Archive for Theodore Sturgeon

Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2022 by dcairns

Quite enjoyed DJANGO THE BASTARD — the other vengeful ghost spaghetti western. Anthony Steffen is quite a compelling wraith-hero. As with this film’s unofficial twin …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, there’s a certain loss of tension when your hero is an unkillable ghost and everyone else is a baddy. Best of the bad men is bleach-blond epileptic madman Luciano Rossi, doing the Kinski thing, as “Hugh Murdok.”

Director Sergio Garrone made a bunch of westerns and also some of those noxious Nazisploitation films. I was inclined to hate him, but couldn’t quite manage it in the face of his sheer misguided enthusiasm for wanky directorial gimmicks. His direction is lively but random. Cox picks, as an egregious example, an aerial view tracking Steffen’s hat — a shot that must have taken considerable trouble, and is over before it’s made an impression, replaced with something equally throwaway and meaningless. But I like the hat shot — it’s attractive. Some of Garrone’s other angles are just silly, but as I say, they’re lively. The kind of thing I get cross with Kenneth Branagh for doing in HAMLET, but can accept in something that is after all called DJANGO THE BASTARD.

Then we watched KEOMA together on our larger screen and that was… kind of impressive. My first Enzo G. Castellari film. I don’t know why but Tarantino’s championing him always put me off, somehow. QT’s enthusiasm can be sort of repellent, but in fairness the films he enthuses about are usually at least interesting. (I think BLOW-OUT is a poor film, personally, but it’s not devoid of interest, even just from a pathological viewpoint.)

Enzo is having fun with this very late spag western — it barely rates a mention in the Cox book because he takes the view that there are no good post-1970 Italian westerns, but this is very nearly a proper movie. Castellari’s flourishes are better-motivated than maestro Garrone’s, as when hero Franco Nero holds up four fingers in front of four opponents, a moment you can enjoy in the lengthy trailer.

Weird hearing Nero with his own accent, especially since Keoma is a halfbreed Indian. With his beard and bare chest and wolf-cut hair, FN is a new kind of gunfighter for a new-ish kind of western. Bits seem post-apocalyptic, prefiguring the genre Castellari and all the other genre hacks would dabble in after MAD MAX, other bits seem medieval — there’s a plague ravaging the land, ffs.

Woody Strode has quite a bit to do and has an extraordinary last scene — it is possible that Castellari was a bit too uncritical of his performers, or else urged them to “give it both knees” in Billy Wilder’s phrase when more restraint would have been advisable. But it’s the kind of mad choice that seems acceptable in a nutzoid oater like this.

Spaghetti westerns, unlike most of their American counterparts, always TRY to be progressive about race, though they often slip up in hilarious/uncomfortable ways, due to naivety — the spaghetti west is all like Kafka writing the Statue of Liberty with a sword in her hand: EVOCATIVELY WRONG — and a certain insensitivity that comes with the genre.

The era of Morricone and Morricone-influenced scores is over, as we also saw in FOUR FOR THE APOCALYPSE. This one also has songs — a female vocalist warbling at a high pitch like the bastard daughter of Joan Baez and Tiny Tim, and a gruff, growly man (Nero himself) who mainly sings about what is actually happening in front of us, which gets very funny. (“How did I get in this meeeeeessss?”)

KEOMA — which also has supernatural-Gothic-Shakespearian vibes — led us to JOHNNY HAMLET, originally developed by Corbucci and intended to star Anthony Perkins, but was passed to Castellari and Andrea Giordana. The real star turn in this one is Gilbert Roland, as “Johnny Hamilton’s” chum, “Horace.” The first time Horatio has been the coolest and most impressive character, and the only time a real Mexican appeared in an Italian western (according to Cox — seems legit).

A Perkins Hamlet, even a wild west one, would have been something. An Andrea Giordana Hamlet is just fair. His green eyes look good in Leonesque ECU — this is an insanely colourful film at times — the dream sequence in which the ghost appears is pure Corman, or impure Bava. Funny how Castellari, seeking to present the sequence in a way that doesn’t violate genre conventions — no ghosts in cowboy films — except the aforementioned ones, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and Elvis at the end of FLAMING STAR I believe — and he ends up with a sequence that has absolutely nothing in common with western aesthetics.

