Archive for The Exterminating Angel

Bunuel muffs it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2016 by dcairns

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I am second to none in my admiration for THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, which does everything THE TOWERING INFERNO does only better (a bunch of rich toffs in gowns and tuxedos gather for a party and find themselves mysteriously unable to leave) but I think I’m on the whole glad that Bunuel didn’t get to make THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS in Hollywood, as he had  wished.

Apart from anything else, it seems just that Robert Florey got to steal the film from a fellow European, the way James Whale stole FRANKENSTEIN away from him (which we certainly can’t regret). Also, Florey’s film has a variety of reasonably impressive special effects. When Bunuel includes a Crawling Hand in a dream sequence in EXTERMINATING ANGEL, the effects are just ALL WRONG.

First, the hand enters, suddenly, with a wet slap, seeming jumping onto the floor from UNDER the door, a spatial impossibility which might be kind of cool and dreamlike if it looked better. Bunuel always liked using strange, counter-intuitive sound effects — he’s great to study for that — but they quite often don’t work (think of the mewing cats in BELLE DE JOUR — effective only because of an earlier non sequitur line about “Don’t release the cats!” but kind of awkward in situ). Here, the progress of the hand, which slides across the floor exactly like a prop on a wire, rather than crawling ratlike in the approved Florey manner, is accompanied by clapping or finger-clicking, which makes conceptual sense but just isn’t scary.

The hand at this stage looks waxen, which is eerie when the hand in question is attached to a real person, like Ivor Novello upon his entrance in THE LODGER, but not what is called for in a sequence where we have to be convinced the hand is human, as is the case here,

Far worse, the sequence climaxes with the prop hand attacking its victim, and careful casual study of the shot reveals that the hand is not only a dummy, but is being worked from below by a real hand. The worst possible combination of techniques! I mean, if we’re not meant to see the edge of the wrist-stump, then just use a real hand. If we ARE meant to see it, maybe put it on a black stick or something? The last thing we want is for the prop hand to be transparently worn like a mitten by some Spanish props guy with his pale and obvious thumb sticking out.

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Don Luis, you really must try harder or you won’t make it in the digital age.

Third Degree Screen Burn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 26, 2015 by dcairns

I think it’s OK to reprint this — my first piece for Sight & Sound, on Montaldo’s CIRCUITO CHIUSO (CLOSED CIRCUIT). Frame grabs are new. Maybe the first review published in Sight & Sound in the form of a police interrogation.

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Okay, wise guy, what were you doing on the night in question?

I was watching a film. A perfectly harmless –

So you were watching a film. What film?

Um, it was called Closed Circuit.

Never heard of it.

It’s an Italian film, from the seventies. I wouldn’t expect you to –

Tell me all about it.

Well, it’s not easy to describe –

Try.

Well, it’s actually a TV movie. Made during that half hour when Italian TV was making interesting stuff like Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. A time capsule from before Berlusconi.

He mixed up in this too?

No, thankfully. Anyhow, it’s all set in a cinema –

Thought you said it was a TV movie.

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It is. Set in a cinema. And for the first half hour, nothing much happens. People come in, we get glimpses of the staff, the routines, the different kinds of characters. But it’s fascinating, because the filmmaker, Giuliano Montaldo, who’s still working today, shoots everything with a wonderfully fluid moving camera, and a choreographed approach to action. Plus the sound, all post-dubbed in the Italian manner, creates a sense of everything happening just as it should. Like fate is running smoothly.

The movie being screened is a spaghetti western. And there’s something very nostalgic for me about the way that widescreen image gets crimped and cropped by shooting through doorways or blocking the screen with a foreground character. It’s like when I was a kid and saw Sergio Leone movies for the first time, and they were panned and scanned on the BBC, sliced down from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1. You could see this was wide, expansive cinema, but it was oddly telescoped. It seemed like a kid’s-eye view, watching the world from under a table or behind a couch.

Anyhow, the focus on bit-players, the artificial sound, and the plotlessness, sort of recall Tati. But then somebody gets shot. A middle-aged cinephile comes in late, sits down, and gets a bullet in the heart. There’s panic. The cops arrive and stop everyone leaving. They make a search but can’t find any gun. They interview everyone but can’t find any motive.

It’s a cop movie?

Well, the young detective in charge is as close to the lead as the movie has. And I guess it’s kind of a giallo, but without the sex and gore. It expands on the weird self-reflexive quality you get in some gialli. But the weird thing is, all this set-up hasn’t established anything that could make for a plot, anything which could lead to murder. So they decide to stage a re-enactment. An excitable usher takes the dead man’s role, they start the film again, and at the exact same moment, just as a climactic gunshot goes off onscreen, the usher gets shot.

Uh-huh. A serial killer.

Well, here’s the thing. The audience members are really freaked now. The sense of entrapment and repetition recalls Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, even down to the media circus gathering outside the theater. Now one geeky guy comes to the cops with a hair-brained theory. They won’t listen, but he does succeed in finding a bullet-hole in the movie screen. A search behind the screen fails to find anything, but this arrogant police chief who’s come in –

Careful, buddy.

