reputation. At least with me — I no longer thought of him as a wingnut and a gun-nut, but as a victim of an illness. Reagan’s senility never affected me that way. In some way I always wanted to like Heston. I know his illness had nothing to do with his arch-Republican stance, which preceded it by decades, but in some unreasonable way the illness erased my image of Heston as spokesman for opinions I loathe. It helps that, despite his right-wing views he was a supporter of the civil rights movement and an eager collaborator with the liberal Orson Welles and the politically somewhat complex Peckinpah.

I thought of my favourite Heston performance, in Wyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY. Heston can really play arrogance and aggression. In the same director’s BEN-HUR he’s stuck with trying to play nobility, which can’t be acted at all, only embodied by the right actor in the right role. The impossible task turns Chuck in on himself and, always prone to self-consciousness, he becomes stiff and monumental (I still can’t picture anybody else in the role though).

Wyler pulled one of his nasty tricks in a scene where Heston struggles with Carroll Baker. Heston traps both her tiny wrists in one of his great bone-sculpture hands and she tries to pull away. WW privately instructed her to break free of Heston’s grasp, while taking Heston aside and telling him to on no account allow Baker to get away. After a couple of takes, her wrists were red-raw, and there’s a real tremor in Heston’s voice as he struggle with her — he’s not a happy actor, but it works for the character. It’s a rare moment of seeing a human being instead of an icon. It makes me like Heston that playing this scene upset him so much — but he also respected Wyler for getting the effect.

Oh, and I love his last scene in Lester’s THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, where he dismisses Michael York’s D’Artagnan with a little wave of his hand. One doesn’t normally think of Chuck as a WITTY actor, but he respected Richard Lester and maybe the gesture was scripted or suggested. Anyhow, he does it beautifully.

Go away, you small boys

A flick of the wrist.

I want to be alone.

“Charlton Heston” by Stump, from the album A Fierce Pancake.

The pyramids were in construction,
The pharoah glowed with satisfaction,
But then to his immense surprise,
His empire fell before his eyes.
A hundred thousand busy slaves,
Downed their tools and stood and stared.

The Red Sea walls stood like a canyon,
The pharoah pulled up in his wagon,
And saw within those walls of glass,
A herd of whales go racing past.
A hundred thousand fishy tales,
Crossed his mind about the day.

Then Charlton Heston put his vest on.

The broken tablets had been mended,
The golden calf had been up-ended,
And old folk sitting round the fire,
Would talk of voices from the sky;
Babies sailing down the Nile;
The recipe for locust pie;
A hundred thousand frogs per mile —
We’d always ask them to describe,

How Charlton Heston put his vest on.

Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal;
Shalt not commit adultery.
Boils the size of fifty pee,
Lights! Camel! Action!

Bushes that refuse to burn.
See these sandals hardly worn.
Raining blood, raining bread,
The night we painted Egypt red.
Thou shalt not covet; shalt not lie;
Thou shalt not bonk your neighbour’s wife.
The recipe for egg fried lice;
A hundred ways to kill a fly;
Love your daddy, love your mummy;
Put your bread in milk and honey.
Loved his fish, he did, he did,
Never beat the wife and kids.
Slouch though desert, slouch through sand,
Until we reach the promised land.
Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal;
Shalt not commit adultery.
Boils the size of fifty pee.
Lights! Camel! Action!