Archive for The League of Gentlemen

A cicerone to The Cicerones

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , on February 13, 2020 by dcairns

I just started reading Robert Aickman’s “strange tales” — I guess I’d read bits in anthologies over the years, but now I feel I’m really into him. In a sense, since his best stories are mysteries without explanations, it helps to read a few in order to see that what he’s doing is quite deliberate and forms a pattern.

I had seen the short film of THE CICERONES, adapted and directed by Jeremy Dyson of the comedy troupe/TV show The League of Gentlemen, and found it unsatisfying. When I read the story at last, I thought, “Ahah! THAT’S what it’s supposed to do. I didn’t get any of that from the film — it just seemed pointless.” (In fact, one’s first reaction to an Aickman story is likely to be a sense of “What was the point of that?” and True Understanding follows when you’ve thought it over — but that Understanding is elusive and partial and impossible to put into words. Apart from Aickman’s words.)

Then I rewatched the film. It was a lot better than I remembered. Parts of it come very close to capturing that Robert Aickman Feeling. But it doesn’t quite get there, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to compare the story and film to see why. Even if you haven’t read the story, my hope is that this will throw a light on some of the differences between literary and cinematic expression, which may be of interest.

Here’s the short film.

And here’s a documentary on Aickman. It’s a remarkable mixture of poor filmmaking (the interview footage doesn’t cut, they use dissolves as a very poor way of trying to disguise this) and very sound judgment as to content: everything that’s said is really smart and totally belongs in an Aickman show. It’s better if you treat it as radio.

Dyson is one of the talking heads in the doc, and points out that the ending of The Cicerones did not lend itself to filming. One might argue that the story as a whole resists picturisation, and that the obscurity of its meaning might defeat anybody. It’s like a Fellini film or something — it only works if you sense that the author knows what it means even if you don’t. And since maybe Aickman is the only one who really knows, nobody else can tell his story.

First off, let’s dispose of Dyson’s whole opening scene. It’s not in the story and I can’t work out why he’s added it. It’s very Dracula. It allows us to get to know Trant, the tourist, a little, I guess, but I don’t see any problem letting us get to know him by way of the story.

(I do like phony train journey scenes, I’ll admit, and indeed more-or-less began my own last short film with one.)

Dyson also does something I don’t understand the point of. From the list of artworks described in Aickman’s story, he picks one, Christ Among the Doctors by Frans Pourbos the Elder, and makes it Trant’s particular obsession. From a simple bit of set dressing, it becomes a damned PLOT POINT. One which is never fulfilled and doesn’t mean anything that I can see anyway. Adding to the sense that the film just fizzles.

Aickman, of course, can just tell us stuff, but he chooses to tell us little. Trant is 32 and he likes to travel, and he takes it rather seriously. He uses his Cicerones Guidebook in a very rigorous way. Aickman also begins by telling us that it’s exactly 11.28 when Trant enters the church he’s come to see, and there’s a lot of worry about the fact that it’ll be closing for a long European lunch break soon and he might not get a chance to see everything.

The Truth Pulpit in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent

But anyway, once we get inside the “Cathedral of St Bavon,” Dyson’s film improves. The sound design is rather heavy, right from the start, but it’s effective. And the figure in the pulpit is genuinely creepy. The POV tracking shots, and Mark Gatiss’s reaction shot, almost as if he’s waking from half-sleep, are excellent. Though I think showing the figure twice and for such a long time each time is a mistake. But the sudden reveal that it’s an arrangement of vestments (but we KNOW what we saw!) is genuinely uncanny.

The foreign guy emerging from the shadowed recess is somehow not startling, but it’s quite stylish. My feeling, though, is that what Aickman describes — someone speaks, and Trant realizes he’s been observed, and looks, and the guy’s just THERE — would be more disturbing, because more naturalistic. The only thing that’s eerie about Aickman’s character is the fact that he’s engaging a stranger in conversation — very un-English (or at any rate, very un-southern-English) — and that everything he says is a little off.

Dyson has messed with the dialogue a bit, but that’s OK: I’m not sure why he’s changed things, but he hasn’t done any damage.

