Archive for Willem Dafoe

Legion

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on April 3, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being struck by the fact that in Scorsese & Schrader’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Jesus (who has drawn a magic circle, like Murnau’s FAUST) is visited in the desert by Satan, who takes not just three forms ~

A snake (which explodes); a lion (which fades away in a dissolve); a column of fire (which dissipates in a gust of wind) ~

Satan also appears via a series of cinematic devices ~

Tracking shot (snake). Scorsese doesn’t shoot this as snake POV — we’re at Jesus’ eye level, not the snake’s, gliding in. But when the snake rears up to address the Messiah, the camera rises also, as if representing the POV of a much bigger, unseen snake.

Cut (lion). Before we see the (rather gentle, wise-looking big cat, voiced by PEEPING TOM scribe Leo Marks), there are two cuts taking us closer to Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, moving straight down the line at him, no angle change, kind of like the Frankenstein monster’s first appearance, or the eyeless farmer’s discovery in THE BIRDS. There’s a (rather appropriate) horror movie theme developing here…

Crane (fire). The camera swoops down majestically just before the Lynchian flame-column appears.

I have no coherent theory to offer here. Other than that Scorsese’s restless imagination and bulging repertory of cinematic tricks compels him to emphasise not the similarity of the three visits (one character, visited by another, three times) but their difference (since similarity is taken care of by the Aristotelian unities at play: time, place and action are consistent, as are theme and character).

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Wishfulness

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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I would like another animated Wes Anderson film, please.