Archive for The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Monday Intertitle: His Groping Soul

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Our Lon Chaney binge reached a fitting climax with a screening of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at the Usher Hall (surrounded by people in fancy dress, for it was All Hallows’ Eve, an occasion we take seriously in Scotland) with live organ accompaniment by Donald Mackenzie.

The Usher Hall’s organ is massive — no sniggering! —  it towered from behind the screen, which itself must have been sixteen foot high. There are sixty settings, sixty different sounds it can make, and Mackenzie had to play it with both hands and feet — fortunately his score was improvised, so he didn’t have to follow sheet music at the same time, just the action on his monitor. Though extemporaneous, it did incorporate some well-known classical bits, as well as the original love theme which formed part of the film’s original score upon release.

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These screenings attract a big crowd — the joint was packed — the Film Festival, based right across the road, ought to put on an Usher Hall silent every summer — and the audience is not one particularly familiar with silent pictures. Mackenzie’s introduction stressed that while some of the acting might seem humorous today, the film was not a comedy. People did laugh, but never at Chaney, who rivets. It’s a very different performance from Laughton, and though I prefer the 1939 version in absolutely every single respect, Chaney’s very physical, ape-like approach is effective. Fiona was convinced he must have been studying chimpanzees at the zoo, and he even beats his chest at one point. Gargoyles are the other point of reference, hence his introduction, squatting still as a statue on the facade of the cathedral, and hence all that disgusting tongue work.

Rather than laughing at Quasi, the audience vented its ridicule on Phoebus, which is fair enough I suppose. He can take it. The Disney version makes him a buffoon from the off, and that approach works OK.

The comedy relief poet, Gringoire (Raymond Hatton) might actually be the stand-out performance — he’s robbed of Edmond O’Brien’s best moments in the ’39 version, but grabs his own. He was in 365 movies, by the IMDb’s count — you could watch one a day for a year, in a leap year (admittedly, they’re not quite sure about the numbers). In fact, he may be the most historically well-placed actor ever, appearing in the first Keystone cops short, BANGVILLE POLICE, the first Hollywood feature film, THE SQUAW MAN, the first version of THE CHEAT, the first version of HUNCHBACK, FURY, the US debut of Fritz Lang. He finished his career with IN COLD BLOOD in 1967.

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A reminder, meanwhile — above you can see Akira Kurosawa thanking a small boy for appearing in what would be the final shot of the final scene of his final film, MADADAYO. Which I hope to finally watch and write about during the week of December 1st-7th, since that is when THE LATE SHOW: The Late Movies Blogathon will be happening here. There are some groovy people already promising pieces or thinking about it, but this does not mean that YOU are no also welcome. No invitation or official decree is needed, just join in and let me know about it!

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The Monday Intertitle: Scream, Blakulla, Scream!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Amused to discover, at an Edinburgh Filmhouse screening of Benjamin Christensen’s nutty HAXAN (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES) that in Swedish, the Brocken, the place where witches gather for their midnight sabbats, is known as “Blakulla.”

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Other aspects of the film are amusing too, deliberately so — Christensen’s sardonic wit emerges in the strangest places, but most often to pour scorn on the absurdities of the holy witch-hunters’ beliefs and actions (it’s a seriously anti-clerical film!). Interesting to hear the audience’s laughter dry up as the realistic horror of the witch trials emerges to swamp the surreal-mythological-grotesque elements of the cavorting demons and sorcerers.

There’s so much in this film! It was strange to have seen the Chaney HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME the previous night (more on this later) and thus to have encountered to silent films in two nights featuring darting tongues, church stabbings, and molten lead.

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Fiona and I were both very impressed with the demonic makeup, even when it’s deliberately absurd. One reason was perhaps having just seen HUNCHBACK, where Chaney’s body make-up is so peculiar and over-the-top — Quasimodo has an actual MANE of body hair around his neck, presumably to conceal the join between the actor’s putty-covered face and his nude-effect upper body costume — a wave of discomfort seemed to sweep across the Usher Hall as the feeling that what we were looking at was no longer in any way good enough settled over us like a pall. “Well, I guess almost nobody had ever done body makeup before,” I assured myself. But one year earlier, here’s Christensen doing it with scores of supernatural characters, all of whom look completely convincing within the heightened reality of the movie.

