Archive for The Tales of Hoffman

The Naked Lynch

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by dcairns

David Lynch has generally presented himself as a kind of naif, and “no cinephile”, working more from inspiration than influence. While this is largely true, and offers a useful explanation of how his films end up in the strange and wonderful places they do, I’ve noticed over the years a few moments that definitely betray the influence of specific other movies, some of which are equally revealing of Lynch’s approach…

YOJIMBO — WILD AT HEART. The dog with the human arm in his mouth,whom I’ve named “Murdo“, trots out of Kurosawa’s evocation of a no-horse town in 19th century Japan, and into a Texas bank. Actually, since the arm is found in the bank, perhaps we need to posit the existence of a time-traveling hound who scoops up a banker’s forelimb and absconds back to Edo period Japan.

Could happen.

Complicating the matter is Murdo’s appearance in both THE NEW YORK RIPPER and the TV show Lost

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR — WILD AT HEART — TWIN PEAKS. This Blake Edwards thriller (!) is graced  by a wonderfully scary performance by Ross Martin, who has one intense scene intimidating a teenage Stephanie Powers which seems like an unmistakable influence on the “fuck me” scene between Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern in WAH. But the IMDb mentions other salient connections between this film and Twin Peaks which I somehow missed on my first viewing years ago — the score by Henry Mancini obviously strongly influenced the roadhouse theme in TP, and there’s an actual Twin Peaks road sign at the start of the movie. Furthermore, Martin’s psychopath character is actually called Lynch!

THE RAPTURE — LOST HIGHWAY. Robert Blake’s first, memorably unsettling appearance in LH sees him amble up to Bill Pullman at a party, dressed in black and with an air of Uncle Fester about him, and engage our hero in a strange conversation, during which the party music and background noise fade slowly to silence. Then he ambles off again and the normal sound resumes. In Michael Tolkin’s THE RAPTURE, Patrick Bauchau does exactly the same, only with different dialogue. His Uncle Festerishness is produced not by a close-shaved head and eyebrows, but by a priestly cowl, but his effect on the party atmos is identical. Everything that is said in the scene is quite different, but the general shape is the same. Of course, Lynch’s version is both scarier and funnier than Tolkin’s.

Incidentally, I once asked Lynch about The Mystery Man. He declined to say whether the MM, who turns up with a video camera late in the movie, was the one sending video tapes to Bill Pullman’s house. But he did say, helpfully, “He’s someone we’ve all met.”

This example feels like Lynch might have switched on his TV a few minutes into THE RAPTURE, caught this scene, become fascinated, and decided to use a variation of it in a movie somewhere, perhaps even switching the TV off and never learning the movie’s name… not wanting to spoil the intriguing little scene with context and explanation…

KISS ME DEADLY — LOST HIGHWAY. LH being a “twenty-first century noir,” movie references are perhaps more prevalent than in other Lynch films. The exploding shack which appears, destroying itself in reverse (creating itself) amid a retracting fireball during the striking sequence where Bill Pullman transforms into Baltazar Getty, seems to evoke the exploding house at the climax of Aldrich’s 1958 ne plus ultra of noir. In fact, Lynch’s decision to film the shack exploding was one of his last-minute on-set inspirations. Filming the climactic  reverse transformation later in the movie, which takes place in front of the shack, he suddenly flashed on the image of the building exploding. “So I asked the special effects guy what kind of really high-powered explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”

THE KILLERS — OUT OF THE PAST — LOST HIGHWAY. LH repeats the noir plot device that when a man wants to disappear, he becomes a garage mechanic in a small town. Both Burt Lancaster, an ex-boxer, and Robert Mitchum, a former PI, manage this surprising career change. (A garage also features in BLUE VELVET, and both this film and LOST HIGHWAY feature disabled African-Americans among their staff. Not sure what we can make of that except that Lynch likes what he likes.)

THE WIZARD OF OZ — WILD AT HEART. This is really too obvious to need elucidating, and besides, the OZ references doubtless originate in Barry Gifford’s source novel. In fact, the Gifford-related movies tend to have more intertextual stuff than the others, however —

GILDA — MUHOLLAND DR. Not only does the amnesiac Rita derive her name from a poster for this movie, but the audition scene where Naomi Watts plays a scene of hatred as if it were a love scene is a clear paraphrase of a similar scene between Glenn Ford and Rita Hyaworth in the classic noir. SUNSET BLVD also seems to inform this film, but in a more diffuse way that’s hard to pinpoint through direct comparisons.

