Archive for William Wyler

Great party

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2021 by dcairns

SEASON’S GREETINGS!

I’m unhappy that my Toshiba isn’t big enough to show off the grain, which I recall quite clearly from my own cinema experience of this movie, at the late lamented Odeon Clerk Street (where I also saw STAR WARS and two KING KONGS). Apparently the camera negative was smooth as a baby’s bottom, so the grain was something we are to presume Kubrick wanted. Although on the other hand, he wasn’t around to supervise the prints with his usual rigour, being as he was dead, and his heirs do their best to follow his wishes but they’re not him, of course.

The movie is EYES WIDE SHUT. Meet the Harfords, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Right from the start, after we get over gaping at Nicole’s splendid bottom, I’m amazed at the slow dissolves. Once had a student tell me he thought dissolves were old-fashioned, which I thought was silly. But THESE dissolves are old fashioned.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment he didn’t even LIKE dissolves, but sometimes they were the simplest way to get across a change of time and place. By that standard, they’re completely unnecessary here, as is the sitcom-like exterior view of the Harfords’ apartment building. But, when you’re unable to do principal photography in New York, you settle for second unit, and then those shots become, I guess, immovable blocks in your continuity.

“My name is Sandor Szavost. I’m Hungarian.”

“This dialogue!” gasped Fiona. “This film was written by an artificial intelligence!”

“He taught me to write a screenplay,” I said in sloooww mmmotion, “Would you like to hear it?”

The Cruiser flirts with two Anglo fembots. Nicole and Tom are suddenly very drunk. Tom saves a girl who has O.D.’d. This is where Kubrick and his camera crew were reflected in the shower screen, originally, but this has been digitally removed. Now, either Kubrick wanted this done, in which case Warners disobeyed him and released the film at the cinema with the unintentional cameo intact, or else Kubrick was happy for it to stay, in which case they violated his wishes by scrubbing him out of his own movie.

While we’re on the subject, it should be noted that the only director-approved digital version of EWS is the 4:3 DVD, because at the time apparently SK had no faith in widescreen TVs. In fact, for one as particular as Kubes about how his films were watched, the widescreen TV would be a nightmare, since many many people are content to watch films in any old aspect ratio, usually erring on the side of filling up as much of their TV as possible, regardless of how much of the original image they might be cropping out, or how badly distorted they’re making it.

Then the already-familiar Shostakovich takes us through a superfluous montage of Nicole’s bum again, Tom treating another busty nude, domestic stuff with the Harford’s daughter, and then the looong scene where the marriage is thrown into jeopardy by the revelation that Nicole once fantasised about another man. Here, Kubrick and cinematographer Larry Smith go for a sort of Leon Shamroy effect, with warm yellowy interior light and blue night exterior. But I don’t know that New York has blue streetlight, and moonlight isn’t blue, so Kubrick is following a movie convention here. Which is inconsistent with his real candlelight fetish in BARRY LYNDON. But that’s OK.

So, this dialogue. Kubrick hadn’t lived in New York for a long time. Had Frederic Raphael ever? And had either of them heard a human conversation? Raphael hadn’t had his name on anything that got made for quite a while. But I’ve always found his writing impossibly arch. I quite like NOTHING BUT THE BEST (Alan Bates leans into the archness) but DARLING and TWO FOR THE ROAD give me the pip.

Still, he was a distinguished expat American-born writer living in Britain. It was a convenient match. And we got an interesting book out of it, Eyes Wide Open, FR’s memoir of working with SK, whose rapid publication caused the Kubrick clan to close the iron door on him.

On meeting Kubes, Freddie can’t decide how intelligent he is. John Fowles said exactly the same thing about that other one-take wonder, William Wyler. Perhaps directors have a different FORM of intelligence from novelists?

Half an hour into the film it settles into a pattern: thrown into a rit of jealous fage by Nicole’s confession, Cruise starts cruising, encountering a series of available women and failing to have sex with them. It’s noticeable that Kubrick’s Steadicam basically just follows Tom around, or tracks back as he advances. The most basic kind of movement. After the twitchy bereaved woman, there’s the student/sex worker, and more brill dialogue.

