Archive for Throne of Blood

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

Additional dialogue by…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK premier of MACBETH, which made me feel quite the dude, until I looked at my wardrobe and realized I was going to have to take a whimsical approach to the dress code “smart”. I also met lots of people I know there, which made me feel well-connected. There was a splendid after-party and I utilised it in moderation as I had work the following day, so all in all it was a very good afternoon/evening, apart from the film.

The film isn’t too bad, though — that was a dirty trick I pulled at the end of  that paragraph. The crowd responded with enthusiasm, en masse, though I caught some mutterings later.

All of the acting is decent, though I didn’t love any of the actors. I love Martin Shaw in the Polanski version. I love Mifune and Mrs. Mifune in THRONE OF BLOOD, more for their pyrotechnic displays of theatrical technique than as characters, but they are close to my heart all the same.

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The accents are good, though Marion Cotillard’s is pretty different from everyone else’s. It’s a shock whenever Malcolm (Jack Reynor) speaks, because he doesn’t sound like he’s doing Shakespeare — he sounds like he’s saying something he just thought of. By this reckoning he’s probably the best actor in the film, but he creates a problem for everyone else, because if that’s what a person talking is like, what are these?

The film looks pretty stunning. The locations on the Isle of Skye are brooding and dramatic and spectacular, and it’s nice seeing my native country used in a cinematic manner. Some of the Northumberland scenes look exactly like Polanski’s version, though. The designers have perversely chosen quite a Russian Orthodox look for the architecture and costumes, but this mostly works quite well, apart from the kingly robes which seem a bit samurai to me. Stuff can be the wrong period or the wrong setting as long as it isn’t jarring.

What people said:

Alex: “Paddy Considine has the world’s most disapproving beard.”

Jonny Murray: “Who’d have thought the old man would have so much mud on him?”

Emma: “It’s a shame these things can only happen with big movie stars doing big acting. Ken Loach could do Macbeth.”

Me: “But look at Fassbender in FISH TANK. Why couldn’t he be as natural in this?”

Yes, this is another muddy MAC, calling to mind the classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL exchange (“Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”) — only in this version, even the king gets covered in shit. Michael Fassbender turns up plastered in peat in one scene with no explanation of how it got there, and you hardly notice, because everybody’s always filthy. And all the rooms are draughty. The Macbeth’s bungalow creaks in the wind like a ship in a gale. The scenery is splendid but I wouldn’t want to live here. Oh, wait,

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I didn’t feel like anybody in the film had a relationship with anyone else. Lady Macbeth seemed basically mad from the start, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) was a savage barbarian who then goes totally psycho. Usually you get the sense that Banquo and Macbeth are mates. I have to say — the continuing problem of the Festival Theatre’s accoustics and sound system meant that I may have missed stuff that would have helped forge this connection.

The adaptation is an odd one — lots of interesting ideas. I just didn’t think they worked. The film is at pains to answer that academic’s question, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” According to this film, two. We open on a dead baby, so we surmise that this tragedy isn’t going to be a comedy, and then there’s a teenage Macbeth Junior who dies in the opening battle. At the risk of coming over like Tom Stoppard, who has protested the tendency of directors to treat Shakespeare’s text as a sounding-board for their own ideas, I think a productive question for academics may not be so useful for filmmakers. The Macbeths have no children that we meet in the play. To create one for the film presents a challenge — he can’t say anything, and nobody can say anything about him. So the kid dies, and Macbeth writes a letter to his wife — about some women he met on the heath. No mention of son. When Duncan  congratulates Mac on winning the battle for him, he doesn’t add, “And by the way, sorry about Junior.” We need to talk about Macbeth Jnr!

The filmmakers bring this doleful kid on as a ghost, and have him holding the dagger which Macbeth sees before him. So the line, “Come, let me clutch thee,” is addressed to his son. Who then leaves — things were getting oddly homoerotic — and Macbeth continues talking to thin air, delivering lines written to be addressed to a dagger, as if to a dead son. Who isn’t there anymore.

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The most egregrious abuse of Shakespeare is right at the start, actually, when the witches say, “Where the place?” “Upon the battlefield.”

That’s right. I seem to recall that line once reading, “Upon the heath.” Which fits the rhythm, and has an assonant connection with the following line, “There to meet with Macbeth.” This feels like a Weinstein Bros idea. Macbeth has a vision of the witches while he’s in battle. Couldn’t the battlefield be on a heath? A kind of battleheath, if you will? Apparently somebody thought this would be confusing, so it was better to rewrite Shakespeare. “Additional dialogue by…” The Weinsteins have a long history of explanatory overdubs, with exposition blasting from the back of actors’ heads the moment they turn away, just to make sure we understand what Harvey wants us to understand. This fiddling has actually occurred at script stage, though, so we can have bad exposition with good lip sync. The filmmakers can’t hear will rotate in his grave because they’re simply not on his frequency.

There are other mismatches of word and action. When we are told that Macbeth “unseamed” the traitor “from the nave to th’ chops,” clearly stating, albeit in flowery language, that he splin him open from stomach to throat, we are shown Macbeth simply lopping the guy’s head off. It’s genuinely like the director didn’t read the play, or even the script. I wouldn’t like to suggest that this was a particularly Australian tendency (George Miller, for one, always matches word to deed with striking accuracy), but the last time I felt this weird disconnect was at Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! in which E. MacGregor sings “You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue,” while looking straight into N. Kidman’s eyes. They’re blue, Ewan. She’s right in front of you. I’d be worried about that kind of memory loss.

When Macbeth talks to one of his murderers after Banquo’s assassination, he does it at the banquet, with everyone else standing around silently, listening to the secret murder plot echoing around the hall. You can play it that way, and it doesn’t necessarily contradict anything later, but that scene always seemed to work really well when nobody knew Macbeth had Banquo offed, and so his embarrassing flake-out when he sees his former chum’s corpse at table exposes a dirty secret and causes Lady M. to fly into hostess mode, trying to put an acceptable spin on things.

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One thing the movie works hard to fix is Shakespeare’s missing scene — Edith Evans always complained that it was impossible to play Lady Macbeth’s plunge into guilty madness right after the banquet. “She was perfectly fine at supper.” Using visual scenes, our Aussie director Justin Kurzel is able to suggest a credible, gradual descent — but then blows it spectacularly by killing her offscreen with no explanation of how she died. I do think we need to know. Wouldn’t her grieving husband ask?

It goes on… Macbeth and Macduff smash each other to pieces and disembowel each other, and only get around to the “untimely ripped” bit at the very end of the fight. Untimely indeed. I can’t even be bothered going over why that’s a goofy choice.

I said to a colleague, bright and un-hungover at work the next day, that the film was dramatically kind of dull.

“More of a Michael Slowbender?” he asked.

“Michael Grimbender,” I clarified.

Which doesn’t even mean anything. That’s me, full of soundbites, signifying nothing.

The Sunday Intertitle: Gooble Gobble

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by dcairns

We do love the quaint and curious use of intertitles in early talking pictures. And Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a particularly wild and off-kilter movie. It contains precisely ONE intertitle, a fairly unnecessary one from a storytelling point of view ~

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By refusing to repeat the device and make it into an integrated stylistic mannerism, the movie just throws it out there as yet another quirk in a film full of them: physical quirks, acting quirks, narrative quirks, dialogue quirks. The lone intertitle is like the film’s lone “supernatural” intervention (“How she got that way we’ll never know. Some say a jealous lover -” HUH? “Others, that it was the Code of the freaks” Sure, but HOW? “Others, the storm…” WHAWHOWHAWHUH???), an unsettling disruption in a film that makes uneasiness an aesthetic.

Viewing the movie again with students at the beginning of this month, I was struck by how underrated it’s been. It has a solid cult reputation which doesn’t show any signs of slipping, and which would be justifiable even if the film itself weren’t particularly well made. But it’s probably Browning’s most elegant and intelligent work, with, for instance, some amazingly powerful compositions ~

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Not only is this shot beautiful in itself (for sheer architecture I’ll take it over the last shot of THE SEARCHERS), it demonstrates conclusively that all stars of films in a 1:1.33 ratio should be shaped like Harry and Daisy Earles.

Early stuff I read about FREAKS suggested that it was a clunky, awkward film, but although it’s been much hacked-about (censored or at least heavily pruned), it’s full of strong visual ideas and sequences. For an early-ish talkie, it’s far from static. Much of the camera movement centres on the character played by Johnny Eck, the Man With Half a Body. Browning was smart enough to realize that the particular condition suffered by Eck (real name Echkardt, making him also the Man with Half a Name) was one that necessitated showing him in motion. Otherwise he would look like a special effect, like Cleopatra the Chicken Lady. We simply wouldn’t believe what we were seeing.

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The visual high points of the film are the above-mentioned Wedding Feast, and the climax. The feast features not only a commanding sound mix, with the circus performers’ chanting running under the dialogue, building to a crescendo, but effective use of angles looking directly at the singing sideshow people, while they look right back at us. Browning as Ozu. Some of these shots are linked by fast pans, although sadly insensitive editing has slashed many of these while leaving trailing fragments  of a few frames. Another great shot is the one where Angelo Rossitto, seemingly the leader of the troupe, walks across the banquet table from one side to another, carrying the loving cup for the guests to drink from. As he does so, the camera also crosses the table, but in the opposite direction. It’s a strange effect I’ve noted, that when a character’s movement pulls the camera but in a different direction, so that they pass “like ships in the night,” the effect tends to make the character seem more powerful.

vlcsnap-361781As far as seems to be known, the character on the table has no actual medical malformity. She’s NORMAL.

(An exception — in THRONE OF BLOOD, as Mifune backs away from his traitorous men, the camera advances towards them. Having at first been looking past Mifune as the men, it’s now looking AT Mifune WITH the men — the camera has literally changed sides. And when the camera goes over to the enemy, you know you’re in trouble.)

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The main factor that accounts for FREAKS’ devaluing, I think, is the performances, particularly the handling of dialogue. The primitive quality of sound recording technology in 1932 conspires with the thick accents of many of the stars, and the uncertain delivery of some of them, to make FREAKS a strange film in ways not directly connected to its subject. Of course, the variety of accents results partly from Browning’s decision to cast the most astonishing people he could get. If they happened to be from Germany (Harry & Daisy, real-life siblings and part of a troupe called the Doll Family), Austria (Josephine Joseph) or British Guiana (Prince Randian, who has neither arms and legs and wriggles around in a big sock, and whose sole line, the mysterious “Can you do anything with your eyebrow?” really does require the DVD subtitles to understand), then so be it.

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In fact, by setting the story in France (for no obvious narrative reason) and populating the non-freak roles with an ear-defying jumble of accents, Browning makes a virtue of necessity, capitalizing on the punchy sensation induced by his characters’ varied physical appearances. FREAKS is a film that keeps you off-balance, unable to believe what you’re seeing or hearing. As acrobat and strongman, Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor’s respective Russian and German accents, debilitatingly thick, can also be accounted for by the fact that they’d been silent stars (see Olga in Sternberg’s DOCKS OF NEW YORK), but I prefer to see their casting as a deliberate assault on the audience.

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That climactic storm scene also shows Browning in top form, testing our affection for the freaks, built up during the story, by casting them as avenging demons, and allowing them to mirror the insult slung at them earlier by Cleo — “Dirty, slimy freaks!” They crawl through the mud like angry earthworms to get even with their enemies. Prince Randian clutches a blade between his teeth like a pirate, although what he intends to do with it should he catch up with his prey is unimaginable (but we’ve seen him light a cigarette with his mouth, so anything’s possible — maybe he can do something with his eyebrow…).  Notably, in this scene Henry Victor transforms from possibly the world’s most grating ham — explosively bombastic and stilted, pointlessly loud and obnoxious even in his posture — into a very effective physical player, his body contorting to expressionist effect, his panic real and convincing. His sheer terror is the sole foreshadowing of the supernatural conclusion.

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It’s been suggested that Hercules was to have been glimpsed again in the penultimate scene, singing in a high voice, the strongman rendered castrato by the freaks. It’s also been suggested that a car crash that seriously injured Tod Browning earlier in his life (I’m not sure when — was he already a filmmaker, or still a circus performer himself, a contortionist and somnambulist billed as The Living Hypnotic Corpse?), may have left him in the same unfortunate condition.

Poetically, both these Kenneth Angeresque rumours somehow feel like they ought to be true.