Archive for Tommy

Not Acting But Drowning

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being disappointed by Ken Russell’s book Directing Film when it came out. Picking it up again, I was more impressed, but I could still see what bothered me originally — unlike the Lumet and Mackendrick books, which are masterpieces of the genre, Russell divides himself between general knowledge stuff about who does what on a film set — this stuff is suitable for precocious children interested in getting into the movies — and amusing anecdotes from his distinguished career. This is the stuff I enjoyed this time, because Mad Ken tells a great yarn (see below). But there’s so much the book doesn’t cover — the chapter on shooting says nothing about camera placement, camera movement, lighting, which is all stuff Russell knew about and did brilliantly, in collaboration with such cinematographers as Dick Bush, Billy Williams, Douglas Slocombe, David Watkin, Peter Suschitzky, Jordan Cronenweth… Only Ken could tell us how he approached actually filming those musical numbers, nun orgies, peyote trips… the editor should have insisted he write about this.

But the anecdotes are terrific, and some even teach valuable lessons, though what you take away from the one coming up depends on you and your moral compass. Ken has just finished telling us how me made the mistake of casting an actress in a supporting role for THE MUSIC LOVERS, without having heard her speak. She had a strong Canadian accent so he ended up cutting all her lines. We’re on to MAHLER. Now read on ~

Even so, the experience taught me to be well on my guard in future and to take an actor’s talents according to his CV with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless such is the cunning of the average thespian that they are able to slip through one’s defences and pull a fast one. After all, they are ‘actors’ and learn their survival techniques from an early age, as I found to my cost on Mahler.

Casting the young Gustav was a bit of a problem owing to the fact that he had to ride, swim and play the piano. Most of the boys I auditioned could manage two out of three, but finding a contender who could handle the lot proved difficult. Finally I settled for Gary-someone-or-other, who assured me he was fine so far as his athletic abilities were concerned, but was a bit rusty on the piano. I watched him play and thought if I ever made a film of Frankenstein’s monster as a young piano prodigy, I need look no further than Gary. However, he read his lines well and looked remarkably like Robert Powell, who was playing Mahler the man. I should have remembered my experience on the Tchaikovsky film and been warned.

So, on the understanding that he practised the piano every day, I hired him. After all, he only had to play scales and I assumed he could manage that with ease. He was a bright boy, keen as Coleman’s, and desperate to do the part.

I stopped worrying and got caught up in the hurly-burly of pre-production, but still managed to phone him from time to time to see how he was progressing. Gary was never there; he was always down at the baths, according to his mother, who added reassuringly that the piano tuition was coming on fine. I guess I should have smelt a rat — a water rat — but I had far greater problems to sort out and missed the obvious.

What should have been obvious became horrifyingly so on choppy Derwentwater five weeks later. We had reached the point in the schedule where the young Mahler, wishing to show off to his school chums, attempts to demonstrate that he is as at home in the water as they are, by plunging into the chilly waters of the lake in  foolhardy attempt to swim across it. In the event he only manages a few yards before getting into difficulties and being ignominiously rescued.

So, imagine the scene. There we are, with me and my camera crew in a boat moored a little offshore, and young Gary poised on the water’s edge in his underwear ready to plunge in, swim into close-up, become exhausted, and start to drown. After a few seconds of this I’d say ‘cut’, and he’d be hauled safely on board. Everyone knew exactly what was expected of them and we were all keyed up for the take, when Gary’s forlorn little voice was caught up by the wind and whipped across the choppy waters towards me.

‘Mr Russell,’ he shouted through cupped hands. ‘I’ve got a confession to make… I lied to you, I can’t swim! I can only manage a few strokes.’ So that’s why he was always down at the baths when he should have been practising the piano, I thought, before shouting back at him.

‘Never mind, Gary, just do your best, swim out a few strokes — you needn’t even get out of your depth and then pretend to get into difficulties.’

‘But Mr Russell, I don’t want to, I’m scared.’

‘Nonsense! You can do it if you try,’ I shouted back with a touch of steel in my voice. ‘Ready now — roll camera, action!’

It’s amazing how that word ‘ACTION’ galvanizes the mind. Shout ‘Action’ through a loud hailer with command and conviction and you can get a ten-stone weakling to move mountains and pigs to fly. Even our Gary was galvanized sufficiently to wade into the water and take the plunge, for all the world like a cross-channel record breaker. He got all of three yards, started blubbing, and waded shivering and snivelling back to shore. This was disastrous. Defeat was staring us in the face. True, we’d got him in the water and starting to swim, but that was all in long shot. We still needed a few shots in close-up of him swimming and getting into difficulties. And the drowning scene was crucial to the film — we simply had to have it.

‘Great, Gary, we’ve got it,’ I shouted. ‘Now just jump in and we’ll row you out here to discuss the next scene before the light goes.’ He wasn’t happy, but before he could object an assistant director had bundled him into a boat and started rowing.

‘Here, Gary, let me give you a hand,’ I said as he was brought alongside. Trustingly he did so, whereupon I sort of lost my balance and poor Gary was hurled into the deep — as both boats pulled away from him like mad and the camera, primed for the crucial moment, purred into action. And what do you know? Gary managed to swim half a dozen strong strokes before giving up the ghost. It was the most convincing drowning scene I have ever seen on screen. The little bugger couldn’t ride a horse either — so we tied him to te saddle and whipped the stallion into a gallop — only kidding! HONEST!