“What do you want to do?”
“What do you recommend?”
“What do I recommend?”

It’s the beginning of the echolalia that will reverberate through the rest of the film. Dr. Bill may escape catching HIV from the girl he shies away from crewing, but he catches the tendency to repeat whatever’s said to him.

Oh, and he’s being haunted by blue-tinged monochrome fantasies of Nicole getting it on with her fantasy figure. His fantasy of her fantasy. But why do we need the special grading? It has no equivalent in any other Kubrick film. Alex’s fantasies in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE weren’t photographically different from the rest of the film. The trick seems cheesy.

I suppose though the blue echoes the light behind Nicole during her confession. It’s quite a colour-coded movie: the sex worker has a red door for passion, and a green lobby for disease. That kind of thing.

Oh, and Tom does a bit of palm-punching, to show he’s angry. Emulation of Jack Nicholson’s crazy walk in THE SHINING, or did Kubrick just give him the same direction: think of the crazy people you see on the street, ranting at nobody?

Dr. Bill gets queeerbashed by fratboys, a change from the source book, where the doctor is Jewish and his persecutors are anti-semites. Raphael proposed to Kubrick that Bill could be Jewish. “A doctor in New York?” “I don’t want him to be Jewish,” said Kubrick, apparently not giving any reason. And then saying to Raphael, who was also Jewish, “We don’t really know what they say about us when we’re not around, do we?” In which case, wouldn’t a Jewish protagonist be easier to write?

He also didn’t want the story to be a dream. “There’s no movie if it’s all a dream.” FR, by his account, offered logical arguments as to why it was pretty inescapable that Dream Novel is a dream. SK just said no.

The New York street sets are impressive, and arguably the film’s most dreamlike aspect is the way the production took hundreds of Polaroids of Greenwich Village and environs and then built a set in which all the familiar places are jumbled up.

Somewhere in here, too small for me to detect on the Toshiba, is a neon sign saying Vitali’s, a rare Kubrick in-joke.

Apparently Kubrick hired every yellow cab in the UK (a dozen or so) and tied them up for fifteen months, inconveniencing several other shoots. You never see more than two yellow cabs in a shot.

The piano bar interior is lovely. “Nick Nightingale” is an impossible character name, though. It’s a straight anglicisation of the name in the Schnitzler original, and gives a clue to the weird affect of this film: it’s a dream narrative played in realistic-fake environments, a Viennese fin-de-siecle sex story transposed to modern America and in the hands of men who don’t know modern America very well. I presume the adaptors thought “Nick Nightingale” sounded convincingly showbiz, but in what era?

Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski’s scene kicks things up into what passes for high gear. Thing always get better when the good actors come on. RS seems to be under the impression he’s in a comedy, something SK seems to have hinted to Alan Cummings also, but not to anyone else. This could be quite a funny film if anyone knew it’s what was wanted. Kubrick did consider casting Steve Martin in the eighties, but it’s not certain he would have asked him to be funny.

What does Leelee whisper to Tom? It’s like Twin Peaks all over again.

She recalled that Kubes always wore the same black smock to work, “But he must have had lots, because he didn’t smell bad or anything.” Clearly, he was following the practice of Einstein, who had multiples of the same suit so he didn’t have to expend any extra mental energy deciding what to wear. He had already adopted Napoleon’s practice of eating soup, main course and dessert all at once, so he was clearly susceptible to emulating his fellow geniuses.

(The smock had many pockets, making it very practical.)

“Orgy! Orgy!” in the wise words of Dyan Cannon. The masked ball is cinematic, at least. It has my favourite dissolve, and the follow-cam actually becomes atmospheric. And then we get circle-cam too. It’s a corny and incredible set-up, but the colours are nice.