And now a weird one —

TALES OF HOFFMANN / KILL BABY KILL —Twin Peaks (last episode). In the spooky finale of his hit TV show, Lynch redeems the series from its second-season slump with a prolonged sequence set in the Red Room, or Black  Lodge. At the climax of this, the good Kyle MacLachlan is chase by a bad Kyle MacLachlan down a repeating series of red-curtained rooms and corridors. This seems to relate both to the chase through a single, endlessly looped room in Powell & Pressburger’s filmed opera-ballet exercise in pure cinema, but also to a chase through repeating rooms in Mario Bava’s delirious low-budget psychedelic period horror movie (which also inspired Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT). The malevolent doppelganger also reminds me of the last episode of The Prisoner and the revelation of Number 1.

The one-armed man in Twin Peaks was originally written in as a throwaway nod to The Fugitive, but when Lynch realized what a great actor Al Strobel was, he enlarged the role greatly and made it (somehow) central to the series’ mythology.

Anyhow, these little references and influences point to a slightly different picture of Lynch than the usual one, although these examples are all from post-BLUE VELVET movies — I don’t think the earlier Lynch films reference cinema nearly so much. I suspect his childhood and personal fantasies supplied all the initial impetus he needed, and then the longer he’s worked in film the more movie quotations have seeped into his work in an osmotic fashion. The point is not to denounce him as a thieving swine, but merely to point out the more complicated relationship his cinema has with other movies.

Please jump in with any other examples you may have spotted!

Oh… Ludmilla!!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by dcairns

Fun and frolics from Powell & Pressburger’s OH… ROSALINDA!!

A ballet/operetta movie based on Die Fledermaus but updated to four powers Vienna, with the Bat, played by Anton Walbrook, functioning as a black marketeer and general fixer — a singing Harry Lime, if you will — this movie could actually qualify as the weirdest thing the Archers ever attempted. And it’s generally regarded as a complete failure. I think it’s the only P&P film not yet available on DVD anywhere in the world.

Of course, dismissing something as a failure is too easy, and doesn’t really allow one to get to grips with the peculiar qualities that make a film interesting. For my money, ROS is a lot more engaging and enjoyable than either of the Archers’ late-period war films, BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (a widescreen snooze that Powell pronounced himself pleased with) or ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT (a b&w trudge through one of the war’s least interesting skirmishes that Powell was deeply dissatisfied with, leading to the break-up of the Powell-Pressburger partnership). OH… ROSALINDA!! forms a trilogy with THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMAN, and if it isn’t quite as extreme in its eccentricity as the latter, it isn’t for want of trying.

I’ve had two memorable big-screen encounters with this movie. One was a private screening in the company of Comrade K, where it formed one half of an all-time great Fever Dream Double Feature so misbegotten I can hardly bring myself to mention the second film, which was… LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Now, you just can’t put Ophuls’ masterpiece on a double-bill with anything. The other film is always going to suffer. Here, the agreeably superficial similarity, that both films take place in lovingly rendered studio representations of Vienna, was wholly swamped by the massive tonal disparity, not to mention the stylistic clash between Ophuls elaborately artificial realism and Powell’s scattershot surrealism. “Some of those colo(u)rs just don’t belong together,” was just about the only sentence K. could formulate after exposure to the P&P movie, which had even caused the projectionist to avert his gaze. and he wasn’t wrong — driven by some inner demon, production designing genius Hein Heckroth blasts the audience with what might be politely called myriad hues, like a psychotic paintballer looming from the screen and giving vent to his full chromatic range as a final revenge upon the world.

The previous, more successful showing, was at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where Powell’s widow (and Scorsese’s editor) Thelma Schoonmaker, and the film’s cinematographer Christopher Challis, introduced it. “Now that you’ve all bought your tickets,” smiled the cherubic Challis, “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in telling you that when we made this film back in 1955, none of us liked it very much.”

Big laugh from the audience (the first of many).

(Incidentally, working for Powell as a cinematographer, though one might expect it to be exhausting work, seems to have had a beneficial effect on both Challis and Jack Cardiff, both of whom are enjoying Methusalah-like longevity as I type this.)

“They tell me this film’s been restored. I don’t quite know what that means, but when I look at myself in the mirror every morning, I do find myself wishing there was a restoration programme for aging cameramen,” Challis went on.

