Archive for The Oscar

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.

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The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.

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The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

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Frock Opera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by dcairns

It’s a really nice effect (I wonder where they stole it from?) — a dark stage, with figures wearing illuminated stripes, forming antic human hieroglyphs, striking poses — then the lights come up — and the clothes are horrible.*

The next stage beyond the “vanity project” is the “delusional narcissism project” — one thinks, with an inward wince, of Guy Ritchie and Madonna’s SWEPT AWAY, the subject of a hilarious Bad Film Night involving Fiona and regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove some time back. I should write about those evenings — in fact, I’m going to.

While Baz Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA was SO egregiously bad it could not actually be endured (a bad movie that intends to be FUN generally isn’t, whereas a bad movie that thinks it’s deep is likely to be a riot), necessitating the watching of THE MATCH KING to restore mental hygiene and belief in a few of cinema’s possibilities, MAHOGANY proved the Perfect Bad Film — maybe even better than THE OSCAR.

WHAT THIS THING IS —

This Thing is Diana Ross and partner/Svengali Berry Gordy’s folie a deux Delusional Narcissism Project, following one woman’s dream of being a fashion designer and how she eventually found herself as appendage to a male politician. It’s empowering! And anyway, the fashion industry is full of untrustworthy homosexuals, as the movie is shocked — SHOCKED! — to uncover.

It’s helpful for a truly bad film to have touches of quality, to illuminate its dankest depths more clearly — this one has David Watkin on photography, so it looks handsome. Watkin no doubt came along with regular collaborator Tony Richardson, who departed the film at some point in the process, at which point Berry Gordy suddenly discovered a fabulous talent for cinematic image-making, rather like how Diana Ross had already discovered a fabulous talent for designing clothes that stink.

Other good things — the song, which tormented the airwaves of my childhood for what seemed like several years, but which is actually quite nice — and this musical montage, apparently directed by the great Jack Cole (who did the musical numbers in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES), is quite something. This would seem to be Cole’s last gift to the world. And it features some proper clothes by actual designers (uncredited — but Issey Miyake seems like a possibility).

Diana herself is moderately effective in places, in an untutored kind of way… then she has some bizarre, horrible moments of would-be high drama, as when compelled to pose for snaps by psycho gay boyfriend Anthony Perkins while driving at 90mph along a deserted Italian overpass —

Yes, Perkins. In unwise tight jeans, he plays a former combat photographer who launches Diana upon the unsuspecting fashion world and gives her her trademark name: “What else is dark and shiny?” I’m naive enough to have thought his character’s impotence might be some combat-shock residue, but no mere post-traumatic stress could cause any red-blooded male to fail to get it up with Diana in the sack, not in her movie, so a more sinisterly aberrant explanation prevails. It’s all horribly homophobic… yet hysterical. If it were at all effective, it might have offended, but we were too busy crying with laughter. One wonders what Richardson and Watkin made of this side of the film, given their own natural proclivities. One could also wonder what Perkins was thinking, but some things are literally imponderable.

The real climax of the film is this fight, which David Wingrove called “the closetiest thing I’ve ever seen” — peculiar not so much for what it says about Perkins’ character, but what it seems to suggest about the all-man Billy Dee Williams…

Crumbs. Mind you, this is followed by Diana stripping at a crowded party and dripping candle wax over herself — very coyly filmed, but still an eye-opener conceptually. Just what was going on in the Ross-Berry relationship? I don’t want to wonder about that, but the film seems to require it of me.

*And it’s a given that all Hollywood films about fashion will have terrible clothes, even those made in periods when movie clothes were routinely chic and smashing — perhaps, as Hollywood versions of modern art are always faux Dali, and modern music is always faux Gershwin, modern fashions are always unwearable crap. An unwritten rule. So one shouldn’t blame Ross for merely following a time-honoured tradition.