No information seems to be available about who designed or executed the remarkable makeup and costuming for the creatures, or who animated the brief stop-motion sequences, including a scary bit when a tiny demon is glimpsed through a disintegrating door. He’s coming for you! Who were the Swedish animators at this time?

It’s interesting and suggestive that Christensen’s SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (still disgracefully unavailable in any decent form) also features some disturbing/goody makeups. He’s like the Lucio Fulci of Sweden — able to conjure disturbing deformities at will.

Oh, the striking musical score at our screening was performed by Verity Susman. Perhaps I could have done without the recognizable snatches of English-language speech used as samples. Spoken words, or decipherable ones, seem to add a critical/intellectual commentary onto the film. This is sort of OK for music to do, but only sort of. In a sense, the score was engaging in a dialogue with the film… interesting.  If I can formulate any objection it’s merely that Christensen’s film is already so rich and open to interpretation that to include a kind of critique in the soundtrack presupposes that one has fully processed everything he’s on about. There was a slight sense in Susman’s program notes that she intended to add a layer of modern sophistication. I actually think the film is more sophisticated than anything that’s been said about it.

But the soundtrack was beautiful and disturbing in its own right and it didn’t stop me engaging with the movie, so no harm was done.

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I feel I ought to start promoting the annual Shadowplay blogathon — The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon. So here is a short, tantalizing mention.

Tintin ambulation

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2011 by dcairns

My cinematographer friend Scott Ward (hire him — he’s excellent!) likes to stress the importance of getting The Look right. Once you have decided on The Look of your film, your job gets easier, or at least possible, because you have a Plan to guide you through the multiverse of creative decisions awaiting you. One of the reasons Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies is so useful is he clarifies and expands on this with examples from his own career, and he shows that The Look is not a static thing imposed flatly over the script, but a dynamic, evolving process. A simple example would be his film THE HILL, which starts on a wide-angle lens, progresses to a very wide-angle lens, and finishes on a very very wide-angle lens. The distortion and confrontational quality created by the actors thrusting their faces out of the screen is progressively amped up. Likewise/contrariwise, TWELVE ANGRY MEN starts wide-ish and moves slowly to longer and longer lenses, flattening perspective so the walls press with the claustrophobia of a Fu Manchu death-trap as the film goes on.

So big, global decisions about The Look are helpful — Lumet would never have to worry about what lens to use after making that call — but they’re also important. It’s  very hard, possibly impossible, for a film to recover after going with the wrong Look. Which brings us to THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (or TAOTTSOTU).

It was obvious to me from the first screen-grabs posted, and progressively more obvious with each trailer released, that the Look of this film was rotten. This is to some extent a subjective opinion, but I’ve noted that those defending the visuals tend to say things like “What’s wrong with making it look like the comic strip?” So I win, because the film doesn’t look anything like the comic strip, as Spielberg is good enough to make clear by opening with a beautifully graphic title sequence which DOES look like the comic strip. It’s so stylised and simple that everyone involved probably thought “There’s no way we could make the whole film look like this.” And yet, as Scott says, “You get rewarded for bravery, always.” If Spielberg and Peter Jackson and WETA had gone with an actual Hergé visual surface, 2D in 3D, it would have been gorgeous, just as the titles are (for another suave Spielberg credits sequence, see CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).

Instead we get these grotesque, over-textured walking waxworks, blinding us with microscopic detail just because they can, brought to us by the horror of mo-cap. Now, the mo-cap characters in LORD OF THE RINGS or RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES need to have pores and individual hairs and so on, because they’re interacting with flesh-and-blood actors and have to match. But if you’re creating your own world entirely in the computer, the most boring, cowardly choice is to make it look exactly like the world outside your window. Plus these porous, shambling, dead-eyed fleshwads are disgusting to the eye, as any cartoon character would be if he sprang from the page and shrugged on a suit of protoplasm.

Mo-cap at its worst (ie Zemeckis) combines all the limitations of live-action (the bodies are constrained by anatomy & physics) with the limitations of animation (the micro-body language and facial language can never be as subtle and expressive as a real person) — whereas in the right hands, it could combine the best of both. But this would require the involvement of talented animators to manipulate the mo-cap info, bringing in cartoon exaggeration as required. Up until the big action set-pieces, TINTIN suffers from horrible animation: when characters fall over, they abruptly transform from weighty, clodhopping corpuses to inertia-less balloon animals, floating to the ground at a constant speed, obeying the laws of neither actual gravity nor its Loony Toon equivalent.

