Archive for Umberto Eco

A Labyrinth of Pans

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2018 by dcairns

I recently read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the novel version, for the first time. My, it’s good. I was struck by how none of the films capture its bizarre humour, or its strange and melancholy conclusion. And the character of Peter himself, arrogant and “heartless” but insistently attractive (or so Barrie keeps telling us), is never really attempted.

There’s three films that work on their own terms ~

The silent PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon, 1924) is really lovely. At times, it feels like a record of the play, an opportunity to time-travel back and see what Edwardian audiences saw. But has enough cinema to it for this not to become a drag factor. We get the best of both worlds (stage/cinema, London/Neverland). And the cast is ideal.

The Disney version of 1953 ruthlessly homogenizes Barrie’s vision, as the silent did before it, but the visuals are attractive (those blue night skies!), the animation superb and the voice casting pretty fine, with even the Americanization of Peter working to its advantage — Bobby Driscoll is the elated Yank showing the stuffy Brits how to live/fly. The ending isn’t Barrie’s bleak last chapter, by any stretch, but in its way it’s poetic and magical and odd. The image of the flying ship is introduced here — Barrie doesn’t have it.

(I haven’t seen the belated [straight-to-video?] sequel, RETURN TO NEVERLAND, but I assume I’d hate it: imagine suddenly being shown a reproduction of your childhood only all your friends and relatives are being played by impostors with painted faces.)

FINDING NEVERLAND is pretty satisfying, though I’m not a fan of the director. It skirts around the more awkward questions, but it works, I think. Johnny Depp’s accent isn’t exactly a realistic Scottish accent but he isn’t exactly a realistic actor. It works too. And the outtakes of Kelly Macdonald as the stage Pan, flailing about on wires crashing into the set walls are fantastic — buy the DVD for those alone.

Oh wait, YouTube. Got to 2:17 and it all happens.

How, then, to explain the three monstrous, bloated and charmless renditions of Barrie’s work?

HOOK (1991) is probably the first Spielberg film I truly hated on sight. I remember getting stupidly annoyed at the plastic frost decorating the windows — they had all the money in the world to make this, why couldn’t they do convincing frost? I just rewatched forty minutes, in a kind of gaping disbelief, and this time focussed myopically on a really bad cut in the opening children’s play. Peter’s daughter seems to teleport. The disruptive continuity howler — some things really DO pull you out of a movie — occurs in front of an entire audience of potential cutaways, so there is no conceivable reason for it except sloppiness or exhaustion.But these focal points barely even qualify as symptoms of the big-picture rot. Our old friend James V. Hart, of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA fame, scripted. I’m in two minds about his high concept premise — “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Part of me thinks the answer is, “If that happened, you would lose your USP.” And this is what in fact happens – you get a Peter Pan film without a Peter Pan.

There are compensations, if you forget about why you came. The idea that Peter would forget who he is ties in with his infantile amnesia in the book — Peter forgets everything unless it’s actually active in his life — this leads to the final chapter where he can’t remember Hook, or Tinkerbell, or even Wendy. So Hart’s treatment is a little more faithful to the story than I used to give him credit for. And there’s a good nightmarish anxiety to the situation he then finds himself in — abducted to this fantasy land he can’t remember, and expected to play a role that’s no longer him. (They should have made something of a kid in the opening play being unable to remember the lines.)It’s just that the way it all plays out is gaudy and vulgar and ugly. The sets are simultaneously massive and expensive-looking yet horribly bright, clean and cheap-looking. They want to get some kind of theatrical stylisation going but it all has to look epic and belaboured. There’s not quite enough cartoon expressionism in the shapes to give a sense of lighter-than-air fantasy. And yet, squinting hard, I can’t put my finger on why this stuff feels forced while an MGM musical could pull off the same sort of look. I think it probably has more to do with what’s going on IN the sets.

Robin Williams ought to be a good adult Peter, if anyone ever wanted to see such a thing, at the end, when he acquires what I suppose we must call Panhood. But there’s such a struggle to use his manic, improvising persona in the early scenes, where he’s supposed to embody the worst aspects of adulthood (from the perspective of a disappointed son or a millionaire fantasist) that the glee is spurted out prematurely and we never get the melancholy Barrie clearly felt about growing up, which is what the movie desperately needs. The Depp of FINDING NEVERLAND would have been a better fit here. And I think Williams could have aced it, if they hadn’t kept trying to force him to be his usual self.