– this arrogant police chief insists on another re-enactment. To prove they really have the crime scene pinned down now, that the killer can’t possibly do it again. Because, maybe, the cops are starting to dread that the sociologist is right. There’s a superstitious terror in the air, a feeling that the movie may be cursed, may be a film maudit.

A film mud – ?

A cursed film. See, the sociologist is suggesting that the movie killed the first guy. And having adjusted itself to that fact, it will now repeat the action whenever it’s projected. Because it’s a movie, and movies are always the same each time you watch them. Or they’re supposed to be. And, you see, we know he’s right, because the movie hasn’t set up any crazy killer or villain who could possibly be the real guilty party.

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So they stage the final re-enactment. And even if we now see it coming, Montaldo pulls out all the stops. Just as the forensics guy arrives with the news that the first bullet came from a Civil War Colt, the projectionist finds his projector won’t stop, and the police chief panics as the big cowboy on the screen tracks him across the auditorium with his giant pistol. It has the same kind of hilarious, scary panic as the Ed 209 bit in Robocop.

See, once the film has become a killer, it can’t stop. Because what happens in a film always happens the same way, each time. And maybe that’s why everything in this movie feels so choreographed, so fated. Rewatching a movie gives us an overview of predestination and prophecy.

And it’s all about, basically, the power of the image.

That’s the screwiest thing I ever heard. I don’t believe there is such a movie.

But I –

Take him away.

The name’s Bunuel. Luis Bunuel.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2008 by dcairns

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A VIEW TO A KILL.

If you’re like me, you often wish Luis Bunuel had directed a Bond film. One, probably anything’s better than Marc Forster directing a Bond film, and two, Bunuel was riding high during the heyday of 007, so why couldn’t it have happened?

Looking deeper, we see that Bunuel directed Bond girl Carole Bouquet in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, in which she played one half of the object, shortly before her appearance in MOONRAKER, and furthermore MOONRAKER bad guy Hugo Drax was played by Michel Lonsdale, seen getting his bottom thrashed in Bunuel’s PHANTOM OF LIBERTY back when Roger Moore was battling Scaramanga.

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“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

Like Bond, Bunuel’s characters, at least in his later films, are always impeccably turned out, and demonstrate perfect sang-froid even in the most stressful situations, whether it be alligator attack or the army arriving for dinner unexpectedly. Like Bond, they are famous for their discrete charm.

Bunuel’s enthusiasm for fire-arms is well documented. You can even see him shooting a mountain goat in LAS HURDES/LAND WITHOUT BREAD (well, you can see the puff of smoke from the right of frame just before the goat falls off the mountain). Don Luis’s enthusiasm for experimental weaponry had him making his own bullets, playing around with different charges, trying to develop a bullet with just enough momentum to leave the gun barrel before bouncing lightly off its target. This interest in fancy weaponry surely marks him out as the ideal man to bring Bond to life.

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“Do pay attention, 007!”

While Bond favours the vodka martini, Bunuel leans more towards the dry martini made with gin and angustura bitters, but that’s a minor point. The martini is a creative drink, also favoured by Busby Berkeley (a Busby Bond? Why not? But later.)

So it’s not an implausible idea, OK?

Scaramanga’s dwarf sidekick, Hervé Villechaise, would have been right at home in any of Don Luis’s films (dwarfs trot through SIMON OF THE DESERT, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY and several others), and Bond’s tendency to run up against scorpions, tarantulas and other obscure fauna would be quite in keeping with the action of a Bunuel. My Bunuel 100 Anos book (or, as I call it, The Boys’ Big Book of Bunuel) even includes a Bunuel Bestiary in the back.

So, Dan O’Herlihy as Bond. Celtic Bonds have been successful before, of course, and as Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe, O’Herlihy got in plenty of experience in exotic locations. I’d love to see what he made of the part.

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Mister Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Fernando Rey, suavely villainous in Hollywood movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, would make a great master-criminal. Could we resist Catherine Deneuve as Bond girl Anne Dalou, and could she resist playing it if the high priest of cinematic surrealism were in charge? Zachary Scott, fresh from THE YOUNG ONE, could play Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter. Oh wait, he died in 1965. Damn. OK, Bernie Hamilton then. Sean Connery always thought Felix should be black — I presume on the basis that it was the kind of thankless part where nobody would object, and therefore you should make the effort.

Ken Adam, I submit, would have had a great time building sets for Bunuel, who loved “secret passages leading on to darkness”.

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL would make a great title for a Bond. Imagine what Shirley Bassey could do with a lyric like that. Much better than QUANTUM OF SLOSH, anyway.

But let’s call our imaginary Bunuel Bond GRAN CASINO ROYALE. The globe-trotting narrative will take us through Spain, the U.S.A., Mexico and France. Bond will battle tarantulas, snakes and flesh-eating ants, and face enemies armed with razors, rifles, burlap sacks and buggy-whips. All in search of a mysterious box with undisclosed, buzzing contents…

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That Obscure Odd-Job of Desire.