Archive for The Day of the Jackal

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 Spielberg Transition #2

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2019 by dcairns
Bana hulks out.

MUNICH is one Spielberg I hadn’t seen until recently. I still haven’t managed to steel myself to run THE TERMINAL or THE BFG, but I guess I will at some point. They’re sitting on the shelf opposite as I type this, looking at me with their big puppy-dog eyes.

But MUNICH seemed like it was at least an attempt to do something interesting and different, so I felt vaguely ashamed of not giving it a shot. And I recall an interview from the time of production where Spielberg was talking about how the movie was going to make EVERYBODY angry. The great crowd-pleaser, going out of his way to be unpopular. This seemed worthy of attention.

Well, in a way the film’s refusal to firmly endorse or condemn the Israeli assassination programme depicted (targeting those responsible for the Munich Olympics atrocity) is standard Hollywood hedging, but Spielberg is right too, in that the film isn’t going to satisfy anyone with an entrenching position on the Palestine question. You can probably position Spielberg, based on this film and his other work (notably the penultimate scene of SCHINDLER’S) as a Zionist with qualms.

Fine, I’m a Zionist with qualms too. In that Israel exists and is here to stay, and you can question whether its creation was a good thing, but that’s wholly academic because what acceptable action would dissolve the state at this late stage? You can’t be genuinely anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, because what’s your non-genocidal solution to Israel’s existence?

On the other hand, I’m opposed to practically everything Israel is doing in the name of self-defense. It’s apartheid, it’s a slow-motion genocide, it’s not even in any sane conception of Israel’s own best interests.

My problem with MUNICH started with my inability to accept the arguments Golda Meir, or the film’s version of her, puts forward in favour of the assassinations (or “executions,” as Kevin Macdonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER disgustingly calls them). So, although the film tries to take you on a journey from accepting the mission to questioning it (without ever arriving at a definite position), I was never on board to begin with. So, although I found the film “interesting,” I wasn’t INTERESTED, apart from when Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale showed up (“Things always get better when the good actors show up,” said a distinguished produced friend once, talking about Bob Hoskins as a dwarf, but the point stands).

Spielberg described his influences as European thrillers, and one thinks Costa-Gavras, or Melville, but Lonsdale suggests a more Hollywood influence: DAY OF THE JACKAL. And it’s all very loud and impactful and bloody and explicit. It has the first, I think, full-frontal nudity in a Spielberg joint, both male and female, but predictably the straight male audience wins out with a voluptuous enemy honeytrap (Marie-Josée Croze) while everyone else has to content themselves with Ciaran Hinds’ small dead cock.

The image up top is Bana, near the end of the film, having sex with his wife but seeing images of terrorist massacres, and the machine gun fire from his fantasy (a flashback to events he didn’t witness?) illuminates his face in the present tense reality — I found this ludicrous, but I’m actually going to semi-allow it because it’s certainly BOLD.

But earlier in the film, while travelling by plane, Bana has another flashback to events he didn’t see, the Munich massacre itself, and that has two fantastically horrible transitions. First, we move into the aeroplane window as Bana gazes at it, and the terror attack becomes progressively more visible. I’m reminded of the supremely eggy moment in Polanski’s BITTER MOON where Emmanuelle Seigner’s face appears in the plane window as a Romantic Vision. I think that film is a grotesque comedy (Polanski’s funniest film?) so the moment kind of works, even as it makes me cringe. And I guess both filmmakers were thinking of a kind of in-flight reverie and trying to evoke that sort of boredom-distraction-fantasising. But, you know, it doesn’t WORK.

But the really bad one is the end of the fake flashback (he wasn’t THERE!), when automatic rifle fire rakes a poor Israeli athlete and Spielberg shows bullets tearing up a blood-spattered wall, then dissolves/morphs to little pink puffy clouds seen through that aeroplane window.

I have no words. Except these ones: What. The. Hell?

Well, all really impressively bad ideas have something good going on in them. As with the eros + massacre up top, the idea of something attractive being infected by a vision of something murderous isn’t a terrible one. Nic Roeg would probably have made a hard cut here, and left the audience the option of seeing a connection between the bloody, perforated plasterboard and the sunrise sky, or of seeing the things as merely contrasting. Spielberg is more controlling, so he can’t bring himself to leave that to chance.

Or, as Fred Schepisi advised Spielberg when he heard about SCHINDLER’S, “Don’t do it, Steve. You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.”

I think SCHINDLER’S LIST works, or works well enough overall. But I think there’s a transition in there that might be worth talking about…

Dirty Nuke

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2019 by dcairns

 

Don’t bother with THE FOURTH PROTOCOL, is my best advice. They do shoot Kim Philby in the head in scene one, a bold start, but it’s downhill from there.

It comes on very cinematic, courtesy of Scotsman John MacKenzie at the tiller, and everyone’s in it, so for a while it seems like it could be OK.

But then it turns out to be a mash-up of DAY OF THE JACKAL and OCTOPUSSY. It somehow manages to have the same plot as both, even though they have different plots.

Pierce Brosnan is a handsome, ruthless Russian spy working for a rogue spymaster. He’s the Jackal, in other words, and Michael Caine is on his tail, but we get to see Caine run in this and we wonder if he’s ever likely to catch up. I think the point at which I lost hope for the film was when I realised the Inevitable Scene was going to be a punch-up between these two on a housing estate.

Brosnan moving about being slinky and ruthless is just Edward Fox V.02, but his specific mission is to blow up an American airbase on British soil, making it look like an accident. This will cause CND to kick the Americans out, thus weakening NATO. The film keeps cutting to CND protestors like they’re a THREAT, like they’re the elephants in ELEPHANT WALK (although, admittedly, I always took the pachyderms’ part against the settlers). There is, for balance, a scene where Caine beats up some skinheads on the underground because they’re hassling a weeping black girl with a CND badge for being a “commie” — the film’s one endearingly ludicrous moment. I was hoping for more, since George Axelrod is a credited writer, and he did give us, in a fit of apparent late-career confusion, THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, which plays like an accidental comedy but is written by a great comedy writer, so what is going on?

Caine has a brilliant scene reading Russian names off a computer with his small son — the only human moment in the movie.

THE FOURTH PROTOCOL stars Harry Palmer; Remington Steele; Tector Crites; Zhora (naked and dead again); Major Breen; Emeric Belasco; Rick Pym; Francis Urquhart (I); The Duke; Mon Mothma; Jessica Rabbit; Frank Cotton; Max Headroom; Neville Chamberlain; Elphias Doge; and the voice of Professor Ping.