This was, apparently, the trickiest thing, in SK and FR’s minds, to translate to a modern setting. Raphael typed up a fake document purporting to be an FBI report on secret sex cabals within the Democratic Party. Kubrick FREAKED, got very paranoid. “This is classified material, how’d you get hold of it? I need you to tell me.”

This I find very funny. But the pair decided that this would indeed be the unstated backstory of their big daft sex party, resulting in BELATED RESONANCE. Sidney Pollack as Jerry Ziegler as Jeffrey Epstein, ladies and gentlemen.

“Is the orgy so banal because that’s how this unimaginative character would dream it?” asked a friend of the friend I saw the movie with first time. I hadn’t felt the orgy was imaginary, and Kubrick seems to have not wanted it to be, but obviously in the book it is and that’s sort of crept into the film even if he didn’t want it. I think, when Kubrick was at the height of his powers, things wouldn’t creep into his films without his allowing it. But then, I did write this. Raphael has said he felt Kubrick wasn’t really on form — he was, after all, heading towards death.

Fiona wonders “Where do they find all these identical women?” Apparently such women couldn’t be found for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where we see various types of body, but they could in 1999 for EYES WIDE SHUT.

Kubrick tried to figure out what the maximum level of sexual explicitness allowed by the MPPA, but still ran afoul of their arcane rules about how many pelvic thrusts were permissible in a single shot, so had to digitally superimpose voyeurs to blot out the action. What he needed was Clive Barker’s List,

When Clive was shooting HELLRAISER he got to a point in discussions with lead Clare Higgins where they felt they needed to define what the character’s sex life was like with her former lover Frank. The days of Dorian Gray, where you could keep it on the q.t., were gone. “I think she’s into spanking,” declared Higgins. “Great!” replied Barker.

They shot a scene. The producer cabled him the next day. “I’ve just seen the rushes. Fan-tastic stuff. We can’t use any of it.”

Barker protested that he needed guidance, in that case, as to what would be acceptable. He was sent a detailed list of the dos and do-not-dos. “It did wonders for my sex life,” he said later. “I now knew exactly the point where I was crossing over into obscenity.”

Part two: Tom retraces his steps, at great length.

Alan Cummings plays, essentially, Mr. George Swine, hotel receptionist, from LOLITA (just as Leelee Sobieksi played Lol). He’s funny. Cruise is retracing his steps, trying to work out what’s really happening. This part of the film is quite slow and plodding. We’ve been to all these places and met all these people, and the film doesn’t seem to know how to condense or elide. We follow Tom into and out of various rooms, down various streets. He revisits the fancy dress shop, he revisits the orgy house, revisits the sex worker and learns from her flatmate… well, first she comes onto him in a stilted fashion, then she tells him the girl from the other night has tested positive for HIV. They both pretend to be upset about this.

Tom leaves and buys a newspaper that says LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. A sinister man is stalking him. The only new location here is the morgue, where the OD girl from the first party, who we guess is the girl from the orgy, lies dead (and naked, of course).

Finally he meets Ziegler again, who tries persuading him there’s nothing sinister been going on here. He doesn’t do it very convincingly, but Dr. Bill clutches eagerly at this as a way of returning to normal life and forgetting all this weirdness. “This is the only detective story I’ve ever seen there, when they warn the guy to lay off the case, he DOES.”

Mind you — Red Cloak at the party (Lord Bullingdon himself, Leon Vitali) warned Dr. Bill not to pursue any investigations, OR ELSE he and his family would face dire consequences. And then they had a terrifying manservant hand him a threatening note. Now, anyone who threatens you with dire consequences should you do something, and then merely warns you again when you do it, is not serious and can be ignored. That’s my advice to you. So maybe these guys really are harmless lechers.

Tom finds his party mask on the pillow beside a sleeping Nicole (good whip-pan). He tells her the whole story (but the movie remembers to leave this out — though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Kubrick shot it).

“That was a very sad story,” says Fiona, filling in for Nicole, “It made my Touche Éclat come off.”

