Archive for The Cardinal

Otto Destruction

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2020 by dcairns

Luke Aspell jumped in at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour to offer me a piece on Otto Preminger’s ROSEBUD and I naturally jumped at the opportunity, as reading his thoughts would be quicker than reading the making-of book, which I still hope to get around to one day.

Meanwhile, look —

The first line of dialogue in ROSEBUD is “Am I glad to see you!”, said by one Palestinian to another. The American colloquialism of this line has been mocked, but heard in the accent of Moroccan actor Amidou, its incongruity is perfect. In the opening sequence, we’ve followed Yosef Shiloach’s journey to meet him. Now, as both men carefully navigate their way through a casual, friendly chat in English, their vulnerability makes us warm to their characters before we know who they are. The alternatives would have been English dialogue that tries to sound translated, clichés of Arab speech, or subtitles, all of which would imply that we already know all we need to know about these people. Preminger begins by acknowledging his, and our, distance. Our sympathy increases when we meet their traumatised allies. Mme. Tardets is in shock after a car accident five months ago. Kirkbane talked about liking “action”, and Tardets mentioned not having seen Hacam “since Algeria”, but Kirkbane’s description of the collision and its aftermath is the film’s first mention of violence. The perpetrator was “some idiot”. This senselessness, irrelevant in plot terms, is the first indication of the horror with which Preminger regards the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The camaraderie of Hacam, Kirkbane and their comrades is distant from the solitary fanaticism of their leader, just as the friendship of the women they kidnap has nothing to do with the corruption and greed of their parents; the reunion of the Palestinians in the kitchen at Tardets’ farm is echoed in a scene of the women in the galley on the yacht. Such moments of interpersonal warmth are brief, but frequent; there’s a lot of jolliness, pleasure in each other’s company, in ROSEBUD. The tone is exemplified by the child-like grin of achievement Hamlekh (Cliff Gorman) gives his colleague when he finds the right lever to stop the yacht’s engine, or the reaction of Helene (Isabelle Huppert) when Martin (Peter O’Toole) and Shute (Mark Burns) are fooled by the disguise she adopts for the return to Corsica – a disguise which turns out to be completely unnecessary. Plainly, the educational aspect of airport thrillers was what most interested Preminger about them; the way their writers decant technical information into page-turning prose. Cutting away from unnecessary action to make time for explanations action directors would skip, this film is so expositional as to become abstract; free to show us something or have a character describe it, Preminger frequently opts for description, but the description is always also an explanation. An explanation of a yacht’s automatic pilot is a narrative event. The characters move through a world that itself moves around them, and every task they plan and accomplish, every mechanism they understand and explain, is an island of reason in a sea of chaos. This isn’t a metaphysical chaos, but a multiplication of human unknowability.

(On the subject of pleasure in each other’s company, Erik Lee Preminger was aided in writing the screenplay by Marjorie Kellogg and a British writer called Roy Clarke, whose career Preminger chroniclers have yet to bother to look into. My keen hope is that it will turn out to be the Roy Clarke who wrote Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours.)

In the 34 years since his death, the world has had time to catch up with the challenges of Otto Preminger’s late period. HURRY SUNDOWN remains difficult to process, but it has its admirers, and each of the other last films, from BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING onwards, is someone’s idea of a masterpiece. Except, of course, ROSEBUD. In his obituary of Preminger, Andrew Sarris wrote that “Since Laura, the only film he has made that seems utterly beyond revisionist redemption is Rosebud.” Chris Fujiwara has called it “without doubt the hardest of Preminger’s films to defend”. Why? Yes, it’s Munichsploitation, one of its most famous images appears to combine gratuitous female nudity with the racist implication of a threat to white womanhood, half of the cast are non-native English speakers who have to play scenes to each other in English, one of the French actors can’t handle it and is dubbed by That Bloke whose non-specific “foreigner” accent was a fixture of 60s thrillers, the climax is two fingers to anyone who thought they were watching an action movie, and the last scene is an expression of despair guaranteed to depress or offend viewers of all political persuasions, but apart from that?

Really, I shouldn’t joke. None of these faults registers as a fault while the film lasts, and many exhilarating moments have gone undiscussed for far too long. Within its own terms, ROSEBUD is perfect, and to call a bad movie is the least imaginative thing we can do with it. Even if it constitutes a failed attempt at commercial filmmaking — and I don’t think it does — surely everyone knows by now that one of the most revealing insights into a film-maker’s world-view is what they do when they think they’re being commercial and get it wrong? SKIDOO wasn’t the social unifier it was so clearly intended to be, but by now everyone admits it’s (intentionally) hilarious. ROSEBUD is full of things we can laugh at, but they’re more funny peculiar than funny ha ha, and to respond with nothing more than laughter would be to waste the kind of opportunities that viewers of late Preminger are accustomed to taking. In almost every scene, we find him complicating, opposing or ignoring the conventions of the thriller, and replacing them with something more interesting. This is an action thriller with the action (ie. violence) removed, whose climax is aggressively anti-climactic: the kidnappers and their victims are knocked out with a gas, and the jihadist mastermind Sloat (Richard Attenborough) is kidnapped while praying, his men, facing east, neither seeing nor hearing the commandos seizing him behind their backs. Only if Preminger was merely George P. Cosamatos or Andrew V. McLaglen would this be the failure that even Erik Lee Preminger has condemned it as; its ludicrousness, and our disappointment, is the point. As he did with the interminable padding of the prison break sequence in EXODUS, Preminger defies our expectations, but the concision and clarity of the ROSEBUD sequence makes the effect invigorating and provocative rather than tiresome.

In truth, ROSEBUD’s status as Preminger’s most despised work seems ascribable to a mixture of political history, cultural history and political fashion. EXODUS, regarded by many Premingerians as one of his greatest films, is far more gung ho in its Zionism, and far more self-deceiving about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, but it was made before 1967, and therefore isn’t right-wing; ROSEBUD was made in 1974, and therefore is. EXODUS dramatises the debate within Zionism between those who sought to achieve Israel by peaceful means, and those who sought to achieve it by violent ones. Jewishness and Zionism are totally equated; while their means may differ, everyone’s end is the same. Each scene states and restates the desperation of the settlers, the justice of their cause, the magnitude of their suffering, and no honest dissent is conceivable. The scale and production values of EXODUS, despite its rough edges, make it an auteurist’s dream, a director’s film with the resources of a producer’s, but its long stretches of unalloyed propaganda are so obnoxious, and so contrary to Preminger’s best qualities, that to forgive or overlook them, while condemning ROSEBUD for far less, is a scapegoating more perverse than any of the later film’s eccentricities. As Preminger’s films demonstrate, identity is inseparable from circumstance, perspective and experience; a change of circumstances reveals, or may induce, new facets of an individual’s personality. Making a propaganda film with the support of a nation’s government may give one limitless opportunities for expansive mise en scene, but what happens to Preminger’s personality in EXODUS is a greater loss than any spectacle can make up for. Only in its last minutes does the film acknowledge what lies ahead; in ROSEBUD, Preminger regards the predicament of Israel and Palestine with a sense of unassuageable desolation. To expect Preminger to make an anti-Zionist film would be unreasonable, yet ROSEBUD is more humane and balanced than its reputation would suggest. ROSEBUD is most usefully compared not with Palestinian and pro-Palestinian films like THEY DO NOT EXIST (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1974) or Godard (and Gorin) and Mieville’s ICI ET AILLEURS (1976), but with mainstream American thrillers like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) and THE BLACK WINDMILL (Don Siegel, 1974), both of which were reference points during production, or BLACK SUNDAY (John Frankenheimer, 1977), which amounts to a prescription for Palestinian extermination.

ROSEBUD has also suffered from the success of SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!, Theodore Gershuny’s account of its troubled production. Gershuny, who had made some low-budget exploitation films himself, evidently expected an atmosphere of power and luxury, and instead encountered a working environment like a submarine or the kitchen of a fashionable restaurant. He seems to have blamed Preminger for his disappointment. The book contains some good anecdotes, but Gershuny’s voice is monotonously misogynistic, dividing all the women involved in the production into the fuckable and the unfuckable, and Preminger seems to have discerned Gershuny’s attitude early on, establishing a running joke of calling him an “Arab sex maniac”.