Gatiss is very good in this — he’s always been very good at playing discomfort. Maybe he’s a bit too interesting to start with, though. Aickman is content to let his normal characters be quite stodgy and dull. And of course, Aickman was writing a contemporary story. You could, I think, play it in modern dress. Does the period dress-up add intriguing flavour, or does it remove it from the recognizable world? Remember Henry James’ line about a good ghost story having to touch reality in a hundred places…

The foreign guy leaves, in MUCH too strange a manner. I feel that by amping up the weirdness (perfs, sound design) Dyson leaves himself nowhere to go, so that the ending is bound to come us a let-down unless he exaggerates that, too. This is a very tempting mistake to make, because one naturally wants to make things interesting. Whereas Aickman seems content to, in Sidney Pollack’s admirable words, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” And so his frissons stand out.

The high angle wide at 05:03 takes us out of the hero’s POV a bit. Aickman’s story is extremely specific — he based his fictional cathedral on a visit to a real one in Antwerp. Dyson has had to combine three real English churches as locations, so he may have had to invent transition shots like this to seamlessly teleport his leading man from site to site.

St Bavo’s

“”The cathedral in The Cicerones was at Antwerp, but the events described in the story happened to me so precisely (almost) that I moved the whole thing, including all the detail, to the cathedral at Ghent. I fear, therefore, that the student has to visit both cathedrals: not that he will regret doing so, or she,” explained Aickman. Though friends of his have spoken of his involuntary imagination — when he described to them events they’d experienced together, the incidents always emerged as fantastically altered, unrecognizable. Presumably, Aickman did have a series of odd conversations — Pinterseque comedies of menace — at the Cathedral of our Lady. The really weird thing he invents in his story is the notion that the varied characters Trant encounters — the foreign dude, an American youth, some kind of choir boy or juvenile servitor, and a small child who emerges from a tomb, are all somehow co-conspirators in an unspecified but malign cult.

The Cicerones translates as “the guides,” and it’s a rather obscure term for a modern audience — well, I’ll confess that I had to look it up. So I don’t think it helps Dyson’s film, though it’s a very nice title when you get it: the alternative title, THE GUIDES, doesn’t suggest a secret society, unless you’re a follower of Agnes Baden-Powell.

Dyson’s film now hits its first anticlimax phase, as the American and the choirboy are less flamboyantly strange than foreign guy. They’re both much closer to what Aickman wrote, and the peculiar sexual challenges fired out by the “transatlantic youth” are suitably discomfiting, and rather funny.

The tomb-child is very low-key, and maybe even less strange than the equivalent in the story, who is fair-haired, completely androgynous, and limps. But is dressed in dark brown, seemingly quite plain garments. For some reason, the film blurs the distinction between the choirboy or whatever he is, and this new character.

I also want to point out an error with the cutting. At some point, somebody’s decided they have to get things moving, so they’ve trimmed back, jump-cutting some of the movement in a way that’s not jarring or displeasing, and is in fact very commendable in most circumstances. (As, for example, around 2.58 and 7.19.) You can make the audience feel subconsciously that they’re in safe hands whenever you splink out a bit of time like this. We sense that we’re not going to be forced to watch boring A-B stuff.

Here, it’s really unhelpful, since suspense requires the audience to be forced to wait.

All the way through, Dyson is forced to drop some of the story’s best moments, because they depend on Aickman being vague about things that a filmmaker would have to either show or not show. “There were occasional showcases and objects on pedestals,” writes Aickman, declining to tell us what he means by “objects.” Guillermo del Toro would clutter the scene with marvelous oddities, and that wouldn’t be right either.

“‘St Levinus’s ornament,’ said the child, and crossed itself. Trant did not quite know what to make of the ornament.” This is creepy and funny and of course quite abstract. But maybe you could make a good shot with an out-of-focus foreground ornament which we can’t make out, and a disturbed reaction from Gatiss? You can imagine him having fun with this. “What IS that? Oh NO! I must be mistaken. Yes, definitely mistaken. Still, how odd.” All unspoken.

Throughout, the great Joby Talbot’s music is doing good work — this composer always seems to find a distinct sound that isn’t like what you’re used to in whatever kind of thing it is you’re watching.

The climax. Christ Among the Doctors by Frans Pourbos the Elder is completely forgotten, but Dyson also leaves out “a small but exquisite alabaster keystone showing a soul being dragged away on a hook by a demon.” This detail, positioned above “a small door” from which the story’s Final Boss will emerge, is the thing that made me feel that Aickman’s baffling yarn did indeed have some secret meaning which we might fathom if only we strained our eyes and minds in just the right direction.

The story ends with a figure emerging from this hatch… but since Dyson has already done a big phony suspense thing about the small boy emerging from a crypt, this maybe lacks the punch it could have. But it’s going great until the figure comes through, partly because Gatiss’s performance of nameless dread is so gripping.

(I like also that Trant could obviously just shove his way free — two of his opponents are just small boys. But part of the story has always been about the social discomfort of odd things going on in a church. To struggle against one’s fate simply isn’t done.)

It’s the thing Trant thought he saw in the pulpit, but, writes Aickman, “It was undoubtedly the very person, but in some way enlarged or magnified; and the curious fringe of hair seemed more luminous than ever.”

This is all very far from the kind of stage directions one can write in a screenplay, or the kind of thing one can photograph. Dyson has made Aickman’s penultimate moment into the absolute climax of his story, but when the very person steps into the light, he’s immediately NOT SCARY. This seems to me because, even with his head lowered, we can see his very human face.

The strangely mundane line, “The cathedral closes now. Follow me,” makes me think of DEAD OF NIGHT and the line “Just room for one inside, sir,” which is delivered in a mundane way in a very peculiar circumstance. And we know Aickman was a serious and very opinionated admirer of cinema.

NOT SCARY. Why, though? Something about the combination of normal and ab- fails to hit Freud’s unheimlich square-on, and we just ricochet off into Nothingsville. I feel that Aickman’s figure is not in the least human — it was earlier revealed to be a cluster of clothes and a monstrance (superb word!) — even though it is described as a person and a man, and it says these words. It’s a very delicate balance, the one between the mundane and the uncanny, and the different elements are in tension here in theory but somehow everything goes slack in the execution.

My best guess — my best idea for a quick fix to make this ending scarier — is that the words should be slightly divorced from the actor. We should hear them over a shot of Gatiss’s terrified face, which is the scary thing in this scene. We’ll know they’re coming from the man, but their connection to him will be more abstract.

Even with this one element falling flat — it’s not the poor actor’s fault — things ought to be scarier. I think that without the alabaster keystone, there’s no actual threat. What’s going to happen to the film’s Trant? Nothing is really implied. Whereas it feels like the story’s Trant is going to Hell.

The last passage of the story is terrifying, and it seems to be this that Dyson felt he couldn’t film:

“His questions went quite unanswered, his protests quite unheard; especially after everyone started singing.”

Scary. Also funny. Very League of Gents. And I think you COULD show that. The song needs to be a strange chant without discernible words. And then you still need something definite to go to black on, something Aickman hasn’t provided. Unless maybe you have the big figure blot out the frame, which might work, if you didn’t do it in too hammy or obvious a way.

But surely they’ve GOTTA sing!

I don’t mean to knock THE CICERONES — in many respects it gets very close to the essence of the story and finds cinematic language for a lot of the mood. The fact that it can’t make it all the way just shows how tricky Aickman can be.

Dyson has made an excellent radio programme about Aickman.

 

 

 

Cliff Hanger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2011 by dcairns

I recall seeing bits of MASQUERADE (1965) — always the same bits, too — on TV over the years. Being a moderate admirer of Basil Dearden, I finally decided to see the whole thing. It’s — moderately good. Cliff Robertson is an American ex-serviceman at a loose end, recruited by former comrade Jack Hawkins to protect an Arabian prince from his evil uncle (regular pseudo-arab Roger Delgado, the Master in Dr. Who). Pitched at Hitchcock romp level, and from a novel by FAMILY PLOT’s Victor Canning, it suffers from a major plot twist heavily telegraphed by modern standards, and easily predictable to anyone who’s previously seen Hawkins as a disillusioned soldier turning to crime in Dearden’s THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Bizarre nod to Bunuel?

Still, the cliffhanging is suspenseful, and co-scenarist William Goldman serves up his first reversal in a long career of rug-pulling, when Robertson, imprisoned in a  circus cage, tries to reach a set of keys dangling just out of reach. He espies some bamboo in a neighbouring cage, and hatches the plan of assembling a rod to fish for the keys — trouble is, the cage is occupied by a very nasty vulture. Much agonized pecking later, Cliff does manage to rig up a key-catching stick — only to discover than none of the keys fits his lock. Of course: why would the bad guys leave the keys to HIS cage in plain view?

The reversals come ever thicker and faster, until, like Goldman’s later screenplay for MAVERICK, it becomes rather hard to be surprised anymore. But more damaging is the misogyny, a tonal pain in any ostensibly lighthearted flick. Marisa Mell is a free-spirited circus girl, sporting bruises from hairy ape boyfriend Michel Piccoli. “I don’t mind,” she tells Robertson. “Say, you’re pretty kinky, baby!” he exclaims, thus putting the film’s portrayal of abusive relationships on a psychological par with the apache dance.

His later line, “I’d give you a smack in the face only I’m afraid you might like it,” doesn’t help matters. I still didn’t like the line when it was plagiarised for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA years later. By all means, abuse masochists, that’s what they like, but don’t make fun of ’em! One also wants to say to the writers: “She’s your sexual fantasy, mate. Why are you having a go at her?”

Nobody seems too bothered by Goldman’s sexism, which strikes me as a constant in his work. It doesn’t quite spoil THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a truly charming film, but it forms a bit of a stain. Probably less harmful to my enjoyment than the tacky production values, but when you have Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook etc, and some very very funny jokes and characters and plotting, you can get away with murder. I get the impression that Goldman’s status as some kind of screenplay guru puts him either above criticism or beneath contempt, so nobody looks too closely at the actual strengths and weaknesses. (His analysis of some of his own flaws in Adventures in the Screen Trade is often very telling, though.)

Dearden’s nicest bit of direction comes when a dopey Robertson wanders dazed through a castle at night — sudden Carol Reed infusion of canted angles, vaseline-smeared filter making fairy-tale dream-effect — but it’s all so out of keeping with the rest of the movie, which has totally neglected Hitchcockian POV and expressionist tricks, that it sticks out like a sore, soft-focus thumb.

Still, the sight of Charles Gray dangling from a helicopter is worth anybody’s 102 minutes. Deus Ex machina!

Buy Goldman’s book —

UK: Adventures in the Screen Trade

US: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, All Night Long) (Criterion Collection)

Things I Read Off the Screen in “Rotten to the Core”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2009 by dcairns

Really enjoyed this — a genuinely bitter, genuinely funny comedy from the Boulting Brothers, which crosses the stylistic approach of their 60’s satires (PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK) with the conventions of the caper movie (the military-style heist of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN seems the most obvious comparison).

The Boultings, Brighton-born twins, were pillars of the establishment (my friend Lawrie observed that John — or was it Roy? — became much friendlier when he spotted Lawrie’s old school tie: “What a bloody snob!” he thought) so their satires are aimed at, basically, everyone else. Foreigners are figures of fun, the working class are thugs and shirkers, industrialists are venal fools, the army are just idiots, etc. And everyone is out for themselves. It’s a darker world view even than Ealing’s subversively scathing THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, where the comedy provides a gentle gloss over the underlying savagery.

One of the reasons this 1965 movie fits into the “Things I Read…” approach is that the Boultings use “funny names” quite a bit, as well as spoof slogans, tying their humour into the Carry On tradition. One might even say the Dickens tradition, but perhaps that’s going a bit far.

BEFORE ENTERING, PLEASE READ NOTICE. Dudley Sutton, centre, was in my first film. Having appeared in working class realist dramas such as THE LEATHER BOYS, he represents a strain of modernity inserting itself into the traditional British comedy.