Thelma took the stage and told us that when Scorsese and Powell first started spending time together, Scorsese would look through Powell’s collection of memorabilia, and every now and then would find a lobby card or image from OH… ROSALINDA!! Anton Walbrook dressed as a bat… “‘What’s this?’ he’d ask, and Michael would look abashed and hide the image and say, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing…'”

Having set the film up as the great disaster of Powell & Pressburger’s career, Challis and Schoonmaker (they should form a comedy double act) had actually created the perfect mood to enjoy the film. Expectations had been lowered and spirits had been raised, and the movie could then shine as the rare piece of hallucinogenic confectionery it is, the embodiment of Gavin Lambert’s judgement on Powell: “He would do these extraordinary things, which didn’t always come off, but it mattered that he did them.”

Has anyone noticed that Mel Ferrer plays his part as an exact, note-for-note imitation of William Holden? It’s technically quite effective but falls short of actual charm, either because it’s too studied, or because Ferrer simply lacks the physique for it.

In the Youtubed scene we get two jokes at once, and I’ve chosen it for that reason. When Redgrave (at his campest, especially when paired with Walbrook — TOO MUCH!) attempts to throttle Ludmilla Tcherina (from THE RED SHOES and Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN), the towel on her head rearranges itself to form a pair of bunny ears. While Fiona was laughing at this, I was laughing at the fact that Tcherina, not generally considered the most capable actress alive, starts to make her throttling sound BEFORE Redgrave actually has his hands around her throat.

Now, ANTICIPATION is one of the most basic errors an actor can make, revealing to the audience that the performer knows what is going to happen next — has read the script, in fact. All illusion of reality is destroyed. But in the rather special case of a contemporary operetta on stage sets with singing and dancing and gay men playing straight men in a manner even camper than they would consider adopting if they were playing gay, if you follow me, all questions of reality should be pushed firmly into the cupboard of irrelevant things and locked up there for 101 minutes. Once this is done we can see that Tcherina’s choice is the most intelligent and thoughtful one possible, and entirely in the spirit of the exercise.

Let the Shadows Play

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2008 by dcairns

Maurice Binder’s titles for Ken Russell’s THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (the second sequel to THE IPCRESS FILE with Michael Caine).

Saul Bass gets a very good press, and rightly so, but maybe we should also talk more about Maurice Binder? While Bass is more consistently elegant and tasteful, Binder could be guilty of breathtaking kitsch (those later Bond titles!), as well as more classical work.

ARABESQUE is a film made by Stanley Donen, who told his cinematographer, the great Christopher Challis (TALES OF HOFFMAN) that the script was so bad their only hope was to try every crazy photographic trick in the book. It works! The presence of Sophia Loren and Alan Badel also help compensate for the fey script and the usual Gregory Peck drag-factor.

A similar contempt for the story enlivens THE IPCRESS FILE, where director Sid Furie started the shoot by tearing up and stamping on his script in front of the whole crew. “THAT’S what I think of THAT!”

Michael Caine supposes he must have had to borrow somebody else’s copy for the rest of the film.

Anyhow, Binder certainly gets these films off to a groovy start. I once asked production designer Ken Adam about Binder. The two had worked on many of the same James Bond films. I made the mistake of pronouncing the name “Morris Bynd-er”. But Binder was a German like Adam himself:

“Maw-reece Bin-der,” he enunciated, “was a lovely man, who liked, very much, to photograph silhouetted naked ladies.”

Well, yes.

no mister bond, I expect you to die

Binder himself told the story of his struggle with a model’s pubic hair, which stuck out in a censorable mohawk formation, visible as she turned in silhouette. ‘She wouldn’t shave, so I thought I’d smooth it down with vaseline. I was just patting it down when [producer] Cubby Broccoli walked in. He just looked at me, then said, “Maurice, I think maybe I am paying you too much.”‘


Maybe sometime I’ll post the titles of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a favourite film of mine. Elegant and witty credits by Binder, with Miklos Rosza’s finest and most melancholy score. ‘Why is it so SAD?’ asks Fiona. The violin theme started life as a concerto by Rosza, and Wilder listened to it while writing the script. The sadness seeped into the comedy, making for Wilder’s most deeply-felt work since maybe THE APARTMENT. It’s also Wilder’s SCOTTISH FILM and makes better use of Robert Stephens’ unique gifts than any other movie — although working with Wilder was so stressful for Stephens, he attempted suicide partway through the shoot.

Good Queen Billy

(While Mitchell Leisen would annoy Wilder by cutting his scripts to make things more comfortable for the actors, Wilder, it seems, never did ANYTHING for the comfort of his actors…)

My friend Roland suggests that you tend to find the best title sequences attached to the worst films, and there are certainly cases of that, but as long as there are films like TPLOSH around, I can’t subscribe to that as a guiding principle.