Archive for Willem Dafoe

Wishfulness

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-06-03-00h29m05s131

During WWII, British Intelligence identified a fatal flaw in the enemy’s thinking: the German spymasters were prone to what the Brits called “wishfulness.” When an agent offered his services, or when a piece of possible positive information came to light, the Germans would tend to get so excited about how good it would be if the agent were genuine or the information were true, that they could pretty soon find themselves believing in it without proper evidence. As an amusing result of this, all of Germany’s spies in Britain were either double agents working for us and feeding the Germans misinformation, or entirely fictional agents invented by British intelligence. Eventually, we had so many fictional agents sending bogus intel to the Nazis that we had to form a special subcommittee to catch or kill off a few of them in the interests of realism. We were also able to bamboozle the Boche with some fake documents in a briefcase chained to a corpse floating in the sea. Like Fox Mulder in later years, the Germans wanted to believe.

vlcsnap-2015-06-03-00h08m29s45

But we were guilty of wishfulness on a much larger scale. Entire campaigns were launched based on the exciting hope of success rather than on a realistic assessment of the risk of failure. Watching THEIRS IS THE GLORY got me curious about the Battle of Arnhem so I picked up Arnhem 1944 The Airborne Battle by Martin Middlebrook from the library. It’s a substantial, impressive work which tries hard to be fair to everybody (it also confirms that Dickie Attenborough’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR is pretty accurate in its account, unusually for these kind of epics). Middlebrook points out the benefits a victory at Arnhem would have brought — a much earlier end to the war, quicker liberation for Holland and the shutting down of Germany’s rocket attacks on London, and an Anglo-American conquest of Germany that would have put us in a much stronger bargaining position at Yalta: Germany might not have been split down the middle, the East enduring decades of communist rule. Someone remarked that Germany’s biggest disaster in the war was winning the Battle of Arnhem.

But this is wishfulness. British military command discovered that Arnhem was heavily defended with tanks, but as this info was discovered awkwardly late in the planning stage of the attack, it was simply suppressed. Thousands of men were air-dropped to pretty much certain death. The plan was a very fragile one. The RAF didn’t want to fly too close to enemy defences so they dropped the infantry miles from their targets, sacrificing the element fo surprise which was the main advantage of an airborne attack. Here’s a quote from Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett which is hilarious in its analysis of the tragic absurdity of the plan.

The airborne movement was very naive. It was very good on getting airborne troops to battle, but they were very innocent when it came to fighting the Germans when we arrived. They used to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards. We brigade commanders were at one of the divisional commander’s conferences […] where this lovely plan was being presented. The Polish commander, Sosabowski, said in his lovely deep voice, ‘But the Germans, General, the Germans!’

(Sosabowski is played, incompetently, by Gene Hackman, in the Attenborough film, probably the only time I’ve seen Hackman be bad. He seems to have thought he could do a Polish accent without research, by effort of will alone, or else he just has a tin ear for accents.)

Anyway, I think filmmakers can fall prey to wishfulness too. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, and the marvelous rewards available if a thing comes off does not make it any more likely that it WILL come off.

Art Linson recounts preparing an action-comedy in the nineties, and finding none of the appropriate leading men available. Willem Dafoe was suggested. An up-and-coming young star. But Linson wasn’t convinced he was a light comedian. He asked his wife one night, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” She replied, “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”

But with nobody obviously bankable and better suited to be found, Linson talked himself into it. And had to burn the negative. The whole film was abandoned, and I think they managed to somehow claim the insurance, or else there was a fortuitous accident and they used it as an excuse. There you go.

vlcsnap-2015-06-03-00h38m52s78

When w e made CRY FOR BOBO, ace producer Nigel Smith (far right) and I packed the script with every gag we could think of. We wanted to win the commission, so we wanted it to sound as impressive as possible. But the film had to be under ten minutes long. We used lots of formatting tricks to pack a lot of content into less than ten pages — the theory is that one page = a minute of screen time, but if you have a disproportionate amount of action to dialogue, and if you pack the prose tighter than a Dashiell Hammett shopping list in shorthand, that all gets thrown out of whack.

Having won the commission, we should have then pruned the script a bit, but we fell in love with our own material and then tried to shoot all of it. I had to drop a banana skin and plank gag, but nearly everything else got shot — and the first cut was fourteen minutes long without credits. That’s half again as long as it needed to be.

Working with Nigel, the late, great Bert Eeles as editor, and resourceful assistant editor Anna Mehta, we somehow managed to hack the thing down, preserving the best jokes, keeping the story coherent, and stopping the pace getting so hectic it would just irritate everyone, but it wasn’t easy. We had convinced ourselves that we could make it ten minutes long just by playing everything fast. Wishfulness. It’ll get you in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t have German tanks shooting at us on this one.

vlcsnap-2015-06-03-00h24m26s157

The best bit in Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR involves Frank Grimes, a young intelligence officer who breaks the news to Dirk Borgarde’s General Browning that there are a bunch of German tanks at Arnhem which could scupper the whole plan. Browning, in reality, refused to alter the plan and did not inform his superiors, his peers or his men about the tanks. Goldman had the job of writing dialogue which would explain Browning’s reasoning, or unreasoning if you prefer. I think he did a great job.

“I doubt they’re fully serviceable.”

“Then why would the Germans conceal them, sir?”

“Normal routine.”

Browning realises this is weak. “We’ve had dozens of aerial photographs taken and these are the only ones that show tanks!”

Ye-es. But they DO SHOW TANKS.

“Do you seriously expect us to call off the biggest operation mounted since D-Day… because of three photographs?”

PHOTOGRAPHS OF TANKS.

An effective scene which utilises a human attribute insufficiently exploited by modern movies — our ability to get infuriated by idiocy. I think it’s very tempting to suspect that modern movies don’t try this because they don’t respect the audience enough to credit them with that reaction.

Grand Hotel

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by dcairns

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My friend Stephen Murphy worked on the makeup for the aged Tilda!

To the 100-year-old Cameo Cinema to see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. They were also showing INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. You wait ages for a movie with F. Murray Abraham in a roll-neck sweater and then two come along at once.

I liked MOONRISE KINGDOM more than any other Wes Anderson film (though I still haven’t caught up with BOTTLE ROCKET which some people like best of all, considering everything subsequent to be an ever-downward spiralling into bloodless mannerism, which is a point of view) and I liked FANTASTIC MR FOX before that more than everything before that, so there was evidence that he was on a roll. I didn’t like this one as much as those but I enjoyed it. There was a slightly uncomfortable quality though.

grand-budapest-hed

The art direction and look are as finicky and perfectionist as ever — I don’t dislike that so that’s fine. And he does vary the screen ratio, the font and even the lens I think on this one (unless all those zooms are all CG fake, which is possible), so in a superficial way we have to say he’s progressing artistically. I’ll come to the more thematic progress in a moment.

More good stuff: Ralph (it’s pronounced “Ralph,” by the way) Fiennes is extremely funny and a little bit endearing, doing his Leonard Rossiter impersonation which he always does when asked to be light. No bad thing. I can’t decide if it IS an impression or if it’s just his natural comic mode. Weirdly, Peter Serafinowicz’s impersonation of Ralph Fiennes as Leonard Rossiter seems to predate IN BRUGES, the first film I saw in which he got his Rossiter on properly. Maybe he was inspired by it.
)

The whole rest of the cast is very fine. It’s deliriously overdone, like everything with Anderson. Is this role a good use of, say, Harvey Keitel’s remaining time on earth? He mainly seems to have been employed to jiggle his pectorals. Couldn’t somebody who needs the money and exposure more be given a chance at that? But it was nice to see Jeff Goldblum, who doesn’t seem to do enough movies, and who should still be a top leading man, not some kind of guest star. Nobody else can do what he does.

This is really the first Wes Anderson film with proper villains, it seems to me. Adrien Brody is not really heavyweight enough compared to Willem Dafoe, who does all the nasty stuff anyway, so there’s a slight problem of dramatic priorities in terms of dealing with those characters and their evil schemes. The violence was startling for an Anderson film. Sure it’s cartoony but it leaps out at you in this flat, pastel, artificial world. I felt it was a problem that (a) Anderson concocts his own version of European history, with a Ruritanian central setting (which is fine in itself) menaced by a fictional version of Nazi Germany (which was fine for Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR but doesn’t make such clear sense here) and (b) gives almost all the violence to some scheming aristocrats — in other words, Nazi Germany, present by proxy, has almost no role in the story. I didn’t get the sense that the personal perfidies of Brody and Dafoe were there to be compared to the encroaching political darkness, either in terms of “These minor villainies are insignificant compared to what’s coming” or “These minor villainies are a microcosm of what’s coming.” I felt Anderson was actually uncomfortable dealing with the politics at all. He’s said that the kind of politics he likes in films is the kind you get in DUNE — fictional factions whose movements add to the reality of the created world, rather than saying anything about this world or making any kind of point. I mean, there are NO politics in DUNE — there are good guys, bad guys, and different factions, but there is no sense that the Atreides clan, the Harkonnens or the Emperor desire any different kind of constitutional set-up. It’s similar in GBH.

the-grand-budapest-hotel-still-10

The natural comparison would be with Lubitsch and TO BE OR NOT TO BE. How do you stage a comic operetta narrative against a backdrop of fascism? The difference is, Lubitsch had a compelling reason to do it and he knew what the reason was, and he clearly thought deeply about all his choices. I mean, for all I know Anderson had reasons and thought deeply too, I just don’t see the evidence onscreen. I think the film falls short of that part of its ambition which is serious, which is why I don’t feel reminded of the work of Stefan Zweig.

One thing that was fun about MOONRISE KINGDOM was that it didn’t have any bad guys but still managed to function as a peculiar kind of action movie, making quite enthusiastic use of Bruce Willis as an icon of that genre. GBH has a chase through a museum seemingly inspired by the one in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (a lovely scene in a darkened hall full of suits of armour, each picked out of the enveloping blackness by its own personal spotlight, is the film’s most striking visual development — it doesn’t violate Anderson’s ironclad aesthetic, but it doesn’t look like anything else he’s done either) and a toboggan chase that comes either from ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (an influential film, these days) or THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, though the figures’ movements in longshot have the speeded-up zaniness of FANTASTIC MR FOX.

f_murray_abraham

I would like another animated Wes Anderson film, please.

Bible Studies

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h47m37s186

Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h57m42s114

The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h55m38s153

“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h54m32s242

Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h57m51s202

The production design  and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h57m21s152

What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h51m23s150

The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h42m29s173

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.

vlcsnap-2013-03-27-23h42m51s124

This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 599 other followers