Gary Rich was the young actor. He didn’t immediately take early retirement after this rough treatment, as I had feared, and was actually cast by Russell again in TOMMY the following year. A land-based role, thankfully. The following year he DID pack it in, but it doesn’t look like MAHLER was the deciding factor. Looking at the shots, I’m not quite convinced it happened the way Russell remembered it, which may be a relief to some of you.

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Let us never speak of this again

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2014 by dcairns

A few films have never made it into The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon because they were too desultory and depressing. Our main purpose is to celebrate overlooked films from late in the careers of great artists, which are often overlooked or disparaged because they’re out of step with the times. One likes to pass over in silence, where possible, those films which really stink like burning faeces. Who was it who said of Cukor’s JUSTINE, “to criticise it would be like tripping a dwarf”? (I often think Cukor should have filmed the Sade book instead of the Durrell. In 1932. With Joan Crawford. And tripped a dwarf in it.)

But on the other hand, there is fun to be had in the stinker, tinged though it may be by regret and embarrassment for a great cinematic mind now o’erthrown. With these emotions battling within me, I glance, mercifully briefly, at a few films I couldn’t bring myself to devote entire pieces to.

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THE DELTA FACTOR — written and directed by Tay Garnett from a novel by Mickey Spillane, produced by Spillane and featuring his latest wife in a supporting role. Garnett’s autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, is a hell of a lot of fun. At the end of a long and often distinguished career, Garnett wasn’t about to trash his more recent films, because he was still hoping for one or two more adventures in the screen trade — they never came.

This movie has all the obnoxiousness of Spillane’s writing and world view but with none of the awareness that Aldrich and Bezzerides brought to KISS ME DEADLY. Spillane hated that film, and with him holding the purse-strings one can’t expect Garnett to smuggle in a critique of masculine violence or anything like that, even if he felt inclined to do so. But did it have to be so obnoxious?

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There’s no Mike Hammer, but Christopher George plays tough guy bank robber and escape artist with a distinct air of Mitt Romney, which is unappealing to say the least. A “hero” who gloatingly threatens to rape the heroine (it’s okay, he’s only “joking”), he never inspires in the appalled spectator any of the admiration Spillane and possibly Garnett seem to feel for him. Yvette Mimieux tags along, the action scenes are low-budget uninspired, and there’s not even any of the astonishing nastiness that makes Spillane striking in print (“I shot her in the stomach and walked away. It was easy.” — “I took out my gun and blew the smile off his face.”) There is, however, a genuinely hair-raising car chase which breathes a little life into the thing. Unfortunately, it did so at the cost of nearly killing the director, and the hand-held shots taken from inside his car when it plunged off the mountainside road and through the trees is IN THE FILM. Had the adventures of Morgan ended there and the rest of the film detailed Spillane’s painful recovery from a broken cheekbone, broken ribs all down one side, a broken AND dislocated shoulder, and the loss of several teeth, it would have been more entertaining.

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Garnett bounced back — five years later he was in Alaska filming Mike Mazurki as a trapper in CHALLENGE TO BE FREE. This one sounds pretty dramatic in his book, but the result is slow icy death on-screen, thanks to a script that has no shape or sense of drama. Some of the wildlife footage is pretty extraordinary, but Mazurki, a reliable thug in decades of thrillers, is directed into an appalling performance, and so is everyone else — lots of characters nodding to themselves to telegraph to the audience that they understand what just happened. Did you ever nod to yourself? I suspect not, but if you see this one you’ll definitely be left shaking your head.

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I had long dreaded the inevitable moment when I would look at Ronald Neame’s FOREIGN BODY, whose title already suggests something very bad. Victor Bannerjee, fresh from A PASSAGE TO INDIA, cheerfully kills any vague career momentum he may have acquired by playing a penniless Indian emigrant who becomes a bogus Harley Street doctor so he can undress white women. The role was written for Peter Sellers and the screenplay was a trunk item that had lain wisely unmolested by production for at least a decade and a half. Warren Mitchell plays Bannerjee’s uncle with “My goodness gracious me” mannerisms and shoe-polished features, and Amanda Donohoe supplies the gratuitous nudity. (Oddly, she also starred in PAPER MASK, the only other British film about a fake doctor I can think of.) The whole thing is so staggeringly time-warped (and bad, to boot) that it uses a landlord’s “No coloureds” as a hilarious punchline to a scene. Break and dislocate your shoulder before you see this film.

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I can’t review Ken Russell’s THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER, his last feature-length offering (Poe seems attractive to late-period filmmakers, see also Curtis Harrington) because I could only watch five minutes of it, in the videotheque of Edinburgh Film Festival back when it was new. The festival declined to screen it but put it on in their ‘theque along with all the other British productions of 2002. It was the cheap synth music that put me off — this from a filmmaker who had filmed the lives of most of the great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and worked with the Who, Thomas Dolby, Peter Maxwell Davies, Rick Wakeman. It’s too sad.

I’d rather remember this —

My schoolfriend Robert told me that he was taken to see BAMBI as a kid. In front of the film they played trailers for SHIVERS and TOMMY. Of the two, TOMMY was the more disturbing. He didn’t go to the cinema again until he was about sixteen.

Pin-up of the Day: Ann-Margret

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 14, 2008 by dcairns

Another woman who has achieved legendary feats of drawn-out movie eroticism…

I’m not sure what my teenage self thought of the following, other than “Why didn’t I think of that?” and “I wonder what the discussions with the director were like?” Said director being Ken Russell, I’m sure they were ebullient and highly persuasive.

From THE SWINGER. Which I haven’t seen.

The particular kink illustrated here, if we consider it as a kink, is known in the UK as “sploshing”, as far as I’ve been able to discover. And it turns out Ann-Margret had past form in this activity: