Archive for Tom Stoppard

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2022 by dcairns

It’s good to start with Olivier’s HAMLET because we have A SPY ON THE SET.

The other Laurence, Laurie Knight, late friend of Fiona and I, was an assistant on this — third AD. But not for the whole shoot, I don’t think. He reports that Olivier wanted to record a real human heartbeat for the ghost’s appearances. He may have heard about Rouben Mamoulian running up and down a flight of stairs so he could get a suitably pounding chest for the transformations in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but the athletic thesp uncharacteristically delegated another assistant — possibly a runner, which would be appropriate — to run around the soundstage once or twist before having the mic pressed to his bosom like a stethoscope.

“Nothing but indigestion!” Laurie reported with a wheeze of laughter. So they quite simply got a drum in.

I really love the way the camera pulses in and out of focus as the pounding comes in. Still an effect that’s rarely copied, but it’s wonderfully expressive.

Asides from Mamoulian, I assume Olivier’s under the influence of CITIZEN KANE a bit, and has grasped how the optical printer can be used to spice up footage and create semi-seamless joins between distinct shots. I even wonder if the focal pulse effect might be created in post. This is a kind of advance on his HENRY V, whose effects all happen for real in front of the camera. We gradually move from theatrical sets to more lifelike one, as if we were being swept up in the “reality” of the play.

The KANE influence is also felt in the deep focus, the chiaroscuro, and the cavernous Xanadu-like space of Elsinore. Instead of the big gimmick of Olivier’s HENRY V: a theatrical performance which slowly becomes “real”, the stylised sets eventually replaced by real locations, HAMLET attempts to create a space midway between theatre and cinema — cavernous, unfurnished, but richly textured.

Olivier said he was driven to that HENRY effect by his concern about matching real sets and unreal dialogue. “Why’s everyone talking so funny?” HAMLET takes a different but parallel route. An environment just odd enough to allow the iambic pentameters not to seem out of place.

From my Making-Of book, The Film HAMLET: Carmen Dillon, tasked with executing Roger Furse’s designs, says, “sets soar into the sky without any attempt at persuading the audience that they do, in fact, support a roof or that they have any geographical relationship one with another.

I’m all in favour of cutting Hamlet, which is outrageously long, and directors shape it and choose what they want to emphasise by their cuts. In Jonathan Pryce’s performance. this whole scene was cut, so that the ghost could be portrayed as a psychological effect, a voice issuing from H’s subconscious. It gave Pryce the excuse for a bravura Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge act, and you could argue that the voice’s echoing of H’s own suspicions and resentments is already implied in the text — he’s rather thrilled to discover he’s right to dislike Uncle Claudius.

But these cuts do tend, as Tom Stoppard pointed out, to make the beginning of the play rather stodgy. It’s a bunch of people at a party making speeches. Whereas WD begins his play with the words “Who goes there?” and it’s immediately gripping. Plus the bell tolling midnight, all very atmospheric. Olivier wouldn’t have consciously aimed to make his adaptation seem like a horror film, but the KANE influence ensures it does anyway (I believe Welles may have admitted to a slight James Whale influence on his MACBETH).

Olivier has cast his film very well indeed, without resorting to the Branagh approach of stuffing stars of stage and screen into every crevice. From the urgency of the first lines we drop into the casual, throwaway dialogue that makes this film occasionally quite naturalistic, when Sir Larry himself isn’t around. Francisco and Bernardo are John “We’re all doomed!” Laurie, who would apparently tell you about his own triumph as the Dane as soon as you met him, and Esmond Knight, recently blinded in the war and taking his life in his hands on those unbanistered stairs.

Starting on Laurie is a great idea: a gloomy Calvinist immediately makes the appearance of the supernatural more plausible.

They’re soon joined by Norman Wooland and Anthony Quayle, equally good. wooland maybe the realest and most moving actor in the film. I think Olivier has done great in finding actors who can do the classical bit but also seem believable onscreen. It was maybe easier to find such people then.

Olivier, of course, isn’t of their number. He’s something else.

Next bit: Hamlet meets the ghost.

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson writes that Olivier wanted to “make the scenes without so much cutting from shot to shot.” There are bits in the ghost’s second appearance where we just stare at his inexpressive silhouette for quite a while, until the shot almost “goes dead.” It seems a good way to allow the audience to concentrate on the words without getting bored. The image is still striking and beautiful, even if it’s not doing anything new. It beats Peter Brook’s moronic idea in his KING LEAR of shooting the backs of the actors’ heads. “Sometimes, with Shakespeare, you don’t want the image to add anything, but you can’t just have a black screen.” I think a black screen would make as much sense as the back of Paul Scofield’s head.

Remember the wise words of Roger Corman: “The eye is the organ most used in movie making. If you don’t engage the eye you’ll never engage the mind.”

The ghost here is John Gielgud — one of the legendary stage Hamets (captured on film by Humphrey Jennings in A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY), later the director of Richard Burton’s version, and one of the most distinctive voices. But the slow whisper and echo effect make him not so recognisable, so that his uncredited performance isn’t a coy gimmick. The ghost would have seemed all the more mysterious by being unknown.

Gielgud at 17.24-19.22

Steven Berkoff had an interesting idea — I don’t know how good his production was, quite possibly ham(let)fisted (he has a way of leaning into things) — but it was an interesting idea. Since the ghost says he’s doomed “to walk the earth,” why not have him in constant motion? And thus Hamlet, having followed him away from his chums, has to keep tagging along. He might even get in front and then have to keep backing up since the ghost can’t stop.

At 3.18 the backlight produces a dark halo around the ghost in the fog. Beautiful.

I think the least effective part is the visualisation of the King’s death, though I can see why they did it. King Hamlet as a living person is NOT played by Gielgud, but by a Santa Clause-looking guy who overdoes the old dying act a bit, rolling out of his divan and clutching the air. Claudius as poisoner has kind of gone into silent movie acting mode also, Is this the way Hamlet would visualise it? Possibly.

Branagh will cheekily borrow a couple of Olivier’s moves — collapsing face-down when the ghost departs, and kissing his sword when he swears. Shakespeare’s text offers few stage directions beyond “enter” and “exit” and we’re not convinced Shakespeare even wrote those. He does add “writing” when Hamlet makes a note in his tables, but Olivier’s cut the words and the action to make room for his hilt-kissing.

Next: Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson in 1969.

Page Seventeen III: Tarzan Escapes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2021 by dcairns

Jane was only ten when the melancholic poet became their neighbour. She was virtually beneath his notice — until, many years later, her fame prompted him to recall that she had been ‘very intimate’ with his brilliant older sister, ‘and much encouraged by her.’ ‘When I knew Jane Austen I never suspected that she was an authoress,’ he wrote in 1834. ‘The last time that I think I saw her was in Ramsgate in 1803: perhaps she was then about twenty-seven years old. Even then I did not know that she was addicted to literary composition.’ The phrase is an excellent one for Jane, who was indeed gripped by a sort of mania for writing in her early teens, and who later told her niece Caroline she wished she had ‘read more, and written less’ in those years when she had been ‘much taken up with’ her own compositions.

He started to back out, but Jane could contain herself no longer. She jumped up with a cry wrung out of her heart, tears of joy streaming down her face, and started to run towards his strong brown arms, forgetting that her knickers were round her ankles. She fell heavily on the bathmat, and the tight roll of paper she had been holding on her lap spun away, unwinding itself across the floor.

After leaving the flat that morning Jane also had gone down to Edgestow and had bought a hat, when Mrs. Dimble met her coming out of Sparrow’s and said: “Hullo, dear. Been buying a hat? Come home to lunch and let’s see it. Cecil has the car just round the corner.”

This wasn’t a challenge – it was fatherly advice. If I had had one of his books at hand I would have repeated my recent act of faith – I’d have spent half the night with him. At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensible he was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.

Jane paused a moment, her hands held outwards and a little behind her. Her face was paler than it had been in her room, her eyes were half-shut, and her breath came a little quickly, but then she had been running. With the same sudden movement with which she had jumped up from the window-seat, she now jerked her hands forward, turned the great iron ring that served as a door handle, and stole into the church.

A few days later Jane was out shopping at the Pax River commissary on Saunders Road, near the main gate to the base. She heard the sirens go off at the field, and then she heard the engines of the crash trucks start up. This time Jane was determined to keep calm. Every instinct made her want to rush home, but she forced herself to stay in the commissary and continue shopping. For thirty minutes she went through the motions of completing her shopping list. Then she drove home to North Town Creek.As she reached the house, she saw a figure going up the sidewalk. It was a man. Even from the back there was no question who he was. He had on a black suit, and there was a white band around his neck. It was her minister, from the Episcopal Church. She stared, and this vision did not come and go. The figure kept on walking up the front walk. She was not asleep now, and she was not inside her house glancing out the front window. She was outside in her car in front of the house. She was not dreaming, and she was not hallucinating, and the figure kept walking up toward her front door.

That began to change during the first part of the nineteenth century, for two reasons. First, there was an increasing awareness among intellectuals that fossils were the remains of organisms that once lived on the Earth, in a world quite different from the present one. Second, there was an economic interest, occasioned by the growth of Lyme Regis as a seaside resort. Hitherto, the wealthy had flocked to spas like Bath for the supposed medical benefits of natural mineral waters. Now it became fashionable to take to the sea, not to swim and sunbathe, which were pleasures still to come, but to immerse oneself in the briny for the supposed beneficial effects to the constitution. The bathing machine – a wooden contraption on wheels that was drawn to the water’s edge by horse – was invented so genteel souls could take to the sea with the modesty and decorum required of the times. Lyme Regis became one of the most fashionable seaside resorts, with luminaries like Jane Austen among its visitors. The curiosities found in the cliffs now became popular souvenirs, making it worth a quarryman’s while to collect fossils to sell to the rich visitors. Lesser fossils, like belemnites and ammonites, passed hands for mere pennies or shillings, but an ichthyosaur, even an imperfect specimen, would fetch many pounds. A few of the residents became fossil collectors, both to serve the visitors’ needs for keepsakes and to supply the discriminating collectors and intellectuals. But none were as successful as Mary Anning.

Seven appearances by women named Jane from seven page seventeens from seven books taken from various shelves, boxes and floorboards in our flat.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman; Lord Malquist and Mr Moon by Tom Stoppard; That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis; The Figure in the Carpet by Henry James; The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe; The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin, from Best Black Magic Stories edited by John Keir Cross; The Dragon Seekers: The Discovery of Dinosaurs During the Prelude to Darwin by Christopher McGowan.

“Maintain Visual Contact!”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2018 by dcairns

Some computer-jockey actually yells that in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. He’s having a laugh: director Paul Greengrass is going all-out this time to stop his enemies, the audience, from getting a fix on what the hell is going on in his violently unstable frame. He apparently went so far as to tell his camera operators that if they ever felt like violently reframing a shot, looking at something else, or just messing up the composition, they should do it. A producer opined to me that camera operators, as a breed, if empowered to do whatever they want, will tend to offer up a stable, eloquent and graceful composition, so I think there’s a sense that Greengrass is nudging them towards this chaotic approach pretty sharply.

What makes the idea dumb is that you can TELL the operator is edging around, not to get a better view, but to get a WORSE view, so unlike in THE IPCRESS FILE, we don’t get a feeling of covert surveillance, but one of filmmakers mucking about.He doesn’t go THIS far very often, thankfully. This reminds me of Peter Brook’s back-of-the-head shots in his KING LEAR, intended to fill in spaces whe”re the text is enough,” and any imagery would be too much. A pathetic idea, I always thought, an abdication of the filmmaker’s job, which is to find the right image the way a writer chooses le mot juste. Brook’s choice, like Greengrass’s here, has one main effect, which is to make the viewer wonder what’s gone wrong.

Having said that, I enjoyed this film more than its predecessors. It has a number of completely joyless, garbled fights and chases, but towards the end also delivers the best punch-up and the best car chase in the original trilogy (which has since sprouted two more films). The sequence of Bourne leaping from window to window in Tangiers, crossing streets a storey or more above ground level, is slightly absurd but very dynamic, with the abrupt changes of angle and movement forcing the eye to work hard but not quite defeating our ability to make sense of what we’re seeing.

Was Robert Ludlum obsessed with The Guardian newspaper? John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s gloriously ludicrous film of Ludlum’s THE HOLCROFT COVENANT has Anthony Andrews as a journalist who writes “brilliant but mysterious articles on international finance for the Guardian.” Here we have Paddy Considine as a hapless hack who gets in over his head and becomes for Bourne the equivalent of the Act 1 Girl in a Roger Moore Bond film, fated to be unceremoniously offed to create a bit of jeopardy and establish the baddie’s credentials.There’s also David Strathairn, Scott Glenn (moving sideways from NASA and the FBI to the CIA), Daniel Bruhl, Albert Finney, and the return of Julia Styles and Joan Allen. Edgar Ramirez, so striking in CARLOS, is almost invisible here as a thug, as the talented Karl Urban was in the previous film.Regular series scribe Tony Gilroy is credited with “screen story,” making me wonder what the source novel contributed, and various other hands (Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi, an uncredited-as-usual Tom Stoppard) make this the film with the best dialogue and plot twists too. There’s also a furious amount of retconning — the second film already changed Bourne from a man who refused to be an assassin, to one who actually completed several missions, and now we find out he volunteered to be brainwashed in the first place. The flashbacks, shot with a deliberately malfunctioning camera, make the brainwashing look like waterboarding, adding “contemporary relevance,” which is commendable I guess, but left me unconvinced that drowning someone is good training to set them up for a career in homicide. Plus we learn that Julia Styles was Bourne’s lover before he chose to be brainwashed by Daddy Warbucks (Finney’s mishmash accent contains stray bits of John Huston) — so this is basically THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND with added punching.