Christmas shopping scene in Hanleys. I’ve heard podcasters (Chapo Trap House, Death is Just Around the Corner) suggest that, while the Harfords are making up, their daughter is being abducted in the background by evil Ziegler minions, but I think there’s not even a subliminal suggestion of this. The bald guy standing there isn’t a minion seen earlier, and he’s apparently shopping with another man. I would love to have discovered a macabre Easter Egg like that, but all I’ve done is discover it isn’t there.

So I’ve finally done a Late Show on EYES WIDE SHUT, a late film, a final film and a posthumous film. It didn’t seem to reveal anything new. Frederic Raphael was never really able to work out why Kubrick wanted to make it. Kubrick wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him. The honest thing to do would be to turn down the job under those unpromising circs, but who would refuse Kubrick? Maybe the writer he needed was Jean-Claude Carrière, who described his remit as “helping the director understand why he wanted to make the film.”

The film is strange, and I should give it credit for that. I don’t know what to DO with the strangeness, though. Basic screenwriting books warn against having characters constantly repeat what they’re told. Bill picks this up 45mins in, and by the end, his wife is doing it too. The French New Wave taught us that we don’t have to see every step of a journey, we can jump from spot to spot and let the audience catch up. It’s fine to break those rules if you have a better idea. But if the result is… plodding and repetitive… maybe you need to rethink. Kubrick made slowness work brilliantly in some of his previous films. But here, when Dr. Bill says “Was she the woman at the party?” Ziegler pauses for ten full seconds (“THIS SHIP HAS ONE HOUR TO LIVE!”) then says “Yes,” then pauses for another five seconds and says “She was.” It’s not a dramatic pause, in my view, if it reveals no new dramatic information. “Yes” has already given us everything, and “She was” is pathetic redundancy.

I don’t feel I don’t get the film — it’s about the balancing of fidelity and fantasy life. The ur-text may be John Baxter’s Kubrick biography where the Great Man’s collaborators talked about Kubrick’s fondness for casting couch head games. He DID get all the actresses in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to take their tops off while he videoed them (save for Adrienne Corri, who refused: “Suppose we don’t like the tits, Adrienne?” “Tough.” Kubrick cast someone else, she got injured being lugged about on Warren Clarke’s shoulder for days, and he then cast Corri as replacement). He got them to mime being raped. But he didn’t touch them.

An assistant found him looking at a catalogue of models during 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. “Look at these girls! We could get some of them in, pretend it’s for the TV screens.” The assistant suggested Kubrick could just approach them openly, lots of them would be excited to meet the great Stanley K. He backed off immediately. Then he got obsessed with Julie Christie. Suggested inventing a project so he could audition her. The assistant said, Look, I know Julie Christie, why don’t I just call her up and say you’d like to meet her? Again, Stanley backed off. “Everything had to go through the fantasy department,” concluded the assistant.

So his big sex film, a project which might have made sense maybe twenty pr thirty years before, turns out to be about spousal fidelity in a world full of temptation, and the essential compartmentalizing of fantasy and reality — in a film where those compartments don’t exist or can’t be made sense of.

Shorthand

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by dcairns

Got two preview discs from Masters of Cinema’s first EARLY UNIVERSAL set — possibly a must! William Wyler’s THE SHAKEDOWN (1929) was the only film known to me, and certainly he’s the best-known director of the bunch. I reviewed the movie a decade or so ago when I had a bootleg with attractive Italian intertitles. Now the film, which is excellent, looks MUCH nicer.

But I want to talk a bit about SHIELD OF HONOR (1927), also in the set, the first film I’ve seen directed by Emory Johnson, and a very fine job. I’ll have to see what else I can locate by this guy. The main cast was largely unknown to me but key supporting floozy Thelma Todd is introduced with a rushing track-in and a suggestive intertitle.

Now, I ask you, was it REALLY necessary to split the word “dictation” so the first syllable stands alone?

