Archive for The King of Kings

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

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The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.

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He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)

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DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.

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DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah —

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…