Elsewhere, there’s a cemetery in a cave — comedy gravediggers seem ready-made for an Italian western, with the strong antecedent of the coffin-maker in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Castellari mounts the camera on a wheel as Johnny H realises the time is out of joint —

There are capering actors, so that we can have snatches of the bard, and an anticipation of Agnes Varda —

Kind of funny how the Shakespearian character who can’t make up his mind becomes this angst-ridden action hero who’s constantly shooting people and getting in punch-ups. Most of this action doesn’t much advance the plot, but neither do the Shakespearian soliloquies they replace (WH Auden observes that Hamlet is unusual in that the big speeches are all standalone bits of philosophising that work just as well out of context). It’s also funny to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transformed into sadistic henchmen from the rather ineffectual stooges of the original. What “Claude Hamilton” needs in his camp is a deadly Laertes type, but none is forthcoming, though there is, instead, this guy:

A major spaghetti trope I haven’t mentioned — DISGUSTING EATING. Leone’s giant mouth closeups in DUCK, YOU SUCKER! are the apotheosis of this, but in both THE BIG SILENCE and this one, men deliver dialogue through half-masticated facefuls of chicken. There should, now that I think of it, be a spag western called A FACEFUL OF CHICKEN. In this movie the chickenlover is a Mexican bandit called Santana who seems to have no connection to the source text, which means he can do what he likes, so he does.

Johnny, like Steffen in DJANGO THE BASTARD, has just returned from the Civil War, fighting on the side of the South. Cox observes that this is unusual in Italian westerns, which aren’t suckered by the lost cause myth. Cox then embarks on his worst bit of pontificating, throwing out the right-wing talking point that the War wasn;t really over slavery, but over the southern states’ right to secede. I assume somebody fed this line to Cox and he didn’t question it further. But, as sf writer Theodore Sturgeon advises, we should be prepared always to Ask the next question. WHY did the southern states wish to secede? Turns out maybe the Civil War was about slavery after all…

This Hamlet does not go mad, or feign madness, nor does he (spoiler alert) die at the end, though most of the other characters do. These departures from the source text make this not really a version of Hamlet at all. One wonders if Corbucci, who conceived the idea, would have been more faithful, not so much to the play, as to the IDEA. What’s the point of doing Hamlet as a spaghetti western, after all, if you don;t actually follow through? And, while the opening dream sequence (deleted in America) is wonderfully outside the stylistic Overton window of the genre, an insane hero and a tragic ending (as with THE BIG SILENCE) seem perfectly suited to the revenge western. In place of all this, Castellari has his hero crucified — a ballsy move in a production of Hamlet, but rather standard for an Italian western (see also DJANGO KILL! and, in fact, KEOMA) — so that he has to tie his pistol to his hand for the final shootout, a variant on DJANGO. A shame — instead of throwing overly-familiar business at us, under the guise of a Shakespeare update, Castellari could have used the concept to hit us with material that would be genuinely unfamiliar, but perfectly in keeping with the revenge western format. A miss, a very palpable miss. But EGC is a fun stylist, and I’m perfectly willing to see more of his stuff now.

Queen of Crime

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2021 by dcairns

So, found another set of Columbia B pictures to dig into — Ralph Bellamy as ELLERY QUEEN, crime writer/detective.

I’ve only read one Ellery Queen book, which turned out to have been ghosted by respected SF writer Theodore Sturgeon.

I don’t know if ELLERY QUEEN AND THE PERFECT CRIME (James Hogan, 1941) bears any resemblance to any particular EQ book, but Eric Taylor, prolific and talented B-writer, is one of the scribes. And it has Spring Byington, drunken sexy Jesus HB Warner, Douglas Dumbrille, and a monkey. That guy from the movies, Ralph Bellamy, plays EQ, and Margaret Lindsay and Charley Grapewin are series regulars.

James Hogan alternates between static laundry line compositions that go on for years, and slightly more dynamic or inventive bits. Classic B approach, better than most. Being essentially a dilettante, Ellery Q gets to be flippant and eccentric and annoys the right people, and there are some decent gags. Also, really funky reel changes.

With Bellamy and Sidney Blackmer appearing, we can deduce that this movie played a big role in the casting of ROSEMARY’S BABY.

ELLERY QUEEN AND THE PERFECT CRIME stars Dr. Sapirstein; Hepzibah Pyncheon; Grandpa Joad; Bertha Van Cleve; Jeff Tuttle; Chief Powhattan; Dr. Paul Beecher; Elizabeth Price; Roman Castevet; Napoleon III; Max Jacobs; Louie Dumbrowsky; Dr. Bulfinch; and Elmer Fudd.

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill