Archive for Valmont

The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

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War of the Colossal Midgets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.

Face: the final frontier.

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2008 by dcairns

the face of another 

My partner Fiona would like to point out that Javier Bardem, much discussed for his role and hair-do in the Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (“a haircut for all time” — Coen hairdresser Paul LeBlanc) has the biggest face in creation.

It covers his entire head! Front AND back.

One of the many interesting things about Milos Forman’s GOYA’S GHOSTS is the sight of Bardem’s colossal pan nestling under a tiny tiny skull cap.

I’ve always said that the truly epic film gains its sense of vastness by contrasting the very big with the very small:

An eyeball reflects a flame-spurting urban dystopia at the start of BLADE RUNNER.

Peter O’Toole blows out a match, and the sun rises across an illimitable desertscape in LAURENCE OF ARABIA.

A pen drifts in zero G as a space-ship docks with a mighty rotating space station in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

And now: Bardem’s king-sized kisser is crowned by a casquillo del cráneo the size of a mooncup.

People look smarter in hats

Bardem’s casting in GOYA’S GHOSTS is the climax, to date, of Milos Forman’s policy of casting actors with surprising accents in his period films. It begins (though I can’t speak for the Czech films) with AMADEUS, where the starting point was a notion of using Americans to play the more declassé characters, with Brits as snooty Viennese aristos. But this system was abandoned, more-or-less, as soon as red-blooded American Jeffrey Jones was awarded the role of Emperor. Meanwhile, Tom Hulce as Mozart would try to tone down his American accent and Forman would try to catch him at it.

(Scots actor Brian Pettifer (IF…) found Forman, “a bully” and notes that the Czechs hated him. Actor and biographer Simon Callow had a hard time disguising his overtly theatrical tendencies. “Stop ACTING!” Forman would bellow. Then: “NO! Now you are ACTING NOT ACTING!”)

In VALMONT, there’s an even mixture of Brits and Yanks among the French aristocracy, with Scottish-accented servants. Weirdly, the exact same rule applies in the other version of Laclos’ novel, DANGEROUS LIAISONS. And yet I’m not sure Scots would make the BEST servants… watching John Laurie’s erratic buttling in UNCLE SILAS seems to confirm this.

GOYA’S GHOSTS has the most extreme mishmash of accents, because we have a Swedish Goya, an American King Carlos, a French Spanish Inquisitor, and English Napoleon, and then, just to shock us: a Spanish actor playing a Spaniard. Bardem’s is truly the most distracting accent in the film. But it’s his contribution that pushes the whole thing to the point where we can GET IT, and relax and enjoy the pageant of inappropriate accents as an unimportant sideshow to the main event, which is a pretty good film, despite those reviews.

Oh, and I’ve just seen NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which I’ll attempt to say something about once it’s been digested.