The only film of Preminger’s independent phase to which he didn’t retain the copyright, ROSEBUD was compromised by the demands of Preminger’s production partner. He had originally planned to make the villain a Jewish anti-Zionist, but United Artists made their participation conditional on his abandoning this idea. The solution he found was prescient, and preferable to his original conception: a British Islamist at a time when the rise of Islamism was so unthinkable that critics dismissed him as a figure out of melodrama. His arbitrary quality, highlighted by Richard Attenborough’s performance, which emphasises the smallness of fanaticism, is another bug that’s actually a feature. Edward Sloat (as with Senator Donnovan, you may wonder if this is a typo someone missed) is introduced to the plot halfway through the film, in a shot blocked and framed by Preminger to make the outward turn of Cliff Gorman’s right eye as distracting as possible, and then becomes the pretext for a long interlude in Germany that leads nowhere. The journey is the destination, as a long autobahn sequence excised during the editing would have made even more obvious.

Much of ROSEBUD takes place in transit. The characters travel between countries in the space of a single cut; there’s a sense of perpetual motion. Its villain and its hero — though the film isn’t stupid enough to regard him as a hero — are alike stateless. Larry Martin is a British mercenary who generally works for the CIA, Edward Sloat is a British Islamist who leads an unrecognised offshoot of the PLO. When they meet, we have no sense of them relating to each other as fellow Britons in a foreign conflict. Imperialisms of money and the imagination have deracinated them. Cynicism and idealism are equally apt to drive people from their original identities, and it’s in keeping with Preminger’s long history of reservations and caveats that Israel’s ally is a cynic, and its enemy is an idealist. O’Toole’s contrived pronunciation of “Israel” as “Issrile,” in a manner that suggests he’s trying to keep his tongue as far away from his teeth as possible, can be interpreted either as an excessive gesture of respect or an expression of distaste.

When I saw ROSEBUD for the first time, a few years ago, I had the advantage of having already seen THE HUMAN FACTOR several times. A number of ROSEBUD’s challenges anticipate those of Preminger’s last masterpiece, but the extremity of THE HUMAN FACTOR makes it easier for us to recognise its achievement; we can’t mistake it for an attempt to make a normal film of its ostensible genre, whereas we can mistake ROSEBUD for a botched commercial thriller. While I wouldn’t now say that ROSEBUD is on the level of Preminger’s other 70s films, I would rank it at the top of the second division of his works, roughly at the level of FALLEN ANGEL and WHIRLPOOL. In SKIDOO, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON and SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, Preminger situated disruptive subjective perceptions — hallucinations, traumatic memories, fantasies — within “objective” worlds of debateable naturalism. In ROSEBUD, the subjectivity and the objectivity have mingled indivisibly. The narration perceives and accepts its inventions as inventions. Far from being an “empty” rejection of a world that has become “unreal”, ROSEBUD continues Preminger’s ongoing project of meeting and accepting the complexity of reality, to a degree too profound for realism, liberated and isolated, as he has been since TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON, by the death of the American cinema. (Or, if you prefer, the death of classicism.)

