Archive for Two Men and a Wardrobe

Return to Dunsinane

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

Fiona wanted to do a direct comparison between Joel Coen’s and Roman Polanski’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, so we ran the Criterion Blu of the latter, and my opinion of it rose considerably. (The picture upgrade on that disc, over the DVD my frame-grabs are from, is massive: Gilbert Taylor, who had previously shot REPULSION, was one of Polanski’s finest collaborators.)

The Coen film is a rather compelling blend of film and theatre — everything it does with its visual approach seems to me just right, building on Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Welles and Kurosawa. It does take some textual hints from Polanski and Tynan’s adaptation, building on the idea of Ross as a schemer and traitor to both sides, something not specified in Shakespeare but which makes sense and allows him to grow from a Basil Exposition kind of attendant lord into a proper dimensional character.

Polanski does something very literal, very blunt — he decides to make Dark Age Scotland as visceral and real as he can. Olivier had considered doing this for HENRY V but worried that the audience would say, “Okay, so that’s a tree and that’s a house and that’s a horse… why is everyone talking so funny?” Polanski’s Horrible Histories visualisation begs that question very urgently indeed, and also creates unnecessary problems out of the asides and soliloquies. Can Macbeth talk to the camera/audience, and if not, what does he do instead.

In fact, we see in ALFIE that an actor can do asides in an otherwise naturalistic film, and it’s a device I’d like to see tried more. (It would have been an absolutely natural thing to try in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, frinstance) Polanski has Jon Finch sometimes do quite long internal monologues, making faces to try to match his dubbed-on thoughts, something I never find satisfying or engaging. More successful, because more playful, are the segues from this device into spoken monologue, the character talking to himself like John McClane in DIE HARD (another besieged warrior with marital troubles). Polanski is always keen to credit Olivier as an influence, so I suspect this is borrowed from the similar tricks in HAMLET. But why Polanski didn’t consider using some of that film’s stripped-down theatricality I don’t know. I guess he’s just more of a realist, and not a man of the theatre like Sir Larry.

But rewatching a film is great for seeing past the things that bother you on a first viewing. Polanski’s whole aesthetic may be sort of counter-productive to doing Shakespeare, but he goes at it very enthusiastically indeed, and if the grit and sharpness are an odd fit for the iambic pentameters, they’re surprisingly close to the sharp focus of outright hallucination — Polanski seems to be using his 60s experience of LSD to give us freak-out visions that render Macbeth’s experiences, particularly with the witches, horrifyingly up-close and alarming.

And the casting of young actors, which was absurdly controversial at the time, seems like a no-brainer now. Older actors have more experience of both life and acting and can often do more than the photogenic youngsters. But what they can’t do is BE YOUNG. I think a middle-aged Macbeth could work if you play him as desperately grabbing what seems like his last chance at success, but the whole question of his wanting an heir becomes academic, an anaemic character motivation, if he has a menopausal wife.

I found myself liking Jon Finch’s performance, bad wig aside, more than before. He’s a star who should have been huge, but his biggest roles, this and FRENZY, didn’t do him the most justice, I always felt. His perf in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, on the other hand, MY GOD that is a star turn. But now I think I was too harsh on his Macbeth: there didn’t seem a single point where he didn’t have exactly the right take on the text.

Francesca Annis is also terrific: she seems readily able to seduce Macbeth into his crimes, as opposed to Frances McDormand’s Lady M who essentially bullies her husband forward. The text tells us she has nursed a baby but has no children now, but there seems no reason why she couldn’t be expected to have more kids and so Macbeth can realistically desire to see his children inherit the throne from him.

Annis looks not much like Sharon Tate but I found myself reminded of her a good deal, maybe because I recently saw Tate standing on a castle tower in EYE OF THE DEVIL.

What everyone used to talk about is the violence, which there is a lot of. It’s very matter-of-fact. The men barely react to someone being hanged or bludgeoned to death in front of them, and for the women and kids there’s always bear-baiting. The play is certainly full of mayhem but Shakespeare’s attitude to it is probably a little different — in Shakespearean tragedy, the normal order of things typically goes awry, and you get fathers against sons, eye-gougings, and so on. At the end, typically order is restored and everyone left alive is happy. A bit sad about all the mayhem but happy it’s over. Shakespeare’s politics are roughly speaking conservative — well, he had a monarch to please. Macbeth seems to have been intended to appeal to King James, who was a big believer in witches — a bunch of women in Scotland had just been tortured and killed for supposedly cursing him. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.

