Archive for Trading Places

The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2016 by dcairns

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.


Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

Mistletoe and Whines

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 23, 2010 by dcairns

In a very special festive edition of The Forgotten, I delve into THE HOLLY AND THE IVY, a powerfully depressive, and therefore somehow cheering, British Christmas movie.

Somewhere in there I make the, perhaps startling, allegation that there’s something inherently Christmassy about the actor Denholm Elliott. This may require amplification.

My mental association of the talented, biesexual, inebriate actor with the festive season perhaps stems from TRADING PLACES, in which he played a comedy butler, something every British actor is required to do at some stage in his career, unless he’s Judi Dench. The movie takes in the holiday season as part of its narrative sweep (we get Dan Aykroyd as a Bad Santa), and Elliott has a scene where he comes in with a tray and rounds off a scene where the heroes are planning their counterattack on the nefarious Duke brothers, with the line, “Not if we beat them to it. Eggnog?”

Elliott did the final word “As if I were adding fire to their brimstone,” and the crew laughed. Landis, a man of sure, yet perhaps conventional, comic instincts, yelled “Cut!” He was outraged that a performer was getting an unintended laugh. “That’s not supposed to be funny!” Elliott pointed out that the crew had thought it funny. “What do they know?” demanded Landis, with the tact he’s famous for.

The line reading is still in the film, though — having gotten over his shock, Landis recognized that an additional laugh in a comedy was not, after all, a disastrous occurrence. The lesson may be that it’s a mistake to think that the director’s job is to realize the scene the way he’d envisioned it. His job is to envision it, and then realize it better. Or, as Orson Welles delightfully put it, a director is someone who presides over accidents.

All About Evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2008 by dcairns

All About Evelyn

Help! I’ve just watched John Brahm’s psycho-thriller GUEST IN THE HOUSE and it blew the top clean off my Thrillometer, spouting adrenalin across the room. This will take weeks to mop up! (This will take weeks of me ignoring it until Fiona breaks out the squeegee in exasperation.)

Anyhow, the title is abysmal, carrying with it no promise of mystery or tension or even basic drama (STRANGER IN THE HOUSE would have worked much better, and made sense), although the film’s re-issue title, SATAN IN SKIRTS, works as pure camp. The movie is impure camp, not quite silly enough to dismiss out of hand, far too outrageous to take totally seriously.

Some years before playing the artfully concealed embodiment of Evil in ALL ABOUT EVE (isn’t that character supposed to be based on Lizabeth Scott? One hopes not!), Anne Baxter is seductively sinister as demented bunny-boiler Evelyn, due to marry the young doctor son of a nice upper-middle-class American family. Anne maybe never looked more glamorous, her wickedness adding to her allure and her obvious youth and radiant good health clashing intriguingly with her role as an invalid with a weak heart.

Since “Doctor Dan” has to go off and earn a living, Evelyn is assigned the guest bedroom in the home of Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, where she sets about poisoning the minds of everybody and breaking up the happy marriage. The film has a decidedly conservative side to it, with the sick outsider viewed as purely malevolent, while middle-class family values are to be preserved at all times, but there are some intriguing fractures in this scheme. One reading would see the household as deeply flawed, just waiting for an Iago plot device to set its disintegration in motion. Certainly everybody’s all too willing to suspect the worst in everybody else.

The cast is so strong, while avoiding any hint of the A-list, that they’re worth working through in some detail.

Ralph Bellamy — was ever an actor so apparently unpromising, actually so versatile and impressive? His everyman looks seem to cut him out for an endless succession of thankless hero’s-best-friend roles, but Bellamy was memorable as comedy schnook in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, tender romantic rival in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, satanic gynaecologist in ROSEMARY’S BABY and millionaire comic villain in TRADING PLACES — there’s nothing he can’t do. Here he’s a can-do commercial artist who slips into sullen alcoholism and neurosis with the slightest of pushes, and he’s sympathetic and individual all the way.

Ruth Warrick is much more likable and natural here than in CITIZEN KANE, which isn’t a question of her having grown as an actress, just that she’s skilfully playing a more likeable and natural character.

Deep joy comes with the presence of Percy Kilbride and Margaret Hamilton as servants. Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, is always good value, but Kilbride is an underrated demi-god of the silver screen. Watch him fail to make a fist in FALLEN ANGEL, slapping a limp wrist into his palm to express his steely indignation! Watch him perform the world’s most awful wedding ceremony in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. A withered noodle soaked in melancholia and left to dry on the chipped counter of a hardware store, he’s an invaluable addition to any film, especially one that might otherwise be too exciting. I love him like a wonderful dead uncle.

And then there’s Aline McMahon! What is wrong with America that this great matriarch was never elected to high political office? With her lovely amphibian countenance, eyes limpid as poached eggs, she exudes the wisdom of the ages, along with compassion and strength. She could make economic troubles fade with but a wistful smile, end wars with a quip. “Why you’re nothing but a mean old woman,” remarks Jimmy Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. “Ugly, too,” she agrees, affably.

John Brahm directs with his customary zeal and delirium (Andre DeToth also contributed, according to the IMDb) and makes the most of a magnificent set, where most all of the film takes place. The titular house is attractive and spacious, but very low-ceilinged, which allows for unsettling angles and an oppressive feeling when required. The movie is a masterclass in interior filming, with shots split-screened by doorways, gliding smoothly from one space to another, regularly surprising us with new unusual angles.

At the climax, McMahon, a watchful presence throughout, comes into her own in an “all women are bad” plot turn, and Brahm pulls one of his customary freak-outs, jolting the camera around and smacking us with alarming high angles, as Baxter, her lid flipped for permanent, staggers around in terror of imaginary canaries.  It’s giddy, kitsch and highly imaginative stuff — prime Brahm!

Seems to me only Brahm would have tried a crazy composition like this — THE LODGER is full of them, generally at play upon the outsize kisser of Laird Cregar.

Pulitzer-prize winner Ketti Frings scripted (she wrote the story for the magnificent HOLD BACK THE DAWN), which is a worry considering the traces of misogyny, but there’s some wisdom too. When family friend Jerome Cowan shows up and INSTANTLY diagnoses the neurotic true nature of Anne Baxter’s little schemer (and, doubly impressive, he does it without smoking a pipe) he points to the manipulative tendencies of the invalid. It’s not completely unfair. Of course, sick people can be manipulative — relying as they do on healthy people for their care and comfort, emotional as well as physical, the only power they can exert to get their way is through first, polite requests then, if that fails, emotional blackmail. It’s only human.

Admitting that much, it’s still a bit harsh to portray a neurotic invalid as a horror-movie monster, especially when one’s natural impulse is to side with the stranger being introduced to a new family (double-bill this with MEET THE PARENTS, for much-needed balance). This kind of problem niggles away at most of the Brahm films I’ve seen, eroding their greatness (THE LOCKET is maybe the most fully satisfying, ending aside) but I like what he does with the camera so much I’m going to continue to seek out his stuff.

Right after I buy a new Thrillometer.