The idea of a violent Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) playing Three Stooges routines with the fortysomething Peter is lifted from the battering Carol Kane gives Bill Murray in SCROOGED, where it was also quite out of keeping with the source matieral but at least was an original take. And funny.Then there’s Dustin Hoffman. Spielberg had apparently been really keen to work with Dustin Hoffman. I guess maybe this cured him. But he didn’t really get any of the benefits of working with Hoffman — you know, the skilled, credible performance. All he got was a putrid Terry-Thomas impersonation, plus the downside of working with Hoffman, which is having to hang out with Dustin Hoffman.

Bob Hoskins embodies Smee beautifully. Hoskins was pretty much always good, and Smee is the character who always seems to work. Barrie sketches him in lightly, but the suggestion that Smee is a lovely, sweet man who thinks he’s a terrifying pirate, and even Hook doesn’t have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, always seems to emerge somehow.I also remember being offended by the multi-ethnic Lost Boys. It’s a nice thing that Spielberg wanted to get some diversity in. But why, then, are they all American? Why are they all boys? If they’re boys because we’re being faithful to Barrie, then they shouldn’t be American. They can be any ethnicity, his descriptions don’t preclude that, but he’s clear about how they talk. America is quite a big problem in this film — the whole opening has to set up a world the film will then abandon, in favour of London, which it then has to abandon ALSO. Oh, and the kids have basketballs and skateboards. They are all Poochie from The Itchy and Scratchy Show.

And Peter has to rediscover who he is to be a better father — except that Barrie’s Peter would make a TERRIBLE father, seeing as he’s totally self-centred.The film is full of evidence of Spielberg’s skill, and cinematographer Dean Cundey emits some gorgeous lighting — the real beauty seems to emerge from unexpected places, while the stuff the movie NEEDS to make beautiful tend to be leaden, garish or puddingy. Like Stevenson’s description of Mr. Hyde, the movie somehow imparts an impression of deformity without having anything you can really point to as proof of disfigurement.

Spielberg had a kind of Peter Pan obsession for a while, and talked about doing a version starring fellow enthusiast Michael Jackson, but I never heard any realistic plans for how they were going to make that work. A black, or originally-black Peter, sure. A Peter played by an adult who THINKS he’s a kid, maybe not. I believe Jackson tried to sue Spielberg when he made HOOK instead.

But look at these pretty things! I particularly admire the map markings on the actual geography of Neverland.

P.J. Hogan’s 2003 PETER PAN is also pretty repulsive. The cinematography is actually pretty tasteful as long as there are no special effects involved, but the long shots of Neverland, the skies etc, are all lurid monstrosities, Maxfield Parrish with the chroma turned up until your retinas catch fire.

Ever time a cherub vomits, a cloud is formed.

The departures from Barrie are striking,and pointless. The kids have acquired a meaningless auntie, and though it’s always nice to see Lynn Redgrave, she doesn’t get to have any fun here. Jason Isaacs plays both Captain Hook and the kids’ dad, which might make a kind of sense if he were the slightly oppressive, comic patriarch of Barrie’s opening chapters (the Disney film probably captures that guy best, and there Hans Conried voiced both Hook and Mr. Darling, and it DID work), but here he’s a milksop clerk, so there’s no resonance in the stunt casting. I guess Hogan just really likes Jason Isaac,Richard Briers is Smee. Works like a charm, though there’s nothing SURPRISING about it — except for the always pleasant surprise of finding Briers in a film. (The real Briers loved nothing better than SWEARING HIS HEAD OFF, and I wish there were a movie that indulged this. But I know of none.)

My assumption on reading Barrie is that the viciousness in the book would be toned down in movie adaptations, but this is not really so. We first meet Isaac with his hook off, and he’s sporting a graphic, scarred-up stump. Unlike in Disney, where Hook is humourously chased over the horizon by the crocodile, here he gets the demise Barrie planned for him, though having the kids taunt him for being “old” is a fresh bit of nastiness, and I couldn’t work out what benefit we were meant to derive from it.A book about being a kid, and staying a kid versus growing up, morphs into a film with teenage stars, which makes a kind of commercial sense, though I think you’d only get smaller kids and their parents going to see this. Rachel Hurd-Wood is an extremely toothsome Wendy, and Jeremy Sumpter is another American Peter, with an impressive young bod and a tendency to overdo the character’s crowing (which Barrie reports faithfully but winces at) so that he seems at times like a gloating bully.