Happily, in the big action set-pieces, actual animation of reasonable quality dominates, and the film starts to work. As always with Spielberg, the visual gags are ingenious and clearly presented, and the form allows him to get away with all sorts of business that would be too silly in an INDIANA JONES (and which indeed were too silly in the last INDIANA JONES). The wild chase through a fictional North African city actually suggests a valid use for mo-cap, and calls to mind the motorbike-and-sidecar antics of Wallace and Gromit and THE ARISTOCATS, as well as 1941 and Spielberg’s admiration for the hairy chases in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO.

Of course, Miyazaki’s master criminal is a much more colourful character than Hergé’s, and TINTIN suffers from a bland lead, leaving Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (with a non-canonical Scots accent) to bring on the fun. The screenwriters (including the Scottish Steven Moffat) seems far more interested in Haddock than in the film’s nominal hero, which is understandable but problematic: Tintin is relegated to the position of bystander in the action climax, which is really an anti-climax coming so soon after the bigger and wilder bike chase. And this is followed by a ten-minute set-up for the next film, surely something the writers should have fought against given Spielberg’s post-SCHINDLER’S tendency to allow his films to drivel on and on through multiple endings.

TOP MO-CAP FACTS

1) Andy Serkis gets a lot of work in motion capture because his body is covered with evenly-spaced moles, making the technicians’ job easier. These moles are removed by CGI on those few occasions when Serkis acts in a non mo-cap role.

2) Robert Zemeckis’s fascination with the mo-cap process is explained by the fact that he experienced his first sexual awakening while gazing upon the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland. Since then he has contrived to fill his films with marble-eyed, plastic-faced mannequins, and when Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks couldn’t give him what he wanted, he turned to CG.

3) A special feature on Peter Jackson’s KING KONG allows you to “turn off” the mo-cap and see Andy Serkis in a leotard for the whole movie. It also turns Jack Black into a sock puppet. Some scenes actually play better that way.

4) Cheapjack exploiteer Charles Band pioneered an extreme-low budget version of motion capture by smashing some old computer monitors and gluing the spilled pixels onto Brad Dourif. It still looked better than THE POLAR EXPRESS.

“Uh-oh, the reviews are out!” 

BACK TO TINTIN

So the news isn’t all bad. Some of the writing is deft and funny (although I was surprised Tintin had to be told that Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family, then discovered this fact in the library, then went there and noticed a coat of arms and realized in amazement that (gasp!) Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family. Exactly the kind of thing that can but shouldn’t happen when you have three writers.

Asides from the ever-mo-cap-ready Mr. Serkis, none of the actors really make an impression through their layers of digital wadding, and the intriguing Daniel Craig is particularly dull as the sinister Sakharine, with a sub-Dick Dastardly reading that’s a stock villain devoid of any individuality. I did realize how well thought-out the character is in graphic terms, though. Consider:

Older-than-adult as contrasted to Tintin’s younger-than.

Where Tintin has a pure white dog, Sakharine has a shit-brown hawk.

There Tintin has a peak of hair on the crown of his head, Sakharine has one on his chin. He’s nitniT, the inverse Tintin.

The film’s Look is very slightly redeemed by nice colour co-ordination, with a frequent recourse to cerulean blue which recalls the strip. The lightness of tone gets John Williams working in a less bombastic mode than usual, which is nice just as a change, and Spielberg creates some beautiful scene changes exploiting the particular nature of the animated image, it fluidity and flexibility, in a way I haven’t seen much of since the terrific overture of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Maybe best of all is the 3D, which isn’t vulgar or needlessly intrusive, allowing itself to barely register at times, but popping out at moments of drama or for little dramatic flourishes — one shot, where a torch beam sweeps into the audience and illuminates a cloud of silvery dust motes, drew appreciative gasps from Fiona and I. Maybe this is just like the Victorian audiences who stared in autistic fascination at the blowing foliage in the background of Lumiere home movies, a novelty which will pass and which has comparatively little to do with cinema’s real power or charm. But it seemed powerful and charming to us.