The convoluted narrative centres on three hopeless career criminals, “Jelly” Knight (Dudley Sutton, all huge sleepy turtle eyes), “Scapa” Flood (James Beckett, a weasel standing on its dignity) and Lenny the Dip (Kenneth Griffith, startled Welsh gerbil), who get out of stir to find that their boss, the Duke, has passed away, having eaten up their loot in medical bills. This information comes by way of the Duke’s girl, a 19-year-old Charlotte Rampling.

Glamour girl Rampling, a former model new to cinema (she debuted in a bit role in THE KNACK earlier in ’65) carries herself well, and makes the greatest impression with her teeth, which are pearly and look very sharp and are generally bared, as is quite a bit of the rest of her. It’s a promising early lead, but gives little hint of the legend that would arise.

Now things get complicated. Rampling is dating a dim-witted Scottish army officer (Ian Bannen, snaggle-toothed and bulbous-headed), who is responsible for delivering the salaries of thousands of men on maneuvers. And the Duke is not dead — he’s pulled a Harry Lime stunt and is plotting this Great Train Robbery from a fake health spa.

The Duke is Anton Rodgers, a familiar face on UK TV, but not somebody I’d ever paid much attention to. Here he turns out to be very good. He’s a loathsome protagonist, if one can even call him protag, with a genuinely vicious bite to his performance. he does that familiar British comedy trick of descending several rungs of the class ladder in a single sentence, usually with an accompanying rise in volume, but it’s nothing like Kenneth Williams’ version of the device. Rodgers is actually a little scary, and very unpleasant. Is it possible for a comedy to get away with being this hostile to all its characters? just about, it seems.

The most pleasant figure is possibly the private eye following Rampling on behalf of her respectable father, who fears she’s in with a bad crowd. Dad is Peter Vaughan, who it seems was never young, and the PI is Eric Sykes, whose talents for scene-stealing via visual comedy tics make him a welcome addition to the mise-en-scene. (Said m-e-s is compromised in  my copy since the CinemaScope frame is trimmed to 16:9 for TV broadcast. Sigh.) Sykes is actually key to unravelling the whole heist, since his involvement alerts Thorley Walters of Scotland Yard to the fact that the Duke is alive, that he has the whole criminal underworld working for him, and that his attentions are centered on Sgt Bannen.

The thieves’ gang tests our heroes’ aptitude with a computer ripped off from Jodrell Bank (home of Britain’s biggest radra telescopes, and a source of smutty humour since “Jodrell Bank” is, like “J Arthur Rank,” routinely used as cockney rhyming slang for “wank.”) Beckett scores 2, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: BOOKIE’S RUNNER) Sutton gets 1, (“FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: NIL”) while Griffth causes the machine to combust, as a printout declares “FIELD OF EMPLOYMENT: CHURCH OR ARMY.”

It’s an elaborate storyline, faithful to the Boulting’s tradition of peppering their films with unusual accents (how often was Northern Irish heard in British films not directly related to “the troubles”?) and colourful supporting characters. As in the earlier satires, even the regular silly jokes are notably abrasive: Sykes, disguised as a street-sweeper, mistakenly empties a shovel-full of dirt and garbage into a baby’s pram. One nice moment involves “the arms” — these are spoken of with shame and despair, since they are only to be deployed when respectable heists have failed to yield any income. Cut to Kenneth Griffith, reading the Daily Mail with a pair of false arms, while his real fingers are deployed picking pockets. This is where he discovers the Duke is alive — he tries to rob the wrong bloke, and the Duke sets fire to his newspaper, and thence to “the arms” — Griffith extinguishes his flaming extremities and lopes off, the dead limbs bouncing at his sides, simian-fashion.

“The arms” are key — they provide the film with a remarkably bitter ending. Everything has gone wrong.  The heist fails, the money is recaptured, and even stealing a tank in order to break the loot out of the bank doesn’t work (the tank falls through the floor, an impressive bit of large-scale slapstick).  Rampling’s dad is packing her off to the North, where she’s clearly going to be miserable. She feels something. It’s the Duke, picking her pocket. He’s wearing the arms. He steals a valuable keepsake he’d given her earlier. She gives him a pitying look. He hurries away, “arms” tragically akimbo.