Archive for The Blues Brothers

Rubber Biscuit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2018 by dcairns

Was discussing something with Anne Billson on Twitter. Those shots where either a character moves on a dolly independently of the camera —

Examples:

Belle in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, gliding eerily down a corridor of wafting curtains.

This ghost in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL — Cocteau maybe invented the trope and Castle maybe introduced it to Hollywood.

The implacable revenant in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, who never makes the mistake of moving like a normal living person. She teleports from room to room like Droopy (“I do this to him all through the picture.”), sits up in bed without the use of arms, rising like a drawbridge, then finally wheels forward through a rainbow of artfully gelled lighting, arms already in position for a spot of strangling…

Kathleen Freeman as the Penguin in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Landis’s parodic use of the supernatural glide is striking because the trope was scarcely in common use at the time. It wasn’t like the trombone shot/exponential zoom in his THRILLER video, where the gimmick was maybe on its way to becoming overexposed and thus ripe for parody. The nun on wheels (at the very end of the long clip above) feels like it could have been played absolutely straight in a real horror movie.

(I like to think they intended to hire Kathleen Byron as a scary nun but asked Freeman by mistake. But I know this is not true.)

Also, those shots where the camera moves WITH the actor, as if the actor were on wheels or the camera were attached, or both. There are two variations on this (well, two main ones) ~

At the opening of SECONDS, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe mount their camera on an actor via some kind of rigid harness, getting a whole range of eerie effects whereby the world lurches about, a drunken handheld nightmare, while the foreground shoulder or slice of face remains rock steady.

Another example of the same thing: Scorsese fastens on to Harvey Keitel for (appropriately) a drunk scene in MEAN STREETS, to the tune of Rubber Biscuit. Scorsese has also attached his lens to a boxer’s forearm to deliver a fist’s-eye view of a punch in RAGING BULL (blink and you’ll miss it) and to Willem Dafoe’s crucifix as it’s raised in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a novelty.

The other variation ~

Spike Lee is the main proponent of this one — camera and actor are moving in unison, but it’s a steady tracking shot, as if the actor is standing on the same dolly the camera moves on (and he is). Lee seems to do this in every film, and, distressingly, sometimes he seems to be doing it just to prove it’s him. His signature shot.

I used this one in my short film CLARIMONDE, back in the nineties — so Lee may have been the influence. I wanted a dreamlike effect and to show a character moving without free will. We didn’t actually have a proper dolly, just a tripod with castors, so I got my lead actor, Colin McLaren, to balance his feet on the castors and grip the top of the tripod so we could wheel him across the studio floor. I still like the result.

This whole slew of techniques seems to be without a name, unless I’ve missed something. I propose calling it the Rubber Biscuit Shot, even though Scorsese didn’t invent it and Spike Lee could probably stake a better claim to ownership. I just think Rubber Biscuit Shot sounds absolutely right for the weird, dislocating effect.

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Peace On Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2011 by dcairns

P.O.E. Peace On Earth. Purity Of Essence. That’s the three-letter code obsessing Sterling Hayden in DR STRANGELOVE, and he returns to the subject in Carol for Another Christmas, a TV production from 1964, scripted by Rod Serling and directed by Joe Mankiewicz — and all three are at the top of their game.

Haden plays Grudge, a Cold War Scrooge (his name is the least subtle thing about this impassioned polemic), committed to withdrawal from the world behind a wall of nuclear weapons, convinced by the death of his son in Korea that involvement is to be avoided at all costs. Unlike Dickens, upon whom the work is closely modeled, this show depends on a series of interlinked arguments about charity, international engagement, the threat of the bomb, which don’t necessarily cohere perfectly but are put across with great force and flair, moment by moment.

I’d actually hold this up as exhibit A to convert anyone who thinks Mank was just a dialogue guy, a straight shooter of snappy talk. There are some ghostly effects in the first fifteen minutes or so that appear strikingly modern (Amenabar ripped off one of Mank’s tricks from THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR for THE OTHERS), as when a reflection suddenly appears in a glass door swinging shut — this is the same year as REPULSION… Figures disappear or are duplicated within single takes, as the camera looks away from them for just a second…

Thinking about this, I’m drawn to the conclusion that Mankiewicz must have been looking at Japanese stuff — both UGETSU MONOGOTARI and THRONE OF BLOOD use this technique, letting the long, continuous shot insist upon the reality of what we see, even as the crucial event happens outside of frame. Both those movies were pretty big back in the day, so it’s quite plausible he saw them, and as a fan of long, fluid takes anyhow, he’d no doubt be impressed.

The Ghosts — Steve Lawrence is The Ghost of Christmas Past. I know him from THE BLUE BROTHERS (“Look at you, still in those fakakta suits!”) and Jerry Lewis DVD commentaries. I had no particular expectations of him as an actor. I get the feeling that some in America would have chiefly negative expectations of him. But he’s GREAT. He plays a WWI veteran’s ghost as a hepcat, but that’s the way it’s written, and Serling does write great hepcat. He’s met on a ship laden with war dead, all nations, then leads Hayden through a doorway into searing light and the aftermath of Hiroshima (cameo from James Shigeta). Little girls, swathed in bandages and draped in translucent netting represent the mutilated victims of the First Bomb. One sings a haunting shamisen.

Hayden tries to shrug it off: alright, these are innocent victims of the fight for democracy, for them the news is all bad, but for their children —

Shigeta stifles a laugh of pure pain (an amazing effect): “Children? From these girls?”

Ghost 2: Pat Hingle as Christmas Present. Know him mainly as Commissioner Gordon in Burton and Schumacher’s BATMAN films. He’s brilliant here — gluttonous, avuncular, ferocious. His bit is about the present, the 10 million displaced persons, “the Barbed Wire Set.” Starvation and deprivation. It begins to become clear that this show is still utterly contemporary.

This, the shortest section, takes place at a banquet table under a chandelier amid black void — which lights up to reveal barbed wire and prisoners at a word from Hingle.

Ghost 3: Robert Shaw. You have to admire Mankiewicz’s courage in taking on Shaw, Hayden AND Peter Sellers. John Gielgud wrote that although iambic pentameters say you stress every second syllable, you can only REALLY stress one word per line. I guess otherwise overemphasis means that meaning gets less clear instead of more clear. Well, Shaw clearly doesn’t believe that, he stresses every single syllable as if it were his last and his listener were a long way off. When he really wants to make a point, though, he hits a word so hard it can punch through cinderblock.

This is the postnuclear section, in the shattered remains of Hayden’s local town hall, where mad jester king Peter Sellers stands for the Me Generation — pilgrim fathers jacket with Santa trimmings, stetson with glittery ME printed on it. Preaching a grotesque gospel of self-interest, he stands for a world where egotism will literally take us down to the last man. It’s a startling role for Sellers, who plays it to the hilt, his voice part Clare Quilty and part the Texas accent he couldn’t quite get for Major Kong in STRANGELOVE. Sellers, of course, was the naked ego run rampant, glazed behind the insane conviction that he had no personality of his own at all. “I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed.” Nothing is more dangerous than an egomaniac with zero self-awareness.

Also appearing: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Britt Ekland.

Hayden, as you’d expect, doesn’t overplay his character’s conversion, making him the first Scrooge on record not to come across as a raving maniac in act 3. It’s a striking, harmonious note of restraint in a big, hammy, epic, heartfelt, articulate piece from a major American filmmaker, and shockingly unavailable to buy in any form.