Archive for The Conformist

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

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Walk This Way

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2018 by dcairns

 

While showing THE CONFORMIST to students — a depleted bunch just now, as they’re all off making films, the swine — I suddenly realized that the above sequence, with its creepy fascist flunkies leading Trintignant to his Important Appointment — was a Fellini swipe.

But it’s not exact. Bertolucci’s shots are a touch simpler than Fellini’s, which don’t lag as far behind, but often veer off into fresh compositional adventures.

It’s a great, nightmarish angle. Being led through an institution by a flunky who nevertheless outranks you, and leads you to the Big Important Fellow. It has the quality of a dream — the moving POV offers the illusion of self-motivation but, strapped to our cinema seats with our eyelids clamped open, we have no choice but to follow the leader.

Then I flashed on the “insight” that Jonathan Demme MUST have used this in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, when Clarice is first led to meet Lector. Wrong again — Demme carries off a whole range of interesting blocking, reminiscent of 8 1/2 but not overtly referencing it. Did he miss a trick? I’m not sure — I think the shot would have worked like gangbusters, but it’s hard to argue that the sequence, a highlight of that problematic yet seminal work, is less than effective.

The Birds and the Beef

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by dcairns

Another “song” from KISS AND MAKE-UP. Why am I so good to you?

Edward Everett Horton was not particularly known for his singing, though his number in THE GAY DIVORCEE, paired with Betty Grable of all people, is oddly pleasing. Here, his vocal weakness is made exponentially greater by Helen Mack, who matches him bum note for bum note.

What a hot mess of a film. I’ve been reading James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges, which I can’t recommend highly enough, and he makes a crack about how Paramount films of the thirties tended to fall apart in the third act with alarming regularity, something I hadn’t particularly noticed. But by God this film certainly makes that FEEL true, though in all honesty it starts falling apart shortly after the opening credits. Every time you think it can’t crumble any further, it manages to fracture a little more. Horton has some funny lines early on, so there was somebody of talent involved (asides from the design and camera department who make it all LOOK lovely — as Lubitsch said, “The Paramount Paris is the most Parisian”). My guess is the good stuff flowed from the typewriter of credited scribe George F. Marion, who has some amazing credits.

Some images ~

This last one, with the Venetian blind shadows infecting Cary’s robe, calls to mind THE CONFORMIST.

And because we need SOME quality to get us through the day, here’s James Harvey — who has little to say about this movie and who can blame him? — describing Grant and Constance Bennett in TOPPER ~

She is small and gleaming and sinuous: her body, draped in glittering bias-cut gowns, droops in a dramatic art-deco curve from shoulders to slightly out-thrust hips. She leans back, against a piano or a husband, with her long elegant fingers splayed and upraised, like someone who is always drying her nail polish. The effect is both voguish and feline. Grant, the one she leans into, is as big and dark as she is slight and fair. And there is something feline about him, too–a hint of danger, a look of sheathed-claw contentment. They look so smashing together that the production stills are almost better–certainly more elegant and suggestive–than the movie is. Grant’s role, practically a supporting one, doesn’t give him much to do, but with it he becomes an icon of thirties glamour and fun.

Good, eh?