A last example of how richly Premingerian this despised film is: Peter Lawford plays Lord Carter, an apparently stuffy, hidebound character, with a feathered hairdo. Preminger seems to have cast him primarily for friendship’s sake and secondarily for his value as a celebrity. This kind of casting is nothing new in Preminger, and not even unprecedented in his use of Lawford; consider his pro-filmic, or metatextual — if we classify Lawford’s celebrity life as another media “text” — casting as Lafe Smith in ADVISE & CONSENT, the faux-insider in-joke who unexpectedly turns into a classic Preminger observation about human mystery — and, indirectly, his being a Kennedy stand-in, about leadership. (From the same film, another example of this approach is the characters’ expressions of respect for Seeb Cooley, which pile up past the point of dramatic utility, and begin to feel more like tributes to Charles Laughton, whose last film this was.) Carter is given what are, by implication, the most Zionism-agnostic lines of the film, advising against negotiation with reference to an experience he had during the Mau Mau Uprising. The thinkability of the comparison — if the Palestinians are the Kenyans, who are the British? — and of putting it in the mouth of the film’s most literally incredible, conspicuous performer (Lindsay being its most conspicuous non-performer), endorses Carter’s thinking, discredits it, and leaves us thinking. That Preminger gives this speech to the actor who represented English anti-Semitism in EXODUS makes it even more remarkable. As always, Preminger’s thinking remains joined-up; the sublime and the crass are indivisible. In BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Cécile’s flashbacks begin as she listens to Juliette Greco singing an original song, also called “Bonjour Tristesse”, which was obviously commissioned and written to serve as a promotional tie-in. In Preminger, every but is an and. Patrice (Georges Beller) errs in expecting Sabine (Brigitte Ariel) to place ideological purity above family affection. She and her friends are sympathetic and funny; Patrice is a prig, but/and Margaret (Lalla Ward) is a reactionary. Kirkbane says he doesn’t want to hurt people when he kills them, but/and expresses satisfaction when his perfect weapon works as planned. The way he told it, Preminger didn’t really begin making Preminger films until he was also producing them; the practical financial considerations that other narratives of film art screen off from aesthetic matters were, for him, part of the same thing; producer-director is one job, not two. His embrace of practicalities went beyond pragmatism to become an ideal in itself; in the opening credits of THE CARDINAL, “and John Huston as Glennon” is followed by “Bobby (Morse) and the Adora-Belles”, an in-joke crediting a fictional vaudeville act as though they were a real pop group. This is seen against the superb, possibly Saul Bass-storyboarded graphic beauty of shots which introduce our protagonist walking alone through Rome. Aesthetics, prestige and tackiness are joined together in economic and artistic reciprocity.


The funny thing is, they make such damn good cameras

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2017 by dcairns

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Sorry for the, as usual, flippant title. We really liked Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE. It’s long but engrossing. The shooting choices are unobtrusive but shrewd and imaginative (all the shots from inside the cage!). The performances are marvelous, discounting the now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t “Portuguese” accents (doesn’t matter). The photography is stunning — ALL photography seems to be stunning nowadays, but the intelligence behind this made it more than just pretty pictures.

It is a long film about apostasy, which not everybody cares about. I mean, religion is all nonsense to me, but I can get behind the issue of suffering for an ideal, whatever it is. (Nagging voice in head while the virtues of the Catholic faith are preached under torture: “Yes, but what about the Spanish Inquisition?”) My favourite Catholic film is THE DEVILS.

So we saw it in the refurbished Cameo 2, which has now been rotated 90 degrees so that instead of a long corridor-shaped room with a tiny screen, it’s a big screen with only three rows of seats. All the seats at the sides will give you a distorted angle, and the front row is too close, so I’d say there’s about ten good seats. The front row was empty (Saturday afternoon). So this one may not have the B.O. appeal of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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Scorsese was a little perturbed when Sergio Leone told him “It’s your most mature film,” I think after KING OF COMEDY. To Marty and his friends, “mature” was a euphemism for “boring”. But while you could praise WOLF OF, as Fiona did, as being a young man’s film, the equivalent praise for SILENCE would focus on its, yes, maturity. But it’s not boring at all, it’s fascinating. And has a surer grasp of its subject and its world than KUNDUN did. I liked KUNDUN, but I found it a little unclear. Because there’s a lot of “Yes, but” when it comes to making a film about the heroic Dalai Lama, having to do with theocracy and so on, and this is all stuff the film very much doesn’t want to deal with. Like Howard Hughes being a horrible, horrible person — THE AVIATOR should really have been a lot more like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

In this case, omitting the church’s more horrendous side is acceptable, I guess, because it’s not part of this story. We might wish Scorsese would make a film about Catholicism’s dark side, a film which would be more current, and we might say how interesting that would be — but it would only work if Scorsese were interested in that story. And I guess he isn’t. Besides, by his aesthetic, you couldn’t make a film about, say, child abuse without showing it. That’s what he does with unacceptable images — he watches them and then forces us to.

SILENCE deserves to be seen — you’ll have a good time, I swear. It’s a top filmmaker at the top of his game, really engaged in what he’s doing. And the overhead shots from TAXI DRIVER and LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST are back (one early on, on the church steps, seems to have been lifted from Preminger’s THE CARDINAL) and this time, for the first time I feel they’re Hitchcockian — God’s POV. He may choose not to speak, mostly, but He’s watching.

Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.

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The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.

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Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.

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And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.

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The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.