Archive for The Exterminating Angel

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillerman group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.

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.