Well, Polanski seems to see the order of things as continuous violence and chaos, which, given his life experiences is understandable (everyone thinks of the Manson killings here, but the Holocaust is at least as important, and though RP has denied that the film was his direct response to his wife’s death, he’s admitted that the behaviour of Macbeth’s henchman when entering the Macduff family home was based on that of an SS officer he witnessed in occupied Poland. So Duncan’s reign is unspeakably violent and horrible, Macbeth’s is maybe slightly worse, then he’s killed and it looks like the witches are going to recruit another patsy so the cycle of carnage can continue. Joel Coen steals that idea outright for his new film. It’s very modern and very unshakespearean, but like I say, Shakespeare’s politics are kind of his least appealing aspect.

(The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through (The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through and seen, none of them have the heart to really take stock of the situation, which seems somehow apocalyptic.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how Polanski films have a tendency to arc back to their own beginnings, swallowing their tails — from TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE through REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, PIRATES. Even if they don’t literally end in the spot they began at, or near it, often the ending is a call-back in some way — CHINATOWN begins with its main title, and ends in Chinatown. It’s a rather despairing vision of the world, where we always end up back where we started only substantially the worse for wear.

Polanski and his co-adaptor, Kenneth Tynan, have not only moved Macbeth’s decapitation from discretely offstage to graphically onscreen, an almost essential change which nearly every filmmaker has followed, varying only in their explicitness, he’s chopped all the summing-up by the survivors which reassures the play’s audience that the line of kings will now continue in a legitimate way. Most other movie adaptations follow the same pattern, based on a reading of the play’s TRUE subject as Macbeth himself, not the crown of Scotland. When he’s dead, it’s mostly over.

One of Polanski’s most brilliant and alarming touches is the aftermath of Finch’s lopping, with his head whooshing about on the end of a pike, and handheld shots that COULD be his point of view, as if consciousness has not quite fled and he has a chance to take in, in a wobbly sort of way, the scene of his death.

At times, the film’s visual ideas clash with the playscript — when the witches say “Hover through the fog and filthy air, before they exeunt, it’s pretty clear Shakespeare’s suggesting they’re flying, as witches are said to do. Here, they just say it, and don’t even waddle off: it seems to be just something witches like saying. (The Coen film has no broomsticks, but strongly implies that the witch/es can turn into crows.) And the fights are terrifically staged by the great Bill Hobbs, but I don’t quite get why Banquo’s injuries should be so different from what the murderers’ describe in their report to Macbeth. Interestingly, when he sees visions of Banquo, some of them accurately show the axe in the back which he has no way of knowing about. But witchcraft can do that.

Deft little additions make Lady M’s swift descent into madness almost TOO gradual. I chatted with Angela Allen, the film’s script supervisor, who spoke somewhat sceptically about Polanski’s temper tantrums and karate chops (he’d had lessons from Bruce Lee and could snap great beams with the edge of his little hand), and while she was full of praise for Annis, she felt Finch knew the performance he WANTED to give, but perhaps couldn’t quite reach. But he’s physical, brooding, handsome, and he can speak the verse. And he probably gets over more of the character’s slow corruption than the other big movie Macs. “Macbeth is a play about the slow decay of the moral sense,” says Ltnt Kinderman in EXORCIST III. But he practically starts off with regicide, regarded as the worst crime possible in Shakespeare’s day. Say rather it’s about guilt, which destroys Lady Macbeth’s sanity and turns her husband, progressively, into a monster. Because one way of dealing with guilt is to deny it, to keep doing the stuff that makes you feel guilty, trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a GOOD way of dealing with it, but it’s quite popular.

Polanski faithfully stages the spectre at the banquet just as the text suggests (Macbeth doesn’t sit because there’s somebody in his chair, but nobody else can see this person…), only adding some weird special effects so that the ghost is differently horrible each time we see it. And our view of it is tied to Macbeth’s — it’s only seen in his POV shots.

(Important to keep things straight — Banquo’s ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt, which he’s not emotionally smart enough to process. In the Coen film, the ghost is associated with crows, and this with the witches. This is quite, QUITE wrong.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the witches’ sabbat, a Goyaesque bad trip. The mirrors within mirrors, a giddy fast-motion rush of shots spliced together with artful opticals, perfectly visualises Macbeth’s cry of “Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

I’m glad I got over my feeling that Polanski went at this the wrong way. I still think he did, but he went at it so aggressively he basically made it work.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Jerry Cornelius; Lady Jessica; Judge John Deed; The Bloody Barron; Keats; Adolph Bolm; King Vishtaspa; Engywook; Mr. Tupper; Book Person: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (uncredited); and Robin Hood Junior.

A Throat in his Frog

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by dcairns

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Chuck Jones (director) and Michael Maltese’ (writer) ONE FROGGY EVENING has one of the lamest titles ever stickered to the front end of a cartoon, but it’s an undying masterpiece just the same. Of its many striking qualities, its uniqueness is a major one — it isn’t like anything else Jones, or Warner Bros, ever attempted. Since I learned in school that you can’t have levels of uniqueness — something is either unique or it isn’t — the peculiar feel of this film must be attributed to its being unique in multiple ways, surely?

It’s wordless. While Hanna & Barbera at MGM were happy to go mute with their Tom & Jerries, but Warners cartoons enjoyed the verbal element, even if the scripts depended less on wit than on speech impediments and abrasive accents. But Jones also made FEED THE KITTY, in which both main animal characters are non-verbal, and the Roadrunner/Coyote series, wordless save for the infinite supply of labelled crates and instruction manuals from the Acme Corporation, and the equally infinite supply of hand-written placards, suited to every occasion, which Wile E. can produce from the limitless expanse behind his slender back, as required. So wordlessness can’t be part of OFE’s individual spark, can it?

But there is a particular quality to the silent-movie approach in this one. The frog sings — the humans make no sound. This inverts the pattern of FEED THE KITTY which, with unusual realism, featured a talking housewife and a bulldog and kitten without the gift of language. The fact that the many words heard in OFE are lyrics, sublimely irrelevant to whatever situation they’re sung in, adds a further absurdity.

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Jones began his cartooning career with an obsessive quest for cuteness and sweetness, which the raucous atmosphere of Termite Terrace eventually exorcised from him. He could still access it when appropriate, but it would now be leavened with more abrasive elements — FEED THE KITTY is very sweet-natured, on one level, but scores its biggest laughing sequence with the cruel jape that the big dog thinks his feline friend has been diced up and baked into cookies. It’s maybe the one film that can make me laugh and cry at the same time.

But OFE is set in a world without sweetness. A seemingly contented demolition worker discovers, sealed within the cornerstone of a building he’s razing, a singing frog. He’s convinced this will make his fortune. But the frog sings only to him. All his attempts to monetize the amphibian result in his gradual destruction — humiliation, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration. Finally he deposits the frog within a fresh cornerstone, all set to ruin some poor workman of the future.

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Like Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, OFE revolves around a central conceit which refuses to define itself. Neither symbol nor allegory, Michigan J. Frog, as he was eventually christened, remains his own man. It’s interesting to enumerate things he might represent, but his dumb, croaking face stares blankly at us (like Hypnotoad!) as if to dumbly insist that he’s just a frog. When he sings, a Jekyll/Hyde transformation overtakes him, and he is 100% singing! 100% dancing! No thought creases his green brow, the music just pours out of him. I Am A Singing Frog, is his statement during these transformations/performances. He is possessed by some slimy Muse. At other times, not.

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One explanation occurs to me and rather appeals: the frog as metaphor for Jones’ own talent. Perhaps he felt saddled with a gift which, though special and, to him, important, was not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, any society where men like Jones, Avery and Clampett are paid less than the president has got its priorities badly wrong. Cartooning was a somewhat low-status job at Warners, though Jones earned a living rather than being rendered destitute by it. But he may have had moments of wondering what good it was to have this talent, when the world may have seemed largely indifferent to it. The nameless demolition man is cursed by his gift as surely as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Bros film. Frog or albatross?

Of course, there’s the Freudian angle, and you know I’m going there. Michigan J. Frog as performance anxiety. The damn thing works fine when I’m alone, springing to its full height and putting on a show. As soon as I try to demonstrate it to an interested party, it crumples up. I manipulate it by hand, trying to show what I know it’s capable of, but it remains defiantly limp, hanging boneless and shrivelled. I think I’m correct in saying Freud would immediately have diagnosed such a nightmare as having something to do with a body part, perhaps the liver.

(The society of OFE is almost exclusively male, apart from some switchboard operators used as scenery in a theatrical agency, a starlet’s portrait on the wall, and a couple of matrons trudging indifferently past the theatre where Michigan is intended to debut. When the show starts, the audience is all beer-swilling men.)

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When I first saw the film, I thrilled to its savagery — the relentless cruelty of the film’s one joke, directed at a character who may, it is true, have absconded with a musical animal which did not strictly belong to him, but who otherwise seems blameless (finders keepers being a well-established legal principle). The point seemed to me simply that the universe was hostile, and would reach out, for no reason, to crush an entirely insignificant man using insanely unnecessary force, for no reason. I felt Jones had stumbled upon a large and important and previously almost unrecognized truth. If there’s a slight flavour of Kafka here, that may be why. Finding a singing frog that, with inexplicable non-malice, destroys your life, is as likely and as irreversible as awakening as a giant cockroach: on the one hand, not likely at all. On the other, inescapable. It always happens and it always will happen. It has already happened to you and to me.

La Ronde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007’s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.

Dialogue from DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN ~

Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links —

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links —

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)