The movie begins with a gushing tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of the police force, which I’m afraid I wasn’t ideally conditioned to appreciate as I’ve been listening avidly to Five to Four, “a podcast about how much the Supreme Court sucks,” which includes numerous accounts of truly egregious police misconduct. And, to be honest, this is a fairly routine cop show in essence. But delivered with a lot of panache and groovy 1927 production values including great miniature shots. The hero is a FLYING COP (in an aeroplane), giving the FX department a work-out — I think there are more special effects shots than actual flying ones by a factor of ten to one.

Spielbergian!

Johnson’s last film as director (he had an acting career that continued in small roles until the forties) is on YouTube but I haven’t checked it out yet. The title, THE PHANTOM EXPRESS, is enticing.

Our Secret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by dcairns

I promised to update you on Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson. Reader, I finished it. It’s a really great behind-the-scenes book, and it doesn’t matter that the film it deals with is fairly obscure. Anderson is a genial host — which isn’t like him, I know — taking us through the development, pre-production and filming of Thorold Dickinson’s film, but isn’t able to cover all the postproduction. This means he misses Dickinson filming Audrey Hepburn’s audition for ROMAN HOLIDAY, the movie which turned her into a star. Dickinson, at RH director William Wyler’s suggestion, interviewed Audrey after she’d finished the acting part, and it was her natural charm when chatting to her former director that got her the big break.

But Anderson DOES cover her audition for SECRET PEOPLE, in which she has a much smaller role, playing Valentina Cortese’s sister, Nora…

February 23rd. Audrey Hepburn’s test. After the first run-through people start eyeing each other meaningfully: she has the quality all right. After another rehearsal it almost seems a waste of time to shoot the test.

February 26th. Audrey Hepburn is Nora.

Here’s the extant bit of the later ROMAN HOLIDAY test:

One thing I was hoping to find out was the story behind the film’s most striking moment, imho. It’s the main thing I wrote about here when I first watched the film. A key event in the film is skipped over in its chronology, and then covered in a flashback. Dickinson does something really extraordinary here: he starts behind Cortese, then pans with her as she crosses the small room she’s in, describing the incident we missed. But as she passes the camera, she steps INTO the events she’s describing. Her back is now to us again, and her voices continues as she moves into the flashback, now part of the scene, her dialogue now a voice-over.

This is so far outside the Overton window of what was stylistically acceptable in a fifties film, in conservative Britain of all places, that it’s amazing Dickinson could get away with such an avant-garde move at Ealing. Admittedly, there are earlier examples of filmmakers traveling into flashback without the aid of a cut or dissolve. In CARAVAN, Erik Charrell, a king of the long take, pans in and out of a short flashback scene. I imagine Max Ophuls may have noticed this, because much later he pulled similar stunts in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D… and LA RONDE, which may be what gave Dickinson the idea. But then there IS a British example, though not as recent: Michael Powell cranes into the past, traveling forty years in a single, somewhat unsteady glide over a swimbath in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Unfortunately, Anderson is silent on the development of Dickinson’s version of this idea — perhaps Dickinson protected his experiment by talking about it as little as possible. Once it turned up in the rushes, undoing it would be expensive.

However, there is a clue in Anderson’s book. Modestly budgeted, SECRET PEOPLE was forced to compromise several times on its use of locations. At the start of prep, shooting was planned for Paris and Dublin, and this got scaled back progressively for financial reasons until it no longer made sense to travel outside London at all. And the garden party that Cortese walks into was originally supposed to be a park location. This meant being weather-dependent and for various reasons pressure was brought to bear to shoot it in the studio. When Dickinson finally relented, he realised a short while later that a park was unlikely to look convincing and a garden party at some upscale residence would be much more containable, you could have walls on two sides, and you could save money AND get a result with more veracity.

I think Dickinson was probably, at first, disappointed at losing a location shoot, and then tried to find a way to make the studio set cinematically better and more exciting than the original plan, to get over his disappointment. Obviously, panning from a character’s flat into a geographically unconnected garden party in an unbroken take was the sort of trick that wouldn’t have been possible if filming in a park. What I’d love to know is what the joiners thought of the demand to create a composite set. I bet they were super into it, though.