Archive for The Birds

Oneiromance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2021 by dcairns

I showed my students a bit of the dream sequence from STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) as part of a class on expressionism — my ultimate aim being to break down the barriers between classic German expressionism — painted shadows — film noir — real shadows — and modern dramatic cinematic storytelling which seeks to MAKE THE SCENE LOOK AND SOUND AND FEEL a certain way, often the way the characters feel.

What popped out in viewing the sequence in isolation, along with Nicholas Musuraca’s jagged lighting, was the hammy expostulating of all the supporting characters. I mused/bullshitted that maybe, just maybe, this was all a deliberate choice by director Boris Ingster, who after all went on to produce The Man from UNCLE and so couldn’t, presumably, have been a complete fool. Dreams, I mused, are unconvincingly acted. But just as our bodies are paralysed during sleep, so are our rational-critical faculties, so we are forced to accept whatever nonsense we’re served, like kids in front of Saturday morning TV. It’s only on waking that we say, “That was bizarre.”

Orson Welles, who did much to popularize the striking graphic look that STRANGER throws out, was expert at this dream affect, both in the general atmosphere of THE TRIAL, and in moments of LADY FROM SHANGHAI — the way both Glenn Anders (on the cliff in Rio) and Rita Hayworth (in the mirror maze) stare, seemingly blindly, at Welles, catches something about the autistic performance style of the people we meet in dreams, whether strangers or alien simulacra of loved ones.

And when I re-viewed STRANGER in full as part of our weekend watch party, I was pleased to see that the acting in the surrounding scenes was more traditionally “good.” Peter Lorre was fantastically idiosyncratic and uncanny, but not cartoonish, and the leads, the more traditionally photogenic John McGuire and Margaret Tellichet, though a little bland and earnest, were every bit as convincing as the story needed them to be. The supporting players were reliable types like Elisha Cook, Charles Halton and Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist in THE BIRDS) and they manage to find a mid-ground in their acting style so that without seeming to change character completely in the dream, they can slot into its oneiric stiltedness and get with the program.

Suffer the Little Children

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 3, 2019 by dcairns

“He’s not fucking around,” I said to Fiona as the opening prologue of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? unspooled in our Sony multi-region. Apparently Serrador himself came to believe that this no-holds-barred opening montage of actual death — Auschwitz, India-Pakistan, Biafra, Viet Nam — would have been better placed at the film’s end, and one can see a kind of wisdom in this: how does a horror movie “top” a sequence of actual, documentary infanticide? At the end, he must have imagined, the sequence would have served as a devastating and inarguable summation of his film’s thesis.

Of course, the sequence would have been better not included at all. Any horror movie is going to look trivial compared to actual real-world horrors, and if you’re going to draft atrocity footage in to your fiction film you need to have the best of all possible reasons and even then you may be better implying rather than stating your film’s relation to world events. Several home-video versions of this movie actually deleted the prologue. I disapprove of this because it’s censorship, and against the filmmaker’s wishes, but had NIS voluntarily chosen not to include the montage I’d have liked his film more.

“How the hell did this get made?” asked Fiona from the edge of her seat. I theorised that the seventies were a time when filmmakers experimented with the limits of free expression. Inevitably, one or two of them overshot the mark by a country mile (Pier Paolo Pasolini, I’m looking at you). Serrador’s controversial take on THE BIRDS, with the avian apocalypse subbed out for an onslaught of school-age psychos, their murderous tendencies transmitted like a plague, or a playground rhyme, is one such instance.

Serrador was already the successful director of LA RESIDENCIA, a snazzy, edgy Gothic horror with Lili Palmer, plus he’d helmed an influential shot-on-tape spookshow for Spanish TV, Stories To Keep You Awake. All this, and creating Spain’s top game show, the original of 3-2-1 (I always felt Dusty Bin was a bit sinister. You could never tell what he was thinking.)

Serrador directs the hell out of this thing, getting full value out of the early, pre-creepy stuff where we have nothing but the touristic adventures of our young British couple (Lewis Fiander & Prunella Ransome, both of who really bring it to the later hysteria scenes), and then out of the very creepy indeed scenes of wandering about a Spanish island eerily populated only by smiling kids.

It’s ages, in fact, before our heroes are faced with the awful choices necessary for survival, and even in the run-up to this, the filmmaker is strikingly discreet in his portrayal of child-on-adult violence. We see its effects rather than the horrible incidents themselves. He’s smart enough to know just how much can be believably staged. Not for him the unconvincing zombie tot of PET SEMATARY, wandering confusedly about the set while the soundtrack tries to summon the appropriate mood. His kids are only asked to do things they can do naturally.

“Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree […]” ~ Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica.

Children, of course, are little bastards, as everyone from Clouzot to Peckinpah has shown. But somehow they’re very rarely murderous irl. Serrador’s mental mutation causes the swarms of young to not only fixate on slaying all adults, but to not give a damn about their own safety, enabling them to use force of numbers as the winning argument, heedless of the little bodies accumulating on the hot ground…

Given the immense skill — angles, editing and sound all enhance the creeping anxiety, and then performances step up to the mark to bring us all into a state of desperation — it’s a real shame that Serrador seems to have been effectively ejected from cinema like an unwanted bum. But we’ll be delving into what we can find of his televisual output, because the man was a master. However, ah, questionable, his methods.

Legion

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on April 3, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being struck by the fact that in Scorsese & Schrader’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Jesus (who has drawn a magic circle, like Murnau’s FAUST) is visited in the desert by Satan, who takes not just three forms ~

A snake (which explodes); a lion (which fades away in a dissolve); a column of fire (which dissipates in a gust of wind) ~

Satan also appears via a series of cinematic devices ~

Tracking shot (snake). Scorsese doesn’t shoot this as snake POV — we’re at Jesus’ eye level, not the snake’s, gliding in. But when the snake rears up to address the Messiah, the camera rises also, as if representing the POV of a much bigger, unseen snake.

Cut (lion). Before we see the (rather gentle, wise-looking big cat, voiced by PEEPING TOM scribe Leo Marks), there are two cuts taking us closer to Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, moving straight down the line at him, no angle change, kind of like the Frankenstein monster’s first appearance, or the eyeless farmer’s discovery in THE BIRDS. There’s a (rather appropriate) horror movie theme developing here…

Crane (fire). The camera swoops down majestically just before the Lynchian flame-column appears.

I have no coherent theory to offer here. Other than that Scorsese’s restless imagination and bulging repertory of cinematic tricks compels him to emphasise not the similarity of the three visits (one character, visited by another, three times) but their difference (since similarity is taken care of by the Aristotelian unities at play: time, place and action are consistent, as are theme and character).