Alan Moore always talked about doing an erotic Peter Pan, which eventually evolved into The Lost Girls, a graphic novel exploring the grown-up sex lives of Alice (of Wonderland), Wendy (of the Neverland) and Dorothy (of Oz). He was convinced, before it became fashionable to say so, that the Barrie book was laden with unconscious sexuality, which may be true. There was something that fascinated me as a kid in the Disney film and comics — something polymorphous and kinky. Hogan’s movie has a lot of arse jokes and lighthearted child nudity that’s quite eyebrow-raising now, and tries to concoct more of a teen romance than is really there, but leaves out the heartbreak which could have really made it worthwhile. It could have worked for teenagers the way Baz Luhrman’s souped-up, soaped-up ROMEO + JULIET clearly did, if there had been anything to get weepy over.

The visual effects, apart from being nauseatingly gaudy, do allow Peter to dart about in the air just as Bobby Driscoll’s cartoon avatar did. No need for the ponderous bobbing of an actor on wires — or rather, Peter and Wendy can float weightlessly, but then flash from one side of the room to another, like humming birds, which we suddenly realized we always wanted them to be able to do. Disney’s flying ship is back, and looks quite lovely at times. It’s a relief to escape back to London and get away from those chocolate box skies.

Joe Wright’s PAN is probably the most annoying of this trio although, to be clear, they are all absolutely INFURIATING. It has some of the same ugly visuals, although again it does better on London. WWII London, oddly enough. A story positioning itself as a prequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan for some reason sets itself historically afterwards. Why? It’s not really clear. It allows them to have flying galleons (Disney again) and Spitfires in the same scene, but this doesn’t in any way impact the wider plot. I have a theory for this madness, but I have to save it up until the end…Levi Miller makes a very beautuful Peter — we first encounter him as being bullied and starved by nasty nun Kathy Burke in an orphanage during the Blitz . We get a bit of what the BBFC quaintly calls “mild language.” Then flying pirates start abducting kids, and Peter follows them through space (the Hogan movie also includes a bit of interplanetary zooming, although Barrie’s Neverland is obviously an island, not an alien world). Then Peter is enslaved in a fairy-dust mine by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, giving it his all), and meets James Hook, who isn’t a pirate, but rather an Indiana Jones/cowboy type played by Garrett Hedlund.

There’s so much wrong with all this that I can’t even begin to sum it up, but let’s start by agreeing what the Neverland is supposed to be. In Barrie, Wendy and her brothers all know the Neverland from their dreams. It’s the place of adventure that children dream about, so naturally it’s a whole incongruous mixture of genres. The only justification for Barrie mixing pirates, Indians, fairies and mermaids in one story is that he’s recreating the Jungian collective unconscious as a kind of children’s theme park. One thing he omits to include, and I suspect it was intentional, is slave labour. You don’t start your awfully big adventure by getting shackled in a salt mine, especially if you’ve just escaped from a Dickensian orphanage,

Peter discovers he can fly around this point, but then loses the ability and doesn’t remember how he did it. An earthbound Peter who lacks confidence isn’t the Peter Pan we know at all, but I guess we’re here to find out how he becomes the legend. But it’s a bit like HOOK, a story designed especially to deprive us of the expected pleasures.If I wanted to do screenwriter Joseph Fuchs’ job for him, I would suggest starting either with a Victorian orphanage (so that the story would actually predate the novel), or else the background of child evacuees (so that the story is actually specific to WWII). But for all I know he thought of all that and the execs forced him to Fuchs things up. But since Peter doesn’t age, I’d be tempted to start him out in an even earlier period, perhaps contemporary with Hook, who should be a proper pirate.

As I realised that Peter’s brief burst of flight was going to be followed with an hour of performance anxiety, I suddenly flashed on DUMBO. That’s where this story idea comes from. Fuchs is going full Joseph Campbell on us, mashing up bits of familiar stories in the hopes of capitalizing on their resonance. It’s like he read the Umberto Eco piece on CASABLANCA and didn’t bother to fact-check it, took it all quite literally. So Hook, who is already Indiana Jones, makes a last-minute redemptive return EXACTLY like Han Solo in the first STAR WARS; Peter is the son of the Fairy King and a human mother, EXACTLY like Jesus. And so on. In fairness, Barrie was doing a kind of mash-up of his own, but he seems to have been having a lot more fun.

A prequel to Peter Pan that casts Peter and Hook as buddies, it seems to me, should end up by telling us how they became enemies. It’s not like we ever had a burning desire to know how they MET. And yet, this crucial scene is not included, as if the makers hoped for a sequel. Hmm, a sequel where the hero is betrayed, lops of his friend’s limb and leaves him for dead? Sounds like REVENGE OF THE SITH. Which did OK box office, I believe.The crocodile does appear, but doesn’t get fed Hook’s hand (Barrie’s most grisly and amusing idea, the great reptile enjoying the taste so much that it follows Hook doggedly from then on, hoping to snaffle the rest of him). Tinkerbell appears, but doesn’t get to do anything to distinguish her from the swarms of other humanoid fireflies. The mermaids appear, a shoal of Cara Delevignes, but do literally nothing. There are Never Birds, which are usually left out: they all look like THE GIANT CLAW. Tiger Lily is whitewashed into being Rooney Mara. Too old for Peter, too young for Hook: this makes the film completely sexless. I’m guessing that, if the previous PP was aimed at girls, this violent and dour Neverland is boy’s own territory.

So, everything is either neglected, absent, or all wrong. At the end, it’s Hook who says “Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” only he leaves out the word STAR, rendering the line both prosaic and meaningless, which sums up the whole enterprise.Oh, there’s a very characterful fellow called Adeel Akhtar, who is the Ideal Actor to play Smee. Who is now for some myterious reason Sam Smiegel. To get in a bit of LORD OF THE RINGS “resonance”? Akhtar is great, though, maybe the greatest Smee in a long line of great Smees. Smee alway works. He’s like Renfield and Goebbels. You can’t go wrong.

In fairness to all those who have tried and failed, what Barrie does is strange, hard to pin down, and difficult. Nearly all his considerable wit is contained in the descriptions of characters’ thoughts, and therefore not directly filmable. (A movie’s narrator can only do so much: they have to shut up eventually.) His plotting is loose, to say the least: he spends a lot of time setting up Hook’s poisoned cake plot, and then throws it away with a single line. He implies a near-infinite array of stories, almost impossible to choose from, and doesn’t traffick in satisfying pay-offs, preferring to pull dramatic rescues out of his ass whenever required. Deus ex anum. And all of this serves him very well on the page. The trouble with the screenwriters trying to fill his shoes is that they display all the same faults, which are much more destructive in a movie, and have none of his virtues. Hart, Hogan and Fuchs seem all curiously devoid of humour, to the point where I really wonder what would attract them to this material. (I know PJ Hogan had a background in comedy, but it’s deserted him here. He’s trying for laughs, but without being amused himself.)

Somebody should do Peter Pan again: it’s worth getting right. They will need to remember it’s a children’s story; that Peter and Wendy are children; that the Never Land is children’s dreams of adventure; that the book is funny both ha-ha and peculiar; that the brighter the colours, the more taste you need to apply. Have fun!

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No question

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by dcairns

Today I turned 45. Older than Bogart when he embodied world-weariness in CASABLANCA. MUCH older than the impossibly louche Peter Lorre, the suave Paul Henreid or the perennially middle-aged John Qualen.

Re-watching CASABLANCA… reluctant to say anything about it, not so much because so much has already been written, but because I find so little of it compelling or adequate. I remember Umberto Eco making an exciting case that the film’s success lies in its resemblance to other movies, its packaging together of favourite moments and stock characters into a sort of ultimate Pizza Combo (although I don’t think he used those exact words). Which might work as a description of STAR WARS and some other films, like maybe RIO BRAVO, but doesn’t seem adequate to the defiantly non-generic CASABLANCA. Of course, it’s the film which has come to embody classic Hollywood, and it features a lot of iconic actors doing what they do. But the film works for modern kids who have barely seen any 40s cinema and who don’t know most of these actors at all, I think. Just as Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology downplays the individual details that make each story different and interesting, so Eco’s semiotics underrates the originality of the Epstein-Epstein-Koch-Burnett-Alison scenario.

And consider — CASABLANCA, a wartime-romance-thriller (with singing) was followed by quite a number of films, many with Bogie, which self-consciously tried to duplicate it’s pleasures, none of which was as good or as successful.

William Goldman proves that Nobody Knows Anything by first arguing that the first ten pages are of crucial significance in any screenplay, then alleging that CASABLANCA’s opening is hideously trite and flabby — yet we meet Peter Lorre and Bogart before those minutes are up.

Then you get Robert McKee laboriously explicating the subtext of every line, which is fine as an illustration of how good dialogue uses subtext, but only gets you so far, just as dissecting a frog does not actually enable you to make a frog of your own.

And you get all the “they were still writing it as they were shooting it” stuff, which CAN’T, surely, be true — and it’s used to try and prove that scripts don’t matter or that everything is down to luck. Of course, you can’t get by without luck, but you can’t get by without skill either, when it comes to making something as cunning as this film.

Reading Howard Koch’s memoir, As Time Goes By, gives an insight into the process. Koch joined with project after the Epsteins and kept on it after they were seconded to another job in Washington — they later came back and continued to work more or less separately. The process was somewhat chaotic, but Koch was used to collating and connecting material at speed — he had worked with Orson Welles on the radio, turning over Mercury Theater of the Air productions in a week.

There was a play, and the first half of the script existed several weeks before filming. On the one hand we’re told that nobody had decided who was getting on the plane at the end, but we also hear that George Raft turned down the lead because Rick doesn’t get the girl (Warners memos reveal that they turned him down). The ending Koch and the Epsteins settled on was, in most of its basics, already in the play.

Some of CASABLANCA’s best scenes are positively symphonic in their complexity — the long sequence in which the refugee girl Annina is saved from Captain Renault’s clutches provides not only a subplot mirroring Ingrid Bergman’s own upcoming dilemma with Bogart, it ramps up the Nazis’ pressure on her husband, it has the Franco-German singing match which first shows Bogie taking sides, it completes the character arc of Bogie’s jilted girlfriend Yvonne who rediscovers her patriotism in a tearful closeup, and provides excellent comic bits for “Cuddles” Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Dooley Wilson and many others. It’s a film full of inveterate scene-stealers adept at creating opportunities for beautiful moments, and who them play fast and sly in case the director spots them and objects.

“If someone loved you…”

Koch’s book is also a useful counter-narrative to the idea that Michael Curtiz only cared about the look of his films — in fact, Koch argued for the political elements while Curtiz favoured the romance, resulting in a fortuitous balance that Koch credits with the film’s unique success.

Random thoughts ~

There are a lot of slightly camp men in this film*. Lorre of course portrays Ugarte as masochistically in awe of Bogie’s machismo. He says “You despise me, don’t you?” with a hopeful tone, which makes it hilarious: Bogart obligingly plays the top, and responds with the perfect “If I gave you any thought I probably would.” Bogart flirts shamelessly with all the camp men, but with the casual aloofness of a sadistic tease.

The first character killed on-screen dies right in front of a big poster of Marshall Petain. Maybe one of the good things about 40s filmmaking was that, flag-waving aside, it was a period when Hollywood films could actually take a political stance and not try to bodge it by simultaneously taking the opposite stance. Here, they kill a man right in a real, living politician’s big face.

Bogie, an American in Paris, and Bergman, a chic European, embark on a “No questions” love affair where they don’t share any biographical details — was this the inspiration for LAST TANGO IN PARIS?

Curtiz to Koch: “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast no one notices.” If you start unpicking the ending, a lot of it falls apart, but the pace and the actors’ conviction sells it.

Speed comes in handy when they pull off a great screenwriting trick — drama oscillates between the two poles of “All is lost!” and “Saved!” As a drama builds, you want the wiggly graph line that soars to hope and plunges to despair to get very jagged indeed, and at the climax you try to make a complete switcheroo from disaster to triumph (or vice versa) in as little time as possible. In this one, Bogart goes from completely screwed to hero of the day on the single line “Round up the usual suspects.”

Bogart and Bergman kiss and we cut to a searchlight. “They’ve done it,” Fiona declares. Afterwards she observes that the film is strikingly modern — in fact, could you make the film today and have the leading lady cheat on her husband, then leave with her husband, who knows about it and accepts it?

Koch quotes a young audience member in the 70s who tried to describe why the film moved him: “CASABLANCA shows you things you really long for. There are all these graspable values floating around in the film. It’s full of a lost heritage that we can’t live. Life is no longer like that.” Moral certainties, I guess — but even in the film, which Koch admits shows a kind of life that never really existed quite as we see it on screen, the characters do have to struggle to locate those graspable values and hold on to them.

*In Suspects, David Thomson humorously postulates a romance blossoming between Rick and Renault after film’s end. It would make sense of Renault’s change of heart, and Claude Rains is certainly very ooh-la-la in the role. Meanwhile, Greenstreet pouts and puckers constantly (far more than in MALTESE FALCON where he’s coded gay), Lorre and Dalio are both craven puppies fawning on Bogie, and Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser really really wants to get his hands on Victor Laszlo.

How long since YOU watched CASABLANCA?

Written with a nod to the Self-Styled Siren, who